For Adam Katz

There are two categories of taboos. The first, the most obvious, are the hard taboos whose violation is met with by violence, such as that visited on Salman Rushdie or the staff of the satiric publication Charlie Hebdo; we have heard plenty about those. But the more insidious taboos are the soft ones: those whose violation, as the French would say, passe inaperçue, because the taboo’s point is not to impose or interdict a certain behavior, but on the contrary, to prevent our thinking the thought that violated it.

The other day Adam Katz relayed to me a question from an acquaintance as to whether the sequence of utterance forms hypothesized in The Origin of Language:


had a precedent in the literature. I was obliged to answer that I really had no idea, but that in any case I had formulated this sequence based on the logic implicit in language that begins with an ostensive: the ostensive sign can be separated from its referent and used to demand it (imperative); the declarative would arise as the answer to an imperative that could not be fulfilled, beginning with a simple negation of (the presence of) the referent, and the interrogative would follow.

This led me to recall that on the book’s original publication in 1981, the University of California Press thought it would make a splash, or at least a ripple. But the book was neither hailed as a breakthrough, refuted, nor denounced; after a couple of semi-complimentary reviews praising its “originality,” it was simply ignored. As the last linguist I talked to put it, “but you can’t prove it!”

Obviously I was and remain disappointed at this disinterest in my sequence of utterances, a disinterest founded on what I have defined in (Western) philosophy as metaphysics—the way of thinking that considers propositional language as having no prehistory, either (in pre-Darwinian days) denying the reality of this prehistory as obviated by Genesis, or (afterward) declaring it unknowable. As witness the Paris Société de Linguistique’s Statuts de 1866, Article 2. La Société n’admet aucune communication concernant, soit l’origine du langage soit la création d’une langue universelle—which puts language origin, whose reality is a logical necessity, in the same category as the purely utopian “creation of a universal language.”

Interestingly enough, my GA career includes a similar experience in what seems to be a very different domain. In 2015, Adam and I published a book entitled, The First Shall Be the Last: Rethinking Antisemitism (Brill), in which we offered not a history but an explanation of antisemitism as the reaction to what we called Jewish firstness. By charging over $100 for the volume, Brill made it impossible to sell many copies, but more significantly, after sponsoring the book, ISGAP (Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy) seemed embarrassed by it, as though it had not quite understood its thesis when it agreed to publish it, and contrary to its near-promises, never invited either of us to promote the book, beyond a low-profile presentation in their New York offices at the time of publication. Nor was it ever reviewed—save by our friend and associate, Roman Katsman of Bar-Ilan University, in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 36(2):80-83. Once more, neither praise nor denunciation, merely silence.

The similarity between the receptions of these two very different volumes at over 30 years’ interval could hardly be a coincidence. What then is the connection between the soft taboos touching on hypotheses concerning: (1) the historical origin of human language, and (2) the explanation (as opposed to the denunciation) of antisemitism?

What is taboo about seeking to explain the basis of antisemitism? The most obvious answer is that any explanation risks being understood as a justification. Traditionally, Jews have spoken of antisemitism as purely irrational, as a kind of mental disease. The only theoretical basis offered is the Girardian one that the Jews are “scapegoats,” which merely restates the fact that they are the objects of hostility, without explaining why alone of all the world’s ethnic groups, there is a universally recognized term that designates anti-Jewish hostility, why it has endured so long and spread so widely, or why it is currently returning in force with the disappearance of the last survivors of the Holocaust.

Why should 0.2% of the world’s population be so distinguished? Is it enough to cite the Jews’ high level of achievement or average income? Or perhaps their control of the banks and media, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Nazi racial doctrines, their “having killed Christ”?

Adam’s and my thesis was that the firstness that makes the Jews the durable objects of hatred in the Western/Abrahamic world of Christians and Muslims, and by extension throughout the globe, is the fact that Judaism is the predecessor and source of both these far more populous religions that are the principal examples of Western spirituality. The rapid growth of anti-Zionism/antisemitism on university campuses makes clear that post-Holocaust antisemitism is alive and well, while the firstness of the Holocaust itself is denounced as fraudulent or in any case over-exploited. (How do we really know there were six million? And anyway, when are they going to stop complaining about it?)

As I was pondering over the possible connection between this pair of taboos, I received from Adam another message affirming that antisemitism should be considered a rant against literacy—Derrida should have turned his attention in that direction.”  This remark links up with Seth Sanders’ point in his The Invention of Hebrew (Illinois, 2011; see Chronicle 646): the Semitic alphabet permitted an unusually high level of literacy among the Hebrew population, greatly contributing to the communal power and influence of the “religion of the book” in an era when writing systems like cuneiform were, as Chinese still is, deliberately designed to discourage ordinary people from learning them.

Indeed, this reminder of Derrida’s emphasis in De la grammatologie (Minuit, 1967) on the priority of writing over speech underlines the importance of the Derridean element of GA: différance/deferral as the primary element of language—and may even be said to support Derrida’s corollary that, as opposed to writing, speech is in certain contexts a faux ami that provides the speaker with a spurious presence. We should note, however, that Derrida does not propose this thesis as anthropologically universal, but (see his “Exergue” beginning on p. 11) as what he calls an “ethnocentric” feature of Western metaphysics, that is, the philosophical culture of a civilization that in its earliest (Greek) manifestations was not rigidly hierarchical, but where political leaders were expected to use the scene of representation as a platform for persuasive political discourse—instead, I would add, of as a locus for the reciprocal exchange of signs, as in the originary event.

Adam’s point is central to the Jewish subtext of De la grammatologie, which can be read as an implicit defense of the primordially written aspect of Judaism, in contrast with the politically organized Christian/Greek societies that came to dominate the West. Under Christian, and later, Muslim rule, the Jews were marginalized as a “people of the book” with no access to the public forum and its potential for mass mobilization. We cannot help noting that this parallel between Judaism and GA is precisely the link between the two originary (non)-phenomena in this Chronicle’s title: the taboo against explaining antisemitism, and that against exploring the pre-propositional origin of language.

Derrida’s language problematic emerges from the great misconception that has dominated the “post-metaphysical” critique of language and religion: the idea that these bases of human culture originate exemplarily as a central figure’s means of dominating a peripheral collective. On the one hand, Derrida presents this as an “ethnocentric” aspect of Western culture, connected therefore to the confluence of Judaism and Greek metaphysics in Christianity. But it is taken for granted that this “ethnic” trait is at the same time (1) a moral defect of Western culture reflecting its hegemonic/”colonial” situation in relation to other (“indigenous”) cultures; and—tacitly (2) the only conceivable anthropological explanation for the origin of language and culture in general. Rather than understanding language, as does GA, as emerging from the periphery as the means of mutually communicating the sacralization/interdiction of a mutually desired central object, it views the center as always-already usurped by the big-man/ruler, whose unique sacral status contrasts with the anonymity of the peripheral crowd. Whence the contradiction between the “post-colonial” condemnation of the hegemonic West and the tacitly unanalyzable state of “innocent” language origin in non-Western cultures.

Concerning the (parallel) origin of religion, a passage I have several times cited from Michael Tomasello makes use of this same “Western” configuration:

One way that leaders throughout human history have sought to legitimate themselves and their laws from a moral point of view is to claim that they have somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way. (A Natural History of Human Morality, Harvard, 2016: p. 131; see Chronicle 519)

Such a “claim” can emerge only from the scenic center toward the presumably silent and assenting periphery, hence within a hierarchical social order in which the sacred arises, as here, as an instrument of control. Derrida’s more anthropologically relevant critique of the primacy of speech over writing is nonetheless, we should note, equally dependent on such a prior hierarchical configuration.

Yet in the context of Western culture itself, Derrida’s critique does not deny, and can even be allowed tacitly to imply, that the truly originary speech/gesture configuration is that in which language is the communal voice of the sacred—the configuration that is the basis of the Jewish “religion of the book.”

What Jewish religious sensibility preserves of the originary event of language is the ontological separation between periphery and center that is embodied in language itself rather than mediated by a human figure. The deferral implicit in written language, which Jewish religious services have always emphasized by foregrounding reading from Scripture, is constitutive of the One God who cannot be named in language and whose self-identity makes him inaccessible to human imperatives. Religious Jews speak of him only as Hashem, “the name”—the signifying principle itself.

Judaism occupies the originary position among monotheist ontologies; Jewish firstness is not simply chronological; it is ontological. Both the “late” religions Christianity and Islam embody the need to compensate for the previously established deferral of God’s presence by the addition of a human mediator, whether as a “person” of God himself or as a designated prophet and exemplary secular leader—in either case, inserting a model of one-to-many human centrality within the One God’s unmediated communications of the Old Testament.

As Adam and I attempted to make clear in our book, it was this Jewish firstness that has made the Jews the eternal targets of antisemitism. Whence the soft taboo among Jews on making this point, which can only encourage antisemitism rather than explaining it away. While calling it “prejudice” or “madness” is harmless, describing it as an example of resented firstness can only further enrage antisemites. If humanity is indeed founded on différance, deferral, the Jews have been right from the beginning. How then can they offer this to the non-Jewish world as an “explanation” of their hostility?

In a very different register from Hebrew monotheism, the originary hypothesis likewise emphasizes the egalitarian origin of language and culture, not as an idea abandoned in a long-lost Eden, but as the substantive basis of the human throughout history. Rather than a critical vision of (Western) history as a long mystification now at last beginning its process of “deconstruction,” GA understands the fundamental reciprocity of language as the underlying guarantee of humanity’s moral equality even under hierarchical authority.

Just as language is the foundation of the human separation from the animal world, Hebrew monotheism has been the foundation of the civilization that has brought about modernity. Building on this foundation, Christianity allowed this civilization to absorb Greek metaphysics and transform it into empirical science and technology. (See Chronicle 737 and Rodney Stark, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014).

Metaphysics in its original conception was built on the denial of language’s human-worldly origin, as though la différance entered the world only with the proposition, the ostensive sign of the sacred not sufficing to found the instrument of Parmenides’ Way of Truth. In contrast, the tension within the Jewish “origin of language” between human speech and God’s Ehyeh asher ehyeh, I am that/what I am, which we should understand as the divine (non)-response to the originary ostensive, a tension between the affirmation of the One God as the primordial referent to the emitters of the sign and the declarative proposition as our vehicle of worldly truths, should be seen as the dialectical motor of Western Civilization: beginning with the divine significance that guarantees our being, demonstrate how these truths contribute to that significance in human terms. The One God’s self-affirmation is the only declarative required by Hebrew religion, but the world of metaphysics offers its community an instrument with which to probe the universe for what is significant to its members.

Once we understand Hebrew monotheism and Greek metaphysics as the two central components of Western civilization, the two taboos with which we began can both be accounted for. That the Jews have shown themselves as adept as any in the world of empirical science, and even when required, in metaphysics proper, is irrelevant to the fact that this civilization, with its empirical applications of logical reasoning, is in the first place a Christian/Trinitary phenomenon.

Antisemitism must be considered an “essential” element of Christianity in that the adoption of the Old Testament as the prelude to its fulfillment in the New makes the temptation of accepting it as complete in itself a “tribal” danger to be prevented at all costs. Judaism proper cannot accept metaphysics, because it understands language as pre-metaphysical, as the means whereby the One God, from whom humans derive their capacity to name the things of the world and talk about them, “is what he is.” To make propositional language itself a point of departure is to overlook the différance that is its basis, which the One God revealed to the Jews through his “namelessness.”

The Christian identification of Jesus with “the word” [logos] is a violation of this ontological separation that situates language beyond the anthropological limits of the human/divine relationship. If the logos is always-already a “person” of God, then language itself does not emerge from the human encounter with the sacred, but as a manifestation of the sacred itself, in the form of a proposition rather than the ostensive recognition of the One God. (The ambiguity of the Greek word logos lends itself to this conflation.) Whence the Christian hospitality toward Greek metaphysics, which by accepting language as given a priori is able to view its “Ideas” as of superhuman origin.

The Christian Trinity is a synthesis of the divine/human dichotomy with its mediation, incorporating the paradox into the divinity itself and thereby making possible the understanding of language as a “mapping” of all worldly and divine reality. Whereas Judaism conserves the fundamental paradox that separates language from the reality it attempts to “map.”

Is antisemitism still necessary? For Christianity, we may well say that its functionality was exhausted in the Holocaust. On April 14, 1986, Pope John Paul II declared of the Jews: “You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.” Today’s renewed Christian antisemitism is functionally dependent on Muslim anti-Zionism. For Islam, the rejection of Israel constitutes a final temptation working against the unity of the three religions, but one that the Abraham Accords is hopefully showing the way toward overcoming.

To sum up:

Antisemitism, the rejection of Hebrew/Jewish firstness, insures against the temptation to experience the divine paradox as outside human reality. The metaphysical rejection of elementary, pre-declarative language insures against the prehistorical ostensive discovery of this paradox until it is revealed in the life and death of Jesus as always/already the Christ. In neither case can Western Judeo-Christianity yet accept to reflect on these taboos, even to the point of recognizing them as such. But taboos once “softened” cannot long resist the power of persistent reflection.