Michael Brenner: Redrawing Boundaries A new history reassesses the contours of what makes up Jewish history

Michael Brenner A Short History of the Jews (Princeton)

Map printed a Haggadah in Amsterdam in 1698A Hebrew map (with the Mediterranean in the foreground) from a 1698 Haggadah published in Amsterdam.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary. 

In the writing of history, there are no innocent decisions—especially if you are trying to write a compact book about a huge, complex, and polarizing subject, like Michael Brenner’s A Short History of the Jews (Princeton). Brenner, a professor at the University of Munich whose book was published in Germany two years ago, is writing for an audience—Jews and non-Jews alike—who want “just the facts.” Yet every decision about what constitutes a fact, and which facts are important, is laden with assumptions and helps to shape the story in particular ways. Take, for instance, the most basic decision of all: Where does the history of the Jews begin?

The first datable reference to the people of Israel comes in the 13th century BCE, on an Egyptian stele erected by Pharaoh Merenptah to celebrate his military victories. By a too-perfect irony, the inscription reads, “Israel is wasted, its seed exists no more.” Start the story here, and the history of the Jews becomes one of resistance and unlikely survival—over and over again, this people would falsify predictions of its destruction.

If you follow traditional Jewish sources, on the other hand, the story would have to begin with God’s promise to Abraham, from Genesis 17: “And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” This origin makes the Jewish story one of chosenness and covenant (it is here that God commands Abraham to circumcise his sons, establishing the b’rit milah), with a special emphasis on the Land of Israel. Or else you could see the beginning of Jewish history in God’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, when the people first took on themselves the responsibility of the Law: “And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exodus 24). Then the story of the Jews would be the story of Torah—Jewishness would be defined as Judaism….READ MORE

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