THE SACRED CHAIN: The History of the Jews by Norman F. Cantor

THE SACRED CHAIN: The History of the Jews

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Caveat emptor: This is most definitely not ""the history"" of the Jews. It is, rather, a series of very free-flowing exercises in what the author refers to as ""historical sociology."" Cantor (History, Sociology, Comparative Literature/New York Univ.; Inventing the Middle Ages, p. 106, etc.) is attempting a huge tripartite task: to write a history of the Jews, to provide a historiographical commentary of some major works on Jewish history, and to offer a cultural critique of modern Jewish life. For the complex saga of the Jews, this is an utterly unrealistic goal for a one-volume work, especially by someone who hasn't specialized in Jewish history. Perhaps the foremost problem here is the author's unsympathetic attitude toward Judaism and observant Jews and his lack of knowledge about them. Cantor dredges up the hoariest stereotypes, claiming for instance that in the late Middle Ages ""the rabbinate drugged itself into comfort with the narcotic of the Cabala, an otherworldly withdrawal into astrology and demonology."" He also gets far too many facts wrong (he claims that the biblical heroine Esther was Mordechai's sister, when in fact she was his ""uncle's daughter""). Some major developments in Jewish history are scarcely mentioned, such as the origins and development of the Reform and Conservative movements. Cantor champions such Jewish thinkers as Freud, Wittgenstein, and LÉvi-Strauss, who played a key role in shaping the culture of modernity. He appears to have little familiarity with intellectual leaders within the Jewish community such as Franz Rosenzweig, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Thus he rather harshly -- and unjustly -- critiques Jewish religious life for not responding sufficiently to the culture of modernity (although he never makes clear exactly what he means by this); yet non-Orthodox Jews have been so accommodating to modernity that, as Cantor acknowledges, traditional Jewish culture has become very attenuated. The lack of footnotes or other documentation is further evidence that this is an intellectually shoddy book.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1994
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: HarperCollins