The Story of the Jews

August 6, 2014

I began reading Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews with the thought that it would be good to know more about the origins of my own religious tradition, Christianity. I finished with a much deeper understanding of—and horror at—the bizarre cruelty that Christians have visited on Jews.

The time frame of his majestic book is 1000 BC to 1492 AD. The beginning date is approximated by the earliest historical evidence we have outside the Bible of Israel and the Jews. The book ends with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain—after many other Jews have been forcibly converted or murdered or often both, first one, then the other. Thus it makes only a few anticipatory references to cruelties yet to come, including the mass murders of the 20th century. How could we not see the Holocaust coming when it had already come many, many times before? How could we claim to be surprised?

Holocaust: where does that word come from? When is it first used? In the days of the Second Temple, Schama writes that “you could have smelled Jerusalem before you saw it” because of “the aroma of charring flesh.” The Torah demanded animal sacrifices to YHWH every morning and every afternoon. “The perpetual roasting was called the tamid, Hebrew for constant,” Schama explains. He adds that “there was a Greek word too for such ritual cremation of whole animals, and that word was holocaust” (p104).

The Jews have experienced troubles throughout their history: destructions of the First and Second Temple, exiles from Israel and Judea, subjections to a succession of Empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, Rome. But a similar story could be told about many other peoples. Then, about in the 11th century AD “something unimaginably terrible” enters their story. Schama continues:

Not long after Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in November 1095 had called for a Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the unclean custody of the Saracens, it occurred to popular preachers in France and the Rhineland, like Peter the Hermit, that this work of cleansing need not wait for Christian swords to reach Palestine. Were there not enemies of Christ dwelling in their very midst, in the cities and towns of the Rhineland—Speyer and Mainz, Worms and Cologne? When those who had taken the cross were about to spend blood and money on their holy cause, ‘why should we let them [the Jews] live and tolerate their dwelling among us? Let us use our swords against them first and then proceed on our way.’ The blood of the Savior could be avenged as a sanguinary baptism at the start of the sacred war, and the ill-gotten gains of the Jews would be put to proper use. It was so very tidy. The miserable, impenitent, bloodsucking Jews would continue to pay for their crime by subsidising the armies that would deliver Jerusalem back to Christ (Schama, pp295-6; quoting Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law, 1999).

There follow several hundred years of Torah-burning, pillage and massacre of Jewish communities culminating in the expulsions of the Jews from England (1290), France (1306 and 1394), Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497). This was not what I had learned in school about the history of the Crusades or the formation of nation states in Europe.

The terror inflicted upon the Jews by Christians was not just tolerated by Christianity but driven by Christian zeal. Misguided zeal it may have been, but all who consider themselves Christian owe it to themselves to read Schama’s history and be ashamed at the use of violence to enforce orthodoxy.

Schama’s The Story of the Jews is not all about cruelty and slaughter. He tells a story, too, of faithfulness and religious practice in which God is recognized as ultimately unknowable if always to be sought. Along the way I learned how Judaism had transformed from Temple to Synagogue, from a priestly religion to a rabbinic one. I gained a much clearer sense of the various sacred texts of Judaism: Talmud, Torah, Mishnah. I learned about the historian Josephus, the poets Shmuel ibn Naghrela and Yehudah Halevi, and the philosopher Maimonedes among many others.

“Finding the Words” is Schama’s subtitle, and in his telling the story of the Jews is one of commentary and argument, poetry and praise, an endless seeking of words to express what can never be adequately captured in words. Amidst the cruelties, Schama celebrates the emergence of a vibrant religious sensibility that endures.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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