Thursday, July 15, 2010
Must History Destroy Tradition: Idel’s Response to Yerushalmi
The late Prof. Yosef Yerushalmi, in his classic book Zakhor, challenged the notion that history was something intrinsic to Judaism. He argued that, while history was important for the Bible, post-biblical Judaism consciously downplayed history to the extent that from Josephus, in the first century, up until the early modern period there is almost no Jewish historical writing. The sixteenth century saw a swath of Jewish histories in the wake of 1492, but it was post-emancipation Jewry that truly embraced historical study. Yerushalmi saw this as ironic since it was precisely such Jews who were in the process of assimilating. As such, Jewish history becomes the product not of Judaism, but of the abandonment of Judaism. I would add that at a basic level, history challenges traditional Judaism not just because it might contradiction traditional Jewish claims like the Exodus from Egypt, but because its methods are a direct rejection of traditional Jewish notions of remembrance.
I find Moshe Idel's response worth sharing:
I cannot dispute his [Yerushalmi's] own feeling that the career of a Jewish historian may represent an existential rupture, perhaps a tragic one, with traditional Judaism. … The stark opposition [though] between history and belief presupposes some form of religiosity that alone is conceived of as authentic and attributes to the corrosive acts of history an antireligious effect. By contrast, I would resort to a vision of a complex and multifaceted tradition in order to resolve what may be conceived of as a state of fall or of despair. (Idel, "Yosef H. Yerushalmi's Zakhor" JQR 97.4(2007) pg. 495)
On the reverse side, Orthodox Judaism, particularly Haredim, often create either or scenarios where one either accepts their understanding of Jewish tradition as THE Judaism or one is outside of the Jewish tradition. So I put the challenge to my readers of all faiths, how does the study of history, particularly the embracing of the historical method play itself out in your religious beliefs? If we were to bring in historians to construct a religion according to their tastes and sensibilities what sort of distinctive features might figure prominently?