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How Byzantine Jews Appropriated, and Satirized, Christian Messianism

March 31 2017

The Book of Zerubbabel—a purported Hebrew prophecy about the coming of the messiah, thought to have been written by a 7th-century Jew living in the Byzantine empire—circulated in rabbinic circles throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. In Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire, Martha Himmelfarb explores the origins, history, and impact of the book, arguing that much of its content was inspired by the author’s (or authors’) exposure to Christian ideas about the life and death of Jesus. Jae H. Han writes in her review:

This slim book rewards close reading. Through her careful analysis of . . . the Book of Zerubbabel and other contemporaneous sources, Himmelfarb finds evidence of a body of popular traditions about messianic figures circulating among ordinary Jews in the late-antique Byzantine milieu. . . . [T]hese traditions suggest that Jews were both deeply attracted to and repulsed by Christian descriptions of a suffering and dying messiah, his mother Mary, and the figure of an anti-Christ.

The Book of Zerubbabel passes itself off as a work of biblical prophecy, as evidenced by its debt to Ezekiel and its tendency to employ archaic biblical grammatical forms. . . . [Among its characters is] Hephzibah, the warrior-mother of the messiah. [Himmelfarb] argues that the authors of the Book of Zerubbabel responded to the Byzantine military’s deployment of icons and statues of the Virgin Mary by appropriating and fashioning Hephzibah as a militant mother of the messiah.

In exploring early traditions concerning Hephzibah, Himmelfarb first turns to the figure of a negligent mother of the messiah in the Jerusalem Talmud and argues that the rabbinic story mocks a more popular, positive tradition about this mother. She then discusses the Book of Zerubbabel’s figure of the “Beautiful Statue”—undoubtedly a reference to statues of the Virgin Mary—and its son, Armilos, the Jewish “anti-Christ,” who “is at once the Christian messiah and the equivalent of the Christian anti-Christ.” She argues that book’s depiction of the beautiful statue, which is impregnated by Satan and gives birth to Armilos, is in fact a “parody of the narrative of the virgin birth.”

Read more at Ancient Jew Review

More about: ancient Judaism, Byzantine Empire, Christianity, History & Ideas, Messianism

 

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