German Idealism and the Jews: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses, by Michael Mack

By Levenson, Alan | Shofar, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

German Idealism and the Jews: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses, by Michael Mack


Levenson, Alan, Shofar


Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 229 pp. $35.00.

Mack's book attempts to do two things: first, cast a spotlight on the antisemitism of German idealist philosophy, illustrating how pseudo-theologies and pseudo-sciences drove discussions of Jewish otherness from Kant onwards. Second, Mack explains the counter-narratives created by Mendelssohn, Heine, Geiger, Graetz, Cohen, and Rosenzweig which attempted to subvert the false presentations foisted upon Jews and Judaism. Mack is hardly the first to point out antisemitic elements in German philosophy, but he succeeds in showing the process by which this thread was spun out more thoroughly than his predecessors. Mack explains that Kant took Spinoza's frankly secular analysis of ancient Judaism as a set of civil proscriptions, transcendentalized it, and thereby presented Judaism as an immutable "religion without a religion." Mack further explains that Kant did this within a German Aufklärung, which, -- unlike the Enlightenment in France -- offered more negotiable terrain for the development of a pseudo-religion.

Despite Hegel's use of history to challenge Kantian idealism, the former retained Kant's negative views of Jewish immutability. According to Mack, Hegel excluded Jewry from his dialectical system. In an interesting discussion of Jewish dietary laws and Hegel's social theory, Mack explains that the unwillingness of Jews to enter into the cycle of violence and victimhood on the level of eating precludes their participating in the sacrificial acts necessary to attaining collective happiness in the nation state. Hegel's Christianity harkened back to Rome, not Israel; Rome's willingness "to inflict pain on immediate being" (p. 61) made it ultimately able to transcend the this-wordly, which Judaism cannot do. Mack neatly distinguishes between early and late Hegel, as well as the seeming conflict between his philosophical derogation and political acceptance of political emancipation. Mack demonstrates that both Kant and Hegel reflect a Protestant upbringing, and a distinctly Marcionist streak.

At several points Mack credits Paul Lawrence Rose with pointing to the antisemitism of German philosophy -- certainly he agrees with Rose's verdict on the revolutionary and political use to which this philosophy was put. Mack persuasively discusses Wagner within the context of German idealistic philosophy, presenting the staging of Siegfried and the Nibelungen as exemplifying the autonomous and heteronomous (Kantian categories) and projecting them (as Kant did) on the Jews. Like many before him, Mack also assigns Wagner an important role in the history of the development of antisemitism: namely, the simultaneous politicizing of the German idealistic tradition and the popularizing of its antisemitic image.

The second half of Mack's book offers a menu of Jewish counternarratives, beginning with Mendelssohn, which took issue with the caricature of Jews and Judaism in idealistic philosophy. Despite a favorable citation to David Sorkin's work, which has done much to emphasize Mendelssohn's Hebrew oeuvre, Mack relies entirely on Mendelssohn's German works, in particular Jerusalem. Despite this limitation, Mack offers a compelling reading of Jerusalem:

In this way, Mendelssohn saw in Israel's revealed legislation not an appeal to the autonomy of reason, but rather an admonition to engage relationally with the social and the natural world. …

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