21 December 2007

Brilliant and engaging, even page-turning, overview of the history of the Jews and Judaism

Wanderings: Chaim Potoks' History of the Jews
Chaim Potok
Fawcett, 1987

"Each time the light returns and we are able to see the new world that has been created on the ruins of the old, we discover familiar elements of the overthrown civilization in the creativity of the new" (p. 379). Although specifically referring in this passage to those Germanic tribes who conquered and assimilated the Roman empire, this comment is a succinct encapsulation of Potok's larger narrative about the Jewish people. Wanderings demonstrates that the history of the Jews and of Judaism is a palimpsest in which the central theme of covenant relationship with God has been regularly reinvented, overthrown as it were and creatively reconstructed, so that it may maintain its relevance in a changing world.

For those of us whose knowledge of the Jewish people and the religion of Judaism effectively begins with "Genesis" and ends with "Malachi," this book is indispensable. It seems equally indispensable for those raised within contemporary Jewry who wrestle, like Jacob, to reconcile the idea of a God who operates in history through his chosen people with a reality that is multi-faith and often seemingly without purpose. It does not hurt that Potok, an acclaimed novelist as well as an ordained rabbi, infuses his historical narrative with a pace and lyrical grace more in keeping with an epic novel than a work of nonfiction.

Potok's narrative begins, in a manner similar to contemporary accounts, with those first great Mesopotamian civilizations, Sumer and Akkad. Against this background of cuneiform and clay, Bronze Age technology, extraordinary civilizational creativity, and the constant threats of catastrophic flood and drought, wanders Abraham of Ur, first of the Hebrew patriarchs. Even in the earliest recorded tales of this wanderer and his descendants, we are told, "the basic themes of the Hebrew Bible-covenant, liberation, redemption; the search for insight into a world assumed to be meaningful-remain essentially the same..." (P. 40) . The wandering tribes descended from Abraham-called Hapirus-mingled with their new Canaanite (aka Phoenician) neighbors; slowly made their way into the Black Land of the Nile to escape famine; were enslaved by the native Egyptians when their Semitic relatives, the Hyksos, were driven from the pharaoh's throne; were liberated when one of their own, a man named Moses, received a call from their God; returned to the land of Canaan, their "Promised Land," with the goal of conquest; established a kingdom under Saul, and then the shepherd boy David; built a magnificent temple under the reign of David's son Solomon; watched all these accomplishments fade under one weak and corrupt king after another; and finally found themselves taken captive by the Babylonians. In short, we follow the rise and fall of the first great Jewish civilization, all while keeping in sight the religious thread that connects these victories and calamities. "The Israelites saw each of these crucial encounters between God and man through the filtering vision of covenant relationships" (p. 141). While all of these stories are familiar to those who have read the Old Testament, Potok ingeniously retells them with a novelist's sensibility and a scholar's insight, making the oftentimes two-dimensional characters of scripture come to life and resonate with the contemporary reader.

The Babylonian captivity was not the end of the Jewish people or their religion, although that is all too often assumed by those whose only knowledge of the Jews and Judaism comes from the Christian Bible. Instead, those who were allowed to return to their homeland after almost a century in captivity began the slow transition to the second great Jewish civilization, that of Rabbinic Judaism. Potok discusses the influences of Greek philosophy and Roman political domination on Jewish thought and practice; the origins of the conservative Sadducees and liberal Pharisees; the destruction of the Temple and, later, of Jerusalem by the Romans; the expulsion of the Jews from Judea; the creation of the Talmud in Palestine and Babylon; the high Sephardic civilization of Al-Andalus in Muslim Spain; the difficulties and discrimination faced by Jews on the margins of Christendom; and the ultimate unraveling of the 1,500-year old rabbinical civilization with the coming of the Enlightenment. All along the journey, Potok discusses the regular reinvention of what it means to be one of God's chosen people: from the early days of the doctrine of dual Torah and the Pharisaic emphasis on ethics; to the Kabbalistic notion that keeping God's commandments is a way of restoring the cosmos to its original sacred integrity; to Isaac Luria's conception of God sharing Israel's exile in the process of creation; to the joyous celebration of life itself expounded by the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov; to the Enlightenment's questioning of the very need for a sense of Jewish identity.

In short, Wanderings, in brilliant and engaging, even page-turning, prose, reveals Judaism to be a dynamic and fluid faith whose drive to find meaning in the world and willingness to change even that which seems most essential has allowed it to survive, and even to thrive, on the margins of civilizations whose views of the Jewish people have vacillated between begrudging respect to genocidal hatred. This book (I almost wrote "novel") is a remarkable achievement.

(This review was originally written on August 15, 2007.)

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