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Heritage Civilization and the Jews
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Heritage Civilization and the Jews

William W. Hallo wrote the following as an introduction to the original Heritage: Civilization and the Jews Viewers Guide that was released in 1984.

Ordering Info The history of the Jews is a history of involvement: with Near Eastern and Classical civilization in the Biblical period, with Christendom and Islam in the Middle Ages, with the nations of all the earth in modern times. It is a history as old as civilization itself, and it is the history of the involvement of one people with civilization. The involvement was total, complex and reciprocal. It was total in the sense that the Jewish people never enjoyed the luxury of detachment: even when intermittently masters of in their own land, that land was the vortex of all surrounding lands and shared their fates. It was complex in the Jewish people, before and above any other people, experienced the tension of diaspora and homeland, a tension ever shifting but never resolved. It was reciprocal in that Judaism took, learned and borrowed from the civilizations of other peoples – but at the same time contributed in essential respects to civilization at all times and in many different places.

The interaction of Jewish history and Western civilization successively assumed different forms. In the Biblical and Ancient periods, Israel was an integral part of the Near Eastern and classical world, which gave birth to Western civilization. It shared the traditions of ancient Mesopotamia and the rest of that world with regard to it’s own beginning; it benefited from the decline of Egypt and the other great Near Eastern empires to emerge as a nation in it’s own right; it asserted it’s claim to the divinely promised Land of Israel and struggled to a precarious independence there for a thousand years until forced to yield to the greater power of Greece and Rome.

In the Medieval era Jewish history took place on a larger stage, including all of Europe and the Mediterranean world. Fewer and fewer Jews were able to remain on the soil of the Holy Land itself. For more and more of them, it became the object of prayerful longing as they sought refuge in all the lands of the dispersion. Gradually the pious hope of a return to the true homeland gave way to the more practical desire to participate in the life of their new surroundings. But no matter how deeply the Jews became involved in the various lands of the dispersion, they faced the necessity of being uprooted again and again. They became the classical example of a diaspora population: confined or committed to intellectual or commercial pursuits; linked to their co-religionists in other lands through the bond of a common faith as interpreted by rabbinic authority; and an ever yearning to live, or at least to die, in the Holy Land.

The contemporary pattern of Jewish life presents another model for it’s interaction with civilization. Where previously that life had been concentrated successively in Israel and the diaspora, it is now balanced between the two. Israel is once again politically sovereign, and it commands a central position in Judaism, both culturally and emotionally. But equally significant centers of Jewish population and hence of Jewish cultural, religious, and political activity exist in the United State, the Soviet Union and other parts of the diaspora. World Jewry, as always, continues to gravitate towards the rising centers of world civilization and hence to play a part in the shaping of world events. At the same time it lives in a creative tension with Israel. The interdependence of diaspora Jewry with the Israel on the one hand and with world civilization on the other, characterizes the present scene and will no doubt influence yet other patterns, whatever the precise shape they may take in the future.

Professor Hallo is William M. Laffan Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature Curator of the Babylonian Collection, Sterling Library, Yale University.

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