You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Redrawing Boundaries

In the writing of history, there are no innocent decisions—especially if you are trying to write a compact book about a huge, complex, and polarizing subject, like Michael Brenner’s A Short History of the Jews. Brenner, a professor at the University of Munich whose book was published in Germany two years ago, is writing for an audience—Jews and non-Jews alike—who want “just the facts.” Yet every decision about what constitutes a fact, and which facts are important, is laden with assumptions and helps to shape the story in particular ways. Consider, for instance, the most basic decision of all: Where does the history of the Jews begin?

The first datable reference to the people of Israel comes in the 13th century BCE, on an Egyptian stele erected by Pharaoh Merenptah to celebrate his military victories. By a too-perfect irony, the inscription reads, “Israel is wasted, its seed exists no more.” Start the story here, and the history of the Jews becomes one of resistance and unlikely survival—over and over again, this people would falsify predictions of its destruction. But if you follow traditional Jewish sources, the story would have to begin with God’s promise to Abraham, from Genesis 17: “And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” This origin makes the Jewish story one of chosenness and covenant (it is here that God commands Abraham to circumcise his sons and thereby establish the b’rit, or covenant), with a special emphasis on the Land of Israel. Or else you could see the beginning of Jewish history in God’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, when the people first took on themselves the responsibility of the Law: “And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exodus 24). Then the story of the Jews would be the story of the Torah, and Jewishness would be defined as Judaism.

All of these moments are mentioned in the first chapter of Brenner’s book. But the early extra-biblical evidence is too fragmentary, and the biblical evidence too mythical, to be a reliable basis for a historian. Not just the patriarchs and Moses, but much later biblical figures are almost certainly fictional: “The heroic deeds of the Judges, David’s powerful kingdom, Solomon’s resplendent temple—none of these can be supported either by archeological excavations or extra-Biblical sources.” For Brenner, Jewish history properly begins with the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, followed by the exile in Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple some seventy years later by Ezra and Nehemiah. This series of events transformed the Israelites, subjects of a small Near Eastern kingdom, into Jews, members of a far-flung religious community. “Being a ‘Jew’ or ‘Judean’ did not just mean belonging to an ethnic group with a territory; it was now also a designation that included inhabitants scattered from Babylonia to Egypt who were all adherents of a specific cult—of a religion.”

As Brenner writes, the belief that the Babylonian exile marks the real beginning of Jewish history is not a new one. (Josephus, the Roman-Jewish historian of the 1st century CE, was the first to suggest the difference between Israelites and Jews.) But in Brenner’s hands, this starting point serves to underscore his vision of Jewish history as primarily a struggle about and against assimilation: “The better part of Jewish history would play out between these two poles, attachment to the old homeland and loyalty to the new one,” he summarizes. This focus surely owes something to his German perspective, since it was in Germany, from the late eighteenth century until 1933, that the problem of assimilation most dramatically dominated Jewish consciousness, with the most tragic results. And while Brenner’s subject includes all of Jewish history and geography, it is the modern period and the Central European context that provide the center of gravity for his book.

The question of how to preserve a Jewish identity while functioning in a non-Jewish society is not strictly a modern one. Brenner makes this point eloquently with an illustration of a seal made in Babylon in the 6th century BCE, which reads “belonging to Yehoyishma, daughter of Shamash-shar-usur.” “Conceivably,” Brenner explains, “the father, who had already been given a Babylonian name as a result of acculturation, wanted to give his daughter a Hebrew name as part of a return to Jewish roots.”

The ancient tension between Jewish and non-Jewish identities could sometimes issue in violence, as during the Maccabee rebellion of the 2nd century BCE. Yet as Brenner points out, while we think of Judah Maccabee as the restorer of Jewish independence against Greek domination, here again names tell a more complicated story. The first generation of Hasmonean kings, Judah’s brothers, were called Yehonatan and Shimon, but the next generation were called Aristobulus and Hyrcanus—Greek names, and a sign that Hellenism was an unavoidable presence in Judea.

The situation of Jews in the Greco-Roman period may remind us of the situation of Jews in modern Europe and America—the parallel is often drawn by those warning Jews against getting “lost” in a seductive surrounding culture. But things were very different in the roughly seventeen centuries of Jewish history between the fall of the Temple and the beginnings of Jewish emancipation in Western Europe. This was the period in which Jewishness was defined by rabbinic Judaism, with all its variants, mystical offshoots, and heresies. During most of this time—which was, after all, the majority of Jewish history—assimilation was not a temptation because it was not a possibility: Jews could not enter into the surrounding Christian and Muslim worlds and still remain Jews. There was certainly no monolithic Jewish culture during this extended period, but there were many Jewish cultures, from Rashi’s France to Shmuel haNagid’s Spain to the Baal Shem Tov’s Poland.

And it is this heart of Jewish history that A Short History of the Jews has least interest in. Brenner does not have a lot of space to work with, and he necessarily summarizes and abbreviates a great deal; but still it is notable that it takes him only sixty pages to get from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. By comparison, his chapter on the Holocaust alone fills almost thirty pages. This is somewhat understandable: the Holocaust is the event that looms largest in contemporary Jewish consciousness. But a book that explains the Nuremberg Laws in more detail than the Mishneh Torah is surely offering a distorted picture of the substance and the achievement of Jewish history.

It is the result, however, of a perspective on Jewish history that sees it as culminating in emancipation—a term that itself implies that the loss of Jewishness is the price of the entry or re-entry of the Jews into world history, and that freedom was possible only at the expense of identity. In this four-hundred-page book, we reach Moses Mendelssohn on page 167, and from then on the vicissitudes of the Jews in Western Europe are the main story. Brenner does not neglect Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and America; but his grasp of American Jewry in particular is much less sure. (It is not a good sign that his chapter on contemporary American Jews is illustrated with photos of Leonard Nimoy and Bob Dylan.) In America and in Israel, which Brenner treats very briefly, the classic model of frustrated Jewish assimilation has been overturned, because each country offers Jews a way of being modern without ceasing to be Jewish. Perhaps it is a measure of this epochal change that Brenner’s learned and lively volume feels a little old-fashioned.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. A version of this piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.