David Nirenberg's "Anti-Judaism"

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.


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