Magic Circles

V.G. Kiernan

  • Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky edited by Ada Rapoport-Albert and Steven Zipperstein
    Peter Halban, 700 pp, £30.00, January 1989, ISBN 1 870015 19 3
  • A History of Islamic Societies by Ira Lapidus
    Cambridge, 1002 pp, £35.00, July 1988, ISBN 0 521 22552 3

The fountainhead of the world’s two main families of religions was a small Near Eastern people, the Jewish. In the modern world Jews have been prominent among the creators of its arts and sciences and its politics. To define or delimit the history of this unique people is difficult, since for two millennia it has been scattered over the continents, always externally involved with alien, usually hostile neighbours, but in its inner life turned in on itself. It has fed on a remote past and a remoter future, the glorious days of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, and the longed-for advent of the Messiah.

Its life was one of survival through a perennial Now, of ever-recurring problems and ordeals, out of which no wider general consciousness of time and change was likely to flower, though such a consciousness has often been kindled or stimulated by experience of collective calamity. Jews had a good share of afflictions, but these might be far apart in time and space. Jews in Spain were flourishing when others were driven out of England or France; in Poland when they were driven out of Spain. Local catastrophes were sometimes commemorated by poems, in the fashion of ballads or broadsheets in England, events like an outbreak of plague in Prague and its Jewish(not its Christian) victims. On that occasion some families were well enough provided to be able to escape by moving out of the city. There were always richer and poorer, but they were pressed together by common fear and dislike of their Gentile neighbours; the more easily because the rich extracted their plenty from these neighbours, more than from their humbler brethren. A consequence was that the class relations and conflicts which were the staple of history in Europe could have no unfolding in Jewry.

All the while, however, records of community life were accumulating, and very revealing use is made of them in the massive set of essays dedicated to the distinguished historian Chimen Abramsky. On these materials an equally impressive range of scholarship has been brought to bear; a testimony to its thoroughness can be found in the 16 pages of notes in fine print appended to the 14 pages of an essay by one of the editors. Gentile historians have neglected Jewish history, it is remarked; this must be a reason for all the contributors being Jewish, though not necessarily oblivious of the injunction ‘to see ourselves as others see us’. Where translation has been required, the English is usually, if not always, as it should be. Some of the pieces derive from narrowly specialised realms of learning, like the examination of a bizarre Medieval manuscript written in a mixture of Latin, German and Hebrew. Others are far wider in scope, and it would be good to see these appearing in due course in a smaller, less expensive volume.

There is more here about the daily life that the Jewish faith sustained than about this faith itself, except in one field to which three exceptionally interesting essays are devoted. Hasidism, the semi-deviant Jewish mysticism, was gaining ground in the later 18th century in Poland and Galicia, where Jews were undergoing fresh hardships, and ‘mystical élitism’ was tempered by awareness of social wants. In this new vision the lead was taken by Jacob Isaac of Lublin. His teaching was that flights of mystic rapture and union with God ought to be undertaken only by Zaddiks, individuals like himself with a special vocation; and that these men should know how to pour out the blessings won by them on their co-religionists, partly in tangible, material forms. There was no virtue in poverty: to lead a genuine religious life worshippers must be comfortably prosperous. A true Zaddik could perform miracles, Jacob Isaac was rash enough to assert; how else the material benefits were to be purveyed, or how much success he and others had in providing them, does not emerge. One happy effect that has been conventionally credited to the cult was a greater freedom and higher status for women, enabling some of them to come forward as spiritual leaders. This notion is firmly contradicted by Ada Rapoport-Albert, one of two women among the three writers on the subject. ‘Hasidism did not evolve an ideology of female leadership, any more than it improved the position of women within the family or set out to educate them.’

Elsewhere we see much of the importance of the rabbinical order in holding communities together. Rabbis were custodians of accepted standards of conduct, and of rights including those – such as they were – of women: they frowned on polygamy, settled quarrels, mediated between man and man and husband and wife. They were not unmindful of the value of their services, which in Medieval times, in Spain for instance, were coming to be professionalised on a regular basis. A rabbi might haggle for a better salary, or move to another town in order to get it; there was considerable mobility between the far-flung congregations. ‘Dynasties’ of rabbis, as of pastors of the Kirk of Scotland, were not infrequent. Disputes over interpretations of Jewish law might at times be venomous. Learning was a ladder to success, measured by social esteem as well as pecuniary reward. It could carry greater prestige than wealth, and a traditional reverence for learning was being fostered. Two stages of its coming out into the world of modern ideas are recorded in a pair of essays, one on the desire of enlightened Russian Jews in the last century for a broader education than their old Biblical schools afforded, the other on how late 19th-century immigrants into Britain came to terms with the English schools they were expected to send their children to.

Odd sidelights, glimpses of corners of history abound. One study, by Momigliano, carries us out of the groove into the more spacious setting of Imperial Rome, and its aristocracy’s ambivalent feelings about religious cults from the East. In 15th and 16th century Spain – seldom anywhere else – there was large-scale conversion of Jews, and some light is shed on this. A special kind of wry humour has been one fruit of Jewish experience, and a point is made about a peculiar humorous scepticism that marked some of the ‘Conversos’. We are free to conjecture that, while some of them were sincere Christians, and others pretended to be, there were some who were really making an exit from religion altogether, into the secularising atmosphere of Renaissance humanism.

Two contrasting pictures from the 17th century are of a wretched Ashkenazi group in Jerusalem, subsisting on foreign charity, and (from an account by an Italian traveller) of rich, highly-cultured Jews in liberal Holland, among them official representatives of the ultra-Catholic Spanish and Portuguese Governments. Protestants, both Dutch and English, were hoping for conversions, and it is suggested that the millenarian current strong in England may have had an influence on Jewish thinking. Old Testament thinking certainly had an influence on the nascent English imperialism of Cromwell and his fellow Puritans. Another Chosen People was taking the stage, and Ireland was undergoing the fate of Canaan long ago and Palestine today. In a different spirit the 19th-century French socialist writer Pierre Leroux learned Hebrew in order to translate, or rather adapt in a dramatic form, the Book of Job, as a lesson on ‘the resurrection and perfectibility of Mankind’. About the same time there was a mass arrest of Jews in Damascus on a charge of ritual murder; the survivors were eventually released after many protests from abroad. Some of the diplomatic correspondence is reproduced here, along with an account of the case. Thiers and the French Government come out of it badly, Metternich curiously well.

In the 19th century some Jews were finding their way into the political life of their regions. We have a study of the Russian ‘Blanquists’, or Nihilists; it emphasises that their chief theorist, Tkachev, was not (like Bakunin) an anti-Semite, and there were not a few Jews in the revolutionary ranks. But Narodnik populism was apt to endorse peasant hatred of Jews as usurers, and even Tkachev took this line when a tsar’s assassination was followed by pogroms. Jewish activists were themselves divided, and another instructive investigation is of the widening rift between Rosa Luxemburg and her group, representing the ‘assimilated’ intellectuals, and the Bund, the organisation of the working masses. We hear again of the Bund in the later 1930s, when ideas from Nazi Germany were worsening racialist feeling. It was one of history’s most hopeless situations; looking back, we can see the jaws of the trap closing year by year on the doomed millions.

Nineteenth-century Jews who wrote history in the West failed to get beyond a view of their past in ‘purely spiritual terms’. (Even in this volume, the question of how Jews earned their daily bread through the ages gets hardly any attention.) Zionism brought a change, and the book’s last section is about the movement and the new state it has built, from the time, about 1800, when a national idea dawned. There is a parallel in the process of self-hypnotism by which the Muslims of India tried to turn themselves into a nation. In Israel, unlike Pakistan, there has been much history-writing, whose quality it may be too early to estimate. The political outcome, however, is not presented here as one altogether of success.

Anita Shapira writes of how Israel set out with a militant socialist Left, a labour force mostly from Russia which had given a fervent welcome to the great socialist Revolution; and of how amid complicated political manoeuvring (one small facet of the Cold War) the Left was pushed into the background. With it all large, generous enthusiasms seemed to recede. ‘Have men really ceased to believe,’ the writer ends by asking, ‘that it is possible and necessary to change society?’ In the concluding essay David Vital argues that although Israel has arrogated to itself the central position within world Jewry, and laid claim to an ‘overall leadership’, its wants and interests are in reality ‘sharply different’ from those of Jewish life outside, ‘and, in important respects and in the long run, incompatible with it’. Jewish evolution has reached no be all and end-all with its adoption of the stale, outworn creed of tribal nationalism and sacro egoismo. Towards what further unfolding the strange and unique story is moving now, no one can do more than guess.

Muslims have frequently been unfriendly to Jews living among them, though seldom as extremely so as Christians have often been. Linguistically and theologically, Judaism and Islam, Israeli and Arab, are very close: in many other ways they have differed toto caelo. Judaic tribalism, Islamic cosmopolitanism, have been antithetical. The Hebrews of old were too few to conquer more than a small country like Canaan; the Arabs, favoured by the decline of several civilisations, were able to overrun vast territories, until they melted into the mass of their subjects, bequeathing to many different stocks their language and creed. Conversion to Islam was slow, and only on some frontiers quickened by missionary activity; in important areas like India it was never more than very incomplete, and the pattern of Muslim conquerors dominating a non-Muslim majority – Hindu, Christian, pagan – was a repetitive one. Ruling élites were recruited from far and wide, and nowhere in Islam could any national spirit, in Europe the source of so much progress and so much senseless violence, arise.

In 1970 the Cambridge History of Islam, in two volumes, came out. To supplement it with a survey of social and cultural life, a single scholar has been commissioned, instead of the customary platoon: a rare and high distinction, which Professor Lapidus’s book justifies to a very impressive degree. Its thousand pages are organised in three parts: from the origins to about 1200 AD, the further spread of Islam from the tenth to the 19th centuries, and the two last centuries when nearly all the Muslim lands, grown inert and dessicated, fell under European sway, and began a painful struggle towards a new future. Maps, illustrations, chronological tables, glossaries, help to guide or refresh the reader on his long journey. There are quick narrative summaries, but the bulk of the space is devoted to trends in religion, philosophy, literature and the arts, social and economic life.

Comparatively little is said about Muslim achievements in history-writing; it is surprising that Ibn Khaldun gets only one mention, and then not as a historian. Arabs in the early flush of their triumphs were stirred to an interest in history-writing by ‘the desire to glorify their own past and therefore their present importance’. But this waned before long, together with the Arab identity, and had few later renewals; among them one is tempted to give first place to the memoirs written by Mughal emperors and nobles. In place of history there was a constant sluggish outpouring, a tideless Mediterranean, of politico-religious moralising, of the sort described in Chapter 11. Here Islam suffered from the same dearth of national inspiration as Jewry after the dispersal.

In his preface, Lapidus sums up the many Muslim societies as each ‘a recognisable variant upon a similar underlying structure’. He goes on to point out that any social history must be traced in terms of ‘institutional systems’, and that those of Islam ‘had their origin in ancient Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC’, where religion and empire were the paramount facts. This is a highly significant insight. A new religion cannot by itself dissolve old political structures or breathe life into new ones. Islam took over the empty shells of old ones, and it cannot be surprising, when we look for Muslim institutions, that what stands out is their fewness and primitiveness. Politically, the Muslim world has known practically nothing other than absolute monarchy by divine right: its general failure today to replace this with anything better than dictatorship is a melancholy consequence – one which the Jews were saved from by their diaspora. We are reminded that the Arabs destroyed what Rome had left in the Middle East of urban autonomy, the city state. It was a loss of something priceless and irrecoverable, which in Europe never entirely perished. Caliphs were virtually deified; political theory, large in bulk but meagre in ideas, harped more and more monotonously on the duty of blind obedience.

Government settled down by the 13th century into a dull routine, a ‘collaboration of secular rulers and religious teachers’. We learn much about teachers, the uluma, who had a role in community affairs very like that of the rabbis; much also about their rivals the Sufi mystics, the counterpart of the Hasidic initiates. There was a perpetual jostling of sects and factions, leading nowhere. Religion could give expression in Northern Africa, for instance, to many social stresses and discontents, but it also sterilised them, because they could never escape out of its magic circle. Too often today in the Muslim lands we see the same experience repeating itself over again.