Jewish History and Postmodernism

Article excerpt

Jewish History and Postmodernism "Will two walk together except if they have agreed?" (Amos 3:3) How Jewish Is Jewish History? by Moshe Rosman, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007, 220 pp.

Reviewed by Rivkah Fishman-Duker

By all accounts, postmodernist theories, current for some thirty years among literary critics and academics, challenge the assumptions of previous Jewish scholarship and history. Postmodernists eschew the search for objective historical truth and a unitary "grand narrative" of the past, preferring to accord equal importance to a variety of "narratives."

As far as the Jews are concerned, postmodernists tend to see one of the tasks of writing Jewish history as relating suppressed details regarding a majority of Jews over whom their elites attempted to maintain hegemony and control through writing, institutions, and leadership, or presenting Jews as role models in today's multicultural world (10-15). According to postmodern thinking, Jews were and are more integrated into the societies of the countries in which they live and closer in spirit and lifestyle to their non- Jewish neighbors than to Jews dwelling in other lands. Some go so far as to reject altogether the concept of Jewish peoplehood or view the Jews as an "imagined community" with an "invented tradition." Hence they have an aversion to nationalism, Zionism, and Orthodox Judaism. In addition, postmodernists generally are cultural relativists or advocates of multi culturalism who consider all cultures equally valid and everything within a specific culture of equal significance.

This approach questions the works of classical and modem Jewish scholars who held that despite non-Jewish influences and diverse expressions, Jews are a people who share a core identity that transcends time and space. The Jews, exceptional and unique, were linked by a commonality no matter where they happened to live at a particular time. Classical and modem Jewish scholars emphasized the tenacity and ability of the Jewish people to maintain their core beliefs and modify their admirable institutions and cultural expressions by balancing change and continuity. Many Jewish leaders and thinkers often showed greatness in difficult situations.

Above all, the study and research of the history of the Jews, even the history itself, has an intrinsic value and a higher purpose. Indeed, Jews are commanded to "remember the days of old [and] consider the years of many generations" (Deuteronomy 32:7). Furthermore, the events and ideas of the Jewish past could be verified through the use of the scholarly historical method, which gave history a framework of order and cohesion. According to Moshe Rosman, such "metahistories," be they Orthodox, nationalist, Zionist, or acculturationist (that of the leading mid-twentieth-century historian Salo W. Baron, who focused on all aspects of the interplay of Jews and their surrounding non-Jewish societies), served as the interpretations of the past for academics and the general public (19-55) until the recent onslaught of postmodernism.

The Cultural Approach and Its Deficiencies

In How Jewish Is Jewish History? Rosman does not enter into a debate for or against postmodernism, but explains its methods of Jewish scholarship. Venturing beyond his specialization of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Polish Jewry and early Hasidism, he presents a comprehensive work in English on the problems and challenges of writing Jewish history under the impact of postmodern ideas and multiculturalism, for which he deserves credit.

Rosman accepts the fact that postmodernism is here to stay (at least for the present and the immediate future) and that writing a postmodern Jewish historiography is possible (186). He argues that Jewish scholars and historians write under postmodern influence, just as those in other scholarly disciplines, not only for pragmatic reasons - that is, because it is the prevailing trend in academe and society with all that entails -but because like others, Jews live in the postmodern period, whose salient features he describes in the second chapter of the book (64-81). …