Jews Out of The Question: Thinking the Unthinkable

Elliot R. Wolfson on Elad Lapidot


ews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism is not an ordinary book on anti-Semitism. The conceptual complexity raises the discourse to a level that is rarely seen with regard to this issue. In the introduction, Lapidot states the hypothesis that informs his philosophical meditation: “the present critique of anti-anti-Semitism does not intend to defend anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it suggests a fundamental affinity, and so a certain complicity between a dominant critique of anti-Semitism and the criticized object, anti-Semitism itself, a complicity between these two wars. This book critiques a certain discourse that frames, organizes, and generates both anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism.” Lapidot’s reflections are driven by the “fundamental question” regarding the relation—at once both possible and impossible—of philosophy, theory, or thought to anti-Semitism, which necessitates of course, the relation to Judaism, hence the title of the book Jews Out of the Question.

The double sense conveyed by this title succinctly captures the problematic that the book seeks to illumine. On the one hand, Jewish identity is construed primarily from the vantage point of questioning that religious-cultural demarcation, an inquisitorial stance that we know by the name anti-Semitism; on the other hand, that categorization others the Jew to the point that, as the colloquial expression goes, the Jews are out of the question, that is, unthinkable conceptually and unfeasible ontologically. The challenge of Lapidot’s method lies in his paradoxical attempt to proffer a systematic contemplation that thinks the unthinkable. Such an attempt is precarious, but its power draws precisely from this sense of peril.

To understand Lapidot’s commitment to the inherently polemical nature of thinking, we should bear in mind that the nexus between scientific and philosophical knowledge (episteme or logos) and the concern for political and communal existence (polis) is at the core of what he calls political epistemology. To apprehend this taxonomy, one would do well to consider two other expressions deployed by Lapidot, epistemo-politics and logo-politics, as both of these expressions utilize the hyphen. Grammatically, the function of the hyphen is to join words that ostensibly have a combined meaning, but ideationally, at least in Lapidot’s construal, the hyphen is suggestive of an internal split. Hence, the critical meditation on the conjunctive hyphen in the epistemo-political condition of contemporary culture reveals the disjunction between knowledge and politics, a “dis-relation between episteme and polis.” To my ear, this dis-relation calls to mind the political standpoint eventually professed by Heidegger, predicated on the insight that there is no truth but the truth that arises from friction with the semblance of untruth. The latter entails not the negation of truth as falsehood but rather the concealment of the unconcealment, the hiddenness of beings that opposes truth as the unhiddenness of being. Related to the question of Heidegger’s apolitical politics, that is, the politics of political disavowal, I further presume that the conception of language as a gesture of unsaying—exemplified in the sigetic propensity of poetry to speak the unspeakable by unspeaking the speakable—engendered a form of esotericism, amplified by the assumption that there is no disclosure that is not concurrently a concealment, no laying bare of truth that is not entwined with untruth, no clearing of the path that is not suffused with the wreckage of the way.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, one is struck by the fact that the theoretical framework of the book is indebted above all to Heidegger, even though the first chapter commences with an analysis of the dynamics of anti-anti-Semitic discourse as it is related to Heidegger’s inexcusable affiliation with Nazi ideology and his indefensible embrace of standard anti-Semitic tropes. The indebtedness to Heidegger, as I see it, relates both to the centrality of questioning on the path of thought and to the privileged place accorded the unthought as that which must be thought repeatedly. I should add, moreover, that just as Heidegger was committed to the idea that struggle (polemos) is the essence of thought, indeed, it constitutes the inner necessity of being—an idea that he links to the aphorism of Heraclitus that begins “war is father of all and king of all”—Lapidot maintains that his engaging in the examination of the basic categories and notions that underlie and preconfigure the discourse on anti-Semitism, and the question of how this discourse shapes contemporary culture in the doubling or even tripling of the prefix anti—that is, anti-anti-Semitism, those who oppose anti-Semitism as a legitimate analytic category, or anti-anti-anti-Semitism, those who oppose this opposition—is a form of engaging in polemics. Controversy and disagreement—rendered in the Yiddish machloykes, which is based on the Hebrew maḥloqet—shape the fundamental event of thinking, or to be more specific, the event of thinking as it has been historically embodied in a distinctively Jewish sense of being. One will note here an affinity with the political thought of Carl Schmitt, as the author himself acknowledges, but he insists on differentiating polemos as such and polemics. Betraying the influence of the talmudic pattern of disputation, Lapidot argues that the contemporary polemics taken as the evental site for contemplating political thought is a double or second-order polemics, a war on war: anti-anti-Semitism.

To cite one final example of the Heideggerian influence, as Lapidot notes, the epistemological communality or solidarity between anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism that informs his analysis is in accord with Heidegger’s assertion in the Black Notebooks that antinomies originate from one essence. Heidegger illustrates the hermeneutical point by claiming that the image of the Antichrist comes from the same essential ground (Wesensgrund) of Christ, which is say, Judaism, and hence both the Christian and the Antichristian stem from Jewry (aus der Judenschaft). This allows Heidegger to draw the startling conclusion that the Jews are the principle of destruction (das Prinzip der Zerstörung) in the “time-space [Zeitraum] of the Christian West,” also identified as the time-space of metaphysics. The Jews, in short, are the pinnacle of self-annihilation, and Christian metaphysics is the Jewish struggle against the Jews. The conceptual underpinning of this somewhat convoluted argument is the distinction Heidegger makes between the Same (das Selbe) and the identical (das Gleiche); the former, in contrast to the latter, entails the preservation of difference in the belonging-togetherness (Zusammengehörigkeit) of what is juxtaposed. Things that are the same belong together only because of the unbridgeable chasm that keeps them separate; sameness is discernible through difference, but not in a dialectical way that sublates the disjuncture of their conjunction. On this score, Christ and the Antichrist belong together in the accord of their discord, and by extension, anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism arise from the selfsame essence.


ut what does it mean to identify Jewry with the principle of destruction? Heidegger explains: “The destructive aspect of the inversion [Umkehrung] of the completion of metaphysics—i.e., in Hegel’s metaphysics through Marx. Spirit [Geist] and culture [Kultur] are the superstructure [Überbau] of ‘life’—i.e., of the economy, i.e., of the organization—i.e., of the biological— i.e., of the people [des ‘Volkes’].” Apparently reversing a position articulated at an earlier date in a passage from the Beiträge wherein the “final form” of Marxism is said to have “essentially nothing to do with Jewishness [Judentum],” even though Bolshevism is labeled as Jewish and Christianity is labeled as Bolshevist due to its Jewish origin, Marx is identified in the passage from the Black Notebooks as the representative of the Jews whose status as Antichrist is positioned as the adversary to the time-space of Christianity, which understood philosophically, implies the antipathy to the completion of metaphysics expressed as the reversal of the Hegelian dialectic such that spirit and culture become the superstructure or epiphenomenon of life related respectively to the economy, organization, biology, and peoplehood. It is difficult to exempt Heidegger from the charge of biological racism even though it appears, astonishingly, that Lapidot is suggesting that the völkische ideology of the Third Reich is a direct consequence of Jewish ethnocentrism refracted through the prism of Marx’s spurious revision of Hegel.

Bracketing Heidegger’s interpretation of Hegel and Marx, the question of ethnocentrism—or, more precisely, the ostensibly nonethnocentric marking of ethnocentrism—brings us to what is really at stake in Jews Out of the Question, what Lapidot calls the “dis-figuration of the Jew.” Disfiguration denotes the “elimination of figure,” which is to say, “the abolishment of any idea and thus of any epistemic value, any concept and content of the signifier ‘Jew,’ which thus becomes necessarily a matter of indifference, something inessential, beyond love and hate.” The double negative of the anti-anti-Semitism, the negation of negation, does not proceed to the affirmation of Semitism but to a more negative, if not exterminatory, posture.  One is remined of Freud’s associating the Jews with a form of disfiguration or the horrifying specter of the disfigured mode of exposure (Aussetzung). However, in contrast to the Freudian disfiguration, which renders the Jew hideous because others feel that they too are subject to disfiguration, in Lapidot’s sense, the disfiguration renders the Jew invisible, an invisibility that is not emboldening but rather decidedly disempowering. Hence, Lapidot insists, “What needs to be subverted or overcome, and first made visible, is the epistemology that underlies the discourse of Semitism. The challenge is not only to remember the Jew and the Muslim, but to access Jewish and Muslim memories, where Jewish and Muslim do not only exist as Christian others, as ‘Semites.’” To move beyond anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism, the nomenclature of Semitism must be deconstructed.

Beyond the specific topic of this monograph, the question it occasions has import for how we understand the contours of a philosophy delimited by specific religious tradition whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian, or Buddhist. Simply put, is the universal indexical of the particular or is the particular indexical of the universal? This question is by no means tangential to the problem of the political-epistemological disfiguration of the Jew as the phenomenological appearance of the inapparent. Anti-anti-anti-Semitism, Lapidot tells us, is a phenomenology insofar as the latter is delineated as “the challenge of looking at the seemingly invisible, namely at thought. Like all phenomenology, the present investigation too is faced with the basic question of how and where precisely thought appears.”  To speak candidly, Lapidot is challenging the continued particularization of the Jew as the one that stubbornly defies integration into the body that professes to exclude none but those who do not wish to be included, the one who seeks to cultivate difference of identity as opposed to being assimilated in the identity of difference. Alternatively expressed, the critique of the disfigured Jew by the anti-anti-anti-Semitism can be translated into the affirmation of the Jew as the one that bears the mark of the identity of the nonidentical in the preservation of the nonidentity of the identical. I sincerely hope that Lapidot’s outstanding book will effect a change in attitude, and that it will contribute to the didactic insight that the Jewish predicament is the human predicament, and hence the concern with the specificity of Jewish textuality and patterns of thinking have the potential to illumine thought more generally and thereby contribute to an ever-evolving understanding of the universal status of humanity, which must be assessed at all times from the perspective of the irreducibility of the particular that resists integration into an all-absorbing totality that denies differentiation. As such, the “de-epistemized Jew,” the one “disrobed of all concept,” will be inserted back into the epistemic realm and thereby re-membered, that is, “reintroduced into thinking” understood as the “conceptual event of opposition, of contradiction and negation, and negation of negation, of machloykes, which is the element of knowledge insofar as it is temporal, insofar as it is thought.”

Thinking along with Derrida, we can say that the principle of exemplarity instantiated in the figure of the Jew dictates that the “more jewish the Jew [plus le Juif est juif], the more he would represent the universality of human responsibility for man, and the more he would have to respond to it, to answer for it.” In this respect, as Derrida elsewhere formulates the paradox of the identity of non-self-identity adduced from his experience as a Jew, “I still feel, at once, at the same time, as less jewish and more jewish than the Jew [comme moins juif et plus juif que le Juif], as scarcely Jewish and as superlatively Jewish as possible, more than Jew [plus que Juif], exemplarily Jew, but also hyperbolically Jew.” To be, at once, less Jewish and most Jewish (d’autant moins juif et d’autant mieux juif) is predicated on the discernment that the otherness of the Jew perforce comprises its own other, the universal that transcends the particular in which it is contained. Derrida’s position can be profitably compared with the claim embraced by Levinas that Jewish ethnocentrism is the condition that secures the viability of a genuine alterity, since the notion of an “absolutely universal,” the principle that grounds the sense of respect for and responsibility toward the other, “can be served only through the particularity of each people, a particularity named enrootedness.” Levinas placed the burden of bearing the universal particularism at the heart of Israel’s messianic mission. As the consummate stranger, the Jew is the figural token of the alterity that comports the nature of human subjectivity; that is, the Jew stands as witness to the fact that we are the same by virtue of our irreducible difference. In spite of Levinas’s rejection of mysticism, with respect to this issue, there is kinship between his opinion and the widespread kabbalistic axiom that the ideal of humanity is incarnated socio-culturally in Israel, and consequently, that only with respect to the Jews is the conflict between the individual and the general adequately mediated, and thus the repair of the world will be enacted primarily through one particular people. I concur with Judith Butler’s critique that, for Levinas, “the Jew” is a “category that belongs to a culturally constituted ontology (unless it is the name for access to the infinite itself), and so if the Jew maintains an ‘elective’ status in relation to ethical responsiveness, then Levinas fully confuses the preontological and the ontological.” The ascription of a unique ethical role to the Jewish people based on being exceptionally persecuted is problematic, and, regrettably, at times this has been used to justify persecution of others on the part of Israeli Jews, rationalizing acts of aggression in the name of self-defense or the demand for security. Despite the validity of Butler’s criticism, it is still legitimate to distinguish the ontological and preontological as they pertain to Levinas. Chosenness, he steadfastly maintained, is a function of acting, a matter of historical destiny shaped by temporal contingencies, and not an eternal condition of transhistorical being or a feature of the inherent ipseity of the infinite.


o reclaim the Jewish sense of being displayed in the thinking that is machloykes is to discern that even the universalist element springs from and returns to the particularistic coloration that defies thematization and translation into a universal abstraction. However, we cannot deny the problematic repercussions of grounding the universalist objective as part of a vocational particularity. In lieu of the particularistic universalism impelled by the Hegelian dialectic, reflective of the broader ideal of the German enlightenment, the eschatological orientation of Judaism tenaciously embraces a universal particularism. The tension that has marked the Jewish sensibility through the centuries ensues logically from this deportment: on the one hand, the exclusivity of an ethnocentrism that has roots in the biblical metaphor of chosenness; on the other hand, the inclusivity of a universalism compelled by the prophetic-messianic mission of being a light unto the nations.

Fluctuating between these poles, Israel’s election has assumed the form of an inclusive exclusiveness that is an exclusive inclusiveness. In a manner that resonates with my own scholarly work, Lapidot seeks the intermediate position between these options, striving to find a way to be faithful to the particular that does not exclude the other even in its inclusiveness, finding a way home by encountering the foreign. It may be useful to take hold of this middle excluded by the logic of the excluded middle by appealing to one of the hermeneutic rules attributed to R. Ishmael concerning the kelal u-peraṭ, the general and the particular, ein bi-khelal elah mah she-bi-feraṭ, there is nothing in the general that is not in the particular. Even more pertinent is the appropriation and embellishment of this principle attested in several kabbalistic texts, ki ein ba-peraṭ ella mah she-ba-kelal we-ein ba-kelal ella mah she-ba-peraṭ, “there is nothing in the particular but what is in the general and nothing in the general but what is in the particular.” I surmise that the logic underlying this dictum presumes the sameness (as opposed to the identity) of the general and the particular, that is, a congruence that upholds rather than collapses the sense of incongruence between the two. In an era that notoriously celebrates difference, will the difference from what is accepted as different be tolerated as an acceptable difference?

Perhaps what is needed in the academy is a way of thinking that acknowledges sameness, or belonging-together, as Heidegger would have put it, a sameness that fosters rather than undermines difference. Despite his obvious and inexcusable shortcomings, Heidegger did offer a genuine sense of indifference that moves beyond the dialectical identity of identity and nonidentity. Indifference to this question runs the peril of leading one to mistake the same for the different, the consequence of which would be masking the different as the same.

Elliot R. Wolfson, a Fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Distinguished Professor of Religion at University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of many publications including Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (1994); Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and the Poetic Imagination (2005); Alef, Mem, Tau: Kabbalistic Musings on Time, Truth, and Death (2006); Venturing Beyond—Law and Morality in Kabbalistic Mysticism (2006); Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (2009); A Dream Interpreted within a Dream: Oneiropoiesis and the Prism of Imagination (2011); Giving beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania (2014); Elliot R. Wolfson: Poetic Thinking (2015); The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism and the Jewish Other (2018); Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiesis (2019); Suffering Time: Philosophical, Kabbalistic, and Ḥasidic Reflections on Temporality (2021); The Philosophical Pathos of Susan Taubes: Between Nihilism and Hope (2023).