Jewish Civilization: The Jewish Historical Experience in a Comparative Perspective

Jewish Civilization: The Jewish Historical Experience in a Comparative Perspective

Jewish Civilization: The Jewish Historical Experience in a Comparative Perspective

Jewish Civilization: The Jewish Historical Experience in a Comparative Perspective


This book explains why the best way to understand the Jewish historical experience is to look at Jewish people, not just as a religious or ethnic group or a nation or people, but, as bearers of civilization. This approach helps to explain the greatest riddle of Jewish civilization, namely, its continuity despite destruction, exile, and loss of political independence.

In the first part of the book, Eisenstadt compares Jewish life and religious orientations and practices with Hellenistic and Roman civilizations, as well as with Christian and Islamic civilizations. In the second part of the book, he analyzes the modern period with its different patterns of incorporation of Jewish communities into European and American societies; national movements that developed among Jews toward the end of the nineteenth century, especially the Zionist movement; and specific characteristics of Israeli society.

The major question Eisenstadt poses is to what extent the characteristics of the Jewish experience are distinctive, in comparison to other ethnic and religious minorities incorporated into modern nation-states, or other revolutionary ideological settler societies. He demonstrates through his case studies the continuous creativity of Jewish civilization."


This book presents a somewhat new approach to the analysis of the Jewish historical experience. The major argument of this book is that the best way to understand this experience is to look on Jews not just as a religious or ethnic group, nation, or "people," although they have been all of these, but as bearers of a civilization.

The term civilization will be used here in a rather specific way with special emphasis on its difference from religion, if we define religion as a set of beliefs, especially about various transmundane matters, patterns of worship, of ritual observances and the like. Civilization, in the sense used here, entails the attempts to construct or reconstruct social life according to an ontological vision that combines conceptions of the nature of the cosmos, of transmundane and mundane reality, with the regulation of the major arenas of social life and interaction of the political arena, authority, the economy, family life, and the like. Although in the history of humankind civilizations and religions were very closely interwoven—at the same time many religions have been only a part of the component or not necessarily the most central component of civilizations. This distinction, which can be found already, even if in a muted way, in many preliterate and archaic societies—such as those of the Ancient Near East—becomes clearly visible in the "great" Axial Age civilizations, in ancient Greece and especially the Hellenistic civilizations, in the monotheistic religions and civilizations, in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In these civilizations religion constituted basic components of civilization, but in some places they constituted religious working within the framework of other civilizations. The clearest illustration of such a case is probably the fate of Buddhism and Confucianism in Japan, where Buddhist (and Confucian) beliefs and cults thrived, without however creating a distinct civilization (as was the case with respect to Buddhism in Southeast Asia, or with Confucianism in China, Korea, and Vietnam). In Japan these cults and belief or ethical systems operated within the framework and basic premises of a distinct Japanese civilization. Similar illustrations can be given from the history of expansion of Islam or Christianity. At the same time these illustrations attest to the fact that different people, different societies, or different polities may belong to the same civilization, especially to one of these "higher" civilizations.

It is our claim that the best way to look at the Jewish historical experi-

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