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  • New Reflections on Jewish Historiography
  • Michael A. Meyer, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History
Michael Brenner . Propheten des Vergangenen: Jüdische Geschichtsschreibung im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2006. Pp. 400.
Yitzhak Conforti . Zeman avar: Ha-historyografyah ha-Tsiyonit ve-itsuv hazikaron ha-leumi. (Past Tense: Zionist Historiography and the Shaping of the National Memory). Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2006. Pp. 332.
Moshe Rosman . How Jewish Is Jewish History?Oxford and Portland, Ore.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007. Pp. xiv +224.

In 1932 Leo Baeck published an article in which he expressed deep regret at how modern Jewish historiography had wrought rupture: "The old tradition, which until then could always be experienced with immediacy in every present, which entered consciousness ever anew, which through its succession of teachers brought about and ensured an outer and inner unity, tore apart . . . One no longer stood in it but outside of it. Tradition gave way before learned reconstruction; historical knowledge supplanted historical connection."1 Yet only a year earlier the very popular Jewish historian Josef Kastein could write of his deep personal connection to his subject: "No man who feels impelled by a deep passion to write history, more especially the history of his own people, can remain neutral; if he did he could not breathe his own soul into the narrative."2

This question of continuity and relationship between tradition and critical historical writing, proximity versus distance in relation to the past, which Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi brought to heightened consciousness in his Zakhor, has continued to occupy reflections on Jewish historiography. But it does not stand alone. Other related questions play as significant a [End Page 660] role in current discourse. Surely the most fundamental is whether there is a Diaspora Jewish history at all. Isaac Marcus Jost had wondered if the "history of a slave" could count as history while, contrariwise, Simon Dubnow concluded that a historically conscious landless people possesses historicity in the highest degree. More recently, writers have claimed that for centuries the Jews were "out of history" and only reentered it with the advent of modernity, or of Zionism, or the State of Israel. A constant temptation within Jewish historiography has been and is still today its instrumentalization, whether for the sake of emancipation, religious reform, a socialist or Zionist ideology, or the resuscitation and reshaping of Jewish memory for the sake of Jewish survival—all of these standing against the Rankean ideal of historical writing for its own sake. Finally, especially with the publication of Cultures of the Jews,3 the question of the unity and independence of Jewish history has reemerged. The concept of plural Jewish identities and cultures, intimately related to the variety of societies in which they have participated but not easily connected with a single historical entity, has been set against the possibility of forging Jewish history into a coherent master narrative.

In three new volumes, published respectively in Germany, Israel, and the United States, these issues recur within various frameworks and approaches. Each of them represents a significant contribution to what is clearly an ongoing discussion.4

Michael Brenner has written the first broadly conceived history of modern Jewish historiography,5 an ambitious project that he executes with precision and elegance. Each chapter begins with a pictorial image that serves as a visual representation for the discussion that follows. Paul Klee's famous Angelus Novus (the backward-looking angel inherited by Gershom Scholem from Walter Benjamin) stands at the beginning, joined [End Page 661] to Friedrich Schlegel's assertion that historians are "prophets facing backwards." So too, as Brenner's title indicates, historians are "prophets of the past," analogously envisioning what has been, even as biblical prophets envisioned what was yet to be. Brenner's introduction then goes on to ask the large questions about Jewish self-definition, objectivity versus partiality, remembering and forgetting, Wissenschaft and ideology, and the complexities of periodization. Brenner does not attempt to give his own answers to these dilemmas, only to raise them initially so as to prepare the reader for the multiple answers that will follow in his partially chronological, partially topical account of modern writers on Jewish history from...


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