Get PJ Media on your Apple


David Nirenberg’s “Anti-Judaism”

May 11th, 2014 - 7:59 am

Chicago University Professor David Nirenberg’s 2013 book Anti-Judaism received rapturous reviews from most Jewish media, including by Michael Walzer at New York Review of Books (via Mosaic) and Adam Kirsch at Tablet. My review at First Things was less enthusiastic: Nirenberg, in my view, got lost in the labyrinth of error that arises when secular Jews try to judge religious matters by their own standards. Below is a draft of my review, which is due to come out from behind the paywall at First Things momentarily.



Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

by David Nirenberg

W.W.Norton, 624 pages, $35


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


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. By contrast, 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 responsae, 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 non-traditional reading: Judaism is not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas,” he declares. The trouble is that we never are told what this, 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 tendentious of the book’s central thesis obscures some fine research ensconced in the inner chapters, including a highly readable summary of Nirenberg’s scholarly publications on the treatment of Judaism in the Koran and Hadith. Ther 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 towards 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.

Nierenberg notes the ambivalence of Christian attitudes towards the Jews, citing “Paul’s extraordinary formulation” in Romans 12:28: “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 his 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 didn’t Marcion succeed in 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, which cites Rabbi Jacob Neusner. In Matthew 12:8, 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, 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 context of its Jewish foundation.

Nirenberg looks at Christianity nor Judaism as ideologies rather than religions. The redemptive promise of Judaism and the salvific claim of Christianity do not register in his view of the world. What, then explains Christianity’s ambivalence towards Judaism? If the West really founded on anti-Judaism and Christians need to define themselves against the Jewish “Other,” why did the Church repudiate Marcion? 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.”

But it was not just “letter and meaning” that threatened to fly apart, 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 neo-paganism, which always sailed under the flag  of Jew-hatred.

Nirenberg’s account of anti-Judaism in modern Europe is one-sided. He cites at length the anti-Jewish invective in Baena’s 1430 Cancionero, 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 converso Fernando de Rojas’ 1499 dialogue novel La Celestina. Translated into Hebrew seven years after its appearance (and soon into all major European languages), Celestina was read by Jewish contemporaries as a savage satire of the Christian Spain that expelled its Jews in 1492.

Jews were not only the victims of the new literature, but often its progenitors. His 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.”

Of Martin Luther’s stance towards Judaism, Nirenberg writes, “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. . . . Luther’s words about Jews were weapons forged for service in conflicts with other Christians.”

That is misleading. “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, 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 . . . and by this means destroying all laws, both divine and human, 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,” Hobbes 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 Seldon 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, “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 19th 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 phenomenlogist Edmund Husserl took Hermann Cohen’s neo-Kantianism in a new direction. The principals in the great Germany 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 debated Cohen’s protégé Ernst Cassirer at a the celebrated1929 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 contested reflected the battle of Judaism and anti-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 20th century Modern Orthodoxy, dismissed Cassirer’s scientific determinism. Cassirer, for that matter, had nothing say about Judaism, unlike his teacher Hermann Cohen.  Nirenberg holds up Cassirer as an exemplar of  modern Jewish thinking, without quite explaining what Cassirer thought.

A long chapter entitled “Jewish Enmity in Islam” is 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 the 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 afterward, 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 too often gets lost in them.

Comments are closed.

All Comments   (12)
All Comments   (12)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
People like Noam Chomsky are probably a lot more dangerous, as they are effectively willing to sell out even their own ethnicity and blood (Chomsky is a rabid anti-Israel despite his being Jewish in ethnicity at least). I have no problem with the Jewish people, as I have a few Jewish friends even with my knowing they are Jewish. That being said though, I do think that Talmudic Judaism definitely needs to go, because they pretty much go against even God's will. I have no problems with Jewish people following the rules of the Torah, as hey, we Christians follow the Torah as well: It's called the Old Testament in our case, and the Torah/Old Testament comes from God himself. The Talmud, on the other hand, actually seems to desecrate a lot of God's word. I definitely am certain the Old Testament did not condone having relations with minors, yet apparently the Talmud actually endorsed it from what I've read (and the sources even posted scans of the sections of the Talmud). It's funny that some people accuse Christ of desecrating God's laws, because the Talmud seemed to do that even more. At least Jesus made clear he intended to fulfill the laws and not destroy them (though, then again, since I usually think of "fulfilling laws" in a similar manner to how some people kill off their own minions just because their usefulness is expended, that doesn't seem to give me too much comfort even with my following Christ), not to mention Jesus also doing it with God's permission in the case of allowing the Christians to eat pork. The Talmud has no such excuse at all for some of its desecration. I'm saying this with all due respect of course, Mr. Goldman/Spengler with absolutely no intention of offending you or anything.

EDIT: Just so we're clear, I can't pretend this is all true since I myself cannot know, but the scans of the Talmud do raise the possibility of it being truthful I'm afraid.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
There was a theology in Christianity that I think was first articulated by St Augustine in 320 AD or so--called "replacement theology"
I think I've heard it mentioned here before. Anyhow it was the theology that preached that Jews were no longer the chosen people. Christians were the chosen people. I think this is what produced the Christian anti semitism for so many centuries because basically you had two books trying to occupy the same space on the book shelf. Therefor all that otherness stuff. The nazis were very different animals. They were pre JudeoChristian pagans. The SS were homosexuals. Always. Always the pagan religions included wierd sexual practices.

Most American denominations wholly or partly abide by dispensationalism. Which holds that Jews have a different dispensation than Christians. (ie there is no effort made to replace Jews as God's chosen people. Rather, Christians are grafted/adapted in the line of Abraham.) Therefor, most American denominations hold to some variant of Genesis 12:3. Many US denominations are friends with Israel but believe as well that the birth of Israel is a sign of the end times and the coming of the Messiah.

These days that's not a stretch if you believe that large scale off world colonization will begin in the next +-100 years -- thereby splitting the history of man and the history of the earth. This is just the same as people's journeys over the last 500 years from the old world to the new world split their histories off from the old country. Much as Abraham's journey from Ur to Israel split his family history off from that of his kin in the old country.

There has been quite an effort by the secular universities in the last two centuries to link Jesus with Greek philosphy. There was never any truth to it. Look at any Christian STUDY bible. Typically the notes in the New Testatment fill half the page. They contain references to the old testament. That is the people who wrote the New Testament were making references to the old Testatment. The way Jesus put it was "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Matthew 5:17

Mohmmed was up to something completely different. He rewrote the stories from the old testament to suit his story line. Whereas the bible is the truth. The Koran is just a bunch of lies.

42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Much as Abraham's journey from Ur to Israel split his family history off from that of his kin in the old country.

New International Version (NIV)
Joshua 24:2

2 Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.

Joshua 24:3

3 But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac,

Joshua 24:14

14 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.

Joshua 24:15

15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
No mystery: the Nirenberg review is due to come off the First Things paywall momentarily so I made it available. I could have written a different version for PJM but simply don't have time.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you for your satiation of my curiosity. I apologize if I apppeared a bit pushy. However, a central question remains for me, one my communication with Barry Rubin did not clear up and your article has revived. What are the defining features constituting the essence of the "BEING" of being Jewish? Say that all Jews in the US or in Israel lost all faith whatsoever in Judaism. Would, with the passage of time, Jews, now bereft of Judaism (in at least some religious form), BE significantly diffferent from the "Italian-ness" in 4th, 5th, etc. Italo-Americans? Is Judaism (in all or only in some of its forms) a sine qua non generative factor for the historical reality of being Jewish? One can, I think, talk about Jews without necessity of reference to religion, but it would be (or would have been) difficult to speak about Catholics without reference to religious belief. This double use of identification seems to be a Jewish peculiarity, one that leaves me confused as to what Jewishness IS. Or am I just being too philosophically abstract where abstractions simply miss the concrete reality?
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Reading the second full paragraph of this wonderful essay as a book review has made me ponder, is 'the other' a squishy normative term applied to anything you don't want to take ownership of at the moment? A superficial search on the internet implies that it does....'>.... :
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you, David, for making this piece available to PJM readers.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Herr Spengler:

I am puzzled why you are publishing such a theologically intricate discussion in a politically oriented website-magazine. Just how many readers know of Marcion and his role in the process of establishing a canonical scripture for Christians. And the "La Celistina"? Who but someone who had studied in Spain would know of the work (and, if memory serves me correctly, music accopanyents)? You seem to have written for a specialized erudite readership. I tend to believe that thinkers write what they are thinking about and this "about" is of exigent importance for the thinker. (How is that for being round-about?) I sense a mismatch between the nature of the article and the probable readership. The result is that the "about" that has led you to publish such intricate thoughts must be of "burning" importance to you. Is it because your understanding of Judaism has be challenged by the Nirenberg. I remember reading the young Marx' diatribe against Judiaism, an attack that reduced Judaism to but one example of the religious ideologicalification of the "material" basis of thinking. That Marx touched upon the "Jewish question", and so bitterly, is understandable to me within the exigencies of his thinking. I am curious about the exigencies of your thinking that brought you to publish such a learned article for readers who, in the majority, may not comprehend you. Has Nirenberg so twisted and endangerd Judaism as did Marx 150++ years ago. Pardon my curiosity.

Aside: I am not so sure the Herann Cohen was THE leading neo-Kantian, though always a pleasure to read. I tip upon Heinrich Rickert instead. I did not know, however, that Cohen had such distinguished disciples. Cassirer is always like a burst of genius that simply overwhelms me and Husserl's phemenology has influenced my own reflections.

--As an aside: Rickert was a cool and calm thinker. Once I read an article by him after the collapse of the Kaiser Reich and he was hysterical. I have used such an article to imagine the effects of a post-WW I collapsed German world and, returning to your aricle on Putin, and as an imaginative consideration of a collapse Soviet world for Russians.-- Thank you again for your artilces.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Forgive me, Professor, but it seems as if you are saying that Mr. Goldman must have some unacknowledged motive for posting this essay because he should have known that we ignorami out in PJMedia-land could not possibly appreciate it. Don't sell us short; the comment sections have proven (at least to me) that there are quite a few theological sophisticates among us, from several traditions.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
You have misunderstood me. The two most influential writers of PMJ for me are/were Spengler and Barry Rubin. I have experienced an introduction into "Judaism" through David Goldman, purchasing books from authors he mentions. I have a direct and indirect interest in "What is Judaism?", "How is it to be maintained?" and what relation does it have to the "BEING" of being a Jew? The erudite form chosen by Spengler struck me as odd for a website with limited readers able to appreciate his insights. No matter, what is the problem bothering Spengler?

1. Direct concern: I live in Germany, which since the late 18th Century began assimilating "Jews", particularly ones who separated from Jewish religion (and I take religon as a central feature over the centuries generating the "BEING" of being a Jew). By the 20th Century many "Jews" in Germany did not see themselves as Jews anymore and many left the religion or converted to Christianity (even in the 19th Century Karl Marx was "emanciapted" from Judaism and he did not feel Jewish). In short, Jewish identity was separated from "BEING" Jewish and then, in a secular environment, it began to disappear, often extremely so. For instance, in a documentary here in Germany I learned that over 170,000 half and quarter German Jews (according to Nazi twisted categories) fought in the Nazi Wehrmacht, a couple even becoming a "Feldmarshall". That implies a major loss of identity, particularly once separated from Judaism. I had awhile back an exchange of emails with Barry Rubin concerning what constitutes Jewish identity, i.e., beyond the fact that Hitler simply killed all and thereby obliterated any religious factor as a defining feature. In other words, was Hitler's indiscriminate killing of Jews, religious or not, a factor for defining Jewish identity after the Holocaust? Spengler has more than once taken on secular Jews. At times I wonder if being Jewish Amrican is like being Italo-American, say, in the 3rd or 4th generation, i.e., decoration. The book Spengler reviewed seemed to have challenged him. This elicited in me the question of what "identifies" a Jew qua BEING a Jew? Is it religion or some long ago rejected, but quaint historical background? The article seemed to me to be more appropiate for "First Things" than for a political website. I did not question that some readers can grasp what Goldman was writing. I only wondered about the choice of sites. I will email the article to some Christian friends. I wish the article were in German as Germans could profit from it.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Indirect concern (and briefly): At the end of April the Catholic Ross Douthat published an article in the NYT on the ambiguous effects of Pope Francis and his style (substance) on the Catholic world. Douthat listed "schism" as a possiblity. That, in my opinion, is meek. At times it appears as if three different types of Catholics exist, related but essentially "other. 1. traditionists perplexed by the Pope, 2. sort of modernists enthused by the Pope, and 3. multimillions of Catholics by name only who, if leftist, like the social justice bit of the Pope, but have no serious religious commitment. Simply put, a crisis of identity is threatening the once coherent church called Catholicism. I found Spengler's article and his tension with "secular" Jews to be theoretically related to the problematic of Catholic identity and, both identities call for a more general theory on the matter. Cerainly should I try to write an article on the matter (and I am not really qualified), PJM would not be the place; though some readers might follow along. I doubt if all too many Catholics would even know what is going on.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
View All