Is the Talmud a Discourse of Negation?

Vivian Liska on Elad Lapidot

Elad Lapidot’s polemic against anti-antisemitism, repeatedly called anti-anti-anti-Semitism, raises a question: does a triple negation end up in a positive, or in the intensification of a negative? In proper English, such triple constructions should be avoided unless the author “wants it to be colorful.” Is Lapidot’s book’s position of anti-anti-antisemitism itself an intensification of a negation? Or, does it transform the whole into a colorful, unexpected argument?

The first “anti” in “anti-Semitism” is a negation of the Jew. Is the second “anti”— a negation of the negation of the Jew— a positive? As the book convincingly shows, this is only seemingly so: in reality, the second negation is not a reversal of anti-Semitism but a complicity with it. In other words, the opposition to anti-Semitism is complicit with anti-Semitism. My guiding question will obviously concern the third “anti”: does it represent a reversal of the anti-anti-Semitism Lapidot so resourcefully criticize, or rather a form of complicity with it?

Lapidot defines antisemitism as the “de-semanticization of the Jew,” an emptying out of the Jew’s “epistemic content.” More simply stated, the antisemitic discourses do not grant the existence of Jewish thought. He then shows that anti-anti-Semitism— far from its pretense to fight anti-Semitism— in fact collaborates in this emptying out, presumably because anything said of the Jew is considered stereotypical, a generalization, a negation. Anti-anti-Semitism accords no affirmation of a positive episteme to what Lapidot calls “the Jewish.” At first glance, as a negation of a negation anti-anti-Semitism should rescue a “positive” content of the Jewish. But Lapidot shows that it instead merges with this negation. What happens when, in turn, Lapidot contests this attitude?

Jews Out of the Question brings powerful evidence to bear on a provocative, daring, and counterintuitive thesis. Lapidot intends to slaughter sacred— and less sacred— cows among the acknowledged theoreticians of anti-Semitism: Adorno and Horkheimer, Sartre, Arendt and others. Marshalling an impressive variety of registers, theories, and thinkers, his study is not only erudite. It also intervenes in often astonishing ways in dominant discourses and radically challenges habitual thought processes. His “anti anti anti” indeed leads not, as logic would have it, to a return to antisemitism but indeed to a surprising place. Lapidot’s book reads like a thriller full of suspenseful twists and turns.

Lapidot’s argument offers a subtly executed critique of certain ways of opposing antisemitism. It is startling and utterly convincing, at least on two of its central points: I could not agree more with the critique of reducing the Jew to victimhood and Shoah. More importantly and specific to the book: I am impressed by the critique of “de-epistemizing” the Jew, of emptying it of all positive characteristics. In my own work, I point to a similar dynamic of depletion in Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Alain Badiou, and of course most notoriously in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Jew as creation of the anti-Semite. In each case, in the name of fighting antisemitism, the Jew is taken to epitomize non-identity, non-place and no-time. Lapidot’s study is an eye opener towards other thinkers and theories, showing that this phenomenon is far more pervasive than I had expected.

The book articulates an alternative to what it is that is “de-semanticized” and depleted in anti-antisemitism. I myself hesitate to spell this out— mainly out of fear of essentializing, fixing, pinning down and narrowing our understanding of what is Jewish. A similar hesitation is, I believe, shared by some (though not all) the anti-anti-Semites Lapidot addresses. Yet I can accompany him a fair distance toward where he ends up. And if I give this away now, I’m aware that I’m a spoil in the treasure hunt: this treasure is the Talmud, the core of Rabbinic Judaism. If I were asked to “re-semanticize” the Jewish, that is where I too would go, though possibly for different reasons than him. (Lapidot explicitly rejects conceiving of the Talmud as a document for the organization of everyday life in terms of negotiated justice.) But his insistence that this is the treasure of Judaism, a treasure rarely invoked in oppositions to anti-Semitism, is a major contribution to the discourse about Jews both past and present.

There is an inconsistency in the methodical strategies Lapidot adopts, one that is not fully alleviated by his methodological reflection. His exegesis of the works by the anti-anti-Semites in his purview is more structured than the argumentative framework into which he seeks to insert them. The overriding problem that arises here concerns the question of whether Lapidot avoids the pitfalls into which, according to his claim, anti-anti-Semitism has fallen.

The provocative tenor of the argumentation comes at the price of radical and occasionally truly excessive and dizzying paradoxes and reversals. This leads Lapidot, at times, to make statements that, while perhaps part of a rhetorical flow, do not stand up to rigorous examination. To take an example from his argument concerning the emptying of the semantic content of the Jews as a content of thought in the works Lapidot examines, at some point he suggests that this depletion of knowledge is “worse than extermination.” I presume Lapidot to mean this metaphorically. I doubt that he would want to turn all those who invoke the “Jewish” without assigning it specific knowledge into killers.

Let us call this Lapidot’s identification of the object of his discourse. The problem concerns his delimitation of the entities to which he refers when he speaks of anti-anti-Semitism and of anti-Semitism. This is connected in turn to the methodical and methodological disparity to which I referred early. While his immanent analysis of the works he discusses is accurate, the step in which he attempts to categorize them according to their similarities and dissimilarities, i.e. to subsume them under concepts, is questionable.

Lapidot’s definition of both anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism is contentious: Is anti-Semitism really the “banishment of the collective subjectivity from the realm of knowledge and discourse of philosophy”? Is this not a disembodiment of the terms? As to anti-anti-Semitism: Lapidot shows such a variety of figures and dynamics of “de-semanticization” that I wonder if they really constitute a category at all. Furthermore, aren’t there other anti-anti-Semites who don’t “de-semanticize?” or else are themselves critical of such de-semanticizing? (See for example Maurice Blanchot’s critique of Sartre.) So, aren’t there degrees of “de-semanticization” that ought to be reckoned with? In a similar vein, Lapidot offers a fascinating rapprochement between Hannah Arendt and Alain Badiou. But their differences in matters Jewish seem to me to be far greater than the similarities.

Another concern consists of what Lapidot presents as the positive political epistemology of his book, after having sought to identify the kinds of negative political epistemology he finds in anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism alike. According to the preview of the discursive route given in his introduction and epilogue, this positive political epistemology consists in the Talmud. The problems to which I have pointed out before become all the more pressing here, for it is this that Lapidot claims to be able to draw on to fill the substantive void of Judaism that he has tried to reveal in anti-Semitism and its failed nemesis.

Let me begin by invoking the problem concerning delimitation. What about those Jews who would not identify with the episteme drawing on the Talmud? Would Lapidot leave them out in the cold, exposed to an unredeemable anti- or for that matter anti-anti-Semitism? The truly astonishing epilogue deserves a close reading of its own. It is the most daring, the wildest, the most exciting and the most controversial part of the book. It proposes that Heidegger, of all people, can serve to restore what was neglected, depleted, forgotten and negated in discourses of anti-anti-Semitism. “Heidegger is a pathway to the Talmud”: This key statement of Lapidot’s epilogue sounds like a salto mortale— a lethal leap, or rather several dangerous somersaults, however artfully executed. They are too intricate to be reconstructed here in full. So, allow me the shortest of summaries of Lapidot’s argument linking Heidegger and the Talmud, together with a short battery of questions.

Lapidot says that both Heidegger and the Talmud represent the “Other of Western thought,” the latter comprising (post-Socratic) Greek philosophy, Christianity, Biblical Judaism (together they form the Judeo-Christian) and, last but not least, strikingly, Nazism. He exposes this medley’s common characteristics: a will to power and mastery and, especially in the case of Nazism and the Bible, a common affirmation of such problematic foundational figures as “origin,” “election” and “blood and soil” ideology. But the common denominator of their adversaries, on the “good side of the barricades,” namely Heidegger and the Talmud, is less clear. Lapidot’s Heidegger, in these final pages, is clearly delineated: he is portrayed as anti-Semitic only insofar as he is anti-biblical, which means here: anti-prophetic (against a mastery of the future), anti-theological (against the certainty of a monotheistic God), and anti-Heimat (against the refusal of estrangement).

So, this is what Heidegger has in common with the Talmud? Is the Talmud, like Heidegger, “anti”— all of these, above all the Bible? Lapidot officiates (almost as a mesader kiddushin) over the marriage of this anti-biblical Heidegger and an equally anti-biblical Talmud. But not having said anything about the Talmud yet, he introduces on the final two pages of the book an altogether different way of reading Heidegger in order to create the bridge to the Talmud, to reach Jewish law. Lapidot reaches it in Lacoue-Labarthe’s quote of Blanchot about the Jew “as incarnating the rejection of myth, renunciation of idols, recognition of ethical order manifest in respect of the Law.” It just so happens that this quote is embedded in Lacoue-Labarthe’s critique of Heidegger.

So here’s my quick battery of questions, in which some of my earlier questions are combined: By the time we get here, haven’t we already turned our backs to Heidegger? Why then the detour via Heidegger altogether? Furthermore, in alluding to the post-colonial critique of the West exploiting the Rest: isn’t Lapidot de-politicizing this critique by turning the anti-Judeo-Christian, anti-Greek, anti-philosophical Heidegger into the “Rest” of the West—usually the victims of colonialism, of occidental supremacy, and the like?

More fundamentally: Is the Talmud really the other, not only of Western thought, but of the Bible? And— here I switch to Lapidot’s side with comments from my friend and colleague Leora Batnitzky— why doesn’t Lapidot invoke aspects of the Talmud that could indeed be construed in similar terms as his Heidegger— the Talmud as diasporic rather than heimatlich, or as post-prophetic?

A Talmud mourning the loss of the prophetic proximity of God, after all, could possibly resonate with Heidegger’s Hölderlin who mourns the departure of the gods. Instead, Lapidot’s Talmud— with the exception of the book’s final sentence that describes it in the most general, not necessarily Jewish terms as “the performative language of the law”— remains itself a discourse of negation, depleted of specificity and of epistemic fullness. The treasure unearthed at the end of the book looks dangerously de-semanticized and negative: anti-biblical, anti-Judeo-Christian, anti-Greek, and thus— God forbid!— complicit with all the anterior “anti’s.” I’m looking forward to their answers in Lapidot’s next book— maybe even, I dare to hope, a book about the Talmud.

Vivian Liska is Professor of German literature and Director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. She is also, since 2013, Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Faculty of the Humanities at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research focuses on literary theory, German modernism, and German-Jewish authors and thinkers. She is the editor of the book series “Perspectives on Jewish Texts and Contexts” (De Gruyter, Berlin), co-editor of the Yearbook of the Society for European-Jewish Literature, and Arcadia. International Journal of Literary Studies. In 2012, she received the Cross of Honor for Sciences and the Arts from the Republic of Austria. Her recent book publications include Giorgio Agambens leerer Messianismus; When Kafka Says We: Uncommon Communities in German-Jewish Literature and German-Jewish Thought and its Afterlife: A Tenuous Legacy.