Manners & the Jewish Intellectual
JEWISH historical experience involves such an abundance of anomalies that when it has not elicited resentment or suspicion it has repeatedly teased observers into thought, or at least conjecture. One of the most provocative of these anomalies is the disproportionate role modern Jews have played in creating radically new conceptual systems for political thought, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the natural sciences as well. All sorts of explanations have been proposed for this unseemly prominence of Jews among the pioneers of modern thought.
Most frequently it is asserted-with a special eye to Marx and perhaps to Trotsky-that these various analytic achievements are modern expressions of classic Jewish messianism, the age-old prophetic impulse manifesting itself in “redemptive” systems of powerfully unitary thought, sometimes geared for political implementation, in which there is no longer any ultimate distinction between Gentile and Jew, rich and poor, perhaps not even between civilized and primitive. A special variant of the messianic construction is George Steiner’s notion that the Jews of modernity preserve a special vocation for universalism through their continued attachment to vulnerable homelessness: by resisting the blandishments of nationalism, the narcotic aromas of geographical hearth and home, the Jewish protagonists of that radical modern intellectual activity radiating out of Mittel Europa managed to see sharply for all mankind.
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