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Judaism, Liberalism, and Political Theology

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Judaism, Liberalism, and Political Theology provides the first broad encounter between modern Jewish thought and recent developments in political theology. In opposition to impetuous associations of Judaism and liberalism and charges that Judaism cannot engender a universal political order, the essays in this volume propose a new and richly detailed engagement between Judaism and the political. The vexed status of liberalism in Jewish thought and Judaism in political theology is interrogated with recourse to thinking from across the Continental tradition.

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1 Spinoza and the Possibility Condition of Modern Judaism

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In the so-called “autobiographical” preface to the 1965 English translation of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (originally published in German in 1930), Leo Strauss described the intellectual journey that led him to his research on Benedict Spinoza and to the composition of that book.1 Strauss wrote at the beginning of that text that he “found himself”—a young Jewish intellectual in Weimar Germany—“in the grip of the theologico-political predicament.” For Strauss, this was “the problem of the Jew lost in the non-Jewish modern world.”2

This problem, according to Strauss, was the matter of a twofold dependence: German Jews were politically dependent on German liberalism, and their Judaism had a “spiritual dependence” on Germanness, that is, their Judaism was shaped by German thought (SCR, 3).3 Regarding their political dependence, Strauss felt that liberalism had failed to secure the Jews’ place in German society. Liberalism had emerged in opposition to medieval society, which had been lorded over by the church, and argued that “the bond of society is universal human morality” (SCR, 3). Religion was therefore relegated to the private sphere; liberalism was supposed to create individuals who, qua citizens, were neither Christians nor Jews. It was clear, however, that liberalism itself had failed in forging this neutral society: German Jews had not been fully accepted as Germans by Germans. Antisemitism not only persisted, it had in many places increased. It was painfully evident that the Jews, even as individuals, were unable to be integrated successfully into another nation. Liberalism could enforce equality under the law, but it could not legislate a change in the hearts and minds of citizens. Liberalism had not solved the “Jewish problem.” In Strauss’s accounting, it was constitutionally unable to do so. To do so would entail effacing the distinction between public and private, that is, the foundation of liberalism itself (SCR, 6). Liberalism could sponsor political emancipation, but it could not change the hearts and minds of people.

 

2 “Plato Prophesied the Revelation”: The Philosophico-Political Theology of Strauss’s Philosophy and Law and the Guidance of Hermann Cohen

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In his early book Philosophy and Law (1935) and related works, Leo Strauss made a constitutive contribution to exploring the connections between Judaism and the complex of issues that can be summarized under the heading “political theology.” In this book, Strauss presents medieval Jewish and Islamic thought (or the thought of certain figures within those interlinked traditions) as having understood (1) the enterprise of philosophy as conditioned by revelation; and (2) revelation as essentially law, and thus as belonging to the sphere of politics.

Philosophy and Law is thus a key work for any discussion of Judaism and theopolitics, in that Strauss there argues that Jewish thinkers of the medieval period (who, he also argues, may be taken to represent Jewish philosophy as such) are (along with Islamic thinkers of the same period) in a unique position to teach us about the congruence of philosophy, politics, and revelation/theology.1

As has often been remarked, Strauss credits Hermann Cohen as an important resource for his having come to these views about the lasting contribution and status of (medieval) Jewish philosophy. Part of what I will do in this chapter is to examine some of the decisive ways in which Strauss explains how his own interpretative positions both owe something to Cohen and are critically set off against Cohen’s interpretations and philosophical positions. Other scholars have been working out what these references to Cohen on Strauss’s part tell us about Strauss’s intellectual development.2 My aim here is instead to inquire where Strauss’s deployments of Cohen might lead us in reading Cohen himself. In asking this question, I am taking a cue from the terms in which Strauss motivates or performs his mobilizations of Cohen in Philosophy and Law. I am thinking, for example, of Strauss’s announcement in the book’s introduction, so foreign to the register of normal scholarly discourse, that he wishes to “awaken a prejudice” for Cohen’s view of Maimonides as “the ‘classic of rationalism’ in Judaism” PG, 9/21 [see abbreviations list at the head of the notes section]);3 or of the performative declaration in the closing pages of chapter 3:

 

3 What Do the Dead Deserve? Toward a Critique of Jewish “Political Theology”

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This volume walks a fine ethical line. Its pretext is not political theology in the broad sense, denoting how religious concepts and political realities intersect and legitimate (or delegitimate) one another. Rather, it stems from a distinct historical occasion, the rise in the contemporary West—scratching its head at the failure of liberal democracy to achieve the end of history—of “political theology” in a historically delimited sense, that of the Weimar jurist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), who was a member of the Nazi Party from May 1933 onward. (For this reason, I will adopt a custom of placing “political theology” in quotation marks when it refers to this narrow sense of the term.) A potential ethical problem arises in the assumption that the subject matter of “political theology” has worth. For in this assumption, this volume assumes that Schmitt and others might have been (or actually were) correct in pointing out a perhaps fatal weakness or naïveté in the optimism of all liberalism, including Jewish theological liberalism. This volume therefore assumes that Jewish theology now needs to reconstruct itself anew, in response to Schmitt. But such an assumption risks laughing at Jewish liberalism, judging it to be not even worthy of serious response. The project of constructing a Jewish political theology would then take a stance structurally similar to Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939, which (on some readings) portrays the petit bourgeois Jewish milieu of Appelfeld’s parents as resolutely clueless to the ease by which it could be manipulated and killed by state power.1 In this chapter, I argue that while there are good reasons to retain an attachment to Jewish liberalism and reject the stance of “political theology”—reasons stemming from a commitment to the redemption of singular dead individuals, a commitment that was given its most sustained philosophical treatment by my late teacher Edith Wyschogrod2— these theological reasons cannot ignore the shape of the moment. In other words, the choice between Jewish liberalism and “political theology” has less to do with a true understanding of basic principles and more to do with a finely discerning casuist eye that assesses what principles can be put into action at a particular moment and gives reasons for why acting on one’s commitments in such a manner (and not others) at that moment is to be endorsed by others.3

 

4 The Zionism of Hannah Arendt: 1941–1948

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Gardez-vous bien, Messieurs les Sionistes, un gouvernement passe, mais un peuple reste.

Be very careful, Messieurs Zionists, governments come and go but a people remain.

attributed to Nasif el Khalidi, participant in the Arab-Jewish negotiations of July 1914, Beirut.1

For more than two decades Hannah Arendt was engaged with aspects of Jewish thought and culture that would not be unfamiliar to Jewish studies today. Her writings from the late 1920s into the mid-1930s concerned German-Jewish intellectual history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She worked with the Zionist movement in France to help youth immigration to Palestine in the 1930s and wrote extensively on Zionism in the 1940s. In the 1950s, her research culminated in a major work on antisemitism and its origins in colonialism and race theory, The Origins of Totalitarianism. She was an editor for arguably the most important Judaic publisher, Salman Schocken, and contributed to the publication of Gershom Scholem, Franz Kafka, Bernard Lazare, and Walter Benjamin in English.2 The publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism launched her academic career in the United States and with it came a deepening interest in political philosophy and a decline in Jewish matters. Two major disappointments contributed to this. The first was her disillusionment with Zionism for failing to resolve the Arab question. The second was the reception of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, a study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Holocaust, and the problem of moral responsibility. After 1964, her attention moved entirely to other matters, and she was not to focus on Jewish questions again.

 

5 Power and Israel in Martin Buber’s Critique of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology

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“Can political success be attained through religious deed?” asks Martin Buber in his 1930 essay, “Gandhi, Politics, and Us.”1 Buber’s answer is complex and subtle. Religion and politics, he suggests, are distinguishable. Politics is a means and a measure of achievement, whereas religion is a guide and a direction for possibility. However, the cautious and tentative alliance of politics and religion displays a core feature of humanity, the political-theological, which in Buber’s judgment exhibits itself not so much in the decision as to what counts as properly human—a decision between one and another—as it does in the permission to include unexpected kinds within the human fold, an inclusion of both one and another. Hence Buber disputes the account of political theology rendered by his contemporary, the jurist and legal scholar Carl Schmitt.

This chapter tracks the argument Buber has with Schmitt about political theology in order to reckon its value for contemporary thinking about Israel and power. Like Buber himself, the multifaceted position he stakes frankly concedes and even celebrates the uncertainties and contradictions of life that Schmitt forcefully denies. The account of power in Schmitt, Buber generally argues, is one-sided. For effective power in Schmitt’s view arguably collapses politics and theology in order to construct a united front against the opposition or “the enemy.” Schmitt presumes that power coordinates theological warrant and political force, not only so that might is right but even so that any expression of weakness or solicitude is unnatural, or at least unbecoming. Buber demurs. Politics and theology make a combustible pair. Combined, they might wreak more destruction on humankind than any other ill fortune. Yet, held in delicate balance, theology and politics can foster healing and wholesome human activity. The key for Buber is that power does not found or propel human history. History—specifically divine history, or Heilsgeschichte—carries power in its wake. Buber’s alternative to Schmitt, I contend, offers a vision of Israel justified by its deepening and widening of political theology.

 

6 The Political Theology of Ethical Monotheism

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One of the most significant trends in European philosophy since its theological turn in the 1980s is a debate over the nature of messianism and, by extension, over the relationship between philosophy and Western scriptural traditions. This is especially apparent in Giorgio Agamben’s criticism of Jacques Derrida’s later writings. In calling deconstruction a “thwarted messianism,”1 Agamben implies that unlike Derrida’s radically open and underdetermined thinking of the “messianic,” his own thought moves toward an unblocked, and thus truer, messianism that contains a new understanding of temporality resulting in a richer teleology, more achievable goals, and therefore an increased political significance. Agamben’s underlying argument is that while deconstruction can successfully critique claims about the origin and/or ground of meaning, it conceives the future only as a mere idea, as something always to come and permanently deferred; as a result, political action is also deferred. In contrast, Agamben conceives the messianic moment as a structure of presence, in accordance with his reading of Walter Benjamin’s notion of a “now-time” (Jetztzeit) as a structure of experience as well as of political action, a structure that Agamben associates with Paul’s eschatological notion of now-time in Romans 3:26 and 8:18.2 As had already been made explicit in his reading of Kafka’s “Before the Law” in Homo Sacer, Agamben steps over the border separating the future understood as a possibility from the future understood as an actuality that can be brought to bear on our world, a step that deconstruction constantly avoids as a result of its hesitation.3 We might then make a schematic contrast between a deconstructive and ethical reading of messianism as some form of (infinite) task on the one hand and a political one concerned with the now of action on the other.

 

7 The Miraculous Birth of the Given: Reflections on Hannah Arendt and Franz Rosenzweig

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In his Political Theology Carl Schmitt famously claimed that all significant political concepts are reinhabitations of theological concepts and that the power of the sovereign to declare a state of exception (that is, to interrupt and suspend the order of formal legality) was like a “miracle” as “the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.”1 Schmitt’s recourse to the metaphor of the miracle was intended to capture the interruptive force of the sovereign decision, its introduction of a radical break in existing patterns of life. To this end, he repeatedly emphasized the gap separating the sovereign’s constituent power from the subsequently constituted and institutionalized powers of the juridical state, and he located the dignity of the political sphere precisely in the irreducibility of the former to the latter. In her own explicitly post-theological theorizing of the political, Hannah Arendt follows Schmitt in appealing to the language of miracles. And Schmitt’s emphasis on the unexpected and interruptive force of the “miraculous” instituting deed is also characteristic of many of Hannah Arendt’s best known invocations of the term. Thus, in “What Is Freedom?” she claims that “every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a ‘miracle’—that is, something which could not be expected.”2 Or again, in The Human Condition, when distinguishing action from the related activities of labor and work, she notes that “just as, from the standpoint of nature, the rectilinear movement of man’s lifespan between birth and death looks like a peculiar deviation from the common natural rule of cyclical movement, thus action, seen from the viewpoint of the automatic processes which seem to determine the course of the world, looks like a miracle.”3 These passages suggest that what is miraculous in action is its interruptive force, its power to introduce a break in the “automatic processes” of everyday life,4 and they appear to support the impression of a strong affinity between the Schmittian and Arendtian conceptions of miracle.

 

8 Bad Jews, Authentic Jews, Figural Jews: Badiou and the Politics of Exemplarity

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Is it stating the obvious to point out that renewed interest in Saint Paul has everything to do with Judaism? Certainly recent biblical historians and scholars of religion have successfully shown how much Paul was himself shaped by Jewish codes and modes of thought.1 But have we yet fully taken into account the fact that contemporary philosophical interest in Paul, particularly in Alain Badiou’s revolutionary Paul, is intrinsically tied to the diagnosis that postmodernity is somehow “Jewish”? If Paul is for Alain Badiou the renegade who will teach us how to break with the maladies of identity politics and monetary abstraction that plague our historical moment, it is not only because Paul represents for Badiou a lens for thinking about universalism, it is also because, by way of Paul, he can link his critiques of particularist identity claims and late capitalism to Judaism. In one fell swoop Badiou manages to reprise two classic antisemitic themes and to suggest Pauline universalism as their remedy.

 

9 The Patient Political Gesture: Law, Liberalism, and Talmud

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Veering overtly into religion after 9/11, recent critical theory steers further and further from “Judaism.” The fact that this discourse and its contributors have made almost no impact upon Jewish thought before this publication stands in stark contrast to the saturation by Jewish categories of postmodern theory in the 1970s and 1980s, which in turn inundated Jewish thought.1 The postmodernism of “the jews,” “shibboleth,” “midrash,” “textuality,” and “ethics” gives way in more radical works by Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek to the alleged universalism of Saint Paul and to the cautionary case of Carl Schmitt, an ultraconservative German political thinker who made his mark in the 1920s and who, despairing of the chaos threatening the liberal Weimar Republic, then sought to curry favor with the Nazis. Tracking the movement of theological concepts and religious energies into secular politics, the interest in political theology in critical theory explores a transposition first opened up by German philosophers writing before and after World War II. Paul’s faith in Christ is shown to limit or even break the force of law; while for Schmitt and those who turn to him from the ideological left, the state’s power to make political decisions and distinctions, and to except itself from the law, bears the power and authority once ascribed in Christian theology to God and miracle.2

 

10 Reason within the Bounds of Religion: Assmann, Cohen, and the Possibilities of Monotheism

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Recent years have witnessed many actions, often violent and xenophobic, explicitly rooted in monotheistic intolerance. Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that many secular-minded critics view monotheistic religions as not much more than intractable problems for democratic societies. Indeed, for such critics, the respective ages and histories of these traditions are not to be esteemed. Rather, these religions are simply primitive, and so they require domestication (or annihilation) by liberal values. Looking around the world today, one often wonders if it is even possible for modern sensibilities to be reconciled, or even to coexist, with the Abrahamic monotheisms and their non-rational notions of election and revelation?1

Jan Assmann is perhaps the most prominent secularist critic of monotheism in Europe today. Assmann has enjoyed a rather remarkable career as a prolific Egyptologist, cultural historian, and theorist of memory. His recent work as a critic of monotheism is predicated upon his (in)famous notion of the of the “Mosaic distinction” (die Mosaische Unterscheidung). The Mosaic distinction, which Assmann claims serves as the structural foundation of the Abrahamic monotheisms, is a radical notion of truth that sets itself in opposition to other belief systems or notions of truth; the monotheisms are “counter-religions,” defining themselves by opposing others.2 The Mosaic distinction manifests itself by declaring other religions as false and idolatrous, coding their adherents not only as delusional but also as sinful and wicked. The locus classicus—though not origin—of the Mosaic distinction, according to Assmann, is the Hebrew Bible.3 This claim has brought his work not uncontroversially into the ambit of Jewish studies.4 While critics have charged Assmann with antisemitism, his work continues to be widely read and influential, at least in part, because it captures a certain secularist, cosmopolitan sensibility quite pervasive in the academy. In this chapter I will explore his work on monotheism both because it merits careful study in and of itself and because ironically much of its evidence is quite similar to that used by Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) in his arguments about the ethical nature of monotheism. Yet although both Assmann and Cohen emphasize the role of textuality in the development of monotheism, Assmann finds it to be the source of violence toward outsiders, while Cohen believes it provides the means for overcoming violence and hostility toward the other. By juxtaposing Cohen’s work with Assmann’s, I seek to problematize the univocally negative valence that Assmann ascribes to the Mosaic distinction.

 

11 The Impossibility of the Prohibition of Images: Idolatry in Adorno, Levinas, and Schoenberg

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There is, in recent decades, a growing shared awareness that the term “idolatry” is outdated and intolerant and that we ought to abandon its use. The argument, essentially, is that the word has objective value or third-person meaning only as an extension and reification of its origin in the vocative: that while the term points to a wide variety of behaviors, it begins always in the accusation “you idolator,” such that it marks out and condemns a cultural other, subsequently existing as a norm that can be used both to impose homogeneity within a religious community and to promote imperialism in its foreign relations. The seminal study of Halbertal and Margalit does much to put flesh on these bones, showing us how the concept has tended historically to remain flexible so that the walls bordering the city of God can be defined differently not only by different communities but also as communal requirements change.1 Idolatry has, in short, most often meant whatever we needed it to mean in order to erect and preserve religious hegemony and define our group as superior to other peoples. In this light, the failing marked out by the word “idolatry” is an invention, and the problem, insofar as there is a problem, rests not with those at whom the term is leveled but with those who level the term. The “something wrong” demarcated by the word “idolatry” is wrong with the accuser, not with the accused.

 

12 From Distortion to Displacement: Freud and the Mosaic Distinction

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In one of his seminars, Jacques Lacan asks, “[H]ow, why did Freud need Moses?”1 In this chapter, I argue that Moses and Monotheism, Freud’s “historical novel” of trauma, repression, and recurrence, represents his most serious engagement with religious tradition. But unlike Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence or Jan Assmann’s “Mosaic distinction,” Freud’s account chooses complexity over clarity and suggestiveness over certainty. Attending to Freud’s descriptions of religious change, this chapter shows how modern biblical scholarship emboldened Freud to take creative leaps with the story of Moses, allowing textual “distortions” to engender speculation on repressed narratives and displacements. What emerges is an account of monotheistic tradition and Judaism more akin to the work of Walter Benjamin than Assmann’s. Concerned less with the “great man” than the problem of written tradition, Moses and Monotheism shows how modern thought not only investigates tradition but also continues it. My discussion begins by contrasting Freud’s position with Assmann’s Mosaic distinction, proceeds to analyze Freud’s texts on Moses and the Bible, and concludes by relating Freud’s conception of biblical tradition to Benjamin’s work.

 

13 Monotheism as a Political Problem: The Critique of Political Theology out of the Sources of Judaism

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Erik Peterson’s der Monotheismus als Politisches Problem (Monotheism as a Political Problem) was published in 1935. It is a short book, one hundred pages of text and fifty-eight pages of notes. It is deliberately allusive, coding in Latin quotations from Augustine, as we will later note, some of its most pointed criticisms of its intended target, the jurist and “political theologian” Carl Schmitt. Schmitt himself is mentioned only in the book’s final footnote. The book reworks two of Peterson’s earlier publications, “Göttliche Monarchie” (1931) and “Kaiser Augustus im Urteil des antiken Christentums” (1932/33). What led Peterson to republish these pieces in 1935 after Hitler’s accession to power two years earlier is the fusion of politics and theology that had become the staple of the newly emergent Catholic Reichstheologie. From the mid-1920s certain Catholic theologians in Weimar had advanced the idea that Christ had come to establish an earthly sacrum imperium and that the conversion of Constantine inaugurated the true “Christian Aion.” Germany, these Catholic theologians argued, had inherited the mantle of the sacrum imperium as the Holy Roman Empire (Reich) of the German Nation, a title it lost in 1806 after the Napoleonic wars. Germany’s only hope for salvation after the humiliation of Versailles, these Catholic theologians believed, lay in its rejection of the model of the modern liberal Staat and its return to a medieval conception of Christian Reich.1 In 1933, the advocates of this Reichstheologie fastened upon Hitler as God’s chosen instrument in the creation of the new Christian world empire. Peterson couches his critique of this theological rapprochement with the politics of National Socialism in what seems to be a straightforward monograph in the field of classical philology and patristics. But the very first page of the book makes it clear that much more is at stake than philology. Printed under the heading “Opening Remark” (“Vorbemerkung”), the first page is typeset in italic font. It explains that the European Enlightenment left Christianity with only monotheism as the content of its belief in God. But, Peterson claims, only belief in the triune (dreieinige) God can properly orient political action. The belief in the triune God alone “stands beyond Judaism and paganism, monotheism and polytheism.” Here is both the heart and the deepest problem of Peterson’s book: identifying Judaism with monotheism, and monotheism with the legacy of the Enlightenment, it suggests that Judaism is the political problem of modernity. Identifying Jewish monotheism as the political problem of modernity, how can Peterson seriously critique the Catholic theologians of Reichstheologie who glorify Hitler as the leader of a future Holy Empire of the Aryan Nation? To what extent has Peterson’s anti-Judaism compromised his claim to have “swept aside” (erledigt) Carl Schmitt’s political theology as the ideological buttress of this Reichstheologie?2

 

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