Friday, March 14, 2014

Michael Walzer on anti-Judaism

There is something about Michael Walzer's sympathetic presentation of David Nirenberg's ideas on the history of what he (following Nirenberg) calls anti-Judaism which seems – at least to me – to strike a false note. I am focussing here entirely on Walzer's essay and make no judgment about Nirenberg's book.

Part of the problem is that the term 'anti-Judaism' – which one naturally takes to refer specifically to the religion – is being stretched to encompass broader cultural and other factors.

For example, in his essay – the main point of which seems to be to promote the view that the Jews and Judaism of the Christian and post-Christian imagination bear no relationship to actual Jews and Judaism – Walzer writes:

"No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them – but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of real Jews." [Emphasis mine.]

But, leaving that specific issue aside, consider this passage in which Walzer sums up (and endorses) David Nirenberg's core thesis about 'anti-Judaism':

"… [A]nti-Judaism claims to be explanatory. What is being explained is the social world; the explanatory tools are certain supposed features of Judaism; and the enemies are mostly not Jews but 'Judaizing' non-Jews who take on these features and are denounced for doing so. I will deal with only a few of Judaism’s negative characteristics: its hyperintellectualism; its predilection for tyranny; its equal and opposite predilection for subversive radicalism; and its this-worldly materialism, invoked […] by both Burke and Marx. None of this is actually descriptive; there certainly are examples of hyper-intellectual, tyrannical, subversive, and materialist Jews (and of dumb, powerless, conformist, and idealistic Jews), but Nirenberg insists, rightly, that real Jews have remarkably little to do with anti-Judaism." [My emphasis again.]

"None of this," Walzer wrote, "is actually descriptive." Just to be clear, he means that none of those listed characteristics is actually descriptive of Judaism.

The listed characteristics are descriptive of something, however, insofar as they are exemplified in the social world. This is important because, clearly, ideas can only be seen as explanatory (even if they are only in fact pseudo-explanatory) if the things they purport to explain are there to be explained (or mis-explained).

The question is, then, whether the characteristics in question have any correlation with Judaism or Judaic culture.

Walzer claims here that they do not, pure and simple.

But a strong case can be made that the Hebrew scriptures are characterized by a certain earthiness or 'embodiedness' or this-worldliness which is absent from many other religions. This is not materialism, certainly, but it does reflect a certain orientation which is very different from Platonistic idealism, for example.

There is also evidence of moral and political radicalism in various prophetic and apocalyptic texts.

Even Walzer admits in the course of his essay that the revolutionary Puritans at the time of the English civil war were actual Judaizers (and not just 'Judaizers') in that they focussed more on the Old than the New Testament. He also admits that many of the Bolsheviks were in fact Jewish – "though of the sort that Isaac Deutscher called 'non-Jewish Jews'."

As to hyperintellectualism, there is ample evidence for this in the Talmudic tradition, is there not?

Why not just admit these facts? I don't see the problem.

The issue is complicated and compounded – rather than clarified and resolved (which presumably was the intention) – by the introduction of the inevitably vague distinction between "real Jews" and "'Judaizing' non-Jews".

The basic thesis seems to run as follows...

Non-Jewish (and Jewish, like Marx) thinkers criticized certain forms of thought and action which they characterized as Judaic. But these forms of thought and action were in fact exemplified not so much by real Jews but rather by non-Jewish 'Judaizers'.

Real Jews have remarkably little to do with anti-Judaism precisely because the 'Judaism' of anti-Judaism has remarkably little to do with real Judaism (or indeed with anything Judaic). So the Judaizing non-Jews (or non-Jewish Judaizers) are not really Judaizing (or Judaizers) at all. (Except the Puritans, apparently.)

Got it?

Finally, let me address directly my concern about Walzer's use of the concept 'real Jews' and the substantive distinction which that concept entails between Jews and non-Jews. Making or assuming such a distinction leads inevitably to the sorts of odd dichotomies I was making fun of above and more generally to definitional dilemmas and arbitrary judgements which a more secular and pragmatic approach could easily avoid.

How would Isaac Deutscher's "non-Jewish Jews" fit in here, for example? Presumably they would be seen by Walzer as real Jews who had made some unfortunate choices!

And indeed, according to Philip Weiss who attended a talk Walzer gave to a Jewish audience in 2007, Walzer does seem to take this view (or something like it). Citing Exodus, Walzer allowed that there have always been irreligious Jews. He also accepted that there are Buddhist Jews. But Jews cease to be Jews by active conversion to, for example, Islam or Christianity. (Just in case you were wondering.)


  1. Off topic maybe, but this series is very good from what I have seen so far:

  2. "If you were to remove from our collective history," said Schama, "the contribution Jews have made to human culture, our world would be almost unrecognizable. [I always have trouble with claims like this because it simply wouldn't be our world anymore...]. There would be no monotheism [not necessarily], no written Bible [of course], and our sense of modernity would be completely different. [Again this doesn't make sense to me but put differently it might. Like: Jewish thinkers profoundly influenced Western notions of modernity.] So the history of the Jews is everyone's history too [contrast Walzer's much more inward-looking Jewishness] and what I hope people will take away from the series is that sense of connection: a weave of cultural strands over the millennia, some brilliant, some dark, but resolving into a fabric of thrilling, sometimes tragic, often exalted creativity [yes, well]."

    Nitpicking aside, it does sound very interesting.