Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews

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9780142196328: Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews
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Far reaching, intellectually rich, and passionately written, Unsettled takes the whole history of Western civilization as its canvas and places onto it the Jewish people and faith. With historical insight and vivid storytelling, renowned anthropologist Melvin Konner charts how the Jews endured largely hostile (but at times accepting) cultures to shape the world around them and make their mark throughout history?from the pastoral tribes of the Bronze Age to enslavement in the Roman Empire, from the darkness of the Holocaust to the creation of Israel and the flourishing of Jews in America. With fresh interpretations of the antecedents of today?s pressing conflicts, Unsettled is a work whose modern-day reverberations could not be more relevant or timely.

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About the Author:

Melvin Konner, Ph.D., M.D., the author of nine books, is a Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, where he teaches in the anthropology, human biology, and Jewish studies programs. He has written for The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Science, and the New England Journal of Medicine.

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INTRODUCTION

Who are the Jews and why are they still here? Other people have suffered greatly; others have survived. But the Jews seem to garner a kind of attention focused on no other people. They may be unique in their accomplishments and so have often been targets of envy. They may also be unique in their standoffishness and have also been feared and resented. But there is no doubt that they are unique in the amount of attention the world has given them, now perhaps more than ever. Why? That is the mystery at the heart of this work, and it took me, and will take us, through the grand sweep of Jewish cultures in time and space.

But this is no conventional Jewish history. It makes no claim to thorough coverage of events and leaders—the standard succession of wars and treaties, speeches and conventions, is not the point here. Rather, it is to understand the cultures of the Jews, from their origins to today and even perhaps tomorrow. Of course, some standard historical facts are needed as anchor points, but the interest of anthropologists is always drawn away from kings and ministers to ordinary people: How did or do they live? What do they believe in? What are their hopes and dreams? What do they worship? What do they teach their children? What entertains and uplifts them? What threatens their survival and how do they react? How do they see themselves in a wider human world?

This approach leads to some quite different emphases than those of conventional history. Here are some of the main points this book will make:

  • Contrary to some claims, peoplehood—something quite different from religion—has been a part of Jewish identity from the beginning. It preceded by centuries Temple Judaism, the priestly religion of the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and, certainly, Torah Judaism, which the rabbis created after the Second Temple was destroyed, and it has figured in every phase of Jewish history. Notwithstanding the power of Jewish religion ancient and modern, in every generation there have been substantial numbers of Jews who did not practice Judaism yet played important roles in Jewish life.
  • The notion of the Jews as a studious, mild, ethical people who do not fight is a myth. Ancient Israel was born in violence, as were both Temple and Torah Judaism. It is true that the Jews did not have an army of their own for two millennia, but they have fought bravely and effectively in the armies of every nation they have ever lived in, even nations where they were bitterly persecuted and had to fight for the right to fight.
  • The great Jewish gifts to the world—monotheism, the Ten Commandments, resistance against tyranny—were born in weakness in a group of tribes, then a kingdom, buffeted between great empires; nurtured in a series of bitter exiles; and annealed in genocide. This produced allegiance to a single all-powerful God who could protect them, a code of laws that maintained decency in the face of perversions of power, and a searing sense of injustice.
  • The Jews did not come to Israel from anywhere else at any time. They have been there from time immemorial. They became a coherent people there, discovered God there, built a kingdom there, created the Torah there, and composed much of the Talmud there. Attempts to evict them partly succeeded, but their presence there has always been significant. Wherever they were in exile they longed to go back there, and in every generation some did. Their presence there is permanent, and future attempts to evict them will incur a huge cost.
  • At least four times ancient Israel was devastated because of Jewish factionalism, extreme religious zealotry, and military overreach. This may happen again. Recent Jewish fanaticism, mass murder, assassination, splinter cults, and messianic dreams all eerily recall the patterns of the distant past. Indeed, if that past holds any lessons and current conditions continue, modern Israel, like its ancient counterpart, will be at least as threatened from within as from without.
  • The Jews have suffered bitterly, but every generation has celebrated life every year. They have sung their warriors’ praises in joy, circumcised their sons in joy, prepared for the Sabbath in joy, danced with the Torah in joy, learned and taught it in joy, settled throughout the world in joy, and returned to their dangerous homeland in joy. They have made jokes about themselves and others, told and written funny stories, and commented on their frequently painful daily lives with a thousand lighthearted quips and proverbs. The view of the Jews as always weeping and lamenting is another myth.

    The Jews came onto the stage of history as a group of warlike tribes centered in the hill country of Judea. They were indigenous to the Jordan River region, and slowly developed from a collection of tribes into a kingdom. Like everything else in the ancient world, this involved great violence. What we call civilization was nourished by rivers of blood.

There is no evidence outside the Bible for any of the events described in it until quite late in the saga. The Creation, the Flood, the patriarchal family settling the land, the Exodus, the revelation on Mount Sinai, the wandering in the desert, or the conquest of Canaan, the Promised Land—all exist only in biblical texts. But the Bible is a document like any other. It has its own purposes and distortions, but as a wise archeologist once said, just because it is written in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong.

And of course, there are other kinds of truth. If the text of the Bible is the revealed word of God, or even the work of authors directly inspired by God, then its claims do not have to be held to any scientific or scholarly standard. I understand this kind of belief, I respect it, and I once subscribed to it myself. But it will not figure in any sense in this account of how the people of Israel lived, and how they became the Jews—except when there is independent corroborating evidence. With all due respect to believers, I write here as an anthropologist who does not believe anything that is not scientifically proven.

So what do we know? From the start the Israelites were in a buffer zone between empires, and this was formative. We can’t grasp the origins of the Jews without understanding the weakness of their physical position. The hatred of domination by foreign powers was of the essence of Israelite culture. But the Israelites had their own emperor—the one God who trumped all earthly powers. They came late to the world stage, millennia after the rise of the Near Eastern civilizations, and were no more than a footnote to ancient history. But by adopting writing and making texts central to their culture, and by placing one God at the heart of religion and ethics, the Israelites changed the world.

The destruction of their first Temple in Jerusalem and the resulting first exile brought a new kind of Judaism into being. Texts, scribes, and interpreters became all-important, longing for Jerusalem became central, adaptations to host countries were created, weakness became strength—the strength of monotheism, ethics, and speaking truth to power—and a succession of prophets constantly reminded the people of these imperatives. The Temple and its priesthood were restored; but the new religion, centered on Torah interpretation as much as on animal sacrifice, developed in parallel. Idol worship continued to be a problem, and prophets arose to decry it, but also to hold Israel’s rulers to account for their treatment of the poor. Despite the Temple’s restored glory, this concern with the weak was now permanent.

Greek culture was more tempting than Babylon’s, and the spectrum of adaptations from isolation to apostasy set the precedent for all future Jewish cultural encounters. But Greek anti- Semitism set limits on assimilation, and rabbinical Judaism was born. For the Jews at least, the ascent of Rome was a disaster, because Rome was the Stalinist Russia of its time. Severe oppression including thousands of crucifixions created seething rebellion, zealotry, messianism, and magic that gave rise to the mission of Jesus, as well as to two Jewish-Roman wars. Rome’s genocidal response to those wars ended Temple Judaism and drove most of the Jews out of their land.

Rabbinical—talmudic—Judaism was now the religion of the Jews, as they spread over much of the civilized world. But as Christianity acquired political power Jews were increasingly defined as the enemies of Christ and were treated as such—humiliated, beaten, exiled, and murdered again and again. This now helped define their culture. Jews living under Islam were also considered inferior, but enjoyed much more tolerance. Islamic culture shaped the Jews, who participated in it at all levels, and who brought the benefits of this higher culture to their central European brethren. In Islamic Spain, the Jews wrote troubadour poetry in Hebrew, served as military leaders, and made great contributions to philosophy.

They also developed a mystical tradition in Spain and Israel, paralleled by folk beliefs about imps and demons. But the mainstream of Jewish thought went through rabbinical academies, where the best minds gathered, competed, were nurtured, and were married off in every generation, creating a kind of cult of the intellect. With the opening of European secular thought to Jews, these outsiders’ contribution was way out of proportion to their numbers. They have continued to be overrepresented in every secular intellectual enterprise that humanity has turned its mind to.

Jews are not called wanderers for nothing, and their travels have reached the ends of the earth. Thriving and substantial Jewish communities existed for centuries in Arabia, Ethiopia, India, and China, while smaller numbers of Jews settled in the mountains of the Caucasus, on the island of Curaçao, and on the Alaskan frontier, to name just a few examples. Jewish communities have played a role beyond their numbers in Australia, South Africa, and Argentina. The common threads of these far-flung cultures tell us much about the essence of Jewishness. Exotic Jewish communities may not be the norm today, but they reflect the process that began Jewish life in every location outside of Israel.

Less exotically, Jews settled in central and eastern Europe, where they built the culture that dominates the Jewish world today. They created Yiddish, making it a language of everyday life as well as a literary language. They developed a variety of rabbinical traditions, and reached the pinnacle of excellence in Torah and Talmud study. These Jews were largely murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in all occupied countries. So were the Sephardic Jews of the northern Mediterranean. But enough survived to carry on most Jewish traditions. They fought against their oppressors in many ways, and they won important victories. Tempered in this crucible of death, many of the survivors were hardened fighters who would help create the state of Israel.

Jews, or at least conversos, may have come to the Americas with Columbus. By Washington’s time there were several established communities, mainly Sephardic Jews, and they committed themselves to the Revolution with blood and treasure, as Jews have done in every other war the United States has fought. This was the greatest diaspora, and the one in which Jewish life would become most normal. The huge influx of Ashkenazic Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries transformed them and their new country both. Their (mainly temporary) involvement in organized crime, their immense contribution to entertainment and the arts, and their achievements in science, technology, and business brought respect. But it was their continual legal testing of America’s stated ideals, both on their own behalf and that of others, that would be their greatest contribution.

Beginning in the nineteenth century the ages-old trickle of Jews back to Israel widened to a rivulet, then a stream, then a river. Legendary fights against swamps, malaria, and hostile Arabs marked several generations. The kibbutz, the world’s most successful invented society, played a critical role in addressing these and other challenges. Hebrew was revived as a modern language, the only ancient language that has ever been reborn. A culture of sacrifice and militancy arose to protect this fragile entity from its far more numerous enemies. But great divisions created tensions and inequalities, not least with respect to whether and when the Palestinian people will have a state of their own.

Despite men’s domination of Jewish life, women have emerged from the shadows since biblical times. They have led armies, defied kings, contributed to the Talmud, built multinational business empires, written memoirs and letters, resettled Israel, led it, given their lives in heroic actions against their enemies, helped end apartheid in South Africa and segregation in America, sat in the Senate and on the Supreme Court, and helped create the labor movement and the feminist revolution—all while producing the next generation of Jews. However, the history of Jewish women is in some ways just beginning.

Jewish life will survive future threats just as it has survived all past ones. Jews have suffered, but not lying down. They have a tradition of arguing with God, and have pursued social justice by arguing with kings. They will continue to be hated, to achieve great things for themselves and others, to defend their ancient homeland, and to face the world with the proud yet open-minded stance that has allowed them to survive for more than three millennia. There is every reason to believe that they will be here for the next.

3

While this is an anthropologist’s view of Jewish culture and history, it is also inevitably a personal view, and so it seems wise to say who I am. I was born in Brooklyn and raised in a “modern Orthodox” family. I went to public schools where about a third of the students were Jewish, and I was in the local Orthodox synagogue—Ahavath Israel, Avenue K and East Twenty- ninth Street—every day of my life between ages eight and seventeen, five days a week for classes, the other days for services. The leader of that congregation, Rabbi Bernard L. Berzon, remains incandescent in my memory four decades later. Friday evenings in his home were almost as likely to include discussions of Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky as Talmud and Torah. But he glowed with a love for the Jewish people, the Jewish Torah, and the Jewish God.

I lost my faith at seventeen amid the rebellions of the sixties, a philosophy course in my first semester in college, and of course a great love. At the beginning of that semester I used to walk halfway across Brooklyn to see the young lady on Friday nights; at the end of it I no longer saw the meaning of God. I never regained my faith, and I was largely out of touch with anything Jewish for fifteen years. I had reconstructed a worldview based on science—evolution, anthropology, and behavioral biology would eventually explain my nature and that of every other human being. But unlike some nonbelievers, I considered my loss of faith precisely that—a loss.

Still, I maintained what I considered a strong inner Jewish identity. With my name, average looks, and nondis...

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