The Figure of the Jew: Anti-Judaism in the Enlightenment

Jonathan M. Hess on David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

anti-judaism - the western tradition
David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 624 pp., $35.00

Reviewing David Nirenberg’s magisterial volume is by necessity an exercise in humility. Few of us can even imagine writing a book with such broad scope and grand ambitions. Even fewer of us can claim the competence to undertake a study that moves from ancient Egypt through early Christianity and Islam into the middle ages, the early modern period, and the modern era. Unlike other books that seek to address the Western tradition in broad strokes, Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism never descends into superficiality. Each of its chapters is an exemplar of scholarly analysis and rigor, and the original and breathtaking synthesis Nirenberg constructs poses wide-ranging and provocative questions that will make this volume a crucial resource and springboard for discussions of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism for years to come.

The great strength of Nirenberg’s study is the way it deals with the motivations of anti-Judaism. Rather than framing his project in terms of relations between Jews and non-Jews and exploring antipathy toward Judaism in that context, Nirenberg excavates the positive functions that (negative) thinking about Judaism has taken on in Western thought, largely in conversations in which no actual Jews were involved. Systematically exploring the cultural and symbolic work Judaism has performed as a lynchpin of major systems of Western thought, he brings to light the what he characterizes as the over-determined nature of reflections on Judaism over the past few millennia. Just as importantly, he demonstrates the Western tradition’s enduring and fundamental inability to gain a critical awareness of the workings of its own anti-Judaism.

Anti-Judaism is not just humbling to read. The journey that Nirenberg takes us on through three thousand years of history is also a depressing one — precisely because his exploration of the essential role anti-Judaism plays in Western thought is so convincing. As he explains in his introduction, Anti-Judaism is not a study that revels in locating moments of “agency” and “contingency” in the past. He instead analyzes the tremendous vitality of a tradition of anti-Judaism that has demonstrated a remarkable power to reproduce and regenerate itself over the centuries. In each of the chapters, he elaborates this argument with ample attention to local context, working on both the micro- and the macro-level to expose Western culture’s stubbornness in refusing to subject its own ideas on Judaism to anything resembling serious critique.

Perhaps the last point — that of the inability of the Western tradition to subject its own anti-Judaism to sustained critique — is  Nirenberg’s most provocative claim. To be sure, there are whistle-blowers in the story Nirenberg tells, such as the Berlin bookseller Saul Ascher, who, writing in the 1790s, indicted contemporary philosophers like Johann Gottlieb Fichte with cloaking Jew-hatred in critical reason rather than using the tools of Kant’s critical philosophy to dismantle anti-Judaism. But for the most part, critics of anti-Judaism are few and far between in Nirenberg’s rendering of the Western tradition. Rarely in this massive volume do we encounter critical voices that have helped set the stage for Nirenberg’s own critical intervention. His emphasis on broad asymmetries of power in the shaping of the Western culture’s ideas about Judaism is welcome, productive, and compelling. But was this three-thousand-year-long tradition of anti-Judaism really sustained without any significant resistance?

Ascher’s critique was largely a cry into the void. A decade before Ascher, however, Moses Mendelssohn formulated in his Jerusalem a defense of Judaism and attack on Christian anti-Judaism that was fiercely debated among contemporary philosophers and theologians. In the German-speaking world in the nineteenth century, proponents of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and historical theologians like Abraham Geiger also provoked their contemporaries into debate about some of the basic terms in which they studied the Jewish tradition and granted Judaism a larger-than-life status in their own systems of thought. The exceptionally nuanced story Nirenberg tells tends to pay minimal attention to moments in the Western tradition where a critical awareness of anti-Judaism rose to the surface. Nirenberg’s book is productive, of course, because it stresses long continuities over time, studying the remarkable resilience of a long tradition of anti-Judaism that has shown an uncanny ability to adapt to different contexts and situations. But was there really no significant “outside” to this tradition before Nirenberg’s much-needed critical intervention?

Nirenberg notes, perceptively, in his chapter on the Enlightenment, that while Enlightenment thinkers’ interests in Judaism were grossly disproportionate to the numbers or the significance of the Jews who lived in their midst, Judaism was rarely of primary interest to the philosophes. His rich account of the ways seventeenth- and eighteenth-century intellectuals granted familiar figures of the Jew new shape and power by translating them into secular terms makes note of the fact that many writers — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance — paid extremely little attention to Jews or Judaism. In the context of Nirenberg’s argument, this seeming lack of interest in Jews is fascinating. What does it mean, given his extremely persuasive arguments about the stubborn persistence of anti-Judaism over time, that a prominent figure like Rousseau would have paid such little attention to Jews and Judaism, even as he and his contemporaries developed a newfound interest in other forms of cultural difference? I always try to stress to my undergraduates that, despite the texts I put on my syllabus, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most Germans lived their lives without paying too much attention to Jews or Judaism. How might one integrate a widespread indifference toward Judaism — and the way this changes over time — into Nirenberg’s account of the constitutive role of anti-Judaism in Western thought? Might the cultural phenomenon of indifference toward Judaism help illuminate the “outside” of the powerful tradition Nirenberg illuminates?

Nirenberg’s book is a passionate plea for both the power of ideas and the critical power of intellectual history. Within this context, he is well aware of the difficulties and necessities of connecting the world of ideas to concrete social practices, particularly when it comes to exploring the question how his analysis of anti-Judaism relates to the Holocaust. Elsewhere in the study, however, the question of the connection between ideas and social practices might have been posed to illuminate even further the “outside” of the tradition of anti-Judaism Nirenberg excavates.

One of the highlights of the book is the brilliant discussion of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which Nirenberg subjects to an exemplary close reading. He demonstrates how Shakespeare reinstates Jewish difference and projects the contractual dangers of symbolic economies onto the figure of the Jew. But Nirenberg’s powerful reading of Shakespeare cannot explain how The Merchant of Venice became central to Western culture not simply as a text, but as a performance, a play performed widely in the West in a dizzying number of languages, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Theater historians might find Nirenberg’s carefully delimited attention to the disembodied text of the play anachronistic, a product of the nineteenth-century modern university and the discipline of literary criticism that has little to do with either Elizabethan theater or the long performance history of the play itself. Studying how The Merchant of Venice helped shape the Western tradition might be well served by engaging with at least some of the messy historical detail surrounding the performance history of the play. The nineteenth century saw major interpretations of Shylock not just as a sympathetic figure, but as a tragic one, with international superstars such as Bogumil Dawison insisting on performing The Merchant of Venice without the play’s fifth act. Supplementing Nirenberg’s close reading of the text with an analysis of the play’s complex performance and reception history might provide an exemplary case study of the difficulties and necessities of mediating between the power of ideas and the world of social practices — yet another opportunity to study the “outside” of the powerful tradition of anti-Judaism Nirenberg puts so squarely on our radar.

Of course, these are all relatively minor questions that are raised by the encounter with Nirenberg’s fascinating and powerful book. Anti-Judaism is a substantial work of original scholarship that should be required reading for anyone interested in Jewish Studies, intellectual history, and of course the Western tradition itself.

[Image: Thomas Gray’s 1868 painting of a scene between Shylock and his daughter Jessica from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice”. Via Wikimedia Commons.]

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