History: Jewish Views

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This article describes the conception of history in the Hebrew scriptures and in rabbinic and medieval Judaism and controversies concerning historical continuity and change in modern Judaism.

Biblical Views

The unusual importance of history in Israelite religion probably predated the articulation of a full-fledged monotheism that explicitly denies the potency of all gods except Yahveh, the God of Israel. The core of the biblical narrative deals with the relationship between Israel and Yahveh, a relationship created and actualized in history. Yahveh is presented as having anticipated, in the calling out of the patriarchs, the formation of the house of Israel (Gn. 18:17) and as having liberated the descendants of the patriarchs from Egyptian bondage in order to enter into a covenantal treaty with them at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:38, Dt. 26:59). In the biblical narrative the subsequent history of Israel, a duration of eight centuries, is winnowed and assembled accordingly.

History and time

Whenever it was that monolatry (the sacred obligation to worship only Yahveh and not "other gods," as in exodus 19:56, 20:23) became monotheism (the explicit negation of the ontic reality of other gods, as in Isaiah 45:57), the transformation eschewed some of the most widespread ancient mythological themes. Rather than describing the birth of the various generations of gods, the struggles between them to define their respective sovereignties, and the gods' liaisons with other gods and humans, the dramatic foreground of the Hebrew scriptures is occupied by human responses to Yahveh's acts of revelation and salvation, chastisement and consolation. More than embracing narratives of a series of specific moments, however, biblical history moved toward a new sense of historical time.

The contrast is made between mythological time, where ritual and recitation aim at reexperiencing paradigmatic moments, and historic time as a continuum of unrepeatable occasions each possessing independent value. In this regard, the Hebrew Bible is sometimes described as holding to a linear, rather than a cyclical, notion of time, but this concept oversimplifies the biblical meaning of history. Genesis 111, often called "the primeval history," makes use of ancient Near Eastern mythological materials as reinterpreted by Israelite monotheism. And the biblical notion of history does focus on repetitive patterns (the cycle of sin, punishment, contrition, atonement). The mythological residue and the cyclical patterns are presented in the context of a chain of events reaching back to the absolute beginning of the world and human civilization and forward to a future open in a crucial sense. The cyclical-linear sense of time is also a feature of the prophetic books. Implied in the classical prophets is that past events are guideposts to actions taken in a historical present that is infused by a unique, pregnant tension. The prophet addresses the people and its rulers out of the immediacy of the divine imperative; in order to avert an impending catastrophe, he demands a change of direction (turning, repentance). The prophetic oracles do not embody revelations of predetermined fate but warnings of inevitable acts of divine justice if Israel's behavior continues in the path that the prophet has denounced. The prophet speaks out of the conviction that despite sins committed in the past, the future can assume a different character because God forgives those who reform their habitual ways. The prophet hopes to change rather than predict history and to break through the old cycle of failure to advance the divine demand.

Stages of history

In its final redaction the Hebrew Bible locates the Israelite-God covenant in a world historical context, creating a conception of universal history that shaped the consciousness of European civilization for many centuries. The primeval history in Genesis 111 in effect narrates the coming-into-being of the human condition, including humanity's division into many nations and tongues. The remaining chapters of Genesis trace the precarious continuity of God's blessing of the direct ancestors of Israel during their sojourns in Canaan until the settlement in Egypt. The objective of the exodus from Egypt is the actual formation of the people at Mount Sinai and during their wilderness wanderings, until the twelve Israelite tribes enter Canaan to occupy their patrimonies (through the Book of Joshua ). A second historical cycle, Judges through 2 Kings, deals with the history of the people in the promised land: The tribes eventually coalesce into an Israelite kingdom that in less than a century is rent in two. The narrative follows the subsequent history of the two kingdoms (extracted, it relates, from royal Chronicles, e.g., 1 Kgs. 14:29, 16:5, 16:14, 16:20, 16:27) together with stories of the prophets who issued judgments on the kings, until the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 bce and the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 587/6 bce. The fall of the Israelite kingdoms is attributed, above all, to God's punishment for idolatry condoned by the rulers (e.g., 2 Kgs. 17:718, 21:1016, 24:34). In contrast to the preceding, the Babylonian exile, the return to Zion, and the second commonwealth are recounted episodically in tales of religious fidelity in Babylon (Dn. 16), accounts of the rebuilding of the Temple and the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah (mainly in the books named for these two men), and the story of the near destruction and last-minute salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire in the Book of Esther. A second interpretation of Israelite history up to the Babylonian exile is contained in 1 and 2 Chronicles.

These accounts of the past are completed by a vision of the future, a conception of the ultimate destiny of humanity. Biblical eschatology is ignored in the historical books but present in the prophetic oracles of the "latter time" concerning the prince of justice who will rule the land (Is. 9:27, 11:110), a utopian age of worldwide peace (Is. 2:15, Mi. 4:14), universal worship of Yahveh (Is. 56:68, Zec. 8:2023), thorough internalization of the covenant and outpouring of prophecy (Jer. 31:3134, Jl. 2:2829), the pacification of nature (Is. 65:1725, Zec. 14:114), and cataclysmic judgments vindicating God's holiness among the nations (Ez. 3839; Is. 2427, 63:16). Some of these and other prophetic visions already show an evolution from the eschatology of classical prophecy to apocalypticism.

Unlike the classical prophet, who is usually located in the text according to the rulers of his own time and the historic situation that he directly addresses, the apocalyptic hides behind the name of an earlier personage who presents a synoptic vision of history through many centuries. For the apocalyptic, history and eschatology are fused in a preordained sequence from the time of the visionary to the final days. In the most developed apocalyptic material of the Hebrew Bible (Dn. 712), the subject is the future rise and fall of monstrous pagan empires. Eventually "the saints of the Most High" will triumph, God's dominion will be firmly established in the earth, "and many of the dead will awaken, some to eternal life and some to everlasting contempt" (Dn. 12:2). The extracanonical Jewish apocalyptic literature that took shape between the second century bce and the second century ce sought to sustain the people's faith that despite appearances to the contrary, the divine plan would culminate in the destruction of evil and the establishment of God's direct rule over creation. The growth of apocalypticism is but one symptom of a large shift of emphasis, in a period marked by a turning away from concrete history to other themes and interests in Judaism of late antiquity.

Hellenistic and Pharisaic-Rabbinic Views

While this transformation was occurring, however, a final burst of ancient Jewish historiography adumbrated several historical concerns of considerable importance of Judaism later. The books of the Maccabees, which memorialize the struggle against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (r. 175164 bce) to repress Judaism in Judaea, contain the prototype of the literature of martyrology (2 Mc. 67) developed by medieval Christian and Jewish writers. Josephus Flavius (37/8c. 100), who recorded the Jewish war against Rome between 66 and 70 ce that eventuated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, narrated an occurrence of immense practical and symbolic importance for Judaism. Although Josephus's works were not preserved by the Jews in the original, a medieval Hebrew rendition of these events, sefer yosippon, probably composed in the tenth century in southern Italy, supplemented Talmudic legends concerning this catastrophic event. The bulk of traditional Jewish knowledge about postbiblical history (the Hasmonean and Herodian kingdoms, the religious movements of the late Second Temple period, the revolts against the Romans in the first and second centuries ce, the personalities and actions of the Pharisaic sages and influential rabbis of late antiquity) were preserved in anecdotal, often legendary, form in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and in the Midrash.

Biblical history served as a matrix of lessons and models reinforced by repeated allusion to the personages and experiences of ancient Israel. In the liturgy of holy days, Jews annually relived the turning points of history as distilled from the Bible: creation of the universe (Roʾsh ha-Shanah); exodus from Egypt (Pesa); revelation of the Torah at Sinai (Shavuʿot); divine protection during the wilderness wanderings under the leadership of Moses (Sukkot); the constant availability of divine forgiveness and the holy splendor of the priests, who were the channel for atonement of sin while the Temple stood (Yom Kippur); salvation from threatened extermination in the Diaspora (Purim); the miracle of "those days" in Maccabean Jerusalem (anukkah); the destruction of Zion and the Temple (Tishʿah be-Av). An indication of the closure and formalization of the rabbinic conception of history is the emergence in late antiquity of a system of dating from the beginning of the world (anno mundi, the era of creation), which came to serve as a Jewish alternative to the Christian chronology based on the birth of Christ and, later, the Muslim system dating from the ijrah.

The most prominent essentially historic element of Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism is the notion of a continuous chain of religious authority from the revelation at Sinai to the (moving) present. In the rabbinic worldview Torah is a transcendent, premundane blueprint for creation containing God's purposes for creating humankind and the people of Israel, and Torah is present in history in two guises: the text of the Pentateuch (the written Torah) and the unfolding body of tradition (the oral Torah) anchored in Moses at Mount Sinai and growing with the teachings of every generation of sages. Torah was passed down by word of mouth from the elders to the prophets to the sages (Avot 1.1), given a written form in the Mishnah at the end of the second century ce, and continuously supplemented by the discussions and reasoning of the rabbis in the Talmudic yeshivot and thereafter. Tracing the chain of reliable authority became a major interest of medieval Jewish historiography.

Medieval and Early Modern Views

The continuity of the rabbinic tradition became a polemic issue in the eighth and ninth centuries with the rise of the Karaites, who denied the authority of the Talmud. The tenth-century Karaite historiographer Yaʿqūb al-Qirqisānī viewed as forerunners of the Karaite movement the Sadducees of the Second Temple period, who had rejected the Pharisaic "traditions of the fathers" (an early stage of the notion of the oral Torah). In the tenth century Sheriraʾ Gaon, head of the Pumbedita yeshivah, composed an epistle defending rabbinic authority by explaining how the corpus of Talmudic literature came into being, in the course of which he transmitted considerable historical data. The unbroken continuity of the "order of generations" was one of the principal motives of Avraham ibn Daud's Sefer ha-qabbalah (Book of tradition), a schematic account of Jewish history written in the twelfth century that contained undertones of messianic expectation.

As indicated, in the Middle Ages another impetus to the recording of events in Jewish history was the commemoration of Jewish martyrs. The massacres of the Jews of the Rhineland at the inception of the First Crusade was the subject of an Ashkenazic chronicle literature that was augmented as a result of later crises, such as the massacres of the Jews in the Ukraine in 16481649. However, most of the medieval Jewish philosophers had little interest in history as such. Moses Maimonides (1135/81204) considered the reading of books of history at best a diversion for one's leisure hours (The Guide of the Perplexed 1.2) and a waste of time for serious scholars who should occupy themselves with jurisprudence, the natural sciences, and metaphysics. Maimonides does employ history incidentally to explain some of the biblical commandments as means to wean Israel from pagan practices of the ancient world. Of the medieval Jewish philosophers, it was Yehudah ha-Levi (c. 10751141), a severe critic of Jewish Aristotelianism, who grounded Jewish faith in the experience of a specific people qualified by their innate aptitude, when in a proper moral condition in the Holy Land, to receive the Torah. Ha-Levi's contrast of the abstract, rational God of the Aristotelian philosophers with the puissant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob represents a definite, if limited, turning from metaphysical to historical arguments for the truth value of Jewish faith.

Not until the sixteenth century was there a rebirth of Jewish historiography akin to that of the Hellenistic era. Most of the works of this period, by exiles from the Iberian Peninsula, are, in form, medieval chronicles in which there are sometimes found Renaissance elements (the Sheve Yehudah by Shelomoh ibn Verga offers a political and social analysis of the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492). A truly pioneering figure in sixteenth-century Jewish historiography was ʿAzaryah dei Rossi, whose Meʾor ʿenayim shows the influence of Renaissance humanism in its recovery of Hellenistic Jewish texts and critical treatment of Talmudic anecdotes.

In contrast to this limited interest in historical research for its own sake was the qabbalistic interest in history, which was meant to establish the authenticity of its esoteric exegesis of the Torah. The most influential text of the Spanish Qabbalah, the Zohar, was presented by its thirteenth-century author as the work of a circle of second-century Galilean rabbis, giving the Zohar a pedigree as old as the Mishnah and antedating by many centuries the spread of rationalistic philosophy among Jews. Metahistorical elements in qabbalistic literature reached an apogee in the teachings of the sixteenth-century mystic Isaac Luria. Lurianic Qabbalah developed a theology of cosmic redemption based on the principle that carrying out the divine commandments with the correct mystic intention (kavvanah ) liberates divine sparks that had been scattered abroad and trapped in husks of evil during the processes of cosmic creation. The Lurianic version of the Qabbalah, inasmuch as it conceived of human action as necessary to bring the Messiah, lent an intrinsic dignity to the temporal process that history had not had in Jewish thought since biblical times. However, these human acts produced their effects in a spiritual realm invisible to mundane eyes. An attempt to apply this theory on the concrete stage of history, expressing the buildup of messianic tension in early modern Jewry, erupted in the short-lived movement around the mystical messiah Shabbetai Tsevi in the 1660s. The revolutionary enthusiasm was quickly extinguished among most Jews.

Modern Views

A modern awareness of history entered Judaism in the Wissenschaft des Judentums that emerged in Germany in the 1820s. The proponents of the scientific study of the Jewish past argued that an objective knowledge of Jewish history would increase respect for Judaism's contributions to civilization and, at the same time, enable Jews to grasp the essence of their tradition. However, the critical methodology of modern scholarship also posed new issues for Judaism (and other revealed traditions) by calling into question the historicity of formative events and persons, challenging the unity of scripture, and drawing attention to data that contradicted the presumed continuity of the received tradition.

The religious trends that crystallized in nineteenth-century European and American Jewry represent contrasting strategies of response. The Reform movement perceived Judaism as a progressive revelation that is based on the original inspiration of Moses and the prophets and has attained its most adequate formulation in modern times; for the Reformers, historical knowledge provided the basis for distinguishing between the authentic kernel of Judaism and the protective husk of law and custom once necessary but no longer relevant in postmedieval circumstances. The Positive-Historical approach (which in America became the basis for Conservative Judaism) conceived of revelation as in part molded by the gradually developing consensus of the historic Jewish community, which thereby assured continuity of sacred practice and doctrine. For the Orthodox, Torah was a timeless, immutable divine instruction for the ideal human life; intervention in the process of explicating Torah as undertaken by the Reformers and, more moderately, by the Conservatives in order to bring Judaism in line with the spirit of the times was considered by and large destructive. At present, both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism (and some Reform figures) emphasize the continuity of the halakhah (religious law) as a normative feature of Judaism but disagree as to what extent present-day rabbis have the right to diverge from earlier sages and the stricter contemporary authorities.

As the nineteenth-century progressed, modern Jewish historiography amassed considerable knowledge of the social and political history of the Jews as well as of the religious and literary history of Judaism. Erudite nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars (preeminently, Heinrich Graetz) published works that educated their readers in the complex and variegated Jewish past, enabling Jews to relate positively to their tradition apart from any commitment to theology or religious praxis. Especially in eastern Europe secular views of Jewish historical identity accompanied the formulation of Jewish nationalist and socialist ideologies (e.g., Simon Dubnow's conception of the centrality of Jewish institutions of self-government in the Diaspora in relation to his ideology of Jewish Diaspora nationalism, and Jewish socialists and Marxists who took economic themes and even the class struggle as central). Most important has been the rethinking of the meaning of Jewish history from the Zionist perspective, emphasizing the age-old longing for redemption from exile and the centrality of the land of Israel as the ancestral homeland to which the Jews were to return to build a new commonwealth, but, in various ways, also seen as a progressive, even revolutionary, advance in history, a kind of active return to history.

Since World War II a theme that has gained prominence in Jewish consciousness is the history of Jewish responses to catastrophe. The Holocaust drew attention to repeated cycles of Judeophobia since ancient times and the ways Jewry has understood itself in relation to the nations of the world. And the Holocaust has raised issues concerning God's relation to history (the traditional problem of theodicy), with reverberations in recent Jewish historical and theological writing.

See Also

Apocalypse, article on Jewish Apocalypticism to the Rabbinic Period; Holocaust, article on Jewish Theological Responses; Jewish Studies, article on Jewish Studies from 1818 to 1919; Qabbalah; Torah; Zionism.


A magisterial discussion of the subject is Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle, 1982). The problem of history in relationship to mythic thought is the subject of Mircea Eliade's classic work Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York, 1954). On the concept of history in the Hebrew scriptures, see John Van Seters's In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven, Conn., 1983). The place of apocalyptic writings in Judaism of the second commonwealth period is discussed in Michael E. Stone's Scriptures, Sects, and Visions: A Profile of Judaism from Ezra to the Jewish Revolts (Philadelphia, 1980). On Renaissance Jewish historical writing, see in addition to Yerushalmi's book, Israel Zinberg's A History of Jewish Literature, translated by Bernard Martin, vol. 4, chap. 3 (Cincinnati, 1974). On various aspects of medieval and modern Jewish historiography, see also Salo W. Baron's History and Jewish Historians: Essays and Addresses (Philadelphia, 1964), and Hisoriyonim ve-askolot hisoriyot: Qovets hartsaʾot, 2d ed. (Jerusalem, 1977). On historical consciousness in modern Jewish thought, see Lionel Kochan's The Jew and His History (New York, 1977) and Nathan Rotenstreich's Tradition and Reality: The Impact of History on Modern Jewish Thought (New York, 1972). A valuable anthology is Ideas of Jewish History, edited by Michael A. Meyer (New York, 1974).

New Sources

Boyer, Alain, and Maurice-Ruben Hayoun. L'historiographie juive. Paris, 2001.

Funkenstein, Amos. Perceptions of Jewish History. Los Angeles, 1993.

Grabbe, Lester L., Did Moses Speak Attic?: Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Period. Sheffield, 2001.

Myers, David N. Re-inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History. New York, 1995

Myers, David N., and David B. Ruderman, eds. The Jewish Past Revisited: Reflections on Modern Jewish Historians. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Postone, Moishe, and Eric Santner, eds. Catastrophe and Meaning: The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century. Chicago, 2003.

Rajak, Tessa. The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome: Studies in Cultural and Social Interaction. Leiden and Boston, 2001.

Schreckenberg, Heinz, and Kurt Schubert. Jewish Historiography and Iconography in Early and Medieval Christianity. Assen and Minneapolis, 1992.

Robert M. Seltzer (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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