Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In this Scroll series, Wolpe examines a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.
Despite ongoing arguments about ‘Who is a Jew,’ most of us are convinced we understand who was a Jew. Terms such as ‘the Jewish people’ or ‘the Jewish experience’ are used as if each was unitary and defined. But in the past decades such tidy conceptions have unraveled. Scholars are inclined to speak of Judaisms in place of Judaism, since practices, assumptions, and life circumstances differed so widely from land to land. And we have begun to reclaim those whose experience was not originally caught by the historian’s net, recording not only the doings of rabbis and community leaders, but women, small and sometimes fringe communities, outliers and outcasts, and even large groups outside of the establishment who rarely wrote about themselves.
As more voices join the story it becomes increasingly harder to fix on a single narrative. Try to untangle the differing claims in a family argument or a business dispute and you realize, as Moshe Rosman puts it, that there is no “‘God’s eye view’ of history that humans can produce.”
Rosman’s book, How Jewish is Jewish History? published in 2007, elaborates and responds to such questions. It explains how our story became many stories, makes some sense of the cacophony.
We have become more aware of our own biases: “One of the ‘certainties’ of postmodern discourse is that we can never escape the effects of our deeply held convictions.” An example Rosman does not cite is how much of Zionism is a result of Jewish tradition and how much a result of the nationalisms that arose in the 19th century. The yearning for Israel was constant for centuries, so something in the world outside of Judaism must have changed to galvanize the Zionist movement. On the other hand, nationalism alone was not enough without a long history of love of the land. As Rosman notes, “While my construction of the past may be only one of many true stories, it is demonstrably not a false one.”
Rosman recounts the weight given by thinkers to the relative historical importance of Israel and the galut, and wonders how much of Jewish history is “hybrid history.” As an historian of Polish Jewry, he asks what do the Jews owe to Polish society and culture? Some Jewish historians saw Polish influence as being far more pervasive than others. To use a contemporary analogy, how Jewish is American Judaism, and how American? To even ask the question is to find oneself entangled in assumptions and nuances, a thicket of possibilities from which no absolute certainty, can emerge (though many PhD theses will). Rosman offers the metaphor of recombinant DNA, something “that derives from a widely available repertoire of building blocks, but achieves a unique character by virtue of the combining process.”
We cannot even agree upon when various periods of history began or ended—such designations are not the product of those living at the time, and historians, too, choose the starting line of modernity at different times. Rosman helps us understand how history has become, in the hands of postmodern awareness, more complicated, less unitary, and still deeply fascinating. How Jewish is Jewish History? is an important entry in an important debate over the understanding of our multiple pasts in the complex present.
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David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe