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.”

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