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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2007

Few people today lack familiarity with at least some aspects of the oft-told history of the Jews, but Norman F. Cantor brings to his task both a Judaic passion for his subject and a professional historian’s capacity for fixing both familiar and unfamiliar events over the past three millennia in...

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Few people today lack familiarity with at least some aspects of the oft-told history of the Jews, but Norman F. Cantor brings to his task both a Judaic passion for his subject and a professional historian’s capacity for fixing both familiar and unfamiliar events over the past three millennia in a larger social and intellectual context. His book is a candid, compelling, and controversial one.

The “sacred chain” of Cantor’s title alludes to a distinctive culture and society surviving through centuries of struggle and dispersion by virtue of an abiding conviction in a unique holy covenant and retaining its religious aura into an age characterized by increasing devitalization of traditional beliefs and observances. Cantor has arranged his material, with perhaps a glance in the direction of epic convention, in twelve roughly chronological, but primarily thematic chapters. The important ninth chapter, “The Response to Modernity and Modernism,” for example, illustrates one of these themes: the extraordinary upward social mobility of Jews worldwide between 1780 and 1910, which provides a perspective for the following chapter, “The Wall of Hatred,” centering on, but not limited to, the Holocaust. The final chapter, although secular in its emphasis, is, appropriately enough, prophetic, and reaches a conclusion likely to surprise many readers.

The author renders severe judgments: often, of course, against the Gentile world for centuries of prejudice and oppression, but a considerable number of them against the Jews themselves. For example, despite the formidable obstacles faced by Jews abroad at the time of the Nazi atrocities, Cantor believes that by strenuous efforts they could have saved as many as two million victims. He is untiring in his criticism of the modern rabbinate as out-of-date, ineffectual, and totally unable to come to terms with the challenges of the great modern thinkers. It should be noted that Cantor’s list of the five greatest of these thinkers—Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim, Franz Boas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein—is a roster of Jews. An additional quartet of postmodernist Jewish intellectuals—Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky, and Harold Bloom, all men whom he describes as typically Jewish in their intellectual style—also await integration into a Jewish cultural tradition severely rent by their collective achievements.

Cantor also charges this oft-victimized people with having frequently victimized themselves. He cites the Ashkenazi culture that emanated from a center of rabbinical scholarship in Mainz in the early Middle Ages and subsequently suffered at the hands of Jewish converts to Roman Catholicism, and the poor Jews in the Ukraine in the seventeenth century who owed their afflictions not just to absentee Gentile landlords, but also to their Jewish representatives who had forgotten, or neglected to apply, ideas of social justice from their own religious heritage. He views the prevailing attitude of West Bank Jews toward the Palestinians in the mid-1990’s as another instance of the former acting as their own worst enemies.

Sometimes Jews have done themselves damage not by forgetting their principles but by pursuing them zealously at the expense of prudent self-interest. In the early decades of the twentieth century, for example, Jews inclined to join with Protestant groups eager to maintain the “wall of separation” between church and state by opposing all attempts to divert public funds to schools under religious auspices, thereby cultivating the enmity of Roman Catholics seeking to relieve the burden of supporting two expensive school systems. Cantor argues that if Jews had joined forces on the opposite side, they might have been able to rejuvenate their own struggling religious schools and, at the same time, gained the good will of American Catholics, which later might have translated into desperately needed support for Jews at the mercy of the merciless Adolf Hitler.

If such arguments are liable to displease many Jews, his bold, calm, and frequent assertions of the intellectual superiority of Jews—a superiority that he consistently describes as genetic—cannot fail to disturb many others concerned with the hot potato of ethnic and racial differences. Given the disproportionately numerous achievements of Jews in the learned professions, literature, business, and entertainment, however, it is difficult to argue against his controversial contention (as it is difficult to argue against a similar interpretation of the vastly disproportionate achievements of blacks in athletic endeavors). Certainly Cantor fortifies his case with an impressive array of evidence.

Cantor’s annotated and very up-to-date bibliography substantiates his claim that a reappraisal of Jewish history involving a hard look at the meaning of Judaism is badly needed, but he sees two factors—the conservatism of wealthy Jewish patrons (usually referred to as “billionaire patriarchs”) and the rabbinical training of many Jewish scholars—as impediments to the process. Modern rabbis, with a handful of exceptions in Reform congregations, receive very low grades from Cantor. While it is also true that few eminent thinkers deriving from the Christian heritage are busy at, or even interested in, reconciling traditional religious doctrines and twentieth century artistic and scientific achievements, Cantor, consistent with his convictions about Jewish intellectual superiority, clearly expects more from contemporary Jewish thinkers and consequently registers a more acute disappointment in their failure to reexamine and reformulate Judaism.

Throughout the book, one senses a tension between the author’s pride in the distinctive Jewish cultural identity and his awareness of the benefits of Jewish assimilation into the various national cultures. As a medieval historian, Cantor is quite familiar with the typical mental horizons of village life, as well as with the scarcely more salubrious atmosphere of the urban ghetto. Except for Orthodox Jews—never, he claims, more than 15 percent of Jews in the Diaspora, or even in modern Israel—Jewish attitudes, aspirations, cultural activities, and lifestyles have characteristically come to reflect those of the country in which they live.

An excellent example is Laurence Tisch, the CBS television executive and signal benefactor of New York University (NYU), where Cantor holds a professorship in three disciplines and where thousands of Jewish students have been educated. Not only as a generous contributor, but also as chairman of the university’s board of trustees, Tisch was responsible for “firmly guiding NYU to much improved status within American academia.” To American Jews today, Cantor says, Tisch is a great hero. Yet a few pages after paying tribute to Tisch’s support and leadership of NYU, Cantor refers to him as “self-consciously anti-intellectual” and as one of those who “hold the opaque humanities professors and the leftist-bearing social scientists in contempt, regarding them as equivalent to low-level clerks in their business or professional establishments.” It is difficult to escape the conclusion that his admirers lionize him as much for disdaining intellectuals as for furnishing the young with intellectual opportunities. If Cantor is correct, Tisch exemplifies the malaise that another eminent Jewish scholar, Richard Hofstadter, studied in his famous Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963).

Any history of the Jews has to relate the sad record of discrimination, but when discrimination wanes, respect for tradition wanes with it, and assimilation increases. Cantor favors an economic explanation of the historical rises and falls of active anti-Semitism. Jews have prospered in Christian and Islamic nations less from enlightened liberalism than from these nations’ leaders’ recognition of their economic value. Thus in Carolingian France, in Muslim Spain in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and in nineteenth century imperialist England, the fiscal and entrepreneurial skills of Jews were valued and taken advantage of. Although American Jews clearly benefited from civil rights activities and legislation beginning in the 1960’s, Cantor argues the importance of economic roles here also. When the economy contracts, the competition for jobs and other opportunities encourages the resurgence of old prejudices. Access to prestigious American colleges and universities, difficult in the 1920’s and 1930’s, expanded to the point that 40 percent of the entering class at Yale Law School in 1974 was Jewish, and by the 1990’s the president of the university was Jewish. Although the outlook remains bright for young Jewish women, Cantor asserts that with leaner economic times upon us, their male counterparts are beginning to find themselves again at “the back of the line,” unless they come from rich and influential families.

What of the future of the Jews? The criticisms that Cantor levels at modern Judaism suggest the need of reforming measures, and indeed he lists those that he believes need to be done immediately: massive subsidizing of Jewish educational efforts at all levels, from primary schools through graduate schools; the establishment of a new theology, to be generated by Jewish professors rather than the rabbinate; a new liturgy; a Jewish newsmagazine along the lines of Time; generous fellowships to top college graduates who wish to become rabbis, cantors, or teachers in Jewish schools; and a requirement of eventual doctorates for all rabbis. “These provisions, if instituted, would probably save the Jewish people as a collective entity. So will the coming of the Messiah. The latter is a more likely prospect to be attempted than the former.”

The irony of this prescription is clear. As a matter of fact, Cantor has already drawn his conclusion about the future of the Jews: “they are no longer very much needed as a distinct race.” The continuation of the Jewish heritage depends not on a continuing visible cultural presence, for this heritage subsists in the natural and social sciences and the arts they have created. Far from worrying that the tendency of many present-day Jews to intermarry with Gentiles will somehow attenuate the genetic excellence that he so frequently celebrates in this book, Cantor implies that this tendency can be nothing other than an improving influence. The “racial suicide” that conservative Jews might be expected to deplore will result instead in a general cultural regenera-tion. He sees the inevitability of the same development in the Near East, although he concedes that the process of intermarriage of Jews and Arabs on a large scale will take longer.

Cantor’s respect and fondness for the holy aspect of the heritage of his people is tempered by his skepticism as a late twentieth century intellectual. A Jewish theology that truly comes to terms with the achievements of modern and postmodern thinkers would bear little resemblance to Orthodox Judaism—would most likely be widely judged no theology at all. The persistence of the “sacred chain” would depend on so free an interpretation of the sacral as to render the concept meaningless. In Cantor’s scenario, ethnic Jewishness will disappear and Jewish religion will cease to engage the offspring of its present adherents. He even argues that Jewish identity might well have disappeared in Germany in this century had it not been for Hitler. That Jewish history is at or close to its end is a perception Cantor does not expect to be acknowledged by Jews generally, who presumably will continue to be marginalized without noticing it.

Cantor’s style is vigorous, ironic, frequently irreverent. Saul of Tarsus, who became famous as Paul the Christian disciple, “had the mind of a media entrepreneur who assesses the market and gives the people what they want, just like those Jewish movie magnates in Hollywood today.” The Talmud is on the one hand “much like a first-rate American law school today,” on the other “a very long and perpetually renewed TV series.” In the modern mode, Cantor commemorates the contributions to organized crime of Jewish hoodlums, who, he insists, preceded the Italians in New York. “[A]s late as 1940 if you wanted a spectacular hit you were looking for a representative of the Lepke Buchalter Gang, also known as Murder Inc.” Cantor is more likely to infuriate than bore his audience.

The Sacred Chain stands as a challenge to both Jewish and Gentile readers, who will find in various degrees and on various pages, according to the convictions that they bring to the book, both enlightenment and provocation.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. December 4, 1994, p. N8.

Booklist. XCI, November 15, 1994, p. 575.

Commentary. XCIX, February, 1995, p. 66.

Houston Chronicle. January 1, 1995, p. Z23.

Library Journal. CXIX, November 15, 1994, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, October 10, 1994, p. 55.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch. January 15, 1995, p. C5.

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