A ritual seems to get played out every time a new and original work of Israeli history comes out. Sooner or later, a major review pronounces the book and its author to be “post-Zionist.” What this usually means is that the book has suggested a new way of looking at Israel that is not a knee-jerk confirmation of the reviewer’s right-wing prejudices.
The common wisdom—summed up, for example, in Yoram Hazony’s The Jewish State—is that once all Israeli historians were staunch and loyal Zionists, and that sometime around the 1980s or so a vicious cabal of self-hating eggheads decided to launch a frontal attack on Israel’s founding principles.
But wait a minute—a similar attack was mounted long ago against a man who today resides in Israel’s pantheon of Zionist historians—Jacob Katz.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Katz’s Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages. It was virtually the first work of history published in the young state of Israel that did not see the establishment of the state of Israel as the fulfillment of the Jewish people’s historical imperative. He was attacked for that then, but now it’s considered one of the fundamental volumes of Jewish historical writing.
As the Tel Aviv University historian Elhanan Reiner noted at an evening devoted to the book on Feb. 22 at the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem (which Katz headed for eleven years), Tradition and Crisis is not a “classic” in the sense that it is shelved reverently behind glass stores, but rather a book whose methods and conclusions are still being addressed and debated.
Tradition and Crisis is the first Israeli work of sociological history. It analyzes the dynamic of conflict in Jewish societies in Germany and central Europe in what is now called the early modern period (Katz called it the late Middle Ages)—principally the 17th and 18th centuries. Katz was the first historian to posit that Orthodox Judaism was not simply the direct continuation of Jewish society, but a new creation that arose alongside secular Enlightenment Jewish culture.
Katz portrayed a Jewish society in the Diaspora that was vibrant and self-contained, if troubled. And when it was challenged by modernism and secularism, the formation of a secular, nationalist, inclusive Jewish identity was only one of several options. In fact, one of the questions Katz was endeavoring to answer in this book was why the Jews were so late, compared with other European peoples, in developing an identity as a modern nation.
Katz also roused the opposition of the prevailing school of Zionist history of Israel’s early years in his treatment of Orthodox Judaism as a creation of the modern world rather than as a dying vestige of an outmoded way of life. Katz had been a yeshiva student and remained observant all his life, and while he did not want to be identified as an “Orthodox historian,” his familiarity with and respect for Jewish tradition and texts is evident in his work.
Katz exemplifies some of the things Gershom and want to do with this blog. We want to get away from hysterical labels, challenge the common wisdom, and show respect for Jewish history, heritage, and faith while at the same time asking hard questions about them.