Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro on The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging

mcclearyWhich countries grow faster economically—those with strong beliefs in heaven and hell or those with weak beliefs in them? Does religious participation matter? Why do some countries experience secularization while others are religiously vibrant? In The Wealth of Religions, Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro draw on their long record of pioneering research to examine these and many other aspects of the economics of religion. Places with firm beliefs in heaven and hell measured relative to the time spent in religious activities tend to be more productive and experience faster growth. Going further, there are two directions of causation: religiosity influences economic performance and economic development affects religiosity. Dimensions of economic development—such as urbanization, education, health, and fertility—matter too, interacting differently with religiosity. State regulation and subsidization of religion also play a role. Timely and incisive, The Wealth of Religions provides fresh insights into the vital interplay between religion, markets, and economic development.

How did you come to write the book?

Robert is an economist and Rachel is a moral philosopher. In thinking about religion, we took as our starting point the work of Adam Smith, the founder of economics, who believed that moral values and organized religion were key forces in political economy and society. Nevertheless, social scientists—particularly economists and political scientists—have tended to underestimate the importance of religion, particularly the role of beliefs and values. We think that Adam Smith was right. Beliefs and religiosity are central determinants of which societies prosper and which deteriorate.

What does your book bring to the conversation on the economics of religion that hasn’t been discussed before?

Another contribution to the study of religion is bringing together the ideas of Adam Smith with those of the German sociologist Max Weber. Religious beliefs and values motivate people to behave in certain ways. This view, as we discuss in our book, is integral to forms of Protestantism with its emphasis on unmediated, individual responsibility for one’s salvation. We bring a quantitative approach to the relationship between beliefs, values, and economic behavior. In so doing, we examine the role of religious beliefs across world religions and countries. Our research has an international perspective with a focus on believing and belonging in the major religions of the world.

We focus on the role of religious beliefs and belonging to organized religions in the economic, political, and social development of nations and individuals. We are filling an important gap in the literature on religion by providing an international perspective. Much of the work in the sociology of religion is focused on local or regional patterns of religiosity. The sociology of religion has a strong focus on the United States, centering research around assumptions about religious patterns and organizations in the United States. In our research, we apply economic analysis to world religions and across countries.

How does religion fit into the story of developing nations? Does religious fervor help or hinder efforts to increase economic development?

To better understand the relationship between religion and economic growth, we need to look at a two-way causation. Religiosity has a two-way interaction with political economy. With religion viewed as the dependent variable, a central question is how economic development and political institutions affect religious participation and beliefs. There is a clear overall pattern whereby economic development associates with decreasing religiosity. However, there is no evidence that greater education diminishes religious beliefs.

Looking at the other direction of causation with religion as the independent variable, we study the effects of religion on economic, social, and political behavior. A key issue is how religiousness affects individual traits such as diligence, honesty, thrift, and integrity, thereby influencing productivity and economic performance. Another channel involves religion’s effects on literacy and education (human capital) more broadly. For example, there is evidence that Protestantism is more favorable than Catholicism as an influence on education and work ethic.

We find that social capital and cultural aspects of religion—communal services, rituals, religious schools—are significant mainly to the extent that they influence beliefs and, hence, behavior. For given beliefs, more time spent on communal activities would tend to be an economic drag for the believer as well as the entire community. Moreover, the costs of formal religion include the time spent by adherents and religious officials on religious activities. In addition, time and money are expended on buildings, sacred objects, and so on. Our general view, based on empirical evidence, is that believing relative to belonging (attending) is the main channel through which religion matters for economic and other social outcomes.

Can religion help to explain why some nations develop faster than others?

We found evidence that economic growth was stimulated when religious beliefs were high compared to religious participation. This pattern applied, for example, to Japan and parts of Western Europe. An overall expansion of religiousness—greater beliefs accompanied by the typically associated attendance at formal religious services—was not strongly related to growth. Religiously sponsored laws and regulations hindered economic growth in some places, notably in Muslim countries, which typically did not have favorable institutions with respect to corporations, credit markets and insurance, and inheritance.

How did the conflict between Protestantism and the Catholic Church affect economic development in early modern Europe? Do we still see the impact of that today?

As Max Weber argued, the rise of Protestantism beginning with the Reformation in the 1500s enhanced work ethic and the accumulation of human capital and, thereby, contributed to the industrial revolution. We found evidence that this mechanism still operated in Western Europe in the modern era.

Competition increases the quality of services provided by different religions. The introduction of Protestantism into Western Europe challenged the monopolistic status of the Roman Catholic Church, pressuring that organization to respond in two ways. First, by lowering the nature and pricing of religious goods, the Catholic Church sought to retain believers. Second, the Catholic Church promoted those aspects of its theology that distinguished it from other religions.

We discuss in our book how the beatification of saints is a unique mechanism of the Catholic Church. With the rise of Evangelical faiths, religious competition became particularly strong in Latin America, vernacularly referred to as “The Catholic continent,” where Catholicism had enjoyed a monopoly since the region was colonized by Spain in the 1400s. Today, in regions of the world where competition with types of Protestantism is increasing, the beatification of local saints revives religious fervor and deters adherents from converting to types of Protestantism.

Is religious fervor impacted by fluctuations in the economy? If so, how?

There is evidence that adverse economic shocks and natural disasters tend to increase the demand for religion. This pattern has been observed, for example, for earthquakes in Italy, flood-related declines in agricultural harvests in Egypt, declines in incomes during the Asian Financial crisis, and adverse effects from a poorly designed land reform in Indonesia. In the other direction, increased economic development—particularly movements away from agriculture and toward urbanization—tend to lower the demand for religion. However, it is wrong to conclude that sustained economic growth causes religion to disappear.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

We hope our readers will appreciate the possibilities of interdisciplinary research on a variety of religion topics. The application of economic ideas to religion broadens our understanding of ways in which beliefs and practices influence individual and group behavior.

We find that social capital and cultural aspects of religion—communal services, rituals, religious schools—are significant mainly to the extent that they influence beliefs and, hence, behavior. For given beliefs, more time spent on communal activities tend to be an economic drag for the believer as well as the entire community. The costs of formal religion include the time spent by adherents and religious officials on religious activities and the time and money expended on buildings, sacred objects, and so on. Our general view, based on empirical evidence, is that believing relative to belonging (attending) is the main channel through which religion matters for economic and other social outcomes.

Rachel M. McCleary is lecturer in the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Her books include The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of ReligionRobert J. Barro is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard. His books include Education Matters: Global Schooling Gains from the 19th to the 21st Century and Economic Growth. They both live in Massachusetts.

James J. O’Donnell on The War for Gaul

Imagine a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army—a vivid and dramatic propaganda piece that forces the reader to identify with the conquerors and that is designed, like the war itself, to fuel the limitless political ambitions of the author. Could such a campaign autobiography ever be a great work of literature—perhaps even one of the greatest? It would be easy to think not, but such a book exists—and it helped transform Julius Caesar from a politician on the make into the Caesar of legend. This remarkable new translation of Caesar’s famous but underappreciated War for Gaul captures, like never before in English, the gripping and powerfully concise style of the future emperor’s dispatches from the front lines in what are today France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.

Why did you want to translate Caesar? 

Caesar’s War on Gaul is the very best book ever written by a truly bad man who sets out to tell us with absolutely no remorse just how bad he’s been.  So first we get the cognitive dissonance of this utterly self-assured voice telling us horrible things.  (Best estimate is that about a million people died in that war, a war that didn’t need to happen.)  But it’s also just a great book— a gripping yarn with thrills, chills, and adventure, written in a taut, vivid style.  Hemingway only wished he could write this way.  So I wanted to see how I could capture both the atrocity and the elegance at the same time.  

Is there anything else like Caesar in our “canons” of literature?  

I can’t think of anything—perhaps the steamy epistolary fiction of Dangerous Liaisons, that needed Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer to cast the film.  No room for women in Caesar’s cast, but there’s got to be a part for John Malkovich in here somewhere—and maybe Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel and John Goodman.  When Hollywood calls, I’m ready to pitch a great movie!

Your translation comes with year-by-year introductions for each part of the story.  How do those work?

If you just read Caesar’s words, you get a story of soldiers marching around clobbering people.  Really good soldiers, clobbering a lot of people with plenty of panache, no question.  But what was really going on?  Caesar spent those nine years up in Gaul because he was a politician on the make.  He needed to be a great conqueror, he needed people to know he was a great conqueror—so he wrote the book.  But he also needed money, lots and lots of money, so plundering and enslaving masses of people were big on his mind—but he plays that side of things down.  And he also needed to stay in touch with politics back in Rome and needed the reports of what he was doing to land in Rome just when he needed them to spin his narrative and to keep his name and fame alive.  My introductions and notes tell you all the things Caesar didn’t tell you but that everybody around him and everybody back at Rome knew.  What was he really up to?  I spill the beans.

So what’s in it for you?  Most people don’t think of translating Latin as a job they’d want!

Different strokes for different folks.  From some time in college, I’ve just known that reading Latin makes my head feel good in ways I can’t describe.  If you see me in the window seat of a plane muttering to myself, I’m probably subvocalizing whatever Latin book I have with me, just because it feels so good to do that.  And Caesar has been one of the half dozen or so Latin books that have always done that for me the best.

Ah, so what other Latin writers do you find yourself returning to over and over again?

It’s a very mixed bag.  Nobody in the ancient world hated Caesar so much as the poet Lucan a hundred years later, who wrote an astonishingly gory epic about Caesar’s civil war, then committed suicide when he got caught in a plot against Nero.  It’s a real leap from there to Augustine’s Confessions or Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, but in ways I can’t really explain those books always work for me as well, over and over again for decades.  They work the way the last page of Joyce’s “The Dead” can work—still brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.  Some books are just magical for some readers and we should cherish that.  If I can make Caesar a little big magical for readers of this book, I’m happy.

So, which book would you most like to have written yourself?  Caesar’s?

No!  I’m actually a nice guy.  And I wouldn’t last a week in Caesar’s army.  A book I go back to over and over is called Beyond a Boundary by the Trinidad-born cricket journalist, professional rabble-rouser, and historian C.L.R. James, who died at great age in 1989.  He was an Afro-Trinidadian brought up to be a citizen of the British empire, acutely aware of both his British-ness by virtue of his culture and education and of his exclusion from British-ness by virtue of his race and colonial subjection.  So he wrote a book about the ultimate imperialist game, cricket — and it was a combination of memoir, social history, love song (for his love of cricket in spite of everything), and literary triumph.  Think of a skinny little black kid growing up in Trinidad before the first world war, dividing his time passionately between the English game and the Englishman’s literature.  Vanity Fair was the book he read over and over and over again, the way I remember reading Life on the Mississippi in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  Anyway, it’s a book that brings together things intensely personal for him, but in a way that opens up the whole set of cultures he grew up and lived in and leaves the reader thinking about the paradoxes of inclusion and exclusion, of loyalty and exclusion.  He’s somebody able to love the past and cherish an inheritance and at the same time give himself fiercely to the struggle to transcend that past for a more just and inclusive way of seeing and living.  That one makes my head feel pretty good too.

James J. O’Donnell is professor of history, philosophy, and religious studies and University Librarian at Arizona State University. His books include PagansThe Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Augustine: A New Biogr

Christian Sahner: Islam spread through the Christian world via the bedroom

There are few transformations in world history more profound than the conversion of the peoples of the Middle East to Islam. Starting in the early Middle Ages, the process stretched across centuries and was influenced by factors as varied as conquest, diplomacy, conviction, self-interest and coercion. There is one factor, however, that is largely forgotten but which played a fundamental role in the emergence of a distinctively Islamic society: mixed unions between Muslims and non-Muslims.  

For much of the early Islamic period, the mingling of Muslims and non-Muslims was largely predicated on a basic imbalance of power: Muslims formed an elite ruling minority, which tended to exploit the resources of the conquered peoples – reproductive and otherwise – to grow in size and put down roots within local populations. Seen in this light, forced conversion was far less a factor in long-term religious change than practices such as intermarriage and concubinage. 

The rules governing religiously mixed families crystallised fairly early, at least on the Muslim side. The Quran allows Muslim men to marry up to four women, including ‘People of the Book’, that is, Jews and Christians. Muslim women, however, were not permitted to marry non-Muslim men and, judging from the historical evidence, this prohibition seems to have stuck. Underlying the injunction was the understanding that marriage was a form of female enslavement: if a woman was bound to her husband as a slave is to her master, she could not be subordinate to an infidel.

Outside of marriage, the conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries saw massive numbers of slaves captured across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Female slaves of non-Muslim origin, at least, were often pressed into the sexual service of their Muslim masters, and many of these relationships produced children.

Since Muslim men were free to keep as many slaves as they wished, sex with Jewish and Christian women was considered licit, while sex with Zoroastrians and others outside the ‘People of the Book’ was technically forbidden. After all, they were regarded as pagans, lacking a valid divine scripture that was equivalent to the Torah or the Gospel. But since so many slaves in the early period came from these ‘forbidden’ communities, Muslim jurists developed convenient workarounds. Some writers of the ninth century, for example, argued that Zoroastrian women could be induced or even forced to convert, and thus become available for sex.

Whether issued via marriage or slavery, the children of religiously mixed unions were automatically considered Muslims. Sometimes Jewish or Christian men converted after already having started families: if their conversions occurred before their children attained the age of legal majority – seven or 10, depending on the school of Islamic law – they had to follow their fathers’ faith. If the conversions occurred after, the children were free to choose. Even as fathers and children changed religion, mothers could continue as Jews and Christians, as was their right under Sharia law.

Mixed marriage and concubinage allowed Muslims – who constituted a tiny percentage of the population at the start of Islamic history – to quickly integrate with their subjects, legitimising their rule over newly conquered territories, and helping them grow in number. It also ensured that non-Muslim religions would quickly disappear from family trees. Indeed, given the rules governing the religious identity of children, mixed kinship groups probably lasted no longer than a generation or two. It was precisely this prospect of disappearing that prompted non-Muslim leaders – Jewish rabbis, Christian bishops and Zoroastrian priests – to inveigh against mixed marriage and codify laws aimed at discouraging it. Because Muslims were members of the elite, who enjoyed greater access to economic resources than non-Muslims, their fertility rates were probably higher.

Of course, theory and reality did not always line up, and religiously mixed families sometimes flouted the rules set by jurists. One of the richest bodies of evidence for such families are the biographies of Christian martyrs from the early Islamic period, a little-known group who constitute the subject of my book, Christian Martyrs under Islam (2018). Many of these martyrs were executed for crimes such as apostasy and blasphemy, and not a small number of them came from religiously mixed unions.

A good example is Bacchus, a martyr killed in Palestine in 786 – about 150 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Bacchus, whose biography was recorded in Greek, was born into a Christian family, but his father at some point converted to Islam, thereby changing his children’s status, too. This greatly distressed Bacchus’s mother, who prayed for her husband’s return, and in the meantime, seems to have exposed her Muslim children to Christian practices. Eventually, the father died, freeing Bacchus to become a Christian. He was then baptised and tonsured as a monk, enraging certain Muslim relatives who had him arrested and killed.

Similar examples come from Córdoba, the capital of Islamic Spain, where a group of 48 Christians were martyred between 850 and 859, and commemorated in a corpus of Latin texts. Several of the Córdoba martyrs were born into religiously mixed families, but with an interesting twist: a number of them lived publicly as Muslims but practised Christianity in secret. In most instances, this seems to have been done without the knowledge of their Muslim fathers, but in one unique case of two sisters, it allegedly occurred with the father’s consent. The idea that one would have a public legal identity as a Muslim but a private spiritual identity as a Christian produced a unique subculture of ‘crypto-Christianity’ in Córdoba. This seems to have spanned generations, fuelled by the tendency of some ‘crypto-Christians’ to seek out and marry others like them.

In the modern Middle East, intermarriage has become uncommon. One reason for this is the long-term success of Islamisation, such that there are simply fewer Jews and Christians around to marry. Another reason is that those Jewish and Christian communities that do exist today have survived partly by living in homogeneous environments without Muslims, or by establishing communal norms that strongly penalise marrying out. In contrast to today’s world, where the frontiers between communities can be sealed, the medieval Middle East was a world of surprisingly porous borders, especially when it came to the bedroom.

Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World by Christian C Sahner is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Margaret C. Jacob on The Secular Enlightenment

JacobThe Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In this landmark book, familiar Enlightenment figures share places with voices that have remained largely unheard until now, from freethinkers and freemasons to French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers.A majestic work of intellectual and cultural history, this book demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

What accounts for the fact that ordinary people began to see the world on its own terms, rather than through the prism of religion, during the 18th century? 

So many factors were present but I would highlight a few: the realization that there existed whole continents where the Christian God was unknown; the growing realization that Europeans had persecuted and enslaved non-Europeans often in the service of religion. The behavior of the clergy at home was one of the main themes in the new pornography; and of course religious divisions between Catholics and Protestants played into skepticism about all the claims of religion. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ensuing persecution of French Protestants put the issue of religion, and how its representatives treated others, on the European wide agenda. This was compounded by the thousands of Protestant refugees to be found by 1700 in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, etc. They were articulate and took to the printing presses to alert the world of the injustices perpetrated by the French king and clergy.

What does your book bring to the conversation of secularization during the Enlightenment that hasn’t appeared before?

The book draws upon new sources, many of them found only in manuscript form. Such sources often reveal private thoughts and struggles about the veracity of religion or expressions of doubt and clerical hostility. It also crosses national boundaries, and focuses on the main urban centers in Germany, Italy and of course France, the Dutch Republic and Britain.

How common was it for ordinary people to read the works of Enlightenment thinkers during the 18thcentury?

It depends upon what we mean by ordinary. Anyone fully literate had access to the ideas found in the new journals or the writings of the philosophes. Note also that in France, for example, local clergy were advised in detail what heretical books contained so as better to refute them. From the pulpits of London (and the Boyle Lectures) to the French provinces any listener could hear about the details of the latest heresy.

Why have the voices of people you shed light on in the book been largely silent up to now?

So much attention has been given to the major thinkers from Locke and Newton to Adam Smith and Rousseau that lesser folk, often their followers, do not receive attention. Also digging in archives means a lot of travel to places often off the beaten track. How many books access archives in Leiden or Strasbourg or Birmingham? However, I do not neglect the major thinkers.

How did the religious establishment of the 18th century react to this shift?

Not as many people were burned at the stake or tortured as in previous centuries but there are big exceptions: the wife of a Dutch pastor and school teacher, a heretic, who went mad while locked away in prison; the book seller from Strasbourg who went to Paris in search of bad or forbidden books and spent over two years in the Bastille; the Italian heretic forced to flee to London where, impoverished, he continued to publish.

Do we see any attempts at justification on the part of groups or individuals for their decreasing attention to religious matters?

The literature of heresy consistently mocked the pretensions of the clergy and courts; their perceived hypocrisy was one good reason to avoid religion altogether. Others, like the busy industrialists in northern England, could plea the pressure of work or family obligations, so too could travelers and itinerants.

Was there anything that surprised you when you were researching for this book?

Yes, how many people had been left out of Enlightenment history; how incredibly thorough the French police were at spying and reporting on heretical behavior—or what they thought was heretical. Similarly, how coteries could remain relatively underground and then circulate some of the most virulent heresies of the age, for example, the group that brought out the Treatise on the Three Impostors. It argued that Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed had been the three. All involved managed to die in their beds.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

Antidotes to the claims made by biased contemporary clergy; the role of deism and freethinking for American philosophes like Jefferson and Franklin; and finally, how widespread enlightened ideas were by 1750.

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her many books include The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans and The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850. She lives in Los Angeles.

Ethan Shagan on The Birth of Modern Belief

ShaganThis landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be. Brilliantly illuminating, The Birth of Modern Belief demonstrates how belief came to occupy such an ambivalent place in the modern world, becoming the essential category by which we express our judgments about science, society, and the sacred, but at the expense of the unique status religion once enjoyed.

What led you to write this book?

Good works of history often begin with a chance discovery that sticks like a splinter in the historian’s mind: something weird or surprising in the historical record that demands an explanation. In this case, that oddity was something I found in Martin Luther’s collected writings: his claim that most people do not believe that God exists. This struck me as utterly outlandish. Besides the fact that more or less everyone in sixteenth-century Europe believed in God, Luther also wrote elsewhere that atheism was virtually impossible because knowledge of God is imprinted on all human souls. So what on earth was going on? Upon further research, I found other versions of this same bizarre claim popping up elsewhere in the sixteenth century. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that anyone who follows their own passions in defiance of heavenly judgment “denies that there is a God”—the translator of the modern English edition changed this passage to “virtually denies that there is a God,” presumably because he thought the original must have been some sort of mistake. The radical spiritualist Sebastian Franck claimed, far more drastically, that “there is not a single believer on earth!” These remarkable and unexpected ideas were not written in obscure places, nor were they written by unknown people. So why had no historian ever written about them before?

These discoveries set me on a journey that has lasted seven years. I started with the intuition that “belief” itself had changed its meaning over time. Thus, for instance, Luther could say that everyone knows God exists, but he could still argue that most people do not believe God exists, because he took “belief” to be a more difficult condition. But from there I had to figure out what preexisting, medieval understandings of belief Luther was rejecting. Then I had to figure out how the different factions in the Reformation interpreted belief. And then, most importantly, I set myself the task of figuring out how a modern understanding of “belief” emerged. Hence this became a book about the birth of modern belief: a whole new way of imagining the relationship between religion and other kinds of knowledge, which we take to be absolutely timeless and natural but was in fact an invention of the seventeenth century and a touchstone of the Enlightenment. 

Can you explain a bit about the book’s argument? What do you mean by a modern category of belief?

Belief has a history; the concept changes over time. We take it for granted that “belief” means private judgment or opinion. From that assumption, which we assume is timeless but is in fact profoundly modern, lots of other conclusions follow which seem equally unquestionable. For example, if belief is private judgment, then our beliefs might change over time in light of new evidence or further reflection. Likewise, if belief is opinion, then our belief on any particular issue might be probable rather than absolute: we might reasonably say we believe something if we think it’s likely, even if we’re uncertain. Most importantly, if belief is private judgment, then I might believe a religious doctrine in more or less the same sense that I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that our sun is part of the Milky Way galaxy.

None of this would have been taken for granted in the Western tradition before the seventeenth century, and indeed a great deal of intellectual energy was poured into denying that any of it was true. Of course, people sometimes used the verb “believe” (credo in Latin, glauben in German, etc.) in a colloquial way—“I believe this peach is ripe,” or “I believe my husband loves me”—but a vast range of theology and philosophy was devoted to the proposition that this was totally different from belief in its proper, religious sense. To believe required an absolute, certain conviction, guaranteed to be true by reliable authority. Anything lesser or different could easily be denounced as unbelief, a failure of the mind and soul; anyone who believed wrongly, or insufficiently, or for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way, might be taken not to believe at all. So my book is a history of how belief was freed from these constraints, creating the conditions in which religion could flourish in a secular age, but only at the cost of relinquishing the special status religion had previously enjoyed.

It seems intuitive that modern belief formed as a reaction against the Church, but how was it also a reaction against Luther and Calvinism?

Lots of people think that the Reformation produced religious liberty, because in the Reformation individuals—like Luther purportedly saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other”—insisted upon their own conscientious right to believe differently from the Roman Catholic Church. But this is quite wrong. Luther and his allies did indeed insist that their own beliefs were genuine, and that their own consciences were inviolable. But in the very act of making this claim for themselves, they insisted that all other beliefs were not simply false, they were not even beliefs at all. When early modern Protestants claimed the right to believe as they would, they were creating a new and exclusive category of belief to which others did not have access. So the Reformation did not inaugurate modern belief. Instead it produced a new kind of authoritarianism: whereas Catholics disciplined people to believe, Protestants accepted that belief was rare, and instead disciplined unbelievers. The reaction against these twin pillars of orthodoxy thus came from dissidents within both traditions. Modern belief emerged in fits and starts, not as a revolution against Christianity, but as a revolution from within Christianity by mutineers whose strained relationship to orthodoxy necessitated a more porous understand of belief.

How does the modern idea of belief travel through later intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment? Did it undergo changes there as well?

This is really a book about the Enlightenment, as much or more than it’s a book about the Reformation, because it was in the Enlightenment that modern belief truly emerged as a powerful force in the world. But the Enlightenment you’ll find in these pages may not be the one you expect.

First, it is an Enlightenment that is inclusive of religion rather than against religion. I do not deny, of course, that there was a “radical Enlightenment” which attempted, often quite explicitly, to undermine the claims of organized Christianity. But by far the more significant project of the Enlightenment was to reestablish religion on a new basis, to render it not only compatible with reason but a partner in the task of criticism which was at the heart of eighteenth-century ideas. The Enlightenment thus pioneered a question which we take for granted today, but which had received remarkably little attention previously: on what grounds should I believe? There were many different answers in the Enlightenment—as there remain today—but the task of Enlightenment religion was to tear down the medieval architecture of the mind which had strictly separated belief, knowledge, and opinion, and had thus made the question itself virtually meaningless. Enlightenment Christianity established what the Reformation had not: the sovereignty of the believing subject.

Second, my Enlightenment is not about the triumph of reason, but rather the triumph of opinion. Modern critics of the Enlightenment, on both the Left and the Right, often denigrate Enlightenment reason—and not without reason, if you’ll pardon the pun—as a false universal which allowed a new orthodoxy to establish itself as the natural frame of all argument rather than a peculiar argument in its own right. But this understanding of the Enlightenment, which takes Immanuel Kant as its avatar, misses huge swathes of late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century thought which instead privileged opinion, a kind of judgment that was particular rather than universal. In this book, I want to resuscitate an Enlightenment that privileged autonomous judgment rather than judgment constrained by someone else’s reason, and thus led to new kinds of spiritualism as much as it led to new kinds of scientism. At its worst, this modern spirit of autonomy produces the world of “alternative facts” and “fake news;” but at its best, it produces the conditions of freedom that allow for peace in a diverse society.

What is the relationship between the history of belief and secularization?

Every page of this book is engaged at least obliquely with the secularization question, but one of my key points is that secularization is the wrong question.

Secularization assumes that the crucial development in modernity is the creation of spaces outside or apart from religion; in modernity, this argument goes, religion has been relegated to a separate, private sphere. But by contrast, what I find is that modernity’s encounter with religion is not about segregating belief from the world, but rather about the promiscuous opening of belief to the world. Belief becomes, in modernity, not the boundary separating religious claims from other kinds of knowledge, but rather the least common denominator of all knowledge. Here my favorite example is the claim of many modern Christians that scientific knowledge—like the theory of evolution, for instance—is just another form of belief. This claim would have been literally nonsensical before the seventeenth century, because the whole point of belief was to preserve a special prestige for Christianity: science was a different beast altogether, belonging to different mental faculties and defended in different ways. The fact that scientific theories can now be understood as beliefs suggests that instead of thinking about the rise of a modern secular, we instead need to think about what happened when the walls separating religious belief from other kinds of knowledge-claims were breached.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

That belief has proliferated rather than waned in modernity, but only because the definition of belief has changed in our society to make it compatible with diversity, democracy, and freedom of thought. The old world of belief—where it was structured by authority, and where it functioned as an axis of exclusion to preserve orthodoxy—is dead and buried, and we should be thankful for its demise rather than nostalgic for the oppressive unity it once provided.

Ethan H. Shagan is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England and Popular Politics and the English Reformation. He lives in Orinda, California.

Browse our Religion 2019 Catalog

Our new Religion catalog includes a timely defense of religious diversity and its centrality to American identity; a biography of the New Testament’s most mystifying and incendiary book; and a comprehensive history of the changing, complex, and contradictory visions of Muhammad in Western history.

If you’re attending the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Denver this weekend, stop by Booth 630 to browse our full range of religion titles!

 

Eboo Patel Out of Many Faiths book cover

America is the most religiously devout country in the Western world and the most religiously diverse nation on the planet. In today’s volatile climate of religious conflict, prejudice, and distrust, how do we affirm the principle that the American promise is deeply intertwined with how each of us engages with people of different faiths and beliefs? In Out of Many Faiths, Eboo Patel, former faith adviser to Barack Obama, shows how America’s promise is the guarantee of equal rights and dignity for all, and how that promise is the foundation of America’s unrivaled strength as a nation.

 

Timothy Beal Book of Revelation book cover

Few biblical books have been as revered and reviled as Revelation. Many hail it as the pinnacle of prophetic vision, the cornerstone of the biblical canon, and, for those with eyes to see, the key to understanding the past, present, and future. Others denounce it as the work of a disturbed individual whose horrific dreams of inhumane violence should never have been allowed into the Bible. Timothy Beal provides a concise cultural history of Revelation and the apocalyptic imaginations it has fueled. The Book of Revelation traces how Revelation continues to inspire new diagrams of history, new fantasies of rapture, and new nightmares of being left behind.

 

John Tolan Faces of Muhammad book cover

In European culture, Muhammad has been vilified as a heretic, an impostor, and a pagan idol. But these aren’t the only images of the Prophet of Islam that emerge from Western history. Faces of Muhammad reveals a lengthy tradition of positive portrayals of Muhammad that many will find surprising. The book shows that Muhammad wears so many faces in the West because he has always acted as a mirror for its writers, their portrayals revealing more about their own concerns than the historical realities of the founder of Islam.

How Did the Ba’al Shem Tov Observe the Days of Awe?

David Biale Hasidism A New History book coverIsrael Ba’al Shem Tov, also called the Besht, is known as the legendary founder of the Jewish movement of Hasidism. During his lifetime, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the Besht and his followers practiced a mystical, pietistic Judaism. Hasidism: A New History, by David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński, pieces together what is known about the Besht’s life and spiritual practices in order to examine his role in the development of what became Hasidism.

Like other holy men known as ba’alei shem, or masters of the name, the Besht was a shaman who used practical applications of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, to communicate with the divine, perform healing acts on earth. He tried to use his ability to communicate with heavenly powers to avert disaster for his community—not just the Jews in his own area, but the Jewish people everywhere. On rare occasions, he visited heaven in what was called an aliyat neshamah, or “ascent of the soul.” These events tended to occur during the High Holidays, also known as the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The Besht claimed that on Rosh Hashanah in two different years he ascended to heaven. During each ascent, he learned of an impending catastrophe that would befall the Jewish community, and attempted to avert it.

    For on Rosh Hashanah 5507 [1746] I performed an adjuration for the ascent of the soul, as you know, and I saw wondrous things in a vision, for the evil side ascended to accuse with great, unparalleled joy and performed his acts—persecutions entailing forced conversion—on several souls so they would meet violent deaths. I was horrified and I literally put my life in jeopardy and asked my teacher and rabbi [Ahiah the Shilonite (I Kings 14:2)] to go with me because it is very dangerous to go and ascend to the upper worlds. For from the day I attained my position I did not ascend such lofty ascents. I went up step by step until I entered the palace of the Messiah where the Messiah studies Torah with all of the Tannaim [the rabbis of the Mishna] and the righteous and also with the seven shepherds. . . .

—cited in Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, 2nd ed. (Oxford and Portland, OR, 2013), 106-107

    And on Rosh Hashanah 5510 [1749] I performed an ascent of the soul, as is known, and I saw a great accusation until the evil side almost received permission to completely destroy regions and communities. I put my life in jeopardy and I prayed: “Let us fall into the hand of God and not fall into the hands of man.”

—ibid., 107

These mystical experiences were sometimes precipitated by his entering a self-induced trance. One of these trances, which occurred on Yom Kippur, is described in the Shivhei ha-Besht, a book of hagiographical stories about the Besht published over fifty years after his death:

    Before Ne’ilah [the final prayer of the Yom Kippur liturgy] he began to preach in harsh words and he cried. He put his head backward on the ark and he sighed and he wept. Afterward [when] he began to pray the silent eighteen benedictions, and then the voiced eighteen benedictions … the Besht began to make terrible gestures, and he bent back- ward until his head came close to his knees, and everyone feared that he would fall down. They wanted to support him but they were afraid to. They told it to Rabbi Ze’ev Kutses, God bless his memory, who came and looked at the Besht’s face and signaled that they were not to touch him. His eyes bulged and he sounded like a bull being slaughtered. He kept this up for about two hours. Suddenly he stirred and straightened up. He prayed in a great hurry and finished the prayer.

—Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz, In Praise of the Ba’al Shem Tov, The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism, (Lanham, MD, 2004), 55. Translation slightly modified.

Are you observing the Days of Awe this year? The gates of heaven are open, just as they were to the Ba’al Shem Tov two hundred and fifty years ago. You can learn more about how eighteenth-century Jewish mysticism developed into modern Hasidism in Hasidism: A New History. A sweet new year!

Jack Wertheimer on The New American Judaism

Jack Wertheimer The New American Judaism book coverAmerican Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. In The New American Judaism, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. What emerges is a quintessentially American story of rash disruption and creative reinvention, religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation. Here, Wertheimer provides insight on why and how he wrote the book, and what readers of all faiths can learn from it.

What led you to write this book?

Twenty-five years ago, I published a book offering my take on contemporary Jewish religious life. When I revisited that book in recent years, I realized an entirely different approach, not merely an update, would be needed to do justice to today’s scene. I also was curious to learn more about the proliferation of new settings for Jewish religious expression and the remaking of existing places for congregating.

You interviewed 220 people for this book. How did you decide whom to interview and what questions to ask?

I mainly interviewed rabbis situated in different corners of Jewish life, and then turned to other observers to help me understand new developments. My overall questions were straightforward: What are you seeing among the Jews in your orbit when it comes to religion? And what are you doing to draw Jews into religious life? From there, the questions led us down fascinating byways. I learned about the re-appropriation of long-discarded Jewish religious traditions, and creative efforts to engage attendees at religious services; about the self-invented forms of Jewish practice taken for granted by some Jews and also the return to traditions by others. I heard about startling religious practices one would not have seen in synagogues even twenty years ago, and also learned of Jewish religious gatherings in unlikely places.

So what is new about the new American Judaism?

I could be flip and answer: “that’s why you have to read the book.” But to begin addressing the question, I’d say the environment in which American Jews find themselves is new. In some ways, it is remarkably open to all religious possibilities—or none; in other ways, American elite culture is highly dismissive of religion in ways that was not the case but a few decades ago. This has further eroded what Peter Berger called “the plausibility structure” for religion. Jews in our time are less likely than in the past to regard their religion as a package of behaviors and, as the old saw put it, “a way of life.” Now religious settings have to contend with Jews who wish to connect only episodically and only on their own terms. This has led both to religious participation as a “sometime thing” for many Jews, and simultaneously has spurred a great deal of experimentation to create enticing religious environments in the hope of drawing more participants. Congregations of all types are reimagining the use of space, the choreography of prayer service, the impact of music and visual cues, the ways they extend hospitality and mutual support to fellow congregants, and the messages they deliver about how Jewish religious practice enriches one’s life.

Is all of this unique to Judaism?

Not at all. One cannot really understand Jewish religious developments in a vacuum. Even the seemingly most insular of Jews who deliberately live in their own enclaves cannot escape the impact of the powerful culture all around us. (One of the rabbis I interviewed put this colloquially when he said: “culture eats mission for breakfast”—i.e. it overwhelms religious ideology.)

Many internal Jewish developments described in this book are quintessentially American (though some have parallels in other countries). New ways of thinking about religious experiences can be found in American churches, mosques and synagogues. Religious leaders across the spectrum recognize that they face common challenges, such as the well-documented retreat from institutional engagement, the quest for spirituality among some, the disenchantment with religious leadership, the DIY mindset when applied to religion and the desire for a more engaging worship experience. Experimentation is a hallmark of American religious life, as it is in many Jewish religious institutions.

Can you talk about one challenge you faced in your research?

There are a great many ways Jews practice their religion. One challenge facing anyone attempting to survey the scene is how to capture American Judaism in all its complexity and variety. To be clear, the term Judaism is used in many different ways. Some see it as synonymous with all of Jewish life. Others as the expression of a distinct theology and package of do’s and don’ts. The book endeavors to examine how “average” Jews incorporate Jewish religious practices into their lives, what they believe, what in their religion is important to them, and what is available to those who seek out Jewish religious settings.

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future of American Judaism. Do you agree with them?

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future health and vitality of Jewish life in this country. Some also worry about the long-term future of this or that denomination of American Judaism. There are good reasons to worry about both. But given the explosion of creativity in the Jewish religious sphere, I don’t worry about the future of Judaism. It’s the adherents, the Jews in the pews or those who rarely show up, that require our attention. I devote attention in the book to writing about some approaches to this challenge that I regard as short-sighted, if not wrong-headed. I also suggest some guidelines that might make for a stronger Jewish religious life.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

First, that like so much in life, American Judaism is complicated, anything but static, and replete with pluses and minuses. Second, by stepping back to behold the entire scene, there are some remarkably fascinating things to observe. And related to that, perhaps readers will join me in appreciating a bit more the enormous investment of energy, creativity and good-will that so many rabbis and other religious leader are pouring into efforts to revitalize Jewish religious life. We don’t have to find every effort personally congenial to appreciate the explosion of energy at precisely a time when religion is not held in the highest esteem.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His many books include The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish LandscapeFamily Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, and A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.

Chaim Saiman on Halakhah

Chaim Saiman Halakhah book coverThough typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. In his panoramic book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law,” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

What is halakhah and why did you decide to write a book about it?

Literally, halakhah means “the way” or “the path,” though it is typically translated as Jewish law.

I grew up in a home and community where I was expected not only to obey the law, but to study and master complex legal texts in Hebrew and Aramaic.

I was about eight years old when my father proceeded to pull out two massive tomes from the shelf and inform me that I had to learn with him before I could escape to the Nintendo console located in my friend’s basement. We began to study the section of Mishnah (the earliest code of Jewish law, from around the year 200 CE) detailing the responsibilities of different bailees—those who watch over the property belonging to someone else. This book is a grown-up attempt to answer why an eight-year-old should care about bailees and the ancient laws of lost cows.

Did you really start a book on Jewish law with Jesus?

Yes. I take Jesus and the Apostle Paul as some of the earliest in a long line of halakhah’s critics. Both lived before the tradition crystallized in the form of the Mishnah. Yet even at this early stage, Jesus pokes fun at the Mishnah’s forebears for obsessing over legal rules and formalities at the expense of true spiritual growth. Jesus would have most likely considered it a bad idea to initiate young children into religious life by analyzing the laws of bailments.  But whereas Jesus saw the law as a set of regulations and restrictions, the Talmudic rabbis understood it as a domain of exploration and study, a process they called Talmud Torah.

 What is Talmud Torah?

It is hard to translate, mainly because the idea does not exist in Western or American culture. Word-for-word it means the “study of Torah,” but its impact extends beyond what is usually thought of as “study.” Talmud Torah means that Torah is not studied merely for pre-professional reasons, and not (only) to know the rules relevant to living a Jewish life, but because it is a primary religious activity, an intimate spiritual act that brings the learner into God’s embrace.

The closest analogy in general culture is the idea once practiced at elite universities when the curriculum was focused on Greek, Latin, philosophy, ancient civilization, and classical literature. Unlike today, the goal was not to make students more attractive to employers, but to educate them into ennobled citizens who would fully realize their humanity. The rabbis had a similar idea, but rather than literature or philosophy, study was grounded in the divine word of the Torah, and especially the legal regulations set forth in the Mishnah and Talmud.

What does Talmud Torah have to do with law?

Though Talmud Torah arguably applies to any area of Jewish law and thought, longstanding tradition places special emphasis on the areas that correspond to contract, tort, property and business law—the very topics covered by secular legal systems.  According to the Talmudic rabbis, the subjects taught in law schools across the country become a spiritual practice when learned in the halakhic setting. Lawyers get many adjectives thrown their way, but godly is rarely one of them. The book aims to understand what it means to hold that legal study is a path to the divine, and what are the implications of this idea for a legal system.

Is halakhah the law of any country?

Not really. One of the unusual aspects of halakhah is that it first becomes visible in the Mishnah several generations after the independent Jewish state was dismantled by the Romans. Further, the most fertile periods of halakhic development took place when Jews did not govern any territory but lived as a minority under non-Jewish rule. This is the opposite from how legal systems typically develop.

From at least the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, Jews tended to live in tight communities whose internal legal affairs were heavily influenced by rabbis and halakhah. But even here, close investigation shows that the civil laws that applied often deviated from Talmudic rules studied under the rubric of Talmud Torah. In the case of civil law there were effectively two systems of Jewish law. One used by tribunals when disputes arose in practice, and the other that lived mainly on the pages of the Talmud and realized though Torah study.  The relationship between these two forms of halakhah is a central theme of the book.

What about the state of Israel?

One of the ironies of modern Jewish life is that while Judaism historically defined itself through devotion to law, when the state of Israel was established there was little consensus about the role of halakhah in the state. Israel’s Socialist Zionist founders saw halakhah as a relic of the outmoded European Judaism that had to be overcome before a modern, Zionist, and self-determined Judaism could take hold. Most observant Jews by contrast, viewed secular Zionism as religiously invalid, if not dangerous. Since their primary concern was maintaining halakhah’s integrity in a secularizing world, they had little interest in adapting it for use in the modern state. Hence with the exception of marriage and divorce law, halakhah was not reflected in early Israeli law.

But the ground has shifted in the intervening years. Though Israeli law remains distinct from halakhah, there is a much wider constituency today that looks to define Israel as a Jewish state where concepts and norms inspired by halakhah find expression in state law. The book’s final chapter discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of infusing state law with halakhah.

Chaim N. Saiman is professor in the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism as Seen by a Cartographer

Historical Atlas of Hasidism book coverby Waldemar Spallek

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism, its title notwithstanding, is not a typical historical atlas. It does not illustrate the past glory of any state or nation by means of historical maps showing former borders, conquests, trade routes, or the strategies of great battles. It presents, unusually, the birth, development, and current status of an extraordinary mystical religious movement. This movement, Hasidism, originated in the eighteenth century in the lands of the erstwhile Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, from whence it was almost entirely erased due to a series of historical events.

The Atlas is, in part, an attempt to recreate this lost world. The maps are complemented by numerous illustrations and tables as well as commentary, which is an excellent introduction to the content presented on the maps. Unlike typical atlases of the world’s great religions, the Historical Atlas of Hasidism does not focus on the non-religious history of religion. It pinpoints political limits and demographic centers, but it discloses above all the spatial dimension of a religious experience.

The maps in the atlas were designed in GIS, or Geographic Information System (ArcGIS from ESRI), due to the massive amount of spatial data sets that needed to be processed and visualized. The largest of the databases used contains almost 130,000 records obtained from difficult-to-access sources. The map created on the basis of this database (using Dorling’s cartograms) clearly shows where contemporary Hasidic centers are located, but it also reveals how the place where Hasidism originated became an area bereft of Hasidim.

The Atlas is unique also because the co-author, Marcin Wodziński, reached for the impossible. As a person without a cartography background, he posed questions that cartography does not generally deal with. In order to meet his expectations, we plotted maps that are innovative not only because of the size of the source database used and the questions asked, but also because of the new forms of cartographic visualization that we perforce had to develop.

In preparing the Atlas, I had to recreate the historical space of places that no longer exist, and information regarding their historical appearance is scant. I reconstructed, for example, visualizations of Hasidic courts and Jewish towns in Eastern Europe primarily on the basis of recollections by former residents. Unlike many historical atlases, our atlas does not use a single anachronistic background map.

What did we achieve?

Maps as spatial perspectives allowed us to embed Hasidic history in a geographical context. This in turn allowed us to illuminate and understand a great variety of events and processes from the past.

Map 4.2. Petitions submitted to R. Eliyahu Guttmacher, c. 1874. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

One such example is map 4.2, which illustrates the relationship between the number and distribution of requests sent to a given rabbi (the map was based on an extant set of approximately 7,000 petitions sent to one tsadik alone) and various spatial factors: the distance between the tsadik’s court and the place from which supplicants traveled, the railway network utilized, the extent of the local renown of the tsadik, and so on.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 3.1.2

Map 3.1.2. Major dynasties. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

 

Historical Atlas of Hasidism Map 5.3.1

Map 5.3.1. Dominant Hasidic groups c. 1900-1939. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

In turn, map 3.1.2 demonstrates more clearly than any previous research the regionalization of the main Hasidic groups’ areas of influence. Marking the Hasidic leaders’ place with different colors precisely demarcates the borders of the areas into which individual Hasidic dynasties expanded. Map 5.3.1, created on the basis of spatial analysis of data from nearly 3,000 Hasidic prayer halls, delineates the areas in which various Hasidic groups were dominant before World War II.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 7.4

Map 7.4. The Holocaust, 1939-1945. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

The map of the Holocaust is the most moving, as it tracks the destruction of Eastern European Jews on the basis of the tragic fate of 80 Hasidic leaders. Fortunately, the atlas does not end with this bleak image. Successive maps reveal that Hasidism has since been reborn in America, Israel, and Western Europe, and it thrives today. With the maps extending from the earliest Hasidic leaders in the mid-eighteenth century to the cultural geography of Hasidism today, the atlas covers the whole history of Hasidism and surprisingly many of its aspects. I feel I was privileged to work on such an unusual, comprehensive, and innovative project.

Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Jan Assmann: Remembering the Exodus

Almost 30 years ago, friends in Jerusalem invited my family to a Passover Seder. It might be fun, they said, to have me on board as an Egyptologist to professionally depict the sufferings in the house of serfdom. As the youngest child at the Seder, my daughter Corinna had to learn and ask the question, “Ma nishtana?”,  triggering a chain of liturgical and improvised recitations. I began to think about how an Egyptologist would reconstruct and ‘remember’ the Exodus. After all, I was a complete outsider at the Seder. My only legitimation lay in the fact that it was Egypt that the children of Israel left in order to start a new form of community in Canaan. I wondered, was there a specifically anti-Egyptian gist in this narrative?

When I was asked to write a book on Exodus for Princeton University Press, I felt the time had finally come to set to work. As an Egyptologist, I knew for sure that there was no Egyptian evidence that could corroborate the historicity of the story. There was no use inquiring into what really happened in the time of Ramesses II. Instead, I asked, “How was this event remembered?” This approach allowed me to read the book of Exodus not as a historical account, but as an act of remembering in itself. It also allowed me to locate the story not in the Late Bronze Age, but rather in the time of its narration­—probably the sixth century BCE.

Re-reading the book of Exodus, I remarked with surprise that the Exodus proper—from the sufferings of serfdom to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea—fills just one part of the book. The two other parts contain the revelation of the Law at Mt. Sinai and the construction of the Tabernacle. The theme of revelation, however, is present in all three parts:

  1. First, God reveals his name to Moses at the Burning Bush and commissions Moses to lead his people to Canaan, the Promised Land (chs. 3-6). God reveals his power by hitting Pharaoh and his land with ten plagues and drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Sea of Reeds (chs. 7-15a).
  2. In the second part, God reveals himself to his chosen people, with whom he forms a covenant, and whom he instructs about the rules to remain true to this covenant (chs. 15b-24).
  3. In the third part, God reveals to Moses the structure of the Tabernacle in the cloud (chs. 25-31) and—in a scene of reconciliation after the crisis of the Golden Calf—his view from behind and his merciful or unforgiving nature.

The book’s narrative arc starts with trauma and ends with triumph: from extreme God-forsakenness to God living ‘in the midst of his people’, ‘sitting on the cherubim.’ Near the middle of the book, the text even contains God’s detailed prescription as to how this story should be remembered by future generations. This prescription is implemented and acted out in the feast of Passover, starting with the Seder night.

The book of Exodus, it turns out, is about much more than just the Israelites’ exit from Egypt. It is about the foundation of a new, revealed religion based on covenant, faith and law, and of a nation chosen to be the carrier of this religion, serving as a prototype that at the end of time will be adopted by all nations on earth.

So where, one may ask, is the “anti-Egyptian gist”? It lies in the opposition of serfdom and freedom. Egypt represents the old system of sacral kingship, where religion and state are the same and the king rules as a god on earth. This system is overturned by the religion of covenant and faith that liberates its members from serving Pharaoh into the service of God. Freedom means autonomy as a diasporic nation—forced to obey the host country’s laws, but at the same time obeying a higher authority whose laws are meant to last forever, untouched by any mundane government. This is religion in a new key, independent of state and country, religion that is able to resist oppression and persecution—religion, that is, as we understand it today. This is why I finally titled my book The Invention of Religion.

Freedom is the major theme of the Passover Haggadah. Freedom in times of exile and persecution—this is what the Seder celebrates. Yet kherût, or freedom, is not a biblical word. It became a keyword only in the Diaspora, when Egypt came to stand for any country and any period where and when the Jews were oppressed. “Wherever you live,” wrote Michael Walzer in Exodus and Revolution, “it is probably Egypt.” Remembering the Exodus means exiting Egypt.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

Read PUP’s 2017 National Jewish Book Award winners!

We’re proud to announce that four Princeton University Press titles were winners and/or finalists for the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards. These four books examine the lives of Jewish women in medieval Islamic society, a famous case of anti-Semitism in eighteenth-century Germany, the origins of Jews as a people, and the meanings of the Hebrew language.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies (Barbara Dobkin Award)

Finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship (Nahum Sarna Memorial Award)

Much of what we know about life in the medieval Islamic Middle East comes from texts written to impart religious ideals or to chronicle the movements of great men. How did women participate in the societies these texts describe? What about non-Muslims, whose own religious traditions descended partly from pre-Islamic late antiquity?

Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt approaches these questions through Jewish women’s adolescence in Fatimid and Ayyubid Egypt and Syria (c. 969–1250). Using hundreds of everyday papers preserved in the Cairo Geniza, Eve Krakowski follows the lives of girls from different social classes—rich and poor, secluded and physically mobile—as they prepared to marry and become social adults.

Krakowski also suggests a new approach to religious identity in premodern Islamic societies—and to the history of rabbinic Judaism. Through the lens of women’s coming-of-age, she demonstrates that even Jews who faithfully observed rabbinic law did not always understand the world in rabbinic terms. By tracing the fault lines between rabbinic legal practice and its practitioners’ lives, Krakowski explains how rabbinic Judaism adapted to the Islamic Middle Ages. Read the introduction.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award)

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.”

The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial. Drawing on a wealth of rare archival evidence, Yair Mintzker investigates conflicting versions of Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in the criminal investigation, 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.

The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a masterfully innovative work of history, and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity. Check out this Q&A with Mintzker, or read the introduction.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity (In Memory of Dorothy Kripke)

In The Origin of the Jews, 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.

This is the first book to trace the history of the different approaches that have been applied to the question, including genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and genetics. Weitzman shows how this quest has been fraught since its inception with religious and political agendas, how anti-Semitism cast its long shadow over generations of learning, and how recent claims about Jewish origins have been difficult to disentangle from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does not offer neatly packaged conclusions but invites readers on an intellectual adventure, shedding new light on the assumptions and biases of those seeking answers—and the challenges that have made finding answers so elusive. Read the introduction!

Finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award)

The Story of Hebrew takes readers from the opening verses of Genesis—which seemingly describe the creation of Hebrew itself—to the reincarnation of Hebrew as the everyday language of the Jewish state. Lewis Glinert explains the uses and meanings of Hebrew in ancient Israel and its role as a medium for wisdom and prayer. He describes the early rabbis’ preservation of Hebrew following the Babylonian exile, the challenges posed by Arabic, and the prolific use of Hebrew in Diaspora art, spirituality, and science. Glinert looks at the conflicted relationship Christians had with Hebrew from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation, the language’s fatal rivalry with Yiddish, the dreamers and schemers that made modern Hebrew a reality, and how a lost pre-Holocaust textual ethos is being renewed today by Orthodox Jews.

The Story of Hebrew explores the extraordinary hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and Christians, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Check out this Q&A with Glinert, or read the book’s introduction.