Page 68 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 14

Basic HTML Version

JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
58
people, faith and tradition unaffected by the beliefs and practices
of its environment.
To be sure, there is considerable knowledge in the Bible of the
impact of external environment, evidenced in the constant admoni-
tion,
םהיתקחבו
אל
וכלת
. (Leviticus 18.3), “You shall not walk in
their statutes.” The same holds true for the writings of the
Talmud and for the vast rabbinic literature which followed, up
to our own day. But while there is awareness of outside influences,
there is also the expressed or implied hope or belief that they can
be avoided, for Jewry and Judaism actually succeeded in main-
taining a kind of “splendid isolation.”
The French Revolution and the rise of
Haskalah
brought about
substantial changes in this conception. In fact, they led to exag-
gerated notions among Jews of the superiority of the culture of
their neighbors over their own. They prompted such extreme
utterances by Jewish patriots in France as, “ France is our Pales-
tine, her mountains our Zion, her rivers our Jordan, let us drink
from her living waters.” The celebrated Russian Hebrew poet,
J. L. Gordon, went so far as to admonish his people, “Be a Jew
at home and a human being on the outside.”
Ahad Ha'am was among the first to apply some of the more sig-
nificant consequences of acculturation to the Jewish people. He
expatiated upon the positive virtues to be derived from the whole-
some assimilation of values and practices of neighboring cultures
and from the fruitful give and take among individuals, nations and
religious traditions. In his famous essays,
Imitation and Assimila-
tion
, Ahad Ha'am draws a distinction between slavish aping and
creative imitation. He states there is hardly a nation or society
whose disparate elements had not “welded together into a single
social body around certain central figures by means of self-effacing
imitation.” Indeed, imitation is “one of the foundations of society,
without which its birth and development would have been impos-
sible . . . The Jews have not merely a tendency to imitation, but
a genius for it. Whatever they imitate, they imitate well.”
The pioneering labors of Ahad Ha'am, and the more recent
studies in social interaction, have led to new approaches and
findings in the history of Jewish civilization, particularly during
the Hellenic and medieval periods. The writings of Saul Lieberman
have added considerably to our knowledge of the sharp impact
of Greek culture, not only upon the external forms of Jewish
practice pursued by deviationists, but also upon the inner posi-
tive expressions of Jewish loyalists — the rabbis and teachers of
Israel.
Recent studies of Rashi and his period have also opened new
vistas upon the interaction between Jews and their environment in