Schama’s Story of the Jews, Part 1

Letting go can be hard to do.

In A Provocative People, Sherwin Wine explains why it is so hard to do “secular” Jewish history if it contradicts the Bible’s version:

Wherever Jews and Christians are to be found, this story is popular and familiar. It is so popular and so familiar that it has been incorporated into the patriotism and the holidays of the Jewish and Christian worlds. While the story may be familiar, charming, and even inspirational, it suffers from a major problem. It is simply not true. There is no evidence – beyond the text of the Bible – that most of these events took place – or that most of these people really existed.

When Simon Schama’s new PBS documentary “The Story of the Jews” discusses Moses and the Exodus, this is exactly the problem – Schama loves the experience and narrative of Passover, the idea of a formless Jewish God only knowable through revealed words, the “anti-assimilation” message Passover presents (to his reading). But as even Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe accepts, the Exodus did not actually happen. Schama speaks of these events in the past tense, as if they did, rather than in the literary present of a story of timeless significance. ‘In the story, Moses receives the 10 Commandments’ is very different from ‘During the Exodus, Moses received the 10 Commandments.’ The first minute of the show claims the series will cover “5000 years of the Jewish experience”. The Jewish year is 5774, but that counts from CREATION, not real Jewish history. As Schama’s own voice later explains, Jewish history is more accurately 3000 years from an uncertain beginning. But letting go of the rhetoric of “5000 years” or “the Exodus is the moment that the Israelites became Jews” is hard to do. Because what else beyond the Haggadah would have to change?

Schama is clearly presenting HIS story of the Jews, but there is a real difference between story and history – something he accepts for Genesis but rejects for Exodus and beyond. It’s almost as if he HAS to have some kind of Moses, some kind of Sinai even if it’s only the 10 Commandments revealed rather than the complete Torah. Perhaps his book is more nuanced than the documentary, but that’s another review.

The challenge of genuine history is that it challenges assumptions – what we knew to be true and solid “melts into air” in Karl Marx’s phrase. And there is plenty in Schama’s account that meets this goal admirably. He begins by showing many varieties of Jewish faces, saying that we are all Jews even if we sometimes have little in common – “not even the way we pray, assuming we do.” He profiles Sigmund Freud turning back to the figure of Moses at the end of his life, a life of proudly identifying as a “godless Jew.” Schama clearly states the Bible began to be written around 700 BCE, including the literary (but not literal) creation of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and Joseph. Schama accepts David and Goliath as symbolic of a clash of nations rather than literal historical figures following the Bible – “an echo of some sort of reality.” He shows a woman reading Torah in a religious service, while acknowledging this is a modern innovation. And he explicitly describes the Torah being edited and finalized during the Babylonian and exile and imposed on Jerusalem, sometimes with innovations like Ezra’s ethnic purification.

The dilemma is following through on these facts and how they change what you thought was history. If these stories began to be written around 700 BCE, why believe that Abraham is fiction but Moses, Exodus and Sinai (supposedly 1200 BCE) are fact? II Kings 23:21-23 is strong evidence that King Josiah’s Passover around 620 BCE was brand new even though it was claimed to be old:

The king commanded all the people, “Offer the Passover sacrifice to the LORD your God as prescribed in this scroll of the covenant.” Now the Passover sacrifice has not been offered in that manner in the days of the chieftains who ruled Israel, or during the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. Only in the 18th year of King Josiah was such a Passover sacrifice offered in that manner to the LORD in Jerusalem.

Is it more likely that the holiday, the tradition, the Exodus story was as central as Schama claims and just ignored for all those centuries, or rather that it was invented then, just as Schama admits Ezra innovated when returning from Babylon with the completed Torah?

Sometimes real history is just more complicated and messy than simple frameworks. Schama is so committed to monotheism and non-idolatry as what is “distinctively Jewish” that it blinds him to the real historical possibility of previous Jewish polytheism and idol worship. He reviews many Biblical names for God without considering the option that at one time (and in Canaanite religion, the cultural spring from which Judaism really sprang) they WERE different gods later merged into one. He critiques the Jewish Temple in Elephantine (Egypt) for violating the Jerusalem’s Temple’s monopoly and for having an image of both YHVH and the “Queen of Heaven,” even though in this same era the Jerusalem Temple ALSO worshipped the Queen of Heaven and there were MANY shrines in Judea until King Josiah’s reformation – the Second Book of Kings and the prophet Jeremiah are very clear on the subject. Judaism of most of the First Temple Period (1000-587 BCE) was VERY different from the Judaism of the Second Temple period (530 BCE – 70 CE), even though Second Temple ideology got to write the history of the First. In seeking to emphasize Jewish unity, he sometimes falls into the trap of Jewish uniformity. All Jews have NEVER agreed on what “all Jews believe” – why should our beginnings be any different from today?

Schama emphasizes many times the distinctiveness of Judaism, how it survived conquest and remained apart from Hellenism in the ancient world, and that despite examples of Hellenistic Jews there was something fundamentally irreconcilable between the two. Yet his quintessential example of anti-assimilation, Passover, shows borrowing from other cultures – reclining as at a Roman feast, eating an epikomen (“afikomen”) at the end of the meal, even Hebrew month names are borrowed from the Babylonian calendar. He claims that Judaism was based on non-idolatry and a “god of words” in opposition to the “limestone temple” of Hellenism, yet he also describes vividly the Jewish trauma of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction, “the beating heart of Judaism.” Those “Hebrew” letters on the Dead Sea Scrolls he is so excited are just like what he learned for his Bar Mitzvah – an example of the powerful experience I call “historical transcendence” – they’re originally Aramaic letters borrowed from the Persians. And how did all those Jews get to look so different from each other? It wasn’t the varied climates in which they lived or the foods they ate…

One last concern is a strong suggestion of what the eminent Jewish historian Salo Baron critiqued as the “lachrymose” (tearful) view of Jewish history. Schama reads a passage of the Passover Haggadah which claims that in every generation they tried to destroy us, which he understands as the price the Jews pay for maintaining their difference; a guest jokes, “The Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.” The reality of Jewish life is more complicated: centuries of coexistence as a tolerated but subordinate minority punctuated by episodes of violence and more severe persecution – which is “the norm”? Both, of course.  The next episode, on Jewish life under Christianity and Islam, promises more of the same: “how Jews struggled in a non-Jewish world, but the Jewish faith endures.” We’ll have to see how it turns out once I get caught up in TIVO time.

Still, there is much to be inspired by from “The Story of the Jews.” Near the end of the program, Schama recalls that Freud, the godless Jew, visited Titus’ arch in Rome and sent a postcard of it to a friend with the note, “The Jew survives it!” The truly inspiring story of the Jews is not the mythical exodus, but the very real survival of very real men and women through their own courage, tenacity and endurance.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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1 Response to Schama’s Story of the Jews, Part 1

  1. of course we must keep our minds open. i was raised in Classic Reform, have heard some scholars who think that the IBRU never left Caanan,and that the “jihad” was between Baal the cloud rider and the male god. (ask the feminists) i am relieved that my open mindedness is validated.

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