The title of this post comes from the theme of a book by David Nirenberg which explores the relationship between Western civilisation and what Nirenberg calls anti-Judaism. He deliberately avoids the usual terminology of anti-Semitism, because he is dealing with a cultural phenomenon which is characteristic of Western culture: not a racism, per se, but a culturally embedded idea of Jews which has nothing really to do with real Jews themselves. It is an intellectual anti-Judaism and not (as such) a racial anti-Semitism, and, according to Nirenberg, anti-Judaism “has been at the very center of Western civilisation since the beginning.”
The quotation comes from a critical notice of Nirenberg’s book in The Tablet, which summarises the theme of Nirenberg’s book as follows:
From Ptolemaic Egypt to early Christianity, from the Catholic Middle Ages to the Protestant Reformation, from the Enlightenment to fascism, whenever the West has wanted to define everything it is not — when it wants to put a name to its deepest fears and aversions — Judaism has been the name that came most easily to hand.
According to Nirenberg, anti-Judaism
should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifice of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.
This is obviously a startlingly new way of understanding, not only Western culture itself, but the complex historical role that the Jews have been forced to play in its development.
Of course, the central concern of Nirenberg’s book is taken up with the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, in which Judaism (or, rather, a conception of Judaism which has little to do with Judaism as this has been understood and lived by the Jews themselves) plays the role of “the Other,” the negation in terms of which Western civilisation has sought to understand itself.
While I have not read the book, simply reading the short review in The Tablet seemed to bring me into familiar territory. It happened to me, suddenly, without warning, one Sunday morning, as I was giving my homily for the day. In fact, so startling did it seem to me that I was caught in mid-sentence, and spent the remainder of the time speaking about what had just occurred to me, that Christianity explicitly defined itself in opposition to an imagined Judaism. Anyone who has spent much time attending Christian worship will be familiar with the theme. It is an indelible part of the imaginative picture that Christians have of the Jews, and it is written deeply into New Testament texts. It has to do, basically, with a fundamental dualism in terms of which Christians understand their faith. There is, on the one hand, Jesus, the messenger of love, gentleness and compassion; and then, on the other hand, there are the so-called Scribes and Pharisees, the people of the law, whose world is composed of dead rules and regulations, stultifyingly moribund and judgemental, which thinks of religious faithfulness entirely in terms of externals which do not touch the sensitive inner life of true spirituality.
As I say, I was caught up in this contrast, as I spoke about Jesus and contrasted him with the Scribes and the Pharisees. At the time I had been spending much of my time studying the Holocaust. I had said to Elizabeth, who was then seriously disabled by MS, and was suffering greatly, that I wanted to know where God was to be found in all our suffering. The Holocaust commended itself to me as the place where, if anywhere, we would be able to see (or not), the presence of God in the midst of suffering. Of course, at the centre of the Holocaust are the respects in which Jews had been held in contempt in European society for centuries, of which the Holocaust was the latest exemplification, and the more one reads about the Holocaust, the more one realises that it cannot be understood apart from Christianity. The Nazis may not have been Christians, being, as Dawkins has often said, sub-Wagnerian pagans, but Christians played a vital role in the Holocaust, from the Vatican’s silence, to the complicity of many communicating Catholics in the Endlösung der Judenfrage.
Even people like the theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer, who opposed the Nazis’ racial hatred, largely confined his efforts to the saving of converted and baptised Jews. And Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran theologian who after the war would become President of the World Council of Churches, had this to say in 1937:
We speak of the ‘eternal Jew’ and conjure up the picture of a restless wanderer who has no home and who cannot find peace. We see a highly gifted people which produces idea after idea for the benefit of the world, but whatever it takes up becomes poisoned, and all that it ever reaps is contempt and hatred because ever and anon the world notices the deception and avenges itself in its own way. [quoted in Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners, 112]
Elsewhere, condemning the Nazis, Niemöller compares the to the Jews! This shows how deeply anti-Judaism is embedded in Christian understanding.
This is something that I began to notice amongst people whom I lived and worked. When Fred Hiltz became diocesan Bishop of Nova Scotia, he used to make his progress around the parishes, and repeated, many times, a sermon in which he wanted us to take to heart the words of the first letter of St. Peter (or Pseudo-Peter), where Christians are told that they
also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
6 For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”
Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message — which is also what they were destined for.
Fred never noticed, however, or at least he never acknowledged, that this is a deeply anti-Jewish passage. The idea of the blood guilt of the Jews for the death of Jesus is told, and the replacement of the Jews by Christians as the people of the new covenant (in Jesus blood, not, as the anonymous letter to the Hebrews — often attributed to St. Paul — the blood of bulls and goats), is explained in plain language. The Jews were destined to stumble and fall and be rejected. And the more I read about the Holocaust, and the relationships between Christianity and Judaism, the more clear it became that Christianity was so deeply implicated in the Holocaust, simply by the intrinsic anti-Judaism of its message, that it could not escape blame. The silence of the pope was deafening, and illustrates, as nothing else can, the highly conflicted relationship of Christianity and Judaism.
This implicit ideal of a world without Jews, an ideal which runs through both Christianity and Islam, is illustrated strikingly by the increasing anti-Israeli rhetoric of Christian churches, where resolution after resolution is passed by church judicatures condemning Israel. This does not mean that there is nothing about Israel that cannot legitimately be criticised. Even many Jews have harsh words to say about Israeli policies. However, the centrality that is vested in Israel as, in some sense, at the heart of world problems, is characteristically anti-Judaic in Nirenberg’s sense of the word. The Jews are always “the Other” in terms of which the self-understanding of the West, as well as the Muslim world, is stated. As Nirenberg says:
We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of ‘Israel.’ [quoted in The Tablet review linked above]
Clearly, I have not read the book, but it seems to me that it may be a very important one. Religious categories still largely determine how we understand the world, and something so close to the heart of the world’s dominant religious traditions is clearly something that we all need to understand if we are going to deal with the world as it is, and not as we simply imagine it to be. I commend it to your consideration.