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A History of the Present

Uriel Tal’s Analogical Reasoning


Analogy is anything but simple. As a fundamental feature of human thought, one may consider it, perhaps hastily, a simple mechanism of a forthright comparison between two objects that highlights respects in which they are thought to be similar. We certainly cannot render such a conclusion altogether false – after all, the act of comparing and what this reveals are the main features of analogy, and have formed the core of analogical arguments since antiquity. However, it is the complex application of this seemingly basic feature of scientific, philosophical and often legal reasoning that deserves our attention and hinders by its own logical nature our arrival at prompt, generalizing judgements. For creating a reasonable and logically applicable analogy, one which fulfils its task as an aid to uncovering hidden knowledge, a truth unnoticed, demands work; slow, gradual and punctilious work. The historian Uriel Tal (1926–1984) never shied away from such work, and coupled it with a normative obligation of a historian. His corpus and correspondences confronts us with the question, among many others, concerning the relationship between the structure of analogical reasoning, which he carefully applied, and the normative principles guiding his work. A letter to his colleague Isaiah Berlin in the summer of 1981, from which the following paragraphs evolve, provides a few hints.

The National Library of Israel, Archives Department, Archive of Uriel Tal. Permission to upload was granted by the family of Uriel Tal and the National Library of Israel.
Letter from Uriel Tal to Sir Isaiah Berlin, 24 June 1981 © Family of Uriel Tal and the National Library of Israel.
The National Library of Israel, Archives Department, Archive of Uriel Tal. Permission to upload was granted by the family of Uriel Tal and the National Library of Israel.
Letter from Uriel Tal to Sir Isaiah Berlin, 24 June 1981 © Family of Uriel Tal and the National Library of Israel.

Tal was born in Vienna as a descendant of a renowned rabbinical family from Romania and Galicia. During his childhood years, the family moved to Berlin and then back to Vienna following the Nazis’ rise to power, and from there to Amsterdam. Tal arrived in Palestine at the age of fourteen and was educated at the Ben-Shemen youth village, where he stayed for three years, before joining a kibbutz, which he left in 1951, only shortly before he began his academic training at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1960, he completed his dissertation, which he later elaborated into his monumental Christians and Jews in the »Second Reich« (1870–1914). A Study in the Rise of German Totalitarianism, published in 1969. Bound mostly to the German historical scene, Tal’s scholarly work aimed mainly at uncovering the nature of modern political religions, as well as the twofold dynamics of the sacralization of politics and the politicization of religion. Embracing a meticulous, often formally structured line of thought, enabled Tal to fluctuate between different historical constellations, thus underscoring his fundamental perception that history in its »natural« form was a plural form, as if he were to say that historicity could only be ascribed to histories. Traces of this pendulum movement appear to have gained lucidness and complexity in Tal’s writings throughout the 1970s, as he deepened his engagement with the forms and manifestations of political myth and religion in twentieth century Europe.

As implied by the above, his decision to actualize the dormant potential of analogical reasoning was neither obvious nor simplistic. It was clearly framed by the political events which dominated the period following the Six-Day-War in June 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank. These led Tal, who advocated for »moderate Zionism,« to reconsider the meanings of Jewish identity, tradition and religion in Israeli society and political culture, a topic he had been grappling with for years. His critique on the convergence of theological, redemptive notions with practices of settlement and deprivation of rights of indigenous peoples intensified following the establishment of Gush Emunim in 1973, an extra-parliamentary national-religious movement advocating Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. Tal, who considered himself a public intellectual, now faced local patterns of political behavior and social practices whose formal resemblance to the historical phenomena he was examining – structures and manifestations of political religions – he could not overlook. Gradually he realized that a theo-political approach, flexible enough to encompass a broad empirical field of comparative inspection, would demand certain modifications. In a process spanning a few years, Tal ventured into new intellectual pathways, embracing hermeneutics, attending to the categories of political myth and symbolism, and broadening the application of analogical language. His willingness to embark upon those paths reveals itself both in his historical investigations as well as in his polemics on contemporary Jewry and Israeli society. Slowly but surely those seemingly separable fields of knowledge began to interact and the fruits of analogy ripened. In his introduction to Tal’s Myth and Reason in Contemporary Jewry, which only appeared after his death, the historian and thinker Amos Funkenstein commented that his close colleague both hinted at and explicitly warned against dangerous structural equivalences found in Israeli state and society with political theology in its most despicable form.

Indeed, towards the end of the 1970s, Tal began to describe modern extremism as a return to pre-rationality and a blind allegiance to myth. In his attempt to characterize the foundations of political radicalism among religious Zionists, he employed several concepts directly gleaned from his research on patterns of political religion in recent German history. »It seems that in our days,« he claimed, »a mythical yearning speaks to the hearts of young men […]. Romanticism, primeval fundaments, irrational existentialism […] – all of the like conquer the hearts of the youth.« By that time, it could hardly be said that Tal’s historical insights merely drifted into his interpretation of Israeli political and cultural reality. For in fact, as suggested by Saul Friedlander in his obituary, the one overarching question to which Tal devoted his thoughts and research was concerned with the place of the sacred in society and politics. Thus, the form and language of a political religion, which paved the way for interpreting the acts of a political community in terms of a sacralized Polis, created the conceptual framework to discuss messianic currents within religious Zionism.

By employing a meticulous method of historical interpretation, alongside a signified language of analogical reasoning, Tal sought to define a particular historical phenomenon in universal terms, thus levering its potential impact on the normative aspects of his discipline such as the study of the freedom of moral choice. Writing to Isaiah Berlin in June 1981, Tal addressed normative considerations present in his work by briefly elaborating on »the liberating function of knowledge.« Referring to Berlin’s own ideas, he drew a distinction between two separate phases, that of attaining new knowledge and that of its deployment once it had been acquired: »Freedom is self-government you said […] so much so that even once the unknown has been uncovered, the choice between its use, abuse or relinquishment remains on the shoulders of the true freedom-seeker.« As if propelled by his reader, he than reluctantly added: »It is this choice which indeed was abandoned in the Third Reich and – I shudder at the thought – in current Israel.«

Yonatan Shiloh-Dayan is a PhD candidate at the department for Jewish history and contemporary Jewry in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Leo Baeck fellow (2018–2019). His dissertation, instructed by Prof. Yfaat Weiss, explores the conjunctions between the biographies of German-speaking historians in Israel and their historiographies, as well as their fields of interaction with West and East German academia from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. | jonnes(at)gmail.com