May 21, 2019

Materialism and Jewish Reformation

“Be ‘a man in the street and a Jew in the home’: a common piece of advice that liberal Jews often gave their co-religionists in the 19th century. If Jewishness was kept invisible and private, they wagered, then Jews could become citizens and professionals, and be granted equal access to the material resources made available to any other member of society. There was plenty of Christian bias to combat, encapsulated by images of Jewish avarice and materialism such as Shylock’s greedy hands and Rothschild’s beard in the form of snake-like tentacles. If only Jews could fit into the spiritual boxes established by the European Protestant elite, they would be accepted, or at least tolerated in the public sphere as Frenchmen, Germans or Englishmen. Though compelling in theory, the deal became more fraught as rampant anti-Semitic violence in eastern Europe continued to remind Jews that, no matter how much they tried to look like ‘everyone else’, their bodies were marked as Jewish.

In the 1870s European Judaism underwent an intellectual revolution. Around then, a group of young Russian Jewish radicals began to identify Judaism with materialism, and to theorise about what they called – whether in Russian, German, Yiddish or Hebrew – the ‘material’ (material’nii, materiell, gashmi, ḥomri) aspects of the Universe. For many Jews living in this period, ‘materialism’ was a worldview that brought into focus latent Jewish ideas and beliefs about the physical world. The materialists claimed that a theory of Judaism, defined by the way people related to land, labour and bodies, had been lying dormant within Jewish literature – in Hasidic texts, the Bible, Spinoza’s philosophy – and could now be clearly recognised and fully articulated. Jewish particularity was based on specific historical economic differences between Jews and others. What made Jews different was a certain socioeconomic dynamic that distinguished them from their neighbours.

The Jewish revolutionaries in 1870s Russia who embraced the idea of materialism shared a number of critical assumptions. They all rejected the notion that Judaism was based on abstract metaphysical theories (Scholasticism), rituals (Hasidism), study (Mitnagdim), and ethics and reason (Enlighteners). Judaism was not a religion, like Protestantism. Instead it was something attached to their bodies and expressed through one’s relationship to land, labour and resources. The materialists had also given up hope that the state could protect them and ensure their economic wellbeing. And finally, they no longer believed that history was headed in a positive direction. Over no amount of time would Jews living in Russia ever be granted greater rights and opportunities. Therefore, only a radical reclaiming of the physical world on the part of Jews could ensure that they would be protected and given a fair and equal share of resources.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"The biggest topic in British political circles on Monday wasn’t the country’s impending departure from the European Union. It was milkshakes..."

"I often disagree with Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., but I've been disturbed by the idea that he should be run out of the Republican Party just because he believes President Trump committed impeachable offenses."

"The Icelandic band Hatari, whose members are quite vocal in their animosity towards Israel, held up Palestinian flags... Madonna, likewise, had two of her performers wear Israeli and Palestinian flags on their costumes."

"To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, I turn to movie critic Roger Ebert's old review of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." (Trust me on this one.)"

"The money is already here—and has been for years. In the midst of a housing crisis, an injection of cash into the superheated real-estate market seems likely to cause an uptick in evictions and displacement."

"Parents concerned about YouTube debate whether to let their children have their own channels; some forbid it, others send them to summer camp..."

"‘I Had Completely Lost the Knack for Staying Alive..." Warmer weather brings daffodils, rhubarb at the farmer’s market — and, for some, despair."

"With his new book, Howard Stern proves that his rightful place is among the prophets and moral visionaries, not the ‘shock jocks’"

"I’m terrified of parenting in the anti-vaxxer age: Anti-vaccine propaganda isn’t just harmful to children. It threatens to erode our entire sense of community."

"...doctors are starting to think more about specific nutrients that feed tumor cells. That is, how what we eat affects how cancers grow..."

" represents an impressive achievement: a victory of humankind against the chaos that pervades the universe."

"If trends continue, in 20 years the majority of the world’s Jews will be living in Israel. The United States will see a continuing decline in overall numbers, with a growing observant Jewish population..."