Can there be a history of slaves?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

In 1855 Jules Michelet claimed he had invented “Universal history,” a history that included everything, and Marx increasingly thought of history as involving more than just kings and battles, but true social and economic histories didn’t becomes widespread till the 1890s, and perhaps saw their best expression with Fernand Braudel, in the mid 20th century.

My point is, it is extraordinary that anyone in 1832 would raise the possibility of writing a history of slaves. This was really ahead of its time.

“Can there be a history of a slave?” When Isaak Markus Jost asked this question, in the introduction to his “General History of the Israelite People,” published in 1832, it was by no means clear that Jewish history was a viable scholarly discipline. To many people, Jost knew, it might seem that the important part of the Jewish story had ended with the Bible, leaving only a long sequel of passive suffering. “It is commonly held that where independent activity has ceased, there too history has ceased,” he noted. And where was the independent activity in Jewish history? Ever since Judea was crushed by the Roman Empire, the Jews had possessed none of the things that made for the usual history of a nation: territory, sovereignty, power, armies, kings. Instead, the noteworthy events in Jewish history were expulsions, such as the ones that drove the Jews out of England, in 1290, and Spain, in 1492, or massacres, such as the ones that cost thousands of Jewish lives in the Rhineland during the Crusades and in Ukraine in the seventeenth century.

To a generation of German scholars engaged in inventing what they called Wissenschaft des Judentums, “the science of Judaism,” it was crucial to overcome this despairing view. Above all, it was necessary to rebut the greatest historical thinker of the age, Hegel, who had elevated the writing of history into a branch of philosophy. Hegel saw the entirety of world history—or, at least, of European history, which for him was what counted—as a progressive revelation of the spirit. Each civilization had its contribution to make to the formation of humanity; when it had done so, it inevitably crumbled, making way for the next stage.

This scheme had trouble explaining one civilization in particular. In the early nineteenth century, there were no more Egyptian dynasties, Greek city-states, or Roman emperors; but there were still Jews, practicing the same religion that their ancestors had, millennia earlier. For Hegel, the historical function of Judaism ceased once its values had been universalized by Christianity: “The Temple of Zion is destroyed; the God-serving nation is scattered to the winds.” So what explained the Jewish refusal to fade into history?

The first modern historians of Judaism converged on the idea that it endured because its contribution to human civilization was of eternal relevance. This contribution was characterized by various writers as “the unlimited unity of the all,” “the universal spirit which is within us,” or “the God-idea.” What they shared was a conviction that Judaism was defined by ethical monotheism and Messianic hope. If Jews never stopped preaching these ideas, it was because the world always stood in need of them. In the words of Heinrich Graetz, the greatest of nineteenth-century Jewish historians, “Judaism is not a religion of the present but of the future,” which looks “forward to the ideal future age . . . when the knowledge of God and the reign of justice and contentment shall have united all men in the bonds of brotherhood.”

Such arguments spoke to and for a generation of European Jews who wanted to enter the mainstream of European society, not as supplicants but as the proud bearers of a valuable tradition. If Judaism was less a set of ancient customs and dogmas than a progressive, eternally renewed spirit, then it could take new forms suited to the modern world. It is no coincidence that the era of the “science of Judaism” also saw the birth of the Reform movement, which sought to reimagine Jewish worship. Since Jewishness was defined by an idea rather than by a nationality, for instance, it stood to reason that Jews would no longer need to pray for the restoration of their lost state in the land of Israel. It was unnecessary, a group of Reform rabbis announced in 1845, because “our newly gained status as citizens constitutes a partial fulfillment of our messianic hopes.” They meant as citizens of Germany, where it seemed that Jews could look forward to a future free of ancient prejudices.

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