On the History of the Jews

James Darmesteter


The French Revolution wherever it penetrates, and in France above all, opens to Judaism a new era, in a double sense, material and moral.

On one hand, by breaking down the barrier between the Jew and the Christian, it placed a bound to the history of the Jewish people.

From the 28th of September, 1791, there is no longer a history of the Jews in France. There is only a history of French Judaism, as there is a history of French Calvinism or Lutheranism, and nothing more. The marvelous rapidity with which the Jew has become a member of the great French nationality, not only in right and in name, but in fact, points, moreover, to older and perhaps still deeper causes than a sudden enthusiasm of justice on the one side, and of gratitude on the other. For the Jew, France is not a fatherland improvised in a feverish access of generosity: it is a country recovered by him. In fact, the barrier raised between Jews and Christians was factitious, and a late growth. The hatred of the people was not an old popular tradition, and the first centuries of our history show us the adherents of the two faiths living together upon a footing of equality, and bound to one another by sentiments of mutual toleration and esteem that aroused the displeasure of the bishops of the time, and against which for a long time they felt themselves powerless.1 It is the triumph of feudalism which, by proclaiming the absolute authority of the church, delivers up the Jew to a calculating and selfish hatred, which from the pulpit is slowly diffused among the masses. In consequence, there exist among the ignorant and wretched people of the Middle Ages suppressed sentiments of hatred and repulsion, which gain in strength from a supposed religious justification, and to which the Crusades add fresh fuel. The great epic of the Middle Ages opens with the general massacre of the Deicides. To the justification of hatred by religion is added a factor which appears also to justify this hatred. The Jew, driven in turn out of political life, from all offices, from all the liberal professions, from the ownership of real estate, from everything that might attach him by visible marks to the soul and soil of his country, is forced into commerce and usury by the canons of the church, and by the financial policy of kings who wished to know where to turn when their treasury was empty. The people see in the Jew only the man of affairs, at the service of his lord and of his king, the living and detested symbol of the popular misery. As a consequence, the two great oppressed classes of the Middle Ages, the people and the Jew, are brought face to face, the one thrown as a prey to the other. And nevertheless, in the most desperate times, in the very Ghettos in which the oppressed Jew is penned up by law, contempt, and hatred, he is kept alive by the very intellectual activity that emanates from his oppressors. He aspires to break down the walls of his prison, to breathe the air of France. The mother tongue of this pariah is not a Hebrew [Jewish—Eds.] patois, it is the French of France. And the most ancient French elegy, the most beautiful, perhaps, ever composed in that language, was written in a Ghetto, by the gleam of the stake.2 The Renaissance and the Reformation, by turning hatred into other channels, and by introducing a broader spirit, hastened the moral fusion. Prejudice is already greatly weakened before the eighteenth century, when it receives its deathblow, and the Revolution, through the voices of Mirabeau and the Abbé Gregoire, has only the convictions of the Abbé Maury to combat. Even emancipation has its precedents before 1789. The Jews of Bordeaux and of Comte receive citizens’ rights in 1776. But the French Revolution, by establishing the general principle of religious equality, by transforming custom into irrevocable law, with an amount of firmness and decision that has made its example the rule of the civilized world, becomes the supreme and momentous era in the annals of Jewish destiny.

This era, which terminates the material history of the Jewish people, opens a new and strange phase in the history of its thought. For the first time this thought finds itself in accord, and no longer in conflict, with the general tendency of humanity. Judaism, which from its first hour has always been at war with the dominant religion, whether that of Baal, of Jupiter, or of Christ, at length encounters a state of thought which it need not combat, because it finds there the reflex of its own instincts and traditions. The Revolution is, in fact, only the echo in the political world of a much vaster and deeper movement, which wholly transforms thought, and which, in the realm of speculation, ends with the substitution of the scientific conception of the world for the mythical, and on the practical side brings to the fore the notion of justice and progress. In this great downfall of mythical religion, the crash of which fills our age, Judaism, such as the centuries have made it, has had the least to suffer and the least to fear, because its miracles and rites constitute no essential and integral part of it. As a consequence, it does not fall with the rest. Judaism has not made the miraculous the basis of its dogma, nor installed the supernatural as a permanent factor in the progress of events. Its miracles from the time of the Middle Ages are but a poetic detail, a legendary recital, a picturesque decoration; and its cosmogony, borrowed in haste from Babylon by the last compiler of the Bible, with the stories of the apple and the serpent, over which so many Christian generations have labored, never greatly disturbed the imagination of the rabbis, nor weighed very heavily upon the thought of the Jewish philosophers. Its rites were never “an instrument of faith,” an expedient to “lull” rebellious thought into faith: they are merely cherished customs, a symbol of the family, of transitory value, and destined to disappear when there shall be but one family in a world converted to the one truth. Set aside all these miracles, all these rites, and, behind them will be found the two great dogmas which, ever since the prophets, constitute the whole of Judaism: the divine unity and Messianism,—unity of law throughout the world, and the terrestrial triumph of justice in humanity. These are the two dogmas which at the present time illuminate humanity in its progress, both in the scientific and social order of things, and which are termed, in modern parlance, unity of forces and belief in progress.

For this reason, Judaism is the only religion that has never entered into conflict, and never can with either science or social progress, and that has witnessed, and still witnesses, all their conquests without a sense of fear. These are not hostile forces that it accepts or submits to merely from a spirit of toleration or policy, in order to save the remains of its power by a compromise. They are old friendly voices, which it recognizes and salutes with joy, for it has heard them resound for centuries already, in the axioms of free thought and in the cry of the suffering heart. For this reason, the Jews, in all the countries which have entered upon the new path, have begun to take a share in all the great works of civilization, in the triple field of science, of art, and of action; and that share, far from being an insignificant one, is out of all proportion to the brief time that has elapsed since their enfranchisement.

Translated by
Helen B.


Agobard [(ca. 779–840), archbishop of Lyon, author of anti-Jewish treatises.—Eds.].

Elégies du Vatican, Arsène Darmesteter [1846–1888; philologist, brother of James Darmesteter.—Eds.].


James Darmesteter, “Samuels,” trans. Helen B. Jastrow, from Selected Essays of James Darmesteter, ed. Morris Jastrow Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895), pp. 269–75.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 7.

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