BOOKS : HISTORY : Judaism in Shades of Grey

Article excerpt

THE American Jewish comedian Alan King used to tell a story along the following lines:

A boy comes home from his religious class and tells his father that the lesson was about the Exodus. "Wonderful," says the father. "Tell me about it."

"Well," the boy explains, "the Hebrews escaped from Egypt and the Egyptian soldiers chased them to the Red Sea. The Hebrews got away in submarines and helicopters and turned their weapons on the Egyptians and nuked them to a frazzle."

"What?" the father's jaw is dropping. "They told you that?"

"Well not exactly," the boy replies, "but if I told you what they really told me you'd never believe it."

Jewish history is in many ways the history of belief. The trouble is, as Norman Cantor points out in this energetic and provocative volume, that the history, so conventionally taught, is itself difficult to believe. And yet a majority of Jews, like the father in Alan King's joke, go on at least acting as if they do believe it, all of it, the whole megillah.

Traditional Jewish historians, Cantor contends, approach their material wearing blinkers. Intelligent and normally sceptical scholars (sometimes, admittedly, funded by conservative-minded millionaires) appear to be quite happy to take the miraculous at face value.

No wonder. The unblinkered alternative is terrifying. The centre cannot hold. History - from which the Jew draws his identity as much as he does from religion - stands revealed as mythology. Mystery is unravelled by anthropology and sociology. The quotidian replaces the awesome (a word itself now significantly absorbed into quotidian vocabulary).

The tools of modern scholarship will make light work, Cantor says, of the biblical narrative. And close objective scrutiny will dismantle many comforting notions Jews have about their origins, development and essence.

Professor Cantor is a great exponent of modernity. He certainly would claim to be exploiting every modern insight to the full and to be prodding, with a steady hand, at the nominally eternal underpinning of his chosen subject.

One aspect of conventional Jewish historiography for which Cantor reserves particular opprobrium is that which treats the Jewish experience as "a litany of Jewish victimisation". And The Sacred Chain's most valuable offering, it seems to me - certainly to Jewish readers - is its exposure of various patches of grey among the official black and white colours of received Jewish history.

Thus Cantor uncovers the existence of "a remarkable number of Jewish converts" among the Dominican friars largely responsible for staffing the inquisitorial courts of the medieval church and turning upon Jews and Jewish teaching with such venom. He reminds us, too, that the Chmielnicki massacres in the Ukraine in 1648 were preceded by years of severe subjugation of the Ukrainian peasantry by their Polish overlords, using Jews as their petit bourgeois local representatives. He even - in what is already regarded as a breathtaking piece of affrontery - looks for a share of Jewish responsibility for the savagery inflicted upon the Jews in our own tainted century. (Ironically, he thereby places himself in a curious if loose alliance with those reactionary ultra-orthodox rabbis who see the Holocaust as divine punishment for the abandonment of God's commandments. …