Jewish History, Jewish Religion

Here is an excerpt from
Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years
by Israel Shahak, originally published in 1994.

(The following URLs
seem to contain more or less (maybe not all the introductions)
the full contents of the book:
http://www.biblebelievers.org.au/jewhis.htm. )

From reading what is below, it should be obvious that Dr. Shahak,
despite being of Jewish ethnicity, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp,
and a long-term professor (of chemistry) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
has views of the religious and social practices of his fellow Jews
which are very different from those of the Jewish mainstream.
For example,
the ADL has a web page which questions the truth of some of his statements.
I have no way of ascertaining the accuracy of his views,
but at least some other Jews praise him highly.
For example,
Noam Chomsky is quoted on the back cover of the book (2002 Pluto Press edition)
as saying
‘Shahak is an outstanding scholar,
with remarkable insight and depth of knowledge.
His work is informed and penetrating,
a contribution of great value.’

I suspect Chomsky’s upriver colleague Alan Dershowitz
would have a rather different view.

I think it is safe to say that the Jews that most Americans know
are, if religious, of the Reform branch of Judaism.
There are branches of Judaism which are far less Westernized,
as described with great vividness for example in
Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America
by Stephen G. Bloom.
These (to Americans) more exotic branches
maintain more the practices which Shahak describes:
he specifically discusses at length the Hasidim,
the same group described by Bloom.

Practically all of the emphasis in the following
is added by the author of the current blog.

Chapter 3
Orthodoxy and Interpretation

This chapter is devoted to a more detailed description of
the theologico-legal structure of classical Judaism.
As in Chapter 2, I use the term ‘classical Judaism’ to refer to
rabbinical Judaism in the period from about AD 800
up to the end of the 18th century.

This period broadly coincides with the Jewish Middle Ages,
since for most Jewish communities medieval conditions
persisted much longer than for the west European nations,
namely up to the period of the French Revolution.
Thus what I call ‘classical Judaism’ can be regarded as medieval Judaism.
(Wikipedia: Jews in the Middle Ages)]

Section 3.3
The Dispensations

As noted above, the talmudic system is most dogmatic
and does not allow any relaxation of its rules
even when they are reduced to absurdity by a change in circumstances.
And in the case of the Talmud - contrary to that of the Bible -
the literal sense of the text is binding,
and one is not allowed to interpret it away.
But in the period of classical Judaism
various talmudic laws became untenable for the Jewish ruling classes -
the rabbis and the rich.
In the interest of these ruling classes,
a method of systematic deception was devised
for keeping the letter of the law,
while violating its spirit and intention.
It was this hypocritical system of ‘dispensations’ (heterim)
which, in my view, was the most important cause of
the debasement of Judaism in its classical epoch.
(The second cause was Jewish mysticism,
which however operated for a much shorter period of time.)

Section 3.4
Social Aspects of Dispensations

Two social features of these and many similar practices
deserve special mention.

First, a dominant feature of this system of dispensations,
and of classical Judaism inasmuch as it is based on them,
is deception -
deception primarily of God,
if this word can be used for an imaginary being so easily deceived by the rabbis,
who consider themselves cleverer than him.
No greater contrast can be conceived than that between
the God of the Bible (particularly of the greater prophets) and
the God of classical Judaism.
The latter is more like the early Roman Jupiter,
who was likewise bamboozled by his worshipers,
or the gods described in Frazer’s Golden Bough.


The second dominant feature of the dispensations is that
they are in large part obviously motivated by the spirit of profit.
And it is this combination of hypocrisy and the profit motive
which increasingly dominated classical Judaism.
In Israel, where the process goes on,
this is dimly perceived by popular opinion,
despite all the official brainwashing
promoted by the education system and the media.
The religious establishment – the rabbis and the religious parties –
and, by association, to some extent the Orthodox community as a whole,
are quite unpopular in Israel.
One of the most important reasons for this is
precisely their reputation for duplicity and venality.
Of course, popular opinion (which may often be prejudiced)
is not the same thing as social analysis;
but in this particular case it is actually true that
the Jewish religious establishment does have
a strong tendency to chicanery and graft,
due to the corrupting influence of the Orthodox Jewish religion.
Because in general social life religion is only one of the social influences,
its effect on the mass of believers is not nearly so great
as on the rabbis and leaders of the religious parties.
Those religious Jews in Israel who are honest,
as the majority of them undoubtedly are,
are so not because of the influence of their religion and rabbis,
but in spite of it.
On the other hand,

in those few areas of public life in Israel
which are wholly dominated by religious circles,
the level of chicanery, venality and corruption is notorious,
far surpassing the ‘average’ level tolerated by
general, non-religious Israeli society.

[One cannot help but expect that Jewish religious circles
would take strong exception to that broad generalization.]

In Chapter 4 we shall see how
the dominance of the profit motive in classical Judaism
is connected with
the structure of Jewish society and its articulation with
the general society in the midst of which Jews lived in the ‘classical’ period.
Here I merely want to observe that
the profit motive is not characteristic of
Judaism in all periods of its history.
Only the platonist confusion
which seeks for the metaphysical timeless ‘essence’ of Judaism,
instead of looking at the historical changes in Jewish society,
has obscured this fact.
(And this confusion has been greatly encouraged by zionism,
in its reliance on ‘historical rights’ ahistorically derived from the Bible.)
Thus, apologists of Judaism claim, quite correctly,
that the Bible is hostile to the profit motive
while the Talmud is indifferent to it.
But this was caused by
the very different social conditions in which they were composed.
As was pointed out above,
the Talmud was composed in two well-defined areas,
in a period when the Jews living there
constituted a society based on agriculture and consisting mainly of peasants –
very different indeed from the society of classical Judaism.

In Chapter 5 we shall deal in detail with
the hostile attitudes and deceptions practiced by classical Judaism
against non-Jews.
But more important as a social feature is
the profit-motivated deception
practiced by the rich Jews against poor fellow Jews
(such as the dispensation concerning interest on loans).
Here I must say, in spite of my opposition to marxism
both in philosophy and as a social theory,
that Marx was quite right when, in his two articles about Judaism,
he characterized it as dominated by profit-seeking –
provided this is limited to Judaism as he knew it,
that is, to classical Judaism which in his youth
had already entered the period of its dissolution.
True, he stated this arbitrarily, ahistorically and without proof.
Obviously he came to his conclusion by intuition;
but his intuition in this case – and with the proper historical limitation –
was right.

Chapter 4
The Weight of History

A  great deal of nonsense has been written in the attempt to provide
a social or mystical interpretation of Jewry or Judaism ‘as a whole’.
This cannot be done, for
the social structure of the Jewish people
and the ideological structure of Judaism
have changed profoundly through the ages.
Four major phases can be distinguished:

(1) The phase of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah,
until the destruction the first Temple (587 BC) and the Babylonian exile.

(Much of the Old Testament is concerned with this period,
although most major books of the Old Testament,
including the Pentateuch as we know it,
were actually composed after that date.)
Socially, these ancient Jewish kingdoms were quite similar to
the neighboring kingdoms of Palestine and Syria;
and - as a careful reading of the Prophets reveals -
the similarity extended to
the religious cults practiced by the great majority of the people.
See, for example, Jeremiah 44, especially verses 15-19.
For an excellent treatment of certain aspects of this subject
see Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, Ktav, USA, 1967.]
The ideas that were to become typical of later Judaism -
including in particular ethnic segregationism and monotheistic exclusivism -
were at this stage confined to small circles of priests and prophets,
whose social influence depended on royal support.

(2) The phase of the dual centers, Palestine and Mesopotamia,
from the first ‘Return from Babylon’ (537 BC) until about AD 500.

It is characterized by
the existence of these two autonomous Jewish societies,
both based primarily on agriculture,
on which the ‘Jewish religion’,
as previously elaborated in priestly and scribal circles,
was imposed by the force and authority of the Persian empire.
The Old Testament Book of Ezra
contains an account of the activities of Ezra the priest,
‘a ready scribe in the law of Moses’,
who was empowered by King Artaxerxes I of Persia
to ‘set magistrates and judges’ over the Jews of Palestine,
so that
‘whosoever will not do the law of thy God, and the law of the king,
let judgment be executed speedily upon him,
whether it be unto death, or to banishment,
or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment’ [n.4.2]
And in the Book of Nehemiah -
cupbearer to King Artaxerxes who was appointed Persian governor of Judea,
with even greater powers -
we see to what extent foreign (nowadays one would say ‘imperialist’) coercion
was instrumental in imposing the Jewish religion, with lasting results.

In both centers,
Jewish autonomy persisted during most of this period
and deviations from religious orthodoxy were repressed.
Exceptions to this rule occurred when the religious aristocracy itself
got ‘infected’ with Hellenistic ideas
(from 300 to 166 BC
and again under Herod the Great and his successors, from 50 BC to AD 70),
or when it was split in reaction to new developments
(for example, the division between the two great parties,
the Pharisees and the Sadduceans,
which emerged in about 140 BC).
However, the moment any one party triumphed,
it used the coercive machinery of the Jewish autonomy
(or, for a short period, independence)
to impose its own religious views
on all the Jews in both centers.


(3) The phase which we have defined as classical Judaism
and which will be discussed below. [n.4.8]

(4) The modern phase, characterized by
the breakdown of the totalitarian Jewish community and its power,
and by attempts to reimpose it,
of which Zionism is the most important.
This phase begins
in Holland in the 17th century,
in France and Austria (excluding Hungary) in the late 18th century,
in most other European countries in the middle of the 19th century, and
in some Islamic countries in the 20th century.
(The Jews of Yemen were still living in the medieval ‘classical’ phase in 1948).
Something concerning these developments will be said later on.


Section 4.1
Major Features of Classical Judaism

Let us therefore ignore those ‘dark ages’,
and for the sake of convenience begin with the two centuries 1000-1200,
for which abundant information is available
from both internal and external sources
on all the important Jewish centers, east and west.
Classical Judaism, which is clearly discernible in this period,
has undergone very few changes since then,
and (in the guise of Orthodox Judaism) is still a powerful force today.

How can that classical Judaism be characterized,
and what are the social differences
distinguishing it from earlier phases of Judaism?
I believe that there are three such major features.

(1) Classical Jewish society has no peasants,
and in this it differs profoundly
from earlier Jewish societies in the two centers, Palestine and Mesopotamia.
It is difficult for us, in modern times, to understand what this means.
We have to make an effort to imagine what serfdom was like;
the enormous difference in literacy, let alone education,
between village and town throughout this period;
the incomparably greater freedom enjoyed by
all the small minority who were not peasants -
in order to realize that during the whole of the classical period
the Jews, in spite of all the persecutions to which they were subjected,
formed an integral part of the privileged classes.
Jewish historiography, especially in English,
is misleading on this point inasmuch as
it tends to focus on Jewish poverty and anti-Jewish discrimination.

Both were real enough at times;
but the poorest Jewish craftsman, peddler, land-lord’s steward or petty cleric
was immeasurably better off than a serf.

This was particularly true in those European countries
where serfdom persisted into the 19th century,
whether in a partial or extreme form:
Prussia, Austria (including Hungary),
Poland and the Polish lands taken by Russia.
And it is not without significance that,
prior to the beginning of the great Jewish migration of modern times
(around 1880),
a large majority of all Jews were living in those areas
and that their most important social function there
was to mediate the oppression of the peasants
on behalf of the nobility and the Crown.
classical Judaism developed
hatred and contempt for agriculture as an occupation
and for peasants as a class,

even more than for other Gentiles -
a hatred of which I know no parallel in other societies.
[One sees echoes of such attitudes in twenty-first century America
in the constant identification of the “pitchfork” (a clear reference to peasants)
with what the ruling elite calls “populism”,
i.e., anything which might diminish its wealth and power.]

This is immediately apparent to anyone who is familiar with
the Yiddish or Hebrew literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. [n.4.9]
[There is an interesting example of this,
a lengthy excerpt from The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer (note especially),
in Darwin's Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson.]

Most east-European Jewish socialists
(that is, members of exclusively or predominantly Jewish parties and factions)
are guilty of never pointing out this fact;
many were themselves tainted with a ferocious anti-peasant attitude
inherited from classical Judaism.
Of course, Zionist ‘socialists’ were the worst in this respect,
but others, such as the Bund, were not much better.
A typical example is their opposition to
the formation of peasant co-operatives promoted by the Catholic clergy,
on the ground that this was ‘an act of antisemitism’.
This attitude is by no means dead even now;
it could be seen very clearly in
the racist views held by many Jewish ‘dissidents’ in the USSR
regarding the Russian people,
and also in the lack of discussion of this background
by so many Jewish socialists, such as Isaac Deutscher.
The whole racist propaganda on the theme of
the supposed superiority of Jewish morality and intellect
(in which many Jewish socialists were prominent)
is bound up with
a lack of sensitivity for the suffering of that major part of humanity
who were especially oppressed during the last thousand years -
the peasants.

(2) Classical Jewish society was particularly dependent on
kings or on nobles with royal powers.

In the next chapter we discuss various Jewish laws directed against Gentiles,
and in particular laws which command Jews to revile Gentiles
and refrain from praising them or their customs.
These laws allow one and only one exception:
a Gentile king, or a locally powerful magnate
(in Hebrew paritz, in Yiddish pooretz).
A king is praised and prayed for,
and he is obeyed not only in most civil matters
but also in some religious ones.
As we shall see Jewish doctors, who are in general forbidden
to save the lives of ordinary Gentiles on the Sabbath,
are commanded to do their utmost in healing magnates and rulers;
this partly explains why kings and noblemen, popes and bishops
often employed Jewish physicians.
But not only physicians.
Jewish tax and customs collectors, or (in eastern Europe) bailiffs of manors
could be depended upon to do their utmost for the king or baron,
in a way that a Christian could not always be.


(3) The society of classical Judaism
is in total opposition to
the surrounding non-Jewish society,
except the king

(or the nobles, when they take over the state).
This is amply illustrated in Chapter 5.

The consequences of these three social features, taken together,
go a long way towards explaining
the history of classical Jewish communities
both in Christian and in Muslim countries.

The position of the Jews is particularly favorable
under strong regimes which have retained a feudal character,
and in which national consciousness, even at a rudimentary level,
has not yet begun to develop.
It is even more favorable in countries such as pre-1795 Poland
or in the Iberian kingdoms before the latter half of the 15th century,
where the formation of a nationally based powerful feudal monarchy
was temporarily or permanently arrested.
In fact, classical Judaism flourishes best under
strong regimes which are dissociated from most classes in society,
and in such regimes the Jews fulfill one of the functions of a middle class -
but in a permanently dependent form.
For this reason they are opposed not only by the peasantry
(whose opposition is then unimportant,
except for the occasional and rare popular revolt)
but more importantly by the non-Jewish middle class
(which was on the rise in Europe),
and by the plebeian part of the clergy;
and they are protected by the upper clergy and the nobility.
But in those countries where, feudal anarchy having been curbed,
the nobility enters into partnership with the king
(and with at least part of the bourgeoisie) to rule the state,
which assumes a national or protonational form,
the position of the Jews deteriorates.

This general scheme, valid for Muslim and Christian countries alike,
will now be illustrated briefly by a few examples.

[His examples are:
England, France and Italy,
The Muslim World,
Christian Spain, and

[A comment by KHarbaugh:

Dr. Shahak places far more stress than is customary
on internal financial conflict and exploitation
within the Jewish communities of old Europe.

I am sure there must be some truth to that;
I doubt whether Shahak would entirely make that up.
But it must be observed that
Shahak comes from a fairly extreme left-wing position,
which tends to emphasize such class-based conflicts.

Within the American Jewish community,
it is certainly hard to discern a significant amount of such class conflict.
The American Jewish community is fairly, and justly,
famous for the extent to which it maintains
a vast array of social services for all Jews, irrespective of income,
through the United Jewish Appeal (or whatever that is called these days)
and its well-known ways of shaking-down (if that is the right term) wealthy Jews
to contribute.
This is discussed at length, and with considerable good humor,
in J.J. Goldberg’s Jewish Power,
and of course it even is discussed somewhat in the main-stream media.

As to European communities,
observers such as Kevin MacDonald and many others have taken somewhat the opposite point of view,
finding Jews often working as a team
to break down barriers established by non-Jews
to prevent (here come the stereotypes)
clever, cunning, devious, scheming Jews from working as a team
to enrich the Jewish community at the expense of the gentile community.

Of course, well-known, prominent and distinguished public servants
such as Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and Arthur Levitt
would no doubt scoff at the very idea of such a conspiracy.]

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