George Steiner’s Jewish Problem

By Assaf Sagiv

Should the Jews survive? A prominent intellectual wonders.

The Jews’ status as guests among the nations has far-reaching moral implications. The Jew’s wandering in the gentile world enables him to act as “moral irritant and insomniac among men,” a role that Steiner calls an “honor beyond honors.”9 Among the nations, the Jew represents the uncompromising demand for universal morality, that man overcome his selfish impulses and tear down the walls dividing him from his fellow. This vision is Judaism’s great contribution to humanity, writes Steiner, an exalted message that revealed itself in three historical moments: At the revelation at Mount Sinai, the defining event of Israelite monotheism, which bequeathed to the world a belief in the existence of a single, omnipotent, and incorporeal God from whose judgment no one is immune; in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which he called upon human beings to “turn the other cheek,” forgive their enemies and oppressors, and share all their belongings with one another; and, finally, in the utopian socialism of Karl Marx the Jew, which preached a just and egalitarian social order, devoid of commerce and property, in which “love shall be exchanged for love, trust for trust.” The establishment of an inescapable divine Conscience, of an uncompromising demand for moral elevation, for unconditional love, and for total altruism—this is the great legacy of the Jewish people, through which it has irrevocably changed the moral face of mankind.10
Beyond this moral mission, however, life in exile also offers an unexpected cultural dividend: Rejection by and separation from the gentile community, and the sense of not belonging, served, in Steiner’s view, as catalysts for the creative impulse in the Jewish character. Steiner points to the genius of figures such as Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein as evidence of the advantages conferred by a perpetual “otherness,” which lacks any clear sense of “home.” Unable to put down roots in foreign lands, the Jews developed a talent for abstraction and a facility in the international languages of music, mathematics, and the hard sciences. Since the tribal and national particularisms of the gentiles were alien to them, Jews began exploring the universal aspects of humanity. “Admittedly, I am a wanderer, a luftmensch, liberated from all foundations,” writes Steiner. “Yet I have transformed the persecutions and the irony, the tension and the sophistry these arouse in the Jewish sensitivity, into a creative impulse which is so powerful that through its power it reshapes large sections of politics, art, and the intellectual structures of our generation.”11
The analogy between the detachment of the exiled Jew and the alienation that fuels the work of the modern artist has frequently been invoked by modern thinkers to explain the unique contribution of the Jews to Western civilization. Steiner, obviously, is attracted by this idea. As a literary scholar, he takes a particular interest in the textual skills of writing, reading, and interpreting in which Jewish creativity found expression. The “text,” in his view, is the true homeland of the People of the Book. More than any other people, he argues, the Jewish people “read, reread without cease, learnt by heart or by rote, and expounded without end the texts which spell out its mission.”12 A total and ongoing immersion in Jewish texts turned the Jew into the quintessential bibliophile, for whom “the text is home; each commentary a return.”13 The Jews therefore became the “librarians” of civilization: “The Mystery and the practices of clerisy are fundamental to Judaism. No other tradition or culture has ascribed a comparable aura to the conservation and transcription of texts.”14
This commitment to a textual “homeland” contrasts sharply with nationalism centered on a physical homeland, which Steiner sees as the blight of modernity. “Nationalism, and with it tribalism, its primordial shade, is the nightmare of our age. Despite the fact that these are devoid of content, humans bring mad destruction down upon one another in their name.”15 By contrast, the “man of the book” is not misled by tribal, ethnic, or nationalist fantasies. He lives in a different world altogether, removed from the violence of the masses. For Steiner, the life of the spirit fosters a critical moral perspective that rejects collective bravado and subverts the oppressive authority of the national state:
The man or woman at home in the text is, by definition, a conscientious objector: To the vulgar mystique of the flag and the anthem, to the sleep of reason which proclaims, “My country, right or wrong,” to the pathos and eloquence of collective mendacities on which the nation state—be it a mass-consumer mercantile technocracy or a totalitarian oligarchy—builds its power and aggressions.16
The contradiction Steiner perceives between life “in the text” and political life is most clearly evident in the modern rupture of Jewish life, and in particular in the cultural and moral recklessness embodied in Zionism. By settling in the physical homeland of Palestine, the Jews have effectively turned their backs on their textual homeland, exchanging the spiritual riches of exile for a piece of Middle Eastern real estate. “Where it has traded its homeland in the text for one of the Golan Heights or in Gaza,” he writes, “Judaism has become homeless to itself.”17
At times, Steiner couches his antipathy for Zionism in more ambivalent terms. “Israel is an indispensable miracle,” he writes at one point. “Its coming into being, its persistence against military, geopolitical odds, its civic achievements, defy reasoned expectations.”18 But generally, Steiner is vehemently opposed to the very idea of a Jewish state: Seduced by vulgar national sentiments, he argues, Israeli Jews have shed the tragic glory of their forefathers. Their attempt to refashion the Chosen People in the image of other nations constitutes a low point in their great history of sublime torment:
It would, I sense, be somehow scandalous… if the millennia of revelation, of summons to suffering, if the agony of Abraham and of Isaac, from Mount Moria to Auschwitz, had as its last consequence the establishment of a nation state, armed to the teeth, a land for the bourse and of the mafiosi, as are all other lands. “Normalcy” would, for the Jew, be just another mode of disappearance.19
Steiner’s opposition to Zionism, then, stems not merely from his rejection of nationalism in general, but primarily from his belief that the Zionist enterprise amounts to nothing less than a rejection of the Jews’ universal calling. Jews should abandon the boring dream of security and normalcy, and instead pursue the anomaly of exile, however painful it may be. Only through estrangement may the Jews learn to serve humanity as moral standard-bearers and creative geniuses. When the Jews betray their historic role, warns Steiner, they undermine the only possible justification for the suffering that has been their fate from time immemorial.

Steiner is, of course, not the first Jewish thinker to praise the exilic condition. In the early part of the twentieth century, philosophers such as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig viewed the exile as a necessary condition for the advancement of Judaism’s moral and cultural message. For this reason, they opposed the emerging Zionist movement, arguing that by submitting themselves to the laws of history and the corrupting influence of power politics, the Jews would betray their noble destiny. “To the eternal people,” wrote Rosenzweig, “home never is home in the sense of land, as it is to the peoples of the world who plow the land and live and thrive on it, until they have all but forgotten that being a people means something besides being rooted in a land. The eternal people has not been permitted to while away time in any home. It never loses the untrammeled freedom of a wanderer, who is more faithful a knight to his country when he roams abroad....”20
Steiner, however, follows a different path. For while Cohen and Rosenzweig were inspired by, and in some sense responding to, the currents of contemporary German philosophy, their ultimate goal was always to delineate what they understood to be the true spirit of Judaism. Cohen’s Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism (1919) and Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption (1921) are both theological works, efforts to express a religious consciousness formed primarily from within the sources of Jewish tradition. Steiner, on the other hand, makes no serious attempt to understand the Jewish experience from within. Rather, his writings on Judaism are grounded almost exclusively in external views. Now, this need not be problematic in and of itself: Jewish self-identity developed to a large extent through an intensive dialogue with surrounding cultures, and it bears the imprint of non-Jewish beliefs and ideas. The problem is that many of the ideas and images that have clearly inspired Steiner’s beliefs are not merely non-Jewish in origin; some of them are the product of theological and philosophical sources that are clearly anti-Jewish in nature. Their impact on his thought can be seen in the alienated and critical positions that Steiner often adopts towards Judaism.

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