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The revealed word at the heart of Judaism: Detail from "Moses smashing the tablets of the Law", 1659, by Rembrandt

"Every people is a question which God addresses to humanity," wrote the German Jewish theologian Leo Baeck, with the Jews at the forefront of his mind. Simon Schama's new book can be read as a secular attempt to answer the question. While the Jewish people occupy centre stage, successive dominant nations are passed under review and implicitly judged in terms of their treatment of the Jewish minority. This decidedly post-holocaust stance has long roots in the Jewish past. The Passover liturgy, which Simon Schama is fond of referring to, proclaims: "In every generation they have risen against us to annihilate us, but God always rescues us from their power." For the secular historian this pious generalisation is too simplistic, but it still nurtures a grain of self-evident truth. "What the Jews have lived through, and somehow survived to tell the tale, has been the most intense version known to human history of adversities endured by other peoples as well; of a culture perennially resisting its annihilation, of remaking homes and habitats, writing the prose and the poetry of life, through a succession of uprootings and assaults." God takes a back seat now: the people itself, in its historical setting, is at the wheel. But the essential story is still the same, a story of survival against the odds, of memory, and above all of words, "the prose and poetry of life".

Simon Schama is a Jewish historian, not in the common sense of a professional historian of the Jews, but that of a professional historian who happens to be Jewish. He is far from the cutting edge of the research that underpins his book, and this distance, while it results in errors of fact and of interpretation, enables him to embrace the totality of the history in a way that very few professional Jewish historians have been able to achieve. 

The key to his vision is in the subtitle: "Finding the Words". The story of the Jews is not only a story made of words, it is a story about words. This insight, too, has very long roots in the Jewish past. It is an impressive achievement to have seized on this concept and adapted it too to a secular age.

In the beginning was the word. The first endpaper appropriately illustrates the creation of the world, from a medieval manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah. According to the Bible this creation was achieved through speech: "And God said, Let there be light." The rabbis in the Mishnah underline this: "By ten acts of speech was the world created." One of the key treatises of mystical Judaism, the Book of Formation (Sefer Yesirah), puts the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet at the heart of the creation: the permutations of letters generate the words of which our world is made. For Simon Schama it is the unique distinction of the Jews to have made words the centre of their self-understanding, their faith and their history.

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Juggling For A Cure
November 10th, 2013
11:11 PM
Reading about Schama's work brings me back to my reading the Newbery Medal winner, Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. About succeeding against the odds, it is a classic children’s book about a Danish Jewish family escaping by boat at night to Sweden.

November 9th, 2013
6:11 AM
There is a lot, A LOT, more here than meets the eye. Twin hemispheres, one with a priori ramblings, one with a posteriori suggestions, with letters of an ALPHABET (something no other culture had ever developed) came down with Moses from the mountain. The Rabbis said ¨"Horeed b'Yado" (held in his hands" should be read as "Herut b'Yado" (Freedom in his hands) The tablets of stone were a model of the human brain. Learn to manipulate the letters and all things become possible; don't learn the letters and you remain a slave forever... Chomski said (half correct as usual) "The Brain is a black box with a language-acquisition device within" It was NOT a black box, but a gold box that was capable of killing and curing...just like the human brain... There is more, A LOT MORE, to the Matan Torah, that our bulbous brains have not yet illuminated..but it's coming...

david levavi
October 31st, 2013
1:10 PM
Hopefully Schama makes mention of the superior efficiency of written Hebrew. A consonantal language absent vowels, Hebrew requires significantly less substrate and ink to transcribe than languages with vowels. When the substrate is parchment and the ink is laboriously homemade, this is an important advantage.

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