May 27, 2004
"Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" by David N. Myers (Princeton University Press, $29.95).
It is a rare exception to find a scholarly volume penned by an academic that speaks with such a resoundingly relevant message to the popular community at large. Professor David N. Myers' "Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" is one of those pleasant exceptions.
What does it mean to "resist history"? What is "historicism," and why would there be "discontents" toward historicism in German Jewish thought, or in any intellectual society? Myers refers to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as having been opposed "to the kind of historical thinking that reduced human experience to a long series of disconnected moments." In Jewish terms, "historicism and its discontents" means that when a Jew enters a synagogue on Tisha B'Av (the Ninth of Av), the day that is traditionally fixed as a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the rabbi tells his congregants that "today's mourning includes the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, plus the expulsion from Spain in 1492, plus the Holocaust," and that all of these tragedies are linked as part of God's "Divine plan for the Jewish people," the traditionalist (anti-historicist) takes solace in knowing that "in every generation, they seek to destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from them."
The historicist in the congregation understands that while it is religiously enticing to view these tragedies as part of a larger "divine picture," the proper academic understanding of these events involves studying each one as an independent event, each with its own unique set of social, political and economic circumstances, void of any theological implications. To a traditionalist, the rabbi's interpretation of Tisha B'Av is deeply inspirational, while the historian's explanations would seem cold and void of any spiritual message. To the historicist, the rabbi's interpretation is theology, not history, and a proper academic analysis of the various "Tisha B'Av tragedies" would ultimately make more sense to the rational mind.
Myers writes of four German Jewish intellectuals who each, in his own unique way, resisted the strong wave of historicism that was capturing the minds of intellectual German Jews during the 19th century. Philosophers Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosensweig, political leader Leo Strauss and Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Breuer were each passionate opponents of historicism.
I write a review of Myers' book not as a professional historian with the academic qualifications of adequately critiquing the particulars of his arguments, but as a community rabbi and educator who is continuously challenged with the tension of maintaining Judaism's traditional theological beliefs in the face of modern academic and scientific research. I write this review as a teacher of Torah who faces the challenge of merging the midrashic wisdom of Rashi with the modern insights of academic Bible scholars and archaeologists. Within my mind, the rational historicist prevails, but within my soul, I hear the voices of Cohen, Rosensweig, Strauss and Breuer.
By examining the lives and writings of these four particular thinkers, whose styles, philosophies and religious orientations are so diverse, Myers demonstrates that the tension between historicism and anti-historicism crosses all denominational and political lines. The fact that three of the four are not Orthodox (Cohen, Rosensweig and Strauss) shatters the conveniently prevalent myth that this tension is limited to a struggle between Orthodox and liberal Jews. Thanks to Myers' book, we now understand that this tension is not between opposite poles of Jewish theology, rather it is between those who wish to view Jewish history through spiritual lenses -- e.g., Max Dimont's book "Jews, God and History" (Mentor Books, 1994) -- versus those who wish to study Jewish history through the less than spiritual lenses of sociology, politics, economics and archaeology.
As a recent manifestation of this tension, Myers cites Rabbi David Wolpe's now-famous sermon about the historicity of the exodus. Wolpe's sermon, delivered from his Sinai Temple pulpit on Passover 2001, and the controversy that it generated, serve as a lucid reminder that the tension between historicism and its discontents is alive and well within current Jewish circles.
Like all scholarly volumes, Myers' book is a challenging read but, in this case, one that is well worth the effort. The intricacies of scholarly lingo are softened by the author's bold admission in his introduction that his interest in this subject is not a matter of dispassionate scholarly concern, but a reflection of his own personal tensions of living within "the academy and the shul," so to speak.
Myers' book brilliantly addresses the tension that many Jews -- scholar, rabbi, educator and lay person alike -- face every day. This is therefore an important read for all of us, as it will continue to help facilitate the important dialogue on how we honestly live with and address these theological tensions within our congregations and classrooms, and within our minds and souls.
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.