Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Festival of Lights: the history and the historian

In honour of Chanuka, which ends tomorrow, a post on the historiography of Jewish tradition....

At a Chanuka party last weekend, I got into a discussion which made me realize how little I knew about the historiography of Judaism generally, and the origins of the tradition of Chanuka, as opposed to the story of Chanuka, specifically. The latter is well chronicled, mostly in books for kids and gentiles. It's an appealing, inspiring story.

But the larger history is inspiring too, as is the story of the great historian Elias Bickerman (also spelled Bikerman and Bickermann) author of the magisterial From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees: the Foundations of post-Biblical Judaism (among many other works) which should be the first stop for anyone interested in the history of Judaism.

Bickerman, who died in 1985, is also the subject of a recent biography with a very boring cover by Albert Baumgarten. But it's not a boring book.

Bickerman saw himself as a classicist, rather than a Judaic scholar, and it is probably in large part thanks to him that many modern day departments of classics include Hebrew along with Latin and Greek. That Baumgarten portrays him as "a historian of the Jews"raises some interesting questions about the biographer's right to re-identify the subject, as does Baumgarten's decision to write a biography about someone who was so serious about his desire that only his published work represent his life that he destroyed his personal papers before his death.

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