Texts Marking Time

Jewish historiography frequently uses the history of texts as the periodization for Jewish history.

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Third, many books written by Jews, which do, in fact, reflect the cultural or historical experience of at least some Jews, were not seen as sacred or even preserved by Jews. The books of the Apocrypha, the writings of Dead Sea Sect, the works of Josephus and Philo are all of tremendous value to historians of ancient Judaism. But no one speaks of an Apocyphal period or a Qumran period. Some Christian scholars call this the intertestamental period, an appellation that would not fit a Jewish history (even though the Christian Testament can be used for Jewish history!).

A Jewish literary periodization either creates a gap between the Bible and the Mishnah or pushes the "Rabbinic" period ahead several centuries. The latter option, creating a Rabbinic period that lasted from the third or second century BCE to the sixth century CE would, however, ignore the watershed of the destruction of the Second Temple.

This leads to a fourth difficulty: The literary division may create the impression of successive evolution and development, but the history of the Jewish people is marked by frequent disruptions and migrations that do not necessarily coincide with the literary divisions. The first crusade of 1099 and the subsequent 12th century in general was devastating for the Franco-German communities, and is perceived as the decline in the status of Jews in Europe. The crusades are an historical turning point, yet according to a literary periodization, the first crusade lies firmly in the period of the Rishonim. The history of texts fails to take note of the significance of these events for the Jews of Europe.

Fifth, a seamless textual tradition limits which communities are the focus of historical study. Next to the history of the Holocaust, the single most popular topic in modern Jewish history is Germany. Nevertheless, the urban Berlin haskalah (enlightenment) in the early 19th century reflects little upon the events in other places in the Jewish world. Yet the secularization of Germany and its centrality for the modern Jewish experience tends to color or overshadow other narratives of the modern Jewish experience, and most significantly, the history of Jews in Arab lands.

Sixth and finally, a perception of a common literary discourse that may or may not have existed in earlier times, has certainly declined in the modern period. The rise of science, the growth of Hasidism, modernization, and emancipation, and the explosion of published materials have led to radical divisions between different Jewish communities and in the texts that those Jewish communities hold sacred. Although the Bible and Talmud still influence modern Jewish literature so that scholars can refer to modern Hebrew literature as "midrashic," many Jews no longer look to the ancient books as guides for normative behavior.

The diverse paths Jews have chosen and the impact of modernization and secularization make it extremely difficult to talk of a common literary inheritance in the modern age. Could any group of modern Jews make a claim that a particular body of literature marks a new period in Jewish history? While Jews have undoubtedly maintained an ethnic identity, the basis for that identity can no longer be said to be rooted in a common set of texts.

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Rabbi Frederick Klein is Director of Community Chaplaincy at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and is the Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami.