Two Historians Reconsider the Question of Jews, Money, and Modernity

December 26, 2018 | Jonathan Karp
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In Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought, Chad Alan Goldberg considers the ways thinkers like Karl Marx, Werner Sombart, and Max Weber tended to consider Jews either avatars of modernity or emblems of stubborn backwardness—but rarely in a positive light. Generally such ideas focused on the relationship between Jews and capitalism. Jonathan Karp sums up Goldberg’s argument in his review:

[T]he peculiar dualism casting Jews as either progressive or regressive ultimately derives from what [Goldberg] calls a secularized Protestant “habit of thought” of reckoning in metaphors derived from Christian theology. In particular, social theorists unconsciously adopted the replacement theology which posited that Christianity had superseded Judaism, the New Testament and Covenant having decisively displaced the old ones. This helps explain Marx’s seemingly grotesque description of commodities that function as money as “inwardly circumcised Jews.” As Goldberg insightfully explains, this means that modern capitalists have so absorbed and improved upon medieval Jewish usury that they no longer need any corresponding outward sign (Old Testament physical circumcision) but instead exemplify Paul’s inward “circumcision of the heart.”

In a very different book, Jewish Materialism, Eliyahu Stern examines the great figures of non-rabbinic Russian Jewish thought of the 1870s, and argues that their prime concern during this decade was not socialism, nationalism, or religious reform but how to remedy the dire economic situation faced by Jews in the Pale of Settlement. Karp writes in the same essay:

The goal for Jewish materialists like Moshe Leib Lilienblum wasn’t fitting into the non-Jewish occupational structure; it was bread. This shift away from liberal assimilationism went hand in hand with a break from earlier efforts at religious reform. Lilienblum—who had once been active in such movements—presently professed little interest in the Jewish soul; it was the Jewish body alone that mattered now. . . .

Stern even recasts Peretz Smolenskin, the [novelist and] renowned founder of Jewish [proto-Zionist] nationalism, as ultimately a materialist. What is clear at least from Stern’s account is that Smolenskin felt himself sufficiently engulfed by the growing materialist tide to acknowledge that while Jews were uniquely a nation defined by Geist (spirit), in order to realize their religious aspiration for redemption Israel must manifest itself in a material form by acquiring a land and spoken language of its own. When, in the aftermath of the 1881 pogroms, the leading Russifying Jewish liberal Leon Pinsker, [who became the founder of pre-Herzlian Zionism], adopted as his key metaphor the image of a disembodied nation that could be cured only by finding a material body to house its tormented soul, we are truly convinced: Jewish materialism had clearly won the day.

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