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.

As any revisionist account should, Mack’s treatment of the history of German Idealism poses a welcome challenge to the conventional histories; sometimes, however, he takes his point too far. In particular, his argument regarding the centrality of the anti-Semitic discourse and the immutability of Jewishness in Kant raises a host of questions, ultimately undermining his central thesis.
First, the account of Judaism is neither central to the development of Kant’s critical philosophy nor an obsessive element within it. In the entire corpus of Kant’s work, Jews and Judaism are discussed in only a few passages. To be sure, Kant’s remarks are often hostile and ill-informed. 
Kant’s most sustained discussion of Judaism emerges in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason from his anxiety regarding Christianity’s historical links with Judaism. This is the key to Kant’s understanding, and critique, of Judaism. Kant wanted to distinguish Christianity as a moral faith from a Judaism which he regarded as fundamentally statutory. He did not deny that there were moral elements to be found in the Jewish religion. He even conceded—in a somewhat unintelligible argument—that these moral elements may have been appended to Judaism in its original form. But these moral elements are not to be confused with Judaism as such, that is, with statutory faith. Mack acknowledges that the polemical intent of Kant’s argument was to sever the historical connection of Christianity and Judaism, to show how the Jewish origins of Christianity are religiously (and philosophically) insignificant. But the primary issue for Kant was to undercut Judaism’s problematic relationship to the historical phenomenon of Christianity. Christianity arose in a Jewish milieu, but it is based on a completely distinct religious principle.
Kant’s conception of Judaism as a statutory and political faith begs the question of whether it could be “reformed” into a rational, ethical faith. The central thrust of Religion is to assist the purification of the historical Protestant churches into a rational, ethical faith by distinguishing between natural and historical, ethical and non-ethical elements. But if Christianity could be purified in this way, could not Judaism as well?
The problem, as we have seen, is that Kant understood Judaism and Christianity as different in kind. While Christianity was fundamentally an ethical religion, Judaism was not. Therefore, while Christianity needed only to be purged of its non-religious elements, it would be impossible to do so with regard to Judaism. If Judaism as such was fundamentally statutory, to rid oneself of statutes would logically entail the end of Judaism. Once the statutory element was eliminated, what would be left would not be “Judaism” but “pure moral religion,” rational and historically unconditioned.
But Kant did propose a solution to the problem of Judaism; or rather, he endorsed a proposal that had already been put forward. In The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant suggested that:
Without dreaming of a conversion of all Jews (to Christianity in the sense of a messianic faith), we can consider it possible even in their case if, as now is happening, purified religious concepts awaken among them and throw off the garb of the ancient cult, which serves no purpose and even suppresses any true religious attitude.… So we can consider the proposal of Ben David, a highly intelligent Jew, to adopt publicly the religion of Jesus (presumably with its vehicle, the Gospel), a most fortunate one. Moreover it is the only plan which, if carried out, would leave the Jews a distinctive faith and yet quickly call attention to them as an educated and civilized people who are ready for all the rights of citizenship and whose faith could also be sanctioned by the government. If this were to happen, the Jews would have to be left free, in their interpretation of the Scriptures (the Tora and the Gospels), to distinguish the way in which Jesus spoke as a Jew to Jews from the way he spoke as a moral teacher to human beings in general.
What Kant endorsed was a kind of Jewish denomination of the universal faith. Kant did not maintain that Jews had to convert to Christianity in toto. Rather, he tried to describe how Jews could retain a “distinctive faith,” that is, could become Jews without Judaism. This overcoming of their statutory faith would prove that the Jews are “an educated and civilized people who are ready for all the rights of citizenship.” Moreover, this overcoming is part of Kant’s own eschatological vision of the eventual overcoming of all divisions of faith.
However offensive such suggestions may appear, they are a far cry from endorsing the notion of an immutable Jewishness. Disregarding Kant’s expressed desire for a mass Jewish conversion to Kantian religion, Mack contends that Kant regarded Jewishness as immutable and the Jews as constitutionally unable to integrate into the Idealist body politic. Mack contends that Kant maintained the “immutability” of Jewish character, a character which was fundamentally materialistic and oriented towards “the goods of the world,” a stance which “disinherited the Jews of the complex ethical systems and narrations developed in the Hebrew Bible.”
The Jews are therefore excluded from Kant’s vision of modernity, regardless of the suggestion proffered in The Conflict. But the national character and traits of the Jewish nation—“the Jewish essence”—result from its commitment to its God. According to Mack, “Kant grounded the immutability of the Jews in their religion,” in the bond between the people and their God.
Mack appeals to Kant’s description of Jews in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View as a foreign presence (“Palestinians who live amongst us” and “a nation of cheaters”) in order to deepen the claim of Kant’s fundamentally anti-Semitic stance. But it remains unclear in Mack’s account just why their religion entails immutability of character, a claim which contradicts Kant’s moral theory—which is held to be universal—as well as his respect for such Jews as Lazarus Ben David, Marcus Herz, and Moses Mendelssohn.
Indeed, there is something about Mack’s account that induces a sense of intellectual claustrophobia. By focusing so closely on his chosen texts to provide the link between past anti-Judaism and emerging anti-Semitism, Mack discounts the social and political forces at work, forces easily contaminated by the rhetoric of Idealism.
It is as if Mack, with a magnifying glass, ignores the whole world around these thinkers so as to augment the flecks of anti-Semitism in Kant and Hegel. But it would have been more to the point, and clearer to the naked eye, if he had focused more on why anti-Semitism was to form the core of the paranoid ideologies of the latter part of the nineteenth century. In other words, Mack ought to have been more attentive to the far more important question of the connection between the Idealist worry about Judaism and the racist fantasy that the Jews were taking over the world.
If the specter of Kant haunts the first part of German Idealism and the Jew,the second part turns on the figure of Kant’s Jewish contemporary Moses Mendelssohn, who represented just one of a number of German Jewish responses to the paradigm of Idealism and its anti-Semitic attitude. Rather than considering the ways in which Idealism had been incorporated by Jewish thinkers who tried to counter Kant’s slander of heteronomy and prove that Judaism was Idealism—the received history of modern Jewish thought—Mack instead focuses on its dissenters, discontents, and cultural despisers. By doing so, Mack produces a colorful panorama of Jewish reaction against “the hegemony of an Idealist paradigm in the political and intellectual culture of Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
Mack’s analysis of the German Jewish resistance to the program of Idealism follows from a distinction he draws between “counterhistory” and “counternarrative.” Following the historian Amos Funkenstein, Mack regards counterhistories as polemical devices deployed to “adapt the history of their own culture to the ideational content developed by that of the majority.” A counterhistory accepts the attitudes of the dominant group and tries to show that it finds its origin in his own culture. The theologians of Jewish Reform, men such as Abraham Geiger and Ludwig Philippson, who accepted the Idealist paradigm and attempted to inscribe Judaism upon it, strove to secure Judaism’s place in the modern world by showing its fundamental compatibility with contemporary philosophical and theological streams, and by agreeing with Kant on the nature of religion and showing how he had merely misunderstood the nature of Judaism.
Mack, however, is concerned with the concept of “counternarrative.” While a counterhistory is an essentially apologetic venture, a counternarrative rejects the claims of the adversarial culture and takes pride in its difference. Mack’s counternarrators include Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Sigmund Freud, and Walter Benjamin. For Mack, these men are the spiritual resistors of Idealism and the authentic voices of modern Jewishness. But are they?
Mack argues that these thinkers strive for the revalorization of those very (“irrational,” “materialist”) elements in Judaism which Idealism had disparaged. Mack investigates a number of these philosophical tendencies which not only take the anti-Jewish prejudices of Kant and Hegel to task, but also call into question the value of their ethical and political theories. These short chapters are full of valuable material showing how Jews revolted against the pretenses of Idealism. But, with the possible exceptions of Rosenzweig, who tried to pave a road back to tradition, and Mendelssohn, who never fully left it, they did so without insisting on a return to the Jewish religion itself.
Consequently, a deep difficulty haunts Mack’s project. Rosenzweig’s religious existentialism and his celebration of the empirical world, Freud’s description of the disunity of consciousness, and Benjamin’s marriage of Marxist dialectics with religious tropes are all perceived by Mack to be assertions of some fundamental “Jewishness,” and a crucial counternarrative to the anti-Jewish Idealism explored in the first part of the book. But aside from their social origin and vague appeals to their “materialism,” what is peculiarly “Judaic” in these responses is left ambiguous.
“The Judaic” stands as the resistance to the hegemony of Idealism, and as such it is a concept which lacks any positive valence of its own. The vague notion of “the Judaic” here is burdened with too much, and the reader wishes Mack had focused more sharply and developed further this concept, since it does so much work for his argument. It is not clear why Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Benjamin’s profane revolutionary messianism amount to “Judaism,” nor is it clear how they amount to essentially Jewish solutions to the aporias of modernity or the persistence of anti-Semitism.
Mack concludes his book by asserting that these German Jewish thinkers “anticipated a post-modern sensibility,” which might “prove fruitful for future social theory and practice.” It is ironic that after so keenly diagnosing the germ of unreason in the thought of the German Idealists, Mack would conclude by summoning us to submit to our currently faddish obfuscation, the latest school of unreason.

Jerome Copulsky is director of the Jewish studies program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

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