Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Eric Hobsbawm’s Jewish Gift

How the British Marxist and anti-Zionist, who died last week, influenced the writing of Jewish history

Print Email
Eric Hobsbawm. (Martin Parr/Magnum Photos)

Concerning Judaism, a religion in which “tradition” played such an important part, scholars were then struggling to understand the ways in which this notion worked and how it helped shape the results. Indicative of the importance of this issue (and of the difficulties it raised) are Gershom Scholem’s comments in his essay “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism” from The Messianic Idea in Judaism. Scholem began by retelling the famous account of the visit by Moses to the Academy of Rabbi Akiba, at which Moses was quite distressed because he did not understand a word being said but was ultimately comforted when Rabbi Akiba explained that he knew a certain matter because it was a teaching given to Moses at Sinai. For Scholem, this story contained the heart of the paradox he intended to explore. He noted that:

In considering the problem of tradition we must distinguish between two questions. The first is historical: How did a tradition endowed with religious dignity come to be formed? The other question is: How was this tradition understood once it had been accepted as a religious phenomenon? For the faithful promptly discard the historical question once they have accepted a tradition … yet for the historian the historical question remains fundamental: In order to understand the meaning of what the faithful simply accept, the historian is not bound to accept the fictions that veil more than they reveal concerning the origins of the accepted faith.

For Scholem, however, the veils of fiction that surrounded a tradition arose at a later stage of the process of its acceptance. There was some genuine historical origin, which it was the historian’s task to discover. Hobsbawm offered his notion of invented tradition as a radical critique of conventional faith, intended to break the intellectual logjam and achieve a much deeper understanding of the processes by which some traditions were formed.

Invented traditions, according to Hobsbawm, came into being at times of great and rapid change. They were ways of re-establishing a connection with the past, when that connection had been broken by circumstances. As such, they had little or no claim to a “genuine” link to the remote past, as they asserted. Instead, they were heavily loaded symbolic actions that promoted a specific way of bridging over the chasm between past and present, wholly meaningful in the present. The essays in the volume on The Invention of Tradition covered any number of examples of such invented traditions, none of them Jewish, but this notion would have helped resolve Scholem’s paradox: Claims of teachings given to Moses at Sinai could now be understood as invented traditions that would grant a measure of legitimacy to rabbinic ideas, which even the rabbis who told the story recognized would not have been acknowledged or understood by the historical Moses.

It is therefore not surprising that this idea has been taken up with enthusiasm by some Jewish historians. Michael Silber of the Hebrew University has proposed understanding ultra-Orthodoxy as an invented tradition. However, perhaps on account of Hobsbawm’s anti-Zionism, his article contains no reference to Hobsbawm, even though Hobsbawm’s notion of invented tradition is fundamental to Silber’s argument. Aaron W. Hughes of the University of Buffalo was more generous, acknowledging Hobsbawm as his source of inspiration when discussing religious tolerance in Muslim Spain, as analyzed by modern historians, as an invented tradition. The understanding of da’at Torah in the world of orthodoxy from the early 20th century until our own time as “rabbinic infallibility,” as proposed by Gershon Bacon of Bar-Ilan University and others, also fits Hobsbawm’s category of invented tradition.

***

Hobsbawm was widely criticized for his lifelong adherence to communism, despite all the repression and mass death it brought, and for the effect it may have had on his work as a historian. My perspective is different. If I have any criticism of Hobsbawm’s notion of invented tradition it concerns his insistence that, while invented traditions were possible at any time and place, they were especially prominent in the modern world. I disagree and have discussed this point at length in an article co-authored with Marina Rustow, now of Johns Hopkins University, in which we noted many examples of invented traditions from the pre-modern Jewish past. As one instance, I  suggested there that the  notion of invented tradition helps explain texts such as mSheq 6:1, which described the practice of the families of R. Gamaliel and R. Hananiah, who performed one more prostration than others in the Temple “since they had a tradition [masoret] from their ancestors that the ark was buried” in a particular place. The vessels of the First Temple were now lost and hidden, but their eventual discovery also played a significant role in some ancient Jewish millennial scenarios. This is already the case in 2 Macc 2:7–8, in which Jeremiah supposedly reprimanded the Jews of his time who wanted to mark the way to the place where he had hidden the vessels, because “the place shall remain unknown, he said, until God finally gathers his people together and shows mercy to them.” Josephus, similarly, told the story of a Samaritan who promised to find the hidden vessels “where Moses had deposited them.” Pontius Pilate ordered Roman troops to attack this Samaritan and many of his followers, and according to Josephus they were killed. Pilate understood that this was not an innocent archeological excavation, but an action fraught with millennial meaning and a challenge to Roman rule. It was a claim about the past with important political implications for the present. The same conclusion holds true for the extra prostration performed at the Temple by the families of R. Gamaliel and R. Hananiah.

Furthermore, Rustow and I argued, the distinction between invented traditions and genuine ones may not be the most useful way to analyze traditions. At least sometimes, the new traditions advanced in response to changing circumstances have a genuine basis in older sources, but these are rescued from relative oblivion or reinterpreted to create the new “modern” tradition (Rustow and I called these “strong” traditions). Therefore, rather than focus on whether a tradition is invented or genuine, it is better to concentrate on the change that has taken place and the ways in which strong traditions respond to that change.

***

Until the end, Hobsbawm defined himself as a Communist, and not as a Jew. But by his own terms, his disproportionate and remarkable contributions to understanding the human past were expressions of his own Jewishness, and—regardless of his insistence that he was a “non-Jewish Jew”—should find their rightful place in our histories.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

1 2View as single page
Print Email
CygnusA81 says:

Eric Hobsbawm’s Jewish Gift?

I would assumed that the gift you are talking about is that he’s dead. There is nothing good about this man. He never apologized for Stalin’s crimes and he even justified them.

julis123 says:

I can’t understand how someone can be a lifelong communist and still be considered a world-class historian. It would be like someone who is a famous astronomer believing in astrology

Jacob Arnon says:

“young Jews who began as Zionists became communists because, obvious as the sufferings of the Jews were, they were only part of universal oppression.”

What bunk.

I suppose Hobsbawm endorsed Stalin and Communism because they would have made repression universal.

The man was another criminal intellectual who endorsed and supported mass murder.

The 20th c gave rise to many intellectuals who supported all kinds of tyrannies from Stalinist communism, to Fascism,, and Nazism.

Hobsbawm is in the company of Ezra Pound, of Robert Brasillach, of Heidegger and Carl Schmitt.

a disgusting human being. Cared Nothing for the millions of people Jews and non-Jews who were murdered by Stalin and other commonest dogs. And to say a Marxists could be an honest historian is laughable

Jacob Arnon says:

“Until the end, Hobsbawm defined himself as a Communist, and not as a Jew. But by his own terms, his disproportionate and remarkable contributions to understanding the human past were expressions of his own Jewishness, and—regardless of his insistence that he was a “non-Jewish Jew”—should find their rightful place in our histories.”

One can be a non believer and still be proud Jew, but people who endorsed pogroms against Jews shouldn’t be considered Jews.

.

You trivialize what being a Jews means by including people who rejected and even worked against Jews.

Saint_Etienne says:

Let me get this straight: do you posit that he was not a Jew?

Though born a Jew, he lived and died an anti-Semite who justified murder and worse in the name of his ideology.

Jacob Arnon says:

One last point, Hobsbawm was a mediocre thinker precisely because he didn’t recognize the tension between the universal and the particular.

In any case, communism is no more universal than any other system because it is only one of many competing universal creeds. The idea that one live in the universal is an illusion. We are all situated in a particular space and time.

When Hobsbawm says: “Historians, however microcosmic, must be for universalism … because it is the necessary condition for understanding the history of humanity, including that of any special section of humanity.” that surely includes the history of communism.

Ironically, Hobsbawm’s history is also a kind of “identity history” and in his case he just substituted Communist for Jew.

Claims to universality can never abolish the particular which is why universalists tend to repress the particular often with extreme violence.

Jacob Arnon says:

One last point, Hobsbawm was a mediocre thinker precisely because he didn’t recognize the tension between the universal and the particular.

In any case, communism is no more universal than any other system because it is only one of many competing universal creeds. The idea that one live in the universal is an illusion. We are all situated in a particular space and time.

When Hobsbawm says: “Historians, however microcosmic, must be for universalism … because it is the necessary condition for understanding the history of humanity, including that of any special section of humanity.” that surely includes the history of communism.

Ironically, Hobsbawm’s history is also a kind of “identity history” and in his case he just substituted Communist for Jew.

Claims to universality can never abolish the particular which is why universalists tend to repress the particular often with extreme violence.

After reading the entire article, I declare it a banal account of a banal person. If it was written on paper I would feel guilty for wasting a tree.

Jacob Arnon says:

His parents were Jews, and he was born into a Jewish family, but he chose not to be a Jew.

Do you consider people born into Jewish families who converted to Christianity or Islam Jews?

Yes,I don’t consider him a Jew.

Yossi Siegel says:

“Expressions of his own” jewishness” begs the question of what “jewishness” is.if it cant be differentiated from non-Jewishness it is enigmatic ,Furthermore “humanity” as an ideal or generic category iswithout is empty manifestations of cultural distinctiveness.As for “non-Jewish Jew” it seems to be the only formulation of jewishness accoetable to the left implying that the only accpetable Jew is one who isnt.

Jacob Arnon says:

“Expressions of his own” jewishness” begs the question of what “jewishness” is.if it cant be differentiated from non-Jewishness it is enigmatic.”

Of course it can be differentiated from non-Jewishness.

Pam Green says:

“Claims to universality can never abolish the particular which is why universalists tend to repress the particular often with extreme violence.” Can you elaborate on this, and provide sources for this statement? I agree with you completely; in fact, I’m writing about this in relation to the work of Mircea Eliade and his ilk. I don’t want to leave out any major discussions of this issue.

gwhepner says:

INVENTED TRADITION

Getting
history quite wrong is part

of being
any nation, since so long

as
history is quite correct the art

expressing
nationhood is just a song.

Tradition
needs to be invented just

like
cars, computers and poetic verse.

Although
it’s based on fact we shouldn’t trust,

I’m sure
without it life would be far worse.

Without
illusions of tradition we

would
totally abandon our connection

to a
past which we allow to be

reprogrammed
by a present predilection.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

Saint_Etienne says:

We are quickly veering into the vexed “Who is a Jew?” question, I guess.

Well, since you answered my question, I must answer yours: Yes, sort of, for about one generation. For instance, Marx and Disraeli are sort-of Jews in my book; John Kerry or Capriles or Sarkozy aren’t. I think this correlates well with their own preoccupation or lack thereof with their Jewish legacy. Come to think of it, I’d also differentiate between Christianity which (in modern time) allows for some vestiges of complex identity and Islam which requires more or less total immersion.

Now, I’d like you to ponder the obverse of your argument: if it’s that easy to will oneself out of Jewishness, is it as easy to will oneself in? How do you regard one who was not born into a Jewish family but wishes to be one (say, as a result of marrying a Jew)?

Cheers,
S.E.

Saint_Etienne says:

Here we are in agreement. Complicated things become very simple once one recognizes that Communism is a religion. (There is by the way a fascinating take on this in Гравилет “Цесаревич”, an alternate history by the (postmodernist?) V. Rybakov in which Communism became an actual *peaceful* religion; I think it has not been translated into English – only into Esperanto, which is rather ironic).

Jacob Arnon says:

” Marx and Disraeli are sort-of Jews in my book; ”

We are not discussing your book, Mr. Saint.

Jacob Arnon says:

Communism is a guilty as any ideology of manufacturing traditions.

That Hobsbawm didn’t write about that shows what a narrow minded parochial thinker he was.

Saint_Etienne says:

Ugh, ogh. Boy, that hurt. LOL.

Anyway, I thought we were having a nice polite discussion. If you are not it, fine.

gwhepner says:

Don’t see the relevance of the first comment. And as for the second one, Hobsbawm was biased and blinkered but hardly parochial.

Jacob Arnon says:

I would rather say that religions, just like communism or fascism, are ideological systems.

Jacob Arnon says:

Sources, what sources do you need? It’s a thought of mine though I am sure
others have also thought and written about it.

I’ll give you examples: any major religion with pretensions
to universality, Christianity (with its violent inquisitions) Islam with its
divisions of the world as the “house of peace” and the “house of war” and its
intolerance of dissent. Communism with
its gulags and “re-educations camps: in China and elsewhere.

Even Nazism saw itself as a universal system which is why it
tried to exterminate those who did not fit in their “universe.”

I don’t think all fascisms pretend to universality and hence
it’s a mixed bag. Some tolerate difference more than others. Franco after he
gained power for example allowed a modicum of freedom in private affairs. The Hungarian Fascists did not.

I think that communism after Stalin, who was closer to
Hitler than they like to admit, became more like fascism and also tolerated
some private freedoms.

Interestingly, both Francoism and Communism dissolved from
within, though there was in the end more freedom in Spainafter Franco’s death
than in Russia after the fall of communism. This can be attributed, I think, to Russian history and the presence of many
diverse cultures and countries which a central Moscow regime seems to need to
control.

Another example that Empires with diverse populations don’t
always embrace “tolerance.”

Jacob Arnon says:

“Hobsbawm was biased and blinkered but hardly parochial.”

What do you call his defense of the communist invasion of Hungary in 1956, or the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968?
Was it a sign of his universalism?

gwhepner says:

Professor Baumgarten’s focus was on Hobsbawm’s proposal of the concept of invented tradition. Hobsbawm’s political opinions are irrelevant to this innovative concept, which was the rationale of Baumgarten’s excellent article..

Jew, Communist, Islamic. Christian, Buddhist, Shaivist – or any other form of Hindu – , Taoist, Wiccan, Native American, Laumalist, Universalist, – the list goes on and on – or ANY group of human-formed rituals that purposely attempt to define the ladder of ‘enlightenment’ of a deity greater than ourselves is in itself the definition of tradition and is thereby itself ‘invented.’ Each BEING brings a variance to the table, so it matters not whether it is ‘invented’ or ‘historical’ for by the very nature all of history – it is ALL ‘invented’…. whether based in documented fact or not it is real to whomever practices whatever they practice. As the definition of Jew pervades – to struggle with G-D – the ever changing influence of ‘social norms’ must always be taken into account. It is only when the boundaries dissolve do any of us truly gain what we seek. The irony is that to accept either Communism or Zionism one must limit the other, but in truth… the ideal of all religions – including both of these formations – is in fact Unity of One…. Therefore, Mr. Hobsbawm has no more affect on the whole of Judaism than what is granted by the individual Jew, and to judge him is simply a ‘non jewish’ act – or should I say a ‘non G-D-like act’. How one defines G-D is never more important than the one who formulates the definition. Be at peace and recognize the part of all of humanity (not just the Jew) that is itself divine….. We are ONE.

manwithoutqualities says:

Incidentally, I posted on EH today: http://manwithoutqualities.com/2012/10/11/eric-hobsbawm/ — in tune with many of the comments here.

Jacob Arnon says:

Did Hobsbawm invent the concept of invented tradition?

I thought that fact was known as long ago as the 18th century when Samuel Johnson exposed the fake Ossian’s poems by Macpherson?

To be brief there a strong critique of this notion which says:

“One reviewer noted that the “‘invention of tradition’ is a splendidly subversive phrase,” but it “hides serious ambiguities.” Hobsbawm “contrasts invented traditions with what he calls ‘the strength and adaptability of genuine traditions.’ But where does his ‘adaptability’, or his colleague Ranger’s ‘flexibility’ end, and invention begin? Given that all traditions change, is it possible or useful to attempt to discriminate the ‘genuine’ antiques from the fakes?”[5] Another also praised the high quality of the articles but had qualifications. “Such distinctions” (between invented and authentic traditions) “resolve themselves ultimately into one between the genuine and the spurious, a distinction that may be untenable because all traditions (like all symbolic phenomena) are humanly created (“spurious”) rather than naturally given (“genuine”).”

Dbtw: did Hobsbawm ever tackle the invention of history by Marxist historians as well as traditions in Communist countries?

Jacob Arnon says:

Interesting website, “manwithout ” and good critique of Hobsbawm, thanks for posting the link.

gwhepner says:

To claim that pseudepigraphy such as Ossian’s icorresponds to Hobsbawm’s concept of “invented tradition” is misleading. Pseudepigraphy i at least as old as the book of Deuteronomy, and may give rise to invented traditions but does not per se constitute them. Ditto for the invention of history by historians throughout the ages, long before Karl Marx invented himself.

Jacob Arnon says:

I claimed no such thing. What I claimed was that thinkers were always aware of the difference between invented history and culture and ongoing form of social life.

This is what anthropology and the social sciences are about.

Why do you think the work out methods to screen differences between authentic primitive customs and non authentic (borrowed one’s) claimed to be authentic.

I suggest you read:

“Ghost Dance” by Weston La Barre

Jacob Arnon says:

I’d like us to be clear about something essential which is missed by those Jews who embrace Hobsbawm because he was born a Jew.

Their embrace of this communist universalist just because he was “a Jew” is itself a sign of parochialism.

gwhepner says:

I’m not aware of a single person who embrace because he is Jewish. So your parochial hypothesis seems to me totally hypothetical and in fact mistaken. Hobsbawm’s construct of invented tradition is original and only appears to be unoriginal when misunderstood and/or misinterpreted. In the Jewish tradition Aher (Elisha ben Abayu) is considered to be so evil that a voice from heaven singles him out as being disqualified from olam haba. In spite of this, some of his opinions are quoted approvingly, as in Vot 4:5. The rabbis did not try to write out of the record the positive contributions he made to Jewish thought. I think Hobsbawm deserves the same credit for his thoughts, whether or not they conform to preconceived notions. Jacob Arnon might usefully consider whether Rabbi Meir’s approach to Elisha is more commendable that his own approach to Hobsbawm.

Jacob Arnon says:

” In the Jewish tradition Aher (Elisha ben Abayu) is
considered to be so evil that a voice from heaven singles him out as being
disqualified from olam haba. In spite of this, some of his opinions are quoted
approvingly, as in Vot 4:5″

This is an inappropriate comparison, hepner. Elisha ben Abayu must have been seen as being
of the Jewish tradition otherwise no Rabbi would have quoted him, period.

Do you think the Rabbis would quote some of the opinions of
Leon Trotsky?

I believe that in the case of modern communists, like
Hobsbawm, who supported pogroms and the
liquidation of Judaism from their societies there is no way that those who
supported these actions would be quoted by Rabbis.

Show me one legitimate Rabbi who quotes Hobsbawm?

Jacob Arnon says:

btw: you haven’t shown that you know enough about the
intellectual tradition of social and anthropological history to say with absolute certainty that
Hobsbawm’s view is original.

In any case, Hobsbawm, like Benedict Anderson, who argued in
“imagined communities” that the very
notion of the community is something manufactured and isn’t real, didn’t
believe in tradition. The examples he came up with in “The invention of Tradition”
are meant to call into question the authenticity of all traditions (except of
course those of the Communists.)

Some academics Jewish and non-Jewish love that since they were
given another theory to chew on and write little papers to put on their
resumes.

Lots of papers will be written and lots of professor’s will publish
their “little critiques” of every and any traditional social custom
like the Passover Seder which they will claim was “manufactured” for
nationalistic reasons.

Have fun Hepner.

gwhepner says:

Elisha exited the Jewish tradition as clearly as Hobsbawm. The fact that Meir continued have a a dialogue with him and that he is quoted in Tannaitic texts proves that Hazal welcomed dialogue with counter-traditional Jews and valued what they said, if what they said was valuable. Your argument to the contrary (‘otherwise no Rabbi would have quoted him”) is defectively circular. I don’t care whether any Rabbi quotes Hobsbawn or not. I do in my book Legal Friction,, and though I am no rabbi I no no one who does not consider me to be art of klal yisrael., even though my book radically reinterprets biblical texts in a way that had not been previously proposed..

Jacob Arnon says:

“Elisha exited the Jewish tradition as clearly as Hobsbawm. ”

Not as clearly since Elisha is pretty much a shadowy figure. Not much is known about him which is why you and others can say whatever they want without fear of contradiction.

However we do know about Hobsbawm and what we know about him isn’t going to endear him to the Rabbinic community.

In any case, there is no point in continuing this since neither of us will convince the other of Hobsbawm’s merit or lack thereof.

Pam Green says:

Thanks Jacob.

herbcaen says:

he made no positive contribution to humanity. good riddance

Jacob Arnon says:

“Eric Hobsbawm’s Jewish Gift”

It’s a poisoned gift.

bobschwalbaum says:

great and very pithy observation Julis123
why didn’t I think of that?

bobschwalbaum says:

My question plain and simple
Why on earth would TABLET eulogize this creep.
He deserves no mention.. except to wonder just how hot it will be for him in HELL
And i was amazed to learn that he was born a Jew.. a very common fixture in today’s world.. the self-hating Jew..

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Eric Hobsbawm’s Jewish Gift

How the British Marxist and anti-Zionist, who died last week, influenced the writing of Jewish history

More on Tablet:

Digging Up My Jewish Roots in My Grandfather’s Ukrainian Village

By David Kalis — My grandfather told me his hometown no longer existed. But I found it—and finally came to appreciate my own heritage.