Delimiting a corpus is always tricky. Add in contested terms and periods and the process becomes even more delicate. When compiling The Routledge Companion to Jewish History and Historiography, editor Dean Phillip Bell, no doubt faced the questions of “what’s in” and “what’s out.” Bell’s wide-ranging selections leaves its readers with an anthology that traverses a broad spectrum of issues germane to “Jewish” history, reaching all the way from Israelite origins to the modern Boycott Divestment Sanctions [BDS] movement. The work, however, is not merely a historical overview. It seeks to “make a unique contribution to the field by situating Jewish history in the most central historiographical and methodological contexts, describing and evaluating some of the largest and most frequently utilized source bases and providing a consistently framed and cohesive set of essays for each Jewish historical period” (2). This is, no doubt, a tall order. What emerges from such a vast undertaking is an attentive work comprised of three main sections—Jewish histories, Sources for Jewish history, and Historiography—with forty-eight chapters in total, written mainly by academics, with several essays penned by leaders in Jewish positions.
In providing the academy with a book dedicated solely to Jewish history and historiography, Bell has done the field a service. Scholars interested in big picture questions as to how and why Jewish history has been told in a certain way now have a convenient first-point of reference. Furthermore, the work, which describes itself as “geared towards academics in related disciplines and fields, graduate students and advanced undergraduates and lay readers looking for deeper understanding” (2), enables points of access to the material at various levels. A trade off of this, however, is that, at times, the work feels unwieldy and very often refers readers to other chapters in the volume
Part 1 (“Jewish Histories”) comprises twenty-one essays spanning from antiquity to the present, which are centered on the biblical period, the rabbinic period, the middle ages, the early modern period, and contemporary times. Each of these sections receives not simply a historical overview, but also essays focused on broader themes in the period such as intellectual history, cultural history, or economic history, as well as emerging trends in the study of these periods in contemporary scholarship. These last sections, related to contemporary scholarship, are particularly helpful, especially for readers who are not very familiar with these fields.
As with selecting what material to include, framing the presented information is always difficult. In using the categories above, the Routledge Companion adopts a traditional periodization of Jewish history. Yet, within this scheme, it would have been nice to see more material on the so-called Geonic period (600-1000 CE), but for a few pages (102-03), a sustained discussion of this rich period across the Mediterranean is not found. Also missing, both here and later in the section on the Sources for Jewish history, is a discussion of the reliability of Sherira Gaon’s famed epistle, which “remains a central text of medieval historiography” (103). Particularly in light of this lacuna regarding the sources for such a broad swath of Jewish history, the chapter focused on the hyper local issue of BDS seems somewhat out of place.
Part 2 (“Sources for Jewish History”) contains discussions about evaluating the various corpora used by historians to tell the history of the Jews. Here again, the anthology shows both its breadth and its limitations. The number of topics covered is impressive and the scope of information—from Iron Age archeology to contemporary Yiddish press—is gigantic, yet this invariably means that only brief treatments can be offered. As such, many sources go without their required attention. Most glaring, to this reviewer, is the lack of sustained engagement with the writings of Josephus Flavius and Sherira Gaon, arguably our two most important sources for Jewish history in antiquity. Also missing is a discussion of the transmission of most of our ancient evidence, and what that means in terms of its historical reliability. In this section as well, readers will find several claims that are somewhat questionable. One wonders if “most scholars” would agree with Gerson Cohen’s nearly fifty-year claim that “the age and culture designated as Talmudic extends in time from the conquests of Alexander the great in Asia about 330 BCE” (360). Elsewhere, one finds the idea that, referring to the supposed reforms of Ezra, “as we come to the end of the biblical canon we have a new understanding of the manner in which the Almighty speaks to the Jewish people” (360). Though these claims are certainly not the majority, that the chapter is geared towards non-experts who may not be fluent in the field makes them worthy of mention. Moreover, given that those two claims are based on evidence from the rabbinic corpus, it is bizarre to find them uncritically stated in a chapter on the usage of rabbinic material as a historical source.
Part 3 (“Historiography”) focuses on the methods that historians have used and continue to use in their craft. As with the previous sections, this section is both broad in its scope, yet limited in its depth. As with part 1, the extensive bibliographies in this section make it a valuable resource for those looking to learn more. Particular standouts in this section include the discussion on "Women’s and Gender Studies by Judith Bashkin (486-500) as well as Postmodernism, Jewish History, and Jewish Historiography by Bell (572-84). The chapter on “Oral History: The Case of Holocaust Survivor Testimony” (597-606) contains a treasure trove of fascinating material as well.
The Routledge Companion to Jewish History and Historiography will likely be of best service to those with ancillary interests in Jewish history who wish to understand the-how-and-why certain Jewish historical narratives are told. Those looking for more detailed discussions may have to look elsewhere. In sum, by providing interested readers with an extensive and well-sourced guide to the basics of Jewish history and historiography, Bell and the authors have made a welcome contribution to the literature.
Joshua Blachorsky is a doctoral student in Judaism in Late Antiquity in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.
Joshua A. Blachorsky
Date Of Review:
October 3, 2019
Dean Phillip Bell is President/CEO and Professor of Jewish History at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. His publications include Sacred Communities: Jewish and Christian Identities in Fifteenth-Century Germany (2001) and Jewish Identity in Early Modern Germany: Memory, Power and Identity (2007).
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