Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History

Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History


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Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History by Michael Brenner

Prophets of the Past is the first book to examine in depth how modern Jewish historians have interpreted Jewish history. Michael Brenner reveals that perhaps no other national or religious group has used their shared history for so many different ideological and political purposes as the Jews. He deftly traces the master narratives of Jewish history from the beginnings of the scholarly study of Jews and Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany; to eastern European approaches by Simon Dubnow, the interwar school of Polish-Jewish historians, and the short-lived efforts of Soviet-Jewish historians; to the work of British and American scholars such as Cecil Roth and Salo Baron; and to Zionist and post-Zionist interpretations of Jewish history. He also unravels the distortions of Jewish history writing, including antisemitic Nazi research into the "Jewish question," the Soviet portrayal of Jewish history as class struggle, and Orthodox Jewish interpretations of history as divinely inspired.

History proved to be a uniquely powerful weapon for modern Jewish scholars during a period when they had no nation or army to fight for their ideological and political objectives, whether the goal was Jewish emancipation, diasporic autonomy, or the creation of a Jewish state. As Brenner demonstrates in this illuminating and incisive book, these historians often found legitimacy for these struggles in the Jewish past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691139289
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/02/2010
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Michael Brenner is professor of Jewish history and culture at the University of Munich. His books include A Short History of the Jews and After the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany (both Princeton).

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Viewpoints on Jewish History 1

Objectivity and Partiality 2

Remembering and Forgetting 4

Nation and Religion 6

Scholarship and Ideology 9

Heroes and Eras 12

Chapter 1: Jewish History as History of Religion

Wissenschaft des Judentums in the Service

of Reform and Emancipation 17

Christian Beginnings 18

Traditional Reverberations 21

In the Service of Religious Reform 24

In the Battle for Political Emancipation 27

Jewish Religious History as Counterhistory 36

One Religion among Numerous Nations 42

Chapter 2: Between Religion and Nation

Graetz and His Construction of Jewish History 53

The Battle against Reform and Assimilation 57

Only a History of Suffering and Learning? 60

The Debate with Christianity and Germanness 64

Rationalism and Mysticism 68

Translations and New Interpretations 73

External Opinions on Jewish History 82

Chapter 3: The Nationalization of Jewish History The View from the East 93

Dubnow: Diaspora Nationalism as a Historical Concept 93

Polish Jewish Historiography between the Wars 106

Under the Soviet Star: Jewish History as Class History 114

Chapter 4: Jewish History without Tears?

New Perspectives in the West 121

Baron in New York: Against the Lachrymose Version of Jewish History 123

Roth in Oxford: More Than a History of Victims 131

From the Salon to the Academy: The Beginnings of Jewish Women's History 136

The Return of Tears: Jewish History versus the History of the "Jewish Question" 144

A Signal in Dark Times: The "Jewish Contribution" to Civilization 151

Chapter 5: The Return of the Nation to Its Land Zionist Narrative Perspectives 157

The Revolt against the Father: The Break with Wissenschaft des Judentums 158

Patricide: Scholem's Metaphorics of Death 163

New Fathers: The "Jerusalem School" under Baer and Dinur 171

New Sons: Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, Shmuel Ettinger, and Jacob Katz 183

The Revolt of the Grandchildren: The New Historians 192

Chapter 6: Postmodern Influences A New Subjectivity 197

From One Jewish Community to Many Jewish Cultures 204

Epilogue 217

Notes 221

References 265

Index 297

What People are Saying About This

Ismar Schorsch

Sweeping, discerning, meticulous, and empathetic, Brenner's pioneering synthesis convincingly shows the writing of history to be the dominant medium of modern Jewish thought.
Ismar Schorsch, chancellor emeritus, Jewish Theological Seminary


At long last, a definitive volume on modern Jewish historiography in English. Michael Brenner here follows in the wake of his teacher, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, by analyzing with great breadth and depth the diverse byways of Jewish historical writing. An acknowledged master of German-Jewish history, Brenner expertly charts old and new terrain—in Europe, Israel, and North America—in this important and richly illuminating study.
David N. Myers, University of California, Los Angeles


Michael Brenner has produced a sweeping account of Jewish historiographical traditions, beginning with the first attempts in the early nineteenth century to write the history of the Jewish people, and carrying the story through the most recent developments in the field. Before Brenner, no one dared tackle such a vast project. Lucid and gracefully written, Prophets of the Past introduces readers not only to the historians who have brought to life the various narratives that elucidate the Jewish past, but to the very craft of history itself, its power, its consequence, its appeal.
John M. Efron, University of California, Berkeley

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

Prophets of the Past is a panoramic examination of the shifting paradigms in modern Jewish historical writing, ranging over three continents and from the eighteenth century to the present. In its scope it is unprecedented. Brenner has made a stellar contribution to Jewish intellectual history that should be of equal interest to all who would explore the nexus between historiography and ideology.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Columbia University

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