Independent People

A History of the Jews

by Paul Johnson
Harper and Row, 644 pp., $25.00

For more than a millennium the Jews have been divided between Muslim and Christian countries, and there have been centuries in the Middle Ages when the intellectual influence of Arab philosophy might appear to have given a decisive direction to Hebrew thought. For reasons that Bernard Lewis can explain better than any other living scholar, this was in fact not so, and it is in Christian countries that the Jews have emerged as the most creative, determined, and innovative. In other words, they have profited from the centuries of Christian technical and intellectual superiority, the Italian Renaissance included.

This admits an element of paradox because the Jews, even perhaps more than the Christians, had a recognized position in the Muslim world, whereas, as far as I can see, only one way was open to them, in principle, in the Christian world until the nineteenth century—and that was conversion to Christianity. A mixture of murder and conversion of the Jews was attempted by the Crusaders before they went against the Muslims. Conversion or expulsion was the famous solution of Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. The point of conversion was still strong in the minds of the less liberal ecclesiastics of Italy in the years between 1938 and 1945, as many of us Italian Jews know by experience. How much this concern contributed to the silence of the Churches of Italy, France, and Germany during those years, and later, remains a problem.

The only legitimate historical approach to Judaism is of course to consider it the first national religion to have organized an ethical monotheism, at least since the ninth century BC: the morality of the ancient prophets, available to everyone in the Old Testament, is the morality the Jews have accepted throughout the centuries. This leaves two problems: 1) how much the Talmudic development, beginning around the first century AD, has affected and modified the prophetic foundations; 2) how far the teaching of Jesus himself has been separated from Judaism by later theological developments. The second point, just because it is a historical point, is of course a recent one to be discussed inside and outside Judaic circles. Less controversial is the fact that through the Talmud and centuries of study of other texts and commentaries, the Jews have acquired a passion for learning, for books and intellectual controversy, that has become part of the hereditary Jewish ethos.

So let us speak of the Jews as the members of a great and independent religion (no longer so national as it used to be) who learned ethics chiefly from the prophets and acquired scholarship, especially in Law, from their rabbis.

The author of A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson, is not a specialist in Jewish history. If anything he is well known for a history of our times. What matters positively to us is that Johnson has a strong, lay, interest in Jewish history and tries to see it without confessional criteria. The Jews in his view …

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