Is there a ‘Jewish Question’? (a god with a human interest)
At first glance, Bauer’s 1843 thesis, in which the now notorious phrase of ‘the Jewish question’ is introduced to modernity, bears little difference from many other Enlightenment political analyses in that it declares that religious demands are by their very nature incompatible with, and thus inadmissible to, a secular state. Political emancipation can only occur if these pre-modern statuses conferred upon the social group in question are abandoned. None less than Marx and Engels were quick to critique this thesis in the following year, arguing instead that Bauer had failed to distinguish between political freedom and a more general human freedom, and that the secular state, far from being emancipatory, actually presupposed religion in its self-made ‘civil religion’, and that its demands were structurally no different than the demands of a deity, real or imagined. Indeed, since for these writers gods were but human projections, the state was actually far less free of an apparatus, since it has a material reality about it, even though its general conception is almost as abstract as that of Godhead itself.
For Marx, both the question of God and that of human freedom through a political entity were false questions, and thus any specifically Jewish rendition of such a question was, at best, a red herring. Why single out a particular ethnic group in any case, as Bauer had done, when it came to unemancipated cultures enthralled to pre-modern moral demands? Even in our own day, there remain many such communities, some contrived, as in the popular usage of the term ‘cult’, and others traditional or at least, historical in scope and in pedigree. In fact, much of world conflict may be understood as an ongoing clash between loyalties to mysticism and the demands of rational discourses, though I would caution a too-heavy reliance upon this tension, as it often can overlay, either by default or by design, other more palpable stressors, such as access to resources, political power, and enfranchisement in modern institutional discourses, no more so than those of the applied sciences and thence their technical miracles.
If Bauer’s thesis was more or less immediately dismissed as a Bourgeois fraud – similarly, the 1789 revolution in France was seen by Marx and Engels as a half-step towards human freedom; no secular state based upon the new French model could hope to deliver the more radical authenticity of freedom from the reduction of the species-being to its labor power under capital (this is a point that must be borne in mind in any discussion of Israel as a modern state populated with apparently emancipated Jewish citizens) – it is not otherwise clear how Marx advanced the question philosophically beyond the vague sense, at the time, that communism would at once clear the decks of both any ideas of God and such theo-political demands that religion made upon believers and the more worldly demand of wage-slavery itself. What is more certain, is that Bauer’s introduction of the phrase got stuck in a darker corner of European political discourse and was thence embarked on a criminal career.
It could be seen as anti-Semitic to point to the Jews and suggest that they remained the epitome of moral backsliding, assuming that all other cultures and ethnic groups had rushed headlong into Enlightenment freedoms. This is hardly the case even today, when rather what we observe is a general regression of all cultures and classes into a nostalgic fantasy of premodernity, replete with the very demands Bauer and Marx agreed must be shed, with their essential difference being, as stated, that the latter saw this as only a first step and not an ethical terminus. Marx was himself Jewish of course, though he, like Freud after him, had perhaps ironically ‘heeded’ the advice Wagner had given to his virtuoso musicians, a cadre of cultured elites who had developed a great, and for them, emancipatory, faith in the composer’s art and even his politics, which too were anti-Semitic, and had thus ‘shed their Jewishness’. It is always somewhat awry to accuse someone of Jewish descent of anti-Semitism, and yet one is always capable of writing and working against one’s own culture. And it is this point, at this moment, that we are made more aware of the possibility that there could be an authentically Jewish question after all.
I think that there is, and it would be: Is it possible that there could exist a God with a human interest? There were many mascot gods in the Near East and Levant at the time the Hebrews occupied a semi-nomadic subsistence which included warfare with neighboring groups. Weber argues that the ancient Hebrews were both a ‘pariah’ people and a guest people. They were quite familiar with others’ gods and were explicitly told by Yahweh not to worship them. It should be immediately noted that Weber uses the term ‘pariah’ only in the most technical sense, and not as a derogation. Even so, the sense that the Jewry were always somehow an ‘attachment’ to a dominant regional culture no matter where they had rusticated historically had engendered a dangerous disdain for them. Partisans of both Christianity and the later secularism Bauer exhorts, began to make suspicious claims against the Jews, at first because they refused conversion, and then refused nationalism. Marx would certainly say that these refusals amounted to the same thing in the end; that the ‘chosen people’ owed nothing to anyone or anything other than Yahweh Himself.
Seen only in this light, the modern state of Israel is both emancipatory politically and religiously, something that for nineteenth-century thought is precisely impossible. Hence the problem of regression in its objective circumstance; the secular state must be overthrown by a theocracy – this is the evangelical line – or the secular disguise of the theocratic demand must be overthrown by revolution – this is the communist goal. While the former is clearly backward looking, we cannot be certain that the latter aims at a more humane future since all major attempts thus far have turned backward upon themselves. One might object that if one understands Marx and Engels authentically, a real human freedom is at hand, but one could make the same claim for the Gospels. Indeed, Marx often comes across as the modernist Jesus, and for that matter, in all three great critiques of Enlightenment thinking, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, a replacement gospel is in fact sought, as if these iconoclastic thinkers had reached back around modernity itself in order to turn it inside out.
But if there were mascot gods aplenty in antiquity, ignored or tolerated to a point by the official imperial belief systems, arranged much as folk religions and syncretisms range in contrast to the Catholic church, only Yahweh was the deity whose interest became historical. Yahweh was the God who apparently had an interest in a small slice of humanity, and then in the most radical act in the history of Western religion, instantiated Himself on earth as a human being the form of Christ, according to Christian tenets. Interest in humanity had, in one revolutionary stroke, been embodied in a human interest. I would suggest that our entire idea of revolution begins at this juncture, and so any authentically Jewish question is one that involves, at least now, all of humanity and not only its source culture.
And yet, by definition, a god cannot have a human interest, so in appearing on earth as the Son of God, this immaculate birthing, rather fittingly, did not kill the mother but instead the father. We can read, perhaps at least literarily if not literally, that this was the reason why Jesus received no answer from his father when on the cross. Indeed, his father had not forsaken his son at all, for the former was already dead. I have argued elsewhere why an ethical god cannot exist, even if we cannot be certain that a metaphysical one does not, as atheists claim so vehemently. If this is correct, the Christian God is in essence but the afterlife of the Hebrew deity, nothing more.
But surely also nothing less. And this is where the perduring quality of the Jewish question resides; even if we must answer ‘no’ to its original formulation, we cannot dismiss so easily the consequences of believing in an ethical godhead. On the lighter side, we discover a sensibility that all human beings are in principle a value, and thus have value, no matter their relative status, ignorance, enlightenment. On that darker, we are burdened with the sense that in order to transmute that base value into the precious material of the elect one must believe in a certain set of none other than religious demands, has lent itself to criminal abuses, even genocide. What must be acknowledged is that both the blessing and the curse are built into this structure from the beginning; indeed, they have been ‘placed before us’ and we have in fact chosen not between them but rather both at once.
The Jewish question, seen in this way, has nothing to do with emancipation of a specific cultural group, but puts forward the very idea of human freedom in a world that, then as now, is mostly unfamiliar with, and even suspicious of, this auto-soteriological genius. If this question can be abused and turned to regression, it can also be exulted and evolved to engage the species in a radical freedom. If it remains human, then it cannot transcend history itself, but instead invites us to overcome our own specific histories, which is also the most charitable manner of interpreting remarks like Wagner’s and analyses like Marx and Engels’. Even if we must answer in the negative to its first formulation, in so doing, we must also understand that same question as suddenly a metaphorical interrogative, and one that remains immaculately pregnant with the future of the species entire.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.