Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

By Gregerman, Adam | The Christian Century, December 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition


Gregerman, Adam, The Christian Century


Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

By David Nirenberg

Norton, 624 pp., $35.00

In the 1960s, Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce famously quipped:

   If you're from New York and you're
   Catholic, you're still Jewish. If
   you're from Butte, Montana, and
   you're Jewish, you're still goyish
   [non-Jewish].... Italians are all
   Jews. Irishmen who have rejected
   their religion are Jews. Mouths are
   very Jewish. And bosoms.

In a benign and humorous way, Bruce's sweeping stereotypes hint at a more often malevolent trend in millennia of Western thought. He slyly riffs on the ubiquitous deployment of vague notions of Jewishness to caricature groups with little or no connection to the practices or beliefs of living Jews.

David Nirenberg, a medieval historian at the University of Chicago, has produced a highly learned intellectual history of anti-Judaism from ancient Egypt through the middle of the 20th century. Despite its weighty subject, the book is lively, engaging and accessible. It is analytically rigorous, though it sometimes tends toward the esoteric and obscure.

Nirenberg presents a chronological study of thinkers more than of events such as pogroms, discriminatory laws and expulsions, though he does cite events to illustrate some of the implications of anti-Judaism. Nirenberg's focus is on the plasticity of the label "Jewish" and of the accusation of "Judaizing" in mostly religious and philosophical writings. Non-Jewish thinkers used these with stunning frequency to denounce both Jews and non-Jews--mostly the bitter enemies of whoever was deploying the label.

The book begins with a conventional survey of anti-Jewish tropes in pre-Christian Egypt, though these specific associations of Jews with misanthropy and lawlessness had limited influence. Nirenberg then shifts to the first few Christian centuries, when some of the most prominent and lasting usages of the terms Jewish and Judaizing emerged. Early Christians' hostility was expressed in allegations that Jews were hypocritical or dangerous, overly legalistic and excessively focused on flesh over spirit, and these soon became ontological tropes applied to Jews and Judaism generally. The often inter-Jewish polemical circumstances of some New Testament texts were already entirely ignored in the second century. In a shockingly wide range of contexts, Christians such as Justin, Marcion, Augustine and Jerome, along with early Muslims, accused not only Jews but their own coreligionists of manifesting these negative, supposedly Jewish traits.

Nirenberg shows that anti-Judaism was a vague and adaptable trope. Thinkers tarred Jews as a dangerous other, though real Jews were seldom involved when these accusations were made or even present in the societies where this trope held sway. He also catalogues generic denunciations of Judaism as a (or the) worldview or theology in competition with the denouncer's own.

Sharp dualisms help to explain the sense of paranoia and threat that suffused many statements about Judaism. For example, early Christian heresiologist Hegesippus said the diverse heresies that threatened orthodoxy all had their roots in Judaism. When the fourth century bishop Ambrose of Milan was engaged in an inter-Christian dispute with the emperor over church and state, he insisted that Christian political and religious sovereignty would be threatened if Jews were not strenuously repressed. Among the most visible ways for medieval French and Spanish monarchs to demonstrate their piety was to denounce and expel the Jews. In the modern period, anti-Judaism was perpetuated and even strengthened despite growing hostility to religious claims. Voltaire, Kant, Marx, Hegel and many other luminaries continued to contrast "Jewish" materialism, obstinacy and legalism with whatever new perspectives they were developing.

Although some of Nirenberg's close readings depend on existing scholarship and add little to what is already known, the cumulative effect of such a broad survey of largely Christian ancient, medieval and modern writers is powerful and sometimes shocking. …

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