Thursday, May 27, 2010

Between Baron and Scholem

In his eulogistic review of Salo Baron, "The Last Jewish Generalist," Ismar Schorsch criticizes Baron and the last ten volumes of his eighteen volume Social and Religious History of the Jewish People for adopting an external view of Jewish existence, one that privileged sociology and economics, over an internal view of Jews, focusing on religious experience. According to Schorsch:

Ours is a politically secure generation hungry for the sacred. Its guide to the past is not Baron but Gershom Scholem, and its own historians tend to concentrate on subjects of religious import often studied from an exclusively internal perspective. If Scholem fertilized all sectors of Jewish thought with his lifelong study of kabbalah, contemporary scholarship is rediscovering the magic of midrash. The present temper prefers text to context, literature to history, meaning to significance, and regards Baron as the pinnacle of positivistic Wissenschaft.

For those of you familiar with the state of academic Jewish history, does Schorsch's declaration from 1993 still stand or was he crowing victory a little too soon? I find his declaration in favor of Scholem to be ironic, considering that, when he made it, Moshe Idel had already become the flag carrier for the revisionist movement in Kabbalah studies against Scholem, a trend that has only accelerated in the past seventeen years. Furthermore only several years ago Schorsch himself, when he stepped down from being the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivering a "what is wrong with the Conservative movement" farewell address in which he lamented the fact that the Conservative movement had abandoned the sort of scholarship represented by, wait for it, Gershom Scholem.

In terms of general historiography, I am wondering as to what extent the trend Schorsch describes is representative of the study of European history in general. Baron can be seen as a Jewish version of the sort of socio-economic history represented by the likes of such early and mid-twentieth century historians as Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel. So where are we historians at, dropping dry technical sociological studies in favor of a history of "meaning?"

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