In many ways the session on which this Ancient Jew Review forum is based originated some 30 years ago, when as a bright eyed doctoral student I attended a lecture on the earliest history of the cross in Christian art, delivered by an assistant professor whom I had not previously heard of named Robin Jensen. Even then I was somewhat jaded by the ways that religion scholars, trained exquisitely in textual issues, often wrote about visual culture as amateurs, without the benefit of art historical training. I am thinking about the likes of Morton Smith, E. R. Goodenough and Jacob Neusner — and similarly art historians who did not quite have the texts and cadence of ancient religion under their belts. Much of the scholarship published in both disciplines hit something like the brick wall separating off Platform 9 and three-quarters at King’s Cross Station (a Harry Potter image), lacking essential tools and hermeneutical imagination to cross through and interpret texts and artifacts together.
To my delight, in Robin’s lecture I found something different. Here was a fully trained art historian, completely at home with the world of “things,” long before terms like “thinginess” and “agency” became useful to textually trained scholars. Here was also a fully trained, philologically sensitive, reader of texts. More than that, here was a scholar struggling to connect word and image without — to try out another metaphor — squeezing the very ripe tomato so tightly that it dissolves between her fingers. At the end of the session, I approached the podium, introduced myself, and asked in what seemed to me disbelief, “who are you”?
Decades later and hundreds of pages and conversations and experiences since, we are here together. The work of religion that Robin and I do, I now know, was and is a piece of a larger anthropological turn in the writing of history developed by such greats as Robert Darnton and Carlo Ginzburg, and in late antique studies by Peter Brown and Thomas Mathews. As a graduate student, these scholars were my heroes, as I devoured the insights of anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner — together with the deeply flawed but fearless and always joyous opus of Erwin Goodenough. It was from scholars of Indian art and Jewish folklore, however, that I learned that a balance toward the human, the round, and the experiential was possible. I am thinking especially of my teachers Dov Noy, Pratapaditya Pal, and in writing, Ananda Coomaraswamy.
My own research neither focuses upon text nor artifact, but on the humans who made and lived with both. The prerequisite to this work is the ability to read texts as a philologist and see things with the visual complexity of an art historian. My hope is to come close to the people I find so fascinating by standing in the places where they may have stood, by touching the kinds of “stuff” that they touched, deploying the newest technology when necessary and listening closely to their words— even when those are preserved on scraps of parchment or in texts that are both cultural and physical palimpsests.
Historiography and dusty archives became a passion in my work. I use them as controls and tools for understanding how later, very human, beings imagined the texts and the things that are my raw materials. This idea of scholarship as personal quest or pilgrimage is the legacy of my early exposure to Mircea Eliade. History as a personal exploration was in the air when I was a young student, even on television. I am thinking especially of Kenneth Clark’ Civilisation, Alastair Cook’s America, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, and of course, Abba Eban’s Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. Each of these authors composed a multi-part “Personal History” for television in living color, with movement and spirit and depth. They presented their work in a way that I have always found appealing— admitting and celebrating the personal aspect of the academic life.
The Menorah is my first explicit stab at such a history. It is not an encyclopedic or all inclusive history of this biblical artifact (which, by the way, I never call a symbol, except when moderns choose this most loaded term for themselves). It is my history, the fruit, I hope, of my own experience, moment and narrative voice. Written for a series where method and bibliography and all those tools where people like me show our allegiances and “scholarship” were placed in essays at the back of the bus and in a battery of parallel supporting academic articles, Sharmila Sen's charge to me, as our truly creative and just plain smart editor at Harvard University Press, was to explain my work to the broadest audience I could. They did, after all, intend to print 5000 copies! This was a charge I take very seriously, to communicate with all the depths that academic research can express. For me the audience is scholars, students from high school on, Jews, everyone else, and most of all, my mother. The unexpectedly vast quantity of mail I have received from readers, from as far away as Mumbai and Egypt and Jerusalem, Kiryas Yoel, Seattle and Long Island has been truly gratifying. All of this suggests just how widely scholarship can and should speak to our world.
My book makes a claim less common these days than was the case in earlier generations, that scholarship over the longue durée matters, that the present is far more invested in the deep past than some modernists like Pierre Nora and Hayim Yerushalmi prefer— and farther from that past than some antiquarians— and even my teacher Amos Funkenstein, might like. The Arch of Titus was my tool in that process, in my “parade of history” from Moses in the desert through Titus and on to our own times. My parade, however, has many odd turns and eventually envelopes wide swatches of humanity— from Samaritans and Christians and Muslims to modern Italians and Indonesians and of course, Israelis. It detours at points into to the history of the Hanukkah lamp ( called a “menorah” only in Ashkenazi tradition), without being distracted with the real need for a new history of the lamp that some Sephardim called a hanukkiah, and for the Talmud is simply a “lamp,” a ner. In the end, mine is very much a book of Jewish history— the march, twists and oddities of time from the Bible to the present— repeatedly in the shadow of the Arch of Titus. It is about continuity and discontinuity— continuity when it feels discontiguous, and discontinuity when it seems that the past and the present are all the same. Throughout I deploy my then 13 year old son and research assistant to gently assert the stakes in my work as mediator of those who came before me to the wide range of readers who I hope will come after.
In most ways my living history is an inversion of modern Jewish civil religion, which, as real people do, flattens the narrative into a sweep that “naturally” leads to who we are today. My final (and not coincidentally) seventh chapter strikes a political tone, exploring, and deploring some contemporary extremist appropriations of the menorah— created by a fringe element desperate to enter the Israeli and Jewish mainstream. My book is no disinterested history.
Just a couple of more pointed responses: Interestingly, to respond to David Frankfurter, the custom of avoiding procession under the Arch is late, no earlier than the late 18th century. Its development is directly related to the reconstruction of the Arch as a monument (completed in 1823) and not just as a passage.
Happily, the city of Jerusalem recently moved the Temple Institute menorah to a less meaningful place, replaced by an elevator for wheelchair access— so when the Hebrew version comes out, I will need to change the last chapter.
No part of my book is intentionally humorous, and even the oddest stories I tell— those surrounding the Menorah at the Vatican, I hope, present the humanity and dignity of my subjects. This is even more significant because the families of some of my subjects were concerned by what I might say about their grandfathers. I am deeply aware of the pain that my pen can cause, especially as I write about tough issues. If I unintentionally made anyone look silly, I apologize.
To Pamela Eisenbaum’s question about why the menorah came to represent Judaism and not the Torah scroll: occasionally ancients did deploy the scroll, as we see in the Dura Europos synagogue where a figure, likely Moses, holds aloft a scroll (fig. 1), the sacred writ bleeding through the parchment. In Rome and in the Sardis synagogue scrolls are also shown (figs. 2-3), almost always framed within an open Torah shrine. Romans too used this image, as in a relief of a library found in Belgium. On a couple of occasions Roman Jews deployed single scrolls as standalone “symbols.”
This was rare, and most unsuccessful. They look something like flying cigarettes (fig. 4). Without context, the late antique biblical scroll alone is simply not a successful symbol, no matter how meaningful. Based upon Josephus’s account of Titus’s triumphal parade in 71 CE, Scholars postulate that the third tablata on the Arch of Titus spoils panel references the “Law of the Jews” which followed next in the parade (fig. 5). While important enough to reference, the scroll was just not visually arresting the way the table and menorah are.
The menorah preserves deep biblical meaning and has maintained a stable iconography going back at least to the first century. This is even the case when branches were added or deleted— perhaps for theological reasons, though as early as the 1890’s David Kaufmann showed correctly that rabbinic sources forbidding replication of a usable 3-D menorah have nothing to do with 2-D images. My guess, though, is that images of off-number menorahs solve larger design issues (as at Capernaum, fig. 6), are sometimes playful and sometimes just plain sloppy.
The menorah is identifiable when broken to the point of almost becoming unrecognizable (fig. 7)— which cannot be said, say, for the table of showbread. Its verticality combined with its roundness, its lamps and its curves and most of all its simplicity are essential— not to mention the fact that the menorah looks like no other artifacts used in common experience. The seven branched menorah is a branding icon on a par in visual clarity with the crescent, the cross, and of course, the golden arches.
Steven Fine is a cultural historian, specializing in Jewish history in the Greco-Roman period. He focuses upon the literature, art and archaeology of ancient Judaism-- and the ways that modern scholars have interpreted Jewish antiquity. His most recent book is -The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel (Harvard UP, 2016). Fine is the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, director of the YU Center for Israel Studies, the Arch of Titus Project and the YU Samaritan Israelites Project.