Michael Brenner. Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History. Translated by Steven Rendall. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. xiii + 301 pp. $39.50 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4008-3661-1; $39.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-13928-9.
Reviewed by Moshe Rosman (Bar Ilan University)
Published on H-Judaic (April, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
A History of Jewish Metanarratives
In the course of his concise, yet comprehensive, survey of Jewish historiography from the eighteenth century to the present, Michael Brenner makes several key statements that guide the reader to an understanding of the scope, assumptions, substance, and significance of his entire project. The first appears in the introduction: "Whatever one says about the Jews and their history has already been said at least once. And still worse, it has probably been refuted many times" (p. 5).
This book is at heart a summary-cum-analysis, distilling generations of Jewish historical scholarship as well as integrating the most important observations and insights that have been expressed concerning the work of the major, and some minor, Jewish historians. Brenner's judicious narrative suggests which scholarship, despite efforts at refutation, has endured. He strikes a balance between general descriptions and telling details, effortlessly hits all the highlights, and reminds us of what it is others have said about each figure and each school that we should know: that Wissenschaft was an antagonist of Haskalah, not a branch of it; that each edition of Heinrich Zvi Graetz's history is different and its translations are seriously flawed by their translator-editors' arrogant modifications; that to YIVO-affiliated historians like Simon Dubnow, Polish-Jewish historians like Majer Balaban and Ignacy Schiper were assimilationists prepared to sacrifice Yiddish culture on the altar of Polish acculturation; that while Salo Baron famously considered the historiography on medieval Jewry to have overemphasized the bad, he also thought that the historiography on modern Jewry ignored the pernicious threats that modernity held for the Jews; that early twentieth-century Jewish historians of all ideologies accepted racist postulates to some degree; that Zionist historians rebelled against apologetics of one kind only to engage in apologetics of another kind; and so on.
This plethora of information never overwhelms as it is carefully marshaled within a symmetrical paradigm. Jewish historiography is a neatly arched structure: from Jewish history as history of religion, as portrayed in the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries; to the history of a community, as proposed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries; to the history of a nation, in writing following the First World War; to histories of various Jewish cultures, hybrid with the cultures of "real" nations, in our own generation. Like other elegant structures (Jacob Katz's "traditional framework" being simultaneously "shattered" in the West and "distorted" in the East, in his Tradition and Crisis [Hebrew 1958, English translation 1993] comes to mind), Brenner's work, while helpful in organizing what might be unruly material in less skilled hands, is too neat. For example, the two chapters focusing, respectively, on Graetz and Baron do not fit in smoothly. As Brenner readily submits, Graetz's work was somewhere between religious and national history and Baron's work presented a mixed view of the Jews, at various times a religion, a community, a nation, or all three.
Moreover, Brenner omits from his paradigm some historiographical groups or subjects that seem to be obvious candidates for inclusion. There is much here about writing on anti-semitism, yet virtually nothing about historiography on the Shoah. It is as if this were not a bona fide topic of Jewish history and its historians belonged to a different guild. This omission seems to be an extreme expression of the determination of many contemporary Jewish historians not to allow the Holocaust to impose a teleology on their accounts. Perhaps even more surprising, in a book dedicated to the memory of Brenner's teacher, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Yerushalmi's historiographical cohort is missing. Post-Second World War Israeli historiography gets profound analysis, but its American and European equivalents, Yerushalmi's contemporaries and their students, postwar but pre-postmodernism, are absent. Brenner's reasons for these glaring lacunae should have been explained in the introduction.
Such minor defects are, however, more than compensated for by this book's virtues. These include, beyond its integrative summary and analysis, much new information and many new ideas. To cite some examples: Jewish historiography is typically described as being a male-only enterprise until 1975 or so. Brenner shows that beginning with Bertha Pappenheim in the interwar period there was a small but serious group of Jewish women historians--including Bertha Badt, Selma Stern, Hannah Arendt, and others, in both Germany and Poland--who published sources and wrote monographs that are still of value. Brenner teases out the implied optimism that underlay the lachrymose approach: the Jews constantly struggle with gods and men but ultimately emerge victorious. He implicitly questions Yerushalmi's assessment (which Moshe Idel has developed) that Jewish history research, writing, and learning developed as a substitute faith with substitute rituals for fallen Jews. Brenner shows how history could serve various Jewish purposes, like being a catalyst for the transition from tradition to secularity; a weapon against anti-semitism; or, especially, a political tool in lieu of political enfranchisement or military power. He also identifies an archetypical Jewish historiographical narrative. From French Jewish scholars who saw the French Revolution as a restatement of the laws of Sinai to American Jewish writers who considered America to be founded on biblical principles, modern Jewish historians sought to show the Jewish compatibility with (or even roots of) whatever national ethos they were immersed in, be it French, German, English, Italian, Hungarian, American, or whatever.
The second guiding, compound, statement is: "Each chapter is focused on a particular 'master narrative.' ... While it would be presumptuous to expect that it might provide an undisputed interpretation of Jewish history, this book should help us better understand the ways that its interpreters have seen it" (pp. 9, 15). This book proffers a history of metanarratives, and Brenner, well-conversant with European, Israeli, and American cultures, is perhaps more qualified than anyone to reach an empathetic understanding of each metanarrative he presents. He shows how each one justified a particular ideology (assimilation, acculturation, nationalism, etc.), but also how each school of historians used the past as a mirror in which they saw themselves and their own contemporary community. For example, Erich Gruen the American on Hellenistic Jews: "Jerusalem had an irresistible ... claim on the emotions of Diaspora Jews; it was indeed a critical piece of their identity. But home was elsewhere" (Gruen cited in Brenner, p. 211)--certainly a formula for describing how many contemporary American Jews relate to Israel.
Reading Brenner as the culmination of previous books that analyzed Jewish historiography in terms of metanarratives, I think it may be time to change direction. We now need some books that delve seriously into the narratives, rather than the metanarratives. I do not agree with Israel Bartal, for example, whom Brenner cites as claiming that the great Zionist historians are now mainly sources for the study of Zionist ideology. There is value to be discovered in these works beyond the outmoded metahistories they advocated. What makes Graetz or Dubnow or Baron or Baer a "great" historian is not his ideologically tainted metanarrative but the details of his narrative. What new subjects did these men tackle? What methodological innovations did they introduce? What new sources did they discover? How did their ideological proclivities sensitize them to nuances of the sources that others with different biases did not detect? What lasting small-scale interpretations did they bequeath? What small stories did they add to the big story? How did those small stories modify the big story in a way that changed the scholarly consensus, pace ideology?
In presenting the oeuvre of others, Brenner tries to strike a scrupulously fair and even neutral tone. He quotes most critical comments in the name of other historians, and for most of the book his own voice is muffled. However, I think we can discern at least part of Brenner's own metahistory, which brings us to the third quotation: "In the twenty-first century, ideological positioning has not entirely disappeared, though the boundary line now is the acceptance or rejection of a postmodern view" (p. 218, cf. p. 207). Brenner actually says this twice and it does reflect what many historians think. However, Brenner himself is ambivalent. In the acknowledgements, he stakes out a patently postmodern position: "it is not only what one learns that counts but also from whom, in what environment, and on what assumptions one learns it" (p. xi). But a few pages later he states, "postmodern positions have succeeded in producing creative lines of investigation, but the literary analysis of texts cannot replace the search for historical facts" (p. 4). This implies that postmodernism has not eliminated positivism so much as reformed it.
On this methodological foundation, Brenner builds his own master narrative. The first task is to define the subject. Other historians have attempted to fit Jewishness into a conventional institutional rubric: religion, community, nation, or society. Brenner (following on both Yerushalmi and David Biale) considers the Jews to be a people defined by their consciousness of being Jews, a consciousness shaped largely by their memory of the experience of being Jews. The Jews may be the People of the Book, but for Brenner they are definitely what he calls "the People of Memory." This implies that Jewish history is the history of a kind of consciousness.
Secondly, for Brenner, the Jewish historian has a moral obligation not to be politically tone-deaf. Anti-semitism is real and continual. Moreover, "the Nazi genocide is denied in large parts of the world and the existence of the State of Israel [which for him was a justified result of the Shoah] is still in danger" (p. 219). He sees historiography as having a role in fighting these righteous battles. In general, he urges historians to recognize the political ramifications of their work and to act responsibly: "Even if [historians] do not put themselves in the service of this or that political or ideological movement, and want to pursue knowledge for its own sake, they still have to be aware that the results of their research will often be given a political interpretation" (p. 219).
Indeed, Brenner's felicitous survey demonstrates that since (Jewish) history can never be severed from metahistory, politics is always waiting in the wings. Nevertheless, historians' performance has validity in its own terms and this applies to Brenner who has written an important and useful book, destined to garnish reading lists for years to come.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Moshe Rosman. Review of Brenner, Michael, Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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