Jews in Europe after the Shoah. Studies and Research Perspectives
edited by Laura Brazzo, Guri Schwarz
by Anthony D. Kauders
by András Kovács
by Carla Tonini
by Antonella Salomoni
by Arturo Marzano
by Elena Mazzini


Holocaust Intersections in 21st-Century Europe
The Great War. Reflections, Experiences and Memories of German and Habsburg Jews (1914-1918)
Portrait of Italian Jewish Life (1800s-1930s)
Travels to the "Holy Land": Perceptions, Representations and Narratives
Israelis and Palestinians Seeking, Building and Representing Peace. A Historical Appraisal
Memory and Forgetting among Jews from the Arab-Muslim Countries. Contested Narratives of a Shared Past
The Making of Antisemitism as a Political Movement. Political History as Cultural History (1879-1914)
Modernity and the Cities of the Jews
  • issue1/Discussion
  • Diminuisci dimensione testo
  • Aumenta dimensione testo
  • Print
  • Send
  • Download


David Bidussa (ed.)

Le religioni e il mondo moderno (Giovanni Filoramo ed.)
Collana Grandi Opere
Einaudi, Torino, 2008
pp.  XXXVIII-624.

by Giovanni Levi

“No people are more difficult to understand than the Jews. … Fools may tell stories of their sameness everywhere, but anyone who knows them well will be inclined to think that there are more varied types among them than among any other people. … One is driven to ask in what respect these people remain Jews; who makes them into Jews, what is the ultimate nature of the bond they feel when they say ‘I am a Jew’.” 1 Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984; or. ed. 1960) 178. This volume on Judaism intends to ask the question of Judaism in modernity, especially in front of the progressive secularization of Judaism. Amos Luzzatto in his chapter Attualizzare una tradizione (Modernizing a Tradition) concludes in regards to this question that “as far as priests have lost almost all their prerogatives, and there is the possibility of making everybody take part in traditional culture, even if each is according to his or her own point of view, traditional Jewish society itself gets closer to being a structure that can be rightly called secular” (p. 482). He shows this with an overview of the whole history of Jewish hermeneutics, which has actually always been open to new interpretations. I understand his analysis as a history always potentially open to modernity, always liable to be made relevant to current times, stretching from the canon of the Torah to the oral tradition through a continued search for meanings carried out by the sages, the authorities to whom interpretation is entrusted, up to the Enlightenment, that opened the way both to a rigid orthodoxy and to individuals taking direct responsibility. Since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the configuration of Judaism has faced three possible paths, assimilation, the community of faith within the various national entities, or, after the birth of Zionism, the creation of a national community with its own real, no longer virtual, territory. Therefore, we witness increasingly a Jewish identity not of those who believe in religious principles, but rather of those who are of Jewish nationality even without any return to religion. Today, not only in Israel but also in the Diaspora, Jewish identity is no longer based on religion, but on a cultural, rather than national or ethnic, tie with a tradition in which different types of religious Jews and equally complex forms of non-religious Jews live together.

Published in the Einaudi series titled Le religioni e il mondo moderno (Religions and the Modern World), this second volume Ebraismo (Judaism) was bound to aim at an image of Judaism in its relationship with religion, with its various declinations in time and space, to define the Jews’ current identity in the modern world: an image I can hardly identify with. I have to confess right at the beginning that it seemed to me that something was missing. A culture that has grown in a plurality of identities, and to which one can only apply the Assmannian concept of cultural memory 2 Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen (München: Beck 1992)., is also made up of a specific characteristic: by accepting the break caused by secularization, which resulted in the separation from faith and religious practices, Judaism has tried to build a Jewish identity even without faith in God. “In fact – writes Mendes-Flohr – a large part of modern Jewish thought is devoted to imagining strategies to promote an idea of Jewish identity that defines it simply as membership of the Jewish people.” 3 Paul Mendes-Flohr, Identitades judìas postradicionales, in Paul Mendes-Flohr, Yom Tov Assis and Leonardo Senkman (eds.), Identitades judìas, modernidad y globalizaciòn (Buenos Aires: Lilmod, 2007) 517. And this seems to me a central problem in the history of Judaism in the modern world. If in the pre-modern world identification with a community and acceptance of its rules, values and models was an automatic process, required and imposed by a society segmented and divided into groups and bodies, the problem changes with modernity, with the birth of nation-states, which allow the Jews – on condition of assimilation – to participate with the same legal rights of all other citizens. The problem is no longer that of belonging to a single community, but to participate in many, to integrate into the social and political structures of the many different nations and cultures where they live, a diversity that characterises also the Jewish presence in Israel.

It is from this moment, from the twentieth century, that the history of Judaism fragments into large areas, western Europe, where there is a strong cultural transformation of Judaism around the German model, with a strong push towards integration, eastern Europe, where Jews are Jews rather than citizens in Tzarist society, and the United States, after the great migration of the 1880s. And inside these areas cultures, groups and attitudes multiply, according to internal conditions and the relationships with the cultural and social world of the various nations.

Therefore, a history of Judaism in the modern world should have taken into greater account this foundational and specific characteristic: the existence of a non-institutional Jewish perspective without religion next to it, and in dialogue with, an institutional religious Judaism, itself divided along a vast array of positions.

It seems to me that it would have been useful to resume the discussion between Gershom Scholem and Leo Strauss on Jewish modernity: they were both the product of German Jewish society and culture, both Zionists, even if in different ways, they denied that the only possible solutions were liberal assimilation or the simple return to Jewish tradition. But if the Kabbalah was for Scholem the modern and innovative element, full of potential, of a dynamic and anarchic religious Judaism, whose basis is religion rather than philosophy, in the thinking of Strauss, always attached to his own Jewish culture, philosophy was the only perspective, to be understood as a free endless search for truth, and there was no solution for modernity in religion, as shown by his reading of Spinoza, Hobbes and Kelsen. 4 Carlo Altini, Berlino, Atene, Gerusalemme. Filosofia, politica e religione nel mondo moderno tra Gershom Scholem e Leo Strauss, in Gershom Scholem e Leo Strauss, Lettere dall”esilio. Carteggio (1933-1973), ed. by Carlo Altini (Firenze: Giuntina, 2008).

I will start with some observations on Alessandro Guetta”s essay L’Italia e la “via ebraica alla modernità (Italy and the “Jewish way to modernity”), a detailed portrait of Italian Judaism between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, some of whose observations, though, I do not share. To begin with, his choice of the main steps on the Jewish way to modernity: I would not have started with Amsterdam and Spinoza but rather, following Sylvie Anne Goldberg 5 Sylvie Anne Goldberg (2000), La Clepsydre. Essai sur la pluralité des temps dans le judaisme, vol. I (Paris: Albin Michel, 2000) 318-21., with the sixteenth century return to history in Azariah De Rossi and David Gans, who discussed and resumed the theory about the calendar proposed by De Rossi himself (and it is thus not true that the latter “had no real following” (p. 9)). It is the discussions about the calendar that reopened Jewish interest in the historical events following the destruction of the Temple. But my main disagreement is different: in the history of Judaism and especially Italian Judaism the Kabbalistic tradition has often been portrayed negatively, as a crucial delay of Judaism compared to modern scientific and philosophical culture. My opinion is different. One of Judaism’s great achievements is to have preserved and re-launched Plato and Neo-Platonism in a Catholic culture completely dominated by Aristotelian thought.  If then the only merits of the Kabbalah were its contribution to the demise of medieval culture, I cannot see how to explain the “curious phenomenon” that “some aspects of scientific logic, that were not cultivated for their own sake, appeared within the new anti-rationalist culture itself” (p. 19). The consequences of this underestimation, that would have, no doubt, displeased Scholem, is that according to Guetta adaptation to the dominant catholic culture represents modernity. I provide two examples from Guetta’s essay: on the seventeenth century “Jews and Christians … start to form a common front against atheism … Evidently, the theological gap between Christianity and Judaism had ceased to be interesting” (p. 17). And in the eighteenth century “the synagogue came nearer to the church, and this was an element in the convergence of Jewish and Christian religious behaviours, an element that can be read as ‘modern’” (p. 19). This opinion – that I think is time to abandon – is not only Guetta’s, but is also to be found in much of the historiography about Italian Renaissance Judaism; here it will suffice to quote Roberto Bonfil: “One cannot but admit that those last century’s enlightened spirits were right, who saw in Kabbalah’s success one of the main causes of the obscurantism that took hold of Jewish culture.” 6 Roberto Bonfil, Gli ebrei in Italia nell’epoca del Rinascimento (Firenze: Sansoni, 1991) 152.

But surely the complex world of the former Marranos in Amsterdam - as Silvia Berti shows in Amsterdam:conflitti, ricomposizioni, neo-ortodossia (Amsterdam: conflicts, rapprochements, neo-orthodoxy) – is a fundamental stage of the Jewish contribution to modernity. Berti puts the character and role of Spinoza in the context of the multi-faceted world of the Jewish community, in which the fights between orthodox and innovators, that held different opinions, from the validity of only the written law to the denial of the holiness of the Bible – from David Farar to Isaac Aboabab de Fonseca, from Uriel da Costa to Juan de Prado and Spinoza – reveal an extraordinary array of ideas that form the significant preamble to radical Enlightenment and “the anti-Christian arsenal of early eighteenth century deists” (p. 48).

The essay by Bernardini Moses Mendelssohn e la sua Berlino (Moses Mendelssohn and his Berlin) analyses the most significant figure of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and one of the proponents of that German-Jewish symbiosis who dreamt of an integration of Judaism in Germany, an integration, though, that did not imply a renunciation of culture and religious tradition. Prussian society, with its enlightened despotism, seemed to promise equal citizenship to the Jews, and their progressive integration, on condition of adherence, an adherence that in Mendelssohn was very explicit, to the supremacy of the state in social life and judicial forms. And it seems to me anachronistic to judge negatively the hope that the new atmosphere had created within Judaism, and to imagine that the road to the deification of the state, which would in turn lead to Nazism, “paradoxically … was prepared, in nuce, by works like Jerusalem” (p. 72).

The first part of the book ends with the article by Laura Quercioli Mincer Il chassidismo, una nicchia nella modernità (Hassidism, a niche within modernity). The author shows very well the powerful innovating role played by Hassidism within traditional Judaism, despite its extreme segregation of women, showing also the opposing views of Hassidism provided by historiography, depending on the refusal of its irrational, sentimental and romantic features, or the stressing of its popular and dynamic character in a positive sense. One thing though I think must be underlined: with Hassidism a new vitality breaks into Judaism, in conflict with a rigid and repetitive tradition: it thinks that men have an active role in the coming of the messiah, as opposed to a passive messianic waiting. This vitality has been gradually lost after emigration to the United States, in which the survivors of the destruction of European Hassidism, even though they related to that experience, took away from it its dynamic and inventive power that it had had in its stage of expansion in Europe, to freeze it into a meticulous and obsessive ritualism. 7 Haym Soloveitchik (1994), “Rupture and Reconstruction: the Transformation of Contemporary Ortodoxy”, in Tradition, 28 (1994) 64-130.

The second part of the book leads us from the nineteenth century to the Second World War and the Shoah. These are very valuable essays that are nonetheless more related to the history of ideas than to the social history of Judaism. Thus, one very significant element is lost: the complete geographical transformation of Judaism between 1880 and 1950, with a thoroughly Germanocentric and Eurocentric view of the history of Judaism, and the absence of Sephardic Judaism, and the Judaism of Maghreb, North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Iran, Greece and Bulgaria. This is certainly not by accident: communities rich of history, such as those of Thessalonica, Ionia, Crete, destroyed during the extermination, or those numerous communities that moved to Israel from Arab countries, have somehow disappeared from the geography of Judaism, which is wholly focused on Israel and the United States. Despite this, it is difficult not to think on the relationship between tradition and Sephardic reality in today’s Judaism: consider the problem of mizrahim in Israel, their marginalization, their demands, their role in today’s Israeli politics and their history, so different, but loaded with a different drama from that of European Judaism. Only one essay, which one reads with real emotion, reminds us of the drama of the pogroms and the expulsion from Arab countries, an essay different from the others because of its autobiographic character, and exactly because of this link with individual memory gives a deep impressions of this drama: it is the text on Libya by David Meghnagi, Microstoria e grande storia (Nascere ebreo in un paese arabo) (Micro-history and Macro-history: born Jewish in an Arab country).

But let us return to the second part of the book: Francesca Sofia in Il tema del confronto e dell’inclusione. Il Sinedrio napoleonico (The topic of confrontation and inclusion: the Napoleonic Sanhedrin), describes very negatively Napoleon’s politics towards the Jews: with the aim of regenerating the Jews, that is, of affirming the juridical prominence of the state and the civil code on Halakhic precepts, the Emperor had in the end imposed a model of integration that would never be completely accepted by Jewish institutions, but that would be however imitated by the legislative systems of the European nation states. But her analysis, that in my opinion underestimates the progress introduced by the civil Code in the previous condition of European Judaism, leaves open the question she started with: why did a permanent positive myth of Napoleon emerge within Judaism? To be sure, the French model has prevailed: the general acceptance of subordination to the laws of the state in which one lives and increasingly also of Hebrew to the national language can be found also in the means of education, for instance the catechisms, as shown by Gadi Luzzatto Voghera in the essay I catechismi ebraici fra Sette e Ottocento (Jewish catechisms between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). And the Napoleonic event marks also the starting point of the transformation of the figure of the rabbi, as shown by his other article I rabbini in età moderna e contemporanea (The rabbis in the modern and contemporary age). During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the whole of Europe and today also in Israel, the rabbi becomes a public figure, due to his role as a public official, and takes on the role of spokesperson of the communities with external society; he takes on then a public role and authority different from that of the rabbi as a teacher, judge and interpreter that he had had in the preceding period. Nonetheless, the complex reality of contemporary American Judaism leaves open some indefiniteness about the figure of the rabbi, even if in Israel the public juridical role of the Chief Rabbinate makes for a more accentuated uniformity. Nonetheless – as shown by David Gianfranco Di Segni, Ebraismo e bioetica, (Judaism and bioethics), a rather wide range of positions remain open in this field so ethically difficult, within an overall vision surely more reasonable than the rigid and uniform preclusions of catholic hierarchies.

In fact during the nineteenth century the process of integration continued, with very different features in the various western European states, as shown by Mario Toscano in the essay Integrazione nazionale e identità ebraica. Francia, Germania,Italia (1870-1918) (National integration and Jewish identity: France, Germany, Italy (1870 – 1918)). Under similar juridical forms, sociological, political and historical problems, as well as problems related to the size of the communities, differentiate this process, in part only apparent, of nationalization. 

The large German and French communities grew impetuously with the immigration of the Jews from Eastern Europe, while Italian Jews never passed the 50.000 mark. And France and Germany witnessed an anti-Semitism more widespread than that promoted in Italy especially by Civiltà Cattolica. Curiously, Toscano does not mention the affaire Dreyfus, which played an important role in the definition of the relationship between Jews and the modern state, but he provides a clear picture of the liberal and constitutional positions of the Jewish bourgeoisies of the three countries, accompanied by a weakening of the Jewish identity. The First World War is “a decisive and defining event … it marks at the same time the highest point and the beginning of the crisis in the process of integration, of the identification of the Jews, … without any reservations, with their own national states” (p. 167) because of the crisis of the values and the defeat of democracy in the period between the two world wars.

But the political events of these years also witness the development of a utopian and revolutionary Jewish thought. Michael Loewy in Messianismo, utopia e socialismo moderno (Belief in the Messiah, utopia and modern socialism) illustrates it through the analysis of five thinkers – but they are just examples of a far wider movement – that share a messianic-utopian sensibility that would play an important role in modern culture and socialisms, “the complete opposite of the political religion of the nation-state” (p. 226). These thinkers move between two poles, they are very heterogeneous and yet they seem to be moved by the same questions and the same attitudes about the revolutionary rupture: “Jews susceptible to utopia” and “assimilated Jews, atheistic-religious, libertarians”. They are Martin Buber, Gustav Landauer, Erich Fromm, Ernest Bloch, Walter Benjamin.

The topic of the nationalization of the Jews is resumed also by Cristiana Facchini in the essay Voci dell’ebraismo liberale. Costruire una religione moderna (Voices of liberal Judaism: building a modern religion), which has at its centre the fundamental experience of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and its role not only in the scientific study of Hebrew literature, but also in the great debate within the German Jewish world on the modernization of liturgy and traditional practices. From here would branch out the various innovative currents of Judaism of European origin which migrated to the United States from the 1880s, especially with the Pittsburg Plarform (1885), characterised by a reformist mediation between the more radical wings and the more conservative ones of American Judaism.

This section ends with the essay by Massimo Giuliani Il pensiero ebraico dopo la Shoà. Forme della riflessione filosofica (Jewish thought after the Shoah: forms of the philosophical reflections). It is a very enlightening essay on a historical tragedy that evidently played a central role in the reflections between continuity and rethinking of the relationship with religion and Jewish tradition. And of course it has a fundamental meaning in the defining of the relationship between Judaism and modernity. The author highlights three forms of reflections, the religious ones, that saw in the Shoah a prelude to redemption, a manifestation of “messianic throes”, the opening of the age of universal brotherhood, or rather God’s retreat from history to leave freedom of action to man’s moral autonomy, showing what man is capable of doing when he refuses God. The second form of reflections are the theological ones, that intend, on the contrary, to critically rethink the traditional categories of faith, underlining the traits of discontinuity: Auschwitz is the proof of the absence of God, or of the silence and the retreat of God at the moment of creation to leave to men complete responsibility of their actions in this world. This stance is for many theologians an exhortation to human action, to Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel, but it is also an interpretation of the Shoah in its universal meaning for all religions, that must be re-understood as religions of the age after Auschwitz.

The third form of reflections, that the author defines theological-political, is not a merely religious answer, but the interpretation of the Shoah as the painful and unavoidable proof of the necessity for the Jewry to eradicate itself from the alienation of the Diaspora and return to the land of Israel, or put the Covenant at the centre of its own existence and identity.

The author correctly concludes that there have been many positions on the relationship between Auschwitz and the modern world, apart from these interpretations, strongly imbued with religious thinking. These positions give to the reflections about the Shoah and its uniqueness a more universal meaning and character, that does not deny its specific character as a Jewish tragedy, but underlines its universal meaning as a reflection about the evil inside every human being, about the weakness of reason, and about the inhuman aspects of the general history of the West.

I agree in particular on the latter point, and it seems to me that it should be underlined that a particularly strong tendency on the Jewish side, both in the Diaspora and Israel, contributed to turn the Shoah into even more in an exclusively Jewish event, to be viewed with compassion and solidarity, but thereby also weakening the symbolic universal meaning that this tragedy should convey. I should also add that it would have been interesting to compare these reflections with the use of the Shoah by the newborn State of Israel, before 1961 and the Eichmann trial.  A lot of the recent Israeli historiography has shown that the Shoah was the symbol of the weak Jew of the Diaspora, the Jew that lets himself be killed without defence, as opposed to the model of the strong Jew, the warrior, that was being built instead. Also, the essay by Asher Salah, Tradizione e modernità nel cinema israeliano (Tradition and modernity in Israeli cinema), reveals, in a cinematography extraordinarily susceptible to social life, the strong propaganda for the strong Jew during the first fifteen years of the State of Israel.

The third and fourth sections illustrate the two most important cases of the current Jewish condition: Israel and the United States. My opinion is that a larger space should have been given to the Jewish experience of the Diaspora, in France, England, Argentina, and also to those fragments of Judaism that have remained in Arab countries, in other countries of Latin America, and in the resurgent communities in, for instance, Germany, Hungary, Spain; since I am convinced that Judaism in the Diaspora not only maintains a significant role, but that it also marks in perspective a limitation and a check on the role of guiding states that Israel and the USA have in the events of a people that built its specificity, and also one of the significant aspects of modernity, on existing as an example of a people without a state, as Ian Assmann reminds us in Cultural Memory.

The two essays by Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, Diritto individuale, diritto comunitario, diritto pubblico e costituzionale nello Stato di Israele (Individual law, community law, public and constitutional law in the State of Israel), and by David Bidussa, La religione civica israeliana (Israeli civic religion), both show the contradictions on which Israeli society has been built and also the ambiguous relationship between continuity and rupture, which remains an unresolved problem both of law and of the general attitude of Israeli society’s self-structuring. Can a state that proclaims itself to be at the same time both Jewish and democratic guarantee a “complete equality of rights for all its citizens without distinction of religion, race or gender”? A state that recognizes at the same time Jewish law within family law and Israeli law as its general juridical system, is it not bound to continually incur jurisdictional conflicts between the Rabbinate and the Supreme Court? A state that has not provided itself with a constitution, but that has rather bestowed constitutional character on eleven (up to now) fundamental laws, is it not bound to continually incur juridical obstacles, in front of diverse social groups that that do not always recognise the legitimacy of a substantially weak institutional system? These are the questions that characterise a juridical system that has on the other hand introduced important innovations, such as stressing the responsibility and social solidarity of individual citizens and the state, through the concept of tom lev, good faith, especially in contracts. Rabello’s essay is one of the most significant of the whole book also because of the richness of the examples and the illustration of the progressive change from the English and Ottoman juridical model to the specific Israeli one, which is also inspired by the American system.

Bidussa reconstructs instead the progressive change from a civil Zionist religion, even if understood in many different ways before the birth of the state, to a political religion strongly ruled by the monist ideology embodied by Ben Gurion, an ideology strongly antagonistic to the experience of the Diaspora. “For that political generation it is not true that the future can be mortgaged only on condition of having a past. The opposite is instead true: it is possible to have a future only by breaking free from and of the past. This is the premise on which the figure of the ‘new Jew’ is built” (p. 358). 

But Israeli society becomes immediately complicated: Sephardic mass immigration, the Eichmann trial, the 1967 war, the end of the age of pioneers, urban and industrial development require a continuous revision of foundational myths. The crisis of Israeli society expands since the seventies: the government passes from the labour to the nationalist component, while the secular part of society identifies less and less with the communitarian ideal and looses ground to the growing orthodox presence. The heroic myths (Trumpeldor), the myth of resistance till the last man and the myth of heroic sacrifice (Masada) are, according to Bidussa, the symbol of a society that feels besieged and without alternatives, dependent once again on external threats and protections, despite being born in order to emancipate itself from the condition of the other-directed Jew.

Israel is a multi-ethnic and multinational society: many of its political and social characteristics, of its attitudes toward religion and tradition come from this aspect that in many ways is similar to the history of American Judaism, as the latter also has become numerically relevant relatively recently, starting from the great European migrations in the 1880s. But in the United States multi-ethnicity is not only a problem internal to the Jewish world; it is rather the reality of the context with which Judaism has related and confronted itself. Roberto Festa, in the essay Il mondo ebraico americano contemporaneo. Dai movimenti degli anni Sessanta alle nuove forme del vissuto identitario (The contemporary American Jewish world: from the movements of the sixties to the new forms of lived identity) illustrates the progressive change of American Judaism from a liberal and democratic attitude towards the end of the sixties, to a progressive shift toward conservative positions. “At least until the whole of 1965 a consistent part of the American Jewish leadership remained at the vanguard of the civil rights movement” (p. 418), siding with African-Americans in the fight against racial segregation and for justice, in the name of a universal interpretation of Judaism, from those years the stress shifts progressively towards the topic of Jewish survival, which is menaced by communism in the Soviet Union and by the Arab countries, after the 1967 war. A pacifist Judaism moved progressively to a more bellicose attitude “convinced that new practical responsibilities would emerge from the power politics of the Jewish state” (p. 422), to avoid giving Hitler another posthumous victory. Much weight was attached to the positions of Emil Fackenheim, who theorised that after Auschwitz the essential commandment for each Jew was to live as a Jew, and not to sacrifice Jewish existence on the altar of a future humanity. The fate of the Jews of the communist bloc and Israel “became in the seventies the most important civic and social cause of the organised Jewish movement …The old socialist, messianic, revolutionary aspiration that thousands of Jews had brought into America between 1881 and 1924 from the countries of Eastern Europe, and that had still fed the battles of the sixties, was spent by then” (pp. 431 – 2).

Of course, the outline of American Judaism was and is still very complex and has had a long and rich history of divisions: as shown by the essay of Massimo Giuliani I Conservative negli Stati Uniti e il Jewish Theological Seminary (The Conservatives in the United States and the Jewish Theological Seminary): from the German experience of the science of Judaism was born, next to and against the orthodox, both the so-called Jewish reformation and the conservative movement, itself somehow an answer that accepted the principle of the historical evolution of Judaism, but that remained respectful of tradition, as opposed to the innovations of the reformers, who in 1885 in Pittsburgh sanctioned a substantial abandonment of tradition. Another movement would detach from the conservatives towards the end of the 1920s, the re-constructionist, that considered Judaism neither a religion nor an ethnic affiliation, but the always changing religious civilization of the Jewish people: at the centre of Jewish life lie the people and not God. The conflicts between these groups would gradually focus on several topics, from the observance of Kashrut to the repose on Saturday, from the admission of women into the rabbinate to the attitude towards homosexuality, the use of Hebrew, up to the progressive assimilation of these innovations, which confirmed the centrality of the idea of an organised community, even if they departed from the Jewish community as an ethnic-religious group, as observed by Samuel N. Eisenstadt. Today, about a third of American Jews are affiliated to the conservative movement.

It would be important to compare the experience of American Judaism with Israeli Judaism, surely more traditionalist. But it is certain that there is a continuous exchange between the two realities, even if the society of the United States has lived in a different way its own history because of its being part of the main political and military power of the world. But even in these studies on American society Judaism is described through its official institutions and those affiliated to them, overlooking secular Jews, that is, those who consider themselves Jews but do not identify with any of the communally organized structures.

The book’s last essay brings us back somewhat rudely to the conflicting relevance of the symbolic world, not only for Jews, of course. Piero Stefani in Gerusalemme: organizzazione, occupazione e ricostruzione di uno spazio sacro (Jerusalem: organization, occupation and reconstruction of a sacred space) tells the history, in particular its recent part, of the conflict between the three monotheistic religions for the status of the city, in which the primacy of peace clashes with the primacy of possession. A dramatic measurement of the weight of symbols in obstructing co-existence: “in order to make it real, it is necessary on the one hand to limit nationalistic and fundamentalist tendencies, and on the other to find a different way from making religious affiliations merely relative” (p. 603).  This is, in the end, a sad conclusion of the general analysis of the complex reality of one of the three Mediterranean religions.

Like all collective books this important collection of essays leaves open many problems. The books were concieved from some considerations that David Bidussa, the editor, underlines in the introduction Mappe storiche, geografiche, culturali dell’ebraismo in Età moderna e contemporanea (Historical, geographical and cultural maps of Judaism in the modern and contemporary age) and that I would like to discuss in order to conclude. First of all – and I agree - the idea that Judaism has known a complex and contradictory historical evolution that does not define any continuity, but can be rather defined as an archive of experiences, determined above all by internal workings rather than a mere answer to hostile external pressures. Its duration therefore does not derive from a transmission of norms and a transmission through historiography, but from practices and a memory tied to places and paths of identity. Thus a history made of ruptures and not of a linear evolution. Jews are indeed characterised by a “constant process of hybridization, remixing, rewriting their own convictions. Along this path they have, in time, assumed forms of thinking, vocabularies, gastronomies, ways of eating, logical procedures, imaginations, plural explanations of their own knowledge” (p. XXX). In this picture – and this opinion sounds to me more questionable – “sabbiatanism is the first moment of the eruption of modernity in the Jewish world” (p. XIX). The thesis is strongly inspired by Scholem’s anarchism and Zionism, convinced as he was that the true soul of Judaism lay in the revelation, in its symbolic dimension, in its mystical and messianic forces that yet reveal their impossibility to be made real, but nonetheless maintain history in a constant tension and prevent to turn it into a secular and political project. In this sense the great and disastrous story of Shabbatay Tzwi, his breaking of every norm as the essential aspect of messianic revelation and his failure, open to modern Judaism meanings and expectation in front of history, they open it to the choices of modernity, to its secular uncertainties and to the responsibilities of men in the world. This thesis also concludes the book with the essay by Christoph Schmidt Il messia antimessianico. Soggettività messianica e teologia politica nella teoria del simbolismo cabbalistico di Gershom Scholem (The anti-messianic Messiah: messianic subjectivity and political theology in Gershon Scholem’s theory of kabbalistic symbolism), where the false Messiah has “the paradoxical task of freeing Jewish culture of its ‘messianity’: the ethics of the kabbalistic symbol works as a constant strategy of restoration of Jewish culture against the ‘temptations’ of the political theology of modern messianism” (p. 558).

It seems to me, though, that other ideas and figures besides and beyond Shabbatay Tzwi have peopled Jewish modernity in a foundational way: Maimonides, as seen in the –correct, in my opinion – analysis provided by Leo Strauss, that underlines his platonic features, and above all Spinoza. But other perspectives also enrich Jewish modernity: Emmanuel Levinas’s foundation of ethics, or Strauss’s renunciation of the religious aspect, that sees in Spinoza and Hobbes the foundation of law on the basis of the subject and rationality, in a way completely independent of any authority. And still – it needs to be repeated – Judaism is also made up of diverse practices, of diverse men, of religious and atheists, of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, of progressives and conservatives, of pacifists and bellicose people, and one cannot expect even a book like this, which is so rich in ideas and facts, to contain them all and reveal the mystery of permanence within so much diversity.

(Giovanni Levi, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia


[1] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984; or. ed. 1960) 178.

[2] Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen (München: Beck 1992).

[3] Paul Mendes-Flohr, Identitades judìas postradicionales, in Paul Mendes-Flohr, Yom Tov Assis and Leonardo Senkman (eds.), Identitades judìas, modernidad y globalizaciòn (Buenos Aires: Lilmod, 2007) 517.

[4] Carlo Altini, Berlino, Atene, Gerusalemme. Filosofia, politica e religione nel mondo moderno tra Gershom Scholem e Leo Strauss, in Gershom Scholem  e Leo Strauss, Lettere dall”esilio. Carteggio (1933-1973), ed. by Carlo Altini (Firenze: Giuntina, 2008).

[5] Sylvie Anne Goldberg (2000), La Clepsydre. Essai sur la pluralité des temps dans le judaisme,  (Paris: Albin Michel, 2000) vol. I, 318-21.

[6] Roberto Bonfil, Gli ebrei in Italia nell’epoca del Rinascimento (Firenze: Sansoni, 1991) 152.

[7] Haym Soloveitchik (1994), “Rupture and Reconstruction: the Transformation of Contemporary Ortodoxy”, in Tradition, 28 (1994) 64-130.

How to quote this article:
Giovanni Levi, Discussion of "Ebraismo", by David Bidussa (ed.) in Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, n.1 April 2010


issue n.1 April 2010

ISSN: 2037-741X

La sezione italiana di Quest sarà online entro breve!


The italian section of Quest will be soon online!


David Bidussa (ed.)
Contribution by:
Contribution by:


David Sorkin
by Francesca Bregoli
Yuri Slezkine
by Cristiana Facchini
Nadia Valman
by Carlotta Ferrara degli Uberti
Georges Bensoussan
by Arturo Marzano and Marcella Simoni


Call for Papers Directory of Open Access Journals