The Bible Scholar Who Didn’t Know Hebrew

Many giants walked the crumbling streets of Morningside Heights in the 1960s and 1970s: Salo Baron and Saul Lieberman, Paul Oskar Kristeller and Meyer Schapiro, Richard Hofstadter and Morton Smith. None of them cut a more striking figure in the humdrum American academic scene, and none of them was more alienated from it, than Elias Bickerman. This Russian historian of the ancient world, born in Kishinev and educated in St. Petersburg and Berlin, had taught in Berlin and Paris before he came to the United States. He spoke English with a heavy accent and when words failed him he invented new ones. Bickerman disliked most American students and could be harshly critical of the few who wrote dissertations for him. A man of the right, he liked to talk about how he had fought Communists as a young officer in the White army during the Russian civil war and to state his conviction that women’s “scholarly careers would always be aborted by biology”—not postures designed to win him friends in the largely liberal world of the university. In demeanor he had less in common with the sovereign German émigrés who transformed the humanities than with Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin: the Russian scholar bumbling through a landscape in which he could never be at home.

Though Bickerman worked closely at times with masters of Jewish studies, he refused to learn Hebrew—even when, in his last years, he began to spend a portion of each summer in Bat Yam, outside Tel Aviv. Though he did not observe the commandments or the Sabbath, he turned up at the Jewish Theological Seminary  synagogue to hear the Book of Esther read at Purim—but refused to take off his tallit even when told it was not customary to wear one in the evening. Yet this specialist in some of the most arcane areas of classical studies, who proclaimed that he had “lost the holy tongue,” was internationally revered as one of the greatest historians of the Jews. And rightly so. As Albert Baumgarten shows in his rich and fascinating biography, no scholar of the twentieth century did more than Bickerman to transform our understanding of Jewish life and thought after the return from the Babylonian exile.

It is not easy to see Bickerman whole. Like so many of the great European scholars of his generation, he liked to tell stories about himself. Many of them were exaggerated, some wholly false. Sometimes simple vanity inspired Bickerman’s bragging. He liked to describe his dramatic escape from occupied Europe on an airplane, accompanied by a female “friend” whom he had fought to bring with him. In fact, Bickerman crossed the Atlantic on the SS Nyassa, with his wife. Baumgarten suggests that he drew his story from the movie “Casablanca.” The son of a prominent Russian Jewish journalist who became an articulate opponent of the Bolsheviks, Bickerman hated the fact that so many of the leaders of the Revolution were Jewish: He shared his father’s loathing of the “Kommikike” conspiracy. Yet, as Baumgarten shows, it is most unlikely that the notoriously anti-Semitic Whites allowed Bickerman to join their forces. In fact, he probably served in the Red army.

As if Bickerman himself had not confused matters enough, his friends, colleagues, and students also liked  to tell stories. Many of these were infected by Bickerman’s lies and exaggerations, and others by the sort of secondary elaboration that grows up around great scholars, as around saints. Though Baumgarten admires Bickerman, with whom he studied at Columbia, he also knows the great man’s weaknesses. (When he checked Bickerman’s footnotes for a collection of his articles, he found that 10% of the references were wrong.) He is at once an admiring and a critical biographer, and his approach yields impressive results. By imaginative and unrelenting research in public and private archives around the world and close reading of documents in many languages, he has sifted the wheat in the oral tradition from the larger amount of chaff, devised a credible narrative of Bickerman’s life, and proposed a complex, largely cogent account of his accomplishments.

Like many of the great Jewish scholars who transformed American and British universities, Bickerman devoted himself, when he was young, not to Hebrew and Aramaic but to Greek and Latin. Like many of them, too, he found his intellectual home in the world of German scholarship. He began studying ancient history at St. Petersburg with Michael Rostovtzeff, a pioneer in interdisciplinary history who taught him to combine archaeological with historical evidence. After Bickerman’s family left Russia for Berlin, he soon won the respect and support of the papyrologist Ulrich Wilcken and the universal scholar Ulrich von Wilamomitz-Moellendorff. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the rubbish dumps of Egypt yielded vast numbers of texts written in Greek on papyrus, ranging from works of literature or philosophy that had previously been unknown to public or private documents that revealed the everyday life of Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians. Bickerman learned how to date, authenticate, and read these rich but difficult texts. He had a gift for solving the puzzles papyri posed. More important-so he himself believed-he had an even more unusual gift for extrapolating from them. Given random series of official documents, Bickerman could reconstruct the bureaucracies that had produced them with an almost magical precision. Where hypercritical German scholars had made their careers doubting the official documents that the Jewish historian Josephus and other writers quoted, Bickerman compared them to the papyri and proved that they were basically genuine.

Yet the arc of Bickerman’s career was anything but smooth. The Berlin faculty rejected the work that he submitted for his “Habilitation”—the second process, subsequent to the awarding of the doctorate, which traditionally gave German scholars the right to teach. Though they accepted his second effort, and his articles had already established his international reputation, Bickerman did his best to cover up his failure, and pretended that he had been on the verge of being appointed a professor in Germany when the Nazi takeover forced him into a second exile. Though French scholars admired Bickerman’s work immensely and the Rockefeller Foundation and the École des Hautes Études provided financial support, he found that he would need to earn yet another degree—his time the French Doctorate of Letters—before he could receive a long-term post. He showed immense fortitude in these dark times. Through the French defeat and the initial occupation of Paris, he continued to do research and to publish work of formidable quality. Finally Rostovtzeff, who was now at Yale, persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation to bring Bickerman to the United States, just in time. After spells of poorly paid and sometimes miserable teaching at The New School and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, he landed at Columbia in 1952. There, with unwearied industry, he continued his exploration of the Jewish world that took shape in the Hellenistic period, under the successors of Alexander the Great, and the “strange books of the Bible,” as he called them, that were written then.

Bickerman always described himself as an ancient historian—a specialist in the interpretation of Greek and Latin sources and an expert on the history of the ancient pagan world. But he always loved to take what he described as holidays, working on specifically Jewish sources. And when on holiday he always noticed things that others had not. In 1937, he brought out a short and magnificently polemical book called The God of the Maccabees. In the second century B.C.E., the Seleucid King Antiochus IV supported the introduction of Greek customs, such as naked athletic practice and the worship of idols, into Israel. By doing so he unleashed a revolution. Antiochus, Bickerman argued, did this not because he himself wanted to change the way Jews lived: that was not normal Seleucid policy. Rather, he accepted an invitation that came to him from the wealthiest and most influential of the Jews themselves, who wanted to make their people cosmopolitan. When the Maccabees resisted him, they were preserving Judaism from an internal, not an external, threat.

Much later, Bickerman turned to the genealogy of religious authority that appears at the start of Pirkei Avot: “Moses received the Torah at Sinai; and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: ‘Be careful in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.'” In earlier times, Bickerman argued, Jews had not devoted themselves collectively to study. The priests interpreted the Law. In Greece, by contrast, independent philosophers began very early to see their discussions as central to the discovery of truth. They soon began to draw up genealogies that described how each thinker in turn had learned from and disagreed with his teacher. The Pharisees, Bickerman argued, adapted this Greek view of teaching and came to see themselves as a school in the Greek sense—even as they continued to find the truth in the Law and its interpretations. In this and other cases, central Jewish intellectual practices emerged not from an autonomous community but from one whose leaders knew they lived in a changing world and searched for ways to bring their message up to date.

From the start, Bickerman’s interpretation of the Maccabees provoked criticism. He rested his case primarily on late sources, and he could not explain why the Book of Daniel failed to mention the cosmopolitan rebels against the Law whom he conjured up. But no better thesis has yet been devised, and the God of the Maccabees—which reportedly gave Salman Schocken more pleasure than any other book he published—continues to stir debate. Bickerman’s interpretation of the tradition of the Pharisees has found widespread assent and continues to stimulate new work, as do many of his other arguments about Jewish texts. Very few of Bickerman’s colleagues are still living presences in research. He is.

And here is the real mystery. Bickerman knew little Hebrew and Aramaic. He had no direct access to the interpretative traditions or to scholarship in Hebrew. Yet he reinterpreted texts and events with such insight that he transformed the way scholars understood Jewish history. The legendarily critical historians at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem seem to have tried to create a job for him as early as the 1930s. Jewish scholars continued, throughout his life and after, to learn from and respond to his work. It sounds like a story by a Jewish version of James Thurber: Walter Mitty wakes up one day and decides that he will become a great historian of the Jews. He tells his rabbi, who threatens to put him in the booby hatch. In the end, though, the rabbi winds up in the booby hatch, while Walter Mitty bestrides the crumbling sidewalks of Morningside Heights, thrilling readers of the learned journals.

Baumgarten—a modest and self-critical scholar who has thought hard about the gaps in the biographical record—does not venture to explain this mystery in full. He does make clear that Bickerman’s interest in Jewish studies derived from a strong, if peculiar Jewish identity. A lovely piece of scholarly detective work enables him to connect Bickerman’s view of the Maccabees and their opponents to the world in which he lived. Antiochus and the Hellenizers, Bickerman argued, wanted to root out “everything which smacked of separation, of the ‘ghetto'”: Sabbath observance, for example, and beards. Ancient Jews were often mocked for refusing to fight on the Sabbath, never for wearing beards. But in nineteenth-century Russia and Germany, modernizers urged Jews to shave. Evidently, contemporary conditions inspired Bickerman to explain why the martyrdom of the Maccabees had been worthwhile. Archival detective work enriches the picture. In later years, Bickerman wrote on the backs of old correspondence. Many of these letters came from Jewish charitable institutions, to which he clearly contributed: further evidence of his commitment to Judaism.

Close reading of Bickerman’s works reveals that he chose particular masters from the past scholarly tradition: the Renaissance scholar Joseph Scaliger, for example, and the nineteenth-century philologist and Orthodox Jew Jacob Bernays, who had written Scaliger’s biography. Like Bickerman, these men had never pursued a narrow classical agenda. They studied an ancient world populated by Jews as well as Greeks and Romans, and used Jewish texts as deftly as they did pagan ones. Bickerman’s loyalty to these models was so great that he deliberately deceived himself about them, ignoring Scaliger’s many remarks about the mendacity of Hellenistic Jews in favor of his passionate efforts to interpret Jewish sources in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and to set them in a context that assumed that Jews and non-Jews interacted. Evidently, Bickerman’s carefully constructed self-image virtually forced him to study Jews as well as Greeks and Romans.

Yet part of the mystery remains. Bickerman, it seems, had a kind of occult natural ability to see texts as they were and to recreate the circumstances in which they were created. When Richard Feynman contemplated a problem in physics, he knew, somehow, what to do—even when he had read none of the literature. When Bickerman read a Jewish text, something similar took place. He may have come as a hobbyist, but he stayed as a historian, conquering a whole world of texts and problems in his spare time.

One of the sages of the Second Temple period, Antigonus of Socho, taught: “Do not serve the master on condition of receiving a peras.” Maimonides and other commentators traditionally explained peras as a reward over and above what is earned—which made Antigonus the sponsor of a neat moral lesson. But in 1951 Bickerman argued in the Harvard Theological Review that the traditional interpretation was wrong. Antigonus offered Jews who despaired under persecution a harsh morality: They must serve God even if they received absolutely nothing in return, not even a bare living. For all his insistence that he visited both Jewish tradition and the State of Israel when on holiday, Bickerman devoted himself to Jewish history at times when he had almost nothing to live on and no reward to hope for. Somehow, he turned his complex, sometimes arcane scholarship into a distinctive and rewarding form of Jewish life.

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