Oswald Spengler (1880-1936)
In any field, distinction comes to very few. It is a rare gift, one that requires total service and dedication. This is especially true of the historian, for the study of the human journey upon earth is an unremitting struggle to exact the fullness of human experience from the voluminous records that have been left behind. To gain distinction as a historian one must have a deep and sympathetic understanding of humankind. Thus, the writer must be a full human being, for his greatness as a historian and his greatness as a human cannot be separated. This happy and noble combination was found in Mr. Max I. Dimont (1912-1992).
I am sure that many of you are familiar with his book Jews, God and History, a modern interpretation of a 4,000 year old story. But what about the man behind the pen – the human being? I have thus some years ago interviewed Mr. Dimont to find out about the man behind the book.
BERKOWITZ: Tell me a little about your background.
DIMONT: There is not much to tell. My parents were born in Russia and they settled in Helsinki, Finland where I was born. We were one of 1,200 Jewish families in Helsinki. In 1929 we arrived in the United States along with the stock market crash, though we had nothing to do with it. During World War II, I served in the Army Intelligence Service with the 18th Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division, and saw service in England, France and Germany, all the way to the Russian border.
BERKOWITZ: You have selected as your contribution to the world of scholarship the field of Jewish history. Would you comment on your interest in history in general and, more particularly, the development of your interest in Jewish history?
DIMONT: Ever since I was a little boy, I have been reading history–mostly Finnish and Swedish history. When I got to the United States, I found out that Sweden and Finland were not the centers of world history, and I was quite disappointed. Until then I thought the Finns had the most important history in the world. But since then I have continued reading the history of every civilization, every people. I have found it most fascinating and, of course, Jewish history was always a main interest. I always try to correlate into the history of other peoples and other civilizations.
BERKOWITZ: I am sure that in your study of Jewish history, you have read certain classic authorities in the field. When you read Jewish history, did you find something that presented a special problem to you? More specifically, did you, in your own teaching and lecturing experience, find an event that directed your attention and your thinking toward the kind of book that you wrote?
DIMONT: As a matter of fact, yes. The idea for this book grew out of a very curious incident. Hadassah in St. Louis had asked me to give a series of six lectures on a new Jewish history book that had appeared then, The Great Ages and Ideas of Jewish History. Twenty hardy Hadassah ladies showed up at my first lecture, and I lunged into what I call the “Oy, Oy, Oy” history of the Jews, modeled after the “Oy, Oy, Oy” school of Jewish historians. By this I mean those historians who present Jewish history as nothing but a 4,000 year tragedy, a travail, a sorrowful burden.
I was so accustomed to reading this kind of history that I unconsciously presented the same thing. In five minutes, my audience of twenty ladies was asleep, and my ego could not take it. So I threw away my prepared script and launched into a different kind of Jewish history, an off-the-cuff kind of psychoanalytic, psychological, sociological, economic interpretation of Jewish events. That woke them, and after the lecture, they kept asking questions for an hour.
They asked why. Why did it happen that way? Why did the Jews survive? Why is Jewish history different? Why did Jewish culture last longer than anyone else’s? I did not know the answers, but I promised to give the answers for the next lecture. For the subsequent lectures we had a full house. Over a hundred ladies showed up, and the questions they asked kept me on my toes.
I kept a list of these questions, and I thought that it would be a good idea to write a book that would present these questions and their answers. That was the genesis, the idea for this book. I did not know, of course, that it would take me seven years to do it.
BERKOWITZ: Almost everyone is familiar with Graetz’s classic treatment of Jewish history. What would you say about his approach?
DIMONT: Not to single out Heinrich Graetz; Jewish historians as a rule treat Jewish history as a linear history – as one line from Abraham to the present age, a 4,000-year, straight line. They do not take into consideration the fact that Jewish history is not linear. Jewish history is really a series of six histories, because it developed within six alien civilizations. Then, too, they do not explain Jewish history in terms of the interaction between Jewish civilization on the one hand, and the alien civilizations within which it enfolded itself.
For instance, the reader who reads the ordinary Jewish history learns about Jews in Babylon. Before he knows it, the Jews are having business dealings with the Persians. Now where did the Persians come from? What happened to the Babylonians? The next thing the reader knows, the Jews have the Greeks to contend with. What happened to the Persians? How did the Greeks get into the act? What was the interaction between the Greeks and the Jews? Then, suddenly, the Greeks have vanished, and now we are in the Roman Empire. Then the Roman Empire disappears without our knowing why, and suddenly we have the Golden Age in Spain. Where did the Golden Age in Spain come from? How were the Jews catapulted from the Near East into Spain? What historic and social forces catapulted them from one civilization into another?
What economic circumstances gave them the wherewithal to make such a shift? What was the psychology that permitted the Jews to make this kind of adjustment–from a Babylonian society to a Persian society to win a contest with the Greeks, to survive the Roman Empire and to become businessmen and statesmen in the Islamic era?
This is what I mean by writing Jewish history in a vacuum instead of explaining Jewish history as a living, dynamic force.
BERKOWITZ: How was the book actually put together?
DIMONT: The first thing I did was to tell my wife, “Look, from now on you won’t see me very often. I’m going to start writing a Jewish history book.” Then I decided to write the framework for the book – what I wanted to day, what questions I was seeking. I began to write a chapter outline first, and then a skeleton outline for each chapter, and then, whenever I did not know the answers, I just left big question marks. I kept on writing even if it was wrong. I said, “I’ll come back and clean it up afterwards.” It took a year and a half to get the framework for the book so that it would stand. Then I began a five-year hunt for facts.
BERKOWITZ: Many students and people who have had experience in writing may wonder why you did the outline first. Why didn’t you sit down and read up on the various facets of our history, and then develop your outline?
DIMONT: If there is one people who has written more than anybody else about itself, it is the Jews. I was afraid that if I did a lot of research, the material would overwhelm me, and I would come out with another Graetz opus, which I did not want. So, in order to prevent my material from directing me, in stead of me directing my material, I decided that the best thing to do was to have an outline first.
It is a very painful thing when you have a beautiful theory and you search for facts to support it, and do not find them. You have to abandon a beautiful theory that doesn’t work, and that is a very, very painful thing. I hope that I succeeded in eliminating theories that were not supported by facts.
After the outline came five years of research into all kinds of books, not just Jewish history books, but books on economics, sociology, geography and many other subjects. I tried to explain the Jewish experience from different facets of history – not just a succession of kings, wars, monuments, but Jewish history as a clash of ideas. Then came the marriage between the structure and the material, and that was a two-year struggle. Finally, after this seven-year labor, this book came out. Even that was not the end. After that came another year of fighting with scholars. The publishers sent it to four different scholars of different sects and denominations to punch holes in the manuscript. Every three months I got the manuscript back with all kinds of comments, all kinds of protests from scholars that “this isn’t so – where did you get that?” And then I had to justify my work. After a year of these bloody battles, the book stood on its own and went to press.
BERKOWITZ: When you are dealing with as vast a field as Jewish history, you have to do research in many languages, not only Hebrew but Aramaic, Yiddish, German, Polish and Russian. Now, how does one, as a historian, handle all this? Must one be versed in every language? Must one be fully versed in primary sources, or can one use secondary sources in doing research?
DIMONT: This may be rationalization, since I do not speak Polish or Russian or Aramaic, or Spanish, or Portuguese. I, of course, maintain that it is not always necessary to draw on primary sources. Fortunately, others have done the digging for you.
Consider this: In Jewish history you are dealing with 4,000 years of history that developed in a dozen different nations, with a dozen different languages. The Jews have left the record of their history in these languages. To acquire all the languages and to read all these primary sources would take a thousand years. We have scholars who have devoted their lives to one segment of Jewish history, to the study of the primary sources. In thirty years of reading, I have read most of these scholars’ books, these people who have devoted their lives to giving the reader one facet, one aspect of Jewish history. I synthesized them. Whenever I feel, however, that something is wrong, I want to see what the original sources say.
For instance, were the laws of the Emperor Constantinus anti-Semitic, or did they merely have restrictive clauses about the Jews? I did not believe that anti-Semitism existed in Roman days, and I wanted to know exactly what the laws of Constantinus said. The Harvard Library has the original, and there are translations. It is like being a good lawyer; one has to know where to look for material and then read it in translation. Then you read the original documents to see if your theories are substantiated. In the case of the laws of Constantinus, I discovered that most scholars had taken one paragraph out of a fifteen-paragraph edict that deals with Jews. The laws of Constantinus, for instance, were not directed against Jews only–they were directed against any people who did not belong to the Christian religion. The same restrictive clauses were directed against pagans, fire eaters, Zoroastrians and a few other groups.
BERKOWITZ: From my own experience, when I conclude my sermon on Shabbos I begin thinking about what I’m going to preach the following Shabbos, and one of the great problems is the problem of the question of the title. It reminds me of a young rabbi who came to a congregation for a trial weekend. Not having had any experience, and not really knowing what he was going to preach about, the only thing he could think of was the title “What Now?” He delivered a very eloquent sermon, and they were so impressed that they invited him back for another weekend. On Thursday they called him and asked for his sermon title. He thought for a few moments and said, “Well, the only thing I can come up with is, “After Now, What?”
Jews, God and History is a particularly good and appropriate title for your book. Can you tell us something about the title’s genesis and development?
DIMONT: This is a very painful subject because originally the title was, Jews, Jehovah and History. I used Jews and Jehovah for alliteration. A very prominent scholar read the book in its manuscript form and liked it very much, but he said that he would never buy the book with that title because I was forcing him to use the name of God against his will. He said, “Why don’t you change it so that the title won’t be objectionable to many Jews?” I thought that he had a very proper complaint, so I came up with Jews, God and History. Here I had two monosyllables and then History, and it sounded equally good. But a more important reason for choosing this title was this: in essence, Jewish history is a dialogue between Jews and God, with the entire world as a very interested eavesdropper. This dialogue, which began four thousand years ago between Abraham and God, has been a continuing one and, as you know, the world has practically taken it as its own today. I titled the book Jews, God and History as an indication that these are the elements that have created Jewish history, this continuing dialogue.
BERKOWITZ: This view of Jewish history as a continuing dialogue between Jew and God, between humans and God, leads to a very fundamental question. What are the unique distinctions that single out Jewish history from the histories of other people?
DIMONT: There are four unique differences. There have been twenty to thirty civilizations, depending on how you classify a civilization, in the history of man. None of them has lasted for longer than 500 to 1,000 years, yet we find that Jewish history is a continual cultural development for four thousand years.
No people, no nation that has been exiled, that has lost its country, has ever been able to continue for long as a recognizable ethnic entity. The only exception is the Jewish people, who have been for 2,000 years without a country of their own, yet have lived as a recognizable ethnic entity.
No people in exile, no people that has been disfranchised from its country, has been able to produce a culture. They have truly become what Toynbee calls “fossils of history,” and have stagnated into a meaningless existence. Again we find that the only exception are the Jews. As I indicated earlier, we have had a history that has developed in six alien civilizations – that is, in six civilizations of other peoples. And yet within these six civilizations we have been able to establish a culture of our own.
Whereas every people, every civilization, every culture has left a record of its experience, of its history in one language only, the Jews have left a record of their history in practically all the civilized languages of the world. They gained very great fluency in these languages, so that they have been able to express themselves in many foreign languages.
BERKOWITZ: We have thus established the premise that Jewish history is unique, and this leads to the history itself. Can you first give a brief summation of the main events contributing to Jewish history in the ebb and flow of world events?
DIMONT: Let me begin by asking that you step out of the usual chronological framework of history, and look at human history from a vantage point out in the universe. You will see history unfolding itself as a series of tidal waves of civilizations. You will see first the Sumerian-Akkadian civilizations, and the Egyptian culture sweeping to the shores of the planet Earth. Then you will see these civilizations inundated by the Assyrian and the Babylonian civilizations. Then the Persian civilization floods in where the Babylonians and the Assyrians once were. You will see the Greek civilization take over the Persian, and the Romans step in. Then you have the Islamic civilization, the Byzantine, the early feudal and then, finally, the modern age wading in on the stilts of industrialization and capitalism.
Then you ask yourself, “Well, where are the Jews? Here are all these civilizations, and there is no mention of the Jews. Where are they?” If you look more closely, you will see the Jews in a very, very peculiar position. They are riding surfboards, so to speak, on the crests of these civilizations. You will see the Jews riding in on history, on the crests of the Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. Yet you will also note that each time, as these civilizations mature and die, as they fall into a sea of oblivion, the Jews who are within these civilizations, also fall into a sea of oblivion. But whereas the other civilizations remain submerged, Jewish history reappears again on the crest of a subsequent new civilization. So we see this fantastic aspect of Jewish history–the ability to survive where all these mighty empires and civilizations died.
BERKOWITZ: Your thesis is that Jewish history is a succession of ideas rather than of events, names and dates. Please elaborate on this view.
DIMONT: Let me first outline the events themselves. It is a most incredible succession of events even when we comprehend the ideas behind them. Let us stay, for another moment, out in the universe and let us focus the lens of history on the Jews themselves. We see an incredible succession of events take place. We see Jewish history begin with one man, Abraham, who introduces a new commodity into the world: faith. From this we begin to see the wandering in Canaan, enslavement in Egypt, and then Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, giving them the Torah. We see Joshua taking them into Canaan and the establishment of the Jewish state. We see destruction by Assyria, captivity by the Babylonians, a return under Cyrus back to Palestine. We see the establishment of the Maccabean kingdom. We see a clash with the Greeks, oppression by the Romans. We see the Jews emerge as scholars, poets and philosophers in the Mohammedan age in the Islamic empire. We see them as a business class in the early feudal age, as children of the ghetto in the late feudal age. We see them as avant-garde intellectuals, as generals, as prime ministers, as cosmopolitan capitalists, and as concentration camp victims in the modern age. Then they return, after a 2,000-year absence to where they started from, to Israel.
This is an incredible succession of events, and the question we must ask ourselves is whether it has any meaning. Is it just a mishmash of things, did it just happen haphazardly, accidentally, or is there a meaning to it? And if there is a meaning, what is it? Is it what philosophers call theological meaning; that is, is it purposive? If it is purposive, who drew the blueprint – God or man? Or is it nonpurposive, just one event following another?
Therefore, what we want to see is whether there were ideas motivating these events, or whether these events just accidentally, haphazardly followed each other.
For instance, take Abraham’s concept of monotheism. We are not concerned now whether it was Abraham who thought of it himself and retroactively attributed it to God, or whether it was God who gave the idea to Abraham. This is for theologians to debate, not for historians. The point is that once the concept of monotheism was introduced it did away completely with the pagan concept of the world, and it did away with paganism. The idea of a sexless Jewish God did away with the sexual rivalry among the Gods so prevalent in Greek and Roman mythology. Because there was only one God, it did away with warfare among Gods. Because God was invisible, it meant that God had to be worshipped in an entirely different way; instead of worshiping God with one’s hands and trying to fashion idols, one tried to comprehend God with the intellect, thus developing human intellectual instincts.
The Torah was a very pragmatic document. In the history of other people, the state usually appears first and then, out of the state, develops the law. Not so with the Jews. First the Jews got the law, and then they had to fit the state within the framework of the law. In the Mosaic code, there is the beginning of democracy, the separation of church and state. The Torah sets down the basic relations between humans and God, and between citizens and state. The concept of the Jewish kin, when the Jewish kingdom arose, did away with the divine right of kings. The king had no special exemptions; he had no special rights.
With the prophets we find the beginning of the universalization of God – that God was not a fragmentary thing, the possession of only one people or only one nation. God was universal in scope, and he was God of all people on earth. Here we begin to find the concept of human brotherhood.
As you look about you now, these are the concepts that rule the civilized world. This is what I mean when I say that ideas motivated Jewish history. When the Jews survived, it was not merely to survive as Jews, but to bring about a vision, an idea.
BERKOWITZ: I think that this is a very fresh and enlightening approach to Jewish history, because it enables the student and the reader to comprehend ideas and concepts rather than merely amassing facts. If history is taught from this particular standpoint, it will become very much more meaningful to the student.
Let us imagine that this room comprises all of Jewish history; in this room are packed 4,000 years of Jewish achievement and Jewish homelessness. We can look into this room through various windows, each one giving a different view. In your book one sees Jewish history through these different windows. They may not completely explain Jewish history, but they help.
DIMONT: It is not just Jewish history that must be viewed through these different windows; it is all history. Some historians, like the Marxists, try to explain history by giving it an economic interpretation. They view history as economically determined. Then there is the psychological window to history. The personality cult views history as the result of the impact of certain personalities. They are the sociologists, like Max Weber, who think that the way we organize our society, the interaction between peoples, determines our history. Of course, we have the political historian, who says that wars, battles, monuments, and kings make our history.
Now it is true that all these factors did determine history, but not exclusively. It is the interaction of all these things that shapes history, and each one of these will explain a certain aspect of Jewish history or of any history. We can view what happened to the Jews in the Hellenic times through economic eyes, because when the cultured Greeks took over Palestine, they brought a new economic system, they brought a new social class, they brought a new philosophy, and this had a tremendous impact on the Jews that changed their ways, which, in turn, changed the Talmud, which in turn changed its contents and changed the Jews.
The Jew who lived in the Islamic empire was as different from the Jew who lived in Hellenic times as we are from the Jews who lived in the ghetto two hundred years ago. We are the produce of the American economy, of American society, of American democracy. We have developed because of it. Yet we ourselves have brought certain things to this American democracy and to this American economy that made us both American and Jewish, in a unique sort of way. We have contributed to America, and America has contributed to us. This is what I mean by the interaction.
Nevertheless, this interaction itself does not explain the totality of Jewish history, because Jewish history is not the sum of its individual parts. It is that plus something else, plus some vision, plus some will, plus some accomplishment. The Jews coalesce into an entity that defies analysis by taking it apart and simply saying this is economic, this is political, this is social.
BERKOWITZ: Earlier you posited the thesis that there are four distinct, unique aspects of Jewish history. You have just said that there is something else unique that made Jews survive. You discuss this in your book, along with Spengler’s view, Toynbee’s view, and the Jew’s defiance of all view of the past.
DIMONT: I am glad that you have introduced Spengler, because I am a Spinglerian, and let me explain what I mean by that. I left a facet out, and that is the philosophical or the metahistorical concept of history. The metahistorian tries to look at history as a living thing, not a succession of events, but as a cycle of events, a cycle of ideas. He tries to find out if it has some meaning. The greatest metahistorian, in my opinion, is the German philosopher-historian Oswald Spengler.
In 1918 he wrote a fascinating book called The Decline of the West, giving an entirely new approach, a new concept of history. He views history as a succession of civilizations. To him, a civilization is not an accident; a civilization is a totality. He considers a civilization in the way he considers the life of an individual. It is a birth, it is a period of adolescence, it has a period of maturity, and then an old age, and finally, death. Spengler’s view is that all history is predetermined to die, and civilizations die just as humans die.
He calls these four phases spring–that is the birth of a civilization; summer–the adolescence of a civilization; autumn–the maturity, the full growth of a civilization; and the last phase, old age, he calls winter. He knows how each of the civilizations went through these stages.
However, he does not know what to do with the Jews. They will not fit into his neat categories. Every other history fits except that of the Jews.
Toynbee has a different concept of history. He views history as not exactly linear, as not exactly cyclic, but as an evolution from a lower to a higher form. So, in a sense, a civilization can, by implication, endure forever if it responds successfully to certain challenges. Yet Toynbee also excludes Jewish history from his system. Therefore, the primary question we must ask is, why have the Jews not continued on their decline. Why have they not gone from their birth, through their spring phase, to their summer phase, to their autumn phase, and finally to the winter phase? Why do they not die like all other civilizations?
Here we have to introduce a new concept, to make a distinction between a culture and a civilization. Here I draw upon another historian, a Frenchman, Amaury de Riencourt. He defines culture this way: Culture is really the first of these stages of Spengler’s system–spring, summer and autumn. Culture is the stage that generates new ideas, that gives birth to a new religion, that gives birth to new vitality, new thinking, new sciences, new psychology, new art forms. When culture has been developed to its maturity, what happens–to use Toynbee’s terminology–is that the people tend to “rest on their oars.” They become satisfied with their institutions. Then civilization sets in. The culture that has been productive is sponged off by the civilization that is uncreative, and that can last only so long before it dies out.
But what happened to the Jews? The Jews progressed from their spring to their summer and autumn phase. Then, just at the point when they reached the height of their culture, the autumn phase, came the wars with the Romans, and the Jews were driven out into the Diaspora. Spengler very perceptively sees this, and he asserts that this war with the Romans freed the Jews from history. But he did not understand the function of the Diaspora.
In the first 2,000 years of Jewish history, fittingly or unfittingly, by accident or by design, the will to survive as Jews had been hammered into them. It had been hammered into them by Moses; it had been hammered into them by a succession of prophets. They had a mission to perform, and this mission was constantly hammered into them. Then they were catapulted into the Diaspora, and this freed them from decay. Having this will to survive as Jews, and having the accidental factor of a Diaspora, which prevented them from declining, which prevented their maturing into the winter phase and the final death phase, they now had a succession of what I call “Diaspora designers”–people who said, “Here we are; if we want to survive, let us ask ourselves what are the challenges, and then let us respond to those challenges.”
You have, then, in this metahistorical way of looking at history, an explanation of why the Jews are here, although archaeologists, by this time, should be rediscovering us and holding us up as exhibits in the Smithsonian Institution.
BERKOWITZ: Can this material that we are talking about – this 4,000 years of Jewish history – be arranged in some kind of order? Is there something in Jewish history that reveals a purpose or meaning? You have said that you view Jewish history as a Kabalistic drama in three acts. What do you mean by this?
DIMONT: The Kabalists were early Jewish mystics, a very fascinating breed of Jews who began to speculate about mind and matter, and who began to look at history as a succession of ideas. As far back as the third century C.E., the Jews began to speculate on history, while other, to use the phrase the Irish historian William Edward Lecky, “were growling in the darkness of besotted ignorance.” I believe, as a Hebrew scholar has pointed out, that all Christian history rests on ideas that the Jews devised back in the early Middle Ages. Jews began to speculate on the nature of history in the third century, and came up with some fantastic conclusions. They viewed history as the result of social and economic factors. They speculated about the causes of the downfall of civilizations, and wondered why the Jews reappeared over and over again. They began to think that the Jews were exempt from the natural laws of historical decay that applied to everybody else. In about the sixteenth century, a Jewish mystic philosopher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, had a fantastic concept of the evolution of mind and matter. He thought of the evolution of mind and matter as having three stages. The first stage he called the tzimtzum, the contraction or, in modern terminology, the thesis. This thesis he saw as the bringing together of all the distant elements, taking people here, people there, uniting them into a nation, uniting them into a civilization. The second stage he called the sheviratha-keilim, “the breaking of the vessels,” or in modern terminology, the antithesis. In this stage he conceived of all mind, all matter being torn asunder–everything that he had brought together in the first place was torn asunder and thrown into the world, into an exile, so to say. The third stage he called tikkun, or the restoration, in which everything would be brought together again into a new totality, a new meaning.
BERKOWITZ: Let us consider these three ideas–the tzimtzum, the shevirat-keilim, and the tikkun–and interpret Jewish history in these terms.
DIMONT: Let us view, then, Jewish history in three Kabalistic acts, each act 2,000 years long. In the first act the tzimtzum, or the contraction, we see Jewish begin with Abraham, and end with the destruction of the Temple. Here you see Jewish history as a succession of six scenes, much like a Greek predestination drama, with God as the “author” of the script. We see Him hand the script to Abraham to proclaim the monotheistic God.
Then we see the script handed to Moses to proclaim the Torah, proclaim the Law within which the Jews are to operate. Then we see the script being handed to Joshua, to lead the Jews to the Promised Land. Then comes a succession of prophets who predict exile for the Jews. And even as they predict it, they predict a return from that exile. The prophets now universalize the Jewish God, and the script is handed to Ezra and Nehemiah, who caution the Jews against being swallowed up in this universality, for they still have a mission to perform. Finally we see a new sect appear, the Christians. Jesus is proclaimed the Messiah an, in essence, the Jews are told that they have fulfilled their mission, and Christianity has come to take over.
It seems almost as if the prediction of the prophets is right. The Romans destroyed the Temple, the Jews were dispersed into the Diaspora, and the curtain comes down on the first act. Here, then, we see the thesis–the unifying of one idea into a nationhood with a universal message to proclaim. Catastrophe follows; the Jewish state is destroyed, the Jews are dispersed, the Temple is destroyed, and this act ends. We have not come to “the breaking of the vessels.”
BERKOWITZ: What is the second act?
DIMONT: The second act would include, of course, our history from the destruction of the Temple to the restoration of the State of Israel. If the first act proceeded like a Greek predestination drama, the second act proceeds like a French extentialist drama. Jean-Paul Sartre, the French extentialist says that the history of each human being is the sum total of his choices. Each time you or I make a choice, we limit the field of possible future choices we can make, because by choosing the things we are choosing, we are telling ourselves what we are, what we want to do, and what we want to become, until, finally, we checkmate ourselves into a position where we no longer have these choices. We must then act out the destiny we have already chosen for ourselves by the choices we have made.
The Jews at the beginning of the second act had an extentialist choice to make. They could have denied the past; they could have claimed that all that happened in the past was just coincidence, an accidental series of events that meant nothing. They could have said that the Jews were not different from the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, or the Greeks; it was their time to disappear. On the other hand, the Jews would have said, “No, it cannot be that way. We were given the Torah; if we have a mission to fulfill, then we must continue.”
At this point God cannot add to the script any more, because the Jews themselves have canonized the Old Testament; nothing else can be added, so the Jews must write the script themselves. This is a complete reversal in Jewish history. Before it had been God who had directed Jewish destiny; it is now the Jews who are deciding their own destiny. In the yeshivas, throughout the Talmud, they hammer out a succession of laws. The Talmund in the early days was a very liberal document that changed and conformed and tried to adapt itself to changing socioeconomic conditions of new civilizations. We find again this incredible succession of Jewish history as it continues through the Islamic period, through the feudal age, into the modern age. Through this hammering out of new concepts, new laws, new ideas to each age, we have codification. We have the ideas of Maimonides, of Josef Karo, of Rashi – all interpreting Judaism in the image of the time within which the Jews have lived, all making it fresh. So we come to the twentieth century and the reestablishment of Israel.
This brings us to the end of the second act, in which all these exiles come together again in the freely-constituted State of Israel. And now we have two Judaisms as we had at the end of the first act, Judaism in the Diaspora, and Judaism in Palestine. Now we are repeating ourselves; we have brought the theses together now toward the beginning of the third act, toward the tikkun, toward the restoration. Again we face the same dilemma. We have a Judaism anchored to Israel, and a Judaism anchored to the Diaspora, and the curtain comes down on the second act.
We are awaiting the third act. We have this question to answer: What is the function of the Judaism in Israel, and what is the function of the Judaism in the Diaspora? Does each have a function to perform, and if so, what?
BERKOWITZ: You have just returned from Israel. What would you say are the two or three fundamental needs facing Israel at the present time?
DIMONT: The only reason I dare give such a report is that I became an “expert” in two weeks. As such, I dare tread where experts would shy away. What Israel seems to need are two things: industry and religion.
Industry is needed because people are constantly pouring into Israel even now. They are coming in from many, many parts of the world, and they need industry to sustain their economy. Religion is needed because I find an Orthodoxy that is a fossil of the past, a strict Orthodoxy that is out of date because the ghetto is out of date. But Israel is seeking for a meaning outside of nationalism.
They are very intensely nationalistic, intensely proud of what they have accomplished, and very rightly so; but behind the braggadocio, behind the pride is a search for identity. They feel they must have a raison d’etre – a meaning for existence – a meaning for continuing as Jews, just as we here must have a meaning, a raison d’etre, for continuing to survive as Jews. If we do not have a mission to fulfill, if we do not have a purpose in life, then why survive as Jews?
BERKOWITZ: What is the function of the Jew in the Diaspora?
DIMONT: This I do not know. We have changed from an age of faith, to an age of reason, and the modern Jew, like the modern Christian, can no longer be held with the ideas of the faith of the past. He must have a fresh faith. What that will be, what that is that will tie us together in the twenty first century I do not know. But I do know this: There have always been “Diaspora designers” in the past; there are going to be new ones in the future. If we can just keep the chain going, if we can just keep the links forged until we have new Diaspora designers who will tell us what our philosophy is, how we can survive with a meaning in the twenty first century, then we will survive. I have no doubt that these men will come, just as Rashi, Maimonides and others came at the right time.
BERKOWITZ: What about the relationship of the Diaspora to the State of Israel?
DIMONT: I think that both must exist, for this reason: Twice in history, the Jews in Israel have lost their country. Twice it has been the Diaspora Jews who have reconquered and reconstituted that country. Without the Diaspora Jews, there would have been no Israel, there would not be an Israel today.
On the other hand, we have an Israel to which Jews in the Diaspora can go should we face another crisis like the Hitler era. We have a place to go, a sanctuary, a national citadel. But there is something else, too. Now that a segment of the Jews are back in Israel, we must ask this metahistorical question: Will the Jews in Israel now become victims of Spengler’s law of decay, just as all other civilizations have? They went their in their autumn phase. They have only one more phase to live, the winter phase. How long can they last as a civilization unless for some reason they become exempt from the laws of historical decay? If we believe what Spengler says, we must have the Diaspora, where Jews can remain eternally young instead of dying out in a country of their own. Yet they must have a country of their own in order to have a national homeland.
There is another consideration: Jews today live on five different continents. Should Western Civilization be doomed, as Spengler says it is – Spengler’s contention is that Western Civilization today is in its winter phase – the Jews can be, if I may coin a phrase, the “civilization hoppers” of history. Because they live in many civilizations, they can continue to exist in an emerging civilization, even as another one dies.
So I feel that both should nurture each other, Israel and the Diaspora. We must have both until we reach whatever the tikkun–the third act–is in store for us, until the mission has been accomplished, after which we would have no reason for existing separately.
BERKOWITZ: Your book Jews, God and History, has sold 30,000 copies, and the paperback edition is now beyond 250,000. Why do you think it has been so successful?
DIMONT: I think the reason it has been successful is that it has discarded the view of the Jew as an underdog, as a martyred being, as a person plagued by trials and tribulations, as a persecuted man. Instead of this concept I have maintained that the Jew has had a grand history, that the Jew has been one of the proudest men in the history of man, and that he has one of the most glorious histories of any people.
The mail I receive indicates this. For instance, much of my mail comes from young Jews who tell me that they have read the book and for the first time in their lives they are really proud to be Jews. I get mail from Christians. One letter from a lady in New Orleans said, “Mr. Dimont, after reading book I realized that I should be a Jew, but I have been a Christian for so long, I can’t change. Will you please forgive me?” I forgave her.
The question now is, which is the correct view? Am I inventing an image for the Jew which is nonexistent, or have the other historians erred about their image by depicting the Jew as a downtrodden, persecuted individual throughout history? The answer is: neither. Each age portrays its history in its own image. Let me illustrate it this way; When the British historian Carlyle wrote the history of the French Revolution, he did not portray the French aristocrats as sheep marching to the guillotine. He did not ask why they did not fight back. Instead, he depicted the French noblemen as walking proudly up the steps to the guillotine, looking with contempt into the eyes of the revolutionary mob.
Now how have we treated a similar episode in Jewish history? I am talking about the concentration camps. So many of us ask why the Jews did not fight back. As I see it, this was one of the most heroic chapters in Jewish history. As I read diaries of concentration camp guards, Nazi officers who saw these executions, there was one thing that astounded them continually. The Jews did not beg for mercy; they did not quail; they were not convulsed with fear. What struck the Nazis was that the Jews marched proudly, as the French aristocrats did. The Jews marched into their tomb, looking with contempt at their persecutors.
Now this, I think, is grandeur. This, I think, is greatness. This, I think, is courage. And I think that this is the true image of the Jew–that rather than go down on his knees, he goes to his death proudly.
So, again, it is how you look at history that determines what facets of history you select. An event has no meaning in itself; it is what you bring to that event, and how you view it, that counts. I view the Jew as one of the proudest beings of history, as a man who has suffered longer because he has survived longer.
BERKOWITZ: I believe this is an appropriate thought with which to conclude. It is not wealth, it is not station, it is not social standing and ambition that can make us worthy of the Jewish name and of the Jewish heritage. To be worthy of them, we must regard ourselves as their custodians, and every Jew must feel that he is the trustee of what is best in Jewish history, a history that has lasted for 4,000 years and, Spengler and Toynbee not withstanding, will continue to live forever.