Anti-Lachrymose Jewish History = A Lachrymose Theological & Reactionary Object (Salo Baron)

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Jewish Studies and the study of Jewish History in America begin to show their age. The older they get the weirder they look in retrospect.  Told as an origin story, one of the great founding moments of the discipline in the United States is the appointment of Salo Baron as the first endowed chair of Jewish history at a secular university in the United States back in 1929 and the thesis “against lachrymose Jewish history,” the one made famous by him and which, for all intents and purpose, owned by him. The first articulation of the thesis appeared some ninety years ago. As will become evident, my own approach here is not a little aggressive. There is nothing “natural” or purely given about groundbreaking historiographical statements. Baron’s famous thesis is a curious little timepiece, a veritable historical curio, which, in its own right, demands more critical looksee.

Recent events, namely the massacre in Pittsburgh at Congregation Tree of Life, returned us here at the blog to Baron’s famous thesis, about which I was always a little confused. What caught my interest this time was its almost casual invocation on a FB post from a scholar-colleague in response to the shooting. The mention got me wondering about Baron’s thesis with which, of course, I was familiar, but which I had never considered in the original. What was its time and place of origin? What did Baron mean by the famous phrase? What did he not mean? How did he handle the contradiction posed by more conventional points of view about medieval Jewish history, the Jewish ghetto, and Jewish religion and law? What did Baron argue? Was this a strictly historiographical argument or did the proposition include strong normative component features? Is there more to the original formulation thesis than meets the eye?

“The thesis” contests three fundamental ideas. The first is the commonly held notion that Jewish history prior to the modern period in the Christian west consisted of nothing but bitter sorrow and woe. The second is the notion that the segregation of the Jews in medieval Christian society was of necessity a social and political harm for the Jews and for Jewish society. The third is the naïve notion that emancipation from the ghetto was all that it has been cracked up to be, and not itself a lachrymose story if not disaster. Not simply a historiographical contestation, the thesis contains its own normative component for modern Jewish life, that being a reconstruction of the ghetto and its virtues in the face of an uncertain future. Odd too are the not so subtle religious themes running through the early formulations so much so as to warrant the term “historical theology.”

When it first appeared, Baron’s argument must have been something of an internecine palace coup among historians of the Jews. The Galician born Baron was the first, or among the first, to overturn broadly accepted canons of historiography from the previous century. Historian friends can confirm or not whether Baron dominated from his perch at Columbia University the study of Jewish history in the United States already from these early dates. In the long meantime since its first formulation between the world wars, the thesis has become doctrine in academic Jewish Studies, paraded by the smart set against benighted popular points of view first established by Jewish historians in nineteenth century Germany. And yet the time of its own emergence is not without import. The thesis is set at that very bad moment in Jewish history in the 1920s and 1930s marked by the reality of crisis, the sense of which the author wants to overcome.

The thesis has had long historical legs in the course of those ninety years or so since its very first emergence. For historians, its lasting, genuine merit was to set Jewish history as a living part of broader historical social and religious currents. In this alone, the thesis deserves its victory laurels. But it that simply that? Is the thesis simply a professional model? Bracketing the actual historical data, in Jewish thought and cultural criticism, the anti-lachrymose point of view takes on variant polemical use-functions. In more recent memory, the thesis has become something of a darling to conservative thinkers extolling the virtues of intensive Jewish law and community against the allegedly corrosive effects of liberalism, liberal individualism, and liberal Judaism. On the left, the thesis is dear to critics (often anti-Zionist in orientation) extolling the virtues of “Diasporism.”

My concern in this post is exclusively with the first formulation of the thesis, which I want to look at as a historical object in its own right. Does the thesis pan out? This I would like to leave as an open question. Is Jewish history not lachrymose? Is the study of Jewish history not lachrymose? These too are open questions. But what about those weird moments in which the original thesis shows itself to be theological? Did Baron really say that modern Jews should commit themselves to the ghetto and give up on emancipation? Did he actually say what we will see below about fascism and communism? Was the first formulation of the thesis reactionary? Was it incoherent? Was it not itself lachrymose about modernity? About ghetto Judaism?

Like a mantra, the first formulation of the thesis has been more spoken to than critically examined and assessed. Two essays cited below, one by David Engel and one by Adam Teller, are exceptions to what still seems to be the general rule. But let’s start here. I can only describe my own first frustration encountering the thesis. Again, speaking personally, it first appearance turns out to be like some mysterious, alien object with which I was supposed to be intimately familiar. It exists out there, somewhere in space and time. But where was it? Where could one find it?

When I asked historian-colleague-friends where to look, I was pointed to only one article, “Ghetto and Emancipation,” written in 1927 for the Menorah Journal, a then popular journal of Jewish ideas.  You can find a PDF here. I was also directed towards a meager one or two pages from the first edition of A Social and Religious History of the Jews (a two volume set published in 1937), the major example which i will quote in full below. These are the sources typically mentioned. Not once was I pointed to material in the more famous and expanded second edition (1952-1983). Surprised and put off, I had naively thought that such a well-established thesis would have been built upon more solid historiographical foundations, including maybe a coherent, systematic statement, something which one might expect from a German Jewish historian from the previous century. Having largely taken the thesis for granted, when I finally pinned down the object, when I looked at the language and governing assumptions, I was surprised to see a thing that is so utterly bizarre and full of weird moments at the basis of so much excellent and sober historical research in Jewish Studies today.

At its origin moment, Baron’s great thesis Against Lachrymose Jewish History has two main titular conceptual pillars: [1] “ghetto” and “emancipation.” The claim can be crudely put as follows. The original thesis holds that Jewish life in the ghetto may have been marred by marginalization and violence, but overall it was not so bad for the Jews and for Judaism, while Emancipation, which secured for Jews the promise of formal citizenship-rights, was, on balance, not so great. [2] “social” and “religious” history. Social and religious history are understood by Baron as distinct analytic features of Jewish life, but organically inseparable. The social history of the Jews was not as bad as that suffered by other social classes in medieval society (i.e. the serfs). And insofar as Jewish social history was all that bad and, in fact, really sad, religion was the great compensation holding together the Jewish people as a corporate body and unified people.

About the thesis, I want to make three critical points off the bat before preceding to present the thesis in more depth:

–The thesis is dogged by two critical contradictions. There is, on one hand, the problem of scale. What was the ghetto? Was Jewish ghetto society a “powerful state within a state”? Or was it only a narrow special “street”? Baron refers to the ghetto as both the one and the other. In what way, though, can a narrow or special street ever constitute a middling polis, much less a powerful state? More to this point is that Baron’s historiographical thesis against lachrymose history is itself awfully lachrymose, utterly unhappy and befitting the mood of the time of its formulation.

–The thesis against lachrymose Jewish history is itself lachrymose. It is dogged by what would be more commonly recognized today as a backwards, nay reactionary looking conception of organic community. Baron’s was the notion that organic community is able to overcome rupture, change, and schism, and that it is the job of the historian to reconstruct that community for the sake of the future. When put to polemical use by conservative critics, the story goes too often like this. “Once upon a time and if only we could restore for the future a homeostatic fusion of culture, religion, and law. Then and only then could the Jewish future be saved from the powers of anomie.” And yet, at the very same time, Baron understood that his conception of the ghetto was irreducibly artificial and utopian.

–Jewish historians as often as not ignore philosophy. That too is sad. Because what is the thesis, when all is said and done? Is it a simple statement of fact or is it a judgment, an assessment of value? As a potential truth statement, does it “correspond” to the historical record that is somehow conceived as external to it? Is the thesis even coherent? Is it internally consistent? Does the thesis cohere with the facts that are marshaled together inside the frame of the thesis to support it? Do these parts hold together?


As I have been so far pointed by historian friends and colleagues, here are the two key moments in the Against Lachrymose Jewish History Thesis:


Below I’m copying the key moments in “Ghetto and Emancipation.” I want to quote them more or less in full without commentary in order to mark the two prongs of the thesis, roughly “for the “ghetto” and roughly “against liberal emancipation.” Note that the word “lachrymose” appears only once in this essay and only once and without irony in A Social and Religious History of the Jews.

Here we go:

“In this Ghetto, before compulsion came and after, Jewry was enabled to live a full, rounded life, apart from the rest of the population, under a corporate governing organization. The Jew, indeed, had in effect a kind of territory and State of his own throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period. The advantages of this autonomy, lost through the Emancipation, were certainly considerable; they must have contributed in large part toward the preservation of Jewry as a distinct nationality” (GE 52).

“Ardent advocates of liberalism and democracy, visioning a reformed society guided by beneficent rationalism, believing religiously that the world in general and the Jews particularly could be improved by an extension of rights, it is easy to see how they found it useful to take as black a view as possible of the pre-Revolutionary treatment of the Jews. The exaggerated historical picture of the horrors of the ‘Dark Ages’ which we have been examining was the result” (GE p.61).

“It should be pointed out at once that this conception of modern Jewish history is indispensable neither to Reform nor to Zionism. Indeed, each has begun to shift its ground. Particularly among the younger intellectual leaders of national Judaism one discovers a note of romantic longing towards the Jewish ghetto, its life, and its culture. In literature, the revival of Chassidism, at least as a cultural force, in the writings of Martin Buber, Peretz, Berditchevsky and others, represents the new tendency” (GE p.62).

“At any rate, it is clear that Emancipation has not brought the Golden Age. While Emancipation has meant a reduction of ancient evils, and while its balance sheet for the world at large as well as for the Jews is favorable, it is not completely clear of debits. Certainly its belief in the efficacy of a process of complete assimilation has been proved untenable. Autonomy as well as equality must be given its place in the modern State, and much time must pass before these two principles will be fully harmonized and balanced. Perhaps the chief task of this and future generations is to attain that harmony and balance. Surely it is time to break with the lachrymose theory of pre-Revolutionary woe, and to adopt a view more in accord with historic truth” (GE, p.63, emphasis added).


Below are the key moments of the thesis as I have found them in the first edition of A Social and Religious History of the Jews. Here Baron tags matters of great theoretical concern relating to sovereign and non-sovereign power and powerlessness, comparative unhappiness, broader social perspective, the experience of hatred and violence, religion as compensation for social suffering, religion and ethnicity being the “power” behind the “perseverance,” nay the survival of the Jews.

Again without commentary, here are the next set of main landmarks to the thesis:

“The Jewish people doubtless rationalized the lack of is political power in the face of vast empire. But it must have felt then that it possessed powers other than political, which were their full equivalent….The religious and ethnic power of perseverance, rather than the political power of expansion and conquest, became the core stone of Jewish belief and practice. Such ‘power’ was naturally defensive and passive, and mutual non-aggression was one of its major safeguards…It is necessary at this point to correct an even more widespread fallacy. Political powerlessness has often been mistaken by foe and friend alike as the equivalent of the Jews’ utter despondence and misery though the history of the dispersion…The Jews doubtless suffered a great deal in their millennial procession. Scores of thousands of their martyrs have ‘sanctified the Name’ (of the Lord) in untold sufferings, and daily and hourly ordinary Jews have borne the brunt of arrogance and ill will in passive, but none the less heroic fashion. They had, however, the great compensations which accompany every truly religious sacrifice” (SRH vol.1 pp. 23-4).

“And were they the only people of the earth to suffer?…Who would dare weigh one suffering against another and prove that the scale of one group of men has, over a long period, dipped lower than that of other groups?  It is quite likely that even the average medieval Jew, compared with his average Christian contemporary, man by man, woman by woman, child by child, was the less unhappy and destitute not only in his own consciousness,, but even if measured by such objective criteria as standards of living, cultural amenities and protection against individual starvation and disease. And subjectively, as long as the Jewish religion was intact, the people never conceded final defeat nor acknowledged its own inferiority in any ultimate category” (SRH vol.1 pp. 24).

It would be a mistake…to believe that hatred was the constant keynote of Judeo Christian relations, even in Germany or Italy. It is in the nature of historical records to transmit to posterity the memory of extraordinary events, rather than the ordinary flow of life. A community which lived in peace for decades may have given the medieval chronicler no motive to mention it, until a sudden outbreak of popular violence, lasting a few days, attracted widespread attention. Since modern historical treatment can no longer be satisfied with the enumeration of wars and diplomatic conflicts, the history of the Jewish people among the Gentiles, even in medieval Europe, must consist of much more than stories of sanguinary clashes or governmental expulsions…. Normal relations between Jews and Christians were generally amicable, or at worst characterized by mild mutual suspicion” (SRH vol.2, p.40). (NOTE: I am putting this quote in bold because this is the passage from SRH2 that gets a great deal of attention in the scholarly literature.)

“Nevertheless, the widespread belief that Jewish life in medieval Europe consisted in an uninterrupted series of migrations and sufferings, of disabilities and degradations, is to be relegated to the realm of popular misconceptions. The Middle Ages were neither in themselves the dark ages they were once thought to have been; nor were they as dark for the Jews, in comparison with the rest of the population, as is still widely believed” (SRH vol.2, p.86).


On the surface, there is much to recommend the thesis as cited above. But the thesis begins to crumble once one begins to dig deeper than these surface claims in order to consider them critically, first on their own and in isolation, and then in comparison with other historical data as these appear in the two primary sources for the original thesis.

At the risk of infuriating colleagues, I want to say that “Ghetto and Emancipation” is full of howlers. By “howlers,” I mean strange claims meant to be counter-intuitive. They only provoke astonishment and ridicule because the claims seem to be at such odds with facts as they appear on the surface. At the very least, however, “Ghetto and Emancipation” is internally coherent as a thesis-statement. Precisely because A Social And Religious History of the Jews is the more careful, nuanced, and complete piece of historical writing, because it contains more detail, much more so than “Ghetto and Emancipation,” is precisely the reason it turns out on inspection to be riddled with strange inconsistencies and embarrassing contradictions. To repeat and now support a point made above, the primary contradiction undercutting the famous thesis against lachrymose history is that, unlike “Ghetto and Emancipation,” which is in many ways ridiculous, A Social and Religious History of the Jews is itself a lachrymose historiographical statement.


“Ghetto and Emancipation” is full of what could be uncharitably called “howlers.” By howlers, I mean self-consciously provocative claims, maybe even obnoxious, in this case about medieval Jewish history. These howlers take the form of what today are often called “what aboutism.” When claims are raised about the social suffering of one group, the argument is recast to point to the experience of other groups. Even as Baron says it is impossible to compare the social or personal suffering suffered by one person or group with that of another, he goes on to compare Jewish social and personal suffering with the social and personal suffering of the European peasantry. Jews suffered? What about what those people over there suffered even more? Whataboutism is like a shell game. First you are shown the problem and then you don’t.

COMPARATIVE SUFFERING? NO RIGHTS? NO ONE HAD RIGHTS (GE, p.52) (cf. SRH vol. 1, p.24). Baron argues that the Jews were not at the bottom of the social pyramid in feudal society. The peasants were. What Baron points out is that the legal status of the Jews was comparable to that of the third estate, and, indeed, they were largely an urban group. In some periods they had equal, in some periods, fewer, in some, more privileges than other town inhabitants,” and that they were better off than the great mass of the peasantry (p.52).

But do these privileges square with the special precarity of the Jews who become targets of outbursts of popular rage and everyday prejudice across an entire social spectrum in which they were, by Baron’s own account, strangers? Looking past this popular essay, this claim does not cohere at all with the very lachrymose social history of the Jews as Baron describes it in A Social and Religious History of the Jews as that of an isolated, pariah people with no firmly guaranteed legal standing in medieval society or definite place on the social landscape. There is nothing in A Social and Religious History of the Jews to disabuse the reader of the conventional, lachrymose picture of the medieval Jewish ghetto. All one can say is that the peasants suffered worse, for which the Jews, socially precarious, were made to suffer in spades.

DISABILITIES AND PRIVILEGES Baron argues that “the disabilities under which medieval Jewry suffered have been made much of. Jews could not own land, or join most of the guilds, and were thereby effectively barred from certain branches of craft and commerce.

But according to Baron, these were, in legal theory, restrictions made on the privileges granted them, and not limitations on any general rule of equal rights. Every corporation had similar restrictions, and in this respect the Jews’ case was no different in principle from that of other privileged groups. That every group suffered restrictions does nothing to soften questions about the special social precarity of Jewish life in medieval Europe. Again, one wonders about how this jibes with the very social precarity described by Baron in A Social and Religious History of the Jews. Baron writes, “True, the Jews were servi camerae (servants of the Treasury), but this status can neither in theory nor in practice be compared with that of the peasants, who were serfs of their local masters.” This claim may or may not be true, but says nothing about the uneasy status of a servant, no matter how “privileged.”

ARE MODERN JEWS REALLY BETTER OFF TODAY IN THE MODERN STATE? According to Baron, “Now we ought not to forget that even today we are, in effect, serfs of the State in public law, notwithstanding all theories of personal rights, natural rights of citizens, and the sovereignty of the people. In fact, even more so today than formerly. The State can levy taxes little short of confiscatory; it can send us to war; in democratic countries, and even more so in Fascist Italy or Soviet Russia, it is complete master of all lives and property” (GE, p.53).

Yes, this is a howler. The immediate problem with this comment is that it grossly ignores the different status enjoyed unevenly by citizens, at least in theory and no matter how unequally, as opposed to the hereditary class of a chattel people at the service of a king. The claim is grotesque. Would anyone today want to make it and could they do so in good faith? Note too, and I’ll note below, the conflation of liberal order with state totalitarianism.

By definition, a citizen is not a slave, particularly insofar as liberal states extend formal rights to all of its citizens, in theory if not in practice. But Baron continues, “Indeed, the status of the Jew in the Middle Ages implied certain privileges which they no longer have under the modern State. Like the other corporations, the Jewish community enjoyed full internal autonomy. Complex, isolated, in a sense foreign, it was left more severely alone by the State than most other corporations” (p.54). Can one can compare privileges and rights and, again, can one do so in good faith? Did Jews “enjoy” full internal autonomy? Or did this semi-autonomy mark the very isolation and marginalization they actually suffered? What does it even mean to be left “severely” alone and would that not be a cruel thing, indeed?

POVERTY Baron writes, “There were, of course, many impoverished Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe. But there were not so many of them, even relatively, as there were poor peasants.

This too is a howler. How many impoverished Jews were there and at what historical juncture? Are we supposed to start a head count? The poverty of poor peasants has nothing to do with the poverty of the Jews, and vice-versa even if numerically, there were millions and millions more peasants than Jews. That there are more people who suffer in a larger group does nothing to mitigate the suffering of people who are part of a small group, especially in light of the fact that this minority status constituted the very vulnerability of Jewish society in the medieval world and early modern world.

EXCLUSIONS AND PRIVILEGES According to Baron, “Compared with these advantages, social exclusion from the Gentile world was hardly a calamity.” But what does that mean, hardly a calamity? Does it mean “not such a calamity” or “not a calamity at all”? But read carefully, the historical telling in A Social and Religious History of the Jews will flat out contradict this statement, which even on its own values social exclusion as a social good. With what kind of scale could one even begin to consider weighing these advantages and disadvantages enjoyed by Jews at this or that historical juncture prior to the modern period?

TIME-CONSCIOUSNESS: Baron writes, “Between Chmielnicki and Human, the two great pogrom movements of earlier East European Jewish history, more than a century intervened, whereas three major pogrom waves have swept Eastern Europe between” (GE, p.59). See also where in A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Baron will mention “decades” between catastrophic calamities (SRH vol. 2, p.40) (see above).

As will be discussed below in this section in relation to Adam Teller’s piercing critique of Baron,  one hundred years (not to speak of “decades”) does not constitute a very long time lag in history or in the production of cultural memory. The crudeness of these formulations about personal and social suffering suggest that the historian does not understand key matters relating to trauma and time consciousness.

THE JEWISH STREET: Baron writes about the feudal order, “Various corporations in the State had separate streets of their own; the shoemakers, for example, or the bakers, would live each in one neighborhood.

What this claim fails to consider is how narrow and poor was the separate Jewish street (GE, p.55). The argument is based on a separate but equal model of social analysis. Were the Jews worse off than the shoemakers or bakers? Did their minority status set them apart for special prejudices?

A FULL ROUNDED LIFE: According to Baron “In this Ghetto, before compulsion came and after, Jewry was enabled to live a full, rounded life, apart from the rest of the population, under a corporate governing organization. The Jew, indeed, had in effect a kind of territory and State of his own throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period. The advantages of this autonomy, lost through the Emancipation, were certainly considerable; they must have contributed in large part toward the preservation of Jewry as a distinct nationality” (GE, p.55).

The nostalgic notion that ghetto life is full and rounded is quaint. But in A Social and Religious History of the Jews Baron tracks just the opposite, namely the sharp decline in Jewish demography in the Christian west. This contradicts the claim here in “Ghetto and Emancipation” that, “First of all, it is certainly significant that despite minor attacks, periodic pogroms, and organized campaigns of conversion, the numbers of Jewry during the last centuries preceding Emancipation increased much more rapidly than the Gentile population (GE, p.57). This is a contradiction that some else more expert in the field could resolve. The logical howler lies in the very idea that “ghetto life” could ever constitute a “well rounded life” as opposed to a drab and restricted one.

THE INQUISITION: Baron writes,In the eyes of a contemporary European, the Inquisition was no more than an ordinary court of justice, proceeding along the ordinary lines of criminal prosecution in cases of capital crime (GE, p.56).  “For if as apostates or heretics they ran afoul of the Inquisition, they were no worse off than Gentile apostates or heretics, while as professing Jews they were beyond its jurisdiction” (GE pp.55-6).

This argument is not “needlessly” callous only because it is required to make the point that Jews who did not convert suffered no special prejudice under the Inquisition, ignoring the fact that the Inquisition was intended, at least in part, to root out Jews and Muslims masquerading as Christians.

POVERTY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: According to Baron, “[V]ery restrictive legislation proved in the long run highly beneficial to Jewish economic development… There were, of course, many impoverished Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe. But there were not so many of them, even relatively, as there were poor peasants.” (GE, p. 59).

I’ll leave this to economic historians to determine, but the statement is again callous to the point of disbelief in regard to the mass poverty that lies as a root cause of social suffering. Again, the poverty suffered by one class does nothing to balance that of another class. It is a very strange sort of relativism that obscures the absolute brutality of poverty.


That the thesis is internally inconsistent with the historical record brought by Baron himself to support it is more evident in the first edition of A Social and Religious History of the Jews than in the more schematic “Ghetto and Emancipation.” Baron will himself actually call the medieval period in Jewish history “lachrymose” and present Jewish social history as unequivocally that.

For that, consider the chapter entitled “The Wanderer” in the second volume of A Social and Religious History of the Jews (chapter 9 of SRH vol. 2). In this super-sad chapter, Baron evokes the strange foreignness of the Jews in the ghetto (SRH vol.2, pp.26-7), the quick succession of anti-Semitic persecutions with their universal and lasting effects in medieval period. Baron himself will say that governmental and popular hostility made Jewish life “eternally tragic” (SRH vol.2, p.29). This is followed by a section whose exact title is “lachrymose conception of history” (SRH vol. 2, pp.31-9). He’s not being ironic. Baron does not, in fact, reject the lachrymose rubric at this juncture of A Social and Religious History of the Jews.

Contributing to Baron’s own lachrymose conception of Jewish history is the claim that nationalism is bad for Jews, as is ethnic homogeneity. This only reads like a critique of the modern period, except that Baron already sees latent nationalism hanging over Jewish life well before the modern period (Spain, France, and Lombardy in the 7th c., England in 1290, France in the 14th c.,  Spain and Portugal in the late 15th c.) (SRH vol. 2, p.39). This is Baron’s own lachrymose conception preceding the famous thesis statement on p.40, which I quoted above and in full.

Even after the famous statement against lachrymose history, chapter 9 concludes on a lachrymose note. With the rise of latent nationalism in medieval period, we now learn that there are few Jews left on the European continent by 1550 (England, France, Netherlands, Portugal, and Scandinavia. The demographic decline is attributed to conversion (SRH vol. 2, pp.84-6).

It is hard, then, not to read the social history of the Jews as it is appears in chapter 9 of A Social and Religious History of the Jews as utterly lachrymose. The religious history of the Jews that follows in the next chapter (and this is a religious history, not a social history of the Jews) will offer some kind of compensation to that in-sum miserable record as Baron himself has his readers read it.

Completing the lachrymose conclusion of chapter 9, “The Wanderer,” A Social and Religious History of the Jews moves on to chapter 10 titled “Within the Ghetto Walls.”

In this chapter the historian is no longer lachrymose. Baron now highlights the motley colors of the Jewish ghetto. (The word “motley” is used on p.88 to describe a motley of races and peoples. But this motley life is set faraway from Christian Europe in “oriental” settings such as Baghdad, imagined as it was in terms of a “blending together and living apart.”) Now in chapter 10 we begin to see the medieval ghetto in Europe take shape as a Jewish “universitas” regulated by Jewish law. Against the forces of social entropy, the ghetto stands for “purely Jewish life” and “inner Jewish development.” The ghetto constitutes an “independent entity,” a “cultural and political body with all the characteristics of a powerful state within the state” (SRH vol.2, pp.87-8).

What the reader is left with in “Within the Ghetto Walls” is “religion,” not social history. While the chapter includes a brief look at the record of anti-Jewish exclusions, most of it evokes pictures of community and law, education and charities, excommunication, and central agencies (SRH, vol. 2, pp.87-116). “Within Ghetto Walls” is no longer “a social history of the Jews,” i.e. with an emphasis put on lived life and complex social and inter-social relations.

Instead of lachrymose social history, chapter 10 is primarily dedicated to “a religious history of the Jews,” meaning textual history and the history of ideas, rabbinic social philosophy, medieval Halakha, western scholasticism (focused on Hasdai Crescas), Kabbalah, ethical literature (as folk culture), and, finally, Hasidism (SRH, vol. 2, pp.116-62). The religious history of the Jews in chapter 10 functions like a salve upon the lachrymose Jewish social history in chapter 9. The life in “Within the Ghetto Walls” looks nothing like the life lived in a “powerful state within a state” as stated earlier in the chapter. At best an artificial simulacrum, what we have now before us and ready to hand is a “substitute for state and territory” (SRH, vol. 2, pp.162-3).

The unhappy thought is that the non-lachrymose picture of the ghetto reflects no social reality, being itself an idealized and idealizing image held up before the historian’s nostalgia. And how sad is even this, a lachrymose picture of a community living life “as if listening to the waves of the Euphrates or watching the falls of the Jordan.” Baron concludes chapter “Within the Ghetto Walls” on this sad note. “Centuries of uninterrupted life in a given country could not make the Jews feel that they were other than temporary sojourners, or make their neighbors regard them in any other light” (SRH, vol. 2, 162).

Here at the end of chapter 10, readers are returned back to the figure of Ahasuerus, the “Wandering Jew” of the even more lachrymose chapter 9. For a moment Baron leads us to think that maybe the Wandering Jews was “always on the move” because he wanted to be on the move. Yet this too is such a sad and precarious form of existence. “Out of his dreams and nightmares,” Baron writes of the wandering Jew, “he created substitutes for a state and a territory, without which he could not survive as a living organism.”

Baron calls these substitutes “artificial” and “technical.” In Poland and Turkey, they are “drab and uniform,” and Jewish energies are “quickly exhausted” in environments “increasingly anarchical” (SRH, vol. 2, pp.163, 117). By the time of the Cossack revolts and anti-Jewish massacres, Jews number no more than 650,000 in Europe with 250,00 more Jews across the rest of the word, “apparently the smallest number since the days of the Judges” (SRH, vol. 2, p.165).

There is no reason to walk away from A Social and Religious History of the Jews unconvinced that Jewish medieval social history was indeed gloomy. What stands out is that medieval Jewish life was a narrow street, not a powerful state within a state, that it was lived in books and did not form into well rounded life (as per GE p.53). A street is not a state, and substitutes, despite their lively and even charming patterns, do not provide the same social function, the same protection, preservation, dissemination of cultural norms as do state and territory.


What has gone obscured in studies of Jewish historiography is something very peculiar. Salo Baron, the social historian of the Jews, steps in as a normative thinker and religious thinker. The epilogue to A Social and Religious History of the Jews is the place to find that aspect, the historical-theological aspect of Baron’s early project.  (You can find a PDF of the epilogue here.) What is Historical Theology if not the transfer of theological categories such as reverence, obedience, authority, and value into the conceptualization of history? The thesis is lachrymose, especially regarding the view of the future towards which the social and religious historian of the Jews points his people in the late 1930s.

A pillar of Jewish Historical Theology, what Baron will have proposed as epilogue to A Social and Religious History of the Jews is “a new Shulhan Aruk of the twenty-first or twenty-second century,” “hypothetically postulated.” Which means what? In this odd Shulkhan Arukh, “most existing commandments and prohibitions were to be discarded.” It is based instead upon “folk ways and traditional observances” and a new theology without a “superannuated conception of God.” The emphasis placed by Baron on folkways and the idea of a non-supernatural God will remind readers of Jewish philosophy of a conservative, law-based, authority-based version of the liberal social ethos of Mordecai Kaplan. With an eye on conservative Catholic Neo-Thomism, Baron makes the pitch for authoritative halakha stimulated by the “rise of the new ‘authoritarianism,’” “strictly regimented social order” and “absolute evaluations” (SRH, vol. 2, pp.454-6).

In Historical Theology, history is the primary object of veneration, and it functions like God and ritual do in the sociology of religion. In Baron’s case, Historical Theology is the form of religious faith, a political theology and soteriology, professed by a prominent social historian that was meant in the 1920s and 1930s to be a prop against the “receding individualistic and liberalistic force of later Protestantism.” Religion was to institute a Jewish corporate body governed by a “synod of contemporary rabbis.” Without a supernatural God, Baron’s is the vision of a historic Midrash which will serve as a guide for the future, cutting through all “factional divisions” in modern Jewish life. Baron assumes that conservative and Reform, Zionist and communist, diaspora-nationalistic and assimilationists share a common characteristic, that they are all compelled by the Jewish past.

A variety of religious experience expressing the faith of a historian, Baron was convinced that historical research does not undermine “true and intensive religious feeling” when that historical knowledge is harnessed to strong “political, social or religious aims” (SRH, vol. 2, pp.457-9). Baron deferred to the subconscious, as well as conscious historical feeling” shared by modern and pre-modern Jews alike, emancipated American Jews and the un-emancipated ghetto Jews of his own time, convinced that even agnostic Jews cannot escape the “transcending power” of history (SRH, vol. 2, 458-60).

But to submit to this power, which is the power of Jewish history, one has to be able to cut through the problem of suffering, which is the central aim of the thesis, overcoming the conventional point of view that suffering is the sum total of the Jewish historical experience prior to the modern period. As an expression of Historical Theology structured by law and the authority of history, Baron’s thesis Against Lachrymose Jewish History begins to look like theodicy.

Like theodicy, the thesis seeks to justify its primary object, in this case Jewish history and the Jewish ghetto. Like theodicy, the thesis is an attempt to contextualize the experience of suffering by situating it into a larger pattern of good, purpose, and meaning; in this case, the pattern is historical, not metaphysical or theological. Like theodicy, almost to the point of being callous, the thesis as it appears in “Ghetto and Emancipation” elides the relation between the singular moment of a catastrophic event or episode and its long-term impact. In relation to the “transcending power” of history, the experience of suffering gives way to larger patterns of meaning and meaning-making with which to situate our understanding of Jewish history prior to emancipation.

Also crude are these kinds of questions that are basic to theodicy. How much good is there in the world and how much evil is there? These questions appear in both Leibniz’s famous Theodicy and by Cleanthes in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Is there more of the one or of the other? Do they balance each other out in this world or in other worlds? As for the historian, would it be simple enough just to count up the years as if one could tally the experience of suffering? Jews lived decades, even centuries integrated into the larger social landscape. Why should one focus on the bad years, which were few and far between? Baron’s thesis lends itself to that crude and cruel a calculus.

About what philosophers would call time-consciousness or the phenomenological structure of historical memory undergirding the problem of suffering in the thesis Against Lachrymose Jewish History, Adam Teller has made the primary critical points in his essay, “Revisiting Baron’s ‘Lachrymose Conception’: The Meanings of Violence in Jewish History” AJS Review (38: 2). (Nov 2014, 431-39). You can find here a PDF of the essay from which I will be cribbing below. Teller’s basic point is that Baron’s formulation of the thesis depends upon the impulse to look past the single, isolated moment of this or that catastrophic episode. In doing this, it overlooks the trauma of social suffering carried forward over the many years by the passage of time.

Writing about the long-term effects of one form of historical trauma, Teller argues, “The same is true of another of the persecutions, whose significance Baron wanted to downplay––expulsions of Jews. His message was clear: if Jews and Christians had lived together in one locality for centuries, why should we characterize those relations solely (or even largely) on the basis of their tragic end. That is, of course, a point well taken. It ignores, however, the consequences of the expulsion. In material terms an expulsion involved a loss of property and earning capacity, leading to impoverishment. Not only the period of the expulsion itself, but also the relocation to a new community was fraught with physical danger and often involved great expense. Finally, we should remember that such dislocation could have psychological implications, too. These were consequences the Jews had to deal with in their new homes for years and even decades to come.”

What is the most important object of historical research and historical memory, an episodic moment of catastrophic disruption or more historically “significant” patterns of social change? To this point, Teller writes, “When those anxious to avoid the lachrymose approach consider the expulsions of Jews from their homes, they do not concern themselves much with such stories of human suffering, preferring to take a long perspective that allows them to view the events as important––often positive––moments of change. The expulsion of 1669 from Vienna is thus seen as giving an important boost to the development of Central European Jewry, the expulsions from Spain and Portugal create not only the vibrant communities of the Ottoman Empire but also the hugely dynamic Sephardic diaspora, and the series of expulsions from the German lands from 1348–1520 lay the foundations for the development of the cultural powerhouse that was to become Polish Jewry. Of course, this perspective is not wrong; it just ignores the costs––economic, physical, and psychological––that were involved in bringing these changes about.”

In his critique of the thesis, Teller’s own thought is fixed firmly on the problem of suffering. About the long term impact of the suffering conveyed by the writer of one medieval chronicler, Teller continues, “While there is not enough evidence to discuss this text as evidence of a pathological state, it is absolutely clear that the author had been severely traumatized in the wars and that those feelings had stayed with him. He was by no means the only one. The rabbinic literature of his generation is replete with similar testimonies, some written decades after the end of the violence. These men (and, of course, the many traumatized women who have not left us written testimonies) resumed their lives, raised families, and were active members of the Jewish societies where they lived. In the case of rabbis, they even stood at the head of their communities. I do not wish to claim that they created traumatized forms of life for those around them. But I would like to suggest that they made living with violence and persecution––and more particularly their consequences––an accepted part of what Baron called ‘the ordinary flow of Jewish life’ for communities across Europe.”

Students of religious thought will recognize in theodicy a hierarchical form that submits the finite and suffering human subject before the infinite authority of God or before some other superannuated power. Therein lies the feelings of resignation that attend this type of religious thinking. Historical theology is no different in structure. In the epilogue of A Social and Religious History of the Jews, it is precisely a note of resignation that completes the lachrymose picture painted by Baron himself. The picture is of modern Jews “[bowing] before the historic function of organized religion,” “[resigning] themselves to a community of life with the other, perhaps more fortunate, compatriots, to whom the solaces of religion are open through a native or acquired emotional capacity.” Infinite resignation couples with solidarity of an East European Jew for his fellow compatriots who bear up with naïve faith under suffering, consoled as they are by religion. Resignation couples also with the resentment shown by an East European Jews to his social superiors, namely those modern New York German Jews.

Finally, lachrymose in its resignation before the power of Jewish history, the last motif of A Social and Religious History of the Jews is one of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Although Baron is quick to say that his is no “glorification of suffering as such” (the catchphrase is “as such”), there is expressed here a “readiness for suffering, wherever necessary and the joyous affirmations on all other occasions.” Martyrdom is the sticky lachrymose figure in Baron’s writing. It begins and ends the first edition of A Social and History of the Jews, and is turned to again in  the relatively late 1963 essay, “New Emphases in Jewish History” which  you can read here. No mere rhetorical flourish, martyrdom cuts to the heart of his own formulation of Jewish history, his recollection of the ghetto, and his outlook upon the Jewish future, marked as he saw it by the inevitable collapse of liberal individualism before what he judged were the new, more dynamic political forms of fascism and communism.


The reactionary side to Baron’s first formulation of the thesis is how the future of Judaism is made to lie in the “authoritative unity of historical reinterpretations, coupled with the persistence of historically rooted folk ways.” Baron thought that only this kind of history could “save the Jewish people” from” “internecine, schismatic warfare.” Against ideological schism, the reactionary component parts to the original formulation of the thesis rest on the notion of organic culture, pure ethnic Judaism, the idea of the reality of the living Jewish ethnic organism (GE p.61). (Worries about “the menace of schism” are signaled in the title and substance of a long section in SRH vol. 1 starting on p.26.) Also recognized today as reactionary is the core idea about the “intrinsic unity of Jews and Judaism,” of people and creed (SRH vol. 1, p.26). Judaism and Jewishness are interdependent and interlocked. For Baron, no line can be drawn between Jews and Judaism. The distinction for him is more apparent than real  Just as nationalism suffused traditional Judaism, Baron wants today to see Jewish religion “under one shape or another” as an “integral part” of Jewish nationalism. (SRH, vol. 1, p.27).

Historians today attend to disruption and difference. Baron did not, at least not at this stage of his career. Ghetto Judaism is positioned as a “historical religion,” marked by the “supreme power” of Law over the individual and in contrast to “all natural religions.” Deeply conservative, the “main current proceeded unperturbed in the bed carved out for it by history” (SRH vol.1, pp.3-4, 11). There is here no Judaism without the Jewish people, who are essential and indispensable, based on heritage and “blood ties of common descent” making Jews Jewish, no matter how many join, and even if this “interpenetration” does not apply to every single Jewish person. A strange thing to say for a social historian is that this living organism is not consequent upon numbers. Even though numbers are not insignificant to Baron (the difference, for instance, between thousands and millions), he still maintains that even with a community of only a few hundred Jews that  Judaism would still be “a living religion” (SRH vol.1, p.4). Evoked in the very last words of A Social and Religious History of the Jews, the “great stream of Jewish social and religious history” (p. 462) is stable, unchanging, homeostatic and reactionary.


This is the nutshell of his critique of the modern, liberal state and of its destructive impact on what is presumed to be organic Jewish community and pure ethnic Judaism. “When the modern State came into being and set out to destroy the medieval corporations and estates and to build a new citizenship, it could no longer suffer the existence of an autonomous Jewish corporation. Sooner or later, the modern state-actors had to give to the Jews equal rights in civil and public law and to impose upon them equal duties in turn. After the French Revolution, one state after the other abrogated their economic disabilities, and granted them full freedom of activity. Finally they opened public offices, elective and appointive, to Jews, and made them citizens with “equal rights” (GE 60).

The critique of the modern state is tied up with what, we note again, seems to be a recurrent resentment of Germans and German Jews. There is, for instance, the screed against liberalism and democracy towards the end of “Ghetto and Emancipation.” According to Baron, “There emerged at this point the new Wissenschaft des Judentums, intrinsically connected with Reformation and Emancipation, a movement of scholars anxious to assist the completion of the process of emancipation with their learning. Confronted by the general suspicion in which Germany and the modern world in general held the Jew, and convinced of the desirability of complete emancipation, they consciously or unconsciously sought a tool in history and evolved this argument: ‘The Jews may be bad, but if they are it is because of your persecution; change your attitude, welcome the Jews into the modern State on terms of perfect equality, and they will become good.’ Ardent advocates of liberalism and democracy, visioning a reformed society guided by beneficent rationalism, believing religiously that the world in general and the Jews particularly could be improved by an extension of rights, it is easy to see how they found it useful to take as black a view as possible of the pre-Revolutionary treatment of the Jews” (GE p.61). Read in this light the attack against  the “Jewish liberalism” of Hermann Cohen for rejecting Jewish peoplehood  in favor of “universalist Judaism” (SRH vol. 1, p 26-7).

That the political undergirding to the thesis Against Lachrymose Jewish History was ultimately destructive is shown by this strange moment in the final pages of “Ghetto and Emancipation.” This is the strange embrace of Totalitarianism as a form of heightened medievalism. Oddly placed in the essay, it appears in its final section where Baron sought to look into the near future. It is there only two short paragraphs before Baron had finally tried to sum up the balance sheet with the Emancipation (Emancipation was good for the Jews on the whole, but “not completely clear of debits”) while demanding a homeostatic balance of autonomy and equality in the modern state for ethnic minorities (GE, p.63).

Against liberal order, this political vision undergirding the first formulation was reactionary. Seeking to restore the ghetto, Baron writes in 1927 with naïve brio, “Such revaluations of the Middle Ages are part, perhaps, of a general modern tendency in historical studies, reflecting changes in our modern outlook. Liberal laissez faire is being more and more supplanted by a system of great trusts, protectionism, Fascism, Sovietism. Growing dissatisfaction with democracy and parliamentarianism has brought about a movement back to a modified medievalism. This is a medievalism on a higher plane, perhaps, but a medievalism just the same, of organization, standardization, and regulation” (GE: p.63).

There is much more about the new medievalism in the epilogue to the first edition of A Social and History of the Jews. Baron is sure that anti-Semitism was not deeply rooted in the “consciousness of the Russian masses.” In the Soviet Union, he saw a place for Jewish rights along with other ethnic nationalities (SRH, vol. 2, p.417). Italian fascism, he calls tolerant, and he upholds the Jewish community law of 1931 as having “reestablished the Jewish community as a body of public law with the right of taxation, and has thus ended a long period of anarchy and disintegration.” As Baron pointed out, “Some Jews actually hold positions of trust and confidence in the fascist party and government” (Ibid., pp.419, 420). Also Poland under Pilsudski in the interwar period “adhered in principle to Jewish equality, reestablished the Jewish community as an effective organ of religion autonomy,” and even encouraged Zionist international gatherings (Ibid, p.420). Baron defended anti-Jewish legislation as a sop to the anti-Semitic right, and did not reflect “the dictator’s anti-Jewish animus.”

Finally, about Baron’s complete misreading of Nazism in the first edition of A Social and Religious History of the Jews, see this remarkable passage cited by David Engel. The “anti-Jewish preachment of German national socialism must not conceal the fact that it is not necessarily the new social order sought by the Nazis that is overtly hostile to the Jewish people. This revolt of the German petty bourgeoisie…raged against the Jews much more because they had furnished a number of distinguished leaders to the proletarian groups…than in their capacity of capitalists. But this is more in the nature of a historical accident…. In this struggle the Hitlerites have long drawn their major financial support from capitalist circles, and reciprocated by constantly toning down their anticapitalistic exhortations. Even Jewish capitalists have been treated with comparative mildness. Thus a movement which started out to destroy ‘Jewish’ finance capital and ‘interest servitude’ has concentrated all its implacable ire upon middle-class Jewish doctors, lawyers and shopkeepers…. Economic realities, however, reassert themselves…, and various decrees of the cabinet ministers for Economics and the Interior, Schmitt, Schacht and Frick, were issued to preserve, at least temporarily, Jewish big business. Whether and how soon these economic and expansionist considerations will put an end to the excesses of racial and nationalist frenzy, it is too early to judge” (SRH, vol. 2, pp.418-19, 421-22).

On the possibility of Jews finding a place in the fascist order, Baron was attendant to the danger of statism. But there was also opportunity. “Although it is a far cry from the long and slowing growing medieval estates, these truly fraternal communities, of blood, faith, and destiny, to the artificial vocational estates of fascism, the Jewish people might stand to gain just as much as to lose, were it to be  reconstituted as one of the new corporations. But it would have to be once more a corporate body on a par with all other corporations, not an extraneous part of totalitarian intolerant entity” (SRH vol.2, p.423).

While Baron was awake to menacing questions about state worship, the worship of power, and intolerant nationalism, he still hoped that the flair up of extreme nationalism would give way to “a new, superior human unity” (SRH vol. 2, p.423). The political ideal was to create a harmony between equality and “autonomy of a sort” and “ancient ideals of peace and the brotherhood of man” (Ibid., pp.423-6). After this very strange, long detour, Baron promoted democratic socialism and internationalism (Cf. ibid, p.427). He still thought that German Jews could survive the strain. He thought that if Germany could manage to capture large territories in Lithuania, the Baltics, and the Ukraine, it would transform itself into a multi-ethnic empire, which would cool the nationalism (Ibid., p.428). The claim is that emancipation, free competition, and liberalism weakened the social and political position of the Jews vis-à-vis communism and fascism, vis-à-vis  the new era of regulation and control, the new ‘medievalism’ which seems to be dawning.”  Baron shed no tears over the “Paradise Loss” of the liberal state and of individual liberties which “threaten to vanish everywhere.” Emancipation should not be held up as a “fetish,” meaning that Jewish planners must “adjust” realistically to these new conditions (SRH, vol.2, p.429).

Reactionary and resigned to the new reality constituted by totalitarianism, this is the context in which Baron came to the theme of a new Jewish corporate body. Such a body would need not violate the equality of citizens, as long as it would be “interpreted in a less mechanical fashion.” This is what Baron meant by “repetition of the Middle Ages on a higher plane,” in which Jews would enjoy their own status “not necessarily inferior” to that of other corporate bodies. “In other words” and plainly stated, “a revocation of emancipation for the sake of corporate reconstruction” is Baron’s devil’s deal, “with the Jews reasonably well treated” (SRH vol.2, p.430). Baron understood that this was by no means a certain outcome, but, he thought, it was the one to be wished for. Against spending too much energy fighting anti-Semitism, Baron thought that the gentiles should advance the struggle, since after all anti-Semitism is a gentile problem (Ibid., p431) (cf. p.451).


David Engel wrote definitive words on Baron and “Neo-Baronianism,” namely the impact of the anti-lachrymose thesis on a generation or two of Jewish historiography. You  can find here a PDF  of “Crisis and Lachrymosity: On Salo Baron, Neobaronianism, and the Study of Modern European Jewish History.” For Engel, Neo-Baroniansm is a “fetish” and “icon” for “right thinking historians” who build on the basic thesis without paying careful attention to the difference between their worldview and Baron’s worldview. Unlike Baron, or let’s call it Baronianism, what Engel calls neo-Baronianism promotes liberal or progressive political and scholarly values, Jewish integration and integrating Jewish history into larger surrounding social and cultural structures. Against parochialism, Jewish history is a part of universal history, part of its stream and structure.

Engel points out that lachrymose was Baron’s vision of the modern period, not the medieval period. The contention is that Baron “viewed modern European Jewish history, unlike the history of European Jewry in the Middle Ages, as a story of continuous upheaval engendered by ubiquitous deep ruptures in the fabric of Jewish society, culture, and relations with others. Moreover, he strongly suggested that a primary task of contemporary Jewish historical study, far from directing attention away from that upheaval, was to probe all of its manifold dimensions, with a mind to clarifying what Jews might do to extricate themselves from it.”

A key motive in neo-Baronianism is what Engel calls, “the search for continuities, especially between the modern age and earlier eras; the turning away from themes of Jewish victimhood and insecurity in favor of stress upon achievements and successful integration; and the affirmation of the possibilities for creative Jewish existence in a diaspora – appear to define what might well be labeled a ‘neo-Baronian’ school in contemporary Jewish historiography, one committed to demonstrating and valorizing how various diaspora communities, both during the struggle for emancipation and following its completion, carried on a creative dialogue both with their surrounding societies and with Jewish traditions that resulted in the fashioning of new, positive Jewish identities and a growing sense of being truly ‘at home’ in their places of residence” (Engel, 245).

About the cultural location of Baron and neo-Baronianism in America, Engel writes, “Today Baron’s vital concern with the international context of Jewish history is hardly noted. Nor is his skepticism toward the efficacy of liberal integrationism for Jews widely acknowledged. On the contrary, the dominant representation of his historiographical agenda by those who, today, claim his mantle portrays him as one who embraced with little reservation the possibilities for Jewish creativity in the diaspora, especially those offered by open, liberal societies. This neo-Baronian representation of the master may well reflect the fact that Baron’s impact as a historian of the Jews was felt most powerfully in the United States. Perhaps what resonated most with his American Jewish devotees was his rejection of the negative Zionist prognosis concerning the possibilities of diasporic Jewish life, a rejection important for legitimizing the American Jewish project. This Americanization of Baron’s message, as it were, was facilitated no doubt by Baron’s own success in integrating himself and his work into the American academy and by his increasingly enthusiastic identification with the American and American Jewish environments beginning in the 1940s. However, it would be a mistake to assume on this basis that his disparagement of lachrymosity in the writing of Jewish history was born in America or reflected especially American sensibilities.”

But Engel notes here that the true context defining Baron’s project was European, not America, illiberal, not liberal. As per Engel, “Baron’s frame of reference in voicing that disparagement seems rather to have been primarily European. It reflected first and foremost his experiences as a Jew from east central Europe whose critical perspectives on Jewish history, contemporary Jewish life, and the world as a whole were shaped during the first third of the twentieth century. Whether those perspectives, which generated considerable hesitation regarding the usefulness of liberalism as an exordium for modern Jewish life, provide the basis for a historiographical agenda superior or inferior to the neo-Baronian platform is, of course, a question for debate. Perhaps the purposes for which historians of modern Jewry undertake their work – whatever those are or ought to be – are indeed best served by an agenda focusing attention upon continuity instead of crisis, mutually fructifying interactions between Jews and their surrounding societies, instead of conflict. Perhaps liberal Jewish leaders and the communities they led ought indeed to be celebrated for promoting and embodying an uplifting vision of the possibilities for secure and creative Jewish existence. These propositions deserve calm, careful, reasoned consideration, informed by broad erudition, detailed knowledge of specific episodes, and sophisticated analytical approaches. But such consideration is ill served by a rhetoric that prejudices its outcome through assignment of iconic status to one historian presumed to have considered those propositions long ago and to have formulated definitive positions on them and how much the greater is the damage to productive discussion when those presumptions turn out to be false! Those who would affirm a liberal, integrationist historiographical agenda need to argue their affirmation on its merits. Baron would not necessarily take their side.”


In terms of working past and alongside Baroniansm and Neo-Baronianism, I would like, finally, to turn back to Teller’s essay, particularly as it is exercised more specifically by the problem of suffering.

Central to Teller’s critique of the thesis Against Lachrymose Jewish History is a deconstruction of the binary distinction between “normalcy” and “persecution” that structures Baron’s thinking about Jewish history. Teller more than suggests that these are not two separate things that can be neatly separated from each other in Jewish history or in human experience.  How to square cooperation and crisis. Teller goes on to identify two models by which to conceive history and historical trauma: the co-operative frame and the crisis frame.

Teller points in specific to sociologist Anthony Oberschall’s study of ethnic violence between Serbs and Croats in the 1990s. What Teller finds useful is the distinction between “two frames of thought on ethnic relations that both groups held concurrently. The first was a “co-operative frame,” which allowed Croats and Serbs to live in peace for long periods. However, alongside that, they both held what he called a “crisis frame,” anchored in family history and collective memory of wars, ethnic atrocities and brutality. For long periods of time, these feelings of fear, hatred and loathing, though present in the minds of both Serbs and Croats, were not dominant, allowing for peaceful co-existence. However, they always remained below the surface, and could be activated in times of crisis. This, it seems to me, is a model that might help explain the fluctuation between periods of co-operation and periods of violence in Jewish history without one or another becoming a dominant pattern.”

As for Teller’s conclusion.  “What this paper is suggesting, however, is that the dichotomy Baron drew between normalcy and persecution, which allowed him to downplay the significance of violence and antisemitism as factors in the historical process, was too sharp. The everyday life that he wanted to understand in order to assess the complete range of factors that shaped Jewish history was not an arena free of violence and persecution––and certainly not of their consequences. In almost every time and place, Jewish societies found themselves dealing with difficult and troublesome issues of persecution and its after-effects.”

If I have cribbed Engel and Teller overmuch for this very long blogpost, it has to do with the excellence of their critical view and my own reliance on the work of Jewish historians for understanding the body of data which is the purview of their disciplinary field. As a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy in a department of Religion, I want to make this penultimate comment. It is more like a confession.  Teaching a quick historical survey to medieval Jewish history in the context of an introduction to Judaism or courses in modern Jewish thought and culture, I never quite knew what to do with the thesis. I knew or was trained to know that something was wrong with lachrymose version of medieval Jewish history in the Christian world. And I presented that version openly as just a dated historiographical construct that did not do justice to the data. But what about the unhappy chronicle? If at the end of this post I have come away with anything it is this. Better than flat assertions meant to contribute to the genre of counter-history are models like the one used by Teller (derived from sociology, not history) that are better equipped to negotiate the kinds of social tensions characteristic of Jewish history.


Who am I to say? To stave off any personal embarrassment that attends my own needing to make these remarks about Anti-Lachrymose History, untrained in historical research as they are, I want to conclude here with an insight drawn about from Religious Studies about the difference between “Baron” and Baroniansm.

By “Baron,” I simply mean the historian, a giant in the annals of modern Jewish Studies scholarship, and the larger written oeuvre, which is immense and beyond my capacity to assess as historiography. The mosaic brilliance of the mature oeuvre is established in the “second and enlarged” edition of A Social and Religious History of the Jews. Medieval Jewish history appears there variegated. Chapter and topic headings spread out to recreate a social and religious world. There are linguistic renaissance, worship, belles-lettres, meeting of east and west, economic transformations, religious controls and dissension, schism, law, homily, philosophy and science, including medicine. This is non-lachrymose Jewish history. The picture is beautiful. No longer peculiar and emergent, a social and religious history of the Jews appears in “the second and enlarged” edition in its fully realized and almost perfect form.

Baronianism, on the other hand, is as much an ideological even theological artifact as it is a methodological first principle in the study of Jewish history. It occupies an important place as a myth of origins in the constitution of modern Jewish Studies, and about this I hope I have had something to say that is maybe worthwhile. In retrospect, the original formulation of the thesis Against Lachrymose Jewish History is itself a curious historical object that belongs to a place and time and to anxieties peculiar to the interwar period. The original thesis is stated against emancipation and liberal rights and in support for a view of Jewish social and religious history that is organic and whole, composed of interlocked and continuous parts. The political impulse is reactionary submission to the dynamism of religious and political authority. The religious impulse is reactionary submission to the ebb and flow of history itself. At the same time and to the point of being callous about human suffering, the nostalgia that inflects the thesis does little to undermine the lachrymose appearance of the ghetto the first incarnation of this social and religious history of the Jews.

In The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History, David Myers mentions Baron, Engel, and the study of Jewish history as cultural consolation (Stakes of History, p.62). About Baron’s testimony at the Eichmann trial, Myers notes that Baron “lapsed into a kind of mystical reverie,” which Myers parenthetically calls an “occupational hazard” of Jewish “macrohistorians” forced to come to some explanation of the survival of the Jews (Stakes of History, p.88). Based on my own understanding of the earlier material, I would conclude that this was no mere lapse. It was a feature of the system, not a bug.

From my own professional academic perch in Religious Studies and Jewish philosophy, I am genuinely curious about my colleagues in history. What do they see and what do they not see? What about those reactionary features and their theological character that determine the first formulations of Baron’s thesis? Unless they forgot what’s in it, how could anyone recommend the epilogue to the first edition of A Social and Religious History of the Jews except as a historical curio in its own right? Actually unsurprising is that scholars-colleagues working today in Jewish Studies by and large continue to lay easy and automatic claim to this talisman of a thesis. It is in the nature of a mantra. Being themselves historians, critics like Engel and Teller pay the lion’s share of attention to questions that are specific to the field. Their questions concern whether or not the thesis does justice to the history. In contrast, my own interest has hinged on matters related to the internal consistency and ideological and the theological characteristics of the original thesis-statement. About historians and the institution of historiography, I am pretty sure about this. Not surprising at all, we should have already suspected that it is in the nature of a religious object to smooth over and to mask the rough and true marks of its own latent content and messy genesis.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Anti-Lachrymose Jewish History = A Lachrymose Theological & Reactionary Object (Salo Baron)

  1. Amos Bitzan says:

    I have long thought about this essay and the many interpretations to which it has been put. I am glad you have written up such a detailed set of thoughts and arguments. I hope to take up your challenge occasionally over the coming weeks.

    • zjb says:

      thank you for the kind word, Amos. The trick to me is how to suss out the thesis pro and con, while keeping an eye on its messy origins. I think Teller gets its pretty much right down the middle, namely how to sort through the quotidian and everyday interactions between jews and non-jews alongside and with that more lachrymose edge. But in the end, i’m more interested in “discourse,” not being a historian myself.

  2. Pingback: Reframing Time to Save the Nation: The Jewish Historian as Cultural Trickster – Chronologics. Periodisation in a Global Context

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