Geography of Hope: Exile, the Enlightenment, Disassimilation

By Judaken, Jonathan | Shofar, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Geography of Hope: Exile, the Enlightenment, Disassimilation


Judaken, Jonathan, Shofar


Geography of Hope: Exile, The Enlightenment, Disassimilation, by Pierre Birnbaum, ttans. Charlotte Mandell. Stanford: Stanfotd University Press, 2008. 479 pp. $65.00.

Pierre Birnbaums Geography of Hope is as much a work of intellectual history as a histotical sociology of knowledge centered on the development of Jewish Studies. It focuses on leading Jewish scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centut ies and how they related to Judaism in their lives and in their work. Birnbaums pantheon alone makes the text enticing, with chapters on Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Waltzer, and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. His line of interrogation is animated by a set of concerns about the Enlightenment, human rights, assimilation, national identity, Jewish self-conceptions, and antisemitism that have featured in his many other volumes. His take on the tangled issues he taises are evident in the subtitles of his Introduction and Conclusion: he aims to wt ite a "Counterhistory" of "Exile, the Enlightenment, Disassimilation." In doing so, he wants to glean hope for Jews and Judaism in the new millennium, but what his monograph actually conveys is a cautious disquiet,

Birnbaums argument is that the movement of assimilation had its corresponding epistemology in the supposedly value-neutral universality, objective rationality, and scientificity of the social sciences that relegated Jewish particularity to the margins. There was, however, a cohort of Eastern European immigrants who articulated a counter-tradition to the enlightenment/ maskillim model. "It's from this part of Eastern Europe," he maintains, "not yet radically influenced by the Enlightenment, where assimilation often remained an almost inconceivable strategy even if it sometimes took broad strides toward acculturation and urbanization, that a number of the predecessors of contemporary Jewish studies seemed to come" (p. 23). He wants to embrace this counter-viewpoint as a means for the "'decolonization' of Jewish history within emancipating and assimilationist European history" (p. 33), and in this manner to support a more radical Enlightenment project that Yerushalmi calls "Lithuanian rationalism" (p. 31). In tracing this counterhistory via a set of carefully chosen intellectual figures, Birnbaums "book takes us on a journey through disparate diasporic societies, from the Germany of the nineteenth century to the United States of today, passing through France and Great Britain" (p. 32).

In each of his chapters, thick with his wide reading in many languages and literatures (the minutely annotated notes alone take up nearly 100 pages of the work), he stakes out his place in the debates on these Jewish thinkers. He starts by traversing the well-trudged territory of Marx's writing on the Jewish Question, which he reinserts into the specific discursive, familial, social, and political framework that shaped Marx's public and private scribbles on Jews and Judaism. Birnbaum elegantly counterposes Heinrich Graetz's project to that of the father of scientific socialism and modern sociology. Graetz thus becomes the paradigm of the counter-tradition that Birnbaum seeks to commemorate. His chapter on another founder of sociology, Durkheim, is based less on his context than on closely re-reading his published work for a more careful appreciation of his Judaic references, and juxtaposing them with his personal letters and family contacts. This attentive reading of Durkheim's biography and corpus reveals that Jewish sociability and his own internal dialogue about his Jewishness was a consistent preoccupation, even when it was not apparently central to his work. Birnbaums subtle interpretation based on this subtext reveals that the dichotomies within the historiography on Durkheim ought to collapse. Writing about a third seminal sociologist, the "committed observer" Raymond Aron, Birnbaums argument is once more that regardless of his thoroughgoing integration, we find him constantly nurturing in his inner being a sense of connection to both an individual and collective notion of his Jewishness, evinced especially in opposition to the most nefarious forms of antisemitism. …

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