This astonishingly modern essay was delivered in the form of a lecture, in Berlin in January 1869, by Hermann Cohen.
This astonishingly modern essay was delivered in the form of a lecture, in Berlin in January 1869, by Hermann Cohen, considered by many the foremost Jewish thinker since Spinoza. It was one of a series of eight public lectures given for the benefit of the Leopold Zunz Fund by “Jewish scholars and scholarly jews.” Berthold Auerbach and Johann Jacoby were in the audience. Cohen himself was only twenty-seven at the time.
The lecture was not published until 1880, when Cohen sent it, along with a postscript he later repudiated, to an old friend, Rabbi Adolf Moses, in Mobile, Alabama, in response to the latter’s request for a contribution to the Zeitgeist, an American German-language periodical edited by him. The lecture was also reprinted separately—still in German—a year later in Milwaukee.
As Franz Rosenzweig remarks, Cohen’s socialism is the decisive motive in this piece. But it is not yet the Messianic socialism of the mature Cohen. To paraphrase Rosenzweig again, he moves from Saturn to Jehovah with scientific impartiality. Much later he was, however, to excoriate the “misuse science made of the Yahwe designation for the God of the Prophets and the Psalmists.”
Nevertheless, “The Sabbath” constitutes a landmark. Its approach to its subject breaks entirely new ground and opens up an avenue for the re-investigation of Jewish religious practices even now far from adequately explored.
The essay’s original title is “Der Sabbat in seiner kulturgeschichtlichen Bedeutung.” Here translated into English for the first time, it is given in shortened form, with the repetitions eliminated. Those interested in further biographical details about Hermann Cohen are referred to the note prefacing his essay “The Kingdom of God” in last month’s “Cedars of Lebanon.”—Editor.
An old-German legend calls the celebration of Walpurgis Night the “Witches’ Sabbath.”
Those who believe that the hallmark of all religion is the conviction that every individual has an equal share in human activity and human rest, in human work and human peace, must have been sensibly struck by the fact that the most sacred thing for which our faith gives thanks to the Lord should be parodied by the Prince of Darkness—that the Sabbath, instituted that “thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou,” should yield its beneficent name to a festival in which gloomy folk belief expresses despair at the way man has shaped his world morally.
How did this parody of the Sabbath come about? It was not intended as a parody at all. It was not alien to medieval fantasy to see sorcery in a festival celebrated quietly and even stealthily by candlelight in the intimacy of the home and the synagogue and devoted to a God who could, when associated with this people of his, be “diabolized.”
It was no different in pre-Christian times. Even before Christianity struck roots in Rome, many prominent Romans had adopted the faith and the customs of the Jews. But the Roman satirists, and even the otherwise scrupulous Roman historians, heaped stupid scorn upon the Jews who indulged in so-called Sabbath idleness. So largely unfamiliar were they with the joyful and peaceful domestic character of this holiday that they were led by mythological associations to regard it as a day of fasting.
But our own understanding of the Sabbath day of rest is little better.
The Importance of Origins
The social significance of the Sabbath is indeed universally recognized. But the relation of this institution, which on the face of it is completely material and economic in nature, to the old religious Sabbath holiday is not so well understood today. It definitely belongs to historical research to indicate the degree to which our social institutions depend on our religious ones. But few have sought enlightenment by such research into the sources of our cultural heritage. It is enough that our heritage is available and can be used. Who gave it to us, where it came from—we do not find that interesting. As though it were necessary to understand the origins of our civilization in order to enjoy its benefits!
This is a really dangerous error. As long as the history of social relations proceeds by a succession of changing waves, without revolutions radical enough to change everything from the ground up (such revolutions have not yet happened), our cultural institutions will remain connected by secret channels to their sources. Practical men who wish within the given conditions to develop these institutions to a higher level must always refer back to the sources with which they remain connected. . . .
To investigate the Sabbath in this way requires that we reject all prejudices and disregard the forms the Sabbath assumed in its later evolution. Just as we have left behind the medieval superstition of the “Witches’ Sabbath” and the Roman error that made the Sabbath a fast day, so must we suppress the memory of all the petty observances that crept into the old Mosaic ordinance under the historically justified influence of Talmudic scholasticism. Otherwise we will not understand the latter’s motives either.
At the same time we will have to look for similar institutions among other peoples, in order to discover the connection between this single phenomenon and the sum total of human civilization. Here no detail stands isolated, everything has its meaning, the menu excavated in Herculaneum no less than the great poem found by a philologist on yellowed parchment.
Some cultural phenomena, however, stand in the very center of the life of a people, so that the rays of the sun of civilization converge upon them from all sides. . . .
The Celestial Week
Let us analyze first of all what is contained in our notion of the Sabbath. What ‘do we think of first? Rest on one day of every week, of course. How did this day of rest originate? How did the Jews come to celebrate one day of rest each week? Is this holiday peculiar only to the Jews and to the Christians, who are akin to the Jews religiously and inherited it from them? Or is it found among other peoples? And if so, how was it transmitted from one to the other? Or was it originally common to all of them? And why did it originate among these and not among other peoples? . . .
Any individual cultural phenomenon must be explained [so we assume] by the conditions under which it came into being. These conditions are: climate, soil, the economy of the people, its classes, its mode of life, mores, ideals, its knowledge, and finally, as the expression of all these, its politics. . . .
We reject, albeit gently, any idea of the divine institution of the Sabbath. The belief that anything stems from God is an expression of scientific helplessness and constitutes an admission that we can’t or won’t explain it in human terms. This view deprives cultural and historical research of its primary motivation, and should be eradicated from the public mind. Furthermore, it must seem offensive to religious faith to have a religious institution of undisguised blessing traced to a Creator who at the same time gets blamed for every other phenomenon in human history. Even the Inquisitors proudly declared their witches were created by God. There is nothing so infernal but that it does not invoke God and the divine order.
. . . Before we take up the question of the origin of a weekly day of rest we must first ask about the origin of the week itself. The division of time into a seven-day week is not found among all peoples of antiquity. Among the Greeks we find a sort of ten-day week, among the Romans a nine-day week. The seven-day week arose among the Semites in West Asia. Thence it spread into Egypt, and then to Rome. Christianity adopted the seven-day week from the Jews. But it had already found acceptance in Gaul and Germany even before the coming of Christianity.
Consider the nomadic peoples in hot countries who could only travel at night. The importance they attached to the waxing and waning of the moon was no more than natural. . . . Moonlit nights are the sunny, happy days of the nomads, while dark nights are often full of menace. All important, all holy events, all celebrations took place at night. . . . It is well known that all Jewish holidays begin in the evening, the main celebration, like the feast of the Paschal Lamb, often taking place only at night.
Observation of the moon gave rise to the lunar month in primitive cultures. Soon the progress from new moon to full moon and from the waning to the first phase was divided into fourteen-day periods. The next step was to reckon the mid-point of the rise and the wane and thus arrive at the week. In Hebrew the word for week comes from the word for seven. A similar etymology was adopted by the Greeks and Romans.
This natural division of time probably occurred very early. The next step was provided by the astronomical observers who discovered the seven planets after which the seven days of the week are named. There is an exact account of how the Chaldeans discovered which divinity each day of the week belonged to. Every hour of the day was allotted to a different planet and the entire day was dedicated to the planet on which the first hour of the day happened to fall.
But they began with Saturn first of all. Why? Because Saturn was the highest god. How did he become the highest god? There is no satisfactory answer to this question without a deeper insight than we now have, according to the experts, into the facts of astrology and astral worship. Tacitus expressed the opinion that it was because Saturn appeared to be the highest planet, circumscribing the orbits of the others. But whatever the true explanation, the fact remains that Saturn was worshipped as supreme god by the Semites. And the Sabbath is the day of Saturn.
Along with the seven-day week, the planetary designation of the separate days of the week made their way from West Asia via Egypt to Rome. In Rome at the time of the Caesars, Saturn’s Day was known as the Jewish Sabbath. The planetary names of the days of the week also found their way, together with the seven-day week, into Gaul and Germany and survive in abbreviated form among the Roman peoples today. In the Germanic lands a rechristening took place in accordance with the corresponding local deities. But it seems that no local deity suited himself to Saturn’s day. And so Saturday remained. The Romance peoples, preserving the old names, significantly enough changed the names of the first and last days of the week. Sunday became the day of the Lord, Domenica, Domingo, Dimanche. And Saturn’s Day became Sabbato, Sabado, Samedi. . . .
The stars were thought of as persons—human beings—behaving on a grand scale in the same way as mortals do, or would like to do, on a smaller scale. Gradually, there emerged the idea of a great heaven in contrast to the small earth, and human persons became personal gods. The splendor and beauty of the stars transported the ancients with admiration; they were also awed by their power, by their radiant, gleaming influence on man and his work. They marvelled, too, at the eternal orderliness of their movements as against the unpredictable mutability of all earthly things. . . . Out of this mood came the earliest myths and religions.
As civilization progressed, the influence of the stars upon human affairs became visible in many more ways. Agriculture, grazing and, later on, navigation were found to be dependent on the stars. And the human mind, having already under the simplest conditions acknowledged their divinity, tended to discover more and more of the divine in them as consciousness developed.
Among these heavenly bodies the planet Saturn was worshipped as supreme god by the ancient Semites. He was called El or Bet and revered among the Phoenicians, the Babylonians and the Syrians as creator, preserver and lord of the universe. Enthroned as ruler in his stronghold in the seventh heaven, he ordered the movements of the other stars in their eternal orbits. Isaiah (14:12-15) mocks the fall of Babylon in this terrifying allegory: “How art thou fallen in heaven, O Lucifer, sun of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.”
The Golden Age
El-Saturn was also endowed with ethical significance. He was a righteous, chastising divinity, who hated sin and whose punishing vengeance could only be assuaged by sacrifice of the most beloved. Under his stern rule people lived in innocence and peace. Among the Greeks and Romans this ethical aspect of Bel or El was linked to the representation of Kronos or Saturn, which makes him appear with a sickle as the god of seed and agriculture, the builder of cities. In this form he gave rise to the famous myth of a Golden Age in which people lived in a classless society of peace and harmony. Under his scepter there was an overflowing abundance of natural goods, communal ownership of property and freedom and equality for all persons.
In his honor was celebrated the festival of Saturnalia, a holiday reputedly older than Rome itself and popularly observed in all ages. The festivities took place about Christmas-time—when, according to popular belief, nature renewed itself—and lasted seven days. Because the memory of Saturn was being celebrated and because his eventual return was hoped for, or feared, class distinctions were temporarily suspended. The slave ate at the table of his master and was served by him. A general cheerfulness, hubbub and excitement would become noticeable in the very first days of December, especially among the rich (as though the whole year wasn’t holiday enough for them). Lucian has Saturn himself describe his seven-day reign, when he tolerates no serious mood and no business, only drinking and merriment, noise, joking and gambling. A king was to be chosen for the festivities. And it was the slaves most of all who were to carouse, sing and dance. . . .
Chiun is the name under which Saturn appeared among the Hebrews, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Syrians and Egyptians. “Have ye,” says the prophet Amos (5:25), “offered unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel? But ye have borne the tabernacles of your Moloch and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves.”
The accents of renunciation in which Job (31:26-28) proclaims his monotheistic self-restraint is significant: “If I beheld the sun when it shined, or the moon walking in brightness, and my heart hath been secretly enticed, or my mouth hath kissed my hand: this also were an iniquity to be punished by the judge; for I should have denied the God that is above.” We have here an insight into the ancient Semitic soul, which simply could not conceive of such a thing as the complete denial of the exciting cult of astral worship.
. . . We cannot avoid the conclusion that the incomparable God [Jehovah] who swept all Europe was a blood kin of the god of the Semites. Related peoples are known to have a primordial identity in their religious notions, customs and primary social institutions. From this common background, small variations gradually arose, which, in the course of development, finally ripened into new forms. True and essential differences can only be understood in terms of a common background; the individual characters of nations emerge from the common experience of the race.
. . . We know now that among the Semites the week served as a standard of time and that the Israelites celebrated the first day of the week because it was holy to Saturn. But at this point a most essential difference intervenes. It is a far cry from setting a day aside for a particular divinity to establishing it as a day of complete rest. All peoples are known to have special days for individual gods’ but only the Jews—and the Christians who took it over from them—have a weekly day of rest. . . .
The manner in which a people celebrates its festivals is an index to its cultural level. Among Mexicans, Peruvians and the early Semites we find fasting on national holidays—which is a common feature of the more primitive levels of civilization. The Greek festivals, originally orgiastic rites, were transplanted by the earliest settlers from West Asia. In Hellas the excesses of the Egyptians and the barbaric dances of the Phoenicians were tempered into harmonious choral dancing. The unrestrained outcries became ceremonial hymns and the bloody contests and self-mutilations became musical and dramatic performances.
But under the influence of the aesthetic, the political spirit languished and the people, given over to the enervating enjoyment of a solely aesthetic life, trifled away its last remnant of political freedom. In the end there were more slaves than free men in Athens and more festivals than days in the year. In later Athenian and Roman times the festivals were publicly supported as a political measure by the rulers. The people, desperately starving throughout the year, were contemptuously appeased with bread and circuses on a few holidays.
They were to get drunk at the Bacchic orgies and celebrate the festival of Dionysus with satyric plays because of the original belief that the gods would be cheered by these pranks and turned from their wrath. Rather naively, a Christian writer of the third century turns on his fellow-citizens to confute them with the question: “Why have you instituted these plays? Because, you say, the gods will be entertained and forget their wrath against humans. But will Jupiter cease to rage if you re-enact his adventures with Leda, Europa and Danae in song and play?”
How infinitely different, from this point of view, was the Sabbath! No fasting, no wild dances, no sensual orgies mark its celebration, only rest from work. But to understand what kind of rest this was, we must understand what kind of work it was the Jews rested from. . . .
The majority of all festivals arose from the desires and joys of the farmer; their regular recurrence was fixed by the needs of agriculture. Agriculture is the oldest form of civilized work. In the Germanic languages work is synonymous with agriculture. The division of labor in the development of agriculture assigned the meaning of compulsory labor—serfdom—to the root word that originally meant working in the fields. The Hebrew word for work likewise belongs to a root which, in a related language, means to serve. If all work was work in the fields, then to rest from work was to rest from field work, from agriculture.
As among all peoples, the holidays of the Jews were nature festivals, or like the Day of Atonement, preparatory purification days connected with the great harvest festival. The Sabbath originated among the Jews during the transition from a nomadic to an agrarian economy. And at this time, too, the transformation of the first day, Saturn’s, into the seventh day of Sabbath rest before and after work took place.
People who remain in the nomadic or even hunting stage are considered to be uncivilized. Nomads and hunters have no property, no home, no country. The gods whom the ancients credited with the introduction of agriculture were also thanked for the introduction of marriage and civil laws. But agriculture also brought with it envy on the part of settlers, and with this a struggle for the possession of land. The victors became rulers, the vanquished slaves. Whenever we trace the civilization of any people back to its origins we find slavery.
We know that Mosaic law failed to abolish slavery in principle. And small wonder. Christianity, under more favorable conditions did not succeed so soon, either. Slavery lasted in France and Italy up to the thirteenth century. When Louis XIII declared the Negroes in the French colonies to be slaves, Mantesquieu said mockingly, in his devastating way: “Narrow minds exaggerate the injustice to the Africans. Were the injustice really as grave as they claim, would it not have occurred to the European princes, who have already concluded so many useless treaties with each other, also to enter into a general pact in favor of compassion and mercy?” All the more must we admire the political wisdom with which Mosaic law sought to extirpate the causes of slavery from Jewish life.
The Israelitic form of state is called theocracy, ruled by God. Spinoza claimed that the character of theocracy was democratic. He showed that the democratic form of government is closest to natural law, because in a democratic state no individual may transfer his natural right to another individual but only to the whole of which he is a part. Therefore all persons remain equal, as in their natural state. Spinoza further declared that the Jewish state was democratic because, according to Mosaic law, the Israelites could transfer their rights to God alone; that is, to no mortal.
Theocracy is thus the religious expression of the political idea of equality in nation and state. And the modem ideal of civil liberty is also theocracy, insofar as the unity of national morality and of the legal conduct of the state is understood thereunder.
That the equality of all brothers in league was the basis of Jewish theocracy can be gleaned from a well-known passage in the books of Moses which deals with the establishment of a monarchy. “And it shall be, when he sitteth up on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites: And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God. . . . That his heart be not lifted above his brethren” (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). And when the Israelites came to Samuel, asking for a king, Jehovah said: “For they have not rejected thee, but rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (I Samuel 8:7). The difference between modem monarchy and oriental despotism is rooted in their theoretic conception.
The Jubilee of Social Justice
Until late in the Middle Ages property consisted in the ownership of land. Social laws were therefore principally concerned with the land. It is in these that we find the theocratic spirit of social legislation among the Israelites. God, not man, is the ruler. All have an equal share in the land in accordance with the democratic character of theocratic land-ownership only because Jehovah is declared to be the owner of the land: “The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23). This same character is to be discerned in every single social institution.
The first national duty of the Israelites upon settling in the Promised Land was to increase the productivity of the fruitful soil. To this end we have the law that every seventh year the fields and vineyards shall lie fallow, celebrating their “Sabbath.” But such is the distinguishing character of all legislation among the Israelites, that even this purely economic regulation could be given a social and political meaning. “And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shall gather in the fruits thereof: But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and be still; that the poor of thy people may eat” (Exodus 23:10-11).
Not only were the fields to revert to common ownership, but all debts were to be cancelled. In affecting words Scripture urges a spirit of loving brotherhood on the part of those who might be reluctant to grant loans shortly before the seventh year. And as if the Bible had not already compromised itself enough in the eyes of many a pious contemporary by this measure, it goes on to draw wider and wider concentric circles around the Saturnian number seven. After the passage of seven times seven years liberty is to be proclaimed throughout the land. “It shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his family” (Leviticus 25:10). The land was not sold, only the harvest up to the Year of Jubilee.
The net effect of these interlocking laws was to limit the sanctity of private property in favor of social equality. Was true religion or the Bible itself irreligious on this point? What rare irony! Whenever thereafter an earnest attempt was made by creative religious feeling to revivify these Biblical notions, modifying them to fit historical circumstances, the pious would complain that Biblical freedom was being understood in too fleshy a sense. And thus they bore evidence against the Prophets, who will never cease to preach to mankind redemption for the poor and deliverance for the economically oppressed.
But what was the practical success of these measures to prevent the pauperization of the people? They acted as a brake upon the process, so familiar among all the peoples of antiquity and modem times, by which the masses were reduced to proletarian misery. Yet they of themselves could not wholly prevent the impoverishment of an ever varying number of Jews.
Slavery was not wholly abolished, despite the oft-repeated declaration that all men are theoretically equal as children of Jehovah and despite the regulations which clearly asserted the right of all to earthly property and earthly peace.
The law which freed the slaves every seventh year—again the redeeming number seven—tended to dissolve slavery into a form of tenancy. The slave was originally not considered a person, but a piece of property, belonging to the place where he was born, to the inventory of the land. (This conception is very definitely expressed by the noblest of the Greeks.) The prospect of relatively rapid manumission transformed slavery into servitude. But to effectuate this, it was not enough merely to have the slave look forward to his liberation at the end of six years. During those years his personal worth, his dignity and sense of importance as a human being were to be kept alive by civil regulations whose benefits he was to share. These tended to obviate the danger of his contracting a permanent attitude of dull servility.
Instead he was encouraged to set out on his own, establish his own household, and increase the pittance given him by his master on release. “And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress; of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).
As if in preparation for that seventh year, the law implants in his mind the idea that he is his own master on every seventh day. Thus the Sabbath is in its origin a day of rest for slaves, serfs and the working classes.
Only stiff-necked, dogmatic self-indulgence would try to deny this. There is a repetition of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy which differs from the account in Exodus only in respect to the Sabbath law. In Exodus it says: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord Blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11). In Deuteronomy the Creation is nowhere referred to; instead: “and thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou” (Deuteronomy 5:14). And to emphasize this, the people are reminded of their own Egyptian enslavement: “And remember thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt . . . therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
. . . I hope to show, by means of a general idea rather than by textual criticism, that the interpretation of the first Decalogue is historically the less important. The legend of Creation as told in Genesis contains a speculation as to the origin of the world and its purposeful organization. It devolves upon such speculation to trace back to primeval times those civil and social institutions that are considered valuable and worthy of preservation; divine intervention carries them over into the historical period. Here we see distinctly the process by which the divine is created in the image of the human in order later that the human be re-created in accordance with that image. First man, the slave, rests on the seventh day. Then, in order to give religious sanction to the holidays of a people split into different social classes, God is represented as resting from his work of Creation on this day. Finally, man rests on the Sabbath because God had consecrated it by his own rest. . . . The human is elevated to the divine in order to appear later as having issued from the divine. Nowhere in the Pentateuch is the admonition to observe the Sabbath couched in such language as to appear to institute a new regulation. Its sanctity is always simply confirmed. Jehovah sanctioned and confirmed it but Saturn instituted it. . . .
Equality of Rest
It is an enormous step from the celebration of a day dedicated to sacrifices to an individual deity to the enjoyment of a complete day of rest by the working class; from the symbolic emancipation of the slaves on the seven days of the Saturnalia to their actual liberation on the seventh day of the week. “Six days thou shalt do thy work and on the seventh day thou shalt rest” (Exodus 23: 12). This appears in connection with a law dealing with the Sabbath year. The reason given is not that the wealthy may have a day free from the toil of acquisition and the deprivation involved in saving money, so that they can acquire spiritual goods and edify themselves morally. The Bible specifically states: “That the son of thy handmaid and the stranger may be refreshed” (Ibid).
What a totally different impression the admission of slaves during the Saturnalia to the tables of their masters must have made by contrast to the real liberation from work on the Sabbath. To cite the same writer from whom I got my short description of the Saturnalia: “They pushed the blackened faces of the slaves into cold water, so that there was great fun.”. . .
We do not praise, but characterize, when we say that the institution of the Sabbath is a unique expression of the spirit of the ancient Jews. Something similar, perhaps, but nothing equal to it may be found among all the other nations of the earth.
. . . It was only at the beginning that the Sabbath was directed exclusively toward the welfare of the working class. In the long run the propertied classes also reaped its benefits.
It is universally true that class exploitation results in economic insecurity and moral degradation for the people as a whole. The Sabbath, originally a generic name for social measures in behalf of the poor, could therefore be presented as a moral ideal for the whole people. The Prophets, who in their political activity and suffering as well as in their private and public thinking revealed a wonderful unity of political and moral consciousness, who shrank back from no national limitations in trying consistently to realize the brotherhood and unity of peoples—these Prophets urged the keeping of the Sabbath in the same breath that they sang of the Golden Age and prophesied the coming of the Messiah.
The Second Isaiah—who with the bold energy that comes from moral certainty rejected the most venerable features of the national religion, cancelled the differences between heathen and Israelite and preached to his brothers among all nations—was he to rejoice in the Sabbath simply because Jehovah rested on it? And if he, who rejected dogma, did rejoice for this reason, would we not have noticed it in some turn of style or other? But instead he says: “Blessed is the man that does this; and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the Sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil” (Isaiah 56:1). Thus we see that the Prophet who was sent for the poor and the suffering put his whole moral philosophy into the Sabbath. . . .
In post-Biblical times the main idea behind the Sabbath was lost. We find little consolation for this loss in those sanctified Sabbath eves which awaken unhappy recollections of their lost homeland even among Jews who have long abandoned the feelings of their youth and now give their moral enthusiasm to the great issues agitating science and politics. But even here we find a spark still glowing from that great light which the Sabbath lamp had once lighted. An old legend tells that Moses when he saw the oppression of his brethren in Egypt went to Pharaoh and told him that if the slaves did not have one day of rest in the week they would die. And Pharaoh said: “Do as you wish.” Whereupon Moses instituted the Sabbath.
. . . The true poet reveals himself in being able to look at the dismembered fragments of something that once existed, and to divine their connecting links. Such was the author of the ritual song—translated by Herder and also to be found in Heine’s Romanzero—in which the Sabbath is greeted with the sweetest of names, that of bride: “Why do you bow, why do you sigh? You bear the trust of the poor of my people. Welcome O bride! Welcome O bride!”
A Practical Ideal
In the subsequent history of peoples the significance of the Sabbath covers an important chapter of political economy. The birthplace of the American Revolution was in those states in which the first colonists had elevated the Sunday celebration to a religio-political institution. According to some historians, the strict Sunday laws of Massachusetts contributed more to the prosperity of the young colony than any other single measure. A law of a convention of 1792 states that the observance of Sunday should occasion acts of charity which would grace the Christian community and lighten the burden of the poor.
. . . Ideals are often said to be good but not practicable. Those who say this simply do not know what an ideal is. An ideal, in its real sense, is not a well-intentioned whim, or even an isolated thought, but the living part of a Weltanschauung. As it is inconceivable to speak of an organ without an organism, so is it impossible to conceive of an ideal without seeing it as the partial expression of a unified idealism. The guarantee of the practicability of a Weltanschauung that is based on knowledge of the conditions governing the human mind and its evolution lies in its scientific clarity. The Sabbath has shown us how practical a genuine ideal can become.
In the year 1865 it was proposed that night work by children under 18 in the steel mills of England be prohibited. Opponents of the measure had the impudence to argue that the cessation of night work would result in financial loss. If the smelters were kept going all night fuel would be wasted, and if not, time would be lost in starting the fires anew and raising them to die required temperature.
This is the way the people of our time speak. But would the husbandmen of ancient Judea, the patriots only of their own homes, and the phlegmatic wiseacres of the Promised Land have willingly submitted to the idealism implied in the law that they keep the Sabbath even during the time of planting and harvesting? The answer is given by the Bible itself, which tells us how strenuously the Prophets had to urge the people to keep the Sabbath.
Do we have to admit that we are unable to attain that which was possible for the ancient Jews? Is scientific insight not enough? Does our moral energy need the impetus of dogma to set it in motion? And with the apparent exhaustion of the latter, must all cultural progress be left to a shrinking minority of society? Who dares to prophesy this tragic end for philosophy and history? The true prophets in all ages and noble poets and mighty thinkers preached a happier message, in which the Messianic ideal of a World Sabbath became real.
The moral ideal of the Prophets has been validated by modern science. The theory of the evolution of all organisms from a single primal form argues the tremendous capacity for development possessed by all organic beings. As in the struggle for existence victory is assured to the higher creature through natural selection, so in the struggle that splits humanity moral selection and training will assure the emergence of a higher race, for which the Promethean word of the Psalmist will ring true: “For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels” (Psalms 8:5).
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Cedars of Lebanon: XVIII. The Sabbath
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Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.