Monday, October 6, 2014

'The Jewish Question': No Question About It

Identity Politics

David Nirenberg's Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition: “These tools—such as language, causal logic, religion, mathematics—are indeed powerful, but they are powerful precisely because they reduce complexity to intelligibility by projecting our mental concepts onto the world. One consequence of this is that our recognition of significance is always what some philosophers call ‘theory laden,’ meaning that it is shaped by what our theoretical framework and cognitive tools encourage us to recognize as meaningful. Anti-Judaism, as I have argued throughout this book, is precisely this: a powerful theoretical framework for making sense of the world” (464).
Photo Credit: Perry J. Greenbaum, 2014

In Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, David Nirenberg writes that western culture is steeped in anti-Judaism thought and ideas. One idea that still has some currency in some circles is that Jews ought to convert to another religion in order to better fit in to the societies or nations in which they reside. More than 150 years ago, Karl Marx participated in such discussions, Nirenberg writes:
[His] 1844 writings “On the Jewish Question” and (together with Friedrich Engels) The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism intervened in a heated debate about whether German Jews needed to convert to Christianity in order to be emancipated from their legal disabilities and become citizens (3).
Marx argued, however, that this was the wrong question to ask, and that the most-important question that needed addressing was centred on economic capitalism and money, and, of course, the ownership of private property. Again, Nirenberg, a professor of history at University of Chicago, writes on this very subject:
According to him, conversion would neither emancipate the Jews of Germany nor free Germany of Judaism, because Judaism is not only a religion but also an attitude, an attitude of spiritual slavery and alienation from the world. This alienation is not exclusive to the Jews. Money is the god of Judaism, but it is also the god of every man, no matter what his confessed religion, who alienates the products of his life and his labor for it. So long as money is god, which to say so long as there is private property, neither the emancipation of the Jews, nor the emancipation of society from Judaism can ever be achieved, for Christian society will continue to “produce Judaism out of its own entrails” (3).
Can it be that Europe’s sympathy to radical Islam is a projection of meaning, a desire to rid the world of Judaism— that is, not only the Jewish religion, but also the Jewish belief, thought process and moral system found and developed during the history of Judaism? That the west, which has been greatly influenced by Judaism, in the end has a (secret) desire to rid itself of such critical thinking and moral views? That in a sense this explains the west’s war with itself?  Although one should always be careful to look for easy answers, one should, I think, also not avoid tough questions.

Why are there periods of extreme hatred of the Jews, such as we witnessed recently this summer in Europe? There are many possible answers, but allow me to touch upon only a few. Resentment is one possible answer; so is jealously. Judaism persists and flourishes when it is not expected to, defying predictions of its demise over the centuries. It has influenced western culture. There is also possible jealously that so many Jews dominate so many sectors of human activity.

Equally important, Judaism has contributed so much to humanity’s betterment. It is true, perhaps shockingly true to some, that a people that totals no more than 14 million—0.2 percent of the world’s population— has done so much in the areas of arts, science, medicine, philosophy, political theory, and of course, morality and religion.

There is also the reality that Judaism is a religion that places barriers of separation (most distinctly in its dietary kosher food laws, which are known as Kashrut; and the observance of Shabbat on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, a tradition predating Christianity destination of sabbath on Sunday, what Christians call “the Lord's Day.”) between its adherents and the rest of society. Is this sufficient reason to hate a people?

Of course not, but there is too much support from the western tradition, which makes it easier to judge and despise the Jews for what they are not (“Christians”; “redeemed”; “generous”; “spiritual”), or at least what others think or say they are (Judaizers”; “unregenerate”; “avaricious”; “legalistic”).

Nirenberg writes about Marx:
On the other hand, Marx’s messianic desires (itself quite “Christian”) to present his own revolutionary economic and political project as a liberation of the world from Judaism set sharp limits to the depths of his Jewish question. His writings certainly raised critical consciousness about important subjects like class and labor, but it only tended to reinforce basic conceptions about the role of Judaism in the world—for example, its alignment with money and alienation—and to confirm the sense that in a better world that role would disappear (4).
Messianic Christian desires is the right descriptive term for Marx’s views, which were in the end destructive and contributed little to humanity's betterment. Yet, Marx was following a long list of writers who did not understand the place of the Jews in a non-Jewish (mostly Christian) society (It is noteworthy that Karl Marx's father converted to Lutherism before his son was born, and Karl himself was also baptized into this church). If you read the views and polemics of the early Christian church, you will note that there is one consistency:  much of the early writings were not only a defense of the new religion of Christianity, but also a presentation of it as superior in opposition to Judaism, a much-older and established religion.

To a great degree, the early apologists presented Christianity as not Judaism, but anti-Judaism. Small wonder, then, that Christians use the designation of Old Testament for the Tanakh (תַּנַ"ךְ‎)—the Jewish Bible— implying by its very definition that the new has replaced the old, the new being a superior or better testament or covenant with a new people—the Christians. But if they do, one cannot blame them, since the western canon conspires against thinking otherwise.

I call attention to the following notables from Nirenberg’s long list (book page numbers in parenthesis): Saint Paul, the great evangelist in his epistle to the Romans in the Book of Romans ( pp. 62-65); Justin Martyr, a first-century Christian apologist, in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew (pp 100-104); and Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, in his “On the Jews and their Lies” (pp. 264-268).

Then there is William Shakespeare and his Merchant of Venice (pp. 269-99), a play that no doubt plays to the sympathies of the Christian audience and which in its clearly defined characters displays the superiority of Christianity over Judaism (“the life of the spirit over that of the flesh,” dipping into and reinforcing the thinking of St. Paul). Other later influential writers include Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (pp. 313-318); Benedict de Spinoza in his Theologico-Political Treatise (pp. 327-38); and Immanuel Kant in his Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone (pp. 394-96).  There is also Voltaire, Schopenhauer and Weber, and many, many more.

By Marx’s day, a large body of writing existed; and thus much of continental Europe was deeply mired in such thought. We today know that Marx’s political and economic solutions were wrong, yet his analysis on how Judaism has influenced western thought holds some validity. That Marx thought the emancipation of the Jews from his religion was the ticket to societal acceptance was clearly proved wrong in the Soviet Union, where many Jews placed their faith in the October Revolution; and yet the Jews fared no better, or only marginally so, than before the Revolution. For example, Jews were identified as “Jewish” (Yevrei) on all their internal passports (propiska, пропи́ска), where Jewish was considered an ethnicity, which came with all attendant “disabilities” and suspicions of “bourgeois cosmopolitanism.”

Even so, Marx is still revered, a larger-than-life figure whose influence is felt across college campuses in North America and western Europe. Whether they are cognizant of it, his question has influenced the minds of many political leaders, academics, writers and opinion-makers, who are even today not sure what to make of the Jews. Perhaps, they think or suspect the Jews as being too Jewish. (Nirenberg even mentioned something called “Jewish mathematics.”) Centuries of writings cannot so easily be undone, thoughts quickly changed. It is how many make sense of the world and how meaning is derived. Yet, at the same time society collectively enjoys the many fruits of Jewish intellectual labours and pursuits, and its various practical applications—much of it derived from the very religious thought that has made humanity more humane.

If Jews today act more insular than they did in the past—and I am not saying Jews as a group always do—it might be worth looking for the reasons why this is so, and Nirenberg's book gives us much to think about. It is both understandable and expected that when a people feel threatened, they become more concerned about their safety and about protecting what they love and cherish. This human behaviour is normal, sane and sound.

I will end with a though in Yiddish: Avekforn undz zayn; loz unz lebn als meir ton.