Jewish Journal


The Jewish Civilization Exchange, Part 3: On Rises and Declines

by Shmuel Rosner

May 14, 2014 | 3:39 am

Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald

Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald is a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem, specializing in the history of Jewish civilization, Israeli S&T policy, and Jewish-Israeli links with China and India. His PhD thesis on the sociologist-historian Alfred Weber received the University of Basle’s prize as the best thesis in the social sciences in 1962. From 1964 to 2001, Dr. Wald served at the OECD Paris, the West’s biggest policy think-tank and advisory body, as an educational, science and technology expert, and as the co-founder and head of the OECD-DSTI Biotechnology Unit, authoring numerous OECD papers and publications. He joined the JPPI in 2002.

This exchange is dedicated to Dr. Wald’s new book, Rise and Decline of Civilizations: Lessons for the Jewish People (Academic Study Press, 2014). Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.


Dear Shalom,

My last question refers to the idea of trying to draw lessons for "Jewish civilization", a concept I must admit I have some trouble understanding. You attempt to look at history and historians and give us, in broad terms, a recipe for having a "thriving" Jewish" civilization". Alas, the sense of “thriving” depends on one’s understanding of Jewish meaning and purpose - one man’s thriving civilization is another’s civilization in decline. For example - and there are many such examples: if the text of the Passover Haggadah is translated beautifully into English and as a result the number of people reading the Haggadah goes up by 20%, yet the number of American Jews bothering to learn Hebrew goes down 20% - would that be a sign of thriving or one of decline? I know, this is almost anecdotal, yet some people believe that the more people are engaged with the Haggadah the better, while others will tell you that the more people are engaged with Hebrew the better (surely, having both is the best outcome, but one rarely gets everything in life).

My question, then, would be as follows: what Judaism and what Jewish civilization are we talking about, what do we get if we follow your script?

Thank you for this fascinating exchange,



Dear Shmuel,

Again, you concentrate several important questions into a few sentences. Let’s take the sentences apart and organize the questions differently:

1) What is “Jewish Civilization”? Why do we need this concept?

2) The book Rise and Decline of Civilizations – Lessons for the Jewish People reviews a number of important historians and the rise and decline of many civilizations in order to understand past Jewish history and, perhaps, influence the future. But who needs this and what do we gain from this?

3) A “Rise” for one person is a “decline” for another. It is all value judgment. Everyone will judge what is rise and what decline according to how he sees the purpose and meaning of Judaism.

4) Thus, what kind of Judaism and Jewish civilization is this book talking about? What is it that should be made to “rise” and not “decline”?

5) To illustrate these abstract questions with a concrete example: suppose in the United States, we could get 20% more people reading the Pessach Haggadah or 20% more people learning Hebrew, but not both. What should we prefer? What would be “rise” and what “decline”?

On point 1: We call Judaism a civilization because it has both spiritual and material characteristics which, as a whole, distinguish it from other civilizations. Jewish civilization includes all branches of the Jewish people across the world, and all periods of Jewish history, but it is not exclusive. An individual can belong to two or more civilizations. Judaism was called a religion or a nation until the late 18th century, but these terms are not appropriate today because many Jews are no longer religious although they want to remain Jews, and many are also loyal citizens of various non-Jewish nations. “Jewish people” is an equivalent term, but not all Jewish nationals of various countries will be comfortable with this designation. “Civilization” is both over-arching and prestigious. This is how Chinese historians call the Jews.

On point 2: There was probably never a historian who did not believe that learning from history for the future was possible, if not necessary. The world’s first critical historian, the Greek Thucydides, said so at the beginning of his Peloponnesian War: human nature being what it is, unchangeable, the reasons that led to this war will appear again and again through history and therefore, his book will remain relevant for all times to come. Today few historians will say this so openly even if some still believes it. The aim of the book Rise and Decline of Civilizations is to give interested Jewish, Israeli and non-Jewish readers a new perspective on how history keeps interacting with the Jewish present. A more immodest aim is to trigger the curiosity of some Israeli or Jewish leaders – hopefully those who bother to read books. The Rise and Decline book postulates that the reasons for individual successes and failures in world history apply to Jewish history as well, although the long-term trajectory of Jewish history is very different from that of others. This also means that Jews and Israel can – up to a certain point – learn from successes and failures in world history.

In fact, Jewish and particularly Israeli leaders do not need Thucydides to remind them of the importance of history. There is virtually no speech given by one of Israel’s top leaders that does not include references to history: our great prophets, the Temple, the persecutions, the Shoah, Herzl, Ben-Gurion, and the War of Independence etc. It is therefore important that leaders understand history and do not misrepresent it. When an Israeli right-wing leader speaks of the failed revolt of Bar-Kochbah (135-138 CE) which ruined Judea at horrendous costs in Jewish lives, and says that this was the right way to preserve the Jewish people, whereas the successful effort of Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Sakkai who did save the Jewish people by setting up a house of learning was the wrong way, then something is deeply wrong with his understanding of Jewish history. Do leaders learn from history? All say they do, but the evidence is mixed so far.

On point 3:  Let us come to the question of value judgments, and the experience that a “rise” in the eye of one person might be a “decline” in the eye of another. This raises the two most critical problems that a student of rise and decline of civilizations will encounter. One is that rise and decline can occur simultaneously in the same geographic area or the same civilization, but in different fields of endeavor, the other is that contemporary witnesses are sometimes unable to recognize rises or declines in their own civilization or country. In addition, value judgments and historic analysis often change in the same civilization. What appeared as a rise to contemporaries, can appear in hindsight as a decline to a later generation which knows more facts and is able to judge more objectively. And of course, the opposite can be true as well. What seemed like a decline to the living can appear as the beginning of a new rise to their descendants. We mentioned before that the Jewish people currently live in a Golden Age of power, influence and creativity, but quite a few people refuse to see it and emphasize what they regard as the negative aspects of the age. Will historians and public opinion in two hundred years agree with our analysis and judge our age by the same criteria as we do? Nobody can tell, but it will depend a lot on whether and how our age will end. A period of history can be judged relatively fairly only after it has come to an end.

World history knows many examples of “Golden Ages” in all fields of national endeavor, it knows other ages when there was rise in one field and decline in another, and ages which were judged very differently by contemporaries and by their descendants because value systems had changed. To give examples for all three cases from French history: The age of Louis XIV, the 17th century was an age of national greatness and success in all fields. France was by far the most populous country of the West, became Europe’s leading political, economic and military power and supported one of the great periods of French letters, philosophy, painting, music and architecture. This is how those who expressed an opinion about their age judged it then (under Louis XIV it was prudent to praise the age and the ruler, not to criticize it), and this is how French schoolchildren who visit the gilded marvels of Versailles today are still told to judge the age: Golden, literally.

An example of simultaneous rise and decline: France in the last third of the 19th century was politically, socially and militarily in steep decline. It had lost a major war with Germany in 1870/71, its armies and its Emperor Napoleon III were in German captivity, the country suffered the amputation of a part of its national territory and was racked by social conflicts and civil war. Yet the same period saw an explosion of the French genius in painting, poetry, literature, music and scientific research. The Parisians who died of hunger during the siege of the city (cats and rats were highly priced delicacies) and the defeated, humiliated soldiers could not care less about the paintings of Cezanne, Monet and Renoir or the poems of Verlaine. Today, nobody remembers the cats, rats, the national humiliation and Renoir’s mobilization by the French army in 1870 where he nearly died of dysentery, but the whole world admires the paintings of those three and Verlaine’s poetry, and many still want to learn French. Was this a rise? A rise despite a decline? A third example, of radically changing value systems: the age of French colonial expansion which started under Louis XIV and reached its peak in the 19th century when France conquered North Africa, much of sub-Saharan Africa and Indochina was a source of enormous pride for the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen. For them it was a rise and a rare consolation after their lost wars. Today, France’s elites disavow the period of colonial expansion and condemn some of its excesses.

It is much more difficult to find similar, agreed upon and clear-cut examples of rise, simultaneous rise and decline and changing value systems in Jewish history. There are three reasons for this. One is that we still know too little about the political, material and spiritual conditions in ancient Israel, and about the links between these conditions. Hence we are unable to speak objectively about “rises”, “declines” or “Golden Ages” during this period of more than a thousand years. Maybe the second French case applies to some of this period? It is during and shortly after the great national calamities, the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions and the destruction of the First Temple that the greatest prophets emerge to speak and write their immortal words. Political-military defeat and cultural flourishing? We leave the question open.

The second reason for the difficulty of applying rise and decline models to Jewish history before the 20th century lies in the specific conditions of Diaspora history. The political, economic and partly even cultural conditions were to a large degree controlled by outside forces. When the latter permitted it, as they did during the so-called “Golden Age” of Spain in the 11th century, or during the time of Mercantilism in Europe in the 17th century, Jews did relatively well politically, economically and culturally. When hostile royal and religious powers did not permit it, Jews did less well. But they always survived somehow and maintained their religion, traditions and hope. Maybe then the entire Diaspora history could be called, somewhat facetiously, a secret, continuous “rise”: simply surviving under frequently hostile conditions for so long?

There is one more reason, maybe the most interesting one because it relates to major value changes, why the French model above is not easily transferable to Jewish history. It could be argued that Jewish value systems never changed in major ways during three thousand years, and when they did change, the sages tried to hide it by asserting that the new traditions and values were just a continuation of the old ones – they “invented” tradition. This occurred when the editors or codifiers of Jewish religious law in the 2nd to 5th centuries CE asserted that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had already observed the same laws. The historian Flavius Josephus went over to the Roman camp and is still denigrated by some as a traitor to the Jewish people. But he celebrated to his dying days the old Jewish values and traditions as the best in the world, superior to all others. When modern Jewish historiography started again in the 19th century, Heinrich Graetz did exactly the same though in less blunt words. Maybe some tried to introduce value changes. Before the creation of Israel and during its early years, there was a Zionist effort to disparage and overturn what was considered Diaspora values, to create a “New Jew”, but this effort barely lasted one generation and it rarely if ever tried to do away with the Bible. Jewish communist in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were more radical and tried, but the winds of history have swept them away.   

On point 4: Now we come to the hardest part, what kind of Judaism and Jewish civilization are we talking about, what kind of Judaism do we want to see rise and flourish? The Rise and Decline book does not present utopias (although Zionism was in the last resort a utopia) and it does not speculate about Messianic times. If the author is forced to make a statement here, he would begin with the three cases from French history above. We do not want a Jewish civilization that is flourishing culturally but oppressed and suffering materially or defeated militarily. We have had too much of this already. We do not want a Jewish people and Israel doing things, except when in existential danger, for which the leaders of later generations will have to apologize. Recent French governments declined to apologize but had to express regrets to Algeria for actions of the French army there. What then remains to emulate is the model of Louis XIV, but without his oppression of internal freedoms and without his unprovoked aggressions against small neighbors. An inclusive, economically assured Judaism where all have their place; a safe Israel; a growing, not a shrinking Jewish population; a high rate of Jewish and Israeli contributions to the world’s culture, science and technology; a respectable political and religious leadership; and, for the very long run, a step-by-step modification of Halakha to introduce the changes that would be possible without bringing the whole edifice crashing down, etc. etc. – that’s what we would like to see in next year's Rosh-Hashanah card.

On point 5: Finally, a specific, anecdotal question: If the number of American readers of the Pessach Hagadah increases by 20% but American the number of students of Hebrew decreases by 20% at the same time, should we call this “rise” or “decline”? Rise or decline of what? Of Jewish civilization? Our book is a macro-historic “thought-experiment”, it includes most of Jewish history. Generally Jewish historiography today is micro-history, it focusses on small segments of Jewish history. The Haggadah-versus-Hebrew question is nano-history. It is like evaluating possible major weather changes on Mount Everest by examining, through an electron microscope, the microbial life in a drop of water from a lake in the Himalayas. Maybe there is a link, maybe not. And if there is one, it will work only in cooperation with trillions of other, unknowable links relevant to the weather on this great mountain. But the Haggadah-versus-Hebrew question is pertinent. It deserves an answer without linking it to long-term historic trends. In the United States, learning Hebrew represents a deeper and more lasting commitment to Jewish culture and identity, and perhaps to Israel, than reading the Haggadah. The Haggadah is easy, short and attractive – it comes with a meal and lots of wine. Many have seen the Haggadah - even the current President of the United States has. So what? But learning Hebrew is difficult and time-consuming. For Israel I would say the opposite. Everybody speaks Hebrew, including one-and-half million Arab citizens. Hebrew alone does not indicate a commitment to, or an interest in Judaism. The Haggadah does, to a larger degree.

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