Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People edited by Leo W. Schwartz

This book is a great survey of Jewish History written by some major Jewish historians of the mid 20th century.  Each person distinguished in his field of study: The Biblical Age is written by Yehezkel Kaufmann of Hebrew University, The Hellenistic Age is written by Ralph Marcus of the University of Chicago, and the Talmudic Age is written by Gerson D. Cohen of Columbia University (eventually associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary of America - the rabbinical school for Conservative Judaism).  Abraham S. Halkin of the City College of New York (now known as the City University of New York) wrote the essay on the Judeo-Islamic Age and Cecil Roth of Oxford University penned the contribution of the European Age.  The volume is concluded with a major contribution from Salo Baron of Columbia University called the Modern Age.

What I find remarkable about this volume was the common legacy that Profs. Halkin and Roth had to say about the Jewish people.  They both echo the same message that the Jewish people are unique: they are an ancient people that have held fast to their literature and steadfastly held on to their faith. The ancient Talmudic tradition, its unique curricula and manner of study has kept the Jewish people alive.  Through their ancient literature and studies, the Jewish people have been able to adapt to new situations and withstand the vicissitudes of history. And although the majority of Modern Jewish people do not study the Talmud, nevertheless, those that do color the Jewish nation with its authentic values.  Even the most secular Jew turns to the ancient literature to find inspiration.

I was impressed that Salo Baron could level a criticism against a fellow historian as being "annoyingly too objective" !  Reading Abraham Halkin's contribution, however, triggered my memory of him teaching me as a visiting professor at the University of California when I took his course about the Judeo-Islamic age.  I remember his sage like presence, soft eyes and kindly smile.  He inspired me in my own path to find and safeguard my heritage.  I once went to see him at his office and asked him if he could answer a religious/moral question that I had.  He was eager to help me understand.  I asked him about the commandment to destroy Amalek, that I didn't understand it.  He put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a traditional yarmulke and donned it.  He grabbed a Pentateuch readily available on his office shelf and swiftly flipped to the relevant page and read the verse out loud to me.  "It's Geschribben!" he commented and then said to me ever so kindly, "Now, what don't you understand?"  For me it was an amazing moment.  The simplicity of a decree of scripture all depended on whether or not one accepted the book's authority.  If one does not accept the book's authority, then the commandment is unintelligible. If one, however, accepts the the authority of the book, then the commandment is easily understood.

I also remember the first time I saw the professor at the orthodox synagogue in Berkeley.  He was called to the Torah and instead of saying the blessings and proceeding to listen to the Torah reader's rendition, Prof. Halkin asked quietly the reader, "I usually read for myself, do you have any objections if I read?"  Everyone in the congregation was taken aback.  Never had anyone volunteered to read their own Aliyah!  So he read, and he read perfectly!  He pronounced every Dagesh Hazak, every Mapik Heh, every Kamatz Katan, every guttural consonant.  It was truly an extraordinary experience and as a result Prof. Halkin became the official Torah Reader during his visiting appointment at the request of the congregation.

Even though this volume was published in 1956, it represents the best secular scholarship of its day and still worth reading.

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