Jewish Time

The emergence of Jewish history--part one.

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The thrust of the matter is that rabbinical Judaism adopted a view of the future which was a compromise between two seemingly incompatible attitudes: on the one hand: an eschatology which promised deliverance in the foreseeable future, and a strategy designed to ensure the evasion of a history of suffering by posing (as an American historian put it) the question of "how" rather than "when," on the other. This compromise formula was apparently powerful enough to become a fixed element in Jewish culture: a frantic search for signs of imminent redemption combined with caution and circumspection which prevented bitter disillusionment in the face of delay.

Jewish culture from the Second Temple period to the nineteenth century produced relatively few historiographical works. Was this apparent lack of interest in history the outcome of a perception of time as disconti­nuous, of regarding past, present and future as nonsequential? A passage from Maimonides commentary on the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, is often quoted in this context: "It is sheer waste of time; as in the case of books found among the Arabs describing historical events, the government of kings and Arab genealogy. or­ books of songs and similar works which neither possess wisdom nor yield profit for the body but are merely a waste of time." This paragraph has at times been interpreted by some modern scholars as indicative of the influence of Greek rationalist philosophy which considered the single individual to be unworthy of scientific inquiry. Others claimed that these words attest to the fact that Maimonides, one of the greatest representatives of Judaism of all times, was totally indifferent to history.

Yet the significance of this passage for the understanding of the Jewish attitude to history is, in fact, rather limited. First, because Mai­monides, like many Muslim philosophers, was afraid that the historical narrative might sanction admiration for bloodshed and glorification of futile battles and would thus be injurious toethical education. Second, because Maimonides shared the philosopher’s repudiation of the kind of humanistic culture which assigned an important place to poetry and history--these anecdotal writings, they said, were mere spiritual vanities which made no contribution to true knowledge.

In Christian Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there were indeed many learned Jews who expressed a similar view: they equated historical works, which they considered no better than adventure novels, with light fiction which had no intellectual or moral merit. At best, some held, history books could provide a refreshing diversion for the man who had exhausted (as one should) his intellectual energies in arduous religious studies. However, this scorn for historical writings should not be interpreted as indifference to the past.

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Maurice Kriegel was the Amado Professor of Sephardic Studies at UCLA.