Iran, Israel, and the Jews, an edited volume of fifteen essays is a welcome and important contribution to the history of the Jews of Persia. Indeed, the topic of Persian-Jewish relations is so disproportionally understudied relative to its significance in Jewish history that any major publication on it is cause for celebration. The editors of the volume, Aaron Koller and Daniel Tsadik —both professors at Yeshiva University—should be commended for commissioning such a strong pool of scholars in both Jewish and Iranian studies. Although there is no conceptual or methodological cohesion between the essays beyond their interest in the Jews of Persia, the volume succeeds at putting on display the incredible diversity and complexity of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. One criticism of the book may be that it does not adequately address certain key topics, such as classical Judeo-Persian literature, but such desiderata are inevitable given the richness of the 2,500-year-old ties between Jews and Persians. As the editors themselves suggest in the introduction, the book is in part meant to be aspirational and inspirational, aiming to capture the imagination of other researchers by pointing out how much there is left to do. To me, the book’s larger message is that Jewish studies has much to gain by training more scholars in Persian history, language, and literature.
The book is divided into three parts and covers a lot of ground—from the Achaemenid context of the Bible and the Sasanian context of the Talmud; to modern cultural history, including ritual objects and art; to modern political history, including anti-Israeli rhetoric in Iran today. Overall, all the essays in this book are well written, and some chapters include fascinating images.
In what follows, I describe four essays that exemplify the book’s range of approaches and its larger message.
Koller’s essay “Negotiating Empire: Jewish Life and Jewish Theology under the Achaemenids” is an excellent synthesis of the data for research on the Jews of ancient Persia and Yehud. Koller argues that for this era there is little possibility of writing social or political history, whereas religious history—or more specifically, the role of God in the world—is feasible. On this latter question, Koller turns to a range of primary sources, including Ezra, Esther, Daniel, and Tobit, to expose three patterns: first, when humans serve kings they serve God, since God uses human kings; second, God rules in heaven; and third, God is hidden from the world. The real interdisciplinary work begins when Koller is able to connect these ideas to Persian imperial ideology. For example, on the first pattern, he concludes: “It is not surprising that the Jews of the east would adopt this perspective on history, since it is not only well-entrenched in earlier Jewish literature, but also precisely what the Persian kings themselves argued! . . . The basic claim that the king’s actions are the means by which the divine will is executed in the world, however, is both the view of the Persian propaganda and the view of some Jews, especially those close to the center of Persian power” (16). It is these sorts of conclusions that demonstrate the potential for a deeper integration of Persian studies into the field of biblical studies.
Another essay that shows the value of Persian sources for historians of medieval Judaism is Shaul Regev’s “Prophecy and the Prophecy of Moses in Ḥovot Yehudah by Rabbi Yehudah ben Elazar.” This masterpiece written by the 17th-century intellectual from Kashan, during a time when Jews felt pressure to convert to Islam, discusses how to achieve intellectual perfection, the uniqueness of Moses’s prophecy, as well as the basic beliefs of Judaism in a vein similar to Maimonides’s “Thirteen Principles of the Faith.” For Rabbi Yehudah ben Elazar, who relies on but disagrees with Maimonides, four principles of faith are existence of God, prophecy, Torah from heaven, and resurrection (126). In sum, this essay illustrates that Persian-Jewish thinkers were engaged in the same conversations that were taking place within the wider Jewish world, while at the same time tailoring their opinions to match the experiences of Persian Jews.
Written by a leading scholar of Judeo-Persian literature, Vera B. Moreen’s contribution to the volume—in which she catalogues manuscripts at the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of The Russian Academy of Sciences and at The National Library of Russia—epitomizes the state of the field today: that is, that despite the existence of tons of untouched materials, there are so few people who can or want to do the archival and translation work necessary to make these resources more widely available for historical research. In these archives, Moreen counts forty-six total manuscripts, most from the 19th century. Drawing from her extensive experience, she concludes that the Russian collections “are identical with those found in other Judeo-Persian manuscripts,” which proves “that Iranian Jews were attached to a fairly well established and ‘popular canon’ of Persian, Hebrew, and Judeo-Persian literature” (142). Historically, then, the Jews of Persia had their idiosyncrasies and canon which represent an untold chapter in the history of Judaism.
Finally, Galit Hasan-Rokem has included an autobiographical essay about a trip she made to Iran in 1972. The essay is beautifully written, and its description of a foreign Jew traveling relatively freely in pre-Revolutionary Iran makes those of us who have never been there envious, a reminder of the tragedy of the current political situation. As I read her essay, I imagined myself in her shoes, traveling 1,300 miles on a bus from Istanbul, being astonished by the sacrifice of a lamb to bless the bus with safe passage, meeting Iranian Jews, and visiting Zoroastrian sites and the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai. The author’s travelogue should inspire hope and prayers that one day in the near future Israelis and Iranians will be able to travel to each other’s countries, reunite, and reflect on the 2,500-year-long journey that their ancestors have shared, and about which the volume under review educates us.
Jason Mokhtarian is the Herbert and Stephanie Neuman Chair in Hebrew and Jewish Literature at Cornell University.
Date Of Review:
August 11, 2021
Aaron Koller is Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.
Daniel Tsadik is Associate Professor of Sepharadic and Iranian Studies at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.
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