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Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition?
by David Nirenberg
Norton, 624 pages, $35

World history is the history of Israel, averred Franz ?Rosenzweig, meaning that the nations of the West so hearkened to the Jewish promise of eternal life that their subsequent history was a response to Israel, whether they emulated or abhorred it. David Nirenberg contends that the West has defined itself for two thousand years by its rejection of Israel.

Both cases can be argued. The difference is that Rosenzweig propounded a clear and mainly traditional concept of Judaism, whereas Nirenberg means by “Judaism” whatever he wants it to mean at different points in time. In its better moments, Nirenberg’s account of Western anti-Judaism is conventional; in its worse moments, it is arbitrary. His aversion to thinking of Judaism in traditional terms gets him into repeated trouble.

Until the nineteenth century, “Judaism” meant the normative tradition embodied in Hebrew Scripture, Talmud, rabbinic responsa, and observances that had remained consistent throughout the two-millennia-long Jewish diaspora. The past two hundred years have produced any number of deviant interpretations, none of which has had much staying power.

Nirenberg, a professor of history and social thought at the University of Chicago, tells us that he is searching for yet another nontraditional reading: “‘Judaism’ . . . is not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas.” The trouble is that we never are told what this is except, ad hoc, as the opinion of particular Jews at particular times. Nor is anti-Judaism “simply an attitude toward Jews and their religion, but a way of critically engaging the world.”

Neither the Jews nor the anti-Semites have a clear idea of what they are about in his account. Nirenberg’s recourse to the postmodern idea of self-definition via the “other” does not help, for his protean depictions of Judaism and anti-Judaism chase each other into infinite regress. It recalls Heinrich Heine’s “fog-figures that rise up out of the ground / and dance a misty reel in weird chorus.”

That is a shame, because the tendentiousness of the book’s central thesis obscures some fine research in the inner chapters, including a highly readable summary of Nirenberg’s scholarly publications on the treatment of Judaism in the Qur’an and hadith. There are many good things in the book”or, rather, things that would have been good had they appeared in a different book.

Nirenberg’s aversion to the traditional understanding of Judaism gets him into trouble at the outset, as he tries to understand the stance of early Christianity toward the Jews. He recites the familiar catalogue of Jesus’ accusations against the Pharisees: They are hypocrites, wicked tenants, and so on, but he misses the decisive point. However much Christians abhorred the Jews, Christianity could not quite extirpate Judaism without destroying its own foundations.

Nirenberg notes the ambivalence of Christian attitudes toward the Jews, citing “Paul’s extraordinary formulation” in Romans 11:28: ?“As regards the gospel, they are enemies, but for your sake; but as regards those who are God’s choice, they are still well loved for the sake of their ancestors.” But Nirenberg’s attempt to explain why the early Church chose not to “other” the Jews out of existence is strained; if anti-?Judaism really is the founding principle of the West, why did the Church repudiate Marcion for suppressing the Hebrew Scriptures?

Christianity cannot survive severed from its Jewish roots, for the Christian promise of the kingdom of heaven stems from the Jewish promise of eternal life, as Benedict XVI argues in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth , where he cites Rabbi Jacob Neusner. In Matthew 12:1“8, Jesus compares his disciples’ Sabbath violation to that of the priests who perform sacrifices on the Sabbath at the Temple.

If the priests are exempt from Shabbat restrictions, Jesus tells the Pharisees, so can his disciples be, for Jesus’ person is the new Temple, the wellspring of eternal life as it was understood by Judaism. Jesus’ break with Judaism is enacted within Jewish terms, and the radical Christology of Matthew 12 exposes its Jewish roots: Jesus’ promise of the kingdom of heaven is incomprehensible except in the context of its Jewish foundation.

Nirenberg looks at Christianity and Judaism as ideologies rather than as religions. The redemptive promise of Judaism and the salvific claim of Christianity do not register in his view of the world. If, for example, the West really is founded on anti-Judaism and Christians need to define themselves against the Jewish “other,” what then explains Christianity’s ambivalence toward Judaism?

Nirenberg doesn’t have a convincing answer to this most basic question. He looks for an explanation in mere ideological consistency: The Arians who rejected Jesus’ divine nature were too corporeal, the Monophysites who rejected Jesus’ human nature were too spiritual, but Augustine was just right, in a sort of ecclesiological version of “The Three Bears.”

Augustine “restored a literal and spiritual value to the Hebrew Bible and its people. His approach to reading scripture domesticated (though it could not entirely tame) the tendency of letter and meaning, flesh and spirit, Old Testament Jew and New Testament Christian, to fly toward opposite poles.”

It was not just “letter and meaning” that threatened to fly apart, however, but the newly converted pagans and the Church itself. The Church could not lay claim to the promises of Hebrew Scripture while destroying the people to whom those promises were made. To the extent it persecuted the Jews, the Church made itself vulnerable to neopaganism, which always sailed under the flag of Jew-hatred.

When Nirenberg turns to anti-Judaism in modern Europe, his account is one-sided. He cites at length the anti-Jewish invective in Baena’s Cancionero (1430), whose “poets, nearly all Christian, are constantly defaming one another, and the accusation of Jewishness is prominent among the charges they hurl.”

But he makes no mention of the most influential Spanish work of the period, the dialogue novel La Celestina (1499) of the converso Fernando de Rojas. Translated into Hebrew eight years after its appearance (and soon into all major European languages), Celestina was read by Jewish contemporaries as a savage satire on the Christian Spain that expelled its Jews in 1492.

Jews were not only the victims of the new literature but often its progenitors. Nirenberg’s account of the Spanish persecution ends with the observation that “Spain had succeeded in converting and expelling all its Jews. But the result was the thorough ‘Judaization’ of Spain. Foreigners tended to put the point most bluntly. ‘Spain is not pleasing,’ wrote Europe’s leading intellectual, Desiderius Erasmus in 1517, because it is full of Jews.”

His interpretation of Luther’s words about the Jews is also misleading. Luther “realized very early that if the literal meaning of scripture was to be amplified, its ‘Judaizing’ potential needed to be contained . . . . The energy necessary for Luther’s transformation of the figure of Judaism was generated by the friction between ‘letter’ and ‘law’ in his thought, not by his collision with living Jews in the ‘real’ world.”

He is correct that Luther’s words were “weapons forged for service in conflicts with other Christians,” but not about the reason. “Judaizing” was not a linguistic exercise but a nascent social movement in Luther’s time”for example, among Moravia’s Sabbatarians. Luther’s pamphlet On the Jews and Their Lies , which demands the destruction of every Jewish home as well as every synagogue, was addressed to the Moravians who had adopted Jewish practices such as Sabbath observance. A century later, “Judaizing” Protestants would transform the political world.

The English Reformation, for example, as Nirenberg observes, reflected Judeophilia as much as anti-Judaism. Israel played a “systematically central role . . . in the elaboration of constitutional claims and political philosophies during the English Civil Wars.” The Hebraist John Selden corresponded with rabbis “to buttress the parliamentary claim that God intended the powers of law and its institutions to extend even over church and Crown.”

Anti-Judaism reasserts itself in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan . Hobbes feared the political millenarians who could “bewitch” their others “into rebellion . . . by this means destroying all laws, both divine and human, [and] reduce all order, government, and society to the first chaos of violence and civil war.” His solution was to extirpate prophecy from politics.

“Prophecy became law . . . through a people’s founding contract with their sovereign,” Nirenberg wrote. “It was as sovereign, not as prophet, that Moses imposed the Mosaic law on his people.” It follows that “since only Israel had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and covenanted with Moses to make God its civic sovereign, only in that bygone nation could scripture ‘be made law.’” And “for everyone else, God’s command was whatever the sovereign decided it was.”

To suppress the republicans, Hobbes found it necessary to marginalize Judaism. Like the Christian Fathers, Nirenberg contends, Hobbes “assigned to the Jews and their history a role that was simultaneously exemplary and exceptional, paradigmatic and peculiar,” in opposition to men like Selden who proposed to universalize the Hebrew model.

This is Nirenberg’s most successful chapter, mainly because it treats the influence of normative rabbinic Judaism on seventeenth-century politics, rather than the “othering” of an undefined “Judaism” removed from its traditional roots. But his depiction of anti-Judaism in German philosophy is less persuasive.

It is easy to point to anti-Semitism among German philosophers. Immanuel Kant deprecated Judaism, arguing that “Judaism as such, taken in its purity, entails absolutely no religious faith.”

But the revival of Kant’s influence during the second half of the nineteenth century was the work of Hermann Cohen, Germany’s most influential academic philosopher during his lifetime as well as a proud defender of Judaism. The phenomenologist Edmund Husserl took Hermann Cohen’s neo-Kantianism in a new direction. The principals in the great German philosophical debates of 1920s were students of Husserl and Cohen.

Nirenberg mentions none of this. Instead, he picks up the story when Husserl’s student Martin Heidegger contended with Cohen’s protégé Ernst Cassirer at the celebrated 1929 debate at Davos. Heidegger’s critique of Cassirer, he claims, resonated with “explicitly anti-Jewish critiques of modernity that were everywhere swirling in the political discourse of the day.”

It is true that Heidegger subsequently joined the Nazi party. But the notion that the Heidegger“Cassirer contest reflected the battle of anti-Judaism and Judaism is simply wrong. The German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig thought that Heidegger had bested Cassirer at Davos. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the leading thinker of twentieth-century Modern Orthodoxy, dismissed Cassirer’s scientific determinism. Cassirer, for that matter, unlike his teacher Hermann Cohen, had nothing to say about Judaism. Nirenberg holds up Cassirer as an exemplar of modern Jewish thinking, without quite explaining what Cassirer thought.

In a long chapter subtitled “Jewish Enmity in Islam,” an aside to the central narrative about the West, Nirenberg translates and comments on Muslim sources largely inaccessible to the general reader. It shows how deeply Islam drew on Jewish Scripture and rabbinic commentary while claiming that Jews falsified the prophecies given to them. There is valuable scholarship here that would have fared better in an independent volume.

Some readers may take issue, though, with Nirenberg’s conclusion. “The Muslim charge of Jewish alteration and falsification of scripture would come to fundamentally distinguish Islamic attitudes toward the Hebrew Bible from Christian ones,” Nirenberg writes, yet he emphasizes that “both were doing similar political and theological work within the same overarching prophetic tradition.” It is hard to imagine a Jewish“Islamic dialogue comparable to the postwar reconciliation of the Jews with the main branches of Christianity.

In an afterword, Nirenberg sympathetically quotes Walter Benjamin: “Just as a man lying sick with fever transforms all the words that he hears into the extravagant images of delirium, so it is that the spirit of the present age seizes on the manifestations of past or distant spiritual worlds, in order to take possession of them and unfeelingly incorporate them into its own self-absorbed fantasizing.”

That is a fitting epigraph for this sometimes brilliant but often confused and tendentious repurposing of Western history. Nirenberg projects his own discomfort with normative Judaism onto “past and distant spiritual worlds,” and he too often gets lost in them.

David P. Goldman, a former senior editor of First Things , writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online and the “Spengler” blog for PJ Media .