AN INTRODUCTORY CHAPTER TO THE HISTORY OF THE JEWS
1. THE ADVENTURE OF JEWISH HISTORY
A Long Career -- This book tells the story of the Jewish people, a story of continuous adventure. The Jews have lived through four thousand years. Before the dawn of the Western World the Jews were here. They began their career in Antiquity, when nations existed of whom nothing but a vague memory has survived. They lived and labored when Assyrians and Babylonians terrorized their neighbors, and Egyptian priests uttered their mysterious incantations. They are alive today, when new nations bestride the world. If the experiences of one man's life are interesting, surely the adventurous journey and miraculous life of an entire people should be even more thrilling.
The Drama of Jewish History -- The history of the Jews is not the story of an isolated adventure, nor of a life lived far away from the crowded highways of civilization. On the contrary, hardly an important event happened in the history of the world but that the Jews played some important part in it. Sometimes the event affected them after it happened; sometimes they themselves helped to bring the event about; but at all times they were there, anxious and eternal participants in humanity's struggle and progress. A knowledge of Jewish history, therefore, requires acquaintance with the momentous events in the history of many nations. This is why Jewish history is many times more important than one might suppose judging merely from the fact that the Jews are numerically a small group. By observing the Jews, one can view the entire pageant of mankind's pilgrimage through the ages. Tragedy and almost miraculous escapes from extinction, triumphs over tremendous difficulty, great achievements in the world of culture and religion, and devotion to the welfare of humanity are characteristics of the Jewish story.
2. THE NATURE OF JEWISH HISTORY
Bigness and Greatness -- Until a few years ago, before the calamity of World War II befell them, the Jews throughout the world numbered about sixteen millions. They were less than one per cent of the world's population and only about one and one half per cent of the combined populations of Europe and America. Other peoples were much bigger than the Jewish group. Moreover, the fact that they were scattered all over the world seemed to make the Jews even less important. But despite their small number and lack of concentration, their history is of tremendous significance.
Bigness has nothing to do with greatness. Someone has suggested a convincing way of demonstrating this. In the lower right-hand corner of a map of the Western world, which includes America, Europe and the western part of Asia, lies Palestine along the Mediterranean coast; Greece is a little to the northwest of it. One tiny speck on the map marks the city of Jerusalem; another marks the city of Athens. It is astonishing to realize that the culture of all the rest of the map is based on the contributions made by these two spots. Western civilization is the product of the thought and experience of these two cities. For the test of a people's greatness is not the number of its citizens, nor the size of its cities, nor the wealth of its millionaires. The real test lies in a people's effort to improve the mind, the character and the well-being of humanity, to give life new directions and to extend justice in human society. This is why the little Jewish people is of such interest and importance to the world.
The Religious Contribution -- The first part of Jewish history, usually knwon as the history of the Hebrews, is fairly familiar. Most people have a general idea how the Hebrews originated, how they won their land and established their kingdoms. The ancient heroes of the people, the patriarchs, Joshua the conqueror, David the nation-builder, and a host of others, are well known from popular story and legend. These men influenced the world; but their influence was an indirect one. More important was the influence of the Lawgiver, the poets, writers and religious teachers of the Hebrews -- the men known as the prophets. Their words have resounded through the centuries and their thoughts affect our life today. Why were the two little kingdoms, Israel and Judah, able to develop such men and such thoughts? Huge empires surrounded them; big and little nations lived on their every side. Yet, it was tiny Judah and Israel, not Babylonia and Assyria or Egypt and Philistia, that did most to enrich the spirit of mankind.
Geography and Religion -- The map of the ancient world shows one reason why Judah and Israel left their impress upon humanity. To the northeast of Palestine lies the Mesopotamian valley from which sometimes Babylonia and at other times Assyria poured mighty armies into the lands of the west to satisfy their lust for booty, conquest and power. To the southwest lies Egypt, from which equally powerful armies came to join battle with those descending from the north. Between the two, on the only strip of land through which each army could move to come to grips with the other, lived the Hebrews. Though fairly fruitful, theirs was not a rich land for purposes of agriculture. Its small area was further reduced by mountains and rocky hills. The nature of their land, therefore, made it impossible for the Hebrews to ever rule the ancient world as upon occasions the Babylonians or the Egyptians did. Most of the Hebrews remained poor peasants, frequently oppressed. During the greater part of their history both Israel and Judah were made subject to the great empires. Time and again, they saw conquering armies march up and down theri countries to victory or defeat. Whichever the direction the armies marched, or whatever the mood they felt when they returned, Israel was the victim. But even those powerful victors would have been almost forgotten, had it not been for the greatness of their victim.
Freedom and Justice -- The size of the country, the frequency with which it served as a battleground for other nations and the poverty of its inhabitants were in part responsible for the development of its spiritual greatness. Remembering their own suffering, the Hebrews made sympathy for the downtrodden the very cornerstone of their religion. To this day the Jewish calendar -- its Sabbaths, holidays and workdays -- oblige the Jew to recall the fact that his ancestors were slaves in Egypt. David's conquests of freedom and equal justice to all classes of society command jjustice that they came to regard their God, not only as the Creator of the world, but as a God who sought to establish freedom and justice among men.
Monotheism -- The Jews, because of their experiences as a nation, came to believe in One God, that is, they became monotheists. The other nations of the ancient world believed in local gods. Egypt had its own gods, and so did Babylonia and every other nation. When a nation won in battle, its leaders proclaimed that its god had conquered the god of the defeated country. The Hebrews often witnessed the defeats and victories now of one great nation and now of another. The more thoughtful among them realized that it was foolish to divide the heavens as the earth was divided, giving a nation's god rulership over a particular part of the heavens to correspond to the earth beneath it. They held it to be childish to represent God in the form of a man or an ox or a carved pole, and to pray to that image for victory against an enemy. They believed that God was the creator of the entire world; He was Father of all humanity; His purpose was not for His people to be conquerors, but for them to set an example to mankind how "to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God."
Prophecy and the Bible -- It took the Hebrews a long time to arrive at these great convictions. Perhaps they would never have arrived at them had not Moses risen to mold the beginnings of their history. He revived among them Abraham's ideal of monotheism; he taught them important rules of conduct. He was, however, centuries ahead of his times. Only the great men among the Hebrews, the prophets, truly understood Moses' teachings. They endeavored to make their fellow Hebrews understand them too; but, except on rare occasions, the Hebrews paid little attention to the prophets. Only after great misfortunes had overtaken them, and both Israel and Judah had been temporarily destroyed as kingdoms, did the common people accept the prophetic teachings.
These were incorporated in an extraordinary collection of books--a library in itself--that has come to be known as the Bible. The Bible has influenced the mind and happiness of the Western world more than any battle ever fought, any invention ever made or any idea ever expressed. It inspired the religion, the language, the arts, the conduct, the fears and the hopes of almost every nation on the face of the earth.
The Growing Heritage -- How this happened cannot be told here. One must first understand how the thoughts of the prophets affected the Jews during the Babylonian Exile and after they had rebuilt their national life in Palestine. For it was not the ancient Hebrews who transmitted the Bible to other peoples of the world, but their descendants, the Jews. The Jews were no longer satisfied merely to believe in the teachings of the prophets. They wanted to develop and apply them, and to make them part of their everyday life. They built institutions around them and defended them. When, later, their Second Commonwealth was destroyed by Rome, these institutions saved the Jewish people from utter destruction. The Jewish people did more than survive. Just as in Palestine the Hebrews obtained a deeper understanding of truth and justice through their sufferings in cruelty and war, so their descendants in the Diaspora further developed their spirit because they experienced the evils and injustices of a later day. Through pain and suffering, through searching for means to surmount obstacles, the Jews acquired that social understanding and that human sympathy which have enabled them, individually and as a group, to make some of their richest contributions to humanity. The forces of ignorance, selfishness and brutality even today testify to this by arraying themselves against the Jewish people and making this small group the chief object of their hatred.
The Jews as the Heirs of Their Past -- Explanation now of three terms -- Hebrew, Israelite and Jew -- will help to avoid confusion later. These names are often used interchangeably. There is nothing wrong in this use, but it may be just as well to understand what each one means. The Hebrews were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the last was also called Israel. His name was applied to the tribes who settled in Canaan and some lands near by. Later, some of the tribes became two kingdoms: Israel was the kingdom of northern Palestine; while Judah was the southern kingdom (named after one of the sons of Jacob) over which the family of David ruled. Both populations could rightly be called Hebrews, and both could be referred to as the Children of Israel. The northerners called themselves Israelites, and the southerners Judeans. Subsequently, both kingdoms were destroyed, but only the Judeans succeeded in re-establishing themselves in their old land, whereas the Israelites never restored their kingdom. Only the Judeans, therefore, played a part in later history. The word "Jew" is a modification of the word "Judean." The Jews are the last remnants of the Hebrews and the Israelites, and rightfully took over whatever hopes, tasks and glories the larger group had developed.
The Jews and their History -- For several good reasons this book is limited to the history of the Jews. One reason for this is that something of the history of the ancient Hebrews is generally, however inadequately, known. He must be a very uncultured man who does not know something about Abraham, or Joseph, or David, or Isaiah. A second reason for confining this book to the history of the Jews is that very few people know much about the history of the successors of the Hebrews. Little is to be found in modern historical writings about the Jews in connection with the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages and Modern Times. Occasionally one finds a remark here or there about them. Sometimes it is a sympathetic reference to the persecutions which the Jews had to undergo. Sometimes it is an uncomplimentary opinion about their business activities or their religion. Usually the Jews are ignored as if they no longer existed. The Jews are frequently mentioned in connection with the rise of Christianity. But even here, the main interest does not lie in how the Jews lived and felt and worked, but rather in how they served as a background for the rise of Christianity, the religion adopted in the West. Yet, the Jews themselves have a history. No one can possibly understand how the Jews survived to modern times unless he has some knowledge of the past twenty-five hundred years from the Jewish point of view. Certainly we ought to know the later period, after the rise of Christianity, much better than we do, not only because it is inherently interesting, but especially because during this period the Jews cooperated in building the world in which they lived.
The meaning of this cooperation is best described int he words of Simon Dubnow, a great Jewish historian. He said: "This latter part of Jewish history is not yet known, and many, in the thrall of prejudice, do not wish to know it. But ere long it will be known and appreciated. . . . The thousand-years' martyrdom of the Jewish people, its unbroken pilgrimate, its tragic fate, its teachers of religion, its martyrs, philosophers, champions -- this whole epic will in days to come sink deep into the memory of men. . . . It will secure respect for the silvery hair of the Jewish people, a people of thinkers and sufferers. . . . It is our firm conviction that the time is approaching in which the second half of Jewish history will be to the noblest part of thinking humanity what its first half has long been to believing humanity, a source of sublime moral truth. In this sense, Jewish history in its entirety is the pledge of the spiritual union between the Jews and the rest of the nations.
3. THE CHALLENGE IN JEWISH HISTORY
The Demands of the Past -- Jewish history presents a challenge to the modern Jew. The heroes of the Jewish past -- thinkers, teachers and leaders -- lived their lives and made their sacrifices in order that their descendants might have a fund of wisdom for inspiration and practical living. Their life and effort were wasted unless they lead to action on our part, to defend what we received from the past and, if possible, to enrich it further. In other words, Jewish history tells how generation after generation of our people grappled with problems and overcame difficulties for the sake of what they considered sacred. The story is worth telling because it may help the present generation to see its problems in better perspective and to encourage its search for helpful solutions to these problems.
The Problems of the Present -- A knowledge of history does not of itself provide solutions for current problems, but it is useful in offering encouragement and suggestions. The circumstances which challenge Jewish life today are not at all the same as those which challenged it in the days of the Maccabees or when the Roman empire was at the height of its power, or upon any of the other numerous occasions when the fate of the Jews was in the balance. The problem of Jewish defense against persecution is a good illustration of how methods change in accordance with conditions. There were times when the Jews were compelled to take up the sword, and other times when they took up the pen in defense of their right to live as Jews. Sometimes a generation won its battle by proclaiming itself ready to be slaughtered; at other times it was compelled to use a plea or a bribe. Can the Jews use these methods today? To answer this question, it is necessary to study the conditions of the past struggles and compare them with present conditions. One must know the strength and weakness of the Jewish spirit then and now. Jewish history thus becomes an essential preparation for our struggle for survival. Similarly with other problems facing the Jewish group: the problem of self-regulation, that is, to what extent Jewish communal life is possible in the free environment of the United States; the problem of Jewish culture and the possibility of its further development in the Diaspora; the problems connected with modern efforts to rebuild Palestine as a Jewish Homeland; and the problems connected with strengthening Jewish religious life. All of these problems are complex and interrelated. Thought, effort and sacrifice are needed for their solution; but knowledge of the past is also necessary. For none of these problems is altogether new in Jewish life; and Jewish history, which is really recorded Jewish experience, can be very helpful. The Jews are an old people and the wisdom they have acquired through their long life ought not to be neglected or wasted.
4. HOW JEWISH HISTORY MAY BE DIVIDED
Seven Ages -- The history of the Jews may be divided into the following seven periods: The Patriarchal Age, from Abraham to the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, tells all those beautiful and moving stories of our people's origin which have been a source of inspiration for the entire Western world. These stories, however, are only introductory to the real history of the Jewish people. This age is followed by the period of the First Commonwealth, from about 1200 to 586 before the Common Era. This is the age of judges, kings and prophets, of wars, divisions and rebellions, and also of the birth of great spiritual truths. The third period covers the history of the Second Commonwealth, from 586 before the Common Era (we shall abbreviate this phrase to B.C.E. hereafter) to the year 70 in the Common Era (we shall use the letters C.E. hereafter). This includes the story of the Babylonian Captivity, the return and the rebuilding of the Temple, the Persian and Greek contacts with the Jews, the Hasmoneans and the Roman control. The fourth period deals with the Jews of the East. It relates the rise and decline of the Jews in Babylonia and Palestine during the first thousand years of the Common Era, the period which saw the development of the Talmud among the Jews, and of Christianity and Mohammedanism among the Gentiles.
The fifth is that of the Middle Ages in Europe. It overlaps the previous age, since the Jews of Europe trace their history a century or two before the Common Era, while the Second Commonwealth still existed. But the European communities were so different in origin and development that it is impossible to discuss them along with the Jews of the East. It is the age of Jewish settlement in various parts of Europe, Jewish participation in the slow rise of European culture, the Crusades and all the evils which followed from them. The end of the Renaissance (about 1520), if not the expulsion from Spain (1492) began a new period for European Jewry. It has often been called the Ghetto Age; but since cultural influences have been most important in Jewish history, this period is better named after the Jews of Eastern Europe, who, in their days, developed the highest cultural activity. The seventh and last period is the Modern Age, dating from the time when, toward the end of the eighteenth century, the world underwent radical transformation after the revolutions in America and in France.
Biblical and Post-Biblical History -- The first two periods described above are not treated in this book. The reason is that this book seeks to present the background of present-day Jewish life, institutions and problems. Now, the farther back one goes, the less direct is the influence of historical events on modern times. The Bible and its characters, of course, have affected and still affect Jewish life. But the historical events of biblical times have not had and do not have any such influence. More significant and influential than the events recorded in the Bible have been later periods. The history of the last four periods, moreover, differs in its very nature from the history of the first three. Earlier Jewish history was the history of a people on its land and was largely concerned with politics and statesmanship. After the Second Commonwealth, and to some extent also during its existence, Jewish history has been the history of a people, physically scattered, yet working together for the development of thought, culture and religion. This is the story we try to tell, for this is what constitutes the uniqueness of the Jewish People.
"A HISTORY OF THE JEWS"
- BY SOLOMON GRAYZEL
41 minutes ago