William W. Hallo wrote the following as an introduction to the original Heritage: Civilization and the Jews Viewers Guide that was released in 1984.
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 its own
beginning; it benefited from the decline of Egypt and the other great
Near Eastern empires to emerge as a nation in its own right;
it asserted its 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
its 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.