maandag 1 augustus 2011


Not seldom the Jewish tradition is praised by people (including myself) for the multitude of opinions that can exist therein. The Talmud takes seriously different interpretations of transmitted texts and encourages discussion about them. Dogmatic coercion is not an issue, and that can be viewed as a pleasant and mature way of dealing with tradition and texts.

But there’s another current within the Jewish tradition which is equally old and respected. This current stresses harmony and a kind of mystical unity of the Jewish people. So, with the two currents taken together, how much polyphony is actually possible within the Jewish tradition as a whole? Let us have a closer look at that question.

Then at a first glance it appears that there is little question of polyphony. Because for example the book of Exodus describes how Moses went up the mountain and was there all alone with God when he received the Torah. The Midrash elaborates on that when it underlines the unequivocality of the revelation by the statement that where there is only the slightest division, the presence of God does not want to dwell. Philo of Alexandria connects to that when he says that all who rebel will be consumed by their inner desires, and Jehuda Halevi emphasizes the existence of a Jewish folk-soul that unites all Jews.

But it also says in Exodus that all the people have been listening to what happened at Sinai. Or rather, have been watching the voices. Furthermore, God proclaimed to Moses on Mount Sinai not only the Torah which afterwards was written down by Moses, but he also gave oral explanations, including any explanations that there ever would be, however contemporary they might be. Because, says the Talmud, even whatever any clever and serious student in the future will ask his teacher, has been revealed to Moses at Sinai. This means that the Torah cannot be but an explosive mixture, which includes many different things, or even contradictory things.

I emphatically confess myself to the current that cherishes the multiplicity of forms and voices. Because I associate the recognition of the multiplicity with a form of maturity. In that sense, I think the Jewish tradition is mature. There is that desire for an idyllic, smooth unity, but the tolerance for dissent is also well developed. This is evident from the multitude of discussing voices in the Talmud.

In our days this appears in yet another way. Namely in the way the Jewish image of the state of Israel is becoming more mature.

For a long time there was only one and therefore dominant image of Israel and its creation among Israeli historians. That was the picture of the small, brave Israel that stood alone against all-powerful Arab enemies. Like David against Goliath. In which picture the state was seen as the messianic, triumphant outcome of two thousand years diaspora and persecution. And in which the failure of peace plans was entirely due to the Arabs.

This was a way for historians to contribute to the unity and morale of the new state. It was their contribution to the myth-creation, a sort of feel-good history that the people needed to achieve the necessary efforts.

But, as happens with idyllic images and myths, they sooner or later get shattered. In the eighties there was a new group of Israeli historians (who are therefore called the New Historians) who opposed that idyllic image of Israel. They call that image one-sided and propagandistic. They are committed to view matters not only from the Israeli perspective. In their view, there is not just one single player (Israël) with the others as puppets. The Palestinians and Arabs are full players.

The self-criticism that is practiced by these historians caused a great deal of fuss: they were accused of befouling their own nest and even left-wing politicians were talking about a suicidal strategy. My point is that these historians have been able to break through the oppressiveness and coercion that is always connected with a closed dominant historical image. Now there is something to choose. There are now several documented and legitimate ways to look at the same thing, there are multiple voices, even if the discussions take place mainly in academic circles.

I myself am inclined to consider the emergence of these countervoices as evidence of the strength of Israeli society. I think it testifies of maturity if a society is able to produce and take seriously this kind of internal critical voices. Comparable to the way Torah always inspired people to take responsibility and to break the atmosphere of mystical unity that can surround the Torah as well. The New Historians are an expression of critical Jewish consciousness and therefore an asset to be proud of.

See also History as an exact science