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Torah Judaism and the Clio Muth by Professor Yoseph Udelson
Torah Judaism and the Clio Muth by Professor Yoseph Udelson

Volume 5 , Issue 1

Debates over ethical issues ranging from generic engineering to animal rights often revolve around the assumption that all values necessarily arise from within history as a product of social interaction and evolve as social interaction itself evolves. Thus, it is supposed, that as society changes, so must its values. But although a broad spectrum of people within Western society find these assumptions obvious, they are, in reality, actually the central presuppositions of the Clio myth.

Myths of all sorts are extraordinarily common phenomena found in almost every human culture. They serve as the authorized transmitter of those received values which structure and organize knowledge and authority in a particular society. However, for their adherents, these are not ?myths? at all, but, instead, evident axiomatic truths. They are perceived as ?myths? only by outsiders, by those who never, or no longer, accept the authority of the myth. Hence, the Clio myth often passes among us unnoticed and accepted as obviously factual.

Unlike examples from ancient or Eastern religious cultures that we would quickly identify as mythic, the Clio myth is a secular myth, a covert deification of history that is commonly accepted by Westerners as factual and indisputable.1 Nonetheless, it is not! For fundamental to the myth is the notion that it is primarily through historical evidence that we arrive at knowledge of human nature and the evolution of its cultural values, claims for which there is not only no empirical evidence, but which the actual historical record frequently contradicts.

Powerful Influence

The myth itself inadvertently originated in 1725 with the publication of the first edition of The New Science by an obscure professor of Latin Eloquence at the University of Naples, Giambattista Vico.2 Although generally ignored during the eighteenth century, Vico's work became one of the most powerful ideological influences of the succeeding two centuries. Although intended as a pioneering study of the anthropological significance of myth, folklore, and history, Vico's theories themselves became transmogrified into one of the most extraordinarily fecund fantasies of modern thought, the Clio myth.

Vico's New Science was intended as an innovative parallel to the ?old science,? physics. Accepting the eighteenth century's misguided dualism propounding an essential separation between ?mind? and ?matter,? and granting that the mechanistic physical sciences provide the most appropriate procedures for the investigation of ?matter,? Vico proposed to formulate principles by which his ?new science? could be employed for the investigation of ?mind?.

In his book, Vico explains that while the objects studied by the physical sciences are characterized by uniformity and universality, the subjects explored by his ?new science? are, conversely, characterized by individuality and variety. These distinctions, he argues, are essential to comprehend why it is that the ?old sciences? must invariably fail to provide appropriate methodologies for investigating the historical human record. Rather, history must be explored by an innovative methodology employing novel techniques. And central to these new techniques were the analyses of mythologies, folk traditions, linguistic style, and social customs and institutions.

It was Vico's insistence on the variegated nature of history and his emphasis on the underlying truths that the study of myth and folklore reveal which attracted such an extensive audience for his ?new science? during the succeeding two centuries. Influenced by German Romanticism and Idealism, students such as the nineteenth century's brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson and the twentieth century's Joseph Campbell, set about collecting folk tales and legends. Similarly influenced, Karl Marx cobbled together his ?scientific socialism.?

Passionate Activists

None of these investigators were simply disinterested researchers; instead, they were passionate activists in the great nineteenth and twentieth century venture of constructing ethnic identities and defining cultural patrimonies. According to the emerging Clio myth, as misconstrued from Vico and then as embellished during the following centuries by its practitioners, evolutionary history alone possesses the capacity to ?reveal? the unique ?spirit? of each ethnic group or class through the careful study of its folk beliefs, religious practices, and socioeconomic customs, thereby defining its distinctive character. Thus adherents of the Clio myth presumed that it is only through a thorough exposition of the ever evolving history of a particular people that sure access may be gained to its unique personality. History became no longer the mere chronicling of the past, but instead the anthropomorphized mythic ?bestower of authentic identity,? the fount of ultimate human truth. And it is with these delusions that the Clio myth provided the nurture to those baleful theories from which, in the twentieth century, arose the miasmic plagues of Nazism and Leninism.3

The basic presupposition underlying the Clio myth is the assertion that the fundamental truths about human nature and existence are not to be derived from Divine revelation nor from mechanistic science, but rather are to be extrapolated through human agency from human history. Man, not God, nor ineluctable physical law, determines truth as it is discovered in, and made by, other human beings in the course of history. Thus, claims the Clio myth, mundane human history, itself the product of the human mind and its activities, displaces Divine revelation as the sole authentic source of truth, leaving no role whatsoever for the guidance of Divine Providence; furthermore, this history can be interpreted only by other human beings, viz., secular professional historians and philosophers. Mankind, not the Divine, insists the Clio myth, is the maker and master of its own destiny, and history is its vehicle of revelation. Such has become the grotesque fate of Vico's unwitting ?new science.?

Vico Wrong

Whatever Vico's genuine contributions to historiography might be, his speculative philosophy of history, his ?new science? so eagerly embraced by Romantics and Idealists, is unquestionably wrong, an egregious muddle. As empirical studies in historical anthropology have repeatedly shown, history simply does not pattern itself on Vico's model or, indeed, on any of the variant models of the Clio myth.

Chimerical Standard

Reflective historians acknowledge that there are, in fact, no ?true? histories, only accurate ones. But among historians there exists no single criterion by which to gauge this chimerical standard, ?accuracy.? Indeed, it is precisely this very indeterminacy of history that excites historical debates and fosters scholarly creativity. But in Vico's sense, there simply is no inherent objectifiable ?meaning? or ?truth? whatsoever discoverable within history. It is not ?history? which determines what is true about humanity, but, on the contrary, very human historians who determine what ?meaning? history conveys and what is ?true? history. Any claim to the contrary can be demonstrated to be fallacious.

However, in one particular way, Vico was truly extraordinarily perceptive: he profoundly appreciated the relationship of the Jewish people to the historical process and therefore also to mythology.

With regard to myths, Vico understood that, in some fashion, they originate from, and serve to fulfill, a fundamental primitive social psychological instinct. However, he correctly appreciated that myths are not necessarily the product of some linear evolutionary process inexorably extending from animism to ethical monotheism, as Joseph Campbell would claim two centuries later. Quite the contrary! Vico understood that myths may function as surrogates for former knowledge of the genuinely Transcendental after the blandishments of the senses and their passional intellect have corrupted Truth, when the instinctual human need for the Transcendent has, instead, surrendered to the delusive artifices of puerile imagination.

Vico's repudiation of an evolutionary interpretation of mythology can be traced to his profound understanding of the exceptional relationship of the Jewish people to his ?principles of a new science? of history. With superb insight, Vico recognizes and repeatedly remarks that the principles of the ?new science? apply only to the ?gentile? peoples of the world.4 The Jewish people are singularly exempt from them, for Jewish history is not the subject of any conglomeration of fixed natural laws, but is rather altogether beyond mundane historical causation and explanation. Instead, it is subject solely to the guidance of Divine Providence. Thus, the Jews are truly the unparalleled and unvarying exception to the ?new science,? the one people to whom the ?principles? and explanations of history do not apply. Jewish history, then, is a matter strictly between them and God! Interpretation of Jewish history is, therefore, not within the purview of the ?new science,? but belongs wholly to the realm of Divine Providence as it is revealed in the Tanach and as this revelation applies to the historical experiences of this chosen people throughout time.

No Mythology

According to Vico, a fundamental distinguishing factor between Jewish history and that of all other peoples, viz., those subject to the ?new science,? is signaled by the total absence among the Jews of the first necessary stage of the historical cycle all gentile nations experience, that of mythology; in fact, explains Vico, Torah Judaism is founded upon, and displays, an utter antipathy for all mythologies, in remarkable contrast to every other people.5 For Vico, this implacable enmity against all myths is the one scientific indicator that the Jewish people do, indeed, reside historically beyond the domain of the merely natural, and that marks their history as Providentially guided. For all of his grandiose claims for his ?new science,? Vico ‑ unlike the later votaries of the Clio myth ‑ readily admitted that it had a insurmountable limitation: the scientifically inexplicable history of the Jews.

Vico's repeated references to the absence of, and hostility toward, mythology among faithful Jews is, indeed, a most distinctive characteristic of Torah Judaism. Judaism abhors myths! The clearest evidence for this radical repudiation of mythology is the Torah itself. Bereshit, and the following four books of the Torah, begins with an account of the creation of the physical universe and of mundane man. There is no evident account of anything preceding this creation, including any sort of ?biography? of the Divine Creator. Furthermore, the human participants in Torah narratives are presented with all their very human strengths and frailties, from the very first of fallible mankind, Adam, through to the most eminent, Moshe. The first recipients of the revelation of the Torah must truly have been astonished by the conspicuous absence from its narratives of any mythic references to the fabulous empyreal and earthly accounts of deities and heroes that so characterized all other people' stories of the creation of the universe and its human inhabitants, accounts with which they would surely have been familiar when enslaved in that land so suffused with the mythic, Egypt.

Judaism Anti‑Mythic

As if to emphasize what then would have been most obvious both to the Children of Israel and to their often hostile neighbors was the anti‑mythic medium of the Torah text itself. For there is an extraordinarily conspicuous difference between the literary format of the Torah and that of all the sophisticated pagan mythologies that characterize the civilizations of the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the various Mesopotamian cultures, post‑Torah Magian Persians, and the post‑Biblical Hellenistic Greeks. While the mythic creation accounts of all the latter are invariably chronicled in poetry, the Torah narrative is startling for its insistence on presenting its narrative almost exclusively in prose.6 What a powerful message the literary style must have communicated both to the Jewish people and to their pagan neighbors!

Thus, it is not Vico, then, but the Divinely revealed Torah which separates the Jewish people from all others and establishes them on a completely different historical course than every other nation. And since the Torah was given only once, at the revelation to the Children of Israel at Sinai, and since it is the Torah alone which elevates the Jews beyond the mundane boundaries of human history, only this one people, the Jews, are the exceptions to natural historical causation and interpretation.

Unfortunately, since the abomination of the golden calf at Sinai, there have always been those Jews who rebel against this singularity and yearn to be regarded as a nation like all other nations. It was against just such deluded Jewish mimics of their idolatrous neighbors that Moshe and the Prophets ceaselessly admonished, and it was against their ideological descendants, those admirers of Greek culture, that the Maccabees were compelled to wage war in their defense of unalloyed Torah and mitzvot. However disappointing, it is, nonetheless, not surprising that the myths of modernity have similarly succeeded in seducing a coterie of Jewish devotees.

Offended by Vico's historically accurate exclusion of the Jewish people from his otherwise inclusive causal laws of history, during the nineteenth century a clique of primarily secularized German Jews organized a new Jewish ?discipline,? the pretentiously named Wissenschaft des Judentums. The term ?Wissenschaft,? i.e., ?science,? is the operative word in the title, overtly declaring its programmatic intention of forcibly incorporating Jewish history into Vico's ?new science? of the history of gentile nations. The Jews, too, were to be assigned a history like that ascribed to all other nations!

Variegated Medley

Assimilating uncritically the Romantics' Clio myth and exhibiting the influence of German Idealist philosophy, partisans of the Wissenschaftliche school, such as Nachman Krochmal, Leopold Zunz, and Heinrich Graetz, set about attempting to ?prove? that Jewish history is, indeed, undeviatingly just like that of all other nations, that its history conforms precisely to the principles of the ?new science,? and that Jewish culture represents merely one among the many harmonious chords that constitute the variegated medley of humanity's legitimate cultures. Thus, the original Wissenschaftliche school, as also its faithful contemporary proponents, despite the evidence of Torah and the historical record ‑ and unlike non‑Jews such as Vico and Campbell ‑ strive to eradicate all historical testimony to the singularity of the Jewish people.

To accomplish this program, the Wissenschaftliche school engages in prodigious historical research and publication intended to eviscerate traditional normative Judaism and to bowdlerize Jewish history so that, now neatly tailored, their account of the long history of the Children of Israel can readily be compressed within the boundaries of the ?new science.?

Essential for the success of this enterprise is the implacable and relentless denial of the eternal revelation of the Torah and mitzvot to the Children of Israel at Sinai. Quite the contrary, insist Wissenschaftliche enthusiasts, parroting the doctrines of the Clio myth: the Torah and mitzvot are, rather, the evolutionary results of the interaction of an eternal Divine element with a finite human ingredient throughout the course of Jewish socio‑intellectual history. Hence, the Wissenschaftliche school, as is true for all the groups disseminating the Clio myth, must surrender factual accuracy to programmatic agenda. But, by way of compensation, the scholars of Jewish history are then proclaimed the true interpreters of the sole creator of Jewish religion and culture, viz., Jewish history.

In reality, dispassionate historical research contradicts this fanciful account of the origin of Torah and mitzvot, as well as the ensuing conclusions concerning the role of the historian as oracle. In addition, that this Jewish variant of the Clio myth is itself an irrational surrogate for actual historical evidence seems never to have occurred to those enthralled by the ?new science.? Their very explanation of revelation as historical process necessarily invokes the mythic: what ?natural law? compels this projected history to be evolutionary and how, precisely, do the Divine and the human socio‑intellectual components ?interact? except by means of some sort of empyreal occult occurrence which the Wissenschaftliche school explicitly and emphatically renounces?

But, equally fatal to its conclusions, the professors of the Wissenschaftliche version of the Jewish past are constrained by Clio myth dogma not only to slight the historian's criterion of accuracy, but also to violate two fundamental strictures the profession insists be rigorously avoided in all scholarly presentations: (1) reductionism and (2) presentism.

Antipathy Towards Myth

In order to contrive an account of Jewish history that conforms to that expected of all other nations, the Wissenschaftliche advocates are compelled to exclude and belittle all evidence that does not support their predetermined conclusions. Thus, ironically, they must deny that Jewish characteristic so apparent to Vico: the absence of, and antipathy toward, the mythic throughout Torah Judaism's history, as well as the utterly inexplicable exemption of the Jewish people from the causative forces and boundaries of mundane history.

As well as this egregious reductionism, the Wissenschaftliche school inserts in its evidential interpretations not what detached, more self‑critical historians might conclude, but rather those programmatic values and convictions entirely extrinsic to Judaism which inform present social and intellectual norms. In other words, the results of their research regularly confirm exactly what they set out to discover, no matter what the cost to accuracy! Hence, in the nineteenth century, with its emphasis on rationalism, the Wissenschaftliche school ?proved? that Judaism was invariably rational, any evidence to the contrary being arbitrarily labeled an ?alien accretion.? On the other hand, during the twentieth century as modernist thought became increasingly fascinated by the nonrational mystical, Wissenschaftliche scholars discovered that Judaism, too, includes the mystical. Similarly, as disclosure of ?gender discrimination? has become a dominant social preoccupation, Wissenschaftliche advocates find their sources ?disclose? that normative Jewish history, too, is ?disfigured? by this inchoate entity, ?gender discrimination.?

Obviously the Jewish variant of the Clio myth, the Wissenschaft des Judentums, suffers from precisely the same flaws as all programmatic speculative philosophies of history. However, the Jewish variant is particularly flawed, for it wishes to circumscribe the Providential history of Torah Judaism and of the Children of Israel within the narrow borders of Vico's ?principles of the gentile nations.? And to accomplish such a contorted version of history, these Wissenschaftliche disciples attempt to join unremitting opposites: Torah Judaism and mythology. No wonder the entire enterprise inevitably devolves into inaccurate crass caricature.

But does this failure of Wissenschaftliche historiography ‑ as well as the exclusion of the Jew from ?natural history? by the punctilious disciples of Vico's gentile ?new science? ‑ imply that there can be no valid or useful scholarly discussion of Jewish history consistent with the Torah and with the evidence?

The response to this question concerning the legitimacy of the scholarly investigation of Jewish history is actually answered in the very first Rashi in the Torah. In this initial comment he brings the query posed in the midrash by Rabbi Yitzchak who asks why the Torah, as primarily the revelation of halakha, does not begin with the first mitzvah with which the Children of Israel are charged, viz., the proclamation of Rosh Chodesh Nisan, recorded in Shemot 12:2. Rashi responds by explaining that the entire book of Bereshit and the opening portions of Shemot are, indeed, necessary in order to teach that, as the Creator of heaven and earth, it is the indisputable prerogative of HaShem to give the Land of Israel to whomsoever He pleases, concluding that non‑Jews, therefore, have no justification for questioning the Jewish people's eternal possession of the Land.7

Historical Narratives Not Source of Torah

With this, Rashi several points concerning Jewish historiography are clarified. First, it is essential to notice that Rashi does not claim that it is from the Bereshit and Shemot narratives that the commandment to possess the Land is derived. In fact, his response completely agrees with Rabbi Yitzchok's view that the mitzvot, including the one commanding the Children of Israel to take possession of the Land, arise only from the revelation at Sinai. Thus, it is essential to acknowledge that Jewish historical narratives, from all periods of our people's existence, are not the source of halakha nor of ultimate Truth. Modern historians have, indeed, come to concur in recognizing that mundane history in itself bears neither meaning nor truth. Thus, the Torah perspective, presented as it is in this very first verse, with Rashi's elucidation of its most simple meaning, controverts completely the spurious assertions of the Wissenschaftliche adherents of the Clio myth millennia before they were even conceived. Whatever else Jewish history can be, it can never serve as the source of Torah and mitzvot.

On the other hand, the Torah's narratives clearly validate the study of history when conducted within the appropriate contexts.8 As Rashi explains, the Torah's historical accounts narrate events illustrating the relationships occurring among Divine Providence, the Children of Israel, and the remainder of humanity. These relationships, however, are established beyond history as a consequence of the momentous events which transpired at Sinai. For its part, Jewish history's focal interest is the often turbulent results over time of that bond between God and the Jewish people established at Sinai.

Thus, in the final analysis, it is Torah which alone authorizes Jewish history and which provides its narrative with thematic orientation. Meaning in historical accounts always must be introduced from beyond the perimeters of history itself, either consciously or accidentally. Torah insists, from the outset, that meaning be introduced deliberately and provides that definitive meaning which orients and evaluates all historical narration. Without this authorization and orientation, Jewish history must remain, as the artifacts of the Wissenschaftliche school empirically illustrate, merely the fallacious recounting of misconstrued, disparate incidents and episodes without internal coherence or significance.

Any genuine treatment of our past must firmly acknowledge and reflect Rashi's initial, and consequently crucial, comment on Bereshit: it is not the history of the Jewish people that created the Torah but, quite the contrary, it is the Torah that creates the Jewish people and their unique history.


1. ?Clio? was the Greek muse of history and is frequently employed by historians to refer to their discipline.

2. The standard English translation, by T.G. Bergin and M.H. Fisch, is of the 1744 third edition of the Scienza nuova, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, (Ithaca, 1984).

3. See Paul L. Rose, in Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany, From Kant to Wagner, (Princeton, 1990), for a very powerful study of the relationship between German Romantic Idealist thought and the roots of Nazi and Marxist antisemitism.

4. Vico cannot be faulted for the common neglect of this central argument of his work. He explicitly states that its principles apply only to the ?Gentes,? i.e., the Gentiles.

5. For example, Vico writes, ?The Hebrew religion was founded by the true God on the prohibition of divination on which all the gentile nations arose. This axiom is one of the principal reasons for the division of the entire world into Hebrews and gentiles.? Vico, p.68.

6. Of course, Tanach, particularly in the Prophets and Writings, poetic expression is quite commonly employed. But the Torah has preceded these works and communicated very powerfully its anti‑mythic message. Poetry, theologically neutral in itself, once liberated from its degradation into the bondage of paganism, can now be elevated to serve as a fit vehicle for the sacred.

7. Rashi, Bereshit 1:1.

8. A study of the ancient world's literature suggests that not only does Torah approve of history, but that Torah's narratives, in fact, ?invented? history as a subject worthy of human endeavor. Other cultures, such as the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Indians, and Chinese, immersed as they all were in the mesmerizing fantasies of mythology, were quite late in arriving at an appreciation of the usefulness of factual history.

Joseph H. Udelson is a Professor of History at Tennessee State University and a Corresponding Editor of The Jewish Review.



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