Courtesy of Harvard Library Judaica Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, at center, talks with Isadore Twersky, right, Cambridge, 1976Courtesy of Harvard Library Judaica Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Navigate to History section

From Yesterday to Tomorrow

What is the future of Judaism in a world full of choices?

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
November 09, 2021
Courtesy of Harvard Library Judaica Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, at center, talks with Isadore Twersky, right, Cambridge, 1976Courtesy of Harvard Library Judaica Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts

The following interview is excerpted from an exchange between historians Sylvie Anne Goldberg and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, the author of Zakhor, a book that established him as one of the most important Jewish historians of the 20th century. Their conversations took place over many years, though they remain unfinished after Yerushalmi’s death in 2009.

SG: How do you see the future of the Jews and Judaism, now that a full range of choices for Jewish identity is available?

YY: That’s just one way of expressing it. The other is to say that most Jews no longer accept certain standards. Especially in terms of texts, no canon calls for obedience, and this isn’t just a Jewish problem. I suppose if we asked Jews and non-Jews if the Bible is important, they would agree. But if we asked them why the Bible is important, how it should be read, or even if civilization arose between Athens and Jerusalem, to cite an old cliché, I don’t know how most intellectuals would reply today, or even if they would try to answer questions of this nature.

Today, the fact remains that there’s an infinite variety of ways of being Jewish, feeling Jewish, and acting as a Jew. One movement that is quite active right now calls itself “secular Judaism.” I have nothing against these people, who include many American and Israeli academics and intellectu­als, nor against their movement or this trend. I support any action taken in the name of affirming Jewish identity. The one thing that annoys me, and I don’t think it’s a sign of purism, is the name itself, “secular Judaism.” Historically speaking, I find it distorting, misleading, and contradictory. Judaism is a religion, or at least it was. We can’t artificially cancel this aspect.

It’s also a way of life.

Above all, Judaism is a religion. By definition, every specifically Jewish way of life is anchored in one form or another to a religious connection to life.

Still, what “religion” means was defined belatedly.

No, it wasn’t defined belatedly. Judaism is a religion in the same sense that Islam is a religion, and in other ways too. The Halakhah, like Shari’a, traditionally regulates all daily life and isn’t limited to what we’d like to define as the strictly religious sphere of prayer, worship, and so on. Redefining Judaism in exclusively secular terms is an entirely artificial and misleading effort. Even more misleading is the urge to attach this definition to the Jewish past.

Because we started to look at the past in terms of the present, we rediscover Jews who wrote secular poetry, even during the Middle Ages. Of course, there was secular Jewish poetry in the Middle Ages, but that doesn’t mean there was secular Judaism. Irreligious trends and fields of expression existed in a society that was deeply, irrefutably religious.

Young generations of historians who followed the great masters of the postwar era or my own generation, are part of currents perceiving far more multiplicity in Judaism than what we were used to. The very idea of normative Judaism appears to have become totally obsolete. I would be the last person in the world to condemn this development on the pretext that it wouldn’t correspond to the form and content of what I was taught or the way I worked. Yet I think it poses an interesting historiographic or historiosophical problem: are these young generations moving in this direction because they are caught up in a trend in the culture around them—in America at least, multiculturalism is an indisputable fact—or is this due to the internal evolution of our discipline? Did a multicultural perspective allow them to see things that their “fathers” didn’t see? I’ve no answer to this question.

I don’t think that this way of doing history is blameworthy or bound to fail. Nor do I believe in what the Wissenschaft des Judentums aimed to define, namely the essence of Judaism. I’m not an essentialist and I don’t think any historian can be today. Yet like an old stick-in-the-mud, I am not and probably never will be ready to discard the notion of norms in Judaism. By this, I don’t mean to say that Judaism has remained static during any era. But I think that the consciousness that there is a norm to which the community’s consensus was given and which saw deviation from the norm as heretic, in one way or another, has always been present, even if what the standard amounts to has varied in a more or less perceptible way. There’s a fundamental difference between admitting that the norms may have evolved, and the modern, widespread phenomenon that consists in saying that individuals choose personal standards. It’s quite possible that in our time, we can’t help but subjectivize Judaism and claim that all are free to define their Judaism and Jewish identity. But to read history in the light of this modern outlook is to betray history and to misunderstand Jewish tradition.

However, Orthodox Jews continue to observe all the standards of Judaism.

By definition, I wasn’t talking about Orthodox Jews, who are opposed to this subjectification of Judaism. But even today’s Orthodox are far more problematic than their ancestors. The very notion of Orthodoxy is a modern one, because challenges to the standard against which it was ideologically and socially constructed emerged with modernity. What’s more, there’s a tremendous diversity within Orthodoxy inside and outside Israel, in which the subject of messianism plays an important role. For example, the Zionist religious movement, in whatever form it takes, is inconceivable without a messianic dimension, because that’s the source of its legitimacy. But I wasn’t talking about the Orthodox. I was talking about the fact that it’s become difficult and maybe impossible today, and for quite some time already, to define who is Jewish. I don’t think that the difficulty was so great in the past, in the premodern era.

I don’t remember if Baron said or wrote this, or simply passed it along to me as a bequest, but on the question of who is Jewish, my attitude is truly subjectivist. For me, Jews are any individuals who, since the Holocaust, have voluntarily identified themselves as Jews. End of story. Now, if we ask the question, what kind of Jew, we open endless debates. I’m afraid there’s no other way of conceiving Jewish identity today than in this voluntarist and subjectivist way. Otherwise, we wind up getting into all kinds of hassles. And it’s not just a theoretical question. To cite one example, long before the Intifada, a Palestinian terrorist was arrested, and it turned out that his mother was Jewish and his father was Muslim. So, according to the Halakhah, he was fully Jewish. At the same time, there was a case in Israel of an Israeli naval officer who married a non-Jew who never converted to Judaism. She followed him to Israel, they lived in a kibbutz, and had several children. When applying for an identity card, the question arose of the children’s identity for the card. I don’t know how the case ended, but obviously, the rabbinical court clearly refused to consider them Jewish.

In Israel, the problem is visible on a daily basis. I’m thinking particularly of military troops who die in combat without being Jews from the halakhic viewpoint. Where should they be buried?

Certainly, but it’s also a critical problem for all those who have married in the diaspora and hope that their alliance will be recognized after they arrive in Israel. Yes, they will be granted Israeli citizenship, but that doesn’t make them Jews, and their offspring won’t be permitted to marry Jews. This discrepancy between Israeli identity and Jewish identity, more broadly a divorce between a perceived or claimed Jewish identity and Jewish identity based on halakhic standards, means that according to the Halakhah, a terrorist may be Jewish, but the son of an Israeli army officer may not be. This is intolerable, unlivable, and things must change. I don’t know how they’ll change. I’m convinced that finally, conversion will return to what it was originally, namely plain assimilation to the Jewish people. We find this model in the Book of Ruth.

Not only was Ruth not Jewish, she was a Moabite, and the Bible commands that no Moabite will ever be admitted among the people of God. Not only did she marry a “real” Jew, although the term didn’t exist at the time, but when she followed Naomi, what could be termed “naomic” families emerged. We aren’t informed that she went through any conversion, she just integrated into Israelite society. I believe that in Israel at least, this will finally happen, once the Rabbinate loses its grip on society.

Are you saying that rabbinic Judaism has reached its expiration date?

No, I believe that religious Jews are awaiting the arrival of another Yohanan ben Zakkai. What Yohanan ben Zakkai and his inner circle accomplished by transposing Judaism of the Temple into standards that would ensure the durability of Judaism in exile, is now needed within the framework of the unexpected state and a diaspora that has nothing in common with historic diasporas. But who am I to speak on their behalf? Especially since I’m talking about a prospect that may only happen in five hundred years, if life still exists by then.

I would add something else, which I realized as I grew older, as mentioned in the lecture I gave at Tübingen. At one point in my life, I read a lot of Spengler, Toynbee, and all those deterministic theories of history against which Isaiah Berlin protested in his lecture Historical Inevitability. One important thing I’ve learned is that history is still open and that this openness is linked to the issue of the future. History’s openness means that it remains open to the best and worst. I don’t believe in the old idea of progress. The only authentic consolation that I find in history, especially when I observe the current state of the world, is its openness. That’s the only term that comes to mind. Things happen in history that have never been planned for or anticipated. We only learn about them retroactively. I wish that only one passage in what’s called the “New” Testament had appeared in the Hebrew Bible, because I love it: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” And it’s true; only at the end, after the fact, do things become illuminated. This thought consoles me. When the state of the world is largely depressing, I ask myself, “What do we know? Everything can change completely. Of course, it can also get worse, but everything can be overturned next year.” It isn’t quite “Next year in Jerusalem,” but a sort of “Next year” wish.

Even when I think of the condition of the Jewish people, which isn’t anything to be proud of, I’ve made it a practice to say two things. First, how would I have reacted at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple? Sources tell us about how most Jews of the time lived and felt about what was happening. The state of mind expressed in the Apocalypse of Baruch is, let’s stop sowing, plowing, getting married, and everything else, because it’s all over. And yet, nothing’s over, since we’re here today to talk about it. The other example comes from a poem by Judah Leib Gordon, whom I don’t rank among the greatest poets, even if he occupied a key place in the development of modern Hebrew literature. His poem “Le-mi ani ‘amel” (“For Whom Do I Toil?”) inspired the title of a book by my colleague Michael Stanislawski. Anyway—I quote from memory—the end of the poem states: “Who knows? Perhaps I’m the last Hebrew language poet and you are the last readers.” This poem was written in 1870, I believe. That’s how Gordon felt at the time, with good reason. There was no way to predict that less than a century later, a Jewish state would be restored, in which Hebrew would become the daily language.

So that’s all I have to say about the future. I don’t believe in historical inevitability.

Selection adapted from Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, “From Yesterday to Tomorrow,” in Transmitting Jewish History: Y.H. Yerushalmi in Conversation With Sylvie Anne Goldberg, trans. Benjamin Ivry (Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2021), reprinted with permission of Brandeis University Press.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was one of the most eminent Jewish historians of the 20th century. He was Jacob E. Safra Professor of Jewish History and Sephardic Civilization at Harvard University, and from 1980, Salo W. Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society at Columbia University. Some of his collected essays appear in The Faith of Fallen Jews (2014). Yerushalmi’s broad erudition in all areas of Jewish history and European culture attracted students from all over the world, many of whom now hold leading academic positions.

Thank you for reading Tablet.

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them. Help us do what we do.