By David Nirenberg
W.W. Norton, 2013
During a conversation years ago with a friend of mine over which of us was the worse Jew (we each argued for ourselves), he told me an anecdote about his one attempt at learning Jewish history. Like me, he had seemed to forget everything he’d ever been taught about Judaism the moment his bar mitzvah ended. But one day, he walked into the office of the head of Jewish Studies at the university where he worked, explained how he’d always had the niggling desire to learn Jewish history, and asked for a little guidance. The professor gazed past my friend at an expansive bookshelf, made a brief, sweeping gesture with his hand, and that concluded the meeting.
My friend was angry telling the story, thinking he’d finally mustered the will to do something about his ignorance and was met with indifference. I offered that maybe the professor was implying that if you knew nothing, starting anywhere was a good idea. “He’s a teacher,” my friend said. “He should have taught me something, even if it was ‘start here.’” I noted that professors with tenure don’t often share that view. I also noted that by even making the attempt, my friend had lost our contest.
My friend’s subsequent readings petered out after Judaism for Dummies, but if he had persisted, he eventually would have come up against someone like David Nirenberg, a teacher of an entirely different sort. Nirenberg is a professor at the University of Chicago, and judging by his methods in Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, he is one of those teachers who not only makes time to answer your questions, but answers them exhaustively from every conceivable angle, and gives the impression that he would keep going even if you fell asleep during his explanation.
“For the sake of simplicity,” Nirenberg writes, “we can call our topic the history of thinking about ‘Judaism’.” And this is the last piece of simplicity we get, for as the history bears out, most of that thinking has been of the dehumanizing scapegoat variety, so remarkable in its persistence, malleability, richness of thought, and insistent disgust, that it not only defies summation, but implies that abridgment is to miss the point entirely. Anti-Judaism offers a comprehensive survey of this anti-Jewish thought. Nirenberg veers away from a focus on blind racial hatred against Jews, specifically choosing not to use the term anti-Semitism, agreeing with Hannah Arendt that the designation “labels its targets as enemies of Jews and Judaism” but “implies that there is no reason for that enmity, that the enmity is irrational.” His book instead looks at the ways that anti-Judaism has served as an intellectual means of “critically engaging the world,” an engagement that has involved the incessant demonizing of Jews to achieve pragmatic goals, and the subsequent shaping of Western religions, philosophies, and politics in which anti-Jewish concepts have played a central role.
In other words, it’s a highly informative slog, complex and comprehensive, fascinating and deadening. But, you never get the sense that the Nirenberg isn’t really trying to teach you something, and considering that this is a field of thought that has produced works like “Refutation of a Jew-Book in which a Christian, to the Dishonor of all Christendom, Claims that injustice is done the Jews in the Accusation that they murder Christian Children,” Anti-Judaism is a page-turner by comparison.
Nirenberg’s stated goal, to “demonstrate how different people put old ideas about Judaism to new kinds of work in thinking about their world; to show how this work engaged the past and transformed it; and to ask how that work reshaped the possibilities for thought in the future,” is broad enough to encompass anti-Jewish thought from ancient Egypt to the Holocaust, as well as a slew of other sub-goals asserted throughout the text, all proving that these “new kinds of work” were often variations on a theme: how to answer all “Jewish Questions” in the negative, and to benefit by defining Jews as the antithesis of what you stand for. It’s a massively ambitious thesis that requires elaborate amounts of support, and Nirenberg seems to provide every single bit he’s ever come across.
He sets the book’s tone in the first chapter, in which he explains the historian’s dilemma of reliance on unreliable ancient texts. He then charts a progression from a peaceful co-existence where “the Jews and Egyptians of Elephantine not only waged war together, but also worshipped in close proximity” to the foundational event of Egyptian anti-Judaism, when in 525 BCE the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt and
destroyed the temples of the Egyptian gods…but spared that of the Jews. Assuming that the story is true (and that is a large assumption), the Persian king’s discriminations in favor of YHW maybe have been motivated by a sense of monotheistic solidarity with Judaism (the king was a Zoroastrian monotheist) or by a desire to encourage Jewish loyalty to the new regime. If the latter, his expectations were not disappointed. The Jews of Elephantine did not take part in Egyptian revolts against Persian domination such as the one that took place in 425 BCE, during the chaotic transition from the rule of King Artaxerxes I to that of Darius II. ‘[When] the Egyptians rebelled we did not leave our posts,’ one papyrus from the Jews reminds the Persian rulers. One wonders how the Egyptians felt about this loyalty.
Evidently, not good; whatever actually led to it, eventually Jews would be “attacked because they [were] perceived as agents of a hated imperial power,” ultimately to be “understood as enemies of Egyptian piety, sovereignty, and prosperity.” Much textual analysis follows, and after analyzing, among others, the works of Josephus, Hecataeus, Manetho, and various unattributable papyri, Nirenberg distills the results of the strife into five main characteristics of Egyptian anti-Judaism:
1. The Jews are a people driven out of [not liberated from] Egypt.
2. Their practices are diametrically opposed to those of all other peoples, especially Egyptians and Greeks.
3. They are enemies of all the gods.
4. Whenever and wherever they rule, they rule brutally and tyrannically.
5. They are misanthropes, enemies not just of Egypt, but of all mankind.
Putting aside the points specific to Egypt, “the others proved so useful that they continue to provide cornerstones for ideologies up to the present day.”
A standard now set, myriad innovations followed, few more lasting and fruitful than those established during early Christianity, especially the interpretations of Paul’s writings where the enduring concept of “Judaizing” begins. The analysis of the first chapter in the first epistle to the Corinthians gives a good example of Nirenberg’s technique, and his voice throughout the text:
[Paul’s assertion is that the] death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mark a total transformation of what it is that humans can know and how it is that they can know it. Throughout the letter Paul amplifies his teaching of the new knowledge, ‘the mysterious wisdom of God…that was hidden…before the ages began.’ This knowledge comes ‘not in terms learnt from human philosophy, but in terms learnt from the spirit,’ not from the wisdom of the world but from the ‘foolishness’ of Christ crucified. Those who would have this knowledge must unlearn everything they had learned before…
Already we can see that Paul is asking fundamental questions about human knowledge, and that he is answering these questions partly in terms of Jews and Judaism. But in this passage of Corinthians at least, these epistemological questions are not necessarily or even primarily ‘Jewish.’ ‘Jew’ and ‘Greek’ stand together in companionable error [‘While the Jews require signs (semeia) and the Greeks look for wisdom (sophia), we are preaching a crucified Christ: a scandal to the Jews, to the gentiles foolishness. (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)], with ‘Jewish signs’ and ‘Greek learning’ just two versions of the world’s wisdom, two forms of knowledge that need to be superseded by the would-be follower of Jesus. The philosopher and the Jew emerge as equally foolish and equally arrogant in their misunderstanding of the cosmos.
If 1 Corinthians had been Paul’s only letter, the place of Judaism in the history of thought might look very different. But Paul asked other questions about the nature of human knowledge, and in answering these he characterized Judaism in specific ways and assigned it specific roles in God’s plan for the history of salvation.
These characterizations, classifying an Old World contrasting the New World of Christ, found their most resounding idea in the notion of Jews as creatures of the “flesh,” their refusal “to surrender their ancestors, their lineage, and their scripture”—all emblematic of “stubborn adherence to the conditions of the flesh, [and as] enemies of the spirit, and of God.” And while Nirenberg notes that it’s unclear whether Paul intended “to cast them as such,” many of Paul’s readers showed no uncertainty; they took the flesh idea and ran wild with it. Whatever the differences in dogmatic interpretation might follow,
what those later readers would not often doubt was that the verb to Judaize provided an accurate and useful characterization of the erroneous passage from soul to flesh, from spirit to letter, from eternal truth to the mere appearance of truth…the standard diagnostic test for the reading of scripture, a balance in which spiritual and literal meaning could be weighed against each other. Every interpretation of scripture could be (and was) evaluated against a negative index of Jewish carnality and spiritual blindness. And insofar as every Christian was also a reader of scripture, the individual believer could be diagnosed in the same way, and placed somewhere on a continuum between Jewish ‘flesh’ and Christian ‘spirit.’ In fact all of human history could be made legible in terms of the Jews’ history: their prophecy in ancient times making known God’s plan for the world, and their suffering in the present serving as the most visible proof that God had transferred his favor from the Old Israel to the New.
One of Nirenberg’s key assertions, about early Christendom and elsewhere, is that all of this (and much subsequent anti-Jewish sentiment) had little to do with actual Jews. The “Jew” was an invention, a massively effective theoretical device that “was not the product of conflict with real Jews…. It was rather a strategy to defend certain (eventually ‘orthodox’) Christian readings of the Jewish scriptures from the Christian dualists’ charge of Judaizing and carnality, and to return that same charge to the dualists themselves.” Validity became a contest over who, or what, was less “Jewish.”
Powered by the revilement of earthbound flesh, the demonizing of the Jews, in ways that would have horrific consequences for centuries, proceeded unabated. First John delineated Jews as the killers of Christ—
John treats the Jews in general…as servants of the world and its prince, intent from the beginning on confuting and killing the Son of God. From the first narrative sentence [in the Gospel of John], in which ‘the Jews’ send priests and Levites from Jerusalem to interrogate Jesus (1:19) to the climactic scene in which the crowd of ‘Jews’ rejects Pilates’ exhortation and demands that Jesus be crucified (19:14-16), the ‘Jews’ work for Jesus’s death and destruction (see, for example, 5:18, 7:1)
—then ostracized even Jews who believe in Christ:
[To John,] the Jews, even those who are said to believe in Jesus, do not seem to have the same father as the ‘children of God’. To this harsh insinuation the Jews respond, but ‘our father is Abraham!’ Not so, Jesus replies, for you do not ‘do as Abraham did. As it is, you want to kill me…. You are doing your father’s work.’
‘You are from your father, the devil, and you prefer to do what your father wants. He was a murderer from the start; he was never grounded in the truth; there is no truth in him at all. When he lies he is speaking true to his nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies… Whoever comes from God listens to the words of God; the reason why you do not listen is that you are not from God.’ (8 John: 39-47)
For John, the Jews, even these ‘believing’ ones, are not children of Abraham but of the devil…. [H]e strips the Jews of their lineage, assigns to them the demonic spiritual paternity, and insists on their eternal role as enemies of God.
And by Medieval times, Christians, furious at the role of Jews as money lenders receiving royal favor delineated Jews as every other heinous thing imaginable—again, all based on imaginary constructs, all in service to the accusers’ attempts at gain:
Jewish usurers sucked the blood and gnawed the bones of Christian peasants. Jewish blasphemers desecrated consecrated hosts and ritually murdered Christian children. Jewish men raped Christian women; Jewish doctors killed Christian patients. Jews caused plague and disease, either actively through poison or passively because Christian toleration of their malign presence angered God and roused him to punishment. By stressing that the toleration of Jews put Christian communities in terrible danger, these new presentations of Jewish evil sought to recast the sovereign’s dilemma in starker relief. ‘Protection of Jews’ became a corrupt materialism that endangered the land; ‘persecution,’ a spiritual purity that protected it.
“Purification,” of course, is a whole other ghastly matter, and there’s still the Islamic concept of the Jew as hypocrite, the Inquisition’s programs of conversions and expulsion, Luther’s elaborations on Jews as “our plague, pestilence, and all that is our misfortune,” the Enlightenment debates on whether or not Jews were actually human, and the contributions to Judaizing by seemingly anyone else who has ever attempted to define Jews, including Spinoza, Shakespeare, Montesquieu, Schopenhauer, and Marx.
While Nirenberg’s means of collation and synthesis create a sense of wholeness, and his scrutiny and diligence are indefatigable, the scope and density is wearying—yes, like a very long lecture delivered by a very learned professor trying to guide students through a particularly convoluted investigation. The text often reads like a certain kind of peer-reviewed journal article in which the immersion in analysis is so complete, it feels less like a writer reinforcing a thesis than a chess master dizzy with endgame strategies.
And for all of Nirenberg’s thoroughness, there’s little here on the connection between the concepts of anti-Judaism and subsequent actions against actual Jews. To state the obvious, Judaizing was usually accompanied by the will, the encouragement, or the justification to do physical harm to Jews, but Nirenberg pre-supposes that the reader is familiar enough with the resultant violence and can make the connections themselves. For instance, the book ends at the Holocaust, and here, Nirenberg’s focus is on Goebbels, with Hitler barely mentioned. Even allowing that everyone knows who Hitler is, the disparity between, in this instance, the rantings in Mein Kampf and the implementation of the Final Solution, is not of peripheral importance. The rare instances where Nirenberg alludes to an atrocity (“the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt, which ended with the death of perhaps as many as half a million Jews”) beg for context. One of the book’s undeclared themes is how literary analysis can lead to staggering body counts, and leaving the reader to fill in these gaps of Jewish resistance not only hampers argumentative momentum but inadvertently reinforces the stereotype of Jews as history’s great passive victims.
Still, Nirenberg is a generous teacher within his set boundaries, and if his repetition of common pedagogical techniques is a bit tiresome – asking and answering his own questions, utilizing that phrase irresistible to so many academics, “Let’s begin at the beginning,” and anchoring chaotic discourse with brief summaries just as the listener is about to concede to their limits of comprehension – his periodic reiteration of goals, like renewals of intent and purpose, go a long way in redirecting reader frustration into a sense of inclusion:
Our goal is not to determine who is right, but to understand how all these views could come to seem authoritatively grounded in gospel…to understand how those portraits generated the potential for the powerful interpretations they would produce over the next two thousand years…to convince you that Luther’s reconceptualization of the ways in which the language of scripture relates humans to their world and their God rewrote the roles played by Jews as figures of Christian thought…to describe [the] process of appropriation and stigmatization, both in the Qur’an and in the early Islamic tradition…to suggest that the roles assigned to figures of Judaism in this process were every bit as important in shaping Islamic ideas about how both scripture and cosmos should be interpreted, as they had been for the early Christians, from whom in this respect early Islam borrowed a great deal.
And yes, this ‘Our goal’ is another academic trope, for many professors, akin to the royal we. But Nirenberg, who provides much more for the hungry than an indifferent wave towards the tragedies of three millennia, has earned his pass.
Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine, teacher at City College, member of the Terranova Theater Collective, volunteer at the Housing Works Bookstore, and loiterer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.