Jewish Identity on the Move

By David LipsetJune 16, 2019

Jewish Identity on the Move

Jews and the Ends of Theory by Shai Ginsburg, Martin Land, and Jonathan Boyarin
Freud and Monotheism by Gilad Sharvit and Karen S. Feldman

BEFORE THE SECOND HALF of the 20th century, it is fair to say that most Jews were suspicious of nation-states, and they viewed themselves as subordinate to and victimized by them. The nation-states where Jews lived rarely offered legitimate status or, for that matter, security. They viewed themselves as living in ethnic/religious exile amid ongoing institutional betrayal. Their loyalties thus lay elsewhere — in a covenantal relationship to their divinity, which is to say, inside deeply insular communities. In the post-Holocaust world, some Jews adopted a different attitude about and relationship to the nation-state. I myself came of age in this era, and, as a baby boomer, am a member of a generationally based cohort of this new Jewish identity. Unlike my forebears, I grew up as an unequivocal citizen of a nation-state; in addition to being Jewish, I became an assimilated American, observant but intermarried. Some bourgeois Jews even became conservative Republicans and staunch defenders of Israel. Indeed, perhaps the founding of the echt-Jewish state in 1948, where Jewish sovereignty prevailed, typified — or culminated — this new kind of identity, at least for the European Jews who resettled there. In Israel, they became unequivocal citizens. It is interesting, in light of this development, that two intriguing, new collections of essays, both recently published by Fordham University Press, only feature the older, diaspora-based contradictions of exilic and stateless dimensions of Jewish identity.

Acknowledging the abundance of Jewish intellectuals in the humanities, Jews and the Ends of Theory begins with an editors’ introduction that poses the collection’s central question: what is “the figure of the Jew” in 20th-century theory? As I say, the answer is cast in terms of the stereotype of the stateless, diaspora Jew. Post–World War II Euro-American society plays no role here, and Israel offers no virtue. The main appearance of the Jewish state occurs in Yehouda Shenhav’s chapter, whose tragic portrayal of the moment of its independence is depicted through the lens of the Naqba: a prevalent Palestinian view of “the disaster” that took place in 1948 when so many of them were forcibly removed from their homes and the new state confiscated their property. As Shenhav goes on to argue, the Naqba did not end in 1948, but has done ongoing damage to Middle Eastern Jewry in Israel, while stigmatizing Arabic in the society and subverting the state’s legitimacy.

Most of the collection focuses on how the lives and thought of exemplary intellectuals reflect their disaffection and disconnection from their society and historical moment. Martin Jay’s chapter recounts how the German-Jewish sociologist Leo Lowenthal cast his lot with the apostate poet Heinrich Heine and with Horkheimer and Adorno’s Institute for Social Research, before leaving for New York in 1933. Jacques Derrida, the Algerian-born, French semiotician and philosopher, looms large in several chapters. Andrew Bush observes that Derrida grew up excluded and anomalous, an unclassifiable citizen in a French colony. He was neither French nor Arab. He spoke French, rather than Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish creole, but felt so estranged from the former that he wondered whether Jews were no more than “guests” in that language, recipients of a kind of linguistic hospitality. In her chapter on Derrida’s commentary on Kafka’s letter to his father and on the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Sarah Hammerschlag concludes that Derrida saw both as narratives of betrayal. Jay Geller, who also alludes to Derrida in his chapter, discusses the antisemitic use made of animals to bestialize and dehumanize Jews, but notes that animals also helped Jewish writers, such as Kafka — who turns his hero, Gregor Samsa, into an insect, and has Red Peter, a talking ape, discuss his life as a performer — think about Jews in modernity.

In Svetlana Boym’s memorable contribution, we are introduced to anti-Bolshevik, Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky and his friend, poet Osip Mandelstam. Shklovsky apparently saw the Jewish relationship to state and society not as one of alienation, but as involving a kind of freedom that enlivened their sympathies for subversive parables and moral reflection. Inevitably, Erich Auerbach makes an appearance in the collection. As a German-Jewish intellectual, living in exile in Turkey in the 1930s, he discovers “realism,” exemplified by the experience of tragedy in the Old Testament about which he concluded that “God’s purpose [was] […] the Jew’s way of discovering the rich if painful contingency of historical time.” Hannan Hever, in his absorbing chapter, outlines a famous debate between Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber that took place in the 1960s. The two men had opposing views about modern Hasidism. More basically, however, what they were disagreeing about, according to Hever, was the dislocation of contemporary Jewish sovereignty. There is much more in Jews and the Ends of Theory that I do not have time or space to discuss here. But I think that the overall picture of the anxiety and marginality of diaspora Jewish identity clearly appears in the several glosses of which I have made mention.

A second, not unrelated collection, Freud and Monotheism: Moses and the Violent Origins of Religion, features essays that reread the great psychoanalyst’s eccentric meditation about the roles of patricide, guilt, and repression in the origin of Judaism and Jewish identity. Freud finished Moses and Monotheism — which biblical scholars dismiss as little more than pseudo-history full of unwarranted conjectures and untenable analysis — after fleeing Vienna to live out his final years in the relative safety of London. Although himself an atheist and a non-observant Jew, Freud had a lifelong fascination with Moses, whom he saw as a prophet betrayed by his people, but also as a strong, decisive Jewish man who fought antisemitic gentiles. As Gabriele Schwab and Gilad Sharvit point out in separate chapters, such was Freud’s thoroughgoing identification with Moses that he ignored the man’s evident reluctance to lead. Freud saw Moses as liberator, lawgiver, and founder not only of a religion, but of a people. Freud, as the founder of psychoanalysis, his secular religion — or, the “Jewish science,” as his antisemitic detractors called it — was then dying in exile. He, too, would not get to the promised land; he would not, that is to say, either get to see the publication of the last book or the far-reaching impact of psychoanalysis.

Recall Freud’s peculiar claim. There was not one, but two Moseses. The first was not Jewish but was an Egyptian noble. The Israelites slaves killed him but only after they converted to a form of very strict Egyptian monotheism. Then they felt guilty as they wandered in the desert. A second Moses then appears to them. He is also killed, but not before the Israelites accept his monotheism and its exacting creed forbidding the production of images of the Divine, including speaking his name. Subsequent generations, Freud went on to argue, inherited a deep sense of guilt over the murders, and submitted to their restrictive religion on account of it. The new monotheism was harsh and demanded renunciation of embodied senses, instinct, and the material world. As Jan Assmann summed up his fascinating chapter, Judaism, like religion more generally, was for Freud a “compulsory neurosis that is rooted in the repressed experience of the primal parricide.”

Several contributions to Moses and Monotheism also assess the relationship of Freud’s view of Judaism to Jewish identity. Did the covenant — the privileged status of being God’s “chosen people” — raise Jewish self-esteem, but also create resentment by excluding gentiles? Richard Bernstein’s chapter makes the point that, to Freud, violence against Jews is a perpetual potential in society, and only awaits the right circumstances to unleash it against an alien minority who disavow their hosts’ Christianity and whose success defies their stigma. For Freud, perhaps, the ultimate provocation was the ban on idolatry and the “dematerialized,” invisible deity of whom no image is allowed. The existence of a transcendent, yet concealed sphere encouraged a Jewish perspective from which to criticize “existing reality” and keep it at arm’s length. Freud was no utopian; in his pessimistic view, reason would never triumph, and peace could never be made with such an utterly detached people.

These two rich collections offer general readers much to appreciate and ponder. Many absorbing arguments are accessibly rendered, and their influential, yet deeply estranged, cast of Jewish authors — Kafka, Scholem, Buber, Derrida, Auerbach, and, of course, Freud — shine in and through them, like the miracle of Chanukah. Chapters are clearly written and generously adorned, I should not fail to add, with page after page of footnotes.

However, as I said above, I find the complete absence of post-Holocaust Jewish identity, and its transition — at least in the Euro-American West — to an identity that is not stateless, and is thus less alienated and exilic, puzzling and somewhat irksome. I have tried to suggest that Jewish identity in these two books appears much the way it did in the 19th-century diaspora, if not earlier. One could argue that such a conception implies that their editors and authors believe that nothing has changed or ever will. And, indeed, the resurgence of antisemitism in the United States and Europe seems to confirm this view, making the two books all the more significant and compelling.


David Lipset is professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

LARB Contributor

David Lipset is professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is a cultural anthropologist who has done long-term fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Most recently, he is the author of Yabar: The Alienations of Murik Men in a Papua New Guinea Modernity (Palgrave, 2017) and co-editor (with Richard Handler) of Vehicles: Cars, Canoes and other Metaphors of Moral Imagination (Berghahn, 2018).


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