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A 19th-Century Jewish Zealot, Mystic, Promoter of Science, and Universalist

In his Sefer ha-Brit, Pinḥas Eilyahu Hurwitz (1765-1821) aimed to introduce Jews unable (or unwilling) to read European languages to the scientific advances of his day. The book, which became something of a best-seller, also included a second part devoted to kabbalistic piety; this may explain why it remains popular among 21st-century Ḥaredim, being recently republished by a ḥaredi press. The American historian David Ruderman has produced a scholarly study on it. In his review, Yitzhak Melamed explicates Hurwitz’s “counter-enlightenment” outlook and his universalism:

Ruderman’s study of Sefer ha-Brit is an excellent entry into the recent subgenre of microhistories of odd or influential books, and, for the most part, his discussion of Hurwitz’s views is nuanced and precise. . . . [Yet] Ruderman seems to be at a loss to understand Hurwitz’s repeated insistence that the biblical command to love one’s neighbor had as its object all human beings, not merely other Jews. . . .

[As Ruderman notes], chauvinistic and xenophobic views [can be found] in a variety of Jewish literary genres throughout the centuries. . . . Yet he fails to account for the persistence of a universalist—sometimes egalitarian—attitude toward Gentiles at the very core of rabbinic culture.

The command to love one’s Gentile neighbor was hardly Hurwitz’s invention. Consider Leviticus 19:34—“The stranger [ger] who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself”—or Deuteronomy 10:19—“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Rabbinic commentators on these two verses (as well as the 34 other verses referring to the ger) disagree on whether the word “ger” refers to an alien resident (ger toshav) or to a convert (ger tsedek). [The former interpretation] is not the majority view, but it is not a radical outlier in the tradition, either.

A cursory examination of traditional interpretations of the talmudic notion of “love of human creatures” will yield numerous sources—medieval and early modern—that apply it to all of humanity. Perhaps the best proof that Hurwitz’s preaching of universal love of humanity was not quite as radical as Ruderman suggests is the simple fact that, unlike other claims that Hurwitz makes, there is very little evidence that [the book] provoked any critical reaction from traditionalists, despite its status as a best-seller in their world. Indeed, it may well be that this very section contributed to the popularity of the book in traditional circles.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Haredim, Haskalah, History & Ideas, Religion & Holidays, Science, Universalism

Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the Jews

Feb. 23 2018

In 1963—a year after Adolf Eichmann’s sentencing by an Israeli court—reports on the trial by the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt appeared in the New Yorker and were soon published as a book. This “report on the banality of evil,” as the book was subtitled, outraged many Jews, including many of her erstwhile friends and admirers, on account of her manifest contempt for the entire preceding, her disgust for the state of Israel, her accusation that a wide array of European Jewish leaders (if not the majority of the victims) were complicit in their own murder, and her bizarre insistence that Eichmann was “not a monster,” or even an anti-Semite, but a mindless, faceless bureaucrat. While extensive evidence has been brought to light that Arendt was wrong both in her claims of Jewish passivity and her evaluation of Eichmann as the head of the SS’s Jewish section, her book remains widely read and admired. Ruth Wisse comments on its enduring legacy:

When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew. . . . But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction [that, in Saul Bellow’s words], “everybody . . . knows what murder is.”

Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.

At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and World War II, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life.

They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Neoconservatism, New York Intellectuals