You’ve probably answered this b4, but who was the Pharaoh of and what date do you think was the Exodus? I like the Amarna period and the one God people all got exiled to Canaan … but so many theories.

Note Before I Answer: This is not a political response, nor is it a religious one.

Short Answer: According to my readings of the Hebrew Bible, Ancient Near Eastern myths, contemporary archaeological works, Biblical scholarly literature, and the history of the Levant in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age, I am of the opinion that the story conveyed in Exodus–>Joshua never happened. I also might be wrong.

Long Answer: 

There’s this thing called the Documentary Hypothesis, founded by Julius Wellhausen, and recently expanded upon by Richard Elliott Friedman. There is no scholarly consensus on the veracity of the Hypothesis, but it makes the most sense to me when placed alongside the archaeological records, the known historical record, and Sumerian (etc) myth cycles. The very short and sweet explanation of the Documentary Hypothesis is that there are four main narrative strands within the Hebrew Bible: the J Source, E source, D Source, and P Source. Plus the Redactor. The J (“Yahwist”) and E (Elohist) sources are the oldest. J represents the oral history, mythos, etc of what would become the southern Kingdom of Judah, and E represents the same for the northern Kingdom of Israel. The two sources were combined by the D Source, the “Deuteronomist” sometimes after the fall of Israel to the Neo-Assyrain Empire in 721 BCE. The P Source is the “Priestly” source and it’s not really relevant to this particular conversation

The D Source’s combining of J and E wasn’t just about creating a compendium of myth, or folk religion, or oral history, it was about asserting the political and spiritual dominance of the Kingdom of Judah over the Kingdom of Israel, and hegemonizing Israelite worship practices from polytheistic to hardcore monotheistic. So, in Genesis we see a lot of cosmological and general mythological archetypes which, if you knew where to look, reflect aspects of God/Goddess cycles from all across Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Ancient Near East. (Check out my posts from 2011 and 2012 to learn more about how Genesis is secretly about a life goddess murdering some guy who kept stealing shit from her garden and banging his granddaughters)(that’s a hyperbolic assessment)

So Genesis happens blah blah blah, and then Joseph heads down to Egypt, his fam follows, time flies, and then came a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph etc the Israelites left Egypt, wandered the desert for 40 years, then blew down the walls of Jericho under Joshua, slaughtered all the Canaanites and took back the Promised Land. A grand, epic ending to a super-long Israelite cosmology.

Except, according to Joshua, the Israelites were supposed to have destroyed a large number of Canaanite cities within a fairly small period of time. But the archaeological record of those cities show destruction layers hundreds of years apart, even within the larger 1100-1300 BCE timeframe typically used to look for a historical Exodus situation. And to make things even more awkward, the Book of Judges is supposed to happen after the Book of Joshua. Except, in the Book of Judges, the various Israelite clans very obviously live alongside Canaanites and Philistines. And they don’t even have hegemony over Canaan, like, most of the Book of Judges is about Israelite groups getting into border skirmishes with Canaanites. Who, according to Joshua, were supposed to be dead.

Awkward, but there’s an explanation.

There’s an archaeological theory called the Israelites as Canaanites theory, and it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. According to this theory, there was no Exodus, and the proto-Israelites never left the Levant; the Israelites WERE Canaanites. During the Bronze Age, the Levant was pretty evenly split between Egypt and the Hittite Empire, possibly leading to a memory of life under Egyptian rule which the D Source used as inspiration for the Exodus. The Bronze Age Collapse left the Levant in a bit of a power vacuum. That power vacuum opened the door for new groups and peoples to form identities, and claim territories, and have border disputes and form like, little backwater kingdoms for the Neo-Assyrians to laugh at.*

According to archaeologist William Dever, sometime around 1200 BCE, evidence starts to show up in the archaeological record of something new happening in the central Judean hill country: semi-permanent circular settlements, removed from other Canaanite sites of the period, with no evidence of pork consumption. The archaeological record does not show evidence of a new group entering Canaan, but it does show evidence of a new material culture growing in the highlands.

If we are to understand Judges as a compendium of oral history, verse, myth, legend, and regional adapted archetypes from the pre-monarchical Israelite past, then that past is one of slow emergence and separation, not of dramatic racial and territorial conquest. And honestly, how do you go from winning a glorious genocidal campaign under one ruler to fighting a vague series of clan and border disputes within a loosely organized tribal society ruled by a warrior/mystic figure? Well, you kind of don’t. At least, not within a year.

So, that’s how Biblical textual analysis, ancient near eastern history and mythology, and the archaeological record come together for me to lead me to view that Exodus, the grand Israelite cosmology as conveyed in the Genesis-Joshua, didn’t happen. At least, not the way it is described, and not the way we think about it.

Now, further reading because you know I don’t pull this out of my ass ok:

Old Testament Parallels (New Revised and Expanded Third Edition): Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East by Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History) by Eric Cline

From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible by Eric Cline

Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William Dever

Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel by William Dever

The End of the Bronze Age by Robert Drews

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein

Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Eliot Friedman

A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, Second Edition by J. Maxwell Miller and John Haralson Hayes

A Brief History of Ancient Israel by Victor H. Matthews

The Social History of Ancient Israel: An Introduction by Rainer Kessler

A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC [Blackwell History of the Ancient World Ser.] by Marc Van De Mieroop

The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age by Assaf Yasur-Landau

*I’m going to Jew hell for that one.

The sea peoples of the Bronze Age Collapse™ sound like something Buzzfeed would write. Do we actually have no clue where they come from or is it one of these over-hyped non-mysteries like the crystal skulls ?

Just fyi, this is not intended to be one of my hardcore scholarly posts, and it has been quite a few years since I’ve looked deeply into these issues. This response is more like I’m your quirky grandma pounding wine over lunch.

So, the Sea Peoples. You know how when you’re younger you think it was The
Barbarians who caused Rome to Fall in 476, but then you get older and
eventually learn that the “Barbarians” were actually hardcore Romanized and a
massive empire can’t just fall in one year because of one group of icky
outsiders anyway? Well, the “Sea Peoples” are to the Bronze Age Collapse as the “Barbarians” are to the Fall of Rome.

The Eastern Mediterranean Empires of the Late Bronze Age were a series of highly cosmopolitan, internationalized, and interconnected economic and political system ranging from Ancient Greece, to Asia Minor, to Egypt, to Sumeria. Complex systems like
that take a long time to build up, and require a lot of little problems building up over a span over the course of years to cause a widespread collapse. And when we say
“collapse” I think it’s incorrect to think of just cities being destroyed. By “collapse” I
mean the breakdown of international trade routes and economic systems and
systems of communication.

So as for what actually happened. We have primary resources; a lot in fact. We have a rich archaeological record, linguistic evidence, not to mention evidence from
geologists and climatologists. But these pieces of evidence tell a lot of little stories which only together could form a situation in which all that infrastructure could totally break down.

There were climate related problems; droughts, for example, unusual flooding patterns. There was unusually heavy volcanic and seismic activity. Some of the trade routes were impacted by these natural occurrences, causing minute snafus over a variety of interconnected economic systems, leading to a lot of big economic snafus over time. Empires were dealing with civil unrest and rebellions, undoubtedly partial results of the earthquakes and droughts and economic issues.

Though I’m primarily speaking of Sumeria and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western and Central Mediterranean were hardly isolated from these economic and natural incidents, and these dominant international systems. Peoples of the West and Central Mediterranean responded to these disruptions by migrating east to the great imperial centers, which where all lowkey already breaking down.

These migrants, the “Sea Peoples,” likely settled and assimilated into into the civilizations they are purported to have destroyed. Some, I’m sure, were met with hostility upon their arrival. Others wanted to relocate politically and engaged in warfare, and others still wanted to plunder these slowly failing economies for all they were worth. So really, the “Sea Peoples” were multiple groups of migrants from dispersed areas migrating to a massive geographical area in a series of waves in response to a widespread set of structural problems. Meaning, that they were reacting to a set of pre-existing problems, not causing them.

Also, a lot of archaeological and linguistic evidence points to the “Sea Peoples” being of Etruscan and Aegean descent and I can’t tell you how much that thrills me.

Secondary Sources: http://historicity-was-already-taken.tumblr.com/Jewish%20History%20Bibliography#Bronze%20Age%20Collapse-Babylonian%20Exile

Teaching the Thirty Years’ War

imoldbutimstillintothat

How was it [The Thirty Years’ War] taught?

For anyone who wasn’t awake at 3am EST 8/6/2017, I posted this: “It’s 3am, I can’t sleep, and I’m really mad about how the Thirty Years’ War was taught in my c. 2005 AP Euro class.”

So before I answer, here are two caveats: I’m not an Early Modernist, so feel free to come for me if I’m wrong about something, and GIANT HONKING FLUORESCENT LIGHT TRIGGER WARNING FOR DISCUSSION OF TORTURE, GENOCIDE, AND HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES* NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED.

So, the thing about me is that I’m weirdly intellectually attracted to historical events that make me physically ill to read/think about. But I can’t stop. I mean exhibit 1: the Holocaust, the black hole around which 90% of my historical inquiry revolves. I’ve stayed up at all hours reading about the intricacies of the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, the horrific human rights abuses committed by the Japanese in the China and Korea from ~1910 on (google “Unit 731″ if you feel like giving yourself a panic attack), the shit Spain pulled on the existing population during its already violent and disgusting conquest of South America, etc.

I was taught the Thirty Years’ War and….the entire Early Modern period in said AP European History class as one big intellectual exercise between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Like, a REALLY BORING intellectual exercise. Very sanitized, and the only thing I remembered for YEARS was that some dude named Gustavus Adolphus did something.

In reality, the Thirty Years’ War was a horrifically violent conflict in which varying European powers basically decimated the “German” interior (quotes because #anachronism) and created the first mass refugee movements (#anachronism), as we think of them today (fyi this is an ass-pull; I don’t even know how to talk about refugees pre ~1850). It was about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, meaning that it was about the balance of power in Western and Central Europe. Which means that it was about politics. It involved use of mercenaries who gave even fewer fucks than you can probably imagine about civilians (#anachronism). If you go to that War’s wikipedia page you’ll see these horrific images of people (mercenaries, mostly)…..abusing other people’s human rights (#anachronism). Not to mention the witch trials it spawned, etc.

So I’m mad about it as a historian because the really political and therefore military import of the Reformation and Counter Reformation should not have been under-emphasized, and I’m mad about it as the weird, morbid person that I am because I don’t like it when the reality of people’s suffering is white-washed. Even if those people consist of a population group to whom I’d be so 100% alien that I’d probably be tried as a witch.

And there’s my answer. Also, this post is waaaay less scholarly than I prefer, so I may delete it later if it feels too off the cuff (you can tell I have a headache because I didn’t spend two weeks researching the histories and of human rights and refugees and ALL the associated interdisciplinary literature before answering).

*I have a headache from the fact that I didn’t fall asleep until 5am and didn’t let myself sleep past 10 so I am going to use this term anachronistically and you’re gonna have to deal with it. “You” being “me.” I hate being anachronistic.

Hi, I’ve been reading about nationalism and identity and a book I read argues that nations are an imaginary construct and I was wondering how this would effect the way history is viewed. Also, for you, how significant are the values a country has in the way that a country presents itself? Should there be a shared history for shared values? Apologies for this being quite long

Was the book Imagined Communities? That is an excellent book, but what you need to keep in mind is that, as a historian, theory is not intended to stand in as a narrative for us to fit facts into, but as a tool which allows us to find the language to understand events and ask questions. But it is still an ahistorical narrative, and we have to be careful not to treat it as fact.

That said, I think it provides a helpful way to look at aspects of modern history. Now I’m gonna be real for a minute and tell you that my response is about to get hella Euro-centric.

In the Early Modern period through the beginning of the twentieth century, we saw the rise of the diverse, multinational empire. Those empires broke apart over the course of the twentieth century, and splintered into the nation-state; a political entity held together not by imperial bureaucracy, but by the idea of a shared historical identity and experiences. For that nation-state to sustain itself, there must be an other–a group which does not share that identity and those experiences–for the nation-state to define itself against. We also saw in the twentieth century, in the form of the Yugoslav Wars, the logical endpoint of the ethnic nation-state: genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the idea of the ethnically homogeneous nation-state is tearing apart at the seams as the globalized environment fractures. Nation-states are confronting ethnic, national, and racial diversity, forcing them to wrestle with how to accommodate the “other.” This is why you hear people (like me, alas) referring to the contemporary global environment as “post-modern.” It is also why so many “Western” nations are having a collective violent temper tantrum.

As you can see from what I just wrote, the discourse on the nation and identity etc provides a helpful lens by which to view the last 500 or so years of history. But the fact that it’s helpful doesn’t make it true. Every issue I addressed above is 1000x more complex than my two paragraphs will ever be able to convey, and that’s why the theory is a helpful way of processing large periods of history. But as your analysis becomes deeper and more nuanced, this theoretical framework may (and probably should) feel more and more remote and overly simple to your analysis.

As for the last part of your question: “Should there be a shared history for shared values?“

That, to me, implies, that I can just imagine a past. Ethno-national groups do imagine their pasts, absolutely (if you get me drunk enough, you are likely to hear me yelling about how I’m mad at Ancient Rome for fucking with my people ~2000 years ago), but those pasts are nothing more than a collection of narratives strung together to serve some sort of ideological purpose. The reality of history is that one million narratives and chains of interaction are ongoing at any moment in time, and that historians can only incrementally understand them through careful questioning and analysis.

And as for “shared values,” aren’t those just as false as an imagined past?

I hope this answer was helpful; don’t hesitate to ask follow-up questions if you have any.

Some titles you might enjoy in relation to this line of questioning include:

Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Dipesh Chakrabarty

The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Partha Chatterjee

Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World by Eric Foner

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis

Writing History in the Global Era by Lynn Hunt

Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge by George G. Iggers

Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea by Rosalind Morris

Gender and the Politics of History by Joan Scott

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

A reader wrote:

I spotted this exhibition (“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum) on the first floor corridor of the main building of the University of Basel the other day. Apparently the Confucius Institute at the University of Basel organised the exhibition here (the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, which is only two blocks away from the University, is not involved). Do you know anything about this exhibition?

I do. And as you may expect, I have some very strong feelings about it.

My problem with the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and that traveling
exhibit is that they both rest on a narrative of saviorism. And that narrative is false.

When the Central and Eastern European Jewish refugees began arriving in Shanghai in 1938, they were allowed in not because the city’s governments wanted nothing more than to save the Jews, but because the city lacked a united government that would be able to keep them out. By 1938, the city existed as three separately governed polities with Great Britain, the United States, France, and Japan as the main power holders. All three governments attempted to devise exclusionary policies, but the divided nature of the city governance created a situation in which neither these policies nor passport control
could be enforced to effectively keep Jewish refugees out of the city.

The Communist Party of China won the Chinese Civil War in 1950. Under the rule of Mao Zedong, most evidence of the Jewish refugees and their built environment was erased, their cemeteries built over, and their buildings re-purposed. The Jewish refugees and their historical experience in Shanghai had no place within the new post-imperialist Chinese state. This began to change in 1991.

In 1991, China officially recognized the State of Israel. In 2004, the government of Shanghai designated the Ohel Moshe synagogue—built by the Russian Jewish community of Shanghai in 1927 and later used by the WWII-era refugees—as an architectural treasure. In 2007, the People’s Government of the Hongkew District budgeted for a full renovation of the synagogue in accordance with its original architectural drawings. When the renovation was complete the government installed in the space the brand new Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. In 2008 the museum featured an exhibit dedicated to developments in the Sino-Israeli relationship; its website boasted:

“Mr. Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, commented during his visit to Shanghai, ‘To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.’”

In 2012, historian Irene Eber wrote:

“Chinese interest in Jews and Israel as well as in Jews who once lived among them is
widespread today. Not only scholarly works, but also a number of recent popular publications support this interest. Several universities have Jewish Studies Institutes and visiting professors teach courses on Jewish topics. Translation work is flourishing and books on Jewish topics and fiction by major Israeli novelists are being translated. A new and very different chapter in Chinese-Jewish relations has begun.”

This is the context in which the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum must be understood.

The Museum’s website reads:

“From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai became a modern-day ‘Noah’s Ark’ accepting…Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. In the ‘Designated Area for Stateless Refugees’…about 20,000 Jewish refugees lived harmoniously with local citizens, overcoming numerous difficulties together…Dr. David Kranzler, a noted Holocaust historian…commented that within the Jewry’s greatest tragedy, i.e. the Holocaust, there shone a few bright lights. Among the brightest of these is the Shanghai haven…the original features of the Jewish settlement are still well preserved. They are the only typical historic traces of Jewish refugee life inside China during the Second World War…[Hongkew] was the place where Jewish refugees lived in greatest concentration during the Second World War…in those days. Mr. Michael Blumenthal, ex-Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and the present curator of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, once lived in a small garret at 59 Zhoushan Road.”

As geopolitics move China and Israel together, the history of this refugee community suddenly has a place within the history of the Chinese state; it is no longer a forgotten moment in the imperialist chapter of Chinese history, but a piece of history which demonstrates China’s enduring interest in and care for the Jewish people.

The museum’s narrative is clear: Shanghai was a Noah’s Ark, not a city which, by accident of its history, had on opening into which ~20,000 Jews could squeeze; the Jews and the Chinese lived in harmony, not in separate communities which rarely interacted; the Chinese government is the preserver–the savior–of the history of the WWII-era Jewish refugees, not the Mao-era destroyer.

In the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, Shanghai is legitimized not simply as a place where Jewish refugees spent the years before, during, and after the Second World War, but as a space in which the refugees were actively saved. This museum, then, neither serves the memory nor speaks to the experiences of the refugees, but instead speaks to and serves contemporary Chinese political interests.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum currently has a traveling exhibit making the rounds with the cooperation of a variety of non-profit organizations. This, of course, is what you encountered at your university.

I attended the Capitol Hill kick-off event for that exhibit; one of my professors got me on the invite list. The event really had nothing to do with the historical experience of the Jewish refugees who spent ~1938-1950 in Shanghai. To be quite honest, it made me angry and upset, especially on the behalf of several former Shanghai refugees present. The event was filled with giggling Congressional staffers and interns who were only there for the free wine and food, and the exhibit got several simple facts wrong.

And then the speeches started. They had nothing to do with history. But, they did have a lot do with the relationships between the United States, China, and Israel, with a
little Japan thrown in as well.

Was it naive of me to be as taken off guard as I was? Yes. Should I have been surprised considering what I already knew about the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum? No. Am I well aware of the fact that the identities of and relationships between modern nation-states in the context of global capitalism are all about narratives and myth making? Yes. Am I still annoyed by that exhibit? Absolutely.

I’m glad that more people are becoming aware of this history, and I am glad that, despite the motivations, the Chinese government is preserving the history of this community and offering resources for researchers. I love that so many people in China are becoming more aware of and demonstrating a growing interest in Jewish history in China.

But I’m a historian and this is my research. I want to see those refugees and their memory put out there because they’re an important and fascinating piece of Holocaust history, not because they’re politically useful. But, here we are.

And those are my feelings on that museum and that exhibit.

What do you know about Jewish perceptions of the Japanese between 1938/39 and 1943? Once they were confined to the ghetto it seems like they pretty much feared/hated the Japanese especially Ghoya. What about when they lived in the French Concession?

Before they were restricted to Hongkew, their attitude toward the Japanese was mainly based on how the Japanese treated other groups who lived in Shanghai.

After Pearl Harbor, Japan stepped out from behind its Chinese puppet government of Shanghai and declared rule over the whole city. They interned “enemy nationals,” which tended to mean the French, British, Americans, and other Europeans. This negatively impacted the Jewish refugees in two ways: those “enemy nationals” ran and taught a lot of the schools refugee children attended, and they provided jobs and a client base for many of the refugees. And of course friendships had formed over the years. So it was a bit of a personal blow as well as an economic/cultural one.

After the Japanese took control of the city, many of the refugees remarked on how horrified they were by how the Japanese treated the Chinese, many of whom had fled to Shanghai from the interior years earlier to get away from the Japanese. One person vividly remembered seeing a Japanese soldier ram a bayonet through the stomach of a pregnant Chinese woman. And having spent between 5-8 year in Hitler’s Germany before booking passage to Shanghai, I’m certain that witnessing this treatment was doubly traumatic.

As for the 1943-1945 Hongkew period, Ghoya was kind to children. And he was kinder in general than Okura, the other officer in charge of issuing passes in and out of Hongkew. However, he clearly loved his power over the refugees and loved making them wait in line for hours in the summer and lorded it over them whenever possible. I mean the guy once looked at a picture of Napoleon and said something along the lines of “That was a great man, but I greater. I am King of the Jews.” So like. Okay, Ghoya.

The big thing with him was that he was extremely violent and hostile towards refugee men who were taller than him. And many of those men had done time in Dachau before a family member sprung them, so Ghoya’s behavior was definitely, as we would say today, triggering.

While a lot of them probably would have been like “I hate Ghoya so much” between 1943-1945, they didn’t learn about the Holocaust until after the war, as they had been isolated from the rest of the world since 1941, and Hitler didn’t implement the Final Solution until that year. So, when they learned about the Holocaust, their first general response (I mean after the shock, grief, and disbelief) was “well the Japanese could have killed us but they didn’t we died of infectious diseases and parasites and suicide and starvation and temperature related stuff but no one tried to kill us, so SHANGHAI SAVED US.” That’s why you see so many memoirs with titles like “Shanghai Haven/Refuge” etc.

I don’t believe that life in the French Concession had any particular effect on Jewish attitudes towards the Japanese. Though they did develop some antipathy towards red centipedes.

The Jewish Enlightenment: A Brief Overview

there was a jewish enlightenment?
I would like to hear more about the Jewish Enlightenment

Oh yes there was, and I am beyond willing to do a deep dive!

It’s fairly long complex process, so I’ll give you a general rundown, and then after reading it, you (or any interested party) can tell me what aspects you’d like to hear more about (if any) and I can write more specific posts for you.

So, after the general European Enlightenment, rulers of various German polities were like “Hey, now that we’re Enlightened, maybe we should stop treating the Jews like crap?” and then others were like “Yeah and once they see how great it is to be part of German society they’ll convert to Christianity and this be officially part of The State(tm)! What a great plan!” So over the course of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries, you see the rulers of various German polities emancipating their Jews.

Some Jews were not interested in becoming part of German society, but others, like Moses Mendelssohn, embraced the opportunity, perceiving acculturation as a path out of oppression. Mendelssohn was one of the, if not the, founding thinkers of the Jewish Enlightenment, and his writings and the intellectual circles he founded influenced most post-Emancipation German Jewish thought and behavior in bourgeois circles. The Hebrew term for the Jewish Enlightenment is Haskalah.

While it did result in conversions to Christianity—especially amongst Jewish women—it also led to the German Jewish Reform Movement, created unique patterns of assimilation, and significantly altered Jewish conceptions of gender. German Jewish Enlightenment thinking and action is part of the reason why the actions of the Nazi Party took the Jews so by surprise in the 1930s, and is part of the reason why the German Jews had so much trouble taking Hitler seriously, at least in the early years.

The Haskalah reached Eastern European Jewry in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century—a fictionalization of this process may be seen in Fiddler on the Roof; the daughter who sings “Far From the Home I Love” marries a maskil, or a secular scholar of the haskalah. In Eastern Europe, the haskalah intersected with the embrace of revolutionary and socialist ideals.

As German and Eastern European Jewry immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1920, their encounters with the haskalah in Europe affected the processes of assimilation they underwent in America.

Given that history was written by the winners (i.e., men), where do you find your primary source material about women? I’ve done some work around women in the middle ages, but it seems to me that you’ve taken on some rather more daunting periods. How do you look for what’s invisible?

It is not a given that history was written by “the victors.” History was written by historians; primary sources were written by those in privileged positions (“the winners”). I have written about this quite a bit, so you might want to peruse the archive. I have also made quite a few posts about historical methodology.

The short answer is that historians look at primary sources only after mastering the era. We know what was happening, who was in power, how power was wielded, etc. Then we look at the document and ask who was writing, what place in society this person held, why they were writing it, who they were writing it for, etc. We then analyze it, or attempt to determine its meaning through the bringing together of our contextual knowledge and our documentary analysis.

Secondly, sources written and concerned with women are most certainly not invisible. For more modern periods there are letters, memoirs, photos diaries, legal documents, etc. For less modern periods there are occasional letters and diaries, writings, law codes, observational literature, religious commentary, and so forth. All of this can help historians understand what women were doing in varying periods.

I can’t really give you an answer more specific than that because there are so many historical periods and so many different types of source material. Every field and subfield have their own sub-methodologies depending upon the available source material.

If you can narrow your query I may be able to give a less generalized response.

since your expertise lies more in jewry, could you possibly give an (albeit stunted and too short for the subject matter) analysis on why judaism developed monotheism and other cultures did not?

The people known as the Israelites weren’t special or exceptional; they were just another group of semi-nomadic Iron Age Canaanites (for more on this refer to the series of “Passover” posts from April 2011, or to the works of William Dever on my Further Reading page as linked above). They were arranged in a loose confederation of tribes and often had wars and alliances with other Canaanite groups.

They reached a point at around the eleventh century at which the tribal leadership was no longer effective, so they agreed to put themselves under the rule of a king chosen by the tribal leaders. The first king was Saul, and then came David, who usurped Saul’s line. After the death of David’s son Solomon, the northern tribes rebelled against the Davidic line, leading to the formation of two polities: The Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah.

So there’s a historical backdrop for you.

As Canaanites, the Israelites were polytheists. They primarily worshiped Ba’al, Astarte, El, Yahweh, and Asherah. There were more, but those are the most important ones. If you pick up the Bible and look at the books of Judges-II Kings, you’ll see that the author of these books worked very hard to convey the idea of Israelite society as a strictly polytheistic one. However, what can actually be seen in those books is a picture of a society with two distinct forms of worship: there was the Israelite folk religion—in which Ba’al and Asherah etc were worshiped alongside Yahweh—and then there was the religion of the Jerusalem elites who worshiped only Yahweh. In some cases isn’t wasn’t just folk religion: as you’ve seen in the post linked above, worship of Asherah was so widespread that her symbology was present in the Temple.

All of this changed around the eighth century BCE after the 722 fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrian Empire. There came into power within the priesthood a group referred to by scholars as the Yahweh Alone Party. This group was comprised of religious radicals who wanted to institute two things throughout Israelite society 1) worship of Yahweh as the sole deity, and 2) the idea that Yahweh could only be worshiped in Temple in Jerusalem; the writer of Deuteronomy-most of II Kings was a member of this group.

This group instituted a series of reforms which included the destruction of unsanctioned places of worship, the removal of Asherah’s presence from the Temple, the destruction of Asherah poles and alters to Ba’al, and the fusion of El and Yahweh into a singular deity.

However, these reforms were hardly effective. The people continued to worship as they pleased (albeit in a quiet manner) while the King of Judah and the Jerusalem priesthood went about their business, worshiping only Yahweh and pretending that the people did as well.

As you can see, that still wasn’t close to monotheism as we currently understand the term. The event which dramatically changed Israelite/Judahite religion from a form of varied polytheism into strict monotheism came in 586 BCE: the Babylonian Exile. In this year, the Babylonian Empire conquered Judah, destroyed the Temple, and shipped off the majority of the population to Babylon. There, the Judahites were a minority. As a minority they were faced with a question: do they assimilate and cease to be Judahites, or do they forge an enduring identity to ensure the continuation of their existence in exile?

They chose the latter. A big part of the formation of this identity was final abandonment of the worship of the old gods, and the full acceptance of monotheism with Yahweh at the center of their worship. Another aspect of this identity formulation included the determination of how Yahweh could be worshiped without the Temple; the solution to this was the writing of the Bablyonian Talmud.

When Persia conquered Babylon less than 100 years after Babylon’s conquest of Judah, the Persian emperor allowed the “Yehudites” to return under limited self-rule to the Province of Yehuda. Some returned and some stayed; what these two communities now had in common was that they worshiped Yahweh. As history went on and Exile turned to Diaspora, this monotheism and the forms of worship contained in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds became the factor which continued to distinguish Jews, far flung as they came to be.

So there’s your answer: the Babylonian Exile created a situation in which proto-Jews realized that they had to unify lest they be destroyed. They chose to unify, and with this unification came the full acceptance of monotheism. This monotheism was still a very ancient form of what we now call “Judaism,” but that’s how Jewish monotheism came to be. At least, that’s the short version of how that form of monotheism came to be.

even if a source is one sided why is it still useful to an historian?

Historians are experts in their fields. A historian whose field is, say, Euro-African relations on the West Coast of Africa in the seventeenth century will know exactly who all the major players are, why they are there, where they came from, their motivations in being there, their relations with each other, etc. That information is called context. Context is used to make sense of primary source documents.

Primary source documents are often one-sided, but because the historians studying the document in question understand the context from which it came, they are able to productively analyze and ask questions of the document. This allows them to read between the lines of the document and strip away the document’s bias to see what the document is actually saying, or, what the document really means within its context.

Primary source documents are the lifeblood of the historical discipline. Without them history as a discipline would not exist. The majority of primary sources are one-sided, thus, if historians were to reject the historical importance of one-sided documents, our understanding and knowledge of the past would be severely limited.