Steven Weitzman: The Origin of the Jews

WeitzmanThe Jews have one of the longest continuously recorded histories of any people in the world, but what do we actually know about their origins? While many think the answer to this question can be found in the Bible, others look to archaeology or genetics. Some skeptics have even sought to debunk the very idea that the Jews have a common origin. In The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, Steven Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know—or think we know—about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be. Weitzman recently took the time to answer a few questions about his new book.

Isn’t the origin of the Jews well known? The story as I learned it begins with the Bible—with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. What is it that we do not understand about the origin of the Jews?

SW: Arguably, modernity was born of a recognition that things did not originate in the way the Bible claims. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the intellectual elite in Europe began to realize that the Bible could not be relied upon as an origin account, they turned to science, to critical historiography, to archaeology and to other scholarly methods to try to answer the question of where things and people come from. The result of their efforts include Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Bing Bang theory and other enduring theories of origin, along with a lot of theories and ideas that have since been discredited. The same intellectual process unsettled how people accounted for the origin of the Jews. Scholars applied the tools that had been used to understand the origin of language, religion and culture to the Jews and in this way developed alternative accounts very different from or even opposed to the biblical account. This book tells the story of what scholars have learned in this way and wrestles with why, despite centuries of scholarship, the question of the origin of the Jews remains unsettled.

So what have scholars learned about the origin of the Jews?

SW: A lot and a little at the same time. There has been a tremendous amount of scholarship generated by the question. The Documentary Hypothesis, the famous theory that the Five Books of Moses reflects the work of different authors in different historical periods, was originally intended as an effort to explain how the people of the Old Testament became the Jews. Focusing on different textual sources, Assyriologists have uncovered evidence of a people in Canaan known as the Habiru that are believed to be the ancestors of the Hebrews, and others would trace the Jews’ origin to Egypt or see a role for Greek culture in their development. Every theory can cite facts to support its account; and some are quite pioneering in the methods they deploy, and yet even as someone conversant in this scholarship, I find that I myself cannot answer the question of what the origin of the Jews is. It is actually the difficulty of answering the question that fascinates me. From within my small field, I have always been drawn to questions that lie at the edge of or just beyond what scholars can know about the world, questions that appear to be just beyond reach, and the origin of the Jews represents one of those questions, lying inside and outside of history at the same time.

Can you explain more why the origin of the Jews is so hard to pin down?

SW: Partly the problem is a scarcity of evidence. If we are looking to prehistory to understand the origin of the Jews—prehistory in this context would refer to the period before we have written accounts of the Israelites—there just isn’t a lot of evidence to work with. We know that at some point a people called Israel emerged, but we have very little evidence that can help us understand that process—a lot of theories and educated guesses but not a lot of solid facts.
Origins are always elusive—they always seem to be buried, hidden or lost—and scholarship has really had to strain to find relevant evidence to base itself on.
But for me at least, the biggest challenge of all was the problem of pinning down what an origin is. The term covers a range of different ideas—continuity and novelty, ancestry and invention. An origin can refer to lineage, to whatever connects a thing to the past, but it can also refer to a rupture, the emergence of something fundamentally discontinuous with the past. I came to realize that one of the main reasons scholars explain the origin of the Jews so differently is that they begin from different conceptions of what an origin is. This project forced me to recognize that I didn’t understand what an origin is or sufficiently appreciate all the different assumptions, beliefs and questionable metaphors that lay hidden within that term.

Not only are there conceptual difficulties inherent in the search for Jewish origin, but there are political problems as well. The effort to answer the question of the origin of the Jews has had devastating consequences, as the Nazis demonstrated by using the scholarship of origin to rationalize violence against the Jews. Of course, more recently, the question has gotten caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well, and is entangled in various intra-communal and interfaith debates about the nature of Jewish and Christian identity. There were many reasons to avoid this topic, intellectual, political and arguably even ethical, but not pursuing it also has its costs. There are lots of ideas circulating out there about how the Jews originated, along with a lot of misstatements, unexamined assumptions and confusion, and I felt it would be helpful to describe the challenges of this question, why it is difficult to address, what we know and don’t know, and what is at stake.

The book surveys several different approaches—various historical approaches, archaeology, social scientific approaches, even psychoanalysis has been used to address the question—but the research most likely to interest many contemporary readers comes from the field of genetics. What does DNA reveal about the origin of the Jews?

SW: First of all, I should say up front that I am not a geneticist and much of what I present in the book is based on what I learned from geneticist colleagues when I was a faculty member at Stanford or read at their suggestion. But we happen to be in a period when geneticists are making great strides in using DNA as a historical source, a way to understand the origin, migration history, and sexual and health history of different populations, and Jews have been intensively studied from this perspective. Even though the science was new to me, I felt I could not write a book on this subject without trying to engage this new research. As for what such research reveals, it offers a new way of investigating the ancestry of the Jews, the population(s) from whom they descend, and potentially sheds light on where that population lived, its size and demographic practice, and its mating practices. It can even help us to distinguish distinct histories for the male and female lineages of contemporary Jewish populations. All fascinating stuff, but does genetics represent the future of the quest to understand the origin of the Jews? The research is developing very rapidly. The data sets are expanding rapidly; the analysis is getting more nuanced; studies conducted a decade or two ago have already been significantly revised or superseded; and it is hard for non-geneticists to judge what is quality research and what is questionable. What is clear is that there has been criticism of such research from anthropologists and historians of science who detect hidden continuities with earlier now discredited race science and question how scientists interpret the data. I tried to tell both sides of this story, distilling the research but also giving voice to the critiques, and the book includes bibliographic guidance for those who want to judge the research for themselves.

Has this project gotten you to think about your own origin differently?

SW: Yes, but not in the way one might expect. Of course, as a Jew myself, the questions were not just intellectual but also personal and relational, bearing on how I thought about my own ancestry, my own sense of connection to my forebears, to other Jews, and to the land of Israel and to other peoples, but what I learned about the history of scholarship just didn’t reveal the clear insight one might have hoped for. To give a minor and amusing example, I recall being impressed by a genetic study which uncovered evidence of a surprising ancestry for Ashkenazic Levites. A Levite is a descendant from the tribe of Levi, a tribe with a special religious role, and I inherited such a status from my father. I never put any real stake in this part of my inheritance, but it was a point of connection to my father and his father, and I admit that I was intrigued when I read this study, which found that Ashkenazic Levite males have a different ancestry than that of other Ashkenazic Jews, perhaps descending from a convert with a different backstory than that of the other males in the tiny population from which today’s Ashkenazic Jews descend. But then a few years later, the same scientist published another study which undid that conclusion. So it goes with the research in general: it tells too many stories, or changes too much, or is too equivocal or uncertain in its results to demystify the origin of who I am. But on the other hand, I did learn a lot from this project about how—and why—I think about origins at all, and the mystery of who I am as a Jew—and of who we all are as human beings—runs much deeper for me now.

Steven Weitzman is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Solomon: The Lure of WisdomSurviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity, and The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age.

Yair Mintzker: The Many Deaths of Jew Süss

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—”Jew Süss”—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.” On February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through several works of fiction, chief among them a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Goebbels. The Many Deaths of Jew Süss by Yair Mintzker is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial.

You have chosen a very intriguing title for your book—The Many Deaths of Jew Süss. Who was this “Jew Süss” and why did he die more than once?

YM: Jew Süss is the nickname of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. Originally from the Jewish community in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1732 Oppenheimer became the personal banker (“court Jew”) of Carl Alexander, duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly in 1737, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and eventually hanged him in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him at the behest of Joseph Goebbels.

Why is Oppenheimer such an iconic figure in the history of anti-Semitism?

YM: Though Oppenheimer was executed almost three centuries ago, his trial never quite ended. Even as the trial was unfolding, it was already clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of Oppenheimer’s alleged crimes. The verdict pronounced in his case conspicuously failed to provide any specific details about the reasons for the death sentence. The significance of the trial, and the reasons for Oppenheimer’s public notoriety ever since the eighteenth century, stem from the fact that Oppenheimer’s rise-and-fall story has been viewed by many as an allegory for the history of German Jewry in general. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then fell from power and met a violent death. Thus, at every point in time when the status, culture, past and future of Germany’s Jews have hung in the balance, the story of this man has moved to center stage, where it was investigated, novelized, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that Jew Süss is to the German collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to the English-speaking world.

Your book is about Oppenheimer’s original trial, not about how this famous court Jew was depicted later. Why do you claim that he died more than once?

YM: We need to take a step back and say something about the sources left by Oppenheimer’s trial. Today, in over one hundred cardboard boxes in the state archives in Stuttgart, one can read close to thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents from the time period of the trial. Among these pages are the materials collected by the inquisition committee assigned to the case; protocols of the interrogations of Oppenheimer himself, his alleged accomplices, and many witnesses; descriptions of conversations Oppenheimer had with visitors in his prison cell; and a great number of poems, pamphlets, and essays about Oppenheimer’s final months, days, hours, and even minutes. But here’s the rub: while the abundance of sources about Oppenheimer’s trial is remarkable, the sources themselves never tell the same story twice. They are full of doubts, uncertainties, and outright contradictions about who Oppenheimer was and what he did or did not do. Instead of reducing these diverse perspectives to just one plot line, I decided to explore in my book four different accounts of the trial, each from a different perspective. The result is a critical work of scholarship that uncovers mountains of new documents, but one that refuses to reduce the story of Jew Süss to only one narrative.

What are the four stories you tell in the book, then?

YM: I look at Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in Oppenheimer’s trial, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.

What do we learn from these stories?

YM: What emerges from these accounts, above and beyond everything else, is an unforgettable picture of Jew Süss in his final days. It is a lurid tale of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace, but one that we can fully comprehend only if we follow the life stories of the four narrators and understand what they were trying to achieve by writing about Oppenheimer in the first place.

Is the purpose of this book to show, by composing these conflicting accounts of Jew Süss, that the truth is always in the eye of the beholder, that everything is relative and that there is therefore no one, single truth?

YM: No. The realization that the world looks different from different perspectives cannot possibly be the bottom line of a good work of history. This is so not because it’s wrong, but because it’s obvious. What I was setting out to do in writing this book was different. I used the multi-perspectival nature of lived experience as my starting point, not as my destination; it was a belief that informed what I did rather than a conclusion toward which I was driving.

And the result?

YM: A moving, disturbing, and often outright profound account of Oppenheimer’s trial that is also an innovative work of history and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity.

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Defortification of the German City, 1689–1866 The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.

Jonathan Zimmerman: Sanders’ Judaism matters

zimmerman jacketJonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, recently posted an op ed in the Los Angeles Times. Though Zimmerman has often written about sex education as one of the most divisive issues in modern schooling, this time he zeroes in on what has been perhaps the most surprising “non issue” of the 2016 presidential campaign: The lack of talk and excitement surrounding Bernie Sanders as a Jewish candidate.

Zimmerman notes that “Americans yawned” in response to the news when Sanders won the New Hampshire primary. Trying to find a reason for the lack of publicity or discussion, he writes that:

. . . Clinton plays up the first-woman deal, while Sanders downplays his Judaism. He has never belonged to a synagogue, his wife isn’t Jewish, and he hasn’t been to Israel since a volunteer stint on a kibbutz in the early 1960s. But there’s more to the story of our collective insouciance. Perhaps we can’t see what a big deal Sanders’ candidacy truly is because we’ve forgotten how much prejudice Jews encountered for most of our political history.

According to Zimmerman, Sanders’ presidential run can’t be appreciated without a look at the Jewish politicians who have gone on before him. Read the rest of the piece here for an extensive look at the history of Jewish politicians and the slander and backlash that have historically followed their appointment to various positions in the American government.

Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of education and history at New York University. His books include Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications. His most recent book is Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.

Get Some R&R This Holiday Season (Read about Religion)

With the holiday season upon us, we’re busy decorating, planning out menus worthy of a 5-star restaurant, and worrying about gifts. But underneath the material chaos, many may be thinking more consciously of the holidays their families celebrate and their religious roots.

This holiday season, PUP has several books that explore major world religions and what they mean—and have meant throughout history.

Fk10560irst up is the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which begins on December 6th of this year and ends on the 14th. The Love of God, published this Fall, takes readers on an exploration of one of the most essential aspects of Judaism—the love of God.

Delving into the origins of the concept and tracing its beginnings to the ancient institution of the covenant, Jon D. Levenson explains the love of God in Judaism as a profoundly personal two-way relationship, expressed in God’s love for the people of Israel. Levenson examines the ways in which this bond has endured through countless persecutions and tribulations. To read further on Levenson’s thoughts on his new book, check out his recent Q&A here.k10587

Not long after Hanukkah comes to an end this year, the celebration of the prophet’s birthday occurs on the 24th of December in the US. While there are mixed ideas of how to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday—celebrations can range from parades, decorations, readings, and food donations—others make it a time of quiet reflection and choose to fast or put aside more time to read the Koran.

The late Shahab Ahmed’s book, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, is a fascinating new look at Islam that challenges many preconceived notions. Ahmed re-imagines a new concept of the historical constitution of Islamic law while placing it in a philosophical, ethical, and political context. An important read for anyone looking to see the religion of Islam in a new and intriguing light.

The bk10688irth of Jesus Christ is a story Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with, but many who celebrate Christmas are unacquainted with other aspects of the Christian faith. George Marsden’s C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography takes readers on the journey that C.S. Lewis took from atheism to Anglicanism in his well-known book, Mere Christianity. Marsden delves into Lewis’s passionate defense of the Christian religion and explores how it correlates to Lewis’s Narnia books and other writings, describing why Lewis’s case for Christianity has endured for so long, continuing to cultivate both critics and fervent admirers to this day.

These three books are a wonderful way to take a break this holiday season (and every holiday season for that matter) and reflect on why we celebrate these holidays and what they say about our closely held traditions.

New Jewish Studies Catalog

We invite you to browse our Jewish Studies 2016 catalog:

 

Halkin In After One-Hundred-and-Twenty, Hillel Halkin takes a personal look at how Jewish people approach death, mourning, and the afterlife from biblical times to today and how they have evolved under different influences.
Efron Take note of German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic by John M. Efron, an examination of how German Jews refashioned their culture along Sephardic lines in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Waxman Dov Waxman sheds light on the complicated relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community in Trouble in the Tribe with the aid of in-depth interviews with American Jewish leaders and activists.

If you would like updates on new titles emailed to you, subscribe to our newsletter.

Finally, if you’re going to be in Boston for the Association for Jewish Studies Annual Conference from December 13 to December 15, visit PUP at booth #506, or join the conversation online with #AJS15.

Of Law and Love: Jon D. Levenson on THE LOVE OF GOD

The Love of God jacket

The love of God is perhaps the most essential element in Judaism—but also one of the most confounding. In biblical and rabbinic literature, the obligation to love God appears as a formal commandment. Yet most people today think of love as a feeling. How can an emotion be commanded? Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, recently took the time to answer questions about his new book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.

How did you first get the idea of writing a book on the love of God in Judaism?

JL:  To love God is actually taken as a formal commandment in the rabbinic sources, and the passages in Deuteronomy that mandate it appear in texts that Talmudic law requires to be recited every day of the year. So, for anyone who aspires to be a practicing Jew, the subject comes up rather obviously and regularly—even if many people in that category don’t give it much thought. But one of my professors in my doctoral program many moons ago was the distinguished Assyriologist and Biblicist William L. Moran, whose classic article on “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly in 1963, had a huge effect on me when I read it my first year in graduate school.

In brief, Professor Moran shows that the idiom of the love of God (that is, the people Israel’s love for God) originates in ancient treaties, or covenants, and has to do with the lesser party’s exclusive and undivided service of the greater party. In an earlier book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, I dealt with this same transposition (as I put it) from the realm of politics and international relations to the realm of theology and national identity. In the first chapter of The Love of God, I try to draw out a number of further implications of Professor Moran’s argument but also to make some refinements on it and to enter respectful dissents from it.

What kind of refinements and dissents do you have in mind?

JL: For one thing, although I totally agree that “love” has a technical, legal meaning in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), I also agree with those who insist that the technical usage doesn’t preclude the emotional or affective connotations that the word has for most people. To put it differently, sometimes loving may simply mean loyal service and faithful obedience, but we need to guard against over-generalizing from such passages, just as we need to guard against interpreting “love” in this context as a purely subjective, emotional state without normative behavioral correlates. I try to show that in Deuteronomy God falls in love with Israel—I don’t think the language is exclusively technical but rather it connotes passion—and demands a response that has its own affective character. In other words, we have to reckon with both an outward and an inward dimension, though recognizing that the inward-outward dichotomy is not itself native to ancient Near Eastern culture and can lead interpreters of the Bible astray. In fact, the movement is in both directions. Actions awaken and deepen emotions, and emotions generate and make sense of actions.

I also stress more than Moran did the connection of the two meanings of “the love of God”—the love God receives and the love he gives. Both are found in Deuteronomy, though the rhetorical situation of that book leads it to emphasize the love the people Israel must give to God. An important part of the covenantal idea is that the greater party (in this case, God) has endowed the lesser party with gifts—like all true gifts, they are undeserved—and this should motivate the recipient to respond not only with gratitude and humility but also with acts of service. There is something in a gift that provokes reciprocity, and that reciprocity deepens the relationship of the two parties. This is what I mean by the words in the subtitle, “Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness.” Simply to treat the norms of the Torah—the mitzvot as they are called in Hebrew—as impersonal injunctions divorced from that living relationship with that very personal God is to misunderstand them profoundly. In my experience, doing so makes the Torah itself seem incoherent and antique. It is a huge blunder to try to force the biblical commandments altogether into the Procrustean bed of ethics, morals, folkways, or whatever. In this book, I try to lay out the alternatives that the classical biblical and rabbinic sources offer to these very modern, and in my opinion not very successful, strategies.

I noticed that in your second chapter, “Heart, Soul, and Might,” you deal at length with suffering and martyrdom. Why?

JL: That chapter focuses on the ancient rabbinic interpretations of the famous commandment to “love the LORD [which is actually a proper name] your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The rabbis stress the unconditionality and supremacy of such love and consider ways in which a person might be tempted to prefer something else to that arduous commandment. So long as one puts self-interest above grateful and loving service, he or she has fallen short of the ideal. Part of the problem is that the biblical sources themselves (especially Deuteronomy again) promise all manner of good things to one who loves God, observing his commandments, and the opposite to one who fails to do so, breaking faith and breaching covenant. So, the rabbis are eager to stress that the hope for reward and the fear of punishment must not be the basis of the service. The Jew must persevere in his or her service; he or she must work at loving God even in the hardest and most frightful of situations. Here, the horrific martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva around 135 CE serves as a key object lesson.

One implication that I draw out from this is that the foundational narratives in which the God of Israel acts a generous benefactor establish the continuing norm. In other words, that situation overrides the immediate circumstances in which Jews find themselves—even circumstances of brutal persecution and death. The love that his gifts called forth was to remain firmly in place even when the gifts appear to have been withdrawn, replaced, in fact, by unspeakable hardship. This, in turn, leads me to reflect on the relationship of the unconditional to the conditional both in the love relationship of God and the Jewish people in these sources and in love relationships more generally.

It’s only in your third chapter that you develop the idea of a romance between God and the people Israel. Tell us why you didn’t do so earlier.

JL: The reason is simple: love in the ancient world—and really in the modern as well—isn’t exclusively or even primarily sexual in nature, even though sexual love commands disproportionate attention at the moment, especially in the fashions of academia. The Hebrew Bible has many metaphors for the God-Israel relationship: suzerain and vassal, king and subject, father and son, shepherd and flock, etc. In order to understand the marital metaphor—God as husband, Israel as wife—it is important to have dealt with some of these others, especially the suzerain-vassal metaphor, beforehand. Otherwise, we’re likely to read all kinds of contemporary assumptions about sexuality and gender into literature that operates on completely different understandings. In particular, if we don’t grasp the dynamics of covenant, we’ll find God’s actions in that marriage to be bizarre and patently indefensible.

For example, in our modern American world, if the wife gives her affections and her body to other men, a common solution lies in divorce: the two parties just go their separate ways, hoping to end up with partners more to their liking. But that is exactly what doesn’t happen in the marital metaphor as the biblical prophets develop it! Here again, the element of unconditionality is crucial. God doesn’t walk away from the relationship, even if Israel has done so. He doesn’t replace her or even take a second wife (remember, ancient Israel had no legal or moral problem with polygamy). He punishes her, even harshly, but this turns out to be a preparation for a restoration of the marriage. The punishment is a consequence of his passionate love for her and faithfulness to her. Ultimately, it evinces a renewal of her love for him, in turn. All this, of course, is foreign to us and doesn’t comport with how we think human husbands ought to act. But that doesn’t authorize us to miss the underlying theology, satisfying ourselves with a simple characterization of it as immoral or whatever.

Later, in the case of the rabbis, the speakers in the great biblical love poem, the Song of Songs, come to be seen as God and Israel, again in their ideal state of mutual fidelity. That’s not the plain sense of the book taken as a stand-alone composition, but within the context of the rest of biblical literature, it is a very natural—and very productive and very moving—way to read it. Nowhere does one see the power of the love of God more dramatically than in the rabbinic interpretations of the Song of Songs. That biblical book enabled the rabbis to interpret the whole history of the God-Israel relationship as a romance—an extremely important move in the history of Jewish thought.

In your last two chapters, you deal with medieval and modern materials. What changes in the Middle Ages and modernity?

JL: The medieval thinkers continue the rabbinic legacy but also add to it. For example, they sometimes interpret the female speaker of the Song of Songs as the individual soul. They also provide practical guidance about how to attain the love of God. For them again, that’s something to work on; it doesn’t just happen to you. It’s also in the Middle Ages that we first see the sustained interaction of the rabbinic legacy with philosophy. In one case, that of Maimonides, the philosopher waxes passionate about humans’ love for God but has problems with the idea that God loves humans, or anything else. That’s because he believes all human language to describe God is akin to idolatry; a God who’s susceptible to love seems imperfect to Maimonides. But I show that other medieval Jewish philosophers develop sophisticated arguments against him on this. To them, to love is a sign of perfection, not imperfection, and God’s love—even his passionate, unpredictable love—is a sign of his greatness.

In modern times, momentous changes appear with emancipation and secularization. Now one can leave the Jewish community without having to convert to Christianity or anything else. This makes observance of the mitzvot (commandments) just one lifestyle option among many; it’s no longer a social necessity or an obvious response to a divine will. Martin Buber, one of the two thinkers I examine in my last chapter, believes deeply in a personal God, but he also argues that whether the commandments in the Torah really reflect his will has to be determined by each individual on a case-by-case basis. So, ultimately and perhaps also unwittingly, Buber opts for the disconnected, autonomous self of modern liberalism. But his friend and collaborator Franz Rosenzweig comes to see God’s love as something that transforms and enlarges the self and impels it towards acceptance of the mitzvot—though without the support of old and now discredited historical claims.

Will the reader find surprises in The Love of God? Do you say things that contradict what people are likely to expect?

JL: Yes, I think so. For one, most people have an image of law as cold, confining, and impersonal, and, in the case of Judaism, two millennia of Christian polemicizing about “Pharisaism” and the like continue to take their toll, even among people who don’t identify as Christian. The notion that God’s gift of the Torah and the Jews’ careful observance of it are both acts of intense love will surprise those who instinctively see law and love as necessarily in opposition or tension.

In my previous Princeton University Press book, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I tried to shed new light on the vexing question of the chosenness, or election, of the Jews, and I’ve continued that, but with a somewhat different tack, in the new book. When chosenness is put into a framework of justice, the lack of objective merit of the chosen becomes a huge obstacle. But love isn’t based on objective assessments of merit. It has an unpredictable or irrational dimension, what today people call the “chemistry” the two parties experience. And love, because it’s relational, is necessarily particular. There’s room in Judaism for the idea that God loves all humanity, but his love for the people Israel cannot be identified with his love for everybody.

Actually, in speaking about this subject around the country, I’ve found that many people are unaware that the idea of a personal relationship with a loving God is part of Judaism at all. Partly, this is because of the legacy of the Christian caricature of the Old Testament as a book of harsh legalisms enforced by an angry, judgmental God (though there have long been many, many Christians who don’t subscribe to that notion). Partly, it’s because modern Judaism has tended to stress the mitzvot as manifested in ethics and social action over than the traditional theological claim that the mitzvot make a connection with the personal, loving God.

Finally, I think many readers will be surprised by the stress in medieval sources on solitary devotion and contemplation and on abstinence as key elements in Jewish spirituality. Almost all versions of modern Judaism have long been propounding a view of Judaism as communal, active, and world-affirming, but that is a gross over-simplification of the older tradition. As for abstinence or asceticism, one must always ask what the positive gain is that the renunciation or self-control at issue delivers. In the case of Baḥya ibn Paquda, one of the medieval thinkers examined in chapter 4, the asceticism serves the interest of increasing one’s love of God, which for Baḥya is the “consummation of the spiritual life,” as I entitle that chapter.

There may be other surprises, but to find out what they are, people will just have to read the book!

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His many books include The Love of God, as well as Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which won the National Jewish Book Award, and Inheriting Abraham and Creation and the Persistence of Evil (both Princeton).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

Harvard Divinity School interviews Lihi Ben Shitrit about RIGHTEOUS TRANSGRESSIONS

Female activism and conservative religious movements would not seem to go hand in hand. But the bounds of gender expectations are regularly crossed in such communities for the political good. Harvard Divinity School recently interviewed Lihi Ben Shitrit about her new book, Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right. Listen below for a fascinating discussion of how women in Jewish West Bank settlements, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, and the Palestinian Hamas, expand spaces for political activism in ways that go beyond their movements’ strict ideas about male and female roles.

An interview with Robert Holub on “Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem”

Nietzsche’s views about Jews and Judaism have been subject to considerable debate over the last century, though an increasingly popular view today holds that he was a principled adversary of antisemitism. In Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem, Robert Holub argues that evidence from Nietzsche’s published and unpublished writings and letters reveals that he in fact harbored anti-Jewish prejudices throughout his life. Recently, Professor Holub took the time to discuss his findings:

How did you become interested in the topic of Nietzsche’s relationship to Jews and Judaism?

Holub jacketRH: Philosophical accounts of Nietzsche have traditionally ignored his connections to discourses and movements in the late nineteenth century. In the early 1990s I embarked on a project that considered Nietzsche a “timely meditator,” someone who was participating in discussions of issues of his era. The book I hoped to produce would focus on his views on various social and scientific matters, among them the working class and socialism, women and feminism, German nationalism, colonialism, evolution, eugenics, and thermodynamics. One of the issues that interested me most was his relationship to Jews, Judaism, and anti-Semitism. The discourse about Jews and the place of Jews in German society underwent a dramatic change in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, and I wrote an article in 1995 placing Nietzsche’s views on the “Jewish Question” within this context. But when I went into academic administration – first as a dean, then as a provost and finally a chancellor – I put the entire book project on the back burner. Returning to these issues in 2012 when I came to the faculty of Ohio State, I found that my essay from 1995 was an inadequate account of Nietzsche’s views on Jews and Judaism, and that to deal with these matters in an appropriate fashion would require a book-length monograph. So I took a break from my larger project to present a fuller account of Nietzsche’s relationship to the Jewish Question. The result was Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem.

Why has this topic been so contentious over the years?

RH: There was controversy over Nietzsche’s views on Jewry from the very beginning. Some anti-Semites of his time believed he was sympathetic to their cause because his publisher was a noted anti-Semite and his sister had married a leader of the anti-Semitic movement. Moreover, Nietzsche was associated with Wagnerian ideology, which had obvious anti-Jewish dimensions, and remarks in many of Nietzsche’s writings could easily be understood as Judeophobic. But Nietzsche also rejected in the most categorical fashion what he understood as anti-Semitism, and many aphorisms, especially during his middle period, could easily be regarded as philo-Semitic. If not for the Holocaust, however, which forced a reevaluation of all German intellectual history, the topic might have remained a footnote to Nietzsche’s philosophy. Postwar treatments of his writings have generally taken his remarks on anti-Semitism to be Nietzsche’s definitive view on Jews and Judaism, and blamed any association of Nietzsche with Judeophobia on his sister or on the distortions of Nazi interpretations. The controversy over this topic is thus the result of the peculiarities of German history combined with Nietzsche’s apparently contradictory positions on the Jewish Question.

Why have previous treatments of this issue been unsatisfactory? Why did you feel that there was a need for your book?

RH: Most previous accounts were partisan and selective in their methodology. Reading them, one has the impression that they came to the material with something they wanted to prove and then sought evidence in Nietzsche’s writings. When Nietzsche became associated with National Socialism in the Third Reich, for example, you can detect a canonical interpretation of his views on Jews supported by the identical citations from his writings. In the postwar period, his condemnation of anti-Semitism was thrust into the foreground, and other, more questionable, comments on Jewry were ignored. Previous accounts were therefore partial in both senses of this word, and I felt that a new study was needed that would examine all the material, and, above all, that would situate Nietzsche’s remarks in the context of the nineteenth-century discourse on Jews and Judaism.

What role did the Nietzsche-Wagner relationship play in Nietzsche’s views on Jewry?

RH: Wagner was a decisive influence on Nietzsche in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and Nietzsche’s admiration for the composer extended into ideological realms. It appears that Nietzsche wanted to adopt and reinforce various views Wagner held on political and social issues, and we find Nietzsche in one of his early talks on Socrates and tragedy identifying Socratism with the Jewish press. Wagner, we should recall, had republished his Judeophobic essay “Judaism in Music” in 1869 at a time when Nietzsche and Wagner were very close. So it is perhaps not surprising that Nietzsche chose to emulate Wagner’s views on the pernicious affect of Jews on German culture. Nietzsche had begun to develop anti-Jewish attitudes prior to his acquaintance with Wagner, but these sentiments intensified and were reinforced as their friendship grew. And it is likely that Nietzsche’s break with Wagner, which was generally not recognized in the larger German public until the late 1880s, accounts for some of Nietzsche’s altered public, and largely favorable, pronouncements about Jews in the years from 1878-1885. Wagner is a key to understanding Nietzsche, whether the philosopher was adopting the Meister’s views of purposively opposing them.

You maintain that Nietzsche was against anti-Semitism, but at the same time you claim that he harbored anti-Jewish sentiments. How is this possible?

RH: I think the status of anti-Semitism in Nietzsche’s thought and writings has been a major source of confusion. Anti-Semitism for Nietzsche was a political movement that arose in the early 1880s. It was associated in his mind with crude and rancorous sentiments. It was also a movement that placed Nietzsche in an uncomfortable position with regard to his publisher and his sister. So Nietzsche was over-determined to disdain anti-Semitism. This categorical rejection of anti-Semitism, however, did not stop him from harboring views we would consider anti-Jewish, since Nietzsche, as well as contemporaries, like his friend Franz Overbeck, continued to identify Jews with unfavorable character traits, and saw the necessity of finding a solution to the Jewish Question. Nietzsche’s rejection of anti-Semitism and his anti-Jewish sentiments were not in contradiction for him. Indeed, they define his attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

Should Nietzsche be regarded as a forerunner of National Socialism and its racist ideology?

RH: There are strong arguments against considering Nietzsche as a precursor of National Socialism. Perhaps the two ideological pillars of Nazism were ardent nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism, and Nietzsche evidences neither of them. He was nationalistic and Judeophobic during his Wagnerian period, but he never embraced these tenets passionately and without reservation. On the other hand, Nietzsche did admire strong and dictatorial leaders, such as Napoleon; he detested democracy, parliamentary rule, and equal rights. And he flirted with eugenics in his later years, although it was never a racially based eugenics. So arguments can be made for and against this proposition. Of course Nietzsche was established as a precursor of National Socialism by Nazi philosophers and ideologues, but we should remember that some party members found it difficult to integrate him into their outlook. We should also recall that Nietzsche in his own time was vehemently opposed to any collective undertaking, whether it was on the right or the left of the political spectrum. It is difficult to know how he would have reacted to the rise of fascism in Germany several decades after his death. One of the main points of my book is that speculation of this sort is useless, and that the lens of National Socialism has contributed to a less than optimal scholarly record of Nietzsche’s views on Jews and Judaism. We can only determine with some degree of certainty where Nietzsche stood with regard to political manifestations he actually confronted in the nineteenth century.

How does your book change our views of Nietzsche as a philosopher?

RH: This question is difficult to answer. Many of Nietzsche’s most important contributions to philosophy have scant connection to his views on Jews and Judaism. So there is the temptation to regard these issues as secondary in considering Nietzsche’s philosophy and unimportant for any evaluation of his thought. Indeed, many of the most prominent philosophers in the German tradition expressed views on Jewry that were as bad as, or worse, than anything Nietzsche had to say about the subject. But we should also consider that philosophers possess a way of thinking about the world, and that part of Nietzsche’s way of thinking about the world contained stereotypes about race, gender, and ethnicity that he was unable to overcome. It would be foolish to regard everything Nietzsche wrote as contaminated by racism; but it would also be foolish to consider that his reflections on matters both historical and abstract were completely unaffected by the manner in which he approached the Jewish Question.

Robert C. Holub is Ohio Eminent Scholar and Professor of German at Ohio State University and former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The author of several books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century German literary, cultural, and intellectual history, he is also the editor of editions of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil.

Read chapter one here.

New Jewish Studies Catalog!

Be among the first to browse and download our new Jewish studies catalog!

Of particular interest is Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides: Life and Thought. Maimonides was the greatest Jewish philosopher and legal scholar of the medieval period, a towering figure who has had a profound and lasting influence on Jewish law, philosophy, and religious consciousness. This book provides a comprehensive and accessible introduction to his life and work, revealing how his philosophical sensibility and outlook informed his interpretation of Jewish tradition.

Also be sure to note Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe. The shtetl was home to two-thirds of East Europe’s Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet it has long been one of the most neglected and misunderstood chapters of the Jewish experience. This book provides the first grassroots social, economic, and cultural history of the shtetl. Challenging popular misconceptions of the shtetl as an isolated, ramshackle Jewish village stricken by poverty and pogroms, Petrovsky-Shtern argues that, in its heyday from the 1790s to the 1840s, the shtetl was a thriving Jewish community as vibrant as any in Europe.

And don’t miss out on new and forthcoming books in the series Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World and others. Jonathan Marc Gribetz fundamentally recasts our understanding of the modern Jewish-Arab encounter and of the Middle East conflict today in Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter and Sidney H. Griffith offers a new frame of reference for the pivotal place of Arabic Bible translations in the religious and cultural interactions between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the ‘People of the Book’ in the Language of Islam.

More of our leading titles in Jewish studies can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/. (Your e-mail address will remain confidential!)

Book launch video for Maimonides: Life and Thought

Moshe Halbertal, Gruss Professor of Law at NYU School of Law, and Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School, discuss Halbertal’s new book, Maimonides: Life and Thought.

Happy Hanukkah!

Since Hanukkah is officially underway as of Wednesday night, we at the Press would like to say Happy Hanukkah by showing off some of our most interesting books about Jewish culture and history. So take a break from your Black Friday shopping and check out some of these Jewish gems!

Happy Hanukkah!

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Maimonides: Life and Thought

By: Moshe Halbertal

Maimonides was the greatest Jewish philosopher and legal scholar of the medieval period, a towering figure who has had a profound and lasting influence on Jewish law, philosophy, and religious consciousness. This book provides a comprehensive and accessible introduction to his life and work, revealing how his philosophical sensibility and outlook informed his interpretation of Jewish tradition. A stunning achievement, Maimonides offers an unparalleled look at the life and thought of this important Jewish philosopher, scholar, and theologian.

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No Joke: Making Jewish Humor

By: Ruth R. Wisse

Humor is the most celebrated of all Jewish responses to modernity. In this book, Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of spontaneous Jewish joking–as well as the brilliance of comic masterworks by writers like Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Philip Roth. At the same time, Wisse draws attention to the precarious conditions that have called Jewish humor into being–and the price it may exact from its practitioners and audience.

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How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought

By: Leora Batnitzky

Is Judaism a religion, a culture, a nationality–or a mixture of all of these? In How Judaism Became a Religion, Leora Batnitzky boldly argues that this question more than any other has driven modern Jewish thought since the eighteenth century. This wide-ranging and lucid book tells the story of how Judaism came to be defined as a religion in the modern period–and why Jewish thinkers have fought as well as championed this idea. More than an introduction, How Judaism Became a Religion presents a compelling new perspective on the history of modern Jewish thought.

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History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage

By: Beth S. Wenger

Most American Jews today will probably tell you that Judaism is inherently democratic and that Jewish and American cultures share the same core beliefs and values. But in fact, Jewish tradition and American culture did not converge seamlessly. Rather, it was American Jews themselves who consciously created this idea of an American Jewish heritage and cemented it in the popular imagination during the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. This is the first book to examine how Jews in the United States collectively wove themselves into the narratives of the nation, and came to view the American Jewish experience as a unique chapter in Jewish history.

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A Short History of the Jews

By: Michael Brenner
Translated by: Jeremiah Riemer

This is a sweeping and powerful narrative history of the Jewish people from biblical times to today. Based on the latest scholarship and richly illustrated, it is the most authoritative and accessible chronicle of the Jewish experience available. Describing the events and people that have shaped Jewish history, and highlighting the important contributions Jews have made to the arts, politics, religion, and science, A Short History of the Jews is a compelling blend of storytelling and scholarship that brings the Jewish past marvelously to life.