Jewish Historiography

The emergence of Jewish history--part two.

In the sixteenth century, the influence of the Renaissance brought about a significant change: curiosity and an interest in novelties [among Jewish and non-Jewish scholars alike] was now no longer necessarily regarded as frivolous.

In 1525, for example, Abraham Farisol in Orhot Olam — a book on geography, cosmology, and history — explicitly expressed his intention to amuse the melancholic reader with “true stories, old and new” (denouncing, however, at the same time, licentious poetry and tales recounting ancient battles which had never taken place.) David Gans of Prague wrote in 1592 a Hebrew chronicle entitled Zamah David which addressed “many old and new” topics. A desire to amuse and entertain was clearly one of his intentions: in his introduction, Gans notes that the second part of the book, devoted to universal history, as written in order to provide “householders like myself” overburdened with everyday worries, with a tale to lighten their load.

In other words, history was acknowledged as a form of literature which could alleviate the fatigue of individuals encumbered by the hardship of earning a living and supporting a family, just as it could relieve the anguish of a nation exhausted by the tribulations of exile. History, suggests the Renaissance historian, is not only a legitimate form of entertainment, but also a source of consolation: the historian or chronicler would choose for his subject a particular period of history in which the cycle of persecution and deliverance evidenced the constant presence of Divine Providence.

Yet in many cases curiosity drove the historian to overstep the boundaries outlined in his introduction. In their address to the reader, sixteenth-century Jewish historians listed several reasons for the study of history, similar to the justifications advanced by non‑Jewish Renaissance humanists. They were also quick to adopt the new methods of research and exposition.

Elijah Capsali wrote Seder Eliyahu Zuta as a form of distraction during the plague of 1523 in Crete. This work is a survey of the history of the Ottoman Empire down to Capsali’s day, with special reference to the Jews. Capsali’s presentation is lucid, methodical and well structured, and he even acknowledges his sources, many of which were oral. David Gans, while faithful to the style of medieval chronicles, cites his written sources precisely, and is meticulous where chronological accuracy is concerned. Gedaliah ibn Yahya, born in the papal city of Imola to a distinguished family of Portuguese exiles, published in 1586 an erudite compendium of information about the history of the Jews, and many other topics as well: the plan of the Temple in Jerusalem, weights and coins, the origins of languages, a history of the sciences, heaven and hell, magic and angels. Finally, Azariah de Rossi, one of the most eminent Jewish scholars in the Renaissance, employed in his work entitled Me’or Einayim (1573) a technique of digression and embellishment, including in it a broad range of’ vignettes in order to facilitate the reading and comprehension of complex historical questions.

De Rossi made extensive use of contemporary methods of critical philology. He compared, for example, the various talmudic traditions pertaining to the death of Titus with versions recounted by Roman historians and with ancient legends relating the fate of evil kings. Anxious to prove that there existed an intermediary Aramaic version of the Old Testament, between the original Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint, De Rossi relied on both Jewish and non-Jewish literary sources, as well as on coin inscriptions.

It seemed quite natural for him to employ the methods developed by Renaissance philologists, for in doing so he was simply transcribing to a new field of knowledge an approach that had been prevalent among “enlightenment” circles of medieval Jewish scholars. An attitude repeatedly expressed during the course of the Maimonidean controversy was that “one should listen only to the truth”; in other words, so long as a philosophical proposition was valid, its author’s identity was irrelevant.

Jewish thinkers in the Middle Ages shared the prevalent notion that knowledge was accumulated progressively,that it could be examined and improved indefinitely–a conception implying the relative superiority of the “moderns.” Hence medieval Jewish thinkers did not hesitate to regard talmudic information on sciences such as astronomy and mathematics as obsolete. Similarly, De Rossi was prepared to reject chronological data provided by talmudic texts as mere ignorant speculation. The rigid demarcation drawn by Renaissance humanists between fable and historical fact enabled De Rossi to acknowledge the fictional nature of tales such as “Titus’ punishment.” Defining such legends as figments of the imagination did not, however, preclude the possibility of exploiting them for moral and didacticpurposes.

Historiography as we know it today came into being in the early nineteenth century. The pioneers of modern Jewish studies, whose earliest works appeared between 1820 and 1840, were as closely affiliated with the general renaissance of historical research as their sixteenth‑century predecessors. Accusations were leveled in recent decades against the early representatives of nineteenth‑century Wissenschaft des Judentums (“Science of Judaism”)–to the effect that their aptitude lay in collecting and listing sources rather than in critically analyzing them, or that they were overly‑concerned with individual historical figures, and further that they failed to integrate the methods of the new science of history. Such accusations were in fact too harsh and too hasty. The private correspondence of some of these nineteenth century Jewish historians-‑Leopold Zunz, Heinrich Graetz, Moritz Steinschneider–evokes a great deal of admiration for their notable enterprise.

Laboring in social isolation and always in dire financial straits, they invested tremendous efforts in editing and publishing ancient Hebrew texts which they regarded as monuments of Jewish culture. But the universities rejected their works, and they were ignored by contemporary German Jewry. Nevertheless, the role of this scientific historiography was, all in all, more significant than is generally assumed, for it provided, to say the least, important new tools which were vital for the development of Jewish collective memory.

Today, it would appear, Jewish collective memory (or attitude to history) resembles an enclosed field in which three rival schools are engaged in battle: the traditional “orthodox” model; pure amnesia, or an elimination of the past; and the exploitation of the past by nationalist or revolutionary ideologies. In a way, [A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People] is an attempt to comprehend and place in perspective this unprecedented configuration of historical approaches. Hopefully this volume will not only enhance our knowledge of Jewish history, but will also open new ways of defining the ambiguous relation between memory and the task of the historian.

Reprinted from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.


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