The introduction elucidates the main concepts of the book that bind these essays, which were written over a period of more than forty years. As opposed to the idea of an "essence" of Judaism, Jewish culture argues for a multiplicity of conflicting voices, from the canonical to the heretical. The method of counterhistory, that is, searching for themes hidden beneath canonical interpretations of the Jewish tradition, informs the essays in this book.
Against the canonical idea that God either is male or has no gender and that ancient Israelite religion rejected the fertility rituals of the Canaanites, El Shaddai appears to have been a name of God associated with fertility blessings. One very early biblical text even makes a wordplay between Shaddai and shadayim (breasts). The God of ancient Israel may therefore have been understood to be both male and female.
The rebel Korah is one of the Bible's villains, but in later rabbinic midrashim, Korah appears in a different guise, as a trickster who subverts the law by taking it to absurd extremes. One might say that Korah was resurrected as a rebellious rabbi. In the Hasidic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Korah became a foil for how the leaders of the movement understood their own leadership. As opposed to the Bible, where Korah and his followers are swallowed up by the earth, these later texts bring him back to life.
In roughly the sixth or seventh century, two strange texts provide "counterhistories" of Christianity in the service of Jewish polemics. The first is the Toldot Yeshu, which inverts the biography of Jesus: the founder of Christianity is the son of a menstruant Jewish woman and a Roman soldier who steals the name of God, only to be brought down to earth by the story's hero, Judas Iscariot. The second is the apocalyptic Sefer Zerubavel, which turns Jesus and the Byzantine emperor into the Antichrist, who will be defeated by two Jewish Messiahs. In evident response to the cult of the Virgin Mary, the mother of one of the Messiahs plays a role for the first time in Jewish literature.
The twelfth century witnessed a kind of medieval Enlightenment in which there arose radical interpretations of the Bible, of the sort we associate more with Baruch Spinoza and later secular biblical criticism. A leading figure in this movement was Abraham Ibn Ezra, whose Bible commentary is regarded as canonical by Orthodox Jews. But Ibn Ezra advanced daring, even incipiently heretical, arguments that some passages in Torah could not have been written by Moses and, even more strikingly, that the Bible does not contain all knowledge.
Seen by many as the most "modern" of the Hasidic masters, the late eighteenth-century Hasidic master Nahman of Bratslav reveled in paradox and gave theological meaning to his own inner existential struggles. Evidently suffering from profound depression, Nahman developed a taxonomy of depressive states, which he correlated with his role as a religious leader. Nahman was embedded in the religious tradition but nevertheless evinced a subjective sensibility that we typically associate with modernity.
In the nineteenth century, at a time when most modernizing thinkers saw the Kabbalah as medieval superstition, Nachman Krochmal, a leading figure in the East European Jewish Enlightenment, developed an Idealist philosophy of history that allowed mysticism a positive role in Jewish history, one that anticipated Gershom Scholem's later work.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was both a nineteenth-century pornographer (the word masochism comes from his name) and a philosemite, two identities that equally challenged boundaries in European society. He inverted many of the stereotypes of Jews and especially Jewish women. How these two seemingly unrelated tendencies come together makes for a strange story in the history of Jewish integration in the nineteenth century.
This essay examines how nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers understood historical Jewish heretics: Jesus, Elisha Ben Abuya, and Spinoza. Starting with a discussion of Peter Berger's argument that everyone modern is a heretic, it shows how the writers it treats tried to reincorporate Jewish heretics back into the tradition and thus make them part of modern Jewish identity. These modern reinterpretations of Jewish heresy raise questions about Berger's definition of modernity.
Building on chapter 8, this essay looks specifically at modern treatments of the seventeenth-century messianic figure Shabbtai Zvi. Writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Israel Zangwill, Theodor Herzl, Jacob Wassermann, and Josef Kastein (among others)—searched for ways to understand Shabbtai Zvi not so much as a heretic but as a tragic figure, some of whose ideas could be realized only in the modern world. For many of these writers, Shabbtai Zvi, the Messiah from the East, offered the opportunity to embrace a kind of Jewish Orientalism.
The philosopher Leo Strauss offered idiosyncratic and subversive understandings of historical traditions, informed by a particular Jewish sensibility, and esoteric readings of Jewish philosophers, especially Maimonides. But while Strauss believed that he came to timeless philosophical conclusions, this essay argues that he must be read not as "he read himself" (one of his favorite phrases) but as a Weimar Jew, concerned with the same questions of esotericism, secularism, and tradition with which other Jewish intellectuals of his time struggled.
Hannah Arendt's most controversial book was her Eichmann in Jerusalem. As a result of this controversy, Arendt suffered a similar fate to that of heretics in a less secular age. In this essay, I argue against this unofficial herem. The most radical aspect of Arendt's book lay not, however, in the oft-quoted phrase the "banality of evil" but in the legal theory she developed, which argued for a kind of multiculturalism avant la lettre. This theory takes the Jewish experience as emblematic of human diversity, a startling conclusion in light of attacks on Arendt for lack of sympathy with her people.
Gershom Scholem was a historian whose work brought together fascination with heresy with an antinomian sensibility of his own. Scholem's "Ten Unhistorical Aphorisms on the Kabbalah," written in conscious imitation of Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," has never been translated into English and is published here for the first time. An elucidation of this difficult text reveals Scholem's profundity as a modernist thinker (and not only as a historian) who identified paradoxes and heresies in the Kabbalah that have extraordinarily contemporary resonances.
Gershom Scholem's path to Zionism led through anarchistic rejection of German nationalism, a rejection that later informed his critique of what he considered reactionary and apocalyptic forms of Jewish nationalism. Although his years of political activity in favor of what today is called "liberal Zionism" ended in 1933, he retained much of his suspicion of militant Jewish nationalism. In an interview that I did with him in 1981, he connected his views of Sabbatianism as a spiritual catastrophe with a critique of adherents to the religious Zionist settler movement as "latter-day Sabbatians," who threatened an even worse catastrophe for his own Zionist ideals. Although forty years old, this warning about the dangers of Jewish messianism remains entirely relevant today.
In the decade after the interview in chapter 13, I studied the intellectual underpinnings of the messianic Zionism that Scholem criticized, seeking to elaborate his claim that this movement draws from the heretical wellsprings that he had elucidated. I focused in particular on the messianic ideology of Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine from 1921 to 1935. Kook's dialectical philosophy of Jewish messianism made it possible for this ultra-Orthodox leader to ascribe positive meaning to secular Zionism. But the heretical implications of his position, which bear startling resemblance to Sabbatian motifs, also laid the groundwork for the apocalyptic Zionism articulated by his son, Zvi Yehudah Kook, and his son's students after the Six-Day War. It is these ideas that continue to bedevil Israeli politics today.
A final essay, written shortly after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, offers broad reflections on the current condition of the Jewish people in historical perspective. Modern Jewish history since the French Revolution has evolved under the star of Enlightenment. Yet today the forces—Jewish, European, and American—seeking to dismantle the Enlightenment in favor of ethno-nationalism and illiberalism have only grown stronger in the subsequent five years. Indeed, the rather gloomy prognosis that I suggest about the fate of the Enlightenment in the early twenty-first century finds tragic confirmation with the news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
This personal essay charts my personal and professional trajectory, starting with my parents' stories. From a childhood in Los Angeles, a year in Israel at age nine, university education at Harvard, Berkeley, and UCLA, and a romance with an Israeli soul mate to my first book on Gershom Scholem, this story gives the personal background to the historiography of a long career.