The Man Who Challenged Exile

Behukkotai By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 31, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

The greatest Jewish historian in America of the last generation was Salo Wittmayer Baron, who died in 1989 at the age of 94. Born in Galicia and trained in Vienna, he became the first professor of Jewish history at an American university in 1930, when invited to join the prestigious history department of Columbia University. With unmatched erudition and energy, Baron wrote authoritatively on nearly every aspect of Jewish history. In 1937 he published a highly original three–volume synthesis of all of Jewish history, which he called by the balanced title of A Social and Religious History of the Jews. After the Holocaust he transformed it into a second edition that would grow to 18 volumes by the time of his death, without going beyond the middle of the seventeenth century.

The heart of this monumental achievement is a relentless protest against what Baron termed “the lachrymose conception” of Jewish history, which dominated the field since its inception in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century. According to this reading of the past, Jewish history in the Diaspora is little more than the dark consequences of Christian contempt. Oppression, persecution and expulsi are the staple of medieval Jewish life. The decimation of Galician and Ukrainian Jewry by Russian soldiers and hordes of Cossacks during and after World War One only reinforced this melancholy view, given its classic formulation by Simon Bernfeld in the mid–1920’s in a three volume history of Jewish suffering bearing the blunt title, The Book of Tears.

With every fiber of his aristocratic being, Baron repudiateis over–wrought and self–pitying portrait. His broader canvas and more dispassionate study reveal long stretches of stability and interaction. Jews in feudal Europe enjoyed a far less humiliating status than the serfs. The Papacy, if not the lower clergy, advocated a theology of toleration towards Jews. And the tightly organized Jewish community provided Jews on the margins of the body politic with a measure of political leverage and internal security. Jews were more than victims; they were also hardy and astute economic pioneers, political bargainers, institution builders and religious pragmatists.

Yet Baron died utterly out of sync with his time. The Holocaust had wreaked havoc with his stubborn persistence to recast the terms of Jewish history. Inexorably, it changed from historical event into world view, vindicating the deep–seated Jewish suspicion that every gentile was but a latent anti–Semite. How ironic that the historian invited to testify at the Eichmann trial on the world destroyed by the Nazis was none other than Salo Baron!

In his heroic, if futile, revisionism, Baron dared to challenge not only the memory of Jewish experience, but also the Torah’s own understanding of exile. Leviticus closes with a litany of blessings and curses meant to cajole and intimidate the people of Israel to live by God’s law. The correlation brooks no exceptions: allegiance will be rewarded and infraction punished. The focus is strictly collective and the terms of reference entirely this–worldly; no speculation on what might occur after death. The curses take pride of place, because rampant disobedience is the more likely alternative.

The crescendo of curses culminates in the loss of national sovereignty. The land of Israel is laid waste and its people are driven into exile to endure at the mercy of their enemies. No worse calamity is imaginable. For the authors of the Hebrew Bible exile was an ever–present nightmare. Dislocation is the underlying condition of the Torah’s story line from the expulsion from Eden to the death of Moses in the plains of Moab.

And so it is not surprising that the curses stress deftly and graphically the psychological impact of exile. Our self–confidence will vanish and we live on the brink of panic. Fear will warp our judgment. “As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues (Leviticus 26:36).”

Opposed to such powerlessness under foreign rule is the promise of territorial independence, bountiful crops, military superiority and God’s indwelling presence, if the people will only embrace God’s commandments. Above all, the land will be bathed in peace without the threat of wild beast or mighty enemies. “You shall… dwell securely in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone (Leviticus 26:5–6).” The midrash amplifies our text “In your land you will dwell securely, not in exile. Indeed, you might think food and drink are enough. Know that if there is no peace, you have achieved nothing, which is why Scripture adds: ‘And I will grant peace in the land,’ from which we learn that peace is equal to everything else.”

Yet exile is not just physical, but also mental. And the psychological scars of a millennial experience of damnation by others in lands not our own accompany us as we return to our homeland, and bedevil our pursuit of peace. Today the key to peace includes transcending our inner state of perpetual, excessive fear. The alternative is war without end, which would surely deprive Israel of the greatest of all blessings, peace.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai once said: “Great is peace because it encompasses all the other blessings.” And to prove his point he cited the final verse of Psalm 29 which we recite every Shabbat as we savor this morsel of eternal peace: “May the Lord grant strength to His people; may this Lord bestow on His people well–being (be–shalom – i.e. bless with peace).” Rabbi Shimon read the last half of the verse to mean that it is through peace that God blesses Israel, the preposition “bet” implying both instrumentality and inclusion.

I prefer, however, to read the verse sequentially, stressing the first half. God endows Israel first with great strength, enabling it to overcome the recurring pangs of terror that still torment it from the agony of exile. Only then will we find within ourselves the courage to make peace.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’hukkotai are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.