Sunday, June 25, 2017

Book Review: 'Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews' by Melvin Konner

Review by mole333 (Nom de plume)
I have shared with this community my ongoing and very personal search for my Jewish heritage and identity more than once, most recently, lovingly and visually in a diary based on a talk I gave at a Jewish Genealogical conference.
What I have not shared as much is the academic backdrop to this personal search. I am inspired to share this academic backdrop with you as I reread one of the books that is key to this backdrop: Melvin Konner’s 2003 book Unsettled. This book is billed as an "anthropology of the Jews" and covers the entire panorama of Jewish existence at least to some degree. It is primarily this book I want to share with you. Hopefully this will be of interest to many around here. I know my earlier discussions of my attempts to save a Latvian synagogue were well received. I hope this intellectual rambling will be as well.
First I want to also mention a few other books that complement Unsettled as what I would consider "must read" books for an understanding of Jews as a people. Most particularly I consider Israel Finkelstein’s iconoclastic book The Bible Unearthed a must read. It is considered one of the more radical interpretations of the archaeological evidence, but it by and large rings true to me particularly in light of the far less radical work The Canaanites, by Jonathan N. Tubb, which I read at about the same time as The Bible Unearthed. I found the evidence presented in each work to dovetail very nicely and reading The Canaanites gave me a better appreciation for The Bible Unearthed. Two supposedly counter-views to Finkelstein’s work were written by William G. Dever, Who Were and What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Oddly, to me Dever comes off far more in agreement with Finkelstein than at odds with him and it seems to me that Dever obsesses over differences with Finkelstein in much so that he felt the need to write TWO books more or less directly addressing Finkelstein’s work. But reading Dever’s view as a partial counterpoint to Finkelstein’s book is well worthwhile. Together, these four books, perhaps with the additional Finkelstein book David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition, are to me key books for understanding the origins of Israel and the Jews and I cannot stress enough how important this is to an understanding of being Jewish. Jews are nothing if not obsessed with the thousands of years of tradition that they are a part of and reading these archaeological works gives you a very good sense of what that tradition really is. Judaism was NOT at its start a monotheistic religion, for example. But it WAS a religion that shunned the eating of pork.
It is with this basis in archaeology that I come to the book Unsettled. Those archaeological works give me my grounding in the origins of origins. Unsettled gave me a broad overview of the entire sweep of Jewish history since that origin right down to the identity crisis that I feel is at the root of being Jewish.
Mel Konner begins his book in a fairly provocative way by asking why the Jews survived and why do they garner so much more attention in the modern world than their relatively small numbers would seem to warrant. Or, as he puts it:
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...there is no doubt that they are unique in the amount of attention the world has given them, now perhaps more than ever.
When you consider that monotheism as we know it was invented by Jews (though probably not as early as everyone likes to pretend) and it was this invention that gave us Christianity and Islam, which currently dominate most of the world and have for centuries, that may be reason enough for the attention Jews have received. Both Christianity and Islam have an ambivalent relationship with Judaism. Having arisen from Judaism there is undeniably a debt owed. And yet, given the claim to universality both Christianity and Islam have, the continued existence of Judaism can be seen as a challenge, a stubborn refusal of some people to accept the newer, more universalist forms of monotheism. How is it that this stubborn relic of monotheism remains not only surviving, but in many ways more influential beyond their numbers?
Konner and I share many of the same views of being Jewish. But Konner comes from a much more solid grounding in Jewish faith than I ever have. I have been secular from birth. Konner was raised Orthodox Jewish before discovering secularism. But in the end we both, partly inspired by having children, have become obsessed with reconciling that secularism and lack of faith with a deep, deep sense of being Jewish.
Among the main points (some quoted below from his introduction) made by Konner in Unsettled, a few seem key to me and resonate the most with me. First of all there is his first main point:
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, and, certainly, Torah Judaism, which the rabbis created after the Second Temple was destroyed, and it has figured in every phase of Jewish history.
This is why the identity crisis is so important to being Jewish to me. Judaism is a religion. But I am not religious. Yet I am Jewish. It is this sense of peoplehood, and the ongoing search for what that means, that defined Judaism to me. In this context, Konner’s description of his life’s journey through this identity crisis resonate with me, minus the earliest phase of his journey. Again, from his introduction:
I lost my faith at seventeen...I had reconstructed a worldview based on science—evolution, anthropology, and behavioral biology...
Still, I maintained what I considered a strong inner Jewish identity...I always found an excuse to let people know that I was Jewish. During those years I read extensively about the Holocaust, married someone at least nominally Jewish, followed [Jewish literature], and ate bagels and lox...
Yes...even eating bagels and lox (which isn’t even kosher) is an act of Jewish identity for those of us who feel a Jewish identity.
...when my first child was born, I was ready for a Jewish reawakening...As Chanukah approached, I looked into my daughter’s eyes and asked myself, "Are three thousand years of tradition going to end with me..."
My personal search into my Jewish identity started before my son was born. But I think the same question entered my head. But for me it was more than this, and here is one place where I differ in emphasis from Konner. I wanted to understand my Jewish identity not just because of the flow of tradition from three thousand years into my son, but because it is part of genes, my heritage, my life. As I have quoted before, a friend of mine, Bill Batson, put it this way: "If you take away a person’s heritage, you can do anything you want to them." He said this in relation to black heritage in Brooklyn, but it resonated with my Jewish heritage.
Another main point Konner makes in Unsettled is:
The Jews did not come to Israel from anywhere else at any time. They have been there from time immemorial. They become 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 huge costs.
It is in this context that the archaeological works I mention above are critical, because this is the conclusion from most of them, particularly in the context of the work on the Canaanites. Jews are descendents of Canaanites. The archaeology tells us that. Genetics tells us that. Canaanites seem to have been the original natives of that land. Jews, though from time to time mixing with other people, are natives of the land of Palestine and Israel. And, I would add, that archaeology and genetics also tell us that the same statements apply to the Palestinians as well. Israelis and Palestinians have been uneasily sharing that little scrap of land for thousands of years and are, genetically speaking, cousins. There is evidence of outside influences on each population, but ultimately modern genetics confirm that the two groups are very closely related, more related than either is to neighboring groups like the Arabs.
Israelis and Palestinians are both modern Canaanites and are native to the land they fight over and to me that gives both populations equal claim. Similar equality of claim stems from the fact that neither nation has existed since ancient times, and both were created by the same act of the UN. Their ancient origin is the same. Both populations have had a constant, though varying, presence. Their modern origin is the same. That shades all my views on the modern conflict.
Another point made by Konnor:
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 without.
So it seems to me, as it does to Konner, that at heart of being Jewish is conflict. Jews argue and barter with God. Why is Abraham considered the first Jew rather than, say, Noah? Some say it is because Abraham was the first person to stand before God and argue...barter. How many righteous men would be enough to save Sodom and Gamorah? Abraham won those negotiations even if he was unable to save those cities. Sure Abraham was ready to blindly sacrifice Isaac on God’s word (though the excellent science fiction epic Hyperion reframes that story into Abraham testing God rather than God testing Abraham and that reframing strikes me as a very Jewish way of looking at it). But Abraham was also willing to argue with God. From Abraham to the ongoing, one-sided "dialogue" of Tevya the milkman with God in Fiddler on the Roof, Jews live in a state of conflict with their God. It is okay to question, argue, doubt in Judaism.
The Talmud, a central religious work to a majority of modern Jews, is also nothing more than a series of unresolved arguments over interpretation of Jewish religious laws. Argument and counter argument is presented without one side winning. Within Judaism argument is a central part of religious practice.
Finally the conflict between the Jews as a people and the world around them is central to Judaism right down to the earliest parts of the bible. Sometimes peaceful, sometimes genocidal, sometimes assimilationist, sometimes vehemently xenophobic, Judaism has always had a hard time defining itself in relation to the wider world.
All of this conflict leads to the defining conflict of Judaism: what does it mean to be Jewish. Religious, genetic, cultural, and national definitions abound. But to me, it is the very conflict we feel with God, with ourselves, with each other and with the wider world that is most characteristic of being Jewish.
If I have one criticism of Unsettled it is that it is sometimes disjointed. It will jump around, following one thread through history then jump back abruptly to follow a different thread. Occasionally this is very distracting. Other times it is only a mild annoyance. Either way, the book remains well worth reading.
Like almost every book ever written about the history of the Jews, Unsettled barely mentions what might have been the greatest period of Jewish history ever: the period of the Khazars. I am always on the lookout for better coverage of The Khazars and recently ordered a couple of books that might help. But Unsettled barely mentions them. The Khazars were a Turkish people originally wandering the steppes of Eurasia who were possibly led by the royal Ashina clan, formerly the rulers of the Goturk empire, the first people to use the name "Turk." The Khazars were probably close relatives of the Bulgars. Their empire spanned a period from the 600’s to the 900’s AD. They were viewed by both the Roman (Byzantine) and Persian empires as being of equals. In fact the Khazars were the only other nation that was seen as being diplomatically equal to Rome and Persia. When Islam explosively spread from Arabia through out Eurasia and Africa, it swept away the Persian empire and crippled Byzantine Rome...but they were not able to get by the Khazars who stopped Islamic expansion at the Caucuses. The Khazars were a superpower during this period.
At their peak, they directly or indirectly dominated parts of southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan, the Caucasus (including Dagestan, Georgia), and the Crimea. In other words they dominated an area overlapping what, soon after the collapse of the Khazar empire, became the southern reaches of the area where Ashkenazi Judaism arose. And what makes the Khazar empire of such interest to the history of Judaism is that the Khazars, or at least their royal family and the elite, converted to Judaism. This is the only historically documented mass conversion to Judaism that I am aware of. The legend of the conversion, based around a verbal competition among leading Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars, sounds suspiciously like the conversion story of a ruler in India, making me think that it is nothing more than a myth. More practically, some historians think that the Khazars, caught as a third force between the rival Roman (Christian) and Umayyad (Muslim) forces chose the path that would maintain their independence and neutrality: convert to Judaism, the precursor to both Christianity and Islam.
So there was this huge, Jewish superpower whose collapse shortly preceded the rise of Ashkenazi Judaism. After its collapse, almost nothing is ever said again of the Khazars or their version of Judaism. They disappear, never to be heard from again. And yet the collapse of the one and the rise of the other, with the northwestern end of Khazar influence overlapping with the southeastern end of Ashkenazi Judaism all seems too close to be unconnected. Hence some have tried to link the Khazars and the Ashkenazim.
The main source of this theory I have found is a book called The Thirteenth Tribe, by Arthur Koestler. His book is fascinating and to me resonates very convincingly. Problem is, it is a non-scientific work and suffers from this. It resonates convincingly on a gut level, but doesn’t convince the mind and sadly, this may mean that the book is complete bunk. Furthermore, all attempts to genetically link Ashkenazi Jews to the Turkish Khazars has failed and, in fact, all segments of the Ashkenazi Jewish population seem clearly descended from Middle Eastern roots with some mixing with local European populations. Only the Ashkenazi Levites seem far less related to all other Jewish populations and their Middle Eastern roots, but their origin seems to be from the same part of Germany that the Yiddish language seems to originate, not from any Turkish roots. Science seems to disprove the Khazar link.
And yet how could such a major superpower, consciously Jewish and, in fact, the most important Jewish center of its day, disappear leaving no trace, genetically, culturally or otherwise, on the history of modern Judaism? People and cultures never disappear so completely and cleanly. And yet, the Khazars did seem to disappear after hundreds of years of power to become nothing more than a footnote to history in general and almost completely ignored by Jews who somehow seem unwilling to believe that for hundreds of years there was a Jewish superpower that could hold both Christians and Muslims at bay.
I will end with a final point from Unsettled, one which also defines Judaism: the interplay of tragedy, love, joy and comedy.
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 in joy, settled throughout the world in joy. They have made jokes about themselves and others, told and written funny stories, and commented on heir frequently painful daily lives with a thousand light hearted quips and proverbs. The view of the Jews as always weeping and lamenting is another myth.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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