By David Nirenberg, The Chronicle Review, January 28, 2013
Does the past affect how we perceive the present? Do our concerns in the present affect the ways in which we see the past? Does what we have thought in the past—the history of our ideas—affect what and how we think in the present and future? Those dauntingly large questions once animated the discipline of history. But in the second half of the 20th century, many—historians, philosophers, psychologists—became increasingly (and rightly) suspicious of the available answers, and more or less stopped asking such questions. "History," Foucault put it in the 1960s, "is for cutting."
Today intellectual historians largely focus their efforts on reconstructing the context within which a given idea was expressed, rather than exploring the movement and transformation of ideas across time and space. This emphasis on ever-more-particular historical contexts can help us to sever some of the fantastic continuities that cultures construct between past and present, but it cannot help us to perceive those continuities, or to reconstruct or understand them. In the words of Montaigne, himself quoting Seneca, "Cut anything into tiny pieces and it all becomes a mass of confusion."
If the present is not independent of the past, if the cognitive possibilities at any given moment—even our own—are conditioned by habits of thought acquired over time, then we need a way to become aware of those habits, lest we find ourselves acting in their grip.
The problem could not be more general, but the history of ideas about Judaism poses a particularly acute example, because it is both a highly charged concept in the present and one with a long history. Ancient Egyptians spent a good deal of papyrus on the Hebrews; early (and not so early) Christians filled pages attempting to distinguish between the New Israel and the Old; Muhammad's followers were intensely worried about the Prophet's relation to Jews and "Sons of Israel"; medieval Europeans invoked Jews to explain topics as diverse as famine, plague, and the tax policies of their princes. And in the vast archives of material that survive from early-modern and modern Europe and its cultural colonies, it is easy enough to demonstrate that words like "Jew," "Hebrew," "Semite," "Israelite," and "Israel" appear with a frequency stunningly disproportionate to the actual number of Jews living in those societies.
We know that "Jew" is not the same as "Hebrew," Israelites are not Israelis, Israeli need not mean Zionist or Jew (or vice versa), and that many have been called "Jew" or "Judaizer" who in no way identify with Judaism. Yet we also know that all of those words and categories exist in close proximity, and that however much we may insist on separating them, they have often bled together across the long history of thought.
Given the political importance of some of those categories in our own day, we should want to ask why so many diverse cultures—even cultures with no Jews living among them—have thought so much about Judaism. What work did this thinking do for them in their efforts to make sense of the world? Did that work, in turn, affect the ways in which future societies—including our own—could or would think with and about Judaism? Without asking such questions, we cannot be confident that our own understanding of our world is not itself being shaped by old habits of thought.
Let me illustrate the problem through the example of a thinker who lived and wrote at a time when such questions could not have been more critical. Hannah Arendt fled Nazi Germany first to Paris, in 1933, and then to the United States. In Part 1 of her The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, she addressed a question more or less the same as mine: How and why do ideas about Jews and Judaism become convincing explanations for the state of the world in a given time and place? She rightly stressed the failure of anti-Semitism as a sufficient explanation. The term "anti-Semite" labels enemies of Jews and Judaism, but it does not explain the nature of or reason for that enmity. On the contrary, it implies that there is no reason for that enmity, that the enmity is irrational. Arendt used a joke from World War I to describe the limitations of such an approach: "An anti-Semite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? asks the one. Why the Jews? asks the other."
Arendt was right that "an ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victims arbitrarily." The choice must make cultural sense if it is to prove convincing, capable of moving masses. But why do ideologies make cultural sense? One answer might be that ideologies make cultural sense because they accurately describe something about the world as it is. This was Arendt's approach: Anti-Semitic ideologies described something that the Jews really were, something that they really did. She found her strong link between ideology and reality in what she considered to be "specifically Jewish functions" in the capitalist economies of the modern state: "All economic statistics prove that German Jews belonged not to the German people, but at most to its bourgeoisie."
My own answer to those questions is quite different, and emphasizes the possibility that perceptions of reality are shaped by the conceptual frameworks and cognitive tools available. We can use Arendt as an example. Her statistical truths were sometimes drawn from the "fighting scholarship" of Nazis like Walter Frank and his Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany. But even if her choices had been less partisan, they still would inevitably have been theory-laden. Our thought always depends on concepts and categories, which themselves have a history. For that reason, any critical theory should inquire into its habits of thought, the history of its ideas.
Arendt specifically rejected such an approach to the history of ideas about Judaism—an approach she scornfully dubbed "Eternal anti-Semitism." Such appeals to history, as she understood them, were simply attempts to deny that Jews were "co-responsible" for the ideologies aimed against them, because of what they really did and really were.
Arendt's distinction between our reality and the history of our ideas is a common and influential one, but it seems to me to be too sharp and too dangerous. Two of Arendt's fellow exiles, the philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, put the danger well. In the 1930s they, too, criticized what they perceived to be their fellow Jews' overeager participation in economic life, and understood that participation as the cause of anti-Semitic ideologies. But by the 1940s, the fantastic force that European ideas about Jews had acquired seemed to them far in excess of any reality. What gave those ideas their power, they suggested in 1944, was not so much their relation to reality but rather their exemption from reality checks, that is, from the critical testing to which they thought so many other concepts were subjected: "What is pathological about anti-Semitism is not projective behavior as such, but the absence of reflection in it."
Why should it be so difficult—even for the greatest thinkers of the age—to become reflective about these concepts and explanatory frameworks? The answer has to do with the extraordinary place of Judaism in the history of thought itself: Because critical thought in the Western tradition has so often imagined itself as an overcoming of Judaism, it has the capacity to introduce Judaism in whatever it criticizes.
Karl Marx provides an excellent example (for good or ill) of the phenomenon. In two essays he wrote in 1844, "On the Jewish Question" and (together with Friedrich Engels) "The Holy Family: or Critique of the Critical Critique," Marx argued that Judaism is as much an attitude as a religion, an attitude of spiritual slavery and alienation from the world. This alienation is Jewish, but not exclusive to the Jews. Money is the god of Judaism, but it is also the god of any man, no matter his confessed religion, who alienates the products of his life and labor for it. So long as money is god, which is to say so long as there is private property, not even the conversion of all the Jews to Christianity could achieve the emancipation of society from Judaism, for Christian society will continue to "produce Judaism out of its own entrails."
For Marx, "the Jewish question" is as much about the basic tools and concepts through which individuals in a society relate to the world and to one another as it is about the presence of "real" Judaism and living Jews in that society. He understood that some of these basic tools—such as money and property—were thought of in Christian culture as "Jewish," and that those tools therefore could produce the "Jewishness" of those who used them, whether those users were Jewish or not. "Judaism," then, is not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas and attributes. And "anti-Judaism" is not simply an attitude toward the actions of real Jews and their religion, but a way of critically engaging the world.
Marx's notion that our concepts can themselves create the Judaism of the world to which they are applied is critical, because it asks us to reflect on how our own habits of thought project figures of Judaism into the world and thereby create the reality they claim to discover. From that insight, Marx could have proceeded to a criticism of those habits of thought. He might, for example, have asked why it was that Christian European culture so often characterized capitalism as Jewish, and written a history intended to make his contemporaries reflect more on that association. Instead, he exploited those habits, reinforcing the old Jewishness of capitalism in order to put it to a new kind of work: that of planning a more perfect world, without private property or wage labor.
Marx demonstrates how inquiring into the roles played by ideas about Judaism in our thinking about the world can stimulate the type of reflection we need in order to become conscious of some of our own habits of thought. But it also points to a real danger in asking such "Jewish questions": the danger that, like Marx, we stop asking them as soon as we reach an answer that harmonizes comfortably or usefully with our own view of the world. Such questioning gives us the illusion of engagement in critical thought, while in fact only strengthening our preconceptions and convictions.
Not stopping the questioning too early requires a long history. How long? There is no one answer to that question. By the time accounts of "Israel" and "Jews" become visible in ancient Egypt, they had already been interwoven with other histories and cosmologies, and become flexible enough to help their tellers make sense of events ranging from Greek invasion to Roman tax policy. We can glimpse that work in the surviving sources. It may seem puzzling, for example, that Egyptian delegations repeatedly called Roman emperors like Claudius, Trajan, and Commodus "Jews" to their faces. But it must have made powerful sense to the delegates, since they were willing to be martyred for it.
Similarly, the earliest surviving texts produced by a follower of Jesus—the epistles of Paul—are already engaging multiple traditions, both Jewish and gentile, each with its own deep history. When Paul sets out to demonstrate that the earthly Jerusalem is aligned with slavery, carnality, law, blind literalism, and the death of the soul, he is deploying critical strands of Jewish exegesis and Greek philosophy, well worn already in his own day. But he is weaving those threads into new cloth, using them to think through the different demands that prophecy places upon Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus.
Some of the formulations he developed to express those differences—"the letter kills, but the spirit vivifies" (II Corinthians 3:6)—transformed history as much as they drew on it, giving the future a new way to think about transcendence and the material world. And as Jesus' religion spread, Paul's specific vocabulary, already saturated in history, gained new meanings and power. For example, his use of the word "Judaize" in Galatians 2:14 to characterize a gentile convert's inappropriate relation to the laws and customs of a tradition became shorthand for a logic that could make sense of any "incorrect" relationship to the material world. As the poet George Herbert put it in 1633:
He that doth love, and love amisse,
This worlds delights before true Christian joy,
Hath made a Jewish choice... .
And is a Judas-Jew.
No step in the formation of this critical tradition was inevitable, though in retrospect it came to appear to many, Christian and Muslim (and also Jew), as continuous and eternal. It became useful and powerful even in times and places remote from contact with living Jews. Medieval rebellions against "Jewish kings," Reformation and Counter-Reformation attacks on the "Judaizing" of Popes and Protestants, even Shakespeare's representation of the potential "Jewishness" of merchants can all be understood not as reflections of reality or products of irrational prejudice (to name just two of the options commonly chosen by historians), but as products of those cultures' most fundamental habits of critical thought, constantly transformed by being put to new kinds of work.
The creative capacity of those habits of thought did not end with the Enlightenment. Spinoza, Bayle, Voltaire, Kant, and many others took aim at the "idols of thought" they argued underpinned the superstition, intolerance, and injustice of their Christian political order. "Dare to know!" "Smash the infamous!" they and their colleagues proclaimed. But far from smashing the idol of anti-Judaism, they gave it a new cult, representing their opponents as in thrall to "Jewish" literalism, blindness, and superstition. Those opponents were Christian kings, courts, and clerics, but the struggle was against "The Spirit of Judaism," as the Baron d'Holbach titled his book of 1770. All of his contemporaries would have understood that the book's exhortation—"Then dare, oh Europe! Break the unbearable yoke of the prejudices by which you are afflicted!"—was to break free of such "Jewish" habits of thought (for d'Holbach) as organized religion.
The champions of the traditional Christian order loaded their batteries with the same charge but aimed it against their Enlightenment critics. Their opponents were materialists, literalists, "Jews," and "Pharisees," who refused to recognize any god other than human reason and the material world, and treated social and political bonds as if they were commercial contracts. On both sides the critical discourse of anti-Judaism became so important that, by the 1790s, the greatest contemporary thinkers could debate whether the French Revolution represented a victory of "Jew brokers," in which "the glory of Europe is extinguished forever" (Edmund Burke), or the defeat of a "Jewish" order that turned constitutions into "dead books" of "hard inflexible letters" and reduced subjects to animals "in the starkest contradiction of the spirit of mankind" (Johann Gottlieb Fichte).
Though the number of Jews in revolutionary France was vanishingly small, the role of Judaism in those debates was deeply meaningful. It was the product of a long history of thought that put Judaism at the center of the most vital questions and distinctions of European culture. The distinctions between "spirit and matter, soul and body, faith and intellect, freedom and necessity" (the list is Hegel's): Western Europe and its heirs had learned to think of all of these in terms of their "Jewishness."
Hegel himself was no different. In fact, he saw his own philosophy as an overcoming of the "Judaism" of all earlier philosophies, especially Kant's (which had similarly understood itself as a struggle against "Judaism"). In his predecessors, Hegel saw "the Jewish principle of opposing thought to reality, reason to sense," an opposition he proposed to overcome through a dialectical synthesis modeled on Christ's incarnation. For some that was a congenial solution. But for others, such as Schopenhauer, it was Hegel's philosophy that represented "Jew mythology," and the Hegelians who stank, as he put it, of Judaism.
It is only by taking seriously the logic behind this "Judaizing" discourse that we can understand how not only philosophy but also all of modern Western culture could meaningfully be criticized in terms of Judaism. From music to mathematics, every modern field of thought produced its critical discourse of anti-Judaism. As an Austrian politician quipped in 1907, "culture is what one Jew plagiarizes from another." But we should not confuse the "Judaism" produced by this discourse with whatever we mean by "real" Jews or Judaism. Of the 112 artists condemned in terms of "Judaism" at the Nazi "degenerate art" exhibition, in 1937, only six were Jews by "race." The same could be said of many of the musicians (such as Hindemith), mathematicians (Ernst Zermelo, David Hilbert), and countless others whose work was denounced by the Nazis as "Jewish."
The Nazis were the most relentless and most successful impresarios of this discourse, presenting themselves as rebels against a falsely critical thought that had enslaved the world to Judaism. "The age of rampant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end," Goebbels declared at the burning of un-German books in 1933. But their success in deploying it—that is, their success in mobilizing much of Europe to attempt to murderously purge itself of the Judaism that afflicted it—cannot be explained by the "real" function of the Jews in Europe, or by some eccentric fantasy imposed on a populace by a powerful propaganda machine. That success took place within a history that encoded the threat of Judaism into some of the most basic concepts of Western thought, regenerating that threat in new forms for new times, and helping many of Europe's citizens, even its most educated and critical, make sense of their world. Without understanding that history, we cannot understand how a society could so terribly confuse the nature of the dangers that assailed it.
We live in an age with its own "Jewish questions," an age in which many millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of "Israel." Like Arendt, many of today's self-styled critical thinkers reject the possibility that histories of thinking about Judaism can tell us anything vital about those pressing questions. Some see such histories as nothing more than special pleading, that is, as attempts to deny the responsibility of a people for the criticisms levied against them (as, for example, when histories of anti-Semitism or the Holocaust are invoked to silence critics of the State of Israel). Too often they are right: History can easily become unreflective, impeding criticism rather than furthering it.
And yet it seems to me that the greater danger lies in too easy a confidence that our realism is independent of our past. We make our own history, but we do not make it as we please, and an awareness of the gravity that the past exerts upon us can help us understand the ways in which we see the world. I do not think we can afford to live without it.
David Nirenberg is a professor of history and social thought at The University of Chicago. His new book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, was published in 2013 by W.W. Norton.