George Steiner, who died earlier this year, was one of the most influential Jewish intellectuals of the last half-century. He produced a foundational text in the philosophy of translation, the first thorough introduction to Martin Heidegger in English, major investigations into the nature of tragedy and the cultural ramifications of postmodern hermeneutics, and a work of Holocaust fiction that occasioned widespread controversy. His crossing of cultural, linguistic, and professional boundaries garnered both praise and opprobrium. The obituaries and retrospective articles ensuing upon his passing have shown him to be as controversial in death as he was in life.
Yet in Jewish studies, both traditional and academic, Steiner’s writings are almost totally neglected. This seems, at first glance, a grave injustice. Steiner wrote extensively on Judaism, the Holocaust, Zionism, and the “Jewishness” of the Jewish thinkers who blazed across the intellectual firmament of prewar Europe. Der Judenfrage, the concatenation of inescapable questions surrounding Jewish origins, identity, and survival, was one of his chief concerns. But what was the nature and quality of Steiner’s Jewish writings?