Jewish Journal


July 30, 2013

The Anti-Judaism Exchange, Part 1: On the Word ‘Judaism’ in Western Tradition



Professor David Nirenberg

David Nirenberg is the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he is also director of the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society. The following exchange will focus on Professor Nirenberg's critically acclaimed book Anti-Judaism:The Western Tradition (W.W Norton, 2013).

Dear David,

I hesitate to say that I enjoyed your book - it was fascinating but also depressing to an extent that makes it hard to call it 'enjoyable' in the ordinary sense. The impression one gets from reading your book is that:

A. Jews were always cast as scapegoats and outsiders.
B. There's not much they could do about it, because whatever they did was turned against them.
C. They didn't even have to be around to be hated and deplored.
D. The Western World (yours is a book about western tradition) needed the Jew as a scapegoat, and was built as the ultimate mirror-image of Judaism.

So the first question that comes to mind, obviously, is whether:

E. Anti-Judaism is a constant in Jewish life, one which we cannot dream of getting rid of.

First, though, I'd like you to refine and maybe even correct the somewhat simplistic way in which I tried to communicate your theme for those readers who haven't yet found the time to read 'Anti-Judaism'.

Thank you in advance for your thoughts,



Dear Shmuel,

I'm glad you were fascinated by the book, but very sorry to have depressed you. I didn't mean to. It is true that the book is about some deeply ingrained habits of thought, habits that have had powerful effects on the possibilities of existence for Jews (and not only Jews) in the past. But I think of the book as very hopeful, in the sense that, say, psychotherapy is hopeful: there is nothing more optimistic than the belief that, if we understand ourselves a little bit more deeply, we can learn to live a little differently.  My book is an attempt to do something similar. By giving us all a deeper sense of how our cultures have been shaped by thinking about (and often against) Judaism, it is meant to help us become more conscious of the ways in which the history of our ideas shapes how we see our world. What could be more hopeful than that?!

Being a mensch, you were kind enough to offer me a chance to refine or correct your characterization of my book, and being a professor, I'm pedantic enough to take you up on it. I could be wrong, but I don't think I ever use the word "scapegoat" in the book.  My argument is not that the Jews were always scapegoats (though I'm sure they often were). Instead what I show is how, within what we sometimes call the Western tradition, "Judaism" became a basic concept with which people tried to make sense of their world, and the overcoming of "Judaism" became one of their basic ideals.

Why do I put "Judaism" in quotation marks here? Because this concept of "Judaism" had little to do with anything that real, living Jews might think, believe, or do, although it certainly affected how real Jews would be able to live in the world. Instead, this "Judaism" that needed to be overcome was produced from within the two great religions of the Western tradition, Christianity and Islam, sometimes in contact or dialogue with real Judaism. You can already see this process at work in the scriptures of both religions.  Remember in Galatians, for example, when St. Paul is arguing with St. Peter about how gentile converts should follow Jesus?  He accuses St. Peter of wanting the gentiles to "Judaize" (Galatians 2.14). And he explains that by "Judaizing," he means giving priority to the letter of scripture over its allegorical meaning, and to the flesh over the spirit.  When a follower of Jesus does this, says Paul, he "Judaizes," which is to say, he in some way becomes a Jew. Of course Paul and Peter were themselves both Jews, and knew something about real Judaism. But what is important is that already here, in one of the earliest surviving documents from a follower of Jesus (circa 50 A.D.) "Judaizing" doesn't mean being a living, confessed, Jew. It means anyone (in this case gentile followers of Jesus) paying attention to the literal meaning of a word, or to the body, or to the "Law" as opposed to grace, or to the material world. In other words, "Judaism" here is an attitude toward the world.

But here is the problem: is there any way to read a word without paying attention to its literal meaning? Is there any way to live in the body without paying attention to the flesh? Or to live in human society without law? If not, then everyone, no matter how Christian, is in constant danger of "Judaizing." Something similar happens in Islam, and for similar reasons.  The Qur'an uses the Jews to represent hypocrisy and hypocrites: those who look one way on the outside, but on the inside conceal a different opinion. This, too, is a charge that can be laid against anyone, for the difference between what we might today call public appearance and private conscience has been for a very long time a basic attribute of humans in society.

So it shouldn't be surprising that, within a century of the birth of each of these religions, "Jew" and "Judaizer" became words that could be, and were, applied to anyone within those religions, including Christian emperors and Muslim caliphs were immune. We even find future saints trading accusations, as when St. Augustine worried the St. Jerome's translation of the Bible from Hebrew gave too much power to the Jews, and St. Jerome accused Augustine of converting Christians to Judaism.

My book describes and traces this process, in order to show how it was that anti-Judaism became such a basic concept in the cultures born of Christianity and Islam. But it also stresses that the concept, although very flexible, is not random. Anti-Judaism is a way of trying to understand and overcome the gap between the real and the ideal, between the ever-changing and chaotic world as we encounter it in our bodies and through our senses, and the transcendent and eternal truths we yearn for. (By "we" here I don't necessarily mean you or me, Shmuel, but I do mean everyone who has been shaped by the yearning for transcendence that permeates so much of our history.) And there are reasons why Jews and Judaism have come to do this work within Western thought, reasons that have a great deal to do with the history of the religions through which those yearnings for transcendence have been channelled and expressed.

My goal is to make those reasons and that history clear, and I try to achieve that goal by showing how, over time and space, in different places and periods until more or less our own day, these ideas about Judaism have been transformed in order to make new sense of an ever changing world. The Reformation, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Idealist philosophy and Marxism, modernity and mass democracy: all of these produced, and were in part produced by, new ways of putting anti-Judaism to work.

Does this mean that "we cannot dream of getting rid of" it, to come to your last question? I wrote the book in part because I think (pessimistically?) that our own world may well be finding its own ways of putting these habits of thought to work, and in part because I think (optimistically?) that historians can help us become more critical about those habits. We make our own history, but we do not make it as we please, and an awareness of the gravity that the past exerts upon us can be a powerful stimulus to consciousness about the ways in which our preconceptions and habits of thought shape the world as we see it. My hope is that this book will provide such a stimulus. We cannot "get rid" of our past, but we don't need to be its prisoner.   

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