Jewish History. by Simon Dubnow - HTML preview

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The author of the present essay, S. M. Dubnow, occupies a well-nigh

dominating position in Russian-Jewish literature as an historian and

an acute critic. His investigations into the history of the

Polish-Russian Jews, especially his achievements in the history of

Chassidism, have been of fundamental importance in these departments.

What raises Mr. Dubnow far above the status of the professional

historian, and awakens the reader's lively interest in him, is not so

much the matter of his books, as the manner of presentation. It is

rare to meet with an historian in whom scientific objectivity and

thoroughness are so harmoniously combined with an ardent temperament

and plastic ability. Mr. Dubnow's scientific activity, first and last,

is a striking refutation of the widespread opinion that identifies

attractiveness of form in the work of a scholar with superficiality of

content. Even his strictly scientific investigations, besides offering

the scholar a wealth of new suggestions, form instructive and

entertaining reading matter for the educated layman. In his critical

essays, Mr. Dubnow shows himself to be possessed of keen psychologic

insight. By virtue of this quality of delicate perception, he aims to

assign to every historical fact its proper place in the line of

development, and so establish the bond between it and the general

history of mankind. This psychologic ability contributes vastly to the

interest aroused by Mr. Dubnow's historical works outside of the

limited circle of scholars. There is a passage in one of his books[1]

in which, in his incisive manner, he expresses his views on the limits

and tasks of historical writing. As the passage bears upon the methods

employed in the present essay, and, at the same time, is a

characteristic specimen of our author's style, I take the liberty of


"The popularization of history is by no means to be pursued to the

detriment of its severely scientific treatment. What is to be guarded

against is the notion that tedium is inseparable from the scientific

method. I have always been of the opinion that the dulness commonly

looked upon as the prerogative of scholarly inquiries, is not an

inherent attribute. In most cases it is conditioned, not by the nature

of the subject under investigation, but by the temper of the

investigator. Often, indeed, the tediousness of a learned disquisition

is intentional: it is considered one of the polite conventions of the

academic guild, and by many is identified with scientific thoroughness

and profound learning.... If, in general, deadening, hide-bound caste

methods, not seldom the cover for poverty of thought and lack of

cleverness, are reprehensible, they are doubly reprehensible in

history. The history of a people is not a mere mental discipline, like

botany or mathematics, but a living science, a _magistra vitae_,

leading straight to national self-knowledge, and acting to a certain

degree upon the national character. History is a science _by_ the

people, _for_ the people, and, therefore, its place is the open

forum, not the scholar's musty closet. We relate the events of the

past to the people, not merely to a handful of archaeologists and

numismaticians. We work for national self-knowledge, not for our own

intellectual diversion."

[1] In the introduction to his _Historische Mitteilungen,

Vorarbeiten zu einer Geschichte der pol-nischrussischen


These are the principles that have guided Mr. Dubnow in all his works,

and he has been true to them in the present essay, which exhibits in a

remarkably striking way the author's art of making "all things seem

fresh and new, important and attractive." New and important his essay

undoubtedly is. The author attempts, for the first time, a psychologic

characterization of Jewish history. He endeavors to demonstrate the

inner connection between events, and develop the ideas that underlie

them, or, to use his own expression, lay bare the soul of Jewish

history, which clothes itself with external events as with a bodily

envelope. Jewish history has never before been considered from this

philosophic point of view, certainly not in German literature. The

present work, therefore, cannot fail to prove stimulating. As for the

poet's other requirement, attractiveness, it is fully met by the work

here translated. The qualities of Mr. Dubnow's style, as described

above, are present to a marked degree. The enthusiasm flaming up in

every line, coupled with his plastic, figurative style, and his

scintillating conceits, which lend vivacity to his presentation, is

bound to charm the reader. Yet, in spite of the racy style, even the

layman will have no difficulty in discovering that it is not a clever

journalist, an artificer of well-turned phrases, who is speaking to

him, but a scholar by profession, whose foremost concern is with

historical truth, and whose every statement rests upon accurate,

scientific knowledge; not a bookworm with pale, academic blood

trickling through his veins, but a man who, with unsoured mien, with

fresh, buoyant delight, offers the world the results laboriously

reached in his study, after all evidences of toil and moil have been

carefully removed; who derives inspiration from the noble and the

sublime in whatever guise it may appear, and who knows how to

communicate his inspiration to others.

The translator lays this book of an accomplished and spirited

historian before the German public. He does so in the hope that it

will shed new light upon Jewish history even for professional

scholars. He is confident that in many to whom our unexampled past of

four thousand years' duration is now _terra incognita_, it will

arouse enthusiastic interest, and even to those who, like the

translator himself, differ from the author in religious views, it will

furnish edifying and suggestive reading. J. F.