The purpose of this post is to round up some material either published as blog comments or originally prepared for them but put aside as too long, too much in need of further work, or too open to misinterpretation. Because the material touching on the Jewish idea/identity in history is an abiding interest of mine, some of it will be familiar to readers here, but I didn’t want to lose the work entirely to the inter-void and virtually dusty computer desktop folders. I hope at some point to “revise and extend,” also organize, re-integrate, and further expand upon it, as time and grace permit. (I’ve been playing with the idea of a book-length treatment, but may have to let it “just happen” – unfold in blog form – for a good while longer.)
Background: While emerging from a post-IRS haze, working on a couple of web design projects, and reading an excellent, very useful comprehensive defense of Leo Strauss, I’ve also been participating in discussion at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, first under a post by Elias Isquith – a good net-friend, even if he never comes over to our house to play. Working from a comment I left at one of his prior posts, and linking to my Theory of O post, he offered his own take on Obamaism from a frankly left-liberal point of view.
The LOOG is one of the few places I know of on the net where thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion across the political spectrum still occurs, but the downside of ecumenicism showed up in an ensuing discussion mostly taken up by a to me mind-numbing back-and-forth on possibly faulty statistical measures of income inequality, some of the rest consisting of HotAir-level snark – finally leading me to post the image up at the top, ripped off from this isn’t happiness.
Though I was beginning to despair of the LOOG, Elias tweeted a link to a new post – “On Faith After the Holocaust,” by J.L. Wall – that led to a very useful discussion. What follows are comments or exchanges under Wall’s post as published (with some edits for typos, and with some salutations and throat-clearing removed). At the end I’m posting some notes prepared but not posted.
Two-Sided Historical Rupture of Jewish Religious Identity
[quoting Wall’s post]
The change that the Holocaust has wrought in Jewish thought is, to my mind, precisely this: even faith not born of or structured around that possibility, even to those who don’t think it is impossible to have faith without doubt, who are still willing to sing Ani Ma’amin with its claims of “perfect faith”—even faith when/if faith is justified—must now acknowledge that it is colored, or maybe just touched, by a degree of desperate wishfulness.
Any consideration of what the Holocaust did to “Jewish thought” (inherently also “the thought of Judaism” – the possibility or essence of Judaism) inevitably leads one to attempt to think things that cannot be thought, not because the thoughts cannot in theory be formed, but because one presumes they will not and should not be accepted, or will be accepted only by those designated as unacceptable, and accepted wrongly by them. To think the also unthinkable God concept – the blogger’s wishfully unthinkable idea, almost a fancy, that apparently cannot co-exist with the fearfully unthinkable material facticity of the Holocaust – would require a theodicy of the Holocaust that is politically untenable, a for us foundationally unacceptable and unthinkable justification of the ways of God to humanity. The impossibility of this justification corresponds to the non-existence of God and the instability of the human being within post-war/post-modern thinking. The god concept that survives and operates within this new context remains unthought, because to think it would be to think that which it could never justify, but must.
BlaiseP, replying at April 20, 2012 at 9:00 am
Judaism’s holy books are uniquely suited to a theology of doubt. If there’s any question about thinking things that cannot be thought, perhaps we should steel ourselves to the task of examining the nature of Man. The theodicy is brutally simple: man did these things to his fellow man and has always done so. The Why of the Shoah comes last. The Who, What and How come first. Answer those and the matter becomes painfully obvious: the Nazis invented nothing. Edward Longshanks murdered his Jews with equal ferocity. Nobody lumps him in with the Nazis. Pogroms had been going on for centuries.
And the Jews were hardly unique. The Cathars, an entirely peaceful and largely vegetarian sect, was murdered into oblivion. Muslims were murdered en masse. Pagans had been extirpated and their priests murdered. Freethinkers, atheists, Romany, Ukrainians….
The Nazis just had a better bureaucracy.
He who demands of a just God an explanation for the sins of unjust Man is asking the wrong party.
The key difference from within the philosophy of history would be the status of the Jews – up to and through the Holocaust, until the founding of the Jewish state – as particular custodians of the universal/monistic message. The Nazis’ “better bureaucracy” is also not merely an accident.
Jewish identity is considerably more than a custodial relationship with some universal message. As for monism and Judaism, there you will find many a historical disputation, for though many have said shema yisroel adonai elohainu echad , monism isn’t contained in that statement. All sorts of interpretations have been made about the relationship of HaShem to the People of Israel.
Perhaps you’ll expand a bit on that thought.
First, I’m not sure what you mean by monism not being “contained” in the Shema, since you acknowledge that a monist idea exists as one interpretation, and since you seem to recognize further that it’s the most obvious interpretation. I’d argue that Judaic religious-prophetic monism – universal and absolute monotheism, implying and requiring the eventual realization of the unity of humanity – is the theologically, philosophically, and historically most just and most relevant interpretation of Judaism in the sense of a “Jewish idea.” “Identity” as you seem to be using the term would be something different from “idea,” though obviously related to it. Though ideas are also, in general, only as real – accessible and functional – as they are (really) allowed to be, identity is much more susceptible to shifting social and individual determinations. Even “blood ties” are understood in different, culturally-historically varying ways. The idea is the essence of the identity, and what gives meaning to (possibly) shared history and (possibly) interconnected genealogies.
Sorting out the differences between ideas and identities remains the telling difficulty for anyone trying to discuss Judaism in history. The essentially religious Jewish idea still lives on and still informs Jewish identity, but the connections were ruptured by two historically linked major events, the founding of the state of Israel under Zionism and the physical annihilation of European Jewish civilization by the Nazis.
Pre-Holocaust/Pre-Founding Judaism was both conceived and realized, or maybe the order should go “realized, then conceived,” as bearer of a universal revelation. Here’s my summary: The concept evolved over millennia, but can be found intact and whole at the origins. Robert Wright wrote about it from an agnostic position in THE EVOLUTION OF GOD (a useful survey of the history of monotheism), and it plays a role in the works of so many other writers that it qualifies as a commonplace of intellectual history. It received its most comprehensive articulation virtually at the moment of its historical eclipse*, in the theological writings of the philosopher Hermann Cohen (RELIGION OF REASON) and in the more prophetic/poetic work of Franz Rosenszweig (STAR OF REDEMPTION). The two men – among the last of the leading pre-Nazi Era German-Jewish intellectuals, Cohen the older and more established – described the historical condition of Jewish statelessness as both burden and privilege. It qualified the Jews as a prophetic and eternal rather than temporal and territorial people, dedicated from the First Commandment down to the god that transcended tribe and nation and ruled the entire universe. In this view statelessness – dispersion among the nations – prefigured, summoned forth, and objectively witnessed a oneness of humanity corresponding to (implying and implied by, co-requiring or “correlating with” as per Cohen) the oneness of God, a relationship to be fully realized in the time of messianic redemption. Dispersion was the partial, pre-figuring realization in historical time of a process that would define and circumscribe all of history, under the Judaic concept of the one true and universal god. It also joined the Jews, symbolically and by the revealed word, to all persecuted peoples, including all of the other victims you mentioned, pointing together to the need for redemption.
Just as the Holocaust is frequently put forward by Zionists as the last resort justification for the Jewish state, it is also taken as the absolute and definitive refutation of this idealized Judaic universalism. My own view is that the story is more interesting than that, and that it’s also not over yet.
“Cunning of History” – Secularized Theodicy of the Holocaust
[excerpting Wall’s reply to a comment on slavery and Christianity]
…Perhaps because Christian thought/theology already has an experience of cruel slavery leading into freedom — that could be adapted perhaps (apparently?) in a convincing enough manner? This isn’t a good answer. But I wouldn’t presume to have a good answer; I didn’t mean to imply that it wasn’t a question worth asking in more than this situation. The more interesting, and to my mind near-unfathomable question, is how the enslaved adopted the religion of the slave-owners.
There is, in fact, an argument that views the Holocaust as the culmination of a process of totalizing slavery (as very distinct from Arendt’s concept of “total domination”) that includes and was previously “best” embodied in American ante-bellum slavery. (Richard Rubenstein, mentioned in the article I linked to, pushes this in THE CUNNING OF HISTORY, and from there William Styron latches onto it. I don’t think the idea was originally Rubenstein’s, but he may have formulated it most succinctly.)
Whatever you think of Christianity, it’s rather slanderous to associate it with the slavers exclusively, considering the role of faithful Christians in finally putting an end to the slave trade internationally and in demanding Abolition in the U.S. Christianity – like its sister faith Islam and like its parent faith Judaism – is at its core a religion of liberation from bondage, though how and why practicing Christians, Muslims, and Jews frequently diverge from the seemingly clear commands or directions of their faiths, just like atheists, is another question and potentially very long discussion.
Incidentally, the “cunning of history” is a phrase from Hegel’s philosophy of world history, and is just the kind of secularized theodicy I was referring to above. I don’t know whether Rubenstein uses the phrase ironically. Since the cunning of history amounts to a kind of law of historical irony – serving to demonstrate how this, that, or the other catastrophe or apparent setback still ended up serving historical necessity within an overall scheme of progress – that would be doubly (at least) ironic.
[from Wall’s clarification of his point and further comments on Rubenstein and Hegel]
I think that Rubenstein is trying to use the title in a, “Hey, Hegel, how’d that turn out for ya?” kind of way, but I’m not sure. I read Rubenstein before Hegel, which isn’t the best direction for figuring out the way the reference is working.
Hegel’s Philosophy of World History is so tilted and unrestrained as regards the meeting of in his view superior Europe and inferior Africa as to make it almost unreadable in the era of multi-cultural moral equivalence, post-colonial guilt, and bourgeois shame, but it’s not difficult to transfer its intended lessons to American slavery: African culture inherently so weak that it is easily and totally overwhelmed and annihilated by the European, but in the very long view (cunning of history) the process constituting an historical advance even for the Africans. It should also be noted in this context that Hegel’s exposition of the master-slave dynamic could also help to explain why the institution had to be overcome, and in the meantime would deform, disfigure, and in the most fundamental ways dissatisfy the master as well as to the slave.
As I was implying above, a sufficiently (inhumanly? – unacceptably?) dispassionate application of Hegel’s secular theodicy can render the Holocaust as “historically necessary.” It can do the same thing to slavery, though to similarly unspeakable, easily abusable effect. There’s much more to it, of course, but, summarized for a blog comment it’s likely to come out as agnostic John Hagee or Pat Robertson, with history or Spirit substituted for providence or God, so I’ll stop here, except to note further in my buddy GWF’s defense that the great historical project at whose feet the bodies are piled is precisely the liberation from the master-slave relationship, including its reign in the West.
The subtitle to Rubenstein’s book is “The Holocaust and the American Future” — he pivots at the end to what we can learn from history in order to be warned against the nasty side-effects of what he sees as a technologizing/technologized (these are not complimentary terms) future in America.
There’s no index in my edition, and a quick skim through the endnotes shows no references to Hegel, which I find curious. It is something of a using Hegelian history to learn how to avoid Hegelian history. If that makes sense.
Makes sense to me, since “history” in the philosophy of world history amounts to a process of self-overcoming, the gradual and inexorable self-liberation of the historical subject. So I think your formulation captures the idea: History as a vast collective learning to avoid (negate, escape, transcend, move beyond, etc.) history, at the end of history realized as absolute freedom from history. The same outlines can be made out in messianic prophecy, bringing us part of the way back to your initial topic (which, as you’ve probably gathered, is one of my favorites).
It IS curious that a writer would use a key Hegelian phrase for his title and nowhere mention Hegel. I have to take it as signal of some kind, not sure how conscious on the part of the writer.
[LOOG author/commenter Michelle joined the conversation at that point, with strong recommendation for Rubenstein’s book, and some observations on Rubenstein’s “savage critique of modernity, corporatism, and bureaucracy.” She also points to end note references to Hegel, and summarizes Rubenstein’s themes:]
For Rubenstein, the biggest theological question to rise out of the Holocaust is not how Jews can go on believing in G-d, but how anybody can. Surely the people who manned and operated the camps, many of whom no doubt saw themselves as good Christians, were also degraded and dehumanized by the experience (albeit not to the extent of the victims). For Rubenstein, the Holocaust throws all religion and notion of some kind of natural law and innate sense of human dignity in question. It’s a pretty bleak book.
OK, just bought it. Decided to take the Kindle edition, among other reasons so I could easily search it. Seems to have 14 mentions of Herr H, all confined to the notes, but the initial one goes right to the subject we’ve been discussing – my emphasis: “Perhaps it was no accident that the most highly urbanized people in the Western world, the Jews, were the first to perish in the ultimate city of Western civilization, Necropolis, the new city of the dead that the Germans built and maintained at Auschwitz.”
The discussion of law in relation to the Holocaust (or “the camp”), and the non-accidental (therefore revelatory) aspect of Auschwitz, also makes me think of Giorgio Agamben, whose view of modernity or of the modern nation-state might be even pretty-bleaker. I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve read Rubenstein. Meanwhile, by further transposition, and irony, the God-destroying event is converted immediately into a divine revelation or something commensurate to one: History overcoming and annihilating history, God overcoming and annihilating God, and thus producing the new history/God in a Schroedinger’s Box, always implying its opposite.
Thanks to both of you for pointing to the book!
Unpublished and less-edited remarks
[Prepared for BlaiseP, on the Crisis of Zionism]
Zionism was always intended, at least by a major tendency within the Zionist movement, to change what it meant to be a Jew. Ideal, prophetic-universalist Judaism, even including its scriptural basis, was specifically condemned and rejected by Jabotinsky and his followers among the Zionists, who insisted on creating, or in their view re-constituting, a manly blood and soil Jewish identity distinct from a weak and effeminate, self-diluting and -dissolving Diaspora identity. Along the same lines, the existence of the state of Israel complicates Jewish identity, or you might say compromises the functionality and accessibility of the other Jewish idea. Liberal Zionism – the term combines a secular-universalist idea with a possibly contradictory national idea – seeks to bridge the two identities in a way that also preserves what, from a liberal and even leftist-atheistic perspective, is best about the old universalism. For the same reason Liberal Zionism is vulnerable to being torn apart. It now operates under debilitating stress, at the center of Beinart’s “Crisis of Zionism,” and seems in danger of becoming politically irrelevant both in Israel and in the U.S.
The Jewish idea vs identity within history
[drafted for BlaiseP, partly overlapping published comment]
The Jewish idea – Jewish particularized universalism – is the source of the main problem that ideologically motivated anti-semites had with Judaism from the the Babylonian period to the historical moment we’re discussing – that Jews denied all other gods, not only their relative power or worth, but their actuality. The Christian claim against the Jews has a similar character. That other perceptions of the Jews and violent attitudes toward them had additional sources or motivations ought to go without saying, though on further analysis even those turn out to be overlapping and quite related.
Prior to the Holocaust and the founding of the Jewish state (two sides of the same sheet of paper, whatever Caroline Glick says), and for nearly two thousand years, “Israel” referred to the Jewish people, the Remnant of Israel, the people who could still be summoned by the Shema despite the loss of their homeland. Before the Holocaust, the connection between statelessness and universalism was arguably central both to Jewish thought and to gentile thought about the Jews. Very typically, it reached its idealistic peak in the writings of the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen. His successors, especially in the wake of the Nazi-Zionist dual history, have tended to suppress, actively forget, dilute, and dissolve their own Jewish identities. Though they almost always return to and re-affirm their “roots,” universalism remains the reflexive stance and value system of cosmopolitan Jews outside of the state of Israel – from Hollywood to the Sorbonne. According to the studies Peter Beinart collects in THE CRISIS OF ZIONISM, it’s also increasingly the typical stance of younger American Jews.
“Identity” as you seem to be using the term would be something different from “idea,” though, as the etymology indicates, related to it. Identity is much more susceptible to shifting social and individual determinations. I think we can conceive of my grandmother’s Jewish identity in her poor Russo-Polish shtetl 100 years ago as likely something very different from, say, Natalie Portman’s concrete sense of herself as a Jew today, but both concepts could in theory still be shown to derive, maybe in the most important respects, from the same Jewish idea, as codified in Jewish law and ritual, also as understood by gentiles, yet realized in very different contexts.
…The existence of the state of Israel, increasingly Jabotinsky’s state, greatly affects possible Jewish identity, or the functionality and accessibility of alternative Judaisms. It’s arguably as much or more of a rupture than the Holocaust. Or it may be the same rupture. Even the liberal Zionists have ended up serving that end, if with the guilty consciences that Jabotinsky (or Bibi Netanyahu) would have considered a sign of weakness, and much of the Beinart’s Crisis re-produces that same conflict within the Jewish self-conception, or between different conceptions of Jewish identity, with liberal Zionism standing on the border between the universalist and nationalist concepts.
So, the difference or point of contestation between the two identities is critically this question of the Jewish idea, and it is not just directly connected to the Holocaust: For many Zionists it’s the point of a Holocaust-centric historical teaching, the last and in their view incontestable justification for the Israeli state. Put simply, it’s said that the Holocaust proved Jabotinsky’s point, and disproved Cohen’s.
The Holocaust Teaching
The Nazis’ “better bureaucracy” is not merely an accident: Even as a random or inevitable material fact, it stands for the emblematic advancement of Germanic-European-materalist-secular civilization – in the grip of its inability to comprehend its own rationale except as self-destructive self-assertion. The alternative Holocaust teaching is the obscene and intolerable validation of Cohen supposedly failed philosophy: In a brutal fulfillment of the messianic prophecy, the world war gives birth, in terror, to the global monism – the victorious “united nations” envisioned by the prophets, guaranteed by God’s instrument on Earth, nuclear annihilation (another dialectic of the One). It becomes possible, as prophesied, in this “day” in which “many nations join the eternal,” to re-construct the temple, return the Jews to Israel, as proof and signal that their historical task has been in principle completed, turning them, as the Zionists frequently demand we see them, as just another nation like all of the others.
The Jewish State/State of the Jews after Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Nakba
The problem, to be solved over somewhere between a few decades and a thousand years or so, is that the idea of the nation-state also evolves. The Jewish State was born obsolete, an anachronism. Now, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, all are Jews, though at uneven stages of comprehending the fact: We are all monotheists, even and especially the atheists, whose negation of God is purest monotheism. Some are more Jew than others: The Palestinians, for instance, wards of the infant universal state, staking their particular claim on the universal mercy of all, whose self-awakening seems to be the present and absolutely urgent task, with the Jewish state, the state of merely ethnic Jews, seemingly on the other side, many of its citizens transfixed by a peculiar species of ethno-religious psychosis, yet possibly, or anyway I’d like to believe this, doing good by doing ill, still insisting, in this way as before, that the messiah prove itself by converting them, rightfully resisting to their utmost, since the real thing would overcome them, and since the prophecy specifically excuses them from having to go first.
Slavery and Genocide in the Philosophy of World History
Though Hegel’s Philosophy of World History is so tilted and unrestrained as regards the meeting of superior Europe and inferior Africa as to make it almost unreadable in the era of multi-cultural moral equivalence, post-colonial guilt, and bourgeois shame, it’s not difficult to transfer his reading to American slavery – African culture inherently so weak that it didn’t/wouldn’t have a chance to resist being overwhelmed by the European, but, in the very long view (cunning of history) an historical advance even for the Africans. If you read de Tocqueville’s observations on slavery, and even more so on Native Americans, you get a very tragic front-line report on just the kind of vastly unequal confrontation of forms of civilization that Hegel was describing. The difference, but maybe not as big a difference as we like to pretend, between Hegel and ourselves is that we’re less likely to view the annihilation of indigenous cultures as a demonstration in any sense of the annihilator’s intrinsic moral superiority. For us, as heirs to Christian morality and the Golden Rule, might makes wrong, at least retrospectively, once we’re more or less safely ensconced within the territory it’s won for us.
God May Only Bless: Divine Purpose Is Socially Tolerable As Long As It’s Put Positively
Popular preachers like a Hagee or a Robertson will regularly get themselves in trouble with whatever latest crank theodicy – AIDS is part of God’s plan, Katrina had a divine purpose, etc. For them, the Holocaust or slavery must also serve some divine purpose, and to believe otherwise would require belief that God has no interest in the most important affairs of human being, but saying so is “always wrong” in our era, from the perspective of the shared state or national community. We can just barely stand it if a popular athlete thanks God for his touchdowns or home runs, or if a popular politician asks for God’s blessing on the nation, or if Christian Zionists claim that America and Israel are both divinely inspired and blessed, but observing or claiming divine purpose in wars, plagues, catastrophes, and other evils and tumults is something to be kept within the cult, the family, or private reflection. The cunning of history provides another way to introduce the concept into secular discourse.
*When Scott chan(ce)ts “OM,” I sez “Owl of Minerva”