The chapters in this book trace the evolution of our reflection on the questions of Jewish identity and antisemitism in the light of GA. We feel it is useful to present our ideas in the order in which they were developed, so that the reader may observe how the “Jewish question,” brought to the forefront of our concern by its increasing political centrality, has also provided a focus for our overall understanding of the human as irrevocably faced with the tension between the “moral model” of universal reciprocity and the absolute necessity within any interaction of conscious beings of firstness. These ideas are themselves not independent of the fundamental intuition of Judaism, which, as has become increasingly clear to us in the course of this project, forms a kind of hermeneutic circle with the ideas of GA, constituting their ultimate foundation at the same time as GA provides the basis for our analysis of the ehyeh asher ehyeh.
Yet there is a second dimension to this interaction that deserves mention. Antisemitism is a form of stigmatization that is also a mode of notoriety. Its global existence means that, for better or worse, the existence of Jews and Judaism, and above all of the Jewish state of Israel, has a salience far out of proportion to the relative size of the Jewish population, even if we take into account this group’s high level of achievement. People who have never seen a Jew generally have opinions, often strong ones, about Jews and Israel.
GA, in contrast, has been around for over thirty years, yet remains largely invisible. Some dozen books and seven consecutive annual conferences, nineteen years of Anthropoetics, our electronic journal, and 450 online “Chronicles of Love and Resentment” have not brought GA and its ideas a respectable presence in the intellectual marketplace. Whereas Jews might prefer to become more obscure as a group and be known chiefly for their individual accomplishments, our little group of GA adepts would certainly prefer to have a greater collective presence. Yet there is a clear parallel between the envious hostility of Jewish firstness that is antisemitism and the intellectual world’s indifference to GA.
It has become increasingly clear to us that GA, without implying it in a strictly logical sense, presupposes a choice of Judaism over Christianity as the most significant, which is to say, the most anthropologically insightful religious revelation. Given its emergence from René Girard’s Christocentric anthropology, itself largely marginalized in the intellectual world, GA can be said to conceptualize a return from Christianity to its roots in Judaism—an interpretation given additional plausibility by GA’s reliance on the concept of deferral or différance developed by the late Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida. This contrast is reflected in that drawn between Jewish dualism and Christian monism developed in Chronicle 436.
The most significant “Jewish” feature of GA is that, like Judaism but unlike Christianity and the anthropologies that derive from it, including at the limit that of Girard, GA is not a form of victimary thinking. The victimary thinking of “critical theory” in its many post-Marxist flavors is a vulgarization of Christianity in which the role of the victim is reduced to that of an unjustly oppressed innocent by analogy with the exemplary Nazi-Jew dichotomy. For Girard, all human social orders depend on the murder of “innocent” victims by means of the scapegoating “emissary mechanism” that will ultimately be revealed as such, but not abolished, by Christianity. In contrast, GA’s “Jewish” configuration emphasizes God’s affirmation of his transcendental relationship to the scene over which he presides.
What emerges from this confrontation is, in the first place, a demonstration of how victimary thinking, precisely because it begins with Jews-as-victims, is more unfaithful to Judaism than to Christianity. This helps explain the paradox that the victimary mode of thinking, rooted in the Holocaust, has been turned so easily against the Jews in the form of a new, “anti-Zionist” mode of antisemitism, with Israelis as the new Nazis. For the “Jews” that are the victimary counterpart of the Nazis are simply faceless ciphers. The real point of the victimary is not to defend the specificity of the victims, but to condemn their oppressors. The victim in victimary thinking is not a responsible agent; he or she is merely deserving of compensation for wrongs. Immediately after WWII, this paradigm seemed to apply to the Jews, but once Israel was victorious in 1948, and certainly after 1967, its loss of pristine victimary status meant the end of the post-Holocaust protection against antisemitism.
In other words, the Holocaust, as it came to be understood in the 1960s and 70s, was not really about the Jews, and whatever benefits they reaped from the reaction to it were temporary and generators of new resentment. The Holocaust Jew was essentially that defined by Sartre in his 1947 Réflexions sur la question juive: someone considered by the antisemite as a Jew, a “definition” that made sense only in the historical context of recent Nazi racial policy. The great failing of victimary thought is its reliance on a two-valued morality, in which the only roles available in human relationships are evil oppressor and innocent victim. Not only is there no possible excuse for oppression, but it is essentially irredeemable, conceived not as embodied in acts that may be ceased and compensated (although compensation is certainly demanded and received) but as a state that is for all practical purposes permanent, and for which, precisely because redemption is impossible, unending atonement must be made via full-time commitment to undoing the effects of oppression. Victimary thinking, not to put too fine a point on it, is not very different from antisemitism itself.
To this caricature of Christianity, we do not believe that it suffices to oppose Girard’s more anthropologically authentic Christianity. What is lost sight of in the victimary era can, we think, best be understood in Jewish terms: the paradoxical firstness of the discoverers/inventors of monotheism that makes them both a model and a source of envy (a skandalon, in Girard’s terminology) to all who would innovate, who desire likewise to be “first.” Girardian thought is lacking in a concept of firstness as a product of conscious initiative rather than arbitrary choice; it lacks as well a concept of the representational sign that is the originary product of such firstness, the first “conscious” intuition. It is not difficult to see in the Girardian figure of the victim the figure of Jesus from whom all divine qualities have been removed save that of victimhood itself.
As is pointed out in Chronicle 436, chosenness, to the extent that it embodies firstness, is a negative quality for the Christian. Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus is, if not the consequence of his seniority among the disciples, at the very least proof that this status is inconsequential. Moses, in contrast, is chosen, as Abraham had been, to be the leader of the people who will be the bearers of God’s revelation, that is, those defined as its first recipients. Moses’ election is no more a source of personal vanity than that of Abraham. The substance of this revelation is God’s answer with a declarative sentence to his request for a name, his refusal/incapacity to be called on directly, by Moses or anyone else. The Hebrews are God’s “chosen people” only in that they are allowed to realize first the implications of God’s not merely universal but transcendental status. They are first to learn that the One God with a sentence for a name can have no people in the traditional, “compact” sense.
GA is founded on this revelation, translated into anthropological terms. But whereas the Hebrew revelation, subsequently modified by those of Christianity and Islam, has spread to the entire globe—and we may presume, not altogether cynically, that the presence of antisemitism in lands nearly devoid of Jews is but one more sign of this spread—GA has not. In an intellectual world that spends much of its time discussing language, virtually no one shares GA’s conviction that language and all of human culture must be situated in a fundamental anthropology that begins with the event of its origin. In a word, virtually no one in our intellectual world shares GA’s understanding of what language was created/invented for.
It is our contention that Judaism’s central anthropological accomplishment, for which the Jews have been hated and envied for centuries, is to have reconceptualized the fundamental human predicament of deferring (mimetic) violence as a tension between reciprocity and firstness. It is this tension, the basis for the modern division between Left and Right—itself a demonstration of the growing insight into the essential human problematic made possible by modern market society—that makes long-term political stability impossible or, in more positive terms, that insures the dynamism of any political system. The monotheistic revelation allows us to appreciate the evocation of this tension in religious terms—less lucid, no doubt, than those of anthropology, but far more importantly, capable of serving as the basis for a real social order. In all of world history, only Judaism’s Christian variant has enabled the complementary modern “conquest of nature” that permitted the market and liberal democracy to emerge—accompanied by the antisemitism that reflects what we might call Christianity’s necessary “creative disavowal” of the firstness it inherited from Judaism.
As an anthropological theory of the origin of language that sets language’s social function above its cognitive grasp of the world, GA dares to posit a coupure épistémologique between the pre-human and the human state, to situate the origin of (human) history at the beginning of the history of (human) events. In the intellectual world we inhabit, this is experienced as an act of hubris, not to say of speciesism. Phenomena as important as language can presumably emerge only gradually from vanishingly small differences with our fellow creatures, affording an unbounded terrain for a multitude of scholars to penetrate and explore, in contrast with GA’s small contingent whose simple solution appears to cut off debate.
Yet we remain convinced that, like that of God’s sentence-name, the ultimate acceptance of the originary hypothesis, in our own or another form, is inevitable. An indefinite number of “gods” can be conceived, but a sharper anthropological intuition makes clear that we can really conceive only One God. Similarly, we have faith that our model of the unique origin of language is destined to prevail against its pluralist-gradualist “opposition,” not because we expect ever to be able to demonstrate that human language began in one place and at one time, but because this model effectively explains in the simplest terms not merely the origin but the fundamental function of language. As Adam has pointed out, GA emerges at a point, subsequent to the Enlightenment, when we can begin to understand religion as above all a source of anthropological insight, an understanding of the foundation of the human in our use of signs. As this understanding of religion deepens, it becomes increasingly obvious that only a theory focused as is GA on the specificity of human symbolic communication can preserve traditional religious culture as a source of knowledge, and no doubt as a post-Enlightenment justification for faith.
In the cases of both Judaism and GA, firstness, and the conceptual foregrounding of firstness, are the source of a problem. How can this little group of nomads call themselves the “chosen people”? How can God’s universal transcendence be revealed uniquely to them? How can a small group of “non-specialists” claim to have “discovered the origin of language”?
The reader is permitted to view this parallel as our compensatory fantasy. But we hope that he or she will remain open to its explanatory power in the course of reading our book.