On Jewish History

Author: Christopher Dawson


By Christopher Dawson

Anyone who, like myself, has devoted himself to the study of the history of civilizations or of Western culture cannot go far in it without becoming aware of the importance of the Jews. Yet we have to travel a long way before we begin to understand the significance of Jewish history. We are accustomed to study the history of peoples and cultures as massive entities continues in time and space. They appear and disappear, and if they reappear it is with a different name, a new consciousness and cultural tradition. As the English poet, William Blake, had written:

Cities and Thrones and Powers Stand in Time's eye, Almost as long as flowers Which daily die.

But as new buds put forth To glad new men, Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth The Cities rise again.

This is not the case with Jewish history. The Jews are always there, but they are never wholly there. I mean that at no time (at least during the last 1,900 years) has a completely Jewish culture dominated its social environment, as Arab or Persian or Chinese cultures have done. There has been a discontinuous series of Jewish cultures, each of which has produced a rich intellectual harvest, but none of which has been an independent sociological and political whole.

Now it seems to me that this series of cultures has never been adequately studied--not that the material is lacking or that there has been any lack of Jewish historians, but that historians have been too much inclined to imitate the nineteenth century pattern of historical nationalism and to write the history of the Jews as though they were a political and territorial unit like the ordinary modern nationality.

But if we do this, we contradict the genuine Jewish tradition, which always set Israel against and apart from "the nations."

The history of the Jews is bound up with the history of the world, not with that of any single political or territorial unit. In every age they have had a particular task to perform, but this task is to be seen in relation to the world situation rather than as part of a continuous national tradition.

Hence it seems to me that Jewish history, unlike all other histories, involves two different studies or enquiries. In the first place we have to study the four or five Jewish cultures or cultural ages as distinct entities, trying to understand each of them by its own standards and values without reference to external criteria. Secondly, we need to compare them all in order to find how far they followa common pattern or line of development and how they are related to one another, either by direct influence and tradition or by the parallel development of common principles and institutions manifesting themselves in different cultural environments.

This second study is of course by far the more difficult one, and I doubt whether it has yet been adequately dealt with except in an encyclopedic fashion. Moreover, in the first and simpler task the tendency has been to follow the tradition of secular national historiography, as I have said -- to write the history of the Jews in the Roman Empire, or in the Russian Empire, or in a particular period rather than to follow the different culture. But for the study of cultures the vital factor is not the political but the linguistic one. It is only by following the linguistic clue that we can trace the true line of development of the successive periods of Jewish culture.


Using this criterion, we have at least four Jewish cultures or cultural ages in post-exilic times: First, Hellenistic Judaism, the culture of the Septuagint and Philo and the Ptolemaic world. Second, East Aramaic Judaism, the culture of Babylonia and the Talmud. Third,the Jewish culture of medieval Spain, a culture both Arabic and Spanish, by means of which Greek and Arab science and philosophy penetrated medieval Europe. Fourth, the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which, although it was German or Yiddish in language, had its center in Po-land and Lithuania, and spread east and south into Russia and Rumania in modern times.

This last is the age of Jewish culture least well known to the non-Jewish world. The great cooperative works of general history, like the Cambridge Modern History, hardly refer to it at all. Yet it was of lasting importance both for the history of the Jews themselves and for that of the modern world. Its influence is with is today, for it was the main source from which modern American Jewish culture was derived.

Now when we compare these four cultures, we shall find that they have a number of common sociological features. They are all -- or at any rate the last three --essentially frontier cultures, which grew up on the border line between two different civilizations and acted as intermediaries between them. Thus the Judaism of Babylonia developed on the frontier between the Persian and Roman empires, Spanish Judaism developed on the frontier between Christendom and Islam, and East Europe- an Judaism on the frontier between Western and Eastern Christendom -- between Poland and Russia.

In each case there was a gap between the hostile civilizations, and the Jewish cultures flourished most where the situation had become stabilized and the rival civilizations had attained a precarious balance of power. But as soon as this equilibrium had been seriously disturbed, and one of the rivals achieved permanent superiority, the Jewish culture tended to share the fate of the defeated civilization. It might indeed survive for a considerable period -- sometimes for centuries -- but only on condition that it accepted the circumstances of cultural and social inferiority. Yet even under these unfavorable conditions the periods of cultural decline often produced remarkable intellectual and spiritual fruits. Above all, these periods saw the spreading of Jewish culture from its old center to the other provinces and regions of the Jewish Diaspora, as in the case of the expansion of Spanish Jewish culture to Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and back to the East -- to the Turkish Empire --in the same period.

Thus in the beginning the Jewish culture of Spain had been the great agent in the introduction of Arabic science and culture into Western Europe, and at the end it became the means by which Western culture was introduced into Turkey and Mediterranean culture was diffused in Northern Europe.

But the most distinctive feature of all the great ages of Jewish cultures was their multilingual character. There have been many bilingual cultures in history -- in fact, most of the great world cultures have been bilingual. But these Jewish cultures of which I speak were trilingual, which is unusual and possibly unique. Thus in the Hellenistic world the languages were Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; in Mesopotamia they were Hebrew, Aramaic and, after the Moslem conquest, Arabic; in Spain, Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish; and in Eastern Europe, Hebrew, German (or rather Yiddish) and Polish.

In every case the classical language -- the sacred language -- is the same, i.e., Hebrew, which held a position in the successive Jewish cultures equivalent to that of Sanskrit in India, classical Arabic in Islam, and Latin in Western Christendom. But the position of the other two languages is anomalous. They might be looked on as alien vernaculars, as they were by Ibn Gabirol in the eleventh century when he censured the Jews of Saragosa, half of whom spoke the language if Edom (Spanish) and half the obscure tongue of Kedar (Arabic). But in time one of these might be adopted as a seminational language, occupying an intermediate position between the sacred Hebrew and the language of the outside world, so that we have a threefold hierarchy of languages. This was the case above all with Aramaic, which was introduced into the liturgy itself through the Targums, with the result that the "interpreter" or translator -- a "methurgeman" -- came to hold a regular office in the synagogue.

In the same way Spanish became the language of the southern Sephardic Jews and German that of the northern Ashkenazim, and though neither of these was so fullyassimilated as Aramaic, they both occupied an intermediate position between the sacred language and the vernacular. But properly speaking, these intermediate languages were for the Jews the true vernacular (the language of cradle and home), between Hebrew (language of school and synagogue) and the third language which was that of the streets and the countryside.

Now the result of this threefold linguistic relation was to make the Jew a natural interpreter -- a "Methurgeman" or dragoman between the two alien cultures with which he was in contact. The intensive philological study that has always been emphasized in Jewish education -- especially in the Spanish period -- laid the foundation for this development, so that in an age or ages when a large proportion of the population was illiterate, the Jews held a unique position as the one people, skilled not only in many languages but in different scripts, and also in different literary and philosophic traditions.


This function of Jewish culture as the transmission channel between two civilizations attained its highest importance in Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Jewish translators were the chief agents through which the scientific and philosophic tradition of Arabic and Greek learning was imparted to the West and when Jewish philosophers like Ibn Gabirol were accepted as authoritative by Western scholastic thought. Nor was this the only important aspect of the Spanish age of Jewish culture. It was a creative age in many different fields, especially perhaps as the golden age of Jewish religious poetry.

This was not the case in the following period. In eastern Europe the Jews occupied a similar sociological position between two rival cultures, but they were unable to act as interpreters and intermediaries on the higher cultural level owing to the backwardness of the peoples with whom they were brought in contact -- the Lithuanians, the White Russians and the Ukrainians. Thus they were obliged to fulfill the functions of a middle class in lands that as yet possessed no middle class culture. And this led directly to one of the greatest disasters in Jewish history. For this position as middlemen between the Polish and Lithuanian landlords and the Ukrainian and White Russian peasants made them the chief victims of the violent Cossack revolt of 1648. The massacres of 1648-1658 were serious enough, but they were far less destructive to Jewish society than the economic effects of the forced migration of the Jewish population west and south into Poland and Moldavia at a time when Poland itself was undergoing an acute political and economic crisis. Although the progressive impoverishment of Polish andLithuanian Judaism, which went on for centuries, did not destroy the continuity of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, as the expulsion of Jews in 1492 had done in Spain, in the long run it probably caused more suffering on a more massive scale because of the larger Jewish population in the East. Indeed, the fact that Polish and Lithuanian Judaism still retained its social autonomy and its independent social institutions ultimately proved harmful, since the prevailing system of taxation and assessments transformed the organs of self-government into instruments of oppression.

It is not surprising that this long period of unbroken depression produced a spirit of profound discouragement and aversion from the traditional patterns of intermediate cultures which had played such an important part in Jewish history for more than 2,000 years. Even today, I think the commonly accepted view of these cultures is based not on fifteenth-century Poland, or twelfth-century Spain or third-century Mesopotamia, when they were most prosperous and creative, but on the life of the East European ghetto in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In that age many Jews, perhaps the majority, turned away from the old intellectual culture toward the ideals of Messianic revolution or mystical pietism. The typical figures of the period were not the learned rabbis, such as Jehiel Halperim of Minsk (1670-1746) or the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), but charismatic leaders, like the pseudo-Messiahs Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791), or the wonder-working Zaddiks who became the leaders of the hasidim, a mystical sect founded in Poland about 1750.


But these were not the roads that Jewish history was to travel. They were rather signs of the end of an age and the exhaustion of a cultural tradition. Already during the eighteenth century there were indications of the coming of a new spirit, and during the nineteenth century Jewish society and culture underwent a profound change. For the first time in history Jews and Gentiles met on equal terms within a common culture, the culture of the Enlightenment which inspired the movement of political, economic and philosophic Liberalism both in Europe and America. No doubt these ideas were anathema to orthodox Jews, as they were to conservative Christians, but it was difficult for Jews to remain aloof from a movement that offered the hope of emancipation, the abolition of the ghetto and all its restrictive laws and customs, and the opening of the universities and professions to all men of talent. Moreover there was an element of Messianic idealism in the creed of the Enlightenment that appealed to the Jewishtemperament and is partly responsible for the position of Jewish thinkers and politicians in modern movements of reform and revolution.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the influence of Liberalism generally declined before the growing power of nationalism. At first the two movements were closely allied, as we see in the case of the Italian patriot Mazzini, and in Germany where the liberals were foremost in supporting the cause of national unity. Nevertheless in Eastern and Central Europe it was almost inevitable that nationalism should have also allied itself with endemic anti-Jewish prejudices. The German national Liberals were the originators of modern anti-Semitism, while the Slavophile nationalists in Russia inherited and reinforced that country's traditional anti-Semitism -- which constituted a solid bloc of religious prejudice hardly touched by the influence of the Enlightenment.

This nationalist and racialist reaction against the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe did not weaken the Enlightenment's influence on Jewish culture; on the contrary, this influence grew throughout the 1800's and reached its culmination in the early years of the present century with the foundation of the Liberal Jewish movement by Claude Montifiori. But the reaction did change the course of Jewish history. It provided the motive for the mass exodus of the Jews of Eastern Europe to the West. Thus, in a single generation -- circa 1885-1914 -- America became one of the great centers of Jewish population and the foundations were laid for a new English-speaking Jewish culture which has grown steadily stronger and more influential during the last fifty years.


Nevertheless the rise of Jewish nationalism, which has been the most epoch-making event in modern Jewish history, was not directly connected with this vast movement of population that was to transfer the center of Jewish culture from Eastern Europe to America. Jewish nationalism developed in reaction to the sudden wave of anti-Semitism which was aroused by the Dreyfus case in 1894 and swept France during the next few years.

There was no country where the Jews had ben so thoroughly assimilated as in France, and this sudden resurrection of almost forgotten racial and religious prejudices caused a profound shock to opinion. The poet Charles Peguy, who himself played no small part in the affair, has described the consequence in the unforgettable pages he wrote in honor of Bernard Lazare, his friend and leader whom he regarded as one of the prophets of Israel. To the secular historian, he wrote, the Dreyfus affair was a small matter -- the vindication of an officer from an unjust accusation and the rehabilitation of an innocentindividual. Yet it became a turning point in world history. It signified the ending of the hundred-years truce that had accompanied the Enlightenment and the era of emancipation, and the launching of a new exodus which was to bring Israel back to the desert and finally to the Promised Land.

The men who led this spiritual exodus were, for the most part, representative of the Enlightenment and the assimilationist tradition: Bernard Lazare in France, J. Max Nordau in Austria, Israel Zangwill in England, and Justice Brandeis in the United States. Above all, this was the case with Theodore Herzl, who founded the modern Zionist movement. Herzl was by training and environment a typical product of assimilationist culture, a free-thinking Liberal journalist from Vienna who was in Paris as the correspondent of the "Neue Freie Presse" and who covered the Dreyfus case in the normal course of his duties. But the shock of the Dreyfus trial changed his whole outlook. Henceforward he dedicated his life to the creation of a national Jewish state, and his leadership was so dynamic that he succeeded almost immediately in establishing the worldwide Zionist movement, which held its first congress at Basel in 1897. A few days after this event he wrote in his diary: "If I were to sum up the Basel Conference in a word, it would be this: at Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I were to say this today, I should be met by universal laughter. In five years perhaps and certainly in fifty, everyone will see it. The State is already founded in essence in the will of the people to the State."

Never has the prediction of a political reformer or revolutionary been so completely fulfilled as in Herzl's case. The opposition among his own people, among the orthodox Jews and the anti-political Zionists, seemed alone sufficient to ensure his defeat. But in spite of his numerous disappointments and his premature death in 1904, it was his program and his ideal of Jewish political nationalism that were realized by the creation of the modern state of Israel. The establishment of the Jewish national home in Palestine, made possible by the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, was the direct result of Herzl's propaganda which was able to rally Jews from every intellectual tradition and from every part of the world to cooperate toward this common end.

But the vital factor in the success of Zionism was the catastrophic disaster that overwhelmed the Jewish culture of Central and Eastern Europe in the twelve years of the Nazi terror and intensified the demand for a radical, national solution of the Jewish problem. The proclamation of Israel as a sovereign national state in 1948 represents the total realization of the Zionist ideal and the beginning of a new era in Jewish history and world politics. It marks the end of the European age of Jewishculture which had characterized both the Spanish and the East European phases of Jewish history and, even more, the end of that unique function which Jewish culture has fulfilled for 2,000 years as intermediary and link between two opposing civilizations.

It is true that the new culture of Israel stands on the frontier of two worlds between East and West. But it is no longer a bridge between them: it is a fortified stronghold in a hostile world, a crusading state such as the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was eight centuries ago.


The modern Jewish world has a double axis. It has one center in Israel and the other in America, and its future development depends on how these two centers can be interrelated and integrated. The problem is a difficult one, for the violent destruction of European Judaism has not weakened the divergent tendencies in Jewish culture that manifested themselves during the age of Enlightenment. The purely political and nationalist solution of the Jewish problem, which was the primary force in Zionism, has not been completely accepted even in Israel. Judaism always has been three things: a people or a nation, a culture or a way of life, and a world religion or a spiritual ideal. Any attempt to identify it with one of these to the exclusion of the others has invariably led to a reaction and restoration of the neglected aspect. Even today, even in the little land of Israel, we have political Zionism, cultural Zionism and religious Zionism coexisting without coalescing. It is obvious that if Zionism is conceived in purely nationalist and political terms, the triumph of Zionism in Israel would lead to the triumph of assimilationism or liberal Judaism in America.

In the past the strength of both religious Judaism and cultural Judaism in Europe was a common factor that helped to unite America and Israel. Now that the Judaism of Eastern Europe, with its ancient tradition of culture and its deep religious life, has been destroyed, America and Israel will have to find a closer and more direct bond of union. Justice Brandeis, speaking some years before the European catastrophe -- I think in 1915 -- suggested that the problem could be solved on exactly the same lines as those followed by the other national groups in the United states, since the relation of American Jewry to the future state in Palestine would be "exactly the same as is the relation of people of other nationalities all the world over to their parent home." But it is obvious today that the relation of Israel to the Dispersion must be entirely different from the relations of Portugal to Brazil or of the Irish Free State to the Irish of the United States. Whatever view we take of Zionism, we can hardly deny that Jewish history transcends politics and that the Jewishpeople still has, as it always has had, a world mission. That is the one point on which the cultural Zionists like the late Asher Ginsberg and the religious Zionists like the Misrachi are agreed; even the political Zionists themselves do not altogether deny it. For it is obvious that if Zionism is conceived in terms of a purely political nationalism, it can no longer claim to represent the whole Jewish tradition and becomes merely a new and more sophisticated form of assimilationism.

Hitherto, throughout the successive ages of Jewish history Israel has held fast to this idea of universal mission: it has served as a unifying factor through the vicissitudes of centuries and in all the different forms of Jewish culture. The present generation may not easily see what expression it will find in the future under the altered conditions of the new age. But it has not been brought to an end by the creation of the political state of Israel. Somehow, it still has to be fulfilled, and Israel and America -- or American Jewry -- each have to make their contribution to it.

Lecture at Brandeis University, 1959, published in "Orbis" magazine Winter, 1967. Reprinted with permission.

Taken from the Fall 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor