Book Event at The Center for Jewish History:
Goodman, Martin. A History of Judaism. Princeton University Press & Penguin Books, 2017
On average, Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism covers close to seven years in each of its six hundred and something pages, encompassing a time period that runs from 2000 BCE to yesterday. This dense panoramic view is attainable, perhaps, since the book “is not a history of the Jews” (xxviii). Rather, it explores the historical development of “beliefs… ideas…” texts, and “…practices” (ibid.) that make up Judaism, the religion of the Jews.
The book, having been penned by a prominent historian of ancient Judaism, is quite unusual in today’s academic atmosphere. First, there is the elephant in the room – the book’s elephantine historical scope. After all, when it comes to temporally vast accounts, there is nearly a consensual skepticism among scholars. Second, Goodman’s conscious choice to investigate some essential components of a certain religion, as an object of study in its own right, is at the very least out of vogue. A History of Judaism, to be sure, also traces elements of “the political and cultural history of the Jews” (xxviii). Nevertheless, Goodman’s telos is unambiguously a description of the Jewish religion, which may invite old theoretical problems with the category of religion to resurface. Third, A History of Judaism was published for a wide audience, not only the typical AJS-goers, yet its author remains committed to his professional identity and presents a study rich in block quotations of primary texts (in translation), endnotes, and even innovative claims.
On April 18, 2018, the Center for Jewish History (CJH) in New York hosted a public event in celebration of the A History of Judaism. About 40 people, academics and not, came to hear Goodman discussing his work, with a response from Annette Yoshiko Reed and Shaul Magid. The thoughtful remarks of the three and the unusual character of A History of Judaism more broadly, stimulated contemplations on the spacious, if seldom thought of, gap between academic knowledge production and its ‘public’ dissemination. In what follows I discuss the highlights of the CJH’s event and the questions it raised.
Goodman spoke first. He laid out his book’s two central themes. First, the book contends that “variety” was always – and still is – a central phenomenon in Judaism. Goodman, however, is not interested in only stressing plurality. Instead, he seeks to explore “the extent of toleration within Judaism” (xxv) and argues that despite the existence of “kaleidoscopic variety… [within] Judaism at all periods in its history…toleration, albeit often grudging, has emerged as a consistent thread throughout this history” (531). The second central theme of the book, as Goodman explained, is the dynamics of change within Judaism. Here, Goodman emphasizes that throughout history, catalyzers of religious change often made “conservative claims” that “masked… [their] innovation” (xxv). In this regard, interpretation – of scripture or postbiblical texts that assumed authoritative statuses – played a central role in mediating the evolution of Judaism, as Goodman demonstrates throughout the book.
A History of Judaism, then, evokes two interconnected poles to narrate the historical dialectics of the Jewish religion. On the vertical axis, Judaism exemplifies a ‘unified variety’ at any moment of Jewish history (although there were limits concerning which ‘diversities’ are considered Jewish; see Chapter 7). On the horizontal axis, Judaism’s historical evolution was advanced by acts of ‘conservative innovation,’ that is, religious reforms blanketed by claims of “faithfulness to the past” (xxv).
Next spoke Reed, followed by Magid. The common thread of their responses focused upon Goodman’s conscious choice to investigate religion as an object of study. Both scholars hinted that nowadays, scholars of religion do not accept the claim that there is something essential, universal, and eternal that can be defined as religion. While Jewish societies, ideas and practices sustained by Jews, and scholarly conceptions of Jews, all indeed have histories, the idea that there is a narrative of Judaism, as “a world religion” (xxiii), is inescapably problematic. Accordingly, there is a palpable tension in the book’s title, as it conjoins two terms (‘history’ and ‘Judaism’) that might not fit together so easily from a scholarly point of view.
Goodman then returned to the podium to offer his response to Reed and Magid. Goodman mainly focused on specific topics: such as Reed’s point on his choice to center the discussion of the Second Temple Period around Josephus (thus minimizing the consideration of Dead Sea Scrolls’ texts; see Chapter 6), or Magid’s discussion of the centrality of heresiology in the book as a whole. As for his use of the category of religion, Goodman addressed the issue only briefly.
In his writing, however, it is apparent that the potential challenge to his focus on Judaism as a historical entity did not escape Goodman’s notice. He admits, for instance, that his “attempt to present an objective history of Judaism may strike some readers as naive” and marks a distance between himself and “the great scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums” (xxvii), when noting:
It would be straightforward to define the essence of Judaism in light of the characteristics valued by one or another of its branches in the present day, and to trace the development of those characteristics over the centuries… But… [it would be] dangerous, for the most important aspects of Judaism now may have little connection with antiquity. (xxiv)
Likewise, Goodman does not overlook the perils of anachronism that his book’s framing of ‘religion’ might generate:
The concept of ‘religion’ as a separate sphere of life has been a product of western Christian culture since the Enlightenment and had no precise equivalent in the ancient world, since the relation of humans to the divine was fully integrated into the rest of life. (xxviii)
But Goodman is not just signaling to his readers that he is familiar with contemporary concerns in the academic discourse; the passages quoted above are not merely lip service, nor offhanded apologetics. Goodman, it seems, has an agenda. He maintains that the academic reflex to ‘complicate’ objects of study went too far:
If all the historian could achieve was to describe the host of strange expressions of Judaism in past centuries without drawing out any connection between them, the result would be a gallery of curiosities to amuse and puzzle the reader, but there would be no story to explain why Judaism has evolved as it has, and is still now a religion with influence over the lives of millions.
The approach of this book is therefore a marriage between the unapologetically linear histories of earlier generations and the ‘polythetic’ descriptions favoured by contemporary scholars concerned to keep an open mind about the claims of all traditions. (xxiv)
Back to New York; Goodman did have something to say on the issue of narrating a history of a religion. Apparently, he felt no need to discuss his definition of religion, since the book is intended for “popular audience,” and that he wanted to convey a story that a majority of readers can understand and to which they can relate. Sure, this remark may have simply pointed to a pragmatic consideration. Goodman wrote a book for readers who have not necessarily read Talal Assad, for example, or, closer to home, Daniel Boyarin. Arguably, for Goodman to take on the task of grounding his theoretical approach to religion more firmly would necessitate adding even more pages to A History of Judaism’s already considerable length. But in light of Goodman’s short reflections in the book’s Introduction, I suspect that there is more to his categorization of the book as written for “popular audience.” Goodman’s short comment at the event enveloped his counter criticism, even his reactionary stance against academic approaches that distance religious phenomenon from how they are perceived in present days, in the ‘real world.’
If so, does Goodman have a point? At the very least, A History of Judaism provokes us to ask what is the value of ideas that percolate among academics – who study, let’s not forget, topics that percolate in the ‘real world’ – but cannot be translated to outsiders? Of course, not all specialized research is categorically inaccessible. There is also no doubt that scholarly publications cannot aim at being inviting to the uninitiated unless there is a good reason to do so. Scholars have the responsibility to build on (or argue with) recent positions in order to advance our knowledge onward. But, at least in my mind, there are areas in our work that I just cannot imagine how anyone beyond a small circle of experts would find either comprehensible or, well, interesting (a tricky qualification, no doubt). The question, then, is: Can scholars afford to direct their energy towards work that, even when appropriately mediated, is unintelligible, or unconvincing, to wider circles? Should students of ancient societies worry about relevance?
Goodman’s implied critique might go even further. A History of Judaism reminds us that it can sometimes be the simplest thing to say that something is complicated. If a topic – any topic, really – is endlessly complex, explaining it becomes unnecessary. On the other hand, producing a defendable, coherent, and neat narrative that balances numerous details and pieces of evidence requires uncompromising precision. Yet, returning to the book at hand, can we really claim that there’s such a narrative of the Jewish religion, from Genesis to yesterday, that can be carved out of the available data? And if the answer is ‘no,’ what does it mean for a key figure in the field to compose A History of Judaism? In other words, Goodman’s book forces us to ask what is at stake in setting aside current discussions in scholarship on religion in order to disseminate scholarly work.
A History of Judaism represents the academic ‘unified variety;’ it participates in the overall unity of the scholarly labor since it tells its story by marshaling a vast database and treating it with critical tools. At the same time, the book varies from major trends in the study of religion (at least in the ancient subfield) with its unapologetic production of a generalized narrative of a religion. But, again, Goodman’s approach seems to be conscious and not the result of ignorance or ignoring. Thus, A History of Judaism, while marketed as a ‘popular book,’ needs also to be considered for its ‘innovative conservatism,’ that is, its between-the-lines critique of current academic tendencies, and its active decision to step back towards a historiographical approach to the study of religion that has mostly lost its holding among current scholars.
In conclusion, the event at the CJH prompt two ways of thinking about A History of Judaism. Goodman presents to some of his readers an informative, clearly written and intelligently organized, all-inclusive narrative of the Jewish religion. Others are left with enduring questions on the interface between scholarship and the (‘real’) world outside of academia.