Myers, “Jewish History: a Very Short Introduction” (reviewed by Dennis Clark)


Title: Jewish History: a Very Short Introduction
Author: David N. Myers
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: History
Year Published: 2017
Number of pages: xxvi, 135
Binding: Paper
ISBN10: n/a   
ISBN13: 978-0-19-973098-8
Price: $11.95

Reviewed by Dennis Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters

Writing this history would seem to be a task for a master of the mystical arts.  After all, Richard Bushman got the same number of pages to discuss an entire religion, history and all, in his Very Short Introduction to Mormonism.  But Myers is expected to cover a history of over four thousand years, a history of a religion with as many adherents as Mormonism, but far more influential, and much more complex in all its convolutions.  About the only comparable task would be Martin F. Price’s volume on *Mountains*, also in this series.

Myers says as much in his “Acknowledgements,” but stops short of claiming mastery of the mystical arts.  What he does do, however, is set out to answer the question: “Why have Jews survived through the ages while other civilizations have come and gone?” (xxi), a question he cribbed from the online web-page “Ask the Rabbi.”  His approach to the answer is to divide the question into five chapters he calls “Names,” “Numbers,” “Cultures,” “Politics,” and “Perceptions,” and to take five short excursions through those four thousand years, examining the history from each of those perspectives.  By the end of the book, I had a fairly clear picture of the history, and a much clearer picture of the culture and peoples that survived that history. 

Myers sets out to answer that question with another question:  “How have Jews survived…?” (xxiii) rather than “Why” — a very rabbinical strategy.

He argues that there are two “recurrent characteristics in the annals of the Jews” that help explain, but also complicate, the answer.  The first is that, “throughout history, they have been a people in movement, beginning with the mythic account of the sojourn of their founding patriarch Abraham from Ur … to the land of Canaan.”  The second is “they have been consistently disliked” (xxi-xxii).

Of the first characteristic, being on the move, I am reminded of the fate of the Yazidis, another monotheistic cultural group nearly as old, if not older.  Although they are spread over parts of modern Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia, they had remained mostly settled, until the assault by ISIS began to disperse them, some as far afield as Germany, France and Sweden, according to Wikipedia.  And like the Jews, the Yazidis “have consistently been disliked.”  For purposes of this review, another analogy Myers offers is even more applicable:

“It is also a story of constant motion that kept Jews lithe on their feet, moving from place to place when the need arose, like a good boxer (of which there were more than a few Jews) who is able to dodge and deflect the full brunt of blows directed against him.  The ceaseless mobility of the Jews led to a second key factor in enabling their survival … ‘assimilation'” (xxiv).

Each chapter of the book offers many examples of this “acculturation” (his alternative term) and how it functioned.  One example particularly dear to me, also summarized in his introduction, “is the range of Jewish languages that Jews developed.”  So I was thinking “Hebrew.  What else?” and Myers offers “Aramaic and Greek in antiquity and extending to Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), and Yiddish, among many others” (xxv).  Clearly the key word to this list is “developed,” and the process, as Myers summarizes it, goes like this:

“Prior to modern times, Jews typically acquired fluency in the tongues of their host societies, but they still felt a need to create their own encoded version of them, accessible only to other Jews.  In most instances, they did so by transcribing the language not in vernacular script but in Hebrew letters, while at the same time adding Hebrew words to the linguistic mix” (xxv).

This duality, constant motion along with some assimilation, but not full assimilation because of the dislike by the host society, forms the basis of the five chapters referred to above:  “Names,” “Numbers,” “Cultures,” “Politics,” and “Perceptions.”  A few examples should suffice, but the book is short enough that you could read it for yourself.  This model of acculturation and dislike, especially with linguistic novelty thrown in, could easily adapt itself to a better understanding of the Book of Mormon — especially if you posit existing host societies receiving Lehi’s group, and a North-American locale for its events.

In chapter 1, “Names,” while acknowledging the scant extra-Biblical evidence of the Exodus, Myers presents the first piece of external evidence so far uncovered: “the Merneptah stele, a stone inscription that describes, in verse, the triumph of an Egyptian king, Merneptah, over a number of groups in the land of Canaan.  The final line relates: ‘Israel is laid waste, his seed is not'” (3-4).  This predates the kingship of Saul, and belongs to a period when Israel was, if anything, a loose federation of feuding tribes, as hinted in Joshua, Judges and Ruth.  This is the first name by which the Jews were known, and would be the primary name, despite the two kingdoms, until Cyrus the Persian “permitted the rebuilding to the Temple in 520 [BCE], a date that inaugurates the Second Temple period in Jewish history.  From this point forward, the group once known as Israelites may have been designated as ‘Jews,’ a term drawn from the Greek term ‘Ioudaios’ whose origins are in the Hebrew ‘yehudi'” (8). 

Note how carefully Myers qualifies the use of the name “Jews,” and its origin.  By this time there were Jews living in Greek city-states, conducting trade and assimilating and, within a few hundred years, developing “a new form of devotion — prayer. …  These sites where prayer was practiced were called ‘synagogues’ (Greek for assembly)” (8) — surely a prime example of adaptation, of acculturation.

A final, and highly ironic, note in “Names” occurs under the sub-heading of “Race.”  Myers says “the term *antisemitism* was coined by journalist Wilhelm Marr in the 1870s in Germany,” and it was a self-congratulatory appellation of those hating Jews.  He notes that it reflected an understanding, if not fear, that  “Jews had assimilated into Germany [sic] society, shedding visible signs of difference and even choosing to convert to Christianity in sizeable numbers.  At that point, they could enter undetected into any corner of German national life, contaminating all that they touched with their racial inferiority” (19).  At the beginning of the next century, Jewish scholars “frequently invoked the language of race and blood when describing themselves” (20) — ironic, in light of what awaited Jews.

The next chapter, “Numbers,” begins with an interesting statistic:

“If measured in demographic terms … they are a minuscule group that barely registers.  As of 2015, it was estimated that there were some 14 million Jews, amounting to .2 percent of the world’s population.  Although Jews have been around for thousands of years, they have the same number of members as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which was founded in the nineteenth century. … Why didn’t they accumulate a much larger population?” (23).

After noting the role the Holocaust played in lowering estimates from a high of 17 million in 1939 to 11 million, Myers points out that the present 14 million Jews are concentrated in two populations: Israel, with more than 6 million Jews, and the U.S., “with a figure that is usually estimated at around 5.5 million, but has been extended by some demographers to more than 9 million people” (24) — with the latter number, as you have already figured out, exceeding the estimate of 14 million worldwide, without taking into account any other Jewish communities.

The discrepancy is due to different ways that “scholars answer the question of ‘who is a Jew?'” (24).  That is the question addressed in this chapter, and Myers starts at the Exodus with the Biblical estimate of the number of Israelites fleeing Egypt.  He then pursues the numbers through the Torah and into Roman times, pointing out, for example, that the Maccabean, or Hasmonean, re-establishment of a Jewish state, included “native populations whom they forcibly converted to Judaism, especially the southern Idumean tribe.  Ironically, out of the Idumean world came the Jewish king Herod,” and we know how well that went.  In part because of all that, “the rabbis, in response to the rise of Christianity, adopted a skeptical view of conversion; they now insisted on ascertaining the sincerity of the prospects’ desires to join Judaism” (26), although I should point out that the Jews who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the Second Temple were very resistant to the Samaritan claims to be Israelites descended from Ephraim and Manasseh, and to their assertion that the central place was Mount Gerizim.  Wikipedia puts their population at 777, as of January 1, 2015.

The Jews escaped such a near-extinction, Myers notes, by becoming urbanites, with most of their dispersion being into cities — the main exception being the Yiddish-speaking shtetls of Eastern Europe.  The largest concentration of Jews in a city in Roman times was not in Rome, but is estimated to be “500,000 to 1 million Jewish residents in the first century CE” in Alexandria (27).  Some of those must have arrived in the dispersion which accompanied the destruction of the Second Temple.  “The year 70 is often seen, and with good reasons, as an epochal turning point in Jewish history, signalling the passage from a sovereign, Temple-bound Judaism to a diasporic, rabbinic Judaism” (28) better suited to that urban migration.  Not all Jews left Palestine, but among those who remained, “The coastal city of Yavneh became the new center of power, where the new rabbinic leaders of post-Temple Jewish life took center stage” (29).  In an otherwise unexplained comment immediately following, Myers notes that “Scholars debate whether an exalted high court and legislative body known as the Sanhedrin also arose in Yavneh or was more of an aspirational dream of rabbis” — which fits into the dates of the composition of the gospels, but contradicts their account of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

This dispersion also accounts for the rise of the Ashkenazim in what is now Germany and the Sephardim in what is now Spain, one of the most fascinating parts of the book, and one of the hardest to summarize.  Although chapter 3, “Cultures,” comes close.  Notice the plural — like everything else about Jewish history, the cultures of the people are not monolithic, unitary or fossilized.  And they are transmitted in a way I hadn’t even thought about.  “Given their rootedness in the daily practices of the home, women played an especially significant role in transmitting *minhagim*,” or Jewish customs.  Myers gives the example of this that seems especially germane.  In the Iberian Peninsula, “A minority of Jews who had become Catholics in the waves of forced conversion that began in 1391 chose to preserve what vestiges of Jewish ritual that they could in secret.”  These Jews were not like the German Jews who had assimilated but were still rejected by the antisemites; they were forced to convert, but did not assimilate.  However, “The burden of responsibility for these ‘crypto-Jews’ fell on women, who cultivated Jewish practices in the only safe space they had, the privacy of the home” (46). 

It was not only external pressures that shaped the *minhagim,* however. The Jewish communities in Babylonia and Palestine competed in establishing cultures under the Roman Empire, and each established its own rabbinic teachings, the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds.  This kind of rivalry eventually devolved to the Sephardic Jews, from the Iberian Peninsula, and Ashkenazi Jews, from Germany, carried into the present day.

This rivalry derived from old sources: “rabbinic Judaism expressly sought, after the collapse of the Great Revolt in 70, to reorganize Jewish life around the Oral Law. … the ritual laws and practices that had circulated for centuries” (54, 55).  To bring in yet another name to this discussion of custom, law and text, “A key textual anchor for the interpretive project of the rabbis was the Mishnah, the first written compendium of the Oral Law that was compiled in Palestine around 200 CE” (55).  And why does that matter? Because “It served as the foundation for the two Talmuds,” the Babylonian and Palestinian.  “Circles of scholars working in the two major intellectual centers of Palestine and Babylonia between the fourth and sixth centuries parsed these texts” (55), so that the first manuscripts we have of the Torah, and its recorded interpretation, were being developed at the same time as the tales being collected in the gospels, slightly after Paul’s letters were written, but at the time they were being preserved, and some time around the propagation of the *Revelation* of John of Patmos.  And both bodies of writings were being developed by Jewish scholars, some of whom accepted a new messiah.

As you might guess, this led to some interesting politics among those communities, especially so long as both communities were in the minority.  Chapter 4, “Politics,” discusses such confraternal politics, but focuses even more on how the Jews fit into politics in undemocratic societies, i.e. through most of their history.  As Myers has it, “Jews constantly refined the skills of negotiation and accommodation through interactions with political powers in ancient and medieval times” (73).  He continues: “And while they may not have had a state of their own, they linked their security and well-being to the fortunes of states, which largely served them in good stead” (73-4).  If this sounds like it lends credence to the slander that Jews rule the world through a secret cabal, that is precisely why this chapter is so welcome.  By examining the question through three lenses — the community, the state and the self — Myers establishes how complex the problem is.  This chapter builds strongly on the three that come before, and it is in this chapter that the book addresses most directly the question of the Jewish state, of Israel — a reversion to the earliest documented name for this people and their dream of a homeland.  And the unresolved tension between American Jewry and the state of Israel, a part of those politics, may be resolved demographically, not politically.

Consider the next chapter, “Perceptions.” Myers returns to the question he tackled early on by quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, who “identified the distinctive role that the Jew played as ‘the stranger, the intruder, the unassimilated at the very heart of our society.’  This status prompted Sartre to offer his own iconic definition of the Jew as ‘the one whom other men consider a Jew'” (99).  The matter goes all the way back to the breakup of Solomon’s kingdom, with the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom each, in effect, excommunicating the other.  Perception and politics working together in a manner familiar from Mormon history, but on a far larger scale.  And that is the value of this history for the Mormon reader.  We have not faced a hostility nearly as pronounced as the Jews have.  But the long history of hatred of Jews “reveals how earlier claims based on religion served as the foundation for other sorts of charges that cast Jews as an almost mystical and demonic force” (104) — and demonstrates how potent such “claims based on religion” can be.

Now this may seem a very long review for a Very Short Introduction.  It may seem that I have quoted most of the book, instead of summarizing it.  In my defense, may I say that the book is dense, packing a lot of history into those repetitions of the chronology — rather like the mythical Christmas fruitcake Christians joke about.  It is harder to summarize this kind of writing than to quote it. 

So, if you have read this far, you probably have enough interest in the subject to read the book. But be prepared; this is not a beach book.  It requires, and it repays, careful reading, even study.

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