Major Turning Points in Jewish Intellectual History

By Shear, Adam | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Major Turning Points in Jewish Intellectual History


Shear, Adam, Shofar


Major Turning Points in Jewish Intellectual History, by David Aberbach. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. 220 pp. $69.00.

In the thematic introduction to his collection of essays, Aberbach lists four major transformations in Judaism: "[1] from idolatry to monotheism ... [2] from biblical to rabbinic Judaism ... [3] increasing absorption of secular learning under medieval Islamic rule ... [4] from being mainly a religious, working class, rural, impoverished, diaspora-based, Yiddish-speaking people, to a secular, middle class people with a reborn Jewish state in which Hebrew was revived spectacularly" (p. ix). The first two essays treat the transformation of ancient Israelite religion from idolatry and monolatry to exclusive monotheism in the period before and after the Babylonian conquest of the kingdom of Judah. The third essay deals with the revolts against Rome, and the fourth is a comparison of tannaitic and stoic teachings. Together these two essays are listed under the rubric "from state to scripture." A third "watershed" is treated by a single essay on "Secular Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain 1031-1140." The last four essays of the work deal with modern developments and are loosely correlated with the "cluster of overwhelming changes" described in [4]: the Baal Shem Tov's doctrine of mystical union; Marx and Freud as secular Jewish intellectuals; a survey of"conflicting images of Hebrew in western civilization"; and "Hebrew and Jewish nationalism" in Russia, 1881-1917. Aberbach is an engaging writer who has read widely in the areas that he discusses. The essays contain a number of interesting insights, and Aberbach also offers some fascinating intertextual readings of his primary sources.

Aberbach does not purport to offer a comprehensive overview or interpretation of Jewish history, but one theme is predominant: the rise, fall, and then rise of Hebrew as a literary language. There is a clear telos here-the emergence of nineteenth- and twentieth-century secular Hebrew belles-lettres as the foundation of a mainly secular Jewish nationalist and revolutionary identity. Unfortunately, this teleological focus leads to a number of problems.

First, it leads to a number of anachronistic readings. This is most evident in the essay on medieval Hebrew poetry in statements like "their poetry certainly suggests all sorts of behavior not normally associated with rabbis" and "Hebrew became for the first time a vehicle for the expression of a way of life alien to traditional Judaism" (p. 96). Although the theme of the "compunctious poet" was a medieval one, that anything in medieval Andalusian Hebrew poetry was contrary to the spirit of religious Judaism is primarily a modern viewpoint. Indeed, Aberbach's notion of"secularism" is itself anachronistic: although this poetry was non-liturgical; it certainly did not betoken a "relatively secular, pluralistic outlook" (p. 76), nor is it apparent that these poets were "liberated for a while from the normal social shackles of being Jewish in the medieval world" (p. 82).

Secondly, Aberbach's framing of his work leads to another sort of problem that emerges in the essays on rabbinic Judaism and on medieval Hebrew poetry. In the introduction, he promises a "comparative approach" centering on the "long, ambiguous relationship between Hebraism and Hellenism" in which "Greek culture has been the primary 'Other' in Jewish life." Although he immediately acknowledges that "Greek culture penetrated late-biblical, rabbinic, and medieval Judaism as well as the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah) and modern Jewish nationalism" (p. ix), the ensuing essays work from an essentialist assumption of a Jewish core and a non-Jewish "outside." Abetbach's vision is not that of a religious traditionalist: the core changes with time, admits outside influences, and is a human production. …

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