On Jewish Modernity


In my book The Rise of Eurocentrism: Anatomy of Interpretation (1993), I highlighted the central role played by the Hebraism vs. Hellenism polarity in the self-definition of modernity, and especially in the evolution of Jewish modernity. This evolution is the focus of a superb new study, Enzo Traverso’s The End of Jewish Modernity [2013] (2016).

The book’s “Introduction” opens with a comparison of two major 20th-century figures, Leon Trotsky and Henry Kissinger, “archetypes of the Jew as revolutionary and the Jew as imperialist.” They embody “two opposite paradigms of Jewishness. The first left its mark on the interward years, the second on the years of the Cold War.” The author insists unflinchingly that the Jewish modernity they embody “has reached the end of its road. After having being the main focus of critical thought in the Western worls — in the era when Europe was its centre — Jews today find themselves, by a kind of paradoxical reversal, at the heart of the mechanisms of domination” (3). The Jewish voice, “which used to be dissonant, is now in counterpoint. Today, it blends in with the harmony of the dominant discourse” (4).  That is why its modernity is exhausted.

John Murray Cuddihy traced the same trajectory (from critical to dominant discourse) in his absorbing study The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity (1974), which explored how “Judaism became Jewishness” (14). The consistent move of major Jewish figures from progressive to conservative ones (such as Maimon to Norman Podhoretz, Varnhagen to Cynthia Ozick, Lasalle to Harold Garfinkel, and Mendelssohn to Ayn Rand) shows how emancipated intellectuals enter “a strange world, to explore a strange people observing a strange halakah (code). They examine this world in dismay, with wonder, anger, and punitive objectivity” (68). Many felt belated and backward. As a response, “came early the ideology of Hebraism — namely, that whereas ‘you may be a superior civilization (whatever that is), we, in our political and economic impotence, are a superior moral heritage’ [Michael Polanyi]. There is Hellenism, which is pagan, perhaps civilized, and with an eye to beauty, but greater still is Hebraism, with its concern for justice and its superiori morality. From Luzzatto to Heine (from whom Arnold got it) and beyond to Hermann Coehn (1842-1914) and the Marburg neo-Kantians, this is a major theme of alienated Diaspora intellectual Jewry. It is the ‘moralistic style’ of the modern oppositional intelligentsia” (183). Thanks to its “‘ousider’ prophetic intellectuals … Hebraism as ideology gave meaning to Jewish civilizational inferiority and moral superiority at one stroke” (183-84).  That generated its critical force.

Furthermore, as David Biale has documented in his Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (2011), the prophetic intellectuals of oppositional intelligentsia sought indeed to draw on their moral Jewish heritage. His book begins by endorsing the position of Isaac Deutcher, in his famous 1958 talk “The Non-Jewish Jew,” that major thinkers such as Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud “were all heretics, yet their heresy might be understood as a rejection that grew out of the Jewish tradition itself” (1). Jewish secularism was less radical than it appeared since it was based in the premodern tradition it rejected in its “attempt to fashion a countertradition, an alternative to Judaism as a religion” (13).  Traverso declares that this major modern countertradition, which flourished between 1750-1950, has been over for over half a century for reasons that he explains at length.

The “Conclusion” of Traverso’s book opens with a comparison of two major 19th-century figures, Karl Marx and Benjamin Disraeli: “They also reflect two distinct trajectories of the Jewish intelligentsia. If the model of critical intellectual embodied by Marx dominated the twentieth century, that of Disraeli became more general at the century’s end, when revolutionaries gave way to statesmen and consiglieri. Today, the Jewish intellectual is no longer the pariah described by Hannah Arendt in the 1940s; he or she is rather to be found in think-tanks linked to the state, an ‘organic intellectual’ of the ruling classes. This shift is evidence of a change of era: the end of the age of critical Judaism and the beginning of that of a Judaism of order” (128).

In the era of globalization, writes Traverso, the challenge to hegemony comes not from its “others” (the Jews who operated within the West) but from its post-colonials (who until now have been forced to operate outside). “European Jewish thought adopted a self-reflexive posture of Western culture, challenged from within by a stratum of its own representatives who, rejected and thrust to its margins, became its critical conscience (sometimes at the price of ignoring the non-European world, as in the case of the Frankfurt School and psychoanalysis). All these Jewish ‘outsiders’ displayed a deep and often tragic sense of belonging to Europe. … The birth of post-colonialism coincides with the exhaustion of the Jewish cycle of critical thought in Europe, a few generations removed from the Holocaust and decolonization, when the cumulative effects of these two historical caesuras have become evident” (131-32).   Proposing a contrapuntal archetype for our times, the writer concludes that the great post-colonial critic Edward Said was right to present himself as “the last Jewish intellectual.”

November 22, 2016

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