“Jews on the Brain”

From the “Exodus Series Paintings”
by Maria Lago

“Jews on the Brain”

Over time, I have from time to time lost a friend or two – to many forces and factors – but, among them, sudden and insistent incursions of anti-Jewish feeling. Interestingly, I’ve encountered relatively little anti-semitism from strangers.

So the usual diagnosis of “prejudice,” that it is a pre-judgment of the other – whom we do not know and on whom we can therefore project some trait that we’ve repressed in ourselves – that diagnosis has not proved applicable in my experience.   Simply because the people who turned anti-semitic knew me well and loved me with understanding love. How do I know this? I know it the same way anyone knows such things.

I conclude that prejudice against Jews is no ordinary prejudice. What is it, then? As you can imagine, I think a lot (incessantly in fact) so from time to time I’ve come up with some thoughts of my own. But, recently, a writer who is a sort of pen pal, someone for whom I have the highest regard, recommended an unusual book on the topic: Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg. Although I’ve read a fair number of weighty tomes on this theme, what Nirenberg has here pulled together, in its detail and overview, seems new to me.

Identified by Nirenberg with “the Western tradition” are cultures whose notion of the divine originates in Hebrew Scripture and Jewish practice. That would take in Christian and Islamic cultures in all their heterogeneity. These cultures have had the double-edged task of hugging the Jewish influence close enough to extract the divine juice from it, but pushing it far enough away to avoid blending into it and thereby ceasing to be what each claims it is: a new revelation.

You might say, “I don’t see a problem. At least in the ideal case, we acknowledge our parents and teachers with reverence and affection. Doing that doesn’t make us feel threatened in our very identity! Why can’t Christianity and Islam do the same? What’s so hard about it?”

Well well well. What’s true “in principle” doesn’t always hold in the push and pull of religious struggles for authority and dominance. What I call “the ideal case” was not found to be politic. Instead, each religious culture and subculture, sect and sub-sect, defined itself by the emphatic proclamation:

I Am Not A Jew.

In the early centuries of Christianity, some patristic writers wanted to ditch Hebrew Scripture altogether. The stories in that scripture occur on the plane of history, where families live, wars are fought and empires rise and fall. Those who wanted to get rid of the “Old Testament” risked confusing the new religion of Jesus with gnostic rejections of the everyday world as metaphysically unreal. On the other side of the dispute, any writer who held out for retaining Hebrew Scripture, in whole or in part, risked being accused of “Judaizing” or actually being a “Jew”!

The term “Jew” was not taken to designate a member of the surviving tribe of Jehudah (into which Benjamin was absorbed when the other tribes were either “lost” or else lost their distinctiveness as political entities).   It was given a particular meaning (not a good one). In Christian polemic, “Jew” stood for “literalism,” “carnality,” “bestiality,” “hypocrisy,” “rigid legalism,” “arrogance” and “pitiless condemnation,” or “murderer of God when he incarnated as a man” and “hater of humanity”!

Heavy heavy,

as we used to say in the counter-culture.

When the European world discovered the uses of modern economic practices, like lending at interest, the law that protected contracts carried with it these fabled dangers of “Judaizing,” which are played out in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”.

Hebrew Scripture does not forbid lending at interest, only lending at exorbitant interest. Most professions were forbidden to Jews, but medieval kings extended special protections to Jewish money-lenders, allowing them to lend at higher rates. That permitted a fine regal division of labor: most of the proceeds raked off by the royal “protectors” and popular resentments kindly allotted to the king’s Jews. Shakespeare’s Jew lived in Venice because, in the playwright’s time, Jews had been long expelled and there were virtually none in England.

The Protestant Reformers championed the authority of Scripture (as opposed to clerical authority). Chairs of Hebrew were established in universities, rabbinic experts were consulted in the work of translation, Hebrew was even considered the ur-language spoken by God in heaven and yet, with a few exceptions, real Jews were still viewed as beneath contempt and the rival readings of Scripture were routinely denounced as Judaizing.

When the philosophers of Enlightenment found that religious hatred could be dissolved in the new solvent of Reason, Jews were still discovered by them to be the people least capable of reason!

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten in Nirenberg’s book. I’ll omit the chapter on Islam, though I did find – when I worked my own way through the Al-Azar-authorized translation of 9 volumes of hadiths – that not once does a Jew appear there as a good guy.

Hell, I like happy endings. Does this story contain one? Oh sure. When the messiah comes, or comes back if you prefer, we’re all gonna go to our happy place. But within the terms of our present discussion? Any happy ending here and now? Let me lay down some postulates that might conceivably help.

  1. Jewish history began as sacred history – and it still is that. Sacred history’s task is to provide a generally useful metric for profane history.
  2. Sacred history puts terrific pressure on the people who live within it. Human nature being what it is, those whose history it is are naturally and continuously tempted to profane it.
  3. With God’s help, some Jews resist this temptation in outstanding measure. Others, not so much.
  4. Bystanders have been, and will be, tempted to cope with the pressure of sacred history by caricaturing, despising and profaning the prototypical case, and the actors in it. They do that because the Jewish actors in it stand in for themselves.
  5. Jews are God’s pilot project, a representative model of what happens – for good or ill – in the divine/human partnership. When they did it — or do it — right, they provide illustrative material for the question, how did they do that? When they get it wrong, for the question, what’s the lesson here?   Whether we are Jews or Gentiles, we read the Bible – not to confirm our dogmas – but because real life is still like that.

Does all this mean that (as Jews sometimes complain) they/we are not being treated “normally”? Not being treated the way other men and women are treated?


Living in sacred history is — or can be seen to be – the generic human task. If this is the real task of a fully human life, none of us should “normalize” it.

Let’s face it.

Real life ain’t normal.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “Jews on the Brain”

  1. Jerel Wohl says:

    Hi Abigail,

    While only discussed at the beginning of your post, I would argue that you indeed have been the subject of anti Semitism not only by people you know, but also people you don’t know. Just yesterday, grave markers were vandalized at another cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia. While not an act specific to anyone I know, any act of anti Semitism is not only an act to one of us, in this case the deceased and the family of the deceased, but is an abhorrent act against all of us. About a year ago, I am coming to realize that I was a victim of anti Semitism (although have denied it in my mind and publicly until now). It resulted in a physical assault and no support from the leadership surrounding the perpetrator. This act was not only an act against me, but against all Jews. In order to conquer this level of stupidity, we need to stand together and fight against the ignorance that propels people to take the actions they do. I am propelled now to take on the task to a greater level of educating the ignorant, and pointing out how anti Semitic comments ad gestures are not only inappropriate, but what I think are the common sense reasons such attitudes should change. Some will listen and some will not, but the best we can do is try and build some momentum to inflict values of acceptance and peace in people who suffer from a different mindset that is not only harmful to others and society overall, but also harmful to themselves.

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