The Walter Benjamin Brigade

How an original but maddeningly opaque German Jewish intellectual became a thriving academic industry.
The Walter Benjamin Brigade
 
Observation
Walter Laqueur
April 3 2014 12:05AM

The German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, born in Berlin in 1892, dead by his own hand on the French-Spanish border in 1940, remains a man of mystery. Anything but prominent in his lifetime, he has emerged in recent decades to unvarnished acclaim as the greatest thinker of the 20th century in fields ranging from philosophy to sociology, aesthetics, literary theory and criticism, and a half-dozen more. This in itself is mysterious. Among the ranks of mid-century Central European intellectuals, the reputation of Benjamin’s contemporaries and colleagues (with the possible exception of the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno) continues to shrink; his continues to rise and rise. The number of books and articles devoted to him is staggering; a huge new biography, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Lifeco-written by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings and published by Harvard, is only the latest addition to a seemingly unending stream.

How to explain the Benjamin vogue? Eiland and Jennings cite such cultural signposts as the radical student movement of the 1960s and the attendant revival of Marxist thought. But 60s radicals were hardly great readers, and Benjamin’s writings are, to say the least, maddeningly opaque and often altogether inaccessible. As for his Marxism, such as it was: if that is the main point of attraction, by rights the real culture hero should be his contemporary Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)—once famed as the “father of the New Left” but, these days, decidedly not a name to conjure with.

More likely, Benjamin owes his fame to the rise of cultural studies and its various academic subdisciplines: post-modernism, post-structuralism, women’s and gender studies, and the rest of the lot. In these precincts, Benjamin’s gnomic style may well count as a plus, an outward sign of inward profundity that, simultaneously, invites the most fanciful flights of interpretive ingenuity. Likewise contributing powerfully to his allure is the sorry story of his life. Quite apart from his tragic end—he swallowed poison while fleeing from Nazi-occupied France—he was always the frustrated outsider par excellence, the very type of the marginal man. Indeed, had he lived, one can hardly picture him as a happy soldier among the academic janissaries of contemporary cultural studies.

My own interest in Benjamin arose from my work in the early 1950s on the pre-World War I German youth movement, in which he had been a passionate but by no means leading member. In connection with this project I met some friends of his youth, including, in Germany, the pioneering educator Gustav Wyneken, who had served as one of his early gurus. In Italy, I encountered a number of his former associates in the radical youth journal Der Anfang. In Jerusalem there lived the librarian and poet Werner Kraft, an early friend but later a critic, and above all Gershom Scholem, who had been Benjamin’s closest friend both in Berlin and later on and who would become, with Adorno, the figure most responsible for launching his posthumous reputation.

The Scholems’ living room in Jerusalem was dominated by a drawing—Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920)—which had been owned by Benjamin and played a central role in his thinking, and which Scholem had inherited after the war. (It is now in the collection of the Israel Museum.) At tea in the Scholem household, sooner or later, the conversation would turn to the Benjamin Question. Yes, he was highly educated, widely read, and engaged in diverse areas of inquiry. Yes, his ideas (as in his best-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) were often original, and there were flashes of genius. But in what precisely did his genius consist? Had he produced a new philosophy of history, proposed a fundamentally new approach to our understanding of 19th-century European culture, his main area of concern, or revolutionized our thinking about modernity? The answers I received weren’t persuasive then, and the answers provided in the vast secondary literature of the last decades have done no better.

To some, the problem is simply that most of Benjamin’s major work remained unfinished. I refer above all to his monumental Arcades Project, inspired in part by an abiding obsession with the urban poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). The arcades in question were the glass-enclosed passages in central Paris when that city was, in Benjamin’s terms, the capital of the 19th century. A central emblematic figure for Benjamin was that of the flâneur, the stroller or urban explorer who habituated these environs. Having gathered a mountain of materials, Baudelaire’s poetic masterwork Les Fleurs du Mal being prominent among them, Benjamin wanted to show how urbanization had revolutionized not only culture, as evidenced in art and architecture, urban planning, and new ideas of beauty, but life in general. Traditional critical approaches, whether historiographical or philosophical, were, he pronounced, inadequate to grasp this new epoch of high capitalism and what it had wrought. A new, Marxist-tinged “materialist” theory was needed; he, Benjamin, would provide it.

Did he? Apologists point to the impediments that beset him at every stage of his career. Even his “habilitation”—the major piece of scholarship, in addition to the doctoral dissertation, that had to be submitted by anyone hoping for an academic career—had been rejected. Later, his plans to establish a new journal with the playwright Bertolt Brecht came to nothing. He never held a permanent job, regarding it as the duty of his family and his estranged wife to support him. After 1933, there were handouts from Adorno’s Frankfurt School, which had wisely transferred its funds to Switzerland and later to America, but this was no substitute for a steady source of income.

But let us assume that he’d succeeded in finishing his great project. Wherein lay its originality? The figure of the flâneur had been “discovered” earlier in the novels of Honoré de Balzac and others, and the main themes of Baudelaire’s poems had been studied even by German academics, some of whom had offered analyses not dissimilar to Benjamin’s. Were the Parisian arcades, with or without Baudelaire, the right starting point for a new understanding of modernity? Even the most detailed Benjamin biography, by the distinguished French professor Jean Michel Palmier, reaches no satisfying conclusion on this point. (Palmier’s mammoth book, almost 1,400 pages long, remains, like Benjamin’s work, unfinished—which is a comment in itself.)

 

It is much easier to write the life of a man of action than to write about a thinker, and Benjamin was nothing if not a man of inaction; in view of the difficulties this poses to a biographer, Eiland and Jennings deserve much praise. By necessity, their book is based mainly on Benjamin’s essays and correspondence. Admirably comprehensive as it is, however, there are also some strange omissions. Notably underrepresented is Asja Lācis, Benjamin’s great love; it was she who broke up his marriage, was instrumental in his conversion to a peculiar brand of Marxism, and engineered his personal introduction to Brecht. Latvian-born, a militant Communist, she lived in Moscow until suddenly disappearing in 1938. Although Benjamin must have known that she had been sent to a gulag (where she spent the next ten years), and although losing her must have had a major impact on his life and work, there’s barely* a word about this aspect of things in the Eiland-Jennings book—probably because it does not figure in his correspondence.

Since Benjamin’s death in 1940, two issues in particular have been endlessly debated: the nature of his Marxism and his attitude to Judaism. From the 30s onward, he thought of himself as a Marxist, and so he is regarded by others among his many admirers. But Scholem, who from the beginning considered Benjamin’s “materialist” orientation not only wrong but deluded—hard as he might try, Benjamin would never be able to transform himself into a materialist—dismissed this description of him as a misunderstanding. Similarly skeptical was Max Horkheimer, the leading figure in the Frankfurt School, who called Benjamin a mystic; as for Brecht, his denunciations of Benjamin’s mystical aberrations were especially harsh. More recently, the literary theorist Terry Eagleton has dubbed him a rabbi.

The confusion over Benjamin’s politics is easily explained. Of all the Weimar intellectuals and eventual emigrants, he was perhaps the least politically minded. Reading his essays and correspondence from the 30s, one cannot fail to be struck by the breadth of his interests and the depth of his knowledge—and the almost complete dearth of anything on politics. As the world was going up in flames, Benjamin was writing about the motifs of Baudelaire’s poetry. Of course he hated the Nazis and all they stood for, but I doubt he read much or anything by Marx except for the newspaper dispatches collected in The Class Struggles in France, for the light they shed on the Paris scene in the mid-19th century. As for his enduring devotion to Baudelaire, an arch-reactionary whose guru was Joseph de Maistre, a sworn enemy of the French Revolution, one has to look elsewhere than to politics for an explanation. The same goes for his admiration of Proust—hardly an idol of the Left—and his interest in Kafka.

Similar inconsistencies plague any attempt to understand Benjamin’s attitudes toward things Jewish; although this subject has given birth to a small industry, seldom has so much been written about so little. His family background lay in the highly assimilated Berlin Jewish upper-middle class. His deep friendship with the young Scholem did greatly help to stimulate an interest in Judaism—but how deep did it go, and how long did it last? He read Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption (1921) not as a theological but as a philosophical text, and in later years it played no role in his thinking; it certainly did not bring him closer to God or to the synagogue.

Scholem, who had moved to Jerusalem in 1923, tried for years to persuade Benjamin to join him at the Hebrew University. He toyed for a while with the idea of a visit or even emigration, but eventually gave it up even though it held out the prospect of an academic career, friendships, and a salary. Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics who admires Benjamin and frowns on Scholem’s attempts to lure him away from Paris, observes that he had no reason to find Zionism, or the desert, appealing. This is quite correct. European culture was infinitely more interesting to him; besides, there were no arcades in Jerusalem, and no keys to modernity in Mea She’arim.

 

Benjamin’s place was in Europe; unfortunately, Europe had no room for him. The strictures of the professor of political aesthetics aside, had he followed Scholem’s pleas to join him in the “desert”—that is, the verdant and congenial Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia—he would have lived another decade or two or perhaps even three. Instead of dying a miserable, self-administered death on the French-Spanish border, he could, had he so wished, have returned to his beloved Paris after the war. I can well imagine him in 1944, sitting in a Rehavia café, discussing philosophy with Natan Rotenstreich or photography with Tim Gidal or physics with Shmuel Sambursky, playing chess with the folklorist Emanuel Olsvanger, and debating with the three Hanses (Jonas on Gnostic religion; Polotsky on linguistics; Lewy on Greek philosophy). Most of these figures belonged to the Pilegesh (“Concubine”) circle of German Jewish intellectuals and scholars presided over by Scholem.

One way or another, Rehavia would have taken care of Benjamin: not the most padded existence, perhaps, and perhaps a little boring after Paris—but a fate worse than panicked suicide in a shabby hotel? The impressive memorial by the sculptor Dani Karavan in the Spanish border town of Port Bou is no compensation.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that there is “not a word” in Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life about Lacis’ internment. It is mentioned on page 321.

__________________

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, Weimar, A History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Optimism in Politics and Other Essays, was published by Transaction in January.

More about: German, Gershom Scholem, Intellectual, Marxism, Walter Benjamin

 

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance

God wanted all of Amalek dead. Saul thought he knew better. What happened next?

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance
From The Death of Agag by Gustave Doré. Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Feb. 26 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


Most weeks, the haftarah—a reading selected from one of the prophetic books of the Bible—is chosen because it shares some theme with the weekly Torah portion. This Shabbat (known as Shabbat Zakhor) is one of the exceptions: since it’s the Sabbath before Purim, the reading, taken from the book of Samuel (I, 15:1-34), involves Agag, the king of the Amalekites and the ancestor of Haman.

But the haftarah isn’t really about Agag, and it isn’t at all like the plot-driven book of Esther. It’s a character study, in which two personality types are examined. Unlike the story of Jacob’s sons, Judah and Joseph, where the difference was one of what you might call “learning styles,” here there’s a straightforward contrast between what you might call inner-directed and outer-directed leadership.

The prophet Samuel is not altogether interested in what the people want. He warns them against this whole king business right off the bat. But they want a king, so he asks God on their behalf for a king. What they get is Saul. Saul cares rather too much about the people:

But Samuel said to Saul, me it was God sent to anoint you
as king over his people, over Israel,
and now obey the words of God.
So said the Lord of hosts: I will repay what Amalek did to Israel
That ambushed him on the way as he rose out of Egypt:
Now go and beat Amalek and eradicate all he has
And have no mercy on him
And put to death whether woman or man, from newborn to suckling babe,
From bull to lamb, from camel to ass.

And Saul called up the people and counted them using patches,
Twelve-hundred infantry and ten-thousand men of Judea.
And Saul came up to the Amalek camp and lay in wait at the river.
And Saul told the Kenites, Go, turn away, get down from Amalek-land
Or I’ll lay you to waste with them, whereas you dealt kindly
with all the children of Israel as they went up from Egypt,
and the Kenite turned away from among Amalek.

And Saul beat Amalek from Havila to Shur across from Egypt:
and he captured Agag king of Amalek alive
but all the people he eradicated by the sword.
But Saul and the people took pity on Agag
and on the best of the sheep and the cattle
and on the second-born and the horses and on all the goods
but all the livestock that’s scorned and melts away, that they eradicated.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with outer-directed leaders. They take their eye off the ball. They get distracted by what the people want or, to take a more charitable view, have bouts of compassion. Unfortunately, neither what the people want, nor compassion, is high on the agenda of the Lord of Hosts.

But the word of the Lord to Samuel was to say—
I regret having crowned Saul as king
For he’s turned from following Me and has not fulfilled My words.
And it troubled Samuel and he clamored to the Lord all that night.
But Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning
And it was told to Samuel to say, Saul is come to the Carmel
and here he is erecting himself an altar,
and he turned and he passed and went down to Gilgal.

And Samuel came to Saul and Saul said to him,
God bless you, I have fulfilled the word of God.
But Samuel said, And what is this sound of sheep in my ears
And sound of cattle I hear?
And Saul said, They brought them from Amalek-land
For the people took pity on the best sheep and cattle
In order to sacrifice to the Lord your God,
but the leftovers we eradicated.
But Samuel said to Saul,
Leave off and I’ll tell you what the Lord said to me tonight.
And he told him, Speak.

And Samuel said, If indeed you are slight in your own eyes
You are head of the tribes of Israel and the Lord anointed you king over Israel:
And the Lord sent you on your way and told you
But you shall eradicate the sinners, the Amalekites,
and fight until you have finished them.
And why did you not obey the Lord but rather fall on the spoils
and do what’s wrong in the eyes of the Lord?
But Saul said to Samuel, indeed I obeyed the Lord
And went the way the Lord sent me,
And I brought Agag king of Amalek, but I eradicated the Amalekites
And the people took from the spoils sheep and cattle,
the first of the offerings, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.

But Samuel said, Does the Lord want offerings and sacrifices
as much as obedience to the Lord?
Look, obedience is as superior to sacrifice
as obedience is to the fat of rams.
For a sin-offering is a rebellious charm: sin, and casting lots for pleading.
So you tired of the word of the Lord and he’s tired of you being king.

The other problem with taking your eye off the ball to listen to the people is that the consequences can be lethal and instantaneous. The commentators point out that from a legal point of view, Saul’s argument is perfectly valid: both he and the people took some spoils away to sacrifice at a more dignified time and place. But that’s not how Samuel understood it, and that’s not how the Lord sees it.

The crucial difference is in understanding the point of the exercise. The Lord wanted to exact a terrible vengeance for what He describes as an unprecedented and immoral attack on Israel at its time of weakness. There are many other tribes the Jews encounter in their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel, but Amalek is singled out because they attacked like bandits at a time of weakness, not like an army defending tribal territory and giving the Jews a chance to fight back. Neither Samuel nor the Lord regards this military campaign as mere business as usual.

But Saul said to Samuel, I’ve sinned for I transgressed what God said and his  words
For I feared the people and I obeyed them,
But now pray you forgive my sin and return with me and I’ll pray to the Lord.
But Samuel said to Saul, I will not return with you
For you tired of the word of the Lord
and the Lord is tired of you being king over Israel.

And Samuel turned to go but he gripped the tail of his coat and it tore apart
and Samuel said to him, the Lord tore the kingship of Israel from you today
and will give it to your friend who is better than you.
Though the victory is Israel’s, He will not lie and will not reconsider
For He is not a man to reconsider.
But he said, I’ve sinned, now, pray you, honor me before the elders
of my people and before Israel,
And return with me and I will pray to the Lord your God.

And Samuel returned with Saul and Saul prayed to the Lord.
But Samuel said, Hand me Agag king of Amalek
And Agag walked to him in delight
and Agag said, indeed the bitterness of death has gone.
But Samuel said, Just as your sword bereaved women
So shall your mother be bereaved among women.
And Samuel skewered Agag before the Lord at Gilgal. . . .

And Samuel didn’t see Saul again until the day he died
because Samuel mourned over Saul,
and the Lord regretted having crowned Saul over Israel.

The aftermath comes a few pages later in the book of Samuel, in a passage not read in the haftarah. We are introduced to David with three separate stories, beginning with Samuel going to look for him and finding him the smallest and least impressive of his father’s sons, yet still being told by God to anoint him though he’s not tall and impressive as Saul was. Then there’s another story where David comes to court as a rather talented harp player summoned to minister to Saul and make him feel better because he’s rather depressed (and I think we know why). That’s a great testament to David’s therapeutic gifts but still doesn’t explain why the Lord wants him to be king.

But then finally we have the story of Goliath coming to curse the entire massed armies of Israel and nobody daring to take his challenge. Goliath then repeats his challenge while David is bringing food from home for his older brothers and, the story notes, David heard him. Whenever I read that line about David hearing Goliath, I always imagine a sound effect of scary music. You get this definite feeling the text thinks there’s going to be trouble. But why should there be trouble from this puny harpist? When David offers to accept Goliath’s challenge, Saul tries to dissuade him:

But Saul said to David, you can’t go to this Philistine and fight him,
For you’re a boy and he’s a man of war since youth.
But David said to Saul, Your servant was a shepherd to his father’s flock
and the lion and bear came to carry away a lamb from the herd
And I went after him and beat him and saved it from his jaws
And he rose up against me and I held him by the bristles
And beat him and killed him. Your servant beat both the lion and the bear
And this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them
Because he cursed the armies of the living God.

One thing you do not need to worry about with David, as this lyrical evocation of his days back on the farm makes clear, is that he’ll have mercy on somebody the Lord asks him to kill. David does not even think Goliath is human—just  another critter out there in the field, and he’s already killed plenty of critters. David, we see now, has been nominated as king because the Lord looked inside his heart and found him both spiritually gifted and entirely ruthless. As the high-holiday service notes, the Lord may be my shepherd, but sometimes the shepherd has to decide which sheep has to die.

What Samuel shows Saul at Gilgal when he hacks apart the king of Amalek is what happens to kings who don’t obey their inner voice, the still, small voice that cries in the night—let alone the voice of their prophet. David eventually sins and pays a terrible price for his unbridled appetite in private life, but he always obeys the Lord as King and never loses sight of his function. Even if he falls victim to his own passions, he never falls victim to the passions of the mob. That is why he remains the one wielding the sword. Obedience is better than any number of offerings. Those who don’t obey but let themselves be ruled by the people may find themselves crossing the line from sacrificer to sacrificed.

More about: Amalek, King David, Samuel, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate

A common and dismaying misconception.

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kobi Gideon, GPO
 
Observation
Feb. 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

“Until a few years ago,” wrote the New York Times’ Israel correspondent Jodi Rudoren in a recent dispatch commenting on the lack of substance in the current Israeli election campaign,

there was no Hebrew word for debate. Then in 2012 linguists adopted the term “mamat,” whose root meant “confrontation,” which Yoni Cohen-Idov, an international debating champion, sees as symptomatic of what ails his nation’s political discourse. “Debate, the English word, consists of two elements—one is confrontation, the other is discussion,” he said. “If you’re rivals and you only shout at one another and make slogans, and you don’t discuss them in depth, that is not a debate.”

About the dismaying triviality of the politicians bidding for Israelis’ ballots on March 17, I couldn’t agree with Rudoren more. Nor would I blame her for her faulty Hebrew, even though had she bothered to check, she would have known that the neologism in question is ma’amat, not mamat, from the root ayin-mem-taf, found in the Bible in l’umat, “across from” or “facing.” Ma’amat was indeed adopted as a term for debate several years ago by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an official body of linguists and scholars entrusted with coining new Hebrew words.

No, the real culprit here is Cohen-Idov—and the Academy. The first is ignorant, the second misguided.

No Hebrew word for debate? This would be passing strange if true, since debate lies at the very heart of the Talmud and of the rabbinic tradition that is based on it. One would as much expect Hebrew to lack a word for debate as one would expect Arabic to lack a word for sand or Inuit a word for snow.

And in fact, it’s completely untrue. Hebrew has, quite apart from ma’amat, at least five words meaning “debate,” some going back 1,500 years or more.

The oldest of these is plugta, an originally Aramaic word deriving from the Aramaic/Hebrew verb palag, to divide or be divided from. Plugta is regularly used in the Talmud to denote a running argument between two rabbis or schools of thought and yields bar-plugta, a debating partner. This term is applied, for example, to Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon in the tractate of Bava Metsiya, in which the two take opposing sides on a series of questions pertaining to the return of stolen property.

A second word for debate with ancient roots is pulmus, which comes from Greek polemos, “war.” In the Talmud, where it appears as polmos, it actually means war, but in later ages, like its English cognate “polemic,” it took on the meaning of a war of words. For the early rabbis, polmos Adrianus denoted the Bar-Kokhba rebellion against the Roman emperor Hadrian; in contemporary Hebrew, pulmus Bar-Kokhba refers to the ongoing scholarly debate over that rebellion’s causes and justifications.

Next comes nitsuaḥ, from the verb natsaḥ, “to triumph over.” In an oft-cited talmudic story about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who performs a series of miracles to prove he is right in a halakhic dispute, the forces of nature that collaborate with him are scolded by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who tells them: “If rabbinical scholars are debating [menats'ḥim, literally, "striving to triumph"] in a matter of law, what business is it of yours?” From this comes the noun nitsu’aḥ, a debate, first found in the Middle Ages. In modern Hebrew, it has been joined by its synonymous reflexive form of hitnats’ḥut.

“But,” Cohen-Idov might counter, “none of these words designates a debate in the sense of a formal contest held in the presence of an audience and judges.”

True enough. Yet Cohen-Idov has apparently never heard of various medieval religious debates between Jews and Christians in which precisely such conditions prevailed. Probably the best-known of these took place in Barcelona in 1263, at the court of King James I of Aragon, between Naḥmanides or Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman and the Jewish apostate Pablo Christiani. Remarkably for the times, a panel of Christian judges ruled Naḥmanides the victor and awarded him a monetary prize. In Hebrew this event is traditionally known as viku’aḥ Bartselona, the Barcelona debate or disputation, from the biblical verb hitvake’aḥ, “to argue,” and other similar disputations were called vikuḥim, too.

“Surely, though, Hebrew deserves to have two separate words, one for an argument and one for a debate!” one imagines Cohen-Idov persisting, and the Academy of the Hebrew Language would clearly agree. Let viku’aḥ mean “argument,” let ma’amat mean “formal debate,” and we can all sleep better at night.

But we should have been sleeping well already. No two languages have identical semantic fields, and the fact that there are distinct words for W and X in Language Y is no reason to require them in Language Z. If Hebrew uses the verb lavash for putting on a coat and ḥavash for putting on a hat, does this mean that English needs different words for putting on hats and coats, too? And if Hebrew speakers do want to differentiate more explicitly, they have the option of saying viku’aḥ tsibburi, “a public vikuaḥ,” just as one speaks of “a public debate” in English.

Of course, English is a world-dominating language and Hebrew is not—and implicit in the Academy’s coining of ma’amat when viku’aḥ is available is the assumption that while English needn’t behave like Hebrew, Hebrew should and must behave like English. This is the truly objectionable part of it. If Hebrew speakers knew their own language better and took more pride in it, they wouldn’t think a new Hebrew word was called for every time an old one was not a precise equivalent of a word in English. It’s not only Cohen-Idov who is suffering from a linguistic inferiority complex. It’s the Academy of the Hebrew Language, too.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew, Medieval disputations

 

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?

What does the underread text of the ancient Hebrews have to do with the Jews of today?

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?
Photo by Josh Evnin/Flickr.
 
Observation
Feb. 12 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Alan Rubenstein is the Hanson scholar of ethics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.


Is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—a Jewish book? At first glance, the question is absurd. The Bible is written in the language of the Jews, sections of it are read aloud, year in and year out, in synagogues and prayer groups, its words and thoughts permeate the Jewish liturgy, and its laws and commandments, its festivals and holy days, form the axis of the traditional Jewish way of life. So it has been for millennia.

But there are large parts of the Hebrew Bible that do not get read in the synagogue or in religious schools. Are these parts “less Jewish”? And more than this: does the Hebrew Bible, as a whole, play a role in shaping the character and formative ideas of the living, breathing Jews of today, their ambitions, their loves, their notions of the good? Or is it simply a gift to humanity from the ancient Hebrews, and in that sense no different from the gifts bequeathed by the ancient Greeks?

 

This question became important to me because of some accidents of my own history. I was raised in a Jewish home but not afforded much of an education in Jewish sources. I did not really pay attention to the Bible until I encountered it as one of the “great books” of the Western tradition that I and my fellow students read diligently, not to say reverently, at St. John’s College in Maryland. There, it took its place in the syllabus after we’d already encountered Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Tacitus, and before we moved on to Augustine, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Kant, Hegel, and the rest.

Reading the Bible in this context meant, in one sense, treating it with profound respect: it was wisdom-rich literature of the highest order, every bit the equal of Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and Kant. But this also meant regarding the Bible as something much less exalted than its “religious” readers took it to be: for us, after all, it was a creation of human genius—and nothing more. True, at St. John’s we were spared the vices of historicist and deconstructionist approaches—we took the Bible seriously and as an artistic whole, with important things to say about enduring issues of human life. But we were given no clue about the people who wrote it—or, as they would have said, received it—and what it meant to them. And we certainly never asked the question that would later become extremely important to me: what did those ancient people and their text have to do with the Jews of today, and to me as one of them?

Later on, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself somewhat more fully with the Jewish textual tradition and to learn the basic contours of Jewish history. Here I discovered something commonplace for learned Jews but remarkable to me. The “people of the book” are really the people of the bookshelf—the shelf in question being primarily the vast corpus of rabbinic writings, primarily the Talmud and its many later commentaries and supercommentaries devoted mainly to issues of halakhah, or Jewish law. Other works on the shelf belong to the category of midrash—homiletical narratives explicating or elaborating upon the biblical text; still others may be philosophical or mystical in nature; and works of biblical exegesis abound. All look instinctively to the Tanakh and cite it as the ultimate source of authority. But seldom is a Jew encouraged to encounter the Bible as we were encouraged to encounter all great books at St. John’s: in a spirit of unmediated, literary-philosophical inquiry.

And so I was still left seeking an answer to my question: is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish book—and therefore my book as a Jew?

 

Last December, I took this question with me to a seminar I led in Jerusalem on the theme of “The Hebrew Bible and Jewish Excellence.” The seminar’s faculty, all of them Israelis, included Micah Goodman, a highly acclaimed public intellectual who has written books on Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, and, most recently, the book of Deuteronomy. The other faculty members were also of the first order: Asael Abelman, head of the history department at Herzog College; Aryeh Tepper, author of a recent study of Leo Strauss and Maimonides; and Rabbi Chaim Navon, a prolific writer on Jewish law, philosophy, and related topics.

With Goodman as chief exegete, we spent roughly half our time looking closely at episodes from the Bible that touch on God, human nature, politics, and the self-understanding of the Jewish people. The other half was spent looking at the works of some of the great men of 20th-century Jewish history, especially David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, the poet Saul Tchernichovsky, and Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik. Where we could, we asked how each of these men read the Bible, how that reading may have informed their personal excellence, and how that influence contributed to their distinctive impact on Jewish history.

Looking at the lineup, one quickly notes a pattern. With the exception of Soloveitchik, the story of these men forms part of the story of Zionism. And with the exceptions of Soloveitchik and Kook, all are (broadly speaking) secular figures. The focus on Zionism was heightened by the fact that, although the participants were a mix of Americans and Israelis, and the seminar was conducted in English, there we were, sitting in ancient/modern Jerusalem, studying with an Israeli faculty. And here, in the real Jerusalem, I learned to read the Bible like a Zionist.

Now that the state of Israel has been around for over six decades, it is easy to forget what a radical and revolutionary movement Zionism was. A part of this revolution entailed a revolutionary way of reading the Bible. In the eyes of men like Ben-Gurion, Tchernichovsky, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, and, perhaps most significantly, Kook, the Zionist approach to the biblical and indeed the entire Jewish past, and to its proper interpretation, represented a revolution of life against text. Consider this passage from a 1950 letter written by Ben-Gurion:

Not one biblical exegete, Jew or gentile, medieval or modern, could have interpreted the [biblical] book of Joshua as it was done by the deeds of the Israel Defense Forces during this past year.

The paradox is striking: Ben-Gurion is here rejecting the tradition of Jewish biblical interpretation even while claiming that interpretation itself remains the key to Jewish existence. But interpretation now takes a new form: not the accretion of additional text but the performance of exegetically-inspired deeds. The actions of the IDF, of the halutzim (Zionist pioneers), and of the other builders of the new Jewish commonwealth are themselves to be understood as interpretations of the Bible—though a Bible that had been lost and was in need of being recovered and experienced afresh within its reclaimed geographical and historical environment.

In an essay entitled “The Bible is Illuminated by Its Own Light,” Ben-Gurion makes this explicit:

I do not understand the denigration of the natural history and geography of the Bible. [The Hebrew literary critic and poet A.Y.] Kariv . . .  wants to know about King David only what is written about him in Psalms, chapter 89: “I have discovered David My servant; I have anointed him with My holy oil.” From this we see that “David was a discovery of God.” But this isn’t the only verse written about David in the Bible. The end of 1 Samuel, all of 2 Samuel, and the beginning of 1 Kings deal with the life of David and his actions, and they say what they say, and no midrash of yours or Kariv will expunge these words. The authors of the Bible wanted us to know the entire truth; let us, too, be respectful of that truth.

The “truth” about David that Ben-Gurion is alluding to is that he was more of a Mafia don, albeit a deeply humane one, than a talmid hakham, or Torah scholar. (And one might note in passing that the “entire truth” about David is that the Bible is also severely censorious of him, and not just of him alone.) Yet Ben-Gurion was right: raw and unadorned encounters with the Bible of the kind he was advocating—and in particular with the “historical” books like Samuel—had been, with certain scintillating exceptions, a rarity in the Jewish textual tradition. For the young revolutionaries of the Zionist movement, here were Jewish tales of men engaged in the rough and dirty business of life itself—the same business, many felt, that Zionists had to deal with every day while building and defending the new Jewish community in the land of Israel. The Bible was, effectively, a treasure hidden in plain sight.

In our week’s study in Jerusalem, the life-versus-text distinction, in its Zionist iteration, was a recurring theme. I’ll describe just one other instance because it comes from Rav Kook, a man with a radically different set of “first principles” from the politically-minded and theologically agnostic Ben-Gurion. Could any Orthodox rabbi have endorsed the idea that a renewed Jewish national life could involve a return to the Bible without a return to Jewish observance, and without rabbinic intermediation? Well, no. But Rav Kook came close.

In an essay entitled “The Road to Renewal,” written in his customary philosophical-mystical mode, Kook criticizes “the excessive focus on the study of texts” that had become necessary once the truly healthy conduit to the divine light—namely, the influential personality of the ancient prophet—became obstructed. After walking his readers through a dialectical history of the Jewish people, Kook reaches his own time:

The psyche of the nation is showing signs of renewal. At first she tends to be drawn to the external trappings of the nation’s life, without embracing the inner essence of the nation, her divine soul. At first she is content with the revival of the language, the land, the knowledge of history, and an undefined nostalgia for the past. But without a divine light shining, the soul will grow troubled.

This is Kook’s complicated take on the secular settlers whose vitality and attachment to the nation he admired and lauded publicly to the point of seeming a heretic to other religious leaders. The way these pioneers embraced life over texts made them, at this historical juncture, true agents of Jewish spiritual renewal, even if at some point they would have to see the error in their rejection of Jewish law and “the divine light.” As Kook put it, “The inspiration of an active spiritual influence”—that is, the spirit of Zionism—“exerts its effect on practical life more than the method of studying texts.” In the end, though, “the functioning of spiritual inspiration will restore to the nation its ancient honor by restoring the patriarchal dignity of Israel’s princes, who were distinguished by a personal spiritual quality of a higher order.”

If secular Zionists like Ben Gurion saw the ultimate goal as a return to the vital humanism that one finds exhibited in the historical narratives of the Bible, Kook saw the ultimate goal as a return of biblical Israel’s prophetic leadership. But, for all their differences, the two were united in their embrace of Israel’s national destiny as conveyed in passages of still-urgent immediacy in the Tanakh.

 

Here, then, we have an emphatically Jewish way of reading the Bible: that is, a way emphatically committed to seeing the text as a lever that can change the course of Jewish history—of Jewish life. When we began planning the seminar, we did not envision its main theme to become the Zionist revolution in reading the Bible. By the end, though, I couldn’t help wondering what it might be like to stage a similar seminar except this time with Diaspora figures in the foreground. How can the Bible be read for the sake of the life of non-Israeli Jews, and Jewish communities, that (to borrow from Rabbi Soloveitchik) seek to transform their fate into their destiny? What are the innate potencies of Judaism, of the Jewish spirit, that can become actualized as historical circumstances require? What does Judaism have “in it,” so to speak?

Admittedly, the Zionist case is easier. Who would have known, 100 or 1,000 years ago, that Judaism had within it the resources to create so vivid, dynamic, humane, and modern a Jewish state? Micah Goodman’s lectures were particularly inspiring in this respect, showing how only now, in the context of a modern Jewish state, several ideas in the Bible have revealed themselves as live options for an actual polity. Thus, the central thesis of his forthcoming book on Deuteronomy is that Moses’ final oration offers, in the form of a midrash-like retelling of the Exodus and wilderness story, a significant source of ideas for the managing, and moderating, of religious and political power in a Jewish state.

This would not be the sort of “Jewish excellence” one would expect to discover by creatively reading the Bible for the sake of Jewish life in America. But might not some visionary thinkers find alternatives equally inspiriting? If one is sold on the idea that Jewish history is really happening today only in Israel—as many men and women of learning and intelligence believe—then the quest is by definition futile. Still, a number of non-Israeli thinkers have in fact devoted themselves to studying and explicating the Bible as moderns and with the dilemmas of modern Jewish life in mind. One thinks, for example, of Leon Kass, Robert Sacks, Leo Strauss, Robert Alter, Aviva Zornberg, and rabbinic leaders like Joseph Soloveitchik and Jonathan Sacks. Can their and others’ investigations point to some program for Jewish life that might complement and even enrich the transformation accomplished by Zionism?

That, as I say, is a matter for another seminar.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Liberal arts, Micah Goodman, Religion & Holidays

 

Who Kissed/Killed First?

Does the English idiom “kiss of death” come from the story of Judas, or from the Sicilian Mafiaor both?

Who Kissed/Killed First?
From a poster for the 1947 movie Kiss of Death.
 
Observation
Feb. 11 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

“The Kiss of Death and the Google Exec” was the name of a January 24 documentary shown on 48 Hours, a long-running CBS series featuring a weekly story about a crime, scandal, or mystery in the news—in this case, the alleged 2013 murder of a hi-tech executive by a California call girl now on trial for committing it. This was not the first film thus titled. That was the 1947 Twentieth Century Fox gangster thriller Kiss of Death, directed by Henry Hathaway and co-written by Ben Hecht. The latter’s passionately pro-Zionist A Flag Is Born, with the unknown young Marlon Brando in its cast, had played on Broadway the year before.

In ordinary language, of course, a “kiss of death” refers neither to an actual kiss nor an actual death; rather, it denotes something that spells a person’s or an undertaking’s doom. Its original meaning, however, is generally assumed to have been literal and to have come from the New Testament story about Judas, who accompanied the Jewish officials sent to arrest his master Jesus on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives following the Passover seder known as the Last Supper. As related in the Gospel of Mark: “And he [Judas] that had betrayed [Jesus] had given [the officials] a token, saying, ‘Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he.’”

Mark’s account, to tell the truth, is not quite logical, for if, as we are told, Judas arrived on the scene at the head of Jesus’ apprehenders, such a secret signal served no purpose; having already exposed himself as a traitor, he could just as well have pointed to Jesus and said, “That’s him.” Yet whether Mark misunderstood what happened, or whether Judas wished to kiss Jesus a sorrowful goodbye because even in his perfidy he loved him, or whether the kiss was invented by early Christian tradition to make Judas look even more diabolical, most contemporary English dictionaries agree that “kiss of death” owes its origins to this source.

But does it? Consider the following.

First, although one would expect a phrase deriving from the New Testament to have ancient or early-medieval roots, the first documented appearance of “kiss of death” in English dates to 1944, three years before the Twentieth Century Fox movie—and then, in a context far removed from Christianity. This was an item in the weekly pop-music newspaper Billboard, which, under the caption “Amusement Biz Booming in War Work Center But Bands Losing Out On Dollar Divvy,” published a story from Philadelphia about the low pay given musicians despite the wartime prosperity. The problem, Billboard reported, was less acute for the big, nationally known bands, but if the job-seekers were Philadelphians who “carry a local tag, it’s the kiss of death as far as price is concerned.”

Second, it’s widely accepted that “kiss of death” was brought to America by late-nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century immigrants from Sicily, where, as bacio della morte, it was a Mafia term. In his Mafia Encyclopedia, Carl Sifakis defines the bacio della morte as a way of informing “an opponent by a kiss on the lips that his days are numbered,” and mentions the celebrated kiss supposedly given in an Atlanta penitentiary by crime boss Vito Genovese to his fellow mafioso Joe Valachi, who was so frightened by it that he turned state’s witness in a bid for protection. Wikipedia agrees, citing the 1972 Hollywood movie The Valachi Papers and a scene in Part II of the The Godfather in which Michael Corleone, the son of the legendary Mafia capo played by an older Brando, kisses the lips of his brother Fredo after commissioning his murder. Yet Wikipedia then hedges by adding: “However much is based on fact and however much on the imagination of authors, it [the kiss of death] remains a cultural meme and appears in literature and films.”

Third, Italian sources suggest that there may be good reason to hedge. On the one hand, the Neopolitan psychiatrist and criminologist Corrado De Rosa writes that in the Sicilian Mafia, “a kiss on the hand is a sign of fealty, one on the cheek of fraternal solidarity, and one on the lips of condemnation to death.” But De Rosa is an expert on the Camorra of Naples, not on the Mafia, and the Internet word site Cosa Vuol Dire states that the bacio della morte of the Sicilian Mafia is traditionally given not to the intended victim of an assassination but to his appointed assassin, “in order solemnly to seal the sentence and wish its executor success.” Although Italian speakers, too, Cosa Vuol Dire observes, commonly use the expression in the sense of the kiss of Judas, “this is a mistake.” The Internet Dizionario Italiano concurs with this, while still other Italians writing on the subject, unable to quote anyone in the tight-lipped Mafia, are reduced to citing American movies as their authority.

This leaves us, I would suggest, with a number of tentative conclusions: 1) “Kiss of death” in the sense of an act or occurrence that dooms is a recent idiom in both English and Italian; 2) The Mafia’s bacio della morte was a kiss given to a designated “hit man” and had nothing to do with the New Testament story of Judas; 3) The expression was indeed brought by Sicilian immigrants to America, where it was confused with Judas’s kiss; 4) The first documented evidence of this confusion, applied figuratively to the Philadelphia music scene, is found in the 1944 issue of Billboard; 5) Reapplied literally to the Mafia, the same confusion became a “cultural meme,” as Wikipedia calls it, and even fooled experts like Carl Sifakis and Corrado de Rosa; 6) Today, Judas’s kiss and the bacio della morte have merged inseparably in popular speech.

None of which, I might add, is related to the Hebrew expression mitat neshikah, “death by a kiss.” But that’s a story for another day.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: History & Ideas, Judas, Mafia, New Testament, Philologos