Commentary Magazine

Varieties of Jewish Experience

We are modern, of course, but what does that mean? How long have we been modern? When did modern begin? In the schools modern history is generally understood to date from the years between 1450 and 1525—though Bury, of The Idea of Progress, a professor of modern history, did his specifically historical work on the later Roman Empire. It isn’t much of an objection to modernity beginning with the Renaissance and the Reformation that these entities may not be entities at all, that when one looks closely at them they seem to dissolve until almost nothing distinctively new is left. Granted that the scholars have long known about the 12th-century renaissance and have long reminded us that there were reformations of various kinds centuries before the Reformation; whatever may be the microscopic view, when we step back there is a difference between Middle Ages and Renaissance, between Christianity before the Protestant Reformation and Christianity after. It is no disproof of the difference that students are examined on the medieval elements or survivals in Shakespeare. From 1450 to 1525 makes sense as the beginning of modernity. It was the time of Gutenberg, Copernicus, Machiavelli, Columbus, Luther. It was the time of the consolidation of nation-states as we know them, especially in Western Europe. It was the beginning of the ascendancy of Western power and Western thought in the affairs of the entire world.

So much for beginnings. The more modern modernity, our modernity, is somewhat younger. It came into being in the 17th century—“the century of genius”—with the end of the wars of religion. Nowadays historians say that the Thirty Years’ War had to do more with dynastic and imperial ambitions than with religion, but to deny that it had anything to do with religion would be presumptuous. The denial would be equivalent to saying not only that we understand the 17th century better than it understood itself—which may be so—but actually that we understand it completely and it understood itself not at all. The Thirty Years’ War ended in religious stalemate, with a treaty establishing cujus regio, ejus religio : a victory of practical secularity if not yet theoretical secularism. Responsible statesmen and sober citizens put religion in a position from which they were determined not to let it escape, to destroy the civic peace and ravage countries. Not that religious persecution ended completely: when Louis XIV abrogated the century-old toleration of the Huguenots, he made them choose between oppression at home and exile. But in retrospect that was a kind of last gasp of a former state of affairs in the West, just as intellectually the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns was a last gasp of anti-modernism.

Before modernity, to innovate in church or state was wrong on the face of it. In the Bible new things are good only when they are God’s: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah); “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah); “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezekiel). When the new things are men’s, they are bad: “They sacrificed . . . to gods they had never known,/to new gods that had come in of late,/whom your fathers had never dreaded” (Deuteronomy). So reformers denied they were innovating. Whether in religion or in politics, they said and believed that they were only trying to restore pristine virtue and truth, cleansing it of later, newfangled, corrupt accretions.

It was the Royal Society, three hundred years old not long ago, that ratified the new respectability of newness. By charter the Royal Society was debarred from a concern with religion; even its papers were written in the new—plain, unadorned—style. Bacon was the Royal Society’s grandfather, and the Society’s mission was to cultivate Bacon’s New Philosophy, science. Bacon had dared to draw attention to the newness of the things he said. He called his philosophy New, and his major work Novum Organum.

Today new is good, without question. Every detergent advertises itself as new and improved: “new” means “improved.” President Kennedy, no revolutionary, told us that we must disenthrall ourselves from the past, which is to say, we must liberate ourselves from the bondage of the past. Pastness, non-modernity, is bondage. Kennedy was repeating Bacon: the idols Bacon warned against included idols of the past.

Appropriately, therefore, the principles of modernity do not date from this year or last. One principle is expressed in the maximalist and yet normative slogan of Diderot: “Let us strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest.” Forcefully liberating ourselves from thralldom to the past, from mere tradition and from the guardians and beneficiaries of mere tradition, we shall come into our own. We shall be modern.

Diderot’s predecessor was Spinoza, just as Spinoza honored Bacon as his predecessor. For our purpose it is less the Spinoza of the Ethics than of the Tractatus theologico-politicus who counts. That Spinoza is the first to speak explicitly for the secular, democratic state, in which the traditional religions will be subordinate to the state and to citizenship—a private matter, for landladies and others incapable of philosophy. The chief founder of modern biblical criticism, Spinoza undermines traditional religion. It isn’t easy for someone who has read the Tractatus to continue believing that the Bible is the literal, inerrant word of God.



This brings us to the Jews, because Spinoza was or had been a Jew. More than Spinoza is a father of modernity, he is the father of Jewish modernity. There are only two reasonable dates for the end of the Jewish Middle Ages and the beginning of Jewish modernity: Spinoza’s, and Moses Mendelssohn’s a century later. I prefer Spinoza’s. My friend Charles Liebman has shown me a passage from Etienne Gilson’s The Philosopher and Theology in which Gilson remembers three striking things about the Jewish philosophers at the Sorbonne in the early years of this century: that there were so many of them; that in fact they weren’t Jewish philosophers, but philosophers who were or had been Jews; and that each of them had two philosophies, his own and Spinoza’s. Hume the Scot and Jefferson the American said, approximately, that an Enlightened man had two countries, his own and France. Spinoza is the modern Jew’s second country.

Spinoza’s secular state, in which the dominant principle is reason rather than tradition and the citizens’ religions are irrelevant to the public life—that state is still our political ideal and passion. And Spinoza exemplified in his life the honor that has also been our ideal, if not always our actuality, insofar as we are modern. Having by reason proved to himself the unreasonableness of all traditional religion, Spinoza could not honorably be a Christian. He is the first man to have left the Jewish religious community without entering another—Christian, Moslem, or, in the ancient world, pagan.

If you wanted one theme around which to organize a modern Jewish history, honor could be that theme. Spinoza’s immediate precursors in criticizing the Bible were Isaac de La Peyrère and Uriel da Costa—like him (or his parents), Marranos. La Peyrère, not a Jew by religion, dubiously a Christian, has an exalted vision of the Jews resuming the elect status that God conferred on them long ago. This depends on their becoming Christians—Jewish Christians or Christian Jews. The Jews he reminds, in language that can only be called ecstatic, of the happy future God has in store for them. With the Christians he pleads to make Christianity more reasonable by purging it of its unnecessarily numerous and onerous dogmas. How can Jews honorably embrace Christianity, he asks, when the burden of Christian dogma is even more grievous than the burden of the Torah?

Da Costa turns from Christianity to what he thinks is Judaism because the Christian dogma of a future life terrifies him. When he discovers that the real Judaism has that dogma too, he ceases to be a Jew. He is contemptuous of religious martyrdom: since the most precious thing is life, what folly to sacrifice it by stubborn adherence to one religion and stubborn refusal to pretend to adhere to another! Contemptuous of martyrdom—and, one might therefore think, of honor—da Costa regards it as a high honor to be martyred for the real truth, the truth that knows both Judaism and Christianity to be false.

Spinoza is no longer of the Jewish community. Why doesn’t he make a career for himself as a professor of philosophy by becoming or seeming to become a Christian? Perhaps for reasons of prudence; as a nominal Christian he would be exposing himself to unpleasantness about heresy. But above all, it is honor that keeps him from the baptismal font. He won’t pretend to believe what he doesn’t believe.

Moses Mendelssohn, we are told by an early biographer, would have welcomed the society favored by his friend Lessing, the Spinozist—a society in which there were neither Christians nor Jews. This side of Lessing’s society, Mendelssohn despised apostasy—“for reasons of honor.” Mendelssohn’s son, when he had his children and then himself baptized, did it for expediency (his word), the opposite of honor.

For expediency Solomon Maimon, the first modern East European Jew, was once prepared to be baptized, but for honor he refused to subscribe to a Christian confession of faith:

Maimon: The Jewish religion, in its articles of faith, comes nearer than Christianity to reason. But practically, the latter has an advantage. . . .

German parson: Don’t you feel any inclination to the Christian religion apart from extrinsic considerations?

Maimon: I would be lying if I answered yes. . . .

Parson: You are too much of a philosopher to be able to become a Christian. Reason has taken the upper hand with you.

Maimon: Then I must remain what I am—a stiff-necked Jew. . . .

Mendelssohn’s disciple, David Friedländer, thought of becoming a Christian, again for expediency, but he couldn’t entirely forget honor, and honor required that he insist on a unitarian rather than a trinitarian confession of faith. That wasn’t enough for the church. His children, giving even greater weight than he to expediency and even less to honor, became conventional Christians, or at least allowed themselves to be thought so.



Notoriously, Heinrich Heine was cynical about his baptism. He had contempt for the society that made baptism the price of ambition, and for himself and the many others who paid the dishonorable price. One of the others was his friend, Gans. In a letter Heine says:

. . . Gans is preaching Christianity and trying to convert the children of Israel. If he is doing it out of conviction, he is a fool; if out of hypocrisy, a scoundrel. . . . I would much rather have heard Gans was stealing silver spoons. . . . If the law had allowed stealing silver spoons, I wouldn’t have undergone baptism. . . .

Everyone knows that Heine called the baptismal certificate the ticket of admission to European culture. In a less well-known mot, he put the blame for his having become a Christian on Napoleon’s geography teacher, who failed to tell his pupil that in Moscow it’s very cold in the winter.

Napoleon here is the embodiment of the French Revolution, which, if victorious throughout Europe, would have brought about the ideal society of Lessing and Spinoza. About a hundred and fifty years ago Richard Whately, a young man later to become an Anglican archbishop, wrote a brilliantly clever refutation-by-parody of Hume’s kind of critique of the Bible, Historical Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte—a. mock-critical analysis of a narrative, in biblical-sounding language, of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Names are reversed: France is Ecnarf, Louis is Sivol. Napoleon is Noelopan. Let us examine this Hebrew name No-el-opan, Whately’s imaginary Humean critic says. It is not the name of an actual man, as so many foolishly suppose. Rather, the name personifies a process. No must be from the root nw’, which means “reducing to nothingness.” (In Ps. 33: 10 heni’ is from that root: “He maketh the devices of the people of none effect.”) El is “God.” Opan (or ophan) is “wheel”—Ezekiel’s “wheel within a wheel” is ha-ofan be-tokh ha-ofan—and by extension, “cycle,” or “revolution.” So No-el-opan can only mean “no-God-revolution”: Godless Revolution. Heine was right.

As Gershom Scholem has shown, honor—of a sort—was the animating purpose of modern Jewish scholarship, the Wissenschaft des Judentums. Steinschneider wanted to give Judaism an honorable burial. The 19th century, the modern age, was the age of the death of all the positive-historical religions. Judaism, too, was dying. Like the others, it deserved to die. (He thought well of Ethical Culture, founded by modern Jews in America to be a meeting-ground of honorable equality for ex-Jews and ex-Christians.) Nevertheless, it was the part of honor for Jews to give an honorable burial to the religion, culture, and tradition with which they and their ancestors had been immemorially identified, and by which they had been molded. In the future, through the efforts of the scholars, let men know that in the olden times of positive-historical religions, Judaism had been no mean thing. In the meantime, as any undertaker would be, Steinschneider was upset whenever the corpse showed signs of life—revived Hebrew, Zionism, and the like. He was severe about such things.

It is said of the founder of modern Jewish scholarship, Zunz, that once someone introduced to him a young Russian Jew who was a Hebrew poet. “A Hebrew poet?” Zunz is supposed to have asked the young man. “When did you live?” Like the undertaker, the necrologist is displeased with signs of life in the deceased.

Many Jews who allowed themselves to be baptized, expedientially, had first to convince themselves or allow others to convince them that what they were doing was honorable. At the turn of the century Franz Brentano, an Austrian philosopher and former priest, was another who had concluded that the age of the positive-historical religions was at an end. He tried to get his disciples into positions of influence from which to propagate his philosophy, the destined successor to those religions—that is, he wanted his disciples to be professors, especially in German-speaking universities. But many of his disciples were Jews, and those universities allowed few Jews to be professors of philosophy. Husserl was not the only one of Brentano’s students persuaded by their master to be baptized. The argument was that it was their duty to do so—in other words, that it was the course of honor to do so—because scruples about baptism were unworthy of a philosopher. No more should a philosopher hesitate to change his formal religious affiliation, Brentano told them, than to change his clothes for a. formal occasion. To Hugo Bergmann he once wrote that there was nothing morally wrong—or, as we may put it, dishonorable—about talented young Jews giving lip service to what they disbelieved. (Whatever philosophical reputation Brentano still has rests on what he published about truth.)

For other modern Jews, honor required that they formally remain Jews or that they proclaim themselves as without a formal religion, konfessionslos. Both honor and interest required that they should try to change the state or society in which it made a substantial political and social difference whether one was a Jew or a Christian. Temperament and circumstances determined whether they would work for that change in conventional or in revolutionary ways.



Closely related to the theme of honor is that of masculinity. Politically this expresses itself in the will to be a subject, not object, of history, active not passive. The ideal of masculinity was influential in the outlook and the political striving of nationalists and revolutionaries; actually, nationalism was one way of being revolutionary. The factor common to all Jewish modernity, hostility to traditional religion, was present with the Zionists and other Jewish nationalists, too; but in addition they thought the Jews needed autonomy or sovereignty, either as a substitute for the Spinozaic state or as a necessary condition for it. They differed from the older Jewish modernists in insisting upon a Jewish state, or Jewish autonomy. They agreed with them in insisting that that state, like any state, should be secular.

In Chaim Weizmann’s autobiography we can see how close to the surface modernity could be even with traditional Jews. He says that his old-fashioned mother agreed neither with him that Zionism was “the solution to the Jewish problem,” nor with his brother Samuel that a Russian revolution was the solution. She refused to take sides. Whoever is right, she said, it will be good for us. If Chaim is right we will have a country of our own, and if Samuel is right we will be able to live like human beings in Russia.

Here, too, the origins go back to Spinoza. Besides being the father of the secular, democratic state, he is also the first man to have set forth, if not the desirability, then at least the possibility of a secular Jewish state. What he says about this in the Tractatus has been known to get blurred in translation, so before it gets blurred here we may as well look at the exact words: “. . . nisi fundamenta suae religionis eorum animos effeminarent, absolute crederem, eos aliquando, data occasione, ut sunt res humanae mutabiles, suum imperium iterum erecturos”—“. . . since human affairs are changeable, if the foundations of their [the Jews’] religion did not make their characters feminine I would be convinced that, with an opportunity, someday they would reestablish their state.” Not only is Spinoza talking of secular Jewish state-building, he also is saying that establishing a state depends upon overcoming femininity, and that the Jews’ religion effeminates them. No wonder Mr. Ben Gurion has called for lifting the excommunication the Jewish community of Amsterdam imposed on Spinoza.

(Some years ago a scholar suggested that the Amsterdam Jews excommunicated Spinoza because they were afraid of irritating the Gentiles and endangering their tolerated status by a failure to dissociate themselves from a notorious unbeliever. I think that is far-fetched. How else could the Jews of that time have dealt with a Jew who denied the God and the Torah of Judaism? There may be something, too, in the suggestion that the Amsterdam Sephardim, reverent about their ancestors’ martyrdom and the continuing martyrdom of their Marrano relatives in the Iberian peninsula, couldn’t forgive Spinoza’s scoffing at the Judaism for the sake of which the martyrs gave their lives at the stake.)

To Spinoza and modern Jews since, what have masculine and feminine meant? To have a masculine character is to resist, to fight, to be active; to have a feminine character is to submit, to be resigned, to be passive. Masculine is brave, feminine is at best only obstinate. Masculine is modern, feminine is old-fashioned or traditional.

In our century, after the Kishinev pogroms it was the new Jewish Socialist Bund and the new Labor Zionists who organized self-defense units, acquired arms, and shot back; and it was the old-fashioned Jews whom Bialik (and others) raged against for their passivity. More recently, especially in Israel there has been insistent questioning whether the European Jews who died in Hitler’s crematoria weren’t showing again that old feminine passivity. Nor is this frame of mind political only. Both Freud—if I remember correctly—and Babel saw their fathers not standing up to Gentile ruffians; and both were affected by that sight, in intimate attitude and general outlook. The gifted Otto Weininger, that textbook case of Jewish self-hate, killed himself out of loathing for what he took to be the femininity of the people into which he had been born.

Was Spinoza justified in saying that the religion of the Jews made them feminine? No. He carefully blamed the very basis—“fundamenta”—of Judaism; for him Judaism was feminizing not accidentally or circumstantially but inherently and necessarily. Yet R. Akiba, who certainly knew the basis of Judaism, had supported Bar Kokhba’s entirely masculine rebellion against Rome, and had paid for that support with martyrdom. Again, Spinoza was a close student of Maimonides, and Maimonides—if only to calm the feverish messianic yearnings of his time—had selected from the complex rabbinical tradition that alternative which defines the Days of the Messiah as differing from ours in only one respect: that then we shall no longer be enslaved by foreign kingdoms. Maimonides wants the Jews to be interested in real politics, not eschatological fantasies. Spinoza must have known he was wrong. Spinozas are different from us. They don’t make the innocent, ignorant mistakes we make.

Let us pause here for a moment. The deliberately prosaic character of the Maimonidean view is representative of much else in Judaism that Christian theology has traditionally decried as carnality—fleshliness—and contrasted to an infinitely superior Christian spirituality. Over the centuries many have gone over from Judaism to Christianity, in all honor and sincerity, because they have accepted the Christian valuation. Some months ago I heard Professor Yosef Yerushalmi read a fine paper about two Marrano brothers, Spinoza’s contemporaries, who fled the Spanish royal court to return to full Judaism. The younger became a zealous follower of the false messiah Shabbethai Zevi, but the elder refused. Shabbethai Zevi cannot be the Messiah, he reasoned. These are not the Days of the Messiah. We are still enslaved to the foreign kingdoms. If we abandon that touchstone, why do you and I reject the Christian claim that Jesus was the Messiah? To this the younger brother gave an enraged answer, which showed how Christian doctrine had influenced even an anti-Christian Marrano: his brother’s literalism—“the letter killeth”—and inability to see the messianic, spiritual grandeur that was all about them proved the mere carnality of conventional Judaism.

Let me risk being accused of what I have heard called Jewish triumphalism. Things are changing. The old spirituality is being devalued—by Christians. The things that count now are carnal, fleshly: racial equality, justice to the poor, peace. I have heard Protestant and Catholic theologians agree that this reversal is a wholesome return to a Jewish-biblical union of flesh and spirit. I have even heard them argue that “Incarnation” is from the same root as “carnal.”

To return to Spinoza—if he was deliberately wrong about the passivity of Judaism, he wasn’t completely wrong. Besides knowing what Maimonides had affirmed, Spinoza knew what Maimonides had passed over—including not only statements of feminine doctrine, which can be offset by masculine statements, but also the ritualization of feminine doctrine. Here is our holiday of Hanukkah, instituted to celebrate an earlier, more successful rebellion than Bar Kokhba’s. For the Sabbath of Hanukkah the Rabbis could have chosen a Prophetical reading about a victory over the enemies of Israel and its God, or else about reconsecrating a defiled Temple, or even about a miraculously prolonged supply of oil. Instead they chose Zechariah 2: 14-4: 7 (though it is also the Prophetical lesson after some priestly chapters, 8-12, in Numbers): “. . . Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord. . . . And the angel of the Lord enjoined Joshua: Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts. . . . This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. . . .”

The Hasmoneans recapture and reconsecrate the Temple, and into the celebration of that glory the Rabbis insert propaganda against the Hasmoneans’ right to be high priests. Manly might and Jewish power triumph, and the Rabbis make us read a text from a powerless time, which rationalizes powerlessness as if it were good in itself. The Jews win independence, and the Rabbis implicitly prefer foreign rule: Zerubbabel was an agent of the Persian crown.

No more than Spinoza does can modern Jews approve those Rabbis. We are glad he was wrong in equating their influence on the tradition with the very basis of the tradition. For us, manly honor is the truth. It is our truth. It makes sense of what we are, or what we want to be.

But there is another, adversary truth, and though two truths are hard to entertain at the same time, especially when we like one and dislike the other, let us make the effort. It will be easier if we think of the conflict between those truths in the history of India, rather than the history of the Jews. In the last century Tocqueville protested against the common notion that the Hindus were cowards. We think so, he said, because the many Hindus allowed the few Europeans in India first to conquer and then to rule them. But in the Hindus’ recurrent famines they will die of hunger before violating the laws of their religion and eating beef. The difference between us and them is not the difference between honor and dishonor, masculine and feminine.

A preoccupation with manly honor can decline into the grotesque. I’m fond of those jokes about the Jewish duelist (“Don’t wait for me if I’m late, shoot anyway”); but I think the duel—as fact, as impulse, and as ideal—is a neglected element in modern Jewish history. In the future Jewish state of Herzl’s vision the duel was to be an institution. With the opera house, with the state itself, it would mark off the new, worldly, modern, erect Jew from the old, narrow, traditional, cringing one. In Horthy’s Budapest, Jews fought duels against anti-Semites who had impugned their honor as Jews, or Jewish honor: I remember, respectfully, a former member of the Hungarian parliament who died here not long ago. In Vienna the members of the anti-Semitic fraternities at the university, denying that Jews were satisfaktionsfähig, wouldn’t duel with them; so Arthur Koestler and the others in the Zionist fraternity brawled with the anti-Semites in defense of Jewish honor and rights.

So far, so good (except for Herzl). But what about Ferdinand Lassalle? He was a socialist—the leader of German socialism—yet he was killed in a “feudal,” silly duel. Honor and courage were important to him. As a boy he had dreamt of putting himself “at the head of the Jews, weapon in hand, to win them national independence.”

And last, poor Jack Ruby. Uneducated and befuddled and disreputable, he was no less a modern Jew than we who are educated and rational and respectable. In his words, he shot Oswald to show that Jews have guts.



I began by saying that we are modern, “of course.” But are we still modern? Aren’t we coming to the end of modernity? Aren’t we becoming post-modern, as some have long been insisting?

If I ask these questions, it is not because—like most people?—I am tempted to exaggerate the newness of the times. In these matters my own temptation has been to doubt newness, since the COMMENTARY symposium of the young Jewish intellectuals in April 1961. The most remarkable thing about it was what Norman Podhoretz noted in his introduction: how surprisingly little change there had been since the symposium of an earlier generation of Jewish intellectuals in the Contemporary Jewish Record, in 1944. The world had changed, America had changed, American Jews had changed—at least by the accepted standards of economics, sociology, and demography—but Jewish intellectuals had changed almost not at all. Is it likely that a change which failed to come about between 1944 and 1961—or, if we think of Western Jews generally, between earlier than 1800 and 1961—should have come about between 1961 and 1967?

There is much evidence that the modern world may indeed be moving toward something postmodern; except that the Jews, on the whole, remain conservatively attached to the old modernity of Spinoza. In this conservative attachment Jewish intellectuals differ little from non-intellectuals. At least in this they are all Jews together. All are more comfortable with modernity than with anything else.

Of the many things Romanticism was, one was an argument with modernity. Romanticism tends to make people respectful of religion, if not religious. Irreligious, even a Max Weber was not combative about religion in the classical modern manner. He said only, with the hint of a sigh, that he was religiously unmusical. For the 18th-century Enlightenment, Gothic was a term of abuse—the barbarian Goths had disappeared long before the later Middle Ages, when that style was invented—and Joan of Arc was the subject of bawdy jokes. Romanticism has taught us to think well of Gothic, of Joan, and of the religion and culture that produced them. Moderns who have been affected by Romanticism find it easy to think that while Christianity may not be true, at least one must say this for it, that it has had a powerful effect on culture and personality. Many Jews have gone over to Christianity because of that Romantic way of thinking, learned from teachers who were Romantic Christians.

Spinoza and the Enlighteners drew a clear distinction between society and state as the realm of the secular, on the one hand, and religion as a private matter, on the other. Romanticism was to discover that culture and national histories, not private but social, are entangled with religion—particularly Christianity in its various forms, or the memories and continuing influences of Christianity. In Poland and France, Marxist philosophers and literary scholars (including Jews) seem more attracted to 17th-century Christianity than to 17th-century irreligion. Fifty years after the Godless Revolution, the Soviet authorities will for the first time publish Bible tales for children.

The effect on Jews is best seen in art history, or rather in the history of art historians. A high proportion of the most significant art historians have been German Jews. As modern Jews they hold to Spinoza’s primary ideals, as Germans they are especially influenced by Romanticism. This produces an unlikely or paradoxical state of affairs: modern Jews who are authorities on medieval and Renaissance Christian iconography. The paradox is compounded by the fact that the Jewish tradition—which made their ancestors who they were and which, though less directly and visibly, prolongs its influence into their own lives—is unimpressed by the aesthetic. Matthew Arnold knew what he was doing when he contrasted Hellenism and Hebraism; and Hebraism itself was aware of the contrast. Judah Halevi says, “Let not Greek thought [hokhmat yewanit] seduce you, for it bears no fruit, but only flowers.”

Art historians who are Jews invest emotion, intellect, and career in something not immediately or unquestionably natural for people who are simultaneously non-Christians, irreligious, and Jews. The seriousness with which they have to take Romanticism—otherwise why be art historians?—is at odds with Spinozist purity.



It isn’t new that the substitute religions deriving from the Enlightenment are dead, but some people who should know it don’t seem to. In a university journal a professor of English publishes a lecture to the effect that the humanities humanize. Can he be serious? Does he still believe in the religion of culture? Arnold hoped that culture would make people humane, and we know that it doesn’t. Lovers of Goethe and Beethoven ran Hitler’s death machine. Apparently Nietzsche was right, after all: God having died, other deaths must follow.

If that defender of the culture-faith doesn’t want to let uncultured reality in, he might at least listen to colleagues like Lionel Trilling and George Steiner. In the 1920’s when clergymen preached sermons about the grounding of humane behavior in religion, Mencken’s boys would laugh. When professors of classics preached about the grounding of humane letters (and mental acuteness) in the study of Latin and Greek, undergraduates would make remarks about old fogeys afraid for their jobs. Who will now say what needs to be said of anachronistic professorial sermons about the grounding of humane feeling in literature and art?

Not only do consumers or connoisseurs of culture fail to be made humane (or human) by the humanities, the very producers fail. The two greatest English-language poets of this century were Yeats and Eliot, reactionaries who at times were something worse; the oldest great living poet in English is Pound, the virulent anti-Semite who broadcasted in wartime for Mussolini; and Genet, whom Sartre has canonized as a saint, isn’t exactly a spokesman for humanism.

Rightminded people know that society hounds the artist. Yet if Genet had been only a criminal who loved his profession and not also an artist, they wouldn’t have let him out of jail. If Pound weren’t an artist but a carpenter or merchant or veterinarian, first they wouldn’t have let him take asylum in an asylum, and then they wouldn’t have let him out.

Of all the religions prolific of cant, the religion of art and culture is most prolific. The hounded artist is a minor piece of culture-cant, life-enhancing art a major one. I think it was Berenson who taught us the syllogism: what is life-enhancing is good; art is life-enhancing; therefore, art is good. And contrariwise: if it isn’t life-enhancing, it isn’t art. Curiously, the Nazi death chiefs were most rapacious about precisely those works of art that Berenson held to be life-enhancing. Nor could he even give its plain meaning to “life”: he was gloomily proud of not having children. Fin de race, end of the biological line, he said of himself.

The enhancement of life; creativity. “Create” is a biblical word, the first verb in the Bible. In the Bible bara’ (“create”) can have only God as its subject. Only God creates. From the first verse in Genesis, in which He creates the heavens and the earth, “create” is a signal that something emphatic is being said about His self-definition in act and word. Its greatest frequency is in Deutero-Isaiah, especially Isaiah 45. “I form light and create darkness,/I make peace and create evil” (Isaiah 45: 7). This is so bold that it had to be softened for liturgical use: in the first obligatory blessing of our morning prayers, immediately after Barekhu, we say, “Thou formest light and createst darkness, Thou makest peace and createst all things.” And Isaiah 45: 18: “For thus says the Lord/who created the heavens/ (he is God),/who formed the earth and made it/ (he established it;/he did not create it a chaos,/he formed it to be inhabited) :/‘I am the Lord, and there is no other.’”

Even in English, until well into modernity the various forms of “create” are apt to have a numinous feeling about them. “Creative” in an unambiguously human sense isn’t much more than a hundred years old. “Creativity” is more recent still. It is a coinage of modern culture-religion, for which man is creator, especially man as artist. As we would expect, the Oxford English Dictionary gives as the first recorded use a statement about Shakespeare’s “poetic creativity.” I haven’t found “creative art/arts” in OED, so I take this phrase to be a 20th-century invention. Modern culture-religion made claims that even Hellenism didn’t make: for classical antiquity art is not creative but mimetic—imitative. A religious mood accompanied the modern contemplation of art, a ritual of pilgrimage and solemnity prevailed, and men hoped for salvation.

But the religion of creativity, frail to begin with, has become funny. First every other college catalogue in America listed courses in creative writing—an art-sanctimonious name for helping students to learn how to write fiction or poetry. Afterward “creative man” was taken over as a technical term by the personnel directors of advertising agencies, on a par with “account executive.” And now the inspirational literature of commerce hymns creative salesmanship.

A few years back I read a neo-feminist’s approving review of another neo-feminist’s book. The reviewer said she agreed with the author that for a woman, a career is more creative than being a mother. That puzzled me: without having given much thought to it, I had assumed that about the closest the human race can get to creation is when a woman bears a child, nurtures him, and cares for him. A little later I was looking through the racks in a drugstore and came across a specimen of a common subliterary genre—books for adolescent girls about a young heroine with an interesting/creative job/career. The title of the book was Priscilla White, TV Secretary. Then I understood. How can being a mother compare in creativity with being a TV secretary?



Political messianism was modernity’s other substitute religion. Its obsoleteness is not news: The God That Failed, about the Revolution, preceded by ten years or so The Death of God, about traditional religion. (Each was addressed to the worshippers of the particular deity whose failure or demise it announced.) Yet in 1967 a book wins prizes and acclaim, and one would think that the last fifty years had never happened. At the end of Malamud’s The Fixer, the hero Yakov speaks the author’s moral or conclusion: “What is it Spinoza says?” (Always Spinoza.) “If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature it’s the lesser evil to destroy it. Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!”

Whose revolution is Malamud thinking of, Kerensky’s or Lenin’s? Lenin’s: a few pages before, Yakov daydreams that he kills the Tsar. The historical reality behind Malamud’s novel was the Tsar’s Beilis trial. Don’t we remember any longer that just before Stalin died, he was about to stage a trial that would have been far more abhorrent to human nature? Under Stalin the Jewish doctors—so they were universally referred to—wouldn’t have been set free, as the Jew Beilis was under the Tsar; and their conviction would have touched off a repression of Russian Jews worse than all the others they had had to suffer in those last Black Years of Stalin’s life. Our ancestors would have seen the finger of God in Stalin’s death at just that time, and would have celebrated a new Purim of thanksgiving. We have forgotten.

Tsarism was abhorrent; and that revolution of Yakov’s brought into being something more abhorrent still. “Death to the anti-Semites?” Anti-Semites are still in power in Russia. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, asked about Judaism and Jews in the Soviet Union, answers that while she knows little about Judaism, she can testify as an eyewitness that Jews are discriminated against. Aside from Arabs, only Soviet representatives say anti-Semitic things in the UN.

So the occasional proclamation in the 1960’s of revolutionary enthusiasms from before World War I isn’t serious. Neither is a certain campus rhetoric of political messianism, nor much of the political rhetoric of the intelligentsia, with its apocalyptic shrillness. These only confirm again Marx’s second most famous saying: when history repeats itself, it can reenact tragedy as farce.



Classical modernity is in decay. When Marx said religion is the opiate of the people—his most famous saying—both Marxists and religious people considered that to be a serious criticism, if true. Both agreed that opium was bad. Both agreed that life was real, life was earnest, life was purposeful. (The Yiddish word is takhlis.) Today, we are told, opium—in the broad sense: LSD, marijuana—is religion for the avant-garde. Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Brown are for “opium”—the thing itself and the symbol of inwardness and sensuality. These men aren’t irreligious. The confrontation is between Brown and Marcuse (see COMMENTARY for February and March), between the new novelists and playwrights and Lukacs; and in this confrontation the classical modernists seem old-fashioned. The new young have been known to say: Freud was a fink. If Freud—because too repressive—why not Marx? Marx and Freud: in that COMMENTARY symposium these great ancestors were invoked repeatedly, in the same breath with their ancestor, Spinoza.

This is not to say that Leary, Ginsberg, and Brown provide much comfort for upholders of the traditional religions. The new religiousness seems to be some kind of syncretistic paganism—syncretism is the polite word for mishmash—and the traditional religions will have to take its measure. But that paganism isn’t what Peter Gay had in mind with his Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism. Gay meant atheism. For him, modern paganism is atheist. Then post-modern paganism is post-atheist; the hippies and even the angries, with their “God is love,” can sound like Fundamentalist evangelists.

Even the political young take religion more seriously than their elders did. A generation ago, who on the Left would have hoped for more from the churches than from labor? Who would have depended on marching or picketing nuns to be there when the going got rough? The change is hard for middle-aged moderns to accept. George Lichtheim, reviewing works blaming the Pope for what he did and failed to do in World War II, is impatient. What’s the point of criticizing? he asks. Who doesn’t know better than to expect anything of an elderly gentleman and the large, complex organization he administers? That’s just it. The very criticism of the young shows they expect something, and the expectation shows respect. Maybe that’s because the popes of secularist modernity haven’t done all that well, either.

No author would dare to contrive something so pat: in the 50th-anniversary year of the Bolshevik Revolution, Alliluyeva leaves Russia and says she believes in God and human decency, not in the dogmas of atheism and conflict she was brought up on. Voznesensky, the most highly regarded of the younger Soviet poets, says: “What is bad is when man, hypnotized by technology, becomes a technological object himself. . . . Theoretically, everything a man can do can be programmed into a machine and the machine will do it—everything except this: man’s capacity for religion and poetry.” Dialogues are held between Christians and Marxists—that is to say, between Christians and a combination of intellectuals and apparatchiks from Communist countries and mass Communist parties; and in the dialogue the Communists are less sure of their own Tightness and the religious people’s wrongness than ever before. The Communist party of Great Britain issues a manifesto calling for a multi-party political system, with legitimacy for parties opposed to socialism; insisting on the freedom of religion, and granting that religion can have progressive and beneficial as well as reactionary and evil effects.



Another thing Alliluyeva has said is that although she is generally rather than specifically religious, because she is Russian she has had herself baptized into the Russian Orthodox church. The multiple irony of it: Alliluyeva, with her father and her training; religion after fifty years of unrelenting, official, monopolistic, persecuting, deriding, cajoling, “scientific” atheism; and not just religion, but the Russian Orthodox church.

Is it only because I’m an ignorant outsider, a prejudiced son of Russian Jews, that I’m amazed? The Russian Orthodox church! Of all the churches in Europe, the Russian Orthodox has always seemed—only to Jews?—the lowest. It is the church of the Beilis trial, and Rasputin. It excommunicated Tolstoy. In the first ten or fifteen years of this century a few intellectually and morally superior men chose to identify themselves with it, but on the whole it is the church that an outsider would have thought least able to win the affection or even the nominal allegiance of intellectuals brought up in fifty years of official Dialectical Materialism and a hundred and fifty years of Russian literature.

The memoirs of pre-revolutionary Russia tell of the contempt gymnasium students used to have for the official teachers of religion. Now the objects of that contempt are the official university lecturers in Dialectical Materialism—Diamat for short. (I understand that Russian students give to the Diamat lectures the name of the course in religion in the old days—God’s Law.) Now all kinds of people are Russian Orthodox or pro-Russian Orthodox. Ten years ago a Soviet newspaper printed a complaint from a worker: he was under pressure from the other workers in his plant to have his children baptized in church. “You’re Russian,” they would tell him, “and Russians are Russian Orthodox.” When the poet Akhmatova died last year, honored by the younger generation, her funeral was Russian Orthodox. Stalin’s cultural executioner, Zhdanov, had reviled her in good Stalinist fashion; a sign of her degeneracy, he said, was that one of her favorite haunts was the chapel. But she was of the pre-Revolu-tionary generation. Among the intellectuals born or educated since the Revolution and pro-Russian Orthodox are Solzhenitsyn and Sinyavsky (“Tertz”).

Yet that isn’t the end of the irony—and, for Jews, the pain. The poet Pasternak, a good and brave man, the son of modern Jews, became Russian Orthodox in the Soviet Union—that is to say, after the Revolution. Or if he didn’t become officially Russian Orthodox then, if—for the record is unclear—he was baptized earlier, his nominal Russian Orthodoxy became actual precisely in the days of the Godless Revolution. Of Joseph Brodsky, the young man sentenced to a killing term in the North for daring to write poetry without an official poet’s licence, one hears that he has a Russian Orthodox cross over his cot. Is that because he, too, is now Russian Orthodox, or is it because a cross is the only religious symbol this Jew can find? One also hears that some of the best young scientists in the Soviet Union are turning to Russian Orthodoxy, and that among these, in turn, are Jews.

Is that where Jewish honor has led? Surely that is not what modern Jews intended when they yearned for the creation of a state that would be neither Christian nor Jewish; surely what they wanted was a new Noelopan, who, subordinating every religion, wouldn’t exact baptism as the price of a Jew’s ambition and desire for equality; and surely the Soviet Union is the state that has done most to subordinate religion, and actually to repress it. In that state, to find not Spinoza’s landlady but so many of the morally and intellectually best people religious or pro-religious is a shock. To find their religion or pro-religion expressing itself in the form not merely of Christianity or pro-Christianity, but actually of Russian Orthodoxy or pro-Russian Orthodoxy, is doubly a shock. How much more of a shock must it be to find that some of those best Russian Orthodox people are Jews? O Cunning of Reason!

In Israel the so-called oriental immigrants have taken the dominant Ashkenazim as models for how to be modern and up to date. One thing they learn quickly is that modern Israelis aren’t religious, that to be religious is the best way not to be modern. I heard the following story from a professor at the Hebrew University, a German Jew who, influenced by Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, went up to Palestine in the 1920’s as a ba’al teshuvah, a returner to Judaism from coldness and Jewish ignorance.

Military service integrates the Israeli population—as they say, it makes one nation out of many tribes. During military service this man’s son became a noncommissioned officer, and with his new stripes he was assigned one afternoon to a new unit and barracks, where he was both senior and the only Ashkenazi. The next morning he put on his tefillin and prayed. The other soldiers stared, and a few began to cry. Later he discovered the reason. Here was their noncom, an Ashkenazi of the Ashkenazim, praying—and with tefillin. They had been deceived. All the sacrifice of habit and feeling and belief they had thought necessary was unnecessary. It was possible both to be moderni and to put on tefillin.

But at least Chaim Weizmann was right, and his brother Samuel wrong, in one crucial respect. In Chaim’s Israel a Jew going from modernity to religion—either going back to it or advancing to it on a higher turn of the spiral—is rather more likely to go to Judaism and tefillin than to Christianity and the three-barred crucifix.



Most of what I know about da Costa and La Peyrère, and much of what I know about Spinoza, I owe to Leo Strauss’s Spinoza’s Critique of Religion—a. book all the more impressive because the author was a young man when he wrote it, in Weimar Germany. (I have also learned much from the chapter on the Tractatus in his Persecution and the Art of Writing, Free Press, 1952.) In 1965 Schocken published the English translation of Spinoza’s Critique, together with a new preface by Professor Strauss. Above all the preface is a personal document, about the author as a young German Jew who has to come to grips with Spinoza. Before him Hermann Cohen and Rosenzweig also have had to come to grips with Spinoza; more than Jews who are thinkers, these are Jewish thinkers. Strauss isn’t the disciple of either. He is his own man and thinks his own thoughts, phrasing them with greater or lesser transparency, greater or lesser opaqueness, as he sees fit. In the new translation of his book about Spinoza’s critique of religion he keeps the old dedication: “to the memory of Franz Rosenzweig.”



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