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Idealism in Ashes

Reviewed by Jerome E. Copulsky

German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses
by Michael Mack
University of Chicago, 2003, 229 pages.



Students of modern Judaism have long acknowledged the significant impact of German philosophy on the development of modern Jewish self-understanding. Throughout the nineteenth century, German Jews bent on modernization argued that the negative attitude towards Judaism reflected in the writings of Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel was based on a misunderstanding of the true essence of Judaism. At the same time, Kant’s description of religion as moral and rational provided the intellectual framework for the theology of the Reformers. One might go as far as to assert that the liberal tradition in nineteenth-century German Judaism tried to show that it was more Kantian than Kant, an effort that culminated in the philosophical theology of Hermann Cohen, who articulated Judaism as a “religion of reason” and proposed the fundamental compatibility of Deutschtum and Judentum.
Even the post-liberal trend in Jewish thinking could not escape the shadow of Kant, as the famous debate between Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig over the nature of Jewish law, or halacha, demonstrates. For even while defending the centrality of halacha to Jewish life, Rosenzweig felt the need to respond to Kant’s critique of it. According to Kant, Jewish law is heteronomous, meaning that it originates from a source outside the individual’s self-legislating will. And since for Kant all morality is such self-legislation, halacha is not moral. Moreover, for Kant true religion is at bottom indistinguishable from morality, and therefore the adherence to halacha is, for the Kantian, a false form of religion. Rosenzweig rebutted these Kantian accusations by stressing how halacha is actually not at all heteronomous, but rather a subjective “response” to revelation, which provides the “landscape” of Judaism. Even Rosenzweig’s “return” could not ignore Kant’s shadow.
And not only Kant. Hegel, too, posed a challenge to the possibility of a modern Judaism. Hegel maintained that Judaism posited an absolute separation between spirit and world, God and man; it was a one-sided religion of sublimity, representing a necessary but incomplete stage in the development towards the absolute religion, Christianity, which apprehends the unity of God and man in Christ. With the advent of Christianity, Judaism’s world-historical mission had run its course. Judaism was now an anachronism, Jewish religiosity an attachment to an outmoded form of consciousness. Despite this view that Judaism had been overcome in history,Hegel insisted that the Jews—as human beings—ought to be granted civil rights in the modern constitutional state. Hegel’s philosophy spurred the early practitioners of Wissenschaft des Judentums not only to clarify the historical record, but also to illuminate the ongoing Jewish contribution to world history, and thereby to prove the indispensability of Judaism for the modern age. Moreover, Jewish speculative idealists such as Solomon Formstecher, Samuel Hirsch, and Nachman Krochmal drew upon the language of Idealism to promote Judaism as the perennial “religion of the spirit,” in contradistinction to the pretenses of Christianity.
More recently, some scholars have begun to question the influence of modern philosophy on Judaism and to assert the fundamental Jewish difference from Western modernity. Others, such as Nathan Rotenstreich and Yirmiyahu Yovel, have scoured the texts of Kant and Hegel in order to detail their problematic treatment of Judaism and the Jews. These two scholarly tendencies meet in Michael Mack’s challenging new study, German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses,a slim but dense volume which is sure to delight and provoke in equal measure.
 
Mack’s central claim is that modern anti-Semitism is rooted in, and indelibly inscribed into, the discourse of the Enlightenment, its flattening out of traditional forms of community, and its cosmopolitan pretensions. In the discourse of German Idealism, Judaism and the Jews
represent this earthly remainder of incompleteness, or imperfection… [and] embody all that which hinders the onstruction of a perfect body politic in the here and now. They come to symbolize the worldly which resists an immanent and imminent transformation into the other-worldly. The consequence of this starting point is the view that the anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment anti-Semitism that emerged in the mid- to late-nineteenth century and culminated in Nazism was not a counter-modern movement, a rejection of Enlightenment values, but rather represents the full working out of tendencies already developed by Kant.
The first part of Mack’s book retraces the trajectory of modern anti-Semitic discourse by focusing on the image of Judaism and the Jew in Kant, Hegel, and Richard Wagner. Due to the radical nature of his thesis, Mack does not simply rehearse the treatment of Judaism and the Jews in these figures, but tries to show that, although brief and sometimes ambivalent, the discussions of Jews and Judaism in Kant and Hegel have had significant impact on the development of the so-called “Jewish question” and the tragic fate of European Jewry. For Mack, the treatment of Judaism in Kant and Hegel is not an accidental element of their work, one which may be simply attributed to the prejudices of the time and the weakness of the authors. The anti-Jewish assertions are not mere flaws in reasoning, regrettable but also easily dismissed, but are understood to lie at the very core of their respective philosophical and political projects.
In Mack’s view, these thinkers regarded Judaism as the opposite of, and hence a danger to, the social and political program of Idealism, which aimed to realize a humanity free from empirical, material conditions. Judaism was therefore not simply a theoretical alternative but rather posed a direct threat to the realization of the “heaven on earth” that would be the Idealist “body politic.” The danger is not only the abstraction “Judaism” but also real-life Jews, who are deemed irrational, impure, materialist, heteronomous. As they stubbornly strive to achieve happiness and fulfillment in the world, they represent the greatest danger to the approaching regime of freedom. In the unfolding of his argument, Mack tackles a number of issues missed by previous accounts of the problem—such as Kant’s ambivalence regarding capitalism and Hegel’s speculative account of Jewish dietary laws—to show how an anxiety about Judaism infects the entire galaxy of Idealism.
There appears to be a certain amount of confusion or wavering, however, in Mack’s account of the Jewish “threat.” For in the introduction, Mack states that “Even though Kant and Hegel gave a rather prejudicial account of Jewishness (in which the Jews embody the body as materialism and therefore heteronomy), they did not perceive Jews as a threat. Wagner differed.” In the chapter on Kant, however, Mack writes that “Kant targeted the Jews as the embodiment of the heteronomous. As a manifestation of heteronomy, the Jew was not only the opposite of the Christian, who was defined in terms of autonomous reason. Moreover, he also represented the stranger in a Kantian civil society, whose very laws presupposed an autonomous state of indetermination by objects of empirical reality.” The Jew was imagined as “the Oriental other,” unable to “make the transition to modernity”; as non-moderns, Kant
depicts them as corrupting the body politic…. In his account of the body politic, Kant fantasized about the Jews as figures of corruption. In socio-historical terms, Kant here unconsciously voiced his anxiety about capitalism’s ‘descent’ into materialism.
This negative portrait of Judaism discloses, Mack asserts, the persistence of Christianity in a modern “pseudo-theological” discourse (i.e., a secularized and politicized Christian theology), and his book traces how Kant and Hegel utilized and transformed pre-modern Christian theological ideas, such as Paul’s opposition of the spirit to the letter, and the Jewish refusal to accept Christ, in order to develop their respective critiques of Judaism. Modern anti-Semitism, therefore, is not a response to Enlightenment, nor is it severed from pre-modern Christian anti-Judaism. German Idealism—now seen as harboring an essentially irrational anti-Semitic fantasy—is disclosed by Mack as the missing link between Christian theology and modern Jew hatred. According to Mack, modern reason was infected by the unreason of anti-Semitism. And the pathogen was endowed with the dignity of science.


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