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George Steiner’s Jewish Problem

By Assaf Sagiv

Should the Jews survive? A prominent intellectual wonders.


Indeed, Steiner himself acknowledges his deep estrangement from traditional Jewish culture. Though a celebrated polyglot, he never took the time to learn Hebrew or Aramaic, the languages in which the principal Jewish texts were written. And in fact, his familiarity with those sources is quite superficial. Moreover, his attitude towards the Jewish religion, so far as can be gleaned from his writings, is aloof. If Jewishness is to be understood as having some level of commitment to the faith of the Patriarchs, Steiner writes, then he should be considered Jewish “outwardly, in name only.”21
It is hardly surprising, then, that Steiner identifies deeply with the assimilated Jewish intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Central Europe. It is precisely this period, in which a great many Jewish thinkers and artists were publicly rejecting the traditions of their forefathers, that Steiner depicts as a kind of golden age of Jewish modernity. He looks back nostalgically on the role played by eminent Jewish thinkers and artists in the vanguard of the philosophical, scientific, and artistic development of the period. The list of names is breathtaking: Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Franz Kafka, Arnold Schoenberg, Edmund Husserl, Carl Krauss, Theodor Adorno, Gustav Mahler, George Cantor, Herman Broch, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Hannah Arendt, and numerous others. Rarely has civilization known such a concentrated burst of creativity as that which seemed to flow directly from the Jewish genius that had been liberated from the ghetto. In Steiner’s view, these—and not the texts and traditions of Judaism that developed over thousands of years—are the crowning achievement of the Jewish historical enterprise.22
Steiner views himself as a scion of this assimilated intellectual dynasty. Like many of its outstanding representatives, he cut himself off from all elements of the traditional Jewish experience and embraced a worldview rooted in German thought. His conception of Jewish identity manifests this clearly. For example, the depiction of the Jew as having “chosen” the fate of alienation and detachment (rather than having it imposed upon him, as the Jewish tradition has always held) is openly influenced by G.W.F. Hegel’s essay “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate” (1798). In this essay, which Yirmiyahu Yovel of the Hebrew University characterized as “the fiercest anti-Jewish text ever written by Hegel,”23 the German philosopher charges the spirit of Judaism with negating the fundamental unity of man and nature which had been the sublime achievement of Greek civilization, and choosing instead to deepen the rift between man and the world. The patriarch Abraham appears as the archetypal alienated figure: Abraham, writes Hegel, chose to cut himself off from his homeland and his dearest relations, from his ties to people and nature, in order to reinforce within himself the spirit of “self-maintenance in strict opposition to everything.”24 As a result of this deliberate choice, Abraham became a rootless person, “a stranger on earth, a stranger to the soil and to men alike.”25 Hegel regards Abraham’s divorce from normal existence as the route chosen by Abraham’s descendants, the Jews, a people whose fate destines them to live a life of willful detachment.
Steiner is captivated by this Hegelian reading of Judaism, and quotes it admiringly and at length. He inverts the point, however, taking what Hegel saw as an impeachment of the Jews to be a cause for enthusiasm: “What is to Hegel an awesome pathology, a tragic, arrested stage in the advance of human consciousness towards a liberated homecoming from alienation, is, to others, the open secret of the Jewish genius and of its survival.”26 Like Hegel before him, Steiner ignores the fact that the divine imperative instructing Abraham to leave the land of his birth and his family does not send him to a life of eternal vagrancy, but to a specific destination, a designated land. The divine promise to Abraham, whereby “I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever,”27 is grasped by Steiner as a “theological-scriptural mystique,” which contravenes the Jew’s true mission—to be a restless wanderer on earth, an eternal “guest.”28
This depiction of the Jew as “guest,” as one who is forever living in the lands of others, is also influenced to a large extent by German thought. Here Steiner is clearly following in the footsteps of Martin Heidegger, whose works he studied extensively.29 In his greatest work, Being and Time (1927), Heidegger describes human existence as being “thrown” into the world. Man is hurled into existence; his very birth and death are not determined through his own free choice. Therefore, man must regard his place in the world as one who is “dwelling in a house of which he is, at his rare best, a custodian, but never architect or proprietor.”30 Steiner, “utterly persuaded” by these words of Heidegger, embraces this view of man, and amplifies it with respect to the Jews.31 “All of us are guests of life,” he writes. “No human being knows the meaning of its creation, except in the most primitive, biological regard. No man or woman knows the purpose, if any, the possible significance of their ‘being thrown’ into the mystery of existence.”32 The unique circumstances of the Jew’s existence, therefore, epitomize the rootlessness to which all human beings are in truth condemned, and allow the Jew to embody the idea of human moral responsibility in the world, a position that relies on no claims of sovereignty or possession: “It may be that the Jew in the diaspora survives in order to be a guest—still so terribly unwelcome at so many shut doors. Intrusion may be our calling, so as to suggest to our fellow men and women at large that all human beings must learn how to live as each other’s ‘guests-in-life.’”33
But beyond Steiner’s acceptance of German philosophical notions of Jews and Judaism, many of his thoughts have a more ancient provenance: Early Christian theology. Indeed, Steiner is far more knowledgeable on Christian than on Jewish sources; he cites them frequently and at length, and is in constant dialogue with them. He himself candidly acknowledges the “Christianizing” tendency of his thought, underscoring the significance of “Augustinian, Thomist, and Pascalian semantics” in his theological statements, such as are found in his Real Presence (1986)—the title of which refers to the Catholic doctrine that consecrated bread and wine taken at mass are in fact the flesh and blood of Christ—as well as in his Grammars of Creation (2001).34
The mark left by Christian thought on Steiner’s understanding of the Jews’ role on earth is unmistakable. Christian motifs appear throughout Steiner’s conceptual world, as has been elaborated by the historian of religion Hyam Maccoby, who points to the striking similarity between Steiner’s ideal figure of the exilic Jew and the Christian archetype of the “wandering Jew.”35 This legend, which appears in a number of Christian sources starting in the thirteenth century, relates that Jesus, bearing the cross through the streets of Jerusalem on the way to his crucifixion at Golgotha, encountered a Jewish spectator, who pushed and taunted him. As punishment from heaven, this Jew was condemned to an eternity of restless wandering upon earth—a dramatic symbol of his people’s fate.
An even more direct Christian source for Steiner’s beliefs, however, is the theology of Augustine. In particular, it is Augustine’s notion of “the eternal witness,” which had a dramatic impact on the way the Church related to Jews in Europe, that reappears in Steiner’s writings. Augustine held that the Jews’ continuing survival and dispersion are ongoing proof of the punishment decreed upon them for rejecting Jesus, and of the truth of Christian supersession. Like the biblical figure Ham, the Jew is condemned to live a life of service: His mission is to preserve the texts of the Old Testament wherever he goes, to offer proof to the world that Christianity has not fabricated the biblical prophecies regarding the coming of the Messiah. In Augustine’s view, the Jews are to be understood primarily as the “guardians of their books” and “librarians”—in other words, a people that lives around the text and for the text, and whose home is the text.36
This image of the Jews as living under a canopy of text made a profound impression on Christianity. In Christian polemics, the Jews were depicted as clinging to a simplistic and superficial reading of the Old Testament, refusing to accept the allegorical, spiritual meaning that the Christians found in it. But though the Jews’ allegiance to the literal reading blinded them to the Christian truth, they nevertheless enjoyed a special status in the Church’s view of the world. Precisely because they refused to abandon the Written Law, they became “eternal witnesses,” who bore the Book of Books with them everywhere they went. In this spirit, wrote Bernard of Clairvaux, a preeminent twelfth-century religious leader, Jews constitute for Christians the “living letters” of Scripture.37


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