Jewish History and Its Relevance for Today

Book review of TURNING POINTS IN JEWISH HISTORY by Marc J. Rosenstein. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2018)

Jewish History is a multifaceted and complex sub field of Jewish Studies which, like many other fields has developed many specialties and sub-specialties as this academic enterprise has mushroomed and expanded greatly in recent decades in Israel, America and many other countries. But most Jews do not specialize in particular areas of Jewish history; instead, they are interested in an overview which will give them the broad picture, the major trends, and the impact of this history on their lives today.

Now Jews and non-Jews in the English-speaking world have a superb new book which enables them to learn Jewish history in a comprehensive and innovative way. Written by a master Jewish educator and erudite Jewish historian, this book will be invaluable for rabbis, educators, and Jewish history professors who are looking for a great new resource for their adult education, high school and university classes.

What is unique about this book is both its creative methodology and its content, which is well researched, up to date, and rigorously relevant for our time. In his introduction to the book, Rosenstein shares with us his hopes for the book:

I envision Turning Points in Jewish History as a tool for individual or group study of the sweep of the history of the Jewish people from its biblical beginnings until the early twenty-first century. I hope that it will provide a window on the complex interaction of national identity, religious faith, individual choice, and environmental factors that have driven that history forward.

Anyone who reads this book, or uses it to teach a course on Jewish history, will discover, as I did, that Rosenstein’s hopes have been fulfilled.

Rosenstein was educated in America and Israel. He holds a B.A. from Harvard, rabbinical ordination from HUC-JIR in New York, and a doctorate in Jewish History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A graduate of the Jerusalem Fellows program, he was an active Jewish educator in America, and then for the last 25 years in Israel, especially in the Galilee, where he has lived on Moshav Shorashim since he made aliyah to Israel in 1990, until his retirement in 2013.  Rosenstein was director of Makom Bagalil (A Place in the Galilee), an important educational organisation in the Western Galilee which planned and implemented creative programs for Jews and Arabs in the northern part of Israel, as well as for Diaspora Jews who visited Israel on study tours. He also directed the Israeli rabbinic training program of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem for six years and taught in the program as well until his retirement from that institution in 2015. In addition, he wrote a wonderful weekly informative and interesting blog called “Galilee Diary” for 17 years (2000-2017) for the Union for Reform Judaism, which published selected blog posts from this blog in a book of the same name in 2010.

This new book is very well organised. Each of the 30 chapters—which begin with Abraham and end with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Liberation of Soviet Jewry in 1989– is devoted to one turning point and each follows a set format that includes:

  • A survey of the historical background
  • A brief timeline to locate the moment chronologically and provide some context
  • A primary text that offers insight into how the Jews understood their experience, with commentary by Rosenstein
  • A section called “Legacy” which offers an analysis of why the turning point was indeed a turning point and a survey of how the memory of the events has been preserved
  • A short trigger text to stimulate discussion about the significance of the turning point
  • And a brief bibliography for further study.

I found Rosenstein’s discussions about the memory and the impact of each turning point to be particularly well done, often with references to the contemporary events of our time. For example, in his chapter on “The Jewish State—Proclaiming and Defending Independence, 1948” (pp. 341-359), he writes about two historical dilemmas which continue to trouble those concerned, like myself, with the state’s spiritual and political life. And he does it by raising fundamental questions:

What is the meaning of the state? Is it a stage in the progress of messianic redemption, outside of normal history, guided by biblical prophecy? Or is it a normal historical nation-state, required to play by the same rules as other modern states?… The early twentieth-century dream of homogeneous ethnic nation-states has proved to be an illusion. Ethnic purity is not morally possible and probably undesirable, and no nation can stand alone and dictate its own historical trajectory solely on the basis of its military and economic strength. What, then, should be the guiding model of the Jewish state regarding its internal cultural and religious structure and its relations with the rest of the world?

These are profound questions that Zionist and Israeli thinkers have been wrestling with for a hundred years or more. And they continue to challenge us to this very day.

Rosenstein ends his book with a brilliant “Afterward” which summarizes some of the many themes of the book and leaves us with some essential questions to ponder. He focuses on the nature of Jewish identity, the challenge of keeping the covenant vital, the intertwined issues of catastrophe, hope and faith, how to read the map of history, and the pace of change. These are all themes which he dealt with comprehensively in many chapters of this captivating book. And he ends the book with some major questions for us to think about:

Today, Judaism faces new challenges in an ever-changing world in which the drive for unlimited freedom clashes with forces seeking to uphold traditional authorities. How will the Jewish nation—and the Jewish religion—evolve and adapt to all this? What new forms, new beliefs, new understandings, and new communities will take root and flourish?  To be continued…

Perhaps Rosenstein will address these central challenges of Jewish contemporary life—or at least some of them– in his next book, which we will look forward to read as much as we enjoyed and appreciated this current book which offers us a sweeping view of Jewish history, one that is totally relevant and related to the complex times in which we live.


About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttelfield, in September 2017. He recently (September 2022) published a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine entitled Profiles in Peace: Voices of Peacebuilders in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is available on Amazon Books, Barnes and Noble and the Book Depository websites,