The Jewish People: A History (Draft)

The Jewish People

A History

Henry Abramson

DRAFT: Please do not reproduce or circulate.

Copyright Henry Abramson 2021

Table of Contents, Series Introduction and Introduction to Volume One available below. Draft chapters are available to members. For more information on membership, please click here.


Table of Contents

Series Introduction


Volume One:

The Ancient Period

(to 200 CE)

Introduction

  1. The Land of Israel (chapter accessible to members 4.11.2021)
  2. The Biblical Narrative
  3. The Archaeological Record
  4. Daily Life in Biblical Israel
  5. The Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles
  6. The Persian Period
  7. The Maccabean Revolt
  8. The World of the Sages
  9. Judaea under Roman Rule
  10. The Birth of Christianity
  11. The First Roman-Jewish War
  12. The Bar Kochba Revolt
  13. Women in Ancient Israel
  14. Earliest Diaspora Communities
  15. The Jewish People Survive Antiquity

Photo Credits

Acknowledgments

Volume Two:

The Medieval Period

(200-1500 CE)

Introduction

  1. The Babylonian Center
  2. Rome and Byzantium
  3. Visigothic Iberia
  4. The Rise of Islam
  5. The Jews of Africa
  6. The Khazar Kingdom
  7. The Jews of the Middle East
  8. The Spanish Golden Age
  9. The Rishonim
  10. The Ashkenazic Center
  11. Jews in the Medieval Economy
  12. Medieval Antisemitism
  13. Jewish Women in the Medieval Period
  14. The Spanish Inquisition
  15. The Jewish People Survive the Medieval Period

Photo Credits

Acknowledgments

Volume Three:

The Modern Period

(from 1500 CE)

Introduction

  1. The Sephardic Diaspora
  2. The Jews of Asia
  3. The Aharonim
  4. The Sabbatean Debacle
  5. Jews in the New World
  6. The Birth of Hasidism
  7. The Haskalah
  8. Modern Jewish Politics
  9. The Soviet Jewish Experiment
  10. The Holocaust
  11. The State of Israel
  12. Mizrahi Jewry
  13. Jewish Women in the Modern Period
  14. The American Jewish Experiment
  15. The Jewish People Survive

Photo Credits

Acknowledgments

Series Introduction

“Imagine that we are in a vast library,” urged Lord Jonathan Sacks, the late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, in his classic work, A Letter in the Scroll (2000):

In every direction we look there are bookcases. Each has shelves stretching from the floor to the ceiling, and every shelf is full of books. We are surrounded by the recorded thoughts of many people, some great, some less so, and we can reach out and take any book we wish. All we have to do is choose. Imagine that, while browsing in the library, you come across one book unlike the rest, which catches your eye because on its spine is written the name of your family. Intrigued, you open it and see many pages written by different hands in many languages. You start reading it, and gradually you begin to understand what it is. It is the story each generation of your ancestors has told for the sake of the next, so that everyone born into this family can learn where they came from, what happened to them, what they lived for and why. As you turn the pages, you reach the last, which carries no entry but a heading. It bears your name.

The Jewish People: A History is a book that bears my name, but by virtue of your reading this very sentence, it bears yours as well. Some ephemeral thread connects us, you and I, united in a brief moment of shared consciousness: I once thought these words, and now you are thinking them as well. Time and space are powerless before the incredible might of the written word, allowing the two of us to commune with each other, and by extension we may encounter the “thoughts of many people, some great, some less so,” from the philosophical meditations of Maimonides to the quotidian concerns of Glikl for her children. 

At the same time, we are existentially separated by the limiting factors of our individual identities: I may momentarily perceive the depth of emotion inherent in a line of Shmuel Ha-Nagid’s medieval Spanish poetry, but I will never understand it in a way other than through my own perspective, colored and distorted by the contours of my own, specific and individual life experience. Not unlike a submariner, hoping to penetrate the deepest trench in the ocean floor, I may gain access to that murky world but I will be forever limited to perceiving it through the glass of a pressure-resistant window, or represented in a series of pixels on a computer screen. The fuller reality of the ocean depths is far colder, darker, and richer, but my ability to understand it is limited by the reach of my perceptions. The study of history is even more remote, given that it literally no longer exists (the German word for “the past,” Vergangenheit, is quite evocative: literally, “that which has gone away”), and the tools used to take measure of the past are even more complex and error-prone than the scientific instruments of our underwater explorer. Therefore, before we embark on our journey together into the past, it is only fair that I spend a few pages describing not only our itinerary, but also warn you of the limitations of your guide. This Series Introduction will serve as a covenant between you and I, between author and reader; it will serve as a signpost that you may return to as we progress along our path from the distant origins of the Jewish people to the present day.

The title of this book, The Jewish People: A History, while seeming rather generic, is actually quite precise and intentional. The book focuses on The Jewish People, using the definite article “the,” meaning, there is such a thing as a single, unitary Jewish people. As I hope to demonstrate over the course of the next three volumes, this is not as obvious as one might think: Jews are represented in populations that span the globe, with often radically different notions as to what unites them as a people. Secondly, I generally use the term “Jewish” in its popular, anachronistic sense: while the term, strictly speaking, only refers to the descendants of the tribe or residents of the region of Judah, and chronologically it is most appropriately applied from the 6th century BCE and later, I use it in the way most Jews understand it today, which is more broadly inclusive than historically precise. Abraham and Sarah, for example, were technically Hebrews, but they were also quite Jewish. 

Thirdly, this is a history of the Jewish people rather than the Jews, which I hope will convey a gentle allusion to the fact that the protagonists of this story were human beings, with all the frailties exhibited by our mortal lives. This book communicates things both heroic and glorious, but at the same time, it seeks to reinforce the notion sadly ignored by those filled with hate — Jews are people, whose existence is as fragile as it is precious. Also, while respectful of the ancients and grateful for their resilience, this is nevertheless a critical history, including descriptions and analyses of the inevitable failings of individuals and communities through history, as appropriate to the overall narrative. Finally, after the required academic colon, it is A History. Here I humbly prefer the indefinite article: this is merely a history, not the history. 

“There is nothing easier in the world,” writes the Sephardic Haham Eliezer Papo (1785-1826), “than recognizing fault in others. Similarly, there is nothing more difficult in the world than recognizing one’s own faults” (Pele Yoets 114:1). For a historian, the task is especially difficult: while my overall academic goal is to communicate “what actually happened” (to borrow Leopold von Ranke’s memorable phrase wie es eigentlich gewesen war), it is widely understood that our profession is especially prone to author bias. The border between history and fiction is apparently as ill-defined as it is permeable. To maintain faith with our covenant, a few words about my personal perspectives are in order, serving as a kind of literary caveat emptor, or “buyer beware” statement to guide your understanding of the text.

I believe that there is a grand narrative to Jewish history. I believe that it is Divine in nature, tracing an arc described by the Torah and the Hebrew prophets. I also believe that there is a role for human choice in the expression of that trajectory — it may be delayed but not suppressed; it may be diverted but will return to center as surely as a compass needle finds its true north.  

Yet we live in a century shaped by Postmodernism, a body of thought and opinion shaped by our collective disillusionment with the bloody failures of grand ideologies. A new metric of truth must be used by the historians of our era. Proclamations of faith and prooftexts drawn from revealed religious dicta may assuage those who are believers — there is an undeniable pleasure in learning a thing which one already knows to be true — but for many if not most readers, pious arguments are worse than worthless. My approach therefore is self-consciously secular in nature. I would consider this work a success if it could be read with equal enthusiasm by Jews and non-Jews, believers and non-believers alike. 

HMA

On the eve of the season of redemption

Nisan 5781

Year Two of the Great Pandemic

March 2021

New York


Volume One

The Ancient Period

Volume One: The Ancient Period (to 200 CE)

Introduction to Volume One

  1. The Land of Israel (chapter accessible to members 4.11.2021)
  2. The Biblical Narrative
  3. The Archaeological Record
  4. Daily Life in Biblical Israel
  5. The Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles
  6. The Persian Period
  7. The Maccabean Revolt
  8. The World of the Sages
  9. Judaea under Roman Rule
  10. The Birth of Christianity
  11. The First Roman-Jewish War
  12. The Bar Kochba Revolt
  13. Women in Ancient Israel
  14. Earliest Diaspora Communities
  15. The Jewish People Survive Antiquity

Photo Credits

Acknowledgments


Introduction

Hannah Szenes was not yet 23 years old when she strapped on a canvas parachute and plummeted into Nazi-occupied Europe. Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Hungary, she had already made her escape from the Holocaust, immigrating to Israel in September 1939, the month that marked the outbreak of World War II. Yet she could not resist the call to help her endangered people, and joined the Jewish resistance organized by the Haganah. Operating behind enemy lines, she was captured along with the British radio she used to communicate with other young parachutists. Tortured and abused, she stubbornly refused to reveal the transmitter codes, protecting her comrades with her very life. After months of brutality, her frustrated captors finally executed this brave young Jewish woman by firing squad on November 7, 1944.

With her murder, the Jewish people lost not only a heroine of incredible courage, but also a gifted poet. Her Hebrew lyrics, written with both the passion of youth and a wisdom more typically found among the aged, resonate throughout modern Israel as they are taught, memorized, and set to music by generations of Jews grateful for her sacrifice, and her art. Among her poems is the characteristically brief “There are Stars,” especially useful for our discussion:

יש כוכבים

יש כוכבים שאורם מגיע ארצה רק כאשר הם עצמם אבדו ואינם

יש אנשים 

שזיו זיכרם מאיר רק כאשר הם אינם יותר בתוכנו.

–אורות אלה

–המבהיקים בחשכת הלילה

הם הם שמראים לאדם את הדרך.

There are Stars

Whose light reaches the earth when they themselves are gone and no more

There are people

Whose radiance illuminates when they themselves are gone and no longer among us

These lights — 

Brilliant in the dark of night —

they kindle for humanity the lights along the path.

Szenes’ metaphor is at once both cosmic and historical. Just as there are stars in the night sky whose radiance is reflective of the brilliance they exuded many light-years ago, only reaching and illuminating the earth eons later, so too are there people who ceased to exist centuries ago, yet their influence is felt even now as immediately as one perceives the stars in the night sky. When we marvel at the constellations today — something that was far more powerful to my childhood self in remote Northern Ontario than it is to my urban-dwelling children — it is hard to imagine that these stars died long ago, and that we are merely enjoying photons that they shed when the earth was yet young. So too are the figures of ancient Judaism, the personalities whose lives continue to guide and illuminate the daily lives of their descendants, millennia later. Who remains unmoved by the heroism of the Jewish midwives of Egypt, the spiritual ancestors of Hannah Szenes, who refused to comply with Pharaoh’s cruel decree to drown children in the Nile? Who cannot identify with Psalm 51, describing King David’s heartfelt yearning for repentance and forgiveness? 

For some, the narrative recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, known to Jews as Tanakh — an acronym of Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings) — provide eternally relevant teachings that reflect a perfect communication of Divine intent for the world up to the current generation. For others, they are merely ancient stories, subject to the vagaries of the literature of the era in which they were composed. Yet while many scholars and laypeople would argue that the Bible should not be taken literally, it would be misguided not to take it seriously: taken together, these ancient books represent a foundational element of world civilization, and describe the history of the Jewish people from its earliest origins to the centuries before the common era.

In this first volume of The Jewish People: A History, we will survey the period covered by the Bible and beyond, following the Jewish people in the first few centuries beyond the scope of the Biblical text, culminating in the national tragedy of the first and second Roman-Jewish wars that cruelly suppressed Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, setting the stage for a recovery and renaissance that would be millennia in the making.

Throughout Volume One, we will be guided by Hannah Szenes’ poetic insight, recognizing the light originally cast by the Jewish people of antiquity, a light that continues to illuminate the path in our own times.



Continue to Chapter 1. The Land of Israel (chapter accessible to members 4.11.2021)

Draft chapters are scheduled to become available to YouTube Channel members as they are competed. For more information on membership please click here.