Atheism and the Jewish Question
Leo Strauss in Weimar
Today it is almost impossible to raise the Jewish question — the seemingly inexplicable discrimination and persecution faced by the Jewish community in nearly all modern states — without its significance being transformed into either a much more general problem for liberal democracies, or into a problem peculiar to the Jewish people. If the Jewish question is raised, it is often thought of along these lines: as an unavoidable antagonism between religious minorities and liberalism, a failure of the state to end discrimination in the private sphere, or as a problem rooted in a more pervasive and global anti-Semitism.
There’s an element of truth in all these opinions, but the core of the problem is missed. To recapture some of what is lost in these perspectives, I’d like to reconsider the writings of someone who lived and wrote through the experience underlying the ‘Jewish question’: Leo Strauss. Retracing his thought will reveal that the ‘Jewish question’ points to a much more general predicament for the Western tradition, the necessary tension between reason and revelation.
The Jewish Question in Weimar. Words like persecution and oppression attempt to capture in ordinary language what in concrete reality is the extra-ordinary, or an exceptional situation that lies outside the shared and common human experience picked out by everyday language. We would then not only do an injustice to the Jewish question if we were to discuss it in general terms, but we would fail to understand it as a lived experience. For this reason, the Jewish question can only be detailed by reference to how it actually appeared to Leo Strauss and the German-Jewish community during the Weimar Republic. Context here is key: Strauss wrote and came of age between 1919 and 1930, that is, between the end of WWI and the rise Hitler’s Third Reich, when Germany was a liberal democracy and — for the first time in its history — granted full political rights to German-Jews.
For Strauss, the German Jew existed in a “precarious” position confronted initially with two alternatives. On the one hand, the Weimar Republic ostensibly offered the German-Jew an opportunity to assimilate, to become a full member of an “open society” based on the supposedly universal “rights of man”, that were said to be tolerant of the differences between Christians and Jews. Alongside this, there was a powerful movement within the Jewish community calling for a “return” to the traditional and orthodox “Jewish heritage.”
The most obvious reason for the precariousness of the first alternative (assimilation) originates in the very same Weimar Republic which gave the German Jews “full political rights”, which was the same regime that would soon give way to Hitler’s Germany, a regime which “had no other clear principle than murderous hatred of the Jews, for ‘Aryan’ had no other clear meaning other than ‘non-Jewish.’” Put very crudely, the same country that granted them formal equality would soon decide to annihilate them. However, Strauss emphasizes that even before the collapse of Weimar there were evident problems with this solution, namely, that liberalism which proclaimed at one level to be absolutely tolerant, could do nothing to prevent the social discrimination that occurred in the private sphere. In other words, any German-Jewish individual who took the promise held out by liberal democracy seriously — the promise of inclusion and recognition by a universal principle of morality (the rights of man) — immediately felt how specious this promise was if he ever chose to act on it. Legal equality was rendered meaningless by overwhelming private discrimination.1 1. Leo Strauss, “Preface” in Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
We turn now to the second alternative: the possibility of a return to orthodoxy. For Strauss, this was an equally problematic route for the German-Jew in Weimar. Nowadays, we often talk of a Judeo-Christian tradition but, to Strauss, this idea was incomprehensible and he reminds us of a fact which, today, many would have difficulty accepting: Judaism qua Judaism is inherently at odds with Christian, Protestantism and the liberal Enlightenment “principles of 1789.” These difficulties are not only mere theoretical difficulties (i.e. an abstract conflict of ideas); they become a concrete problem for any community that might seek to synthesize the two and — in Strauss’s eyes — the German-Jews in Weimar were such a community.
With Strauss as our guide we can think through the exact features of this incompatibility.
Foremost, any German-Jew who seeks to return to orthodoxy needs to keep in mind the radically different meaning that “political existence” has for Orthodox Judaism as compared to the liberal “principles of 1789.” Strauss might have put it like this: A real commitment to Orthodox Judaism necessitates the idea of “galut”, i.e. the idea that the incredible suffering and scattering of the Jewish people across the globe is not a human problem meant to be solved, but a meaningful divine punishment paid by the Jewish people for their rebellion against the divine law. As such, it has no human solution but only a divine solution. If we are at all permitted to speak of a “national existence,” then we must remember that the political existence of the Jewish people is essentially an act of faith in “the ideas of Choseness and of the Messiah.” It is an act of faith in the sense that we believe fully in our hearts that the Jewish people are indeed the chosen people who will be redeemed by the coming of the Messiah, who will at last provide “the ground beneath our feet” in the form of the Promised Land. This vision of national existence is necessarily incompatible with the liberal-enlightenment view of political existence. These latter principles demand a kind of reality which Judaism must deny. These principles demand a “normal historical reality” in which national-political existence is based on “land and soil, power and arms, peasantry and aristocracy”, in short a political reality which is fundamentally to be “prepared for rationally” by human effort. Let us then not deny the undeniable! For an orthodox Jew, the very idea of a Jewish citizen is a contradiction in terms. Once the Jewish individual speaks in terms of his rights as a citizen he already denied Orthodox Judaism.2 2. Leo Strauss, The Early Writings ed. Michael Zank, p. 58, 79 – 80, 85. New York: SUNY Press, 2002.
If we follow Strauss further we will also see why, in his view, orthodoxy is compelled to reject the dominant German religious traditions: Christian-Protestant conceptions of religion and specifically the humanistic theology that lies at the bottom of it. At its most extreme, the difference comes down to this: “Then, the primary fact was God; now it is world, man, religious experience.” In other words, German theology places man at the center of the religious experience whereas Judaism must reject this as blasphemy and insist that the origin of the religious experience begins in a supra-human divine origin. Orthodox Judaism requires that “religion is the attitude toward something finished, rigid and objective…the exact opposite of evangelical piety and German inwardness.” The writings of Martin Buber highlight the most excellent example of the kind of humanistic German theology that Strauss has in mind3:3. Ibid., p. 77, 93
Take, for example, Buber’s thoroughly immanentist interpretation of religion. If God is “later” than the religious experience of the individual or of the people…then the trajectory towards absolutizing “the human” is already determined.44. Ibid., p. 67
Orthodox Judaism begins essentially and inseparably with the “existence of a God, an existence that is entirely indifferent to human existence and human need.” The humanized theology of Buber sees in God nothing “but an expression for needs of the soul.” For Strauss, this German theology which takes as its primary fact the human and his subjective experiences is irreconcilable with the Orthodox Judaism which takes as its primary and objective fact God.55. Ibid., p 70
Strauss’s reflections on the difficulties a return to orthodoxy will impose on the German-Jew in Weimar boil down to this observation: The German-Jew, by his existence in the Republic, has internalized Christian, Protestantism, and the “principles of 1789” such that the kind of belief necessary for a return to orthodoxy is impossible for the German-Jew. The German-Jew living in the Weimar Republic is someone who, in the deepest sense, lives at odds with himself; his very existence is a contradiction. He is someone who exists in the space between two fundamentally incompatible traditions.
One might very well challenge Strauss at this point and question whether the Weimar Jews have internalized the German tradition to the extent that he claims they have. What proof is there for what seems, at least at face value, to be an intensely personal question? What are the grounds for the incredible claim that the “ancient Jewish world” implied by [orthodox] belief is now closed, [and] “destroyed.”6 6. Ibid., p. 69 The ultimate justification for this claim is found in the observation that the Biblical miracle no longer holds any sway over the Jewish heart.
Strauss’s observations of the spiritual state of the Jewish community in Weimar can be sketched as follows: The “power of religion has been broken” and it is “only because of this reason” that one can even raise the Jewish question. The Jewish heritage can be authoritative and binding only if it is paired with the kind of faith assumed by the Torah. What does that belief look like? It is the belief in a God who created the world, man, and nature; this God is omnipotent and has full command over nature such that the Biblical miracles were not just a mere possibility but did indeed occur. For this God who created the world ex nihilo, no intervention in the natural order is impossible. Do we German-Jews have this faith? Or has the influence of science and historical criticism of the Bible weakened our faith? If we search within ourselves we cannot help but assert the latter. Let us then admit that the belief in the divine miracle is no longer possible for German-Jews. Let us admit that “The power of God over nature has lost its credibility: the claim of [the existence of] God now holds true merely for the inner world, for the world of the heart.”
Radical Atheism as an Answer to the Jewish Qustion. If the ancient Jewish world is closed and assimilation is not an option, is there then no solution to the German-Jewish predicament? Strauss, reflecting on this situation, proclaims that there is only one honest answer to these facts: political Zionism grounded in a radical unbelief.
[I]n the age of atheism, the Jewish people can no longer base its existence on God but only on itself alone, on its labor, on its land, and on its state. It must even as a people break with the traditions that so many individuals have already long since broken with….
Strauss realizes that if the German-Jewish community no longer has any heritage on which to fall back on, then to not act would be tantamount to allowing themselves to perish as a people. If they are to preserve themselves as a people and if neither orthodoxy nor assimilation is an option then the only road left is the formation of their own state — Israel — built on purely atheistic grounds.
Strauss, at least in his early works, pushes us to this extreme conclusion and we might, on very good grounds, reject his proposal: In what recognizable sense would this new atheistic state be Jewish? This is not an easy question to answer but it might be worth keeping in mind a feature of the Jewish heritage which Strauss constantly references in his later work: “suffering, indeed, heroic suffering stemming from the heroic act of self-dedication of a whole nation to something which it regarded as infinitely higher than itself….”7 7. Leo Strauss, “Why We Remain Jews” p. 323, in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity ed. Kenneth Hard Green. New York: SUNY Press, 1993.
Leaving this question aside, even if we reject his ultimate conclusion, it’s hard to overlook the very powerful case he has made for an unresolvable tension between the Enlightenment and the Jewish tradition, or, as he will later formulate it, between Athens and Jerusalem.