Commentary Magazine

The Recurrent Pattern, by Nathan Rotenstreich

Philosophy and Judaism

The Recurrent Pattern: Studies in Anti-Judaism in Modern Thought.
by Nathan Rotenstreich.
Horizon. 125 pp. $4.50.

Modern thought, according to Professor Rotenstreich, has not done justice to Judaism. If the function of thought is to transcend or overcome traditional opinion, then modern thought has clearly failed in regard to Judaism, for it has been content to accept the Christian (traditional) evaluation whereby Judaism is at best a faith that has been superseded by the coming of the Messiah, at worst a hideous error. Moreover, modern thought tends toward rigid systematization and, since it often expresses itself as a philosophy of history, toward viewing the past through “the obscure spectacles of a scheme.” Since the historical reality of Judaism is unique enough to represent a stumbling block to almost any kind of schematization, modern thought, when faced with it, is tempted to the thoughtless response of “So much the worse for the facts.” This is the substance of Professor Rotenstreich's case, which is based on an examination of the thought of Kant, Hegel, and Toynbee.


One wonders what Toynbee is doing on the list; after Kant and Hegel one expects Nietzsche or Heidegger, or perhaps even Spengler, not a second-rate thinker like Toynbee. But Toynbee is not only included, he is the subject of what is far and away the longest chapter in the book. If Kant can be disposed of in 22 pages, why should it take 46 to refute Toynbee? At first one is inclined to dismiss this line of inquiry, because the chapter on Toynbee, in which Professor Rotenstreich exposes with great precision the various slanders that Toynbee perpetrates on Judaism, is by far the best in the book. Thus he shows that Toynbee can write facilely about the “Jewish Rabbinical way of studying a book” without a grasp of what this implies; that Toynbee's connection of Marx with the Jewish tradition is based on a misunderstanding of both; that it is less than illuminating to consider Judaism as a part of Syriac civilization; that Jews simply refuse to act like the fossil which, according to Toynbee's system, they are; that Toynbee distorts the concept of the Chosen People; and that his negative evaluation of Judaism because of its alleged fanaticism, ritualism, and self-idolization, is based on a decided ignorance of Judaism. There is always something engaging about reading a conclusive refutation, but the trouble is that Toynbee is the best-refuted writer I know—especially when it comes to his utterances in this area. Indeed, Professor Rotenstreich suggests as much in a footnote, when he generously directs the reader to the writings of Maurice Samuel, Abba Eban, J. L. Talmon, and others. Since he is so eminently refutable, however, Toynbee's failure does not prove Rotenstreich's case: Toynbee is simply not representative of modern thought at its best. It is, therefore, strange that the author expends his greatest energy on a man who, when compared to giants like Kant and Hegel, looks like a dwarf. Yet had he not done so, Rotenstreich might have had no victory at all to show for his various combats.


For the simple truth is that for various reasons Kant and Hegel prove to be much harder to tackle than Toynbee. Rotenstreich's chapter on Kant is concise and interesting but hardly conclusive. Kant is charged with, viewing Judaism as a creed that favors an external law which disregards human intentions and motivations. According to Rotenstreich's Kant, Judaism is a religion which, by stressing perfunctory deeds, is legalistic and ritualistic, but neither truly moral nor rational. Furthermore, for Kant “Judaism implies isolationism and misanthropy.” For those of us who are Jews it is certainly not pleasant to hear something like this, but when a major philosopher says it we might assume that it is a thoughtful statement. Approaching it as such—and it is to Rotenstreich's credit that in part he helps us do this—we can learn something from it. It is, for instance, true that Jewish emphasis on statutes had the effect, and perhaps the intention, of keeping the Jews from intermingling. But what about misanthropy? (That is, by the way, a charge already made by the Romans against the Jews, so it is certainly not a specifically Christian idea.) One would have to begin by conceding that the Jews regarded the highest things of all other nations—their gods—as “abominations.” Now from an outside view, from the perspective of the non-Jew, does this not constitute a slander of all other men and nations, or misanthropy?


The chapter on Hegel is longer and harder to summarize. It rivals Hegel in at least one respect: it is hard to understand. As far as I can see, Professor Rotenstreich charges Hegel with dismissing Judaism because it posits too great a gulf between man and God, and because in his historical scheme Hegel simply accepts Christianity's view of Judaism as a preparatory stage of Christianity. The analysis is marred by the author's ascribing prejudices to Hegel without sufficient proof. For instance, he claims that Hegel's emotional rejection of Judaism colored his views, but the passage he cites scarcely proves this, for there Hegel compares the fate of the Jews to the fate of Macbeth. Macbeth is a tragic hero: does it bespeak an emotional rejection to think of the Jewish fate as heroic and tragic?

It is of course true that Hegel, like Kant, viewed Judaism from the outside. At times it seems that Professor Rotenstreich is trying to show that there are certain perils inherent in viewing a human phenomenon like Judaism from the outside instead of from the perspective of a believing Jew. Though few readers of this book will need to be told that Kant and Hegel were not believing Jews, such a point might still be worth making. One could, for instance, try to prove—as Professor Rotenstreich sometimes does—that Kant and Hegel did not approach Judaism in the right frame of mind, that is, with openness toward the possibility that its teachings might be the true teaching. But the author cannot very well preach what he does not practice in his own approach to the writings of Kant and Hegel. Instead he suggests that those two authors simply lacked adequate knowledge of Judaism. Even if one accepts this as true, it is not a conclusive argument unless it can be shown that nobody with an adequate knowledge of Judaism was ever anti-Judaistic. One would expect Professor Rotenstreich to wrestle with the problem posed by the anti-Judaism of Spinoza, whom, however, the author refers to only in passing.


The arguments which Professor Rotenstreich seeks to refute are, at least at their best, not the arguments of non-Jews against Jews, but the arguments on behalf of philosophy against theology, of reason against faith. At times Professor Rotenstreich's approach almost causes him to overlook this fact, for he is too concerned to contrast the admitted anti-Judaism of modern thought with its treatment of Christianity. He thereby fails to give due weight to the fact that modern thought is also anti-Christian; modern thought is as such anti-theological. Nor does he investigate the possibility that many modern thinkers may have been “easier” on Christianity simply for prudential reasons, because, for instance, there were more Christians than Jews in the world.

At other times, however, Professor Rotenstreich realizes that the most profound stratum of the argument he is analyzing is an aspect of the perennial quarrel between philosophy and religion. Such realization spurs him to the attempt to demonstrate that in their treatment of Judaism Kant and Hegel, and by implication all philosophers, overstepped the bounds of philosophical competence. Had he succeeded in this attempt he would have produced a philosophical treatise equal in significance to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. He has not succeeded, if only because one cannot establish the limits of the competence of philosophy without establishing the scope of philosophy's competence first—without, that is, first seeing how much of the world unassisted human reason can grasp.

It is a tricky business to attempt to mediate the quarrel between philosophy and religion, for ultimately one must take one's place in one of the two camps. In which camp is Professor Rotenstreich? He is, in his own words, “attached to the Jewish tradition.” Yet he speaks of elevating tradition to the status of philosophy, thus suggesting that the latter is supreme, and he gives no evidence of being a pious believer. One is therefore tempted to place him on the side of philosophy. But he criticizes philosophy for overstepping its bounds and he takes it to task for constructing systems that violate reality. Does he then have some privileged and comprehensive knowledge of reality beyond the power of philosophy to give? If so he has kept the source of that knowledge hidden from the reader, to whom it must seem that Professor Rotenstreich thinks himself somewhere safely beyond either faith or philosophy. The reader must be pardoned for doubting that such a “somewhere” exists.

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