Sunday, 14 March 2010

On the Invention of the Jewish People

Vayak-hayl moshe

Moses brought together


In this moment we are forged into a cahal, a community.

The 2000 year old translation, cum Biblical commentary Onkelos translates Vayak-hayl as uchnas ­– brought together.

That root – canas – recognise from bet hacanaset – Synagogue.

A house of Jewish coming together – the original Synagogue was brought together on the slopes of Mount Sinai, says Rashi, the day after Moses threw down the tablets bearing the original 10 commandments given on the Mountain top at a date the classic Rabbinic tradition would have us think is around 3400 years ago.


Vayak-hayl moshe et col eidat bnei yisrael

Moses brought together the nation of Israel –


That word – edah – usually translated as Citizen


Moses brought together the citizenary of Israel.

Of course the religious piece is central, but this term edah suggests something more than a mere commitment to communal worship.

It suggests something political, national, ethnic.


It’s an interesting time to be thinking about the nature of our experience as Jews.

Pesach is coming soon, soon we will all be seated imaging that we ourselves went forth from Egypt.

The religious energy of the season is one of coming together yet again, another year, another generation,

Both in religious terms, and also as a people.

One of the ideas I love is that all the Jewish people, even those of us who converted in, or have converts in our history, all stood together in Sinai, when Moses called us together.


It’s not always an easy relationship, we may agree or disagree, but we are in this together, not only today and into the future, but also back into the past – precisely because of our shared past.


We’ve been doing this for while,

Coming together as a people, looking back, looking forward,

And doing it as an edah, a faith, a nation.


Or maybe not.


I first came across Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jewish People when it was featured on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week.

It’s had a lot of press attention.

Not bad for an academic historian.

But it’s not a book I recommend.

Sand is certainly very keen to be seen as a brave and fearless writer, but there is a line between boldness and, intellectually speaking, jumping out of a plane, without checking that your parachute works properly.

That’s the problem.


Sand’s claim is that the Jews were only ever a religion, not a people, not a culture, until the 19th Century when Jewish Peoplehood was invented by the great Jewish Historian, Henreich Graetz.

Now Graetz was indeed a great historian. His masterwork History of the Jews from Oldest Times to the Present was the first great modern history of the Jewish people.

Pleasure to have my dad here – I know the book is on your shelves, it’s eight volumes, your excused not reading it all,

But Sand’s suggests that Graetz, by brining the entire tradition of Judaism into a single work suppressed all the variety, the ethnic diversity, and the multi-cultural reality of Judaism.

Prior to Graetz, says Sands, Judaism was a religious culture, not a strange wandering nation.’

And after Graetz, Sand claims, Jews constructed for themselves a ‘long unbroken geneology.’ And this prepared the way for Zionism which claimed the Land of Israel as the home for a people thrown out of their ancestral land.

So if the Jews were never a people.

Then the central claim of Zionism can be debunked.

And if central claim of Zionism can be debunked, then the Jewish nature of the State of Israel should be rejected.

And if the Jewish nature of the State of Israel be rejected then …

Well … you can see how this might confront some as problematic.


At least Sand, a historian from Tel Aviv, is perfectly clear about his intent.

He doesn’t like the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, he wants that dismantled.


While Sand’s work has been picked up by the BBC, and while it attracted the support in France, in particular, it’s been received with a loud raspberry by Jewish Historians.

Martin Goodman, Professor of Jewish History at Oxford University in a review in the Times Lit Supplement pulls the book’s central claims apart and asks,

‘What has possessed Shlomo Sand, a Tel Aviv historian of contemporary European history, to write about a subject of which he patently knows so little.’


Goodman goes on to suggest dubious motives on behalf of a number of his colleagues, and I quote,

Worryingly, the book has … received praise from historians and others who ought to have known better. These enthusiasts do not presumably know the material about which Sand writes, but they like his conclusions.


Conclusions that tear at the heart of the Jewish state.


The reasons why professional Jewish historians find Sand’s work so shoddy are partly technical and partly blindingly obvious.


I’ll share some technical ideas first.


The big problem with Sand’s analysis of what happened in the 1850s, with the publication of Graetz’s History of the Jews, is that he has the story upside down and back to front.

Sand’s is right that Graetz was definitely interested in showing that the Jews were a nation, but that is only because in the surrounding society, at that time, the idea that Jews were not a nation, was beginning to circulate.

The doors of modernity were being opened to the Jew and Jews were being asked to demonstrate their fidelity to the States where they lived.

Napolean’s Sanhedrin – who would sign up with in a battle between France and a Jew from another nation?


Can hear this sort of wish to strip Jews of our national character in the famous declaration of the eighteenth French Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tennerre that Jews should be [quote] ‘granted everything as individuals and denied everything as a nation.’

Graetz’s claim for Jewish nationhood was a response to a suggestion that we should not be afforded status as a nation.


Sand, claims that before Graetz, no-one considered that Jews were a nation.

Graetz on the other hand is claiming that before modernity everyone knew Jews were a nation.

Graetz, it has to be said, has the facts on his side.


We have records of a certain Benjamin of Tudela who went travelling the world in 1150, 100 years before Marco Polo.

He makes his way from Tudela to France, Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Persia, before travelling back to Spain via North Africa. In all he visited over 300 cities.

And time and time we see his principle focus – the Jews, the numbers of Jews in any given city, their communal leaders, their buildings, their lives

There is information on their surrounding cultures, for which other historians are very grateful, but the focus of the work is on Jews.

I’m quite sure Binyamin MiTudela would have been most surprised to be told that his wasn’t an exercise in meeting his people around the world, for there was no Jewish people around the world at that time.


But we can go earlier still.

Martin Goodman, the Professor of Jewish History at Oxford, notes that the Romans of the first through fourth centuries had a compulsion to categorise the various people they conquered and would ascribe various terms; secta, superstitio, or religio to those who shared a religious outlook.

But the Jews are also referred to in poems, legal tomes and even the great Theodossian Code as ‘natio’ a nation.

The Romans thought we were a nation by the C4.


Actually the very earliest reference to Israel in any archaeological record we posses refers to the Israel as a people.

The Merneptah Stela, was found in Thebes, it’s been dated to 1200 BCE, that would be something like 250 years after the Passover story.

The famous irony of the oldest surviving reference to the Jewish people, outside of our own texts, is that it refers to the destruction of the Jewish people.

The Stela reads,


‘Canaan is captive with all woe. The City of Ashkelon is conquered, The City of Gezer seized, The City of Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed.’


But we, of course, are still here.


In other words, the great constant of the 3000 plus year history of the Jewish people is that, in each and every nation someone comes along to destroy either us, or our stories.

Sand, unlike the Pharaoh of the Bible, is quite OK with Jews living, he just don’t want to allow us to live as a people.


So much for the technical problems with Sand’s thesis

The stuff you need to know about Jewish history in order to rubbish.

The bleedingly obvious problems with Sand’s thesis is that it is bleedingly obviously nonsense.


Sand admits that Jews across time and history were united by a religion, but attaches great significance to the claim that Jews can’t be a people because we lived in different lands, because Sepahrdi Jewish culture and language is so different from Ashkenazi Jewish culture and language and dress and so forth.

But it would never have occurred to a Jew in C14 Morocco that he wasn’t part of the same people as a Jew of C14 Italy, or C14 France.

They would have felt the same kinship to Jews across the world as we still feel today


Two years ago Josephine and I visited Tangiers for a day, popping over from the South of Spain on a speeding hydrofoil for a couple of days away from Carmi who was quite happy playing on the beach with his grandfather.

What did we do?

We looked out for the Shul, the Jewish trinkets in the market, we went looking for the notions of kinship.


I wasn’t trying to touch people who had the same ‘Jewish gene’ as I do.

Because I don’t believe that Judaism exists in the genes.

I wasn’t even trying to find a minyan or a kosher butcher I could use to fulfil various religious requirements of faith, as important as religion is in my Jewish identity

I was trying to connect to people who connect to Jewish peoplehood the same way that I do.

People who wanted to stand in the same edah,

People who wanted to be part of the same kehillah.


In many ways I was doing exactly the same thing Binyamin MiTudela was a thousand years previously, though my journey from Morroco to Spain would have been speedier than his.


And I know this sort of tourism,

This sort of seeking out connections, to our past, our present, our future, is at the heart of the identity of so many of us here.

And has been part of the identity of Jews for, not hundreds, but thousands of years.


So what is the point?

Sand is wrong, factually misleading and blinded by his desire to strip from Israel its Jewish nature.

But he’s not the first person to try and write off the Jewish people, he’s not even the first Jew.

So what?


The point is this.

We ARE part of a people, a great and mighty people with an extraordinary great, mighty and LONG history.

We ARE brought together by religion, by peoplehood, by kinship, by our commitment to our fellow Jews through time and space.

And that should fill us with a tremendous sense of pride.

It should drive us to ensure the bonds that bind us are so strong they create a Jewish future in which we, as a Jewish people are even more clearly agudat echad – one entity.

But I’m not sure it does.

It certainly doesn’t enough.

Sand, at one point, suggests that Jews across the world can’t seriously claim to be a nation since so few Jews bother to learn Hebrew.

He’s wrong that that means we aren’t a nation, but he would be right had he suggested that this means we are weaker than we would be if we all shared safah achat.

Sand, at several points, suggests that Jews across the world can’t seriously claim to be a nation since so many Jews over time have married others who can’t trace their genetic heritage back to Sinai.

He’s wrong that that means we aren’t a nation, but he would be right had he suggested that we are weakened as a nation by the levels of intermarriage that threaten the future of the Jewish people.


This 3000 plus year old story of Jewish peoplehood doesn’t write itself.

It’s not an accident, and while it may be a miracle it’s foolish at best and blasphemous at worst to suggest that God will take care of our future.

Jewish peoplehood is in our hands now.

The way we react to triumphs of our kin across the world

Our commitment to deepening our engagement with our shared cultures, traditions - our shared language –

These are the tests of our strength as a people.

And we are not strong enough.


This year, as we head off to Pesach, and the chance to sit together as a people, in each of respective homes, we should commit ourselves to our strength.

We should commit ourselves to prove Sand wrong not only because he has dramatically misread our Jewish past, but also because he has misread our Jewish present and even, dare we pray it, our Jewish future.


Shabbat shalom


Kevin Brook said...

Rabbi Gordon, my book "The Jews of Khazaria, Second Edition" is essential reading to refute the exaggerated claims of Shlomo Sand.

Sand adopted some ideas that were in my book and my website, such as the theory that the word 'davenen' comes from Turkic, but came to incorrect conclusions regarding the makeup of contemporary Jewish populations. In chapter 10 and appendix D of the second edition of my book, I demonstrate that most Jewish groups around the world today are descended from the ancient Israelites. The Samaritans, too, are descended in part from the Israelites.

Unlike Sand and many of his admirers I have no political or religious agenda, simply a quest to learn and spread knowledge.

You wrote "Sand is certainly very keen to be seen as a brave and fearless writer, but there is a line between boldness and, intellectually speaking, jumping out of a plane, without checking that your parachute works properly." I am not afraid to tackle tough questions and to challenge stereotypes and false ideas but I try to adhere to the facts as diligently as possible. So I think you would enjoy reading my book and hopefully will recommend it to others as the best alternative to Sand's book.

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon said...

I'm honoured to have you picking up the posting.
I know of your book. I hope your drawing attention to it here will increase it's reach.
I've also spent time in Jewish communities in Crimea where the Kuzari story is still so clearly alive.
It is a fabulous tale.

In my sermon I stayed away from the genetic piece, largely because I believe it's irrelevant. Of course if you say that genes are a vital part of the definition of peoplehood you can show every conversion as detrimental to the notion of the existence of Jewish peoplehood, but I just don't think a genetic focus increases our understanding of the nature of Jewish peoplehood. (Nor do I think that conversion weakens Jewish peoplehood, but that's another story).

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