Issue 01 /
April 2010 Discussion

David Bidussa (ed.)


DOI : 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/695

The volume Ebraismo (Judaism), edited by David Bidussa for Einaudi’s series Le religioni e il mondo moderno (Religions and the Modern World), directed by Giovanni Filoramo, is a large collection of essays, as always in these cases, they are different in their approach and in their character. Some are decidedly historical, while others are more theoretical and philosophical. But this book is an attempt at something else, as Bidussa states on the very first page of his important introduction, i.e. a “strong” interpretation of the history of Judaism, and the Jews, in the contemporary era or, to be more exact, at the moment of its approach to modernity.

There are two assumptions on which Bidussa bases his interpretative approach. The first is that the history of the Jews can in no way be identified with that of anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish practices. This is a fundamental and extremely important axiom that I believe has by now been widely accepted both in historiographic theory and practice, normally accustomed to distinguishing between the perception of the Jew and Jews, between the Jewish world and the policies of the Catholic Church and nations towards (or against) the Jews. The other assumption, much less established except at the level of the most recent and innovative historiography, is that the Jewish world has survived throughout time not due to its alleged immobility,  in other words its closure to the external world, but thanks to a continuous process of transformation, of relations with the outside world and its culture,  and of remodelling its own culture in relation to that surrounding it. As David Myers expresses it, “the creative capacity of minority groups like the Jews not only to adopt, but to adapt cultural norms from the host society to their own needs.  In this regard, adaptation is not the term of cultural activity. Rather, it is a midpoint in a process of give and take that continually redefines the malleable boundaries of Jewish history” (D. Myers, Resisting History. Historicism and its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought, Princeton 2003, p. 10)

Depending again on Bidussa’s words, who in turn quotes Foucault, “one might say that Judaism is a progressive ‘Jewish archive’, a set of recommendations of practices, and texts, none of which are necessarily homogeneous or unbroken. It is partly for this reason that there is not only one Judaism, but many versions of it, often in conflict with each other” (p. XIV). This pluralistic nature of Judaism emerges forcefully in these essays and their organization. Attention is given to the differences, the heterodox tendencies, and the conflicts, as demonstrated by the ample space dedicated to the pathways of Reform and Conservative Judaism in the European and American Jewish world. At the same time, Bidussa is careful to remain consistent with his assumptions even in his linguistic choices, so that he refuses to use the term “identity”, preferring to use the term “pathways of identity”. In the same way, in place of the term “memory”, he chooses “places of memory”. This is a forcefully historical approach that emphasizes the moments of construction and transformation of identity and memories, both of which are far too often taken – even by historians – as motionless and absolute.

These two assumptions seem to me to be fundamental for any historical reconstruction of the Jewish world, in any period or form. And it seems even more important in the context of the approach to modernity, a context which, in itself, had a notable effect of accelerating the change and fragmentation of tradition. For the Jewish world, modernity obviously represented a radical change. But it did not intervene in an immobile world, distinguished by an untouchable tradition, but rather in a world which had always accepted exchange and transformation in its relations with the majorities with whom it lived.

We might ask ourselves whether, in Jewish modernity, there is a different way of changing with respect to the pre-modern period, a qualitative difference in the pathways of change. Or, instead, is it only a quantitative acceleration, an increased number of relations with the outside world, a greater predisposition to it?

But first, what do we mean by modernity? In his essay on Italy in this volume, Alessandro Guetta, for example, gives a very broad interpretation of the term “modernity”, seeing it primarily as the progressive change in the perception of the world that concerned Europe between the 16th and 20th centuries, and then posing the problem of the possible existence of a “Jewish way to modernity.” If we expand this category excessively, however, don’t we run the risk that everything holding change is defined as a prelude to modernity? And wouldn’t the result be to make change entirely a category of modernity and resistance and orthodoxy a category entirely pre-modern? If, instead, we consider change as a component that moves through time, and does not in itself define modernity, even though it is certainly an important part of it, perhaps we should consider some of the changes discussed here as belonging to a phase where modernity was still distant, where at the most “seeds of modernity” were scattered to the wind.

This is the case, in my opinion, of Guetta’s essay, which introduces us to a world rich and open to transformation and that, in a very innovative interpretation, sees the case of Italy, along with Holland, Germany and Poland, as a founding moment of Jewish modernity. The Italian Renaissance culture, the role of Kabbalah in Italy, which we should recall was forbidden for centuries from reading the Talmud, the relationship between Italian Jewish culture and science, have special aspects so that the scholar, Isaac Barzilay, could speak of Renaissance Italy as a first Haskalah. That made Italian Jews, three centuries before the German Haskalah, the first to embark along the pathway to modernization. But that the role of the mystic was a role of fragmentation and openness to the new, and was also a distinctive element in Spain and Provence in the 1200s and 1300s. According to Maurice Kriegel (Les Juifs à la fin du Moyen age dans l’Europe Méditerranéenne, Paris 1979), the potential destruction of Jewish life included in Spanish Jewish mysticism was not, despite its apparent alliance with tradition, less than that contained in the philosophical and skeptical tradition that conflicted so fiercely with mysticism. For that reason, to avoid extending the concept of “modernity” too far, I am not sure that the transformations of Jewish culture and religious changes introduced by the spread of Kabbalistic thought were enough to turn the era of the Italian ghettos into a sort of prelude to modernity, also because they in no way endangered the community structure.

I am more inclined to fully consider Amsterdam analyzed by Silvia Berti, with the phenomenon of a return to Judaism by the Spanish and Portuguese Marranos escaping the Iberian Peninsula, as one of the fundamental moments of the modern transformation of the Jewish world. Because this is when communities were created that originated from fragmented Jewish groups and individuals, with all that it meant in terms of influence on community structure. These pathways were also forged in the most radical forms of encounter with the outside world, that of conversion and living as Christians for one or more generations. What was created through this syncretism was something radically different from previous Jewish life, even when it devolved into a new form of Orthodoxy. From its point of view of cultural history, Silvia Berti’s essay analyzes the case of Spinoza in particular. However, I would like to recall less illustrious examples  studied years ago by Yosef Kaplan, since they left the community without uproar, adopting the life of “Jews without a synagogue”, to use Kolakowsky’s charged expression, Cristiani senza Chiesa (Christians without a Church). According to Kaplan, their choice forced the Portuguese community into a situation that the rest of the Jewish world faced only much later, with the Emancipation.

Together with Renaissance Italy and Portuguese Amsterdam, the Jewish pathways to modernity analyzed in the book edited by Bidussa are on one side of the main road, wide and visible, of the Haskalah of Berlin, and on another side the road, narrower and less clear, of Polish Chassidism. Again, we find ourselves returning to the two pathways, both leading to disaggregation of traditional life: the mystical, an ally of tradition, and the rationalistic, hostile to tradition, but both equally subversive. The Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, is obviously the main road, and it is discussed here by Paolo Bernardini in a stimulating essay on Mendelsohn, where he briefly touches on the problem of the so-called “Jewish-German symbiosis”. On the contrary, the narrow road is the one running, according to Scholem, from Sabbatai Sevi to Dönmeh and that Laura Quercioli Mincer in her admirable essay identifies as Chassidism. Here too, as in the case of Spanish Kabbalistic thought, the Chassidism appears as a “niche of modernity”, a “revolution”, and a “way out of passivity and melancholy” peculiar to Ashkenazi Judaism. “Thanks to the movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov, the “people of the book” became once again, from some points of view, the “people of the body”, i.e. the people able to act in the real world” (p. 86).

After these different “models” of the road to modernity, the second section of the book analyzes the conflicts, coexistence and transformations of the Jewish world during its meeting with modernity. So, on one hand, the space given to Judaism and its internal transformation – the Reform and Liberal Judaism, education and its connection with the idea of the nation, analyzed in a very stimulating essay by Saul Meghnagi, the influence of the Messianic spirit that some very striking pages by Michael Loewy call “the elective affinities between the Messianic and social traditions” – brings us to a stance programmatically centred on the Jewish view. On the other hand this view is turned not inward but to the outside world in transformation and its intertwining with the Jewish world.

In the first of the two essays dedicated to what is commonly known as the Emancipation, Francesca Sofia analyzes the Sanhedrin set up by Napoleon, stressing the role of Napoleon’s policy toward Jews, which in its double attempt to discriminate and integrate ultimately reconstructed a Jewish collective identity after the French Revolution had reduced the Jews simply to individuals. This is an important problem ignored by historiography, more concerned with evaluating the degree of hostility Napoleon showed to Jews than analyzing the result of it for the Jewish world, that these pages analyse, moving masterly through memory, Jewish perception and political history. “If the Sanhedrin can claim to have any significance,” Sofia concludes, “it is not because Judaism passively subjected itself to the laws of the State; but rather it is because this doubly equal inclusion – of the general equalitarian law from the Jews and of the Jews from European culture – that, beyond its first motivations, the event can even today be read as a turning point deserving to be remembered” (p. 123). This is a refutation of the very idea of assimilation that, in a  wider perspective, conflicts with the image, widespread in historiography, of a one-way Jewish-German symbiosis, and French “assimilation” as well, where Judaism was the loser.

In his extensive essay, Mario Toscano compares integration, emancipation and the transformations of identity in Italy, France and Germany, not without critically analyzing the use of the term “assimilation” to contrast identity. The comparative approach he uses is, I would like to underline, very successful in highlighting the different pathways of Emancipation among European Jews. In addition, it is also in keeping with the comparative stance taken by the main studies of the last twenty to thirty years, from the 1987 volume Toward Modernity by Jacob Katz to the subsequent volumes, among others, by Sorkin, Edelman, Birnbaum-Katznelson, and Frankel-Zipperstein, all engaged not only in distinguishing the process of acculturation from that of political emancipation and insertion in the society, but also in comparing the various European models, both in the West and in the East, where emancipation was denied. I would again like to highlight how Bidussa’s volume is a radical revision of the contrast between assimilation and identity that has long marked the Italian discussion, which stuck to an anti-Emancipation tendency that developed after the Shoah and tended to read the Emancipation though the lense of the Shoah, as a failure and a loss of identity that led to the slaughter as a forced pathway, even when French and Anglo-American studies questioned that premise.  That even in Italy this obsolete, insular paradigm was abandoned in favor of a more detailed vision of the process of integration with the outside world is an important result that opens vast prospects of research and is utterly in keeping with editor’s premise. The idea of an intense, manifold relationship with the outside, transformations and cultural intertwining.

Thus, the way that the book deals with Zionism is very innovative. There is no specific essay devoted to the subject but it is present throughout and is absorbed in a more general notion of identification with the national idea in its various formulations: the Jewish State, nations States of which one can become citizens, the idea of the Jewish people, and history as support for national identity.

Also included in the book’s historical approach is the theme of transformation of religion: from an analysis of the Reform and the development of the reform movement between the 19th and 20th centuries in an essay by Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, to “liberal” Judaism analyzed by Cristiana Facchini, to religious and secular Jewish thought after the Shoah analyzed by Massimo Giuliani. These essays are closely tied to those dealing with the civic Israeli religion by Bidussa himself, the essay on Jewish catechisms by Gadi Luzzatto, and the wide analysis of the Conservative movement in America by Giuliani. It is an important group of studies that I will refrain from discussing for lack of specific knowledge but that gives the Jewish world on the whole an image of great openness to modernity and great plurality. There are the rabbis and not the rabbinate, Jews and Judaisms and not the Judaism, identities and not the identity and, finally, traditions rather than tradition. And, most of all, everything is in continuous transformation and cultural mediation with the outside world.

Based on the categories proposed in the comparative analysis of Israel and the United States in the book by Samuel N. Eisenstadt, Jewish Civilization, to which Ebraismo often refers, the sections on America and Israel rest upon radical thematic choices which include, for Israel, the civic religion, the law, and cinema. For the American Jewish world they include the internal history of Judaism on one hand – the American Conservative world, its inner choices, the Re-constructionist movement, and the acceptance of women rabbis – and, on the other, the parabola of the encounter-withdrawal of American Jews with the civil rights movement, the radical movement of the Sixties, the transformation of American society between the war in Vietnam and the Bush era, McCarthyism, Communism, the return of conservative politics and the intense relationship with the state of Israel. It is a very lively picture, little known in our culture except through literature, that is an extraordinary framework to the novels of Philip Roth and the great Jewish-American literature in general.

If the picture given by that volume on Judaism in modernity is extremely rich, there are also some things missing, as in every study with multiple voices and contributions. The subjects lacking are the result of well pondered choices. But I regret that greater attention was not paid to Russian Judaism. Theirs was a very radical model of entry into modernity without prospects of political emancipation, and is only briefly mentioned in the essay by Lowy.

But ultimately, to what prospects do these analyses lead? “Making a tradition contemporary” is the title of the admirable article by Amos Luzzatto in the last part of the book. It discusses this problem, that of the endurance of Jewish tradition in the face of modernity and of the need to make it contemporary. It is a wager on identity, a need for redefinition in the light of the world’s social, historical, political transformation, made urgent by Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel.

In this entire set of problems, questions, and contradictions suggested by Amos Luzzatto as well by the other essays in the final part devoted to the questions of today, one conclusion seems important because it extends and does not restrict the creativeness of the Jewish world: we are now in the presence of new methods for defining Jewish community and new ways of making the tradition our own and confronting it with the world and its increasingly rapid changes. That is where we can start again, and that seems to me to be the wish of the book and the hope it offers the reader.

Anna Foa, Università La Sapienza di Roma

David Bidussa (ed.), Ebraismo, Le religioni e il mondo moderno, ed. Giovanni Filoramo, Collana Grandi Opere (Turin: Einaudi, 2008), pp.  XXXVIII-624.

How to quote this article:
Anna Foa,
discussion of David Bidussa (ed.),
Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of the Fondazione CDEC,
n. 01,
April 2010
DOI: 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/695