For Gabriel

My step-grandson Gabriel Danon recently recommended to me Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur’s Réflexions sur la question antisémite (Grasset & Fasquelle, 2019), translated into English as Anti-Semitism Revisited: How the Rabbis Made Sense of Hatred (MacLehose Press, 2022). The book’s chapters discuss a number of varieties of antisemitism:

  1. Family rivalry as in Esau vs Jacob; the author avoids the touchier enmity between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac.
  2. Civilizational rivalry, centered on a rabbinical tale that contrasts two figures: a judeophilic Roman emperor and a counselor of the previous reign who, condemned to death by fire, is saved by a matron who advises him to circumcise himself—his name, Ketya Bar Shalom means literally “cut, son of peace,” a paradoxical rapprochement between the “cut” of circumcision and Shalom which means “peace” but also connotes totality.
  3. Sexual rivalry/identity, where the “femininity” of the Jew is linked to the “castration” of circumcision, as well as to the Jew’s generally passive role in Christian (and Muslim) society before 1948.
  4. The Jew’s “chosenness” or election, which the author puns on by referring to antisemitism as an “electoral contest.”
  5. And finally, the effect of Israel, which contains a section headed “The White Jew and the Dirty Jew”; it would be interesting to see how the author would update this part with respect to the experience of October 7.

As a non-specialist, I found Rabbi Horvilleur’s probing and often witty references to Talmudic sources of great interest, and although her vision of antisemitism has a different focus from mine, it provided a welcome occasion for further reflection on the subject, in particular in emphasizing the paradoxical element of Hebrew “firstness” without which it could not have come into being.

Since unlike this learned rabbi I have no pretensions of being a Talmudic scholar, one might say that I had no business collaborating on a book claiming to offer a new perspective on it (Adam Katz and Eric Gans. The First Shall Be The Last: Rethinking Antisemitism. Leiden: Brill, 2015). I would say in my defense that humanistic anthropology is characterized by the fact that it is indeed open to “amateurs”; ideally, amateurs should collaborate with real scholars—and although Adam is not a rabbinical scholar, he is a teacher and scholar of Hebrew. Unlike the hard sciences, GA deals with materials that are never “technical” because they concern matters that in principle every human being can judge. For they should be considered matters of the soul, matters that concern the sacred: the sense of moral rightness that we experience as an external will, not simply the collective will of the community, but a transcendent one—whence the Hebrew intuition of the One God. The human sciences must indeed make use of mathematical techniques and technical knowledge; moral judgments depend on facts, and facts are anchored in measurable reality. But as we have seen with respect to the origin of language, for which professional linguists have never produced a credible theory of origin, only a humanistic approach that seeks to understand language as an emergent behavior, one whose first appearance must have occurred as the solution to a problem rather than as a gratuitous addition to our intellectual capacities, can offer a plausible hypothesis of language origin.

The similarity of antisemitism to language is not evident; the latter is a universal and necessary element of any definition of the human, the former, a historical phenomenon which, however widespread and long-lived, can hardly be called a human universal. Yet there too, our understanding is stymied by the difficulty of finding a global explanation for the variety of often self-contradictory manifestations of this “oldest hatred.” And I believe that there too, the solution—which must deal, if not with the emergence of the fundamental components of the human, nonetheless with a longstanding and apparently endemic social pathology of what still remains the world’s dominant culture—can be found only by adopting a perspective that seeks the minimal core of this behavior rather than attempting to encompass the great variety of its manifestations. Rabbi Horvilleur’s approach is exploratory rather than minimalistic, but her book points to a richer core conception of antisemitism that can be seen as usefully fleshing out the bare-bones approach taken in Adam’s and my book.

Rabbi Horvilleur’s primary point is that in the world of Western/Abrahamic civilization, expulsion of “the Jew” has often been judged necessary to permit the rest of a given subset of this civilization to live as a unified totality (with the reminder that the Hebrew word Shalom that means “peace” has as its core meaning the notion of completeness). The presence of the Jew is symptomatically experienced in Western society as a mortal threat to this completeness, whence the logic of the Final Solution and its Islamist equivalents.

This and the other important themes of antisemitism: the “femininity” of the Jew, his “secret” power, his ambiguous hiddenness and egregious visibility—and in today’s simplified cast of characters, his “whiteness,” which is both more primordial and at the same time less pure (given its Semitic element) than that of “ordinary” Caucasians—must all be subordinated to the main theme of antisemitism, the subject of the book’s penultimate chapter, which is the Jew’s chosenness.

On the one hand the “cut” Jew is defined as deficient, supposedly needing to bleed Christian children to compensate for his deficit of blood/life force, but on the other, he claims to be a member of a people uniquely chosen by God. And whereas many other peoples—ultimately, each in its way—have made this claim, the Jew’s is the only one that troubles us, given that no one in the Abrahamic religious tradition can deny either Judaism’s founding antiquity with respect to the other members of this trinity or its ancestral continuity with the Jews of the present.

Genocide was not born—nor did it die—with the Holocaust. But what was unique to the “Final Solution” was the sense that alone among all the world’s peoples, the Jews are felt to prevent the rest of human society from living in harmony. Whether that harmony be described in egalitarian terms, as it would be today, or in those privileging the Master Race, is a secondary aspect of the vision of a harmonious totality, a Shalom, that somehow the sole presence of Jews obstructs—a totality that cannot in fact be conceived as a reality, but only as the Promised Land of the Endlösung.

As I pointed out in Chronicles 405 and 406, monotheism is on the surface perfectly egalitarian. Doing away with rivalries among various gods, it postulates the One God, the same sacred, for all. But at the same time, it is an idea that, however many times it may have been conceived, has only once in the West taken root and spread beyond its original source. And if the Hebrew conception of God provides the model of the sacred for other peoples, then accepting the One God of the Hebrews means accepting a secondary role in the transmission of the sacred: there is only one God, but it was the Hebrews to whom he was first revealed. This is the paradox of firstness applied to the very core of humanity’s spiritual reality.

The hostility of the Romans, or that of Haman in the Book of Esther, can be understood as a desire to eliminate those who believe not merely that their God is more powerful than all other gods, but that He is uniquely real and the others, mere idols. And even this “pagan” variety of antisemitism, however violent, is benign in comparison to the hatred that has often been generated in Christian society with respect to its Jewish “elder brothers,” who even as they reject the Christian Trinity cannot be denied their originary role in the One God’s revelation. And if it may be said that the Holocaust to a large extent put an end—or at any rate, a long pause—to traditional Christian antisemitism, the founding of Israel gave birth to a newly virulent form of Islamist antisemitism, spawned by the first modern Jewish settlements in Palestine, and emerging in full flower in the October 7 massacre.

In contrast with Christianity, which accepts the Hebrew Tanakh as its “Old Testament,” the Muslim solution of denying the priority of either Testament, claiming that they were partially inspired drafts of Allah’s true revelation that would be given only in the Koran, could be effective only in the context of the Arabs’ marginality with respect to the great classical cultures of the Middle East. But as we learned with the shock of 9/11 and similar incidents elsewhere, the “post-colonial” revolt against the West has found in Islam its most powerful spiritual source. What we viewed on 10/7 as shameless barbarism was experienced by its perpetrators as a supreme act of faith, and it cannot be denied that most of them would not hesitate to give their own lives in its affirmation.

Similar are the Islamists’ shameless denials of the historical priority of what are undeniably their own religion’s primary sources, as in the focus on the “defilement” of the Temple Mount or El Aqsa by the presence of the Jews whose ancestral temple stood on that very spot. No historical evidence can withstand the power of the sacred; as with Muslim Holocaust denial, such acts of faith are invulnerable to any attempt at “dialectic.”

As the exemplary Old-Testament tale of antisemitism, the point of the Book of Esther is that hatred of the Jews is not inescapable, that the Queen’s influence with the King can effectively counter Haman’s. It is rather Haman who becomes the scapegoat in the story, and provides a demonstration of Jew-hatred’s ultimate impotence—the theme of Purim, the most joyous of Jewish holidays. But the Persian religion was precisely not derived from Judaism; tolerance of the Jews involved no acceptation of implicit secondarity. The phenomenon of antisemitism cannot be understood independently of the post-Jewish Abrahamic religions that have promoted it, and the hegemony of Judeo-Christian Western civilization is incomprehensible without it.

The analogies examined by Rabbi Horvilleur of primogeniture, civilizational conflict, sexual rivalry, and the stumbling block of the election of the “chosen people,” are all metaphoric expressions of a historic priority that from its origin, humanity has had to surround with sacred différance to prevent its becoming a source of conflict. What is condemned as the Jews’ scandalously arrogant claim to election is always already an election in the minds of those who condemn it.

Thus the Jew occupies a “mental space” uncomfortably analogous to that of the sacred, a space implicit in the Christian’s and Muslim’s beliefs and, to the extent that Western culture dominates the world, in the sacred itself. (And it is curious that with all the passion that has gone into post-colonialism over several generations, Islam, the religion that has become its privileged expression is, despite its radical form’s hostility to its Abrahamic ancestors, nonetheless a religion of what we may call the Abrahamic civilization that dominates the civilized world. For once the idea of monotheism takes root, as it did only with the advent of Hebrew religion, it conquers all in its path.)

Buddhism, as we have seen, does not contradict this monotheism so much as turn away from its premise in desire; to use the vocabulary of GA, Buddhism treats its notion of différance not simply as a deferral to insure peaceful sharing, but as an implicitly permanent state. The Buddhist Adam may taste of the apple, but he learns to put away desire for its savor. And Buddhist spiritual exercises do not contradict the fundamental ontology of the Abrahamic sacred so much as modify its emphasis; the human self, the creature of language and the sacred, obliges itself to recall on every occasion what Westerners tend to forget—desire’s ever-present threat of violence.

Reading Rabbi Horvilleur’s book has allowed me to enrich my previous expositions of Jewish “firstness,” which neglected to explore its paradoxical relationship to what can in the most general sense be called self-identity: what Rabbi Horvilleur calls in her book’s first chapter “la non-identité juive.” As she points out, whereas the Hellenic hero Ulysses’ adventures are framed by his desire for nostos, returning to his home in Ithaca, Abraham’s are defined by leaving his original home in Ur never to return, and of course the “Promised Land” of the Torah too is the object of a quest rather than a homeland.

Similarly, the other national trait to which circumcision—defining the “supplement” of masculinity by a “cut”—provides the paradoxical key, may be seen as the source both of the Jews’ cultural creativity and at the same time of their disquieting refusal to “play by the rules,” as Jacob tricks Esau out of his primogeniture, or to return to the very beginning, as Abel’s sacrifice becomes favored over his elder brother Cain’s. (This point is also raised in David Goldman’s essay discussed in Chronicle 774.) However Christianity may be said to problematize and even “paradoxicalize” our understanding of the Hebrew One God, the disquieting “non-identity” of the wandering Jew in Christian society was present in Hebrew culture from the beginning; the very word Hebrew or ivri is a verb meaning to traverse rather than a reference to any fixed place.

And what this unique non-identity reveals to us is the paradoxical element inherent in the sacred root of language itself, not merely in our attempts to define its revelations in logical terms. Even the notion of a single revelation of the sacred to a single community already abstracts away from the fact that a community is never a single unit with a single mind, but necessarily a collection of individuals who by the very nature of this revelation will become free to go off in separate groups to form communities of their own, none of which can hope to abolish the rivalries of desire. The contrast between the uniqueness of the sacred/God and the plurality of the human community—without which, needless to say, the very idea of the sacred/God is inconceivable—can be bridged on the ritual scene by the common focus of the sign on its center, but cannot function as a worldly ontology. Language may begin with a single “word,” but its inevitable vocation is to become the plurality that all modern languages illustrate.

Forsaking the animal world of Pavlovian conditioning means making explicit the necessary possibility of rival sacralities, of convictions that are not in harmony. The sacred will provokes unanimity in privileged situations, which we can call revelatory, but the very possibility of this unanimity requires the possibility not merely of its absence, but of its absence reinforced by contesting convictions of its content.

The transcultural phenomenon that brought this paradox to human attention in the Axial age was the awareness of the plurality of cultures and religions that had begun to interact in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in East Asia, catalyzed by the invention of writing. An emerging literate and multicultural world could no longer naively accept any local singularity as the “center of the world,” the geographic counterpart of the sacred. Thus it was the ever-“traversing” Hebrews—not coincidentally characterized by an unusually high degree of literacy—to whom was revealed the unnamable uniqueness of the sacred.

Whence the ultimate success of the Hebrews in persuading what would become Western civilization of the unanimity of the sacred and the uniqueness of its revelation. The worldly values of stability, of identity, must be grounded in a transcendental unity that cannot be exemplified in the diversity of the real world.

And only once we grasp this paradox do we begin to understand that the “election” of the Jews is no arbitrary boast. The uniqueness of the Torah and the Old Testament is so much taken for granted that we have to force ourselves to realize its significance in the context of the Axial Age. Any people can claim to be “chosen,” but no other people has produced a “testament” of comparable anthropological depth and richness.

Perhaps the most powerful paradox of all is the fact that more than anything else, it is antisemitism, Jew-hatred, resentment of the Hebrews’ unique spiritual achievement, that forces the awareness of this obvious fact upon us.

But just as we cannot deny the unique civilizational power of the Torah and its associated books, neither can we deny that of the Greek literary and philosophical culture that begins with the Iliad. Yet there is not, nor has there ever been, a Greek equivalent to antisemitism. The Iliad inaugurates classical Greek literature with the “rage” of Achilles’ resentment, but this resentment, conceived in a world of conflicting gods, has never been turned against the society from which it emerged. For the sacred in literature is fictive; that in the world of human conflict is real.

This most profound anthropological truth of all—may we say that the centuries of Jewish persecution have been, if surely not justified, yet compensated by it? This is the final question that comes to mind on putting down Rabbi Horvilleur’s provocative study.