Jewish Culture between Canon and Heresy
David Biale



Between Canon and Counterhistory

IN A FAMOUS 1944 ESSAY on the history of Jewish studies, the great twentieth-century historian, Gershom Scholem, described how his study of Jewish mysticism aimed at overturning the rationalism of his nineteenth-century predecessors.1 He quoted a wonderful verse from Psalm 122: “The stone the builders despised has become the capstone.” This was Scholem’s method, which I have described as “counterhistory,”2 that is, the discovery of vital forces precisely in what others have considered marginal, disreputable, and irrational, those that occupy, in his words, “the fine line between religion and nihilism.”3

The principal underpinning of counterhistory is the insight that the Jewish tradition is not defined by an “essence” (the word that appears in the title of a book by the liberal German rabbi Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism).4 To be sure, the tradition is made up of a body of canonical texts, starting with the Bible. But these texts are all multivocal, full of contradictions. As one famous rabbinic text puts it about the disagreements between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai: “These and these are the words of the living God.”5 Beyond rabbinic literature, the thousands of volumes in the Jewish library down to today cannot be reduced to a single formula or catechism.

And neither can that library be reduced to what we today call “religion,” arguably an invention of modernity.6 Jewish culture—as opposed to just religion—is a big tent that includes the writings of a rabbinic elite and the customs of the folk; law, and legend; the abstract formulations of philosophers and the symbolic language of the mystics; the practices of men and the practices of women and children; and dogmatic authority versus heretical rebellions against it.7 In the modern period, that tent spread even further. Peter Berger has suggested that in modernity we are all heretics, in the sense meant by the Greek origins of the word haeresis, namely “to choose.”8 All Jews since the Enlightenment, including the most Orthodox, are “Jews by choice” in that they must choose how they define their Judaism rather than accept an unchanging, fixed tradition. In reality, of course, even though most Jews before the modern period felt themselves bound by that tradition, it was never either unchanging or fixed.

While medieval philosophers like Moses Maimonides tried to distill Judaism to a set of thirteen principles (or three, or even one), the search for an “essence of Judaism” became one of the dominant characteristics of modern Jewish thought.9 This search often identified some religious principle, such as monotheism or biblical ethics, as the defining characteristic of Judaism. But Judaism—a term that itself became preeminent only in the modern era—could never be shoehorned into such narrow boxes. Against thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn, Moritz Lazarus, and Hermann Cohen, secular Jews have sought a more dynamic definition of Jewish identity that could encompass conflictual strands within it. This secular Jewish tradition, beginning with Baruch Spinoza, but with roots in even older writers, animates my own understanding of the history that I have spent half a century trying to unravel.10

My own work has drawn inspiration from Scholem’s radical philosophy of Jewish history. Although the subjects to which I have devoted my attention are highly diverse, they are united by the way Jewish culture contains not only canonical texts but also countercanonical and even heretical voices that test its own boundaries. This oeuvre spans the whole three thousand years of Jewish history, a result of the “catholic” (in the original meaning of the term as “all-inclusive”) training I underwent with my teacher Amos Funkenstein. He taught his students to embrace all of Jewish history as their own and to dare to write about broad subjects. For me, these subjects have included power, sexuality, blood, and secular Jewish thought.11

I would define these studies in two ways: they are constructive and genealogical. By constructive, I mean that they are often driven by contemporary questions and therefore construct the past in order to answer those questions. I would distinguish this method from “presentism” (the bane of all historians!), which uses the past for contemporary purposes, often political. For my method, the present dictates the questions but not the answers. Constructive historians must be faithful to their sources, even as they ask questions of those sources that both those sources’ authors and earlier historians may not have asked. We must understand such sources not as modern but as rooted in their own historical contexts. To take an example from my study of the history of sexuality in the Jewish tradition, the rabbinic discourses on sexuality must be grounded in their Greco-Roman and Babylonian settings. They are at once familiar and alien, and if, to quote a favorite phrase of Gershom Scholem, “Nothing Jewish is alien to me,” it is their very alienness that arouses the deepest affinity.

I call the second method that I have employed “genealogical,” that is, the tracing of concepts—sexuality, blood, power—from their earliest origins to their most recent manifestations. Early in my career, I took inspiration from a provocative book by Karl Löwith, Meaning in History. There he writes, “An adequate approach to history and its interpretations is necessarily regressive for the very reason that history is moving forward, leaving behind the historical foundations of the more recent and contemporary elaborations. The historical consciousness cannot but start with itself, though its aim is to know the thought of other times and of other men, different from our times and ourselves. . . . We understand—and misunderstand—ancient authors, but always in the light of contemporary thought, reading the book of history backward from the last to the first page.”12 If our present culture throws up certain new questions, then one is driven to the historical representations that lie behind this contemporary culture, to see where they have come from and how they have been transformed.

Indeed, each of the three books I have mentioned actually started with wondering where certain modern phenomena came from. Take, for example, my book Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History. I started with a contemporary question—the relationship of Jews today to the problem of political power—and then sought to discover its roots in the past. The myth that the Jews were politically powerless until regaining statehood in 1948 itself has deep historical roots. My work was twofold: an examination of the history of the myth of Jewish powerlessness and an investigation into the actual, historical relationship of the Jews to power. The work was driven counterchronologically, from the problems of the State of Israel and the contemporary Diaspora Jewish communities to the recent and, finally, more distant past. What started as a modern study eventually reached back to the Bible.

The synoptic historian,13 who seeks to encompass a whole history, holds that where we stand now can never be fully understood without its context in the past, even the distant past, just as no construction of the past can proceed except from where we stand today. To be sure, this involves assuming a totalizing vantage point from outside the history, a kind of critical observation post from which one can construct a past based on questions thrown up by the present. Indeed, such a position is unavoidable for any historian. As Martin Jay has noted, “There is no ‘view from nowhere’ for even the most scrupulously ‘detached’ observer.”14

This relationship between present and past effectively attacks much of the periodization that conventional historians hold dear. In all of my work, I have been preoccupied with the circuitous transition from the “traditional” to the “modern.” Modern Jewish history never represents a total break with the past. Instead, the modern period evolved and still exists in dialectical relationship to its predecessors, and modern Jews define themselves in constant, if often only partly conscious, tension with their tradition. This was an argument that I made in Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought, where I tried to demonstrate how secular Jewish thinkers developed their thought in constant dialogue with the earlier religious tradition.15 To do justice to “modern” questions requires extensive treatment of the tradition as a whole, from its very points of origin. Every attempt to discover the point of transition between “tradition” and “modernity” demands a search further back in history, and, ultimately, these terms themselves dissolve and become increasingly uncertain.

At the same time, I do not contend that Jewish history, or any other history for that matter, is a seamless whole, devoid of ruptures. One might expect such a view from a defender of religious orthodoxy, but hardly from a secularist. Modernity is, indeed, a radical rupture in the fabric of tradition, but Jewish history as a whole was never monolithic and always consisted of ruptures and conflicts. The “break” between tradition and modernity is just a very extreme version of what can be found in other forms in earlier periods. Here, too, the study of remote ages can illuminate the very conflicts that we sometimes regard as uniquely modern.

The essays you will read here were all written with this sense of the entangled relationship between tradition and modernity. They are all counterhistorical, or, to use Walter Benjamin’s felicitous phrase, they “brush history against the grain.”16 Some of them feature inversions of convention or hidden traditions that challenge the canon. In others, I read authors against their commonly understood or self-proclaimed positions. The best way to illustrate what I mean is to examine the contents of this book.

I start the first section of the book, “Countertraditions within the Tradition,” by considering one of the Bible’s names of God, El Shaddai. Against the canonical idea that God either is male or has no gender and that ancient Israelite religion rejected the fertility rituals of the Canaanites, Shaddai appears to have been a name of God associated with fertility blessings. One very early biblical text even makes a wordplay between Shaddai and shadayim (breasts). The God of ancient Israel may therefore have been understood to be both male and female. This leads to the conclusion that monotheism was much more “gender-bending” than has been traditionally assumed. Thus, what I unearth here is a countertradition within the Bible itself: where late books of the Bible (especially the book of Job) understood Shaddai as the powerful or “Almighty” God, an earlier tradition seems to associate this name of God with a nursing mother.

A biblical figure I consider in a second essay is a mere human, and a deeply flawed one at that: the Levite leader Korah, who challenges Moses by claiming that all of Israel should have equal access to God. The rebel Korah is one of the Bible’s villains, but in later rabbinic midrashim Korah appears in a different guise, as a trickster who subverts the law by taking it to absurd extremes. One might say that Korah was resurrected as a rebellious rabbi. In the Hasidic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Korah became a foil for how the leaders of the movement understood their own leadership. As opposed to the Bible, where Korah and his followers are swallowed up by the earth, these later texts bring him back to life in surprising new forms. Here, as in many other places, the midrashic tradition often works against—or, at least, dramatically expands—the biblical text.

In roughly the sixth or seventh century, two strange texts provide excellent examples of counterhistories, inversions of Christianity in the service of Jewish polemics. The first is the Toldot Yeshu, which inverts the biography of Jesus: the founder of Christianity is the son of a menstruant Jewish woman and a Roman soldier who steals the name of God, only to be brought down to earth by the story’s hero, Judas Iscariot. The second is the apocalyptic Sefer Zerubavel, which turns Jesus and the Byzantine emperor into the Antichrist, who will be defeated by two Jewish messiahs. In evident response to the cult of the Virgin Mary, the mother of one of the messiahs plays a role for the first time in Jewish literature. But the two texts are actually quite different counterhistories, which allow us to more sharply define this concept.

The twelfth century witnessed a kind of medieval Enlightenment in which there arose radical interpretations of the Bible, of the sort we associate more with Baruch Spinoza and later secular biblical criticism. A leading figure in this movement was Abraham Ibn Ezra, whose Bible commentary is regarded as canonical by Orthodox Jews. But Ibn Ezra advanced daring, even incipiently heretical, arguments that some passages in Torah could not have been written by Moses and, even more strikingly, that the Bible does not contain all knowledge. A full understanding of how he could reconcile such a radical position with tradition takes us into the larger question of the relationship between philosophy and exegesis in this thinker, whose own metaphysics came close to pantheism. Hardly modern, Ibn Ezra nevertheless startlingly prefigures modern ways of reading the Bible.

Moving now to eighteenth-century Hasidism, I examine some of the teachings of the iconoclastic Hasidic master Nahman of Bratslav. Seen by many as the most “modern” of the Hasidic masters, Nahman reveled in paradox and gave theological meaning to his own inner existential struggles. Evidently suffering from profound depression, Nahman developed a taxonomy of depressive states, which he correlated with his role as a religious leader. Here is an example of a figure embedded in the religious tradition who nevertheless evinced a subjective sensibility that we typically associate with modernity.

The next section of the book, entitled “Ambivalent Modernity,” has as its focus the way nineteenth-and twentieth-century Jewish writers interpreted in new and surprising ways motifs and figures from Jewish history. At a time when most modernizing thinkers saw the Kabbalah as medieval superstition, Nachman Krochmal, a leading figure in the eastern European Jewish Enlightenment, developed an Idealist philosophy of history that allowed mysticism a positive role in Jewish history, one that anticipated Gershom Scholem’s later work.

A much stranger figure, who lived roughly in the same place and time as Krochmal, was the Christian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masoch was both a pornographer (the word masochism comes from his name) and a philosemite, two identities that equally challenged boundaries in European society. How these two seemingly unrelated vocations come together makes for a strange story in the history of Jewish integration in the nineteenth century. Sacher-Masoch inverted many of the stereotypes of Jews and especially Jewish women. This study of Sacher-Masoch was an early foray of mine into the new field of gender in Jewish studies.

One of the most striking philosemitic novels of Sacher-Masoch was a biography of the seventeenth-century messiah Shabbtai Zvi. Two essays examine the way nineteenth-and twentieth-century writers turned Shabbtai, as well as other heretics from Jewish history—Jesus, the rabbinic figure Elisha ben Abuya, and Spinoza—from heretics into heroes. Even those who took highly defensive or apologetic positions often attempted to incorporate these heretics back into the tradition, a move that recapitulated similar transformations of heretics (like Korah) in earlier rabbinic literature. Here are striking examples of the way modern Jewish culture remains inextricably entangled with its past.

This fascination with historical heretics continued into the Weimar period of German Jewish history. The philosophers Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, each in their own way, offered idiosyncratic and subversive understandings of historical traditions that were informed by a particular Jewish sensibility. Strauss offered esoteric readings of Jewish philosophers, especially Maimonides. But while Strauss believed that he came to timeless philosophical conclusions, I argue that he must be read, not as “he read himself” (one of his favorite phrases), but as a Weimar Jew, concerned with the same questions of esotericism, secularism, and tradition with which other Jewish intellectuals of his time struggled.

Arendt’s most controversial book was her Eichmann in Jerusalem. As a result of this controversy, Arendt suffered a similar fate to that of heretics in a less secular age. In this essay, I argue against this unofficial herem. The most radical aspect of Arendt’s book was not in the oft-quoted phrase the “banality of evil” but in the legal theory she developed, which argued for a kind of multiculturalism avant la lettre. This theory takes the Jewish experience as emblematic of human diversity, a startling conclusion in light of attacks on Arendt for lack of sympathy with her people. I therefore read Arendt’s Eichmann book through this lens in the context of her other writings against the more widespread understanding of her work.

It is in this intellectual milieu that we must situate Gershom Scholem, whose work brought together fascination with heresy with an antinomian sensibility of his own. Scholem’s “Ten Unhistorical Aphorisms on the Kabbalah,” written in conscious imitation of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” has never been translated into English and is published here for the first time. An elucidation of this difficult text reveals Scholem’s profundity as a modernist thinker (and not only as a historian) who identified paradoxes and heresies in the Kabbalah with extraordinarily contemporary resonance.

Scholem provides the bridge between these Weimar intellectuals and Jewish politics, particularly related to Zionism. Scholem’s path to Zionism led through anarchistic rejection of German nationalism, a rejection that later informed his critique of what he considered reactionary and apocalyptic forms of Jewish nationalism. Although his years of political activity in favor of what today is called “liberal Zionism” ended in 1933, he retained much of his suspicion of militant Jewish nationalism. In an interview that I did with him in 1980, he connected his views of Sabbatianism as a spiritual catastrophe with a critique of the religious Zionist settler movement as “latter-day Sabbatians,” who threatened an even worse catastrophe for his own Zionist ideals. Although forty years old, this warning about the dangers of Jewish messianism remains entirely relevant today.

In the decade after this interview, I studied the intellectual underpinnings of the messianic Zionism that Scholem criticized, seeking to elaborate his claim that this movement draws from the heretical wellsprings that he had elucidated. I focused in particular on the messianic ideology of Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine from 1921 to 1935. Kook’s dialectical philosophy of Jewish messianism made it possible for this ultra-Orthodox leader to ascribe positive meaning to secular Zionism. But the heretical implications of his position, which bear startling resemblance to Sabbatian motifs, also laid the groundwork for the apocalyptic Zionism articulated by his son, Zvi Yehudah Kook, and his son’s students after the Six-Day War. It is these ideas that continue to bedevil Israeli politics today.

A final essay, written shortly after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, offers my own broad reflections on the current condition of the Jewish people in historical perspective. The forces—Jewish, European, and American—seeking to dismantle the Enlightenment in favor of ethnonationalism and illiberalism have only grown stronger in the subsequent five years. Indeed, the rather gloomy prognosis that I suggest about the fate of the Enlightenment in the early twenty-first century finds tragic confirmation as I write these lines with the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As an epilogue, I have included an autobiographical essay that has only appeared in Hebrew in a volume of scholars writing about the connection between their personal histories and their professional work. This autobiography provides a personal perspective on the essays in the present collection and the rest of my work as well. The overarching question I ask, which has been at the forefront of my work since my first book on Gershom Scholem, is: What is the relationship of a secular historian to his or her religious tradition? The various essays in the present book are all attempts, in different forms, to answer that question.

In his celebrated little book Zakhor, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argued that historians sever us from tradition and thus provide little basis for a Jewish identity in the modern world.17 Yet it seems to me that historians can play a different role: they can expose our myths about the past, or, in Walter Benjamin’s pregnant phrase, “wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”18 Such historians can present us with a new past we may not have yet considered. If the very phrase “new past” appears to be an oxymoron, it is the task of historians, in their constructive creativity, to give it legitimacy and life.


1. Gershom Scholem, Luah Ha-Aretz (Tel Aviv: Schocken Books, 1944–45), translated into English as “Reflections on Modern Jewish Studies,” in Gershom Scholem, On the Possibility of Mysticism in Our Time, ed. Avraham Shapira, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997), 51–71.

2. David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-history (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

3. Scholem’s 1937 birthday letter to Salman Schocken, in Biale, Gershom Scholem, 215–16.

4. Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1961). Baeck was writing against Adolf von Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1900). It is important to note that Baeck rejected the idea of that Judaism had a single “essence.”

5. BT Eruvin 13:b. Here and throughout this book, translations are my own unless otherwise specified.

6. See Leora Batnitsky, How Judaism Became a Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

7. See my preface to Cultures of the Jews: A New History (New York: Schocken Books, 2002).

8. Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979).

9. See Menachem Kellner, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought: From Maimonides to Abravanel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

10. See my Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

11. David Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), Eros and the Jews (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), and Not in the Heavens.

12. Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 2.

13. I am using the term synoptic in its original etymological sense of a “view of the whole” rather than of paraphrase. For an analysis of the latter, see Martin Jay, “Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of a Synoptic Intellectual Historian,” in his Fin de Siècle Socialism and Other Essays (New York: Routledge, 1988), 52–63. Jay points out the dangers of an external, totalizing “gaze” but defends the role of the historian against the assault of deconstructionist literary critics.

14. Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 18.

15. Biale, Not in the Heavens.

16. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 257.

17. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), chap. 4.

18. Benjamin, “Theses,” 255.