Anti-Semitism Today: What it is and what it isn’t

Today it was swastikas on tombstones on the Jewish cemetery of Westhoffen (Alsace). On Yom Kippur, an attack on the synagogue in Halle, which left two people dead. (Zeit Online reported that police treat the attack as an isolated incident.) Last year: Squirrel Hill. In May 2019, Reuters reported a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, led by Western democracies, including the United States. The conclusion, drawn by the Tel Aviv University Kantor Center for Contemporary Jewry, is that anti-Semitism is no longer the domain of the “triangle” of the far left, the far right, and radical Islam, but that it has gone “mainstream.”

It is emotionally difficult for me to think, let alone write, about anti-Semitism. It is not something I can do dispassionately, which is the reason why I rarely touch on it in my academic work or teach it. Call it trans-generational PTSD. The way I get upset when I see defaced Jewish tombstones is different from the way I get upset when I read about the US Department of Agriculture planning to deprive 750,000 needy Americans of access to food stamps, or hearing about Rohingya  children in Bangladeshi refugee campus without access to formal education. I feel we can do something about food stamps (elect more sensible and compassionate representatives) and Rohingya children (draw attention to their plight and give to aid organizations). Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, seems to be intractable and beyond remedy.

But that’s not quite true either. For our own peace of mind, and also for the sake of our relationship with our neighbors, fellow-citizens, and friends, let us pause and think for a moment. Part of what makes us feel helpless and depressed about the rise of anti-Semitism is exactly the impression, fed by media and information centers, such as those cited above, that anti-Semitism is a natural phenomenon, something that comes and goes in “waves” that “rises” like hurricans or tsunamis. The proper response to natural catastrophes is to brace oneself, to weather the storm, or to evacuate. The rhetorical analogy with natural phenomena makes anti-Semitism seem inevitable.

We need to consider the sources of these statistics and their potential interest in exaggerating the threat. Much like meteorological data used in the mass media, where unseasonal snowfalls appear like the advent of snowmaggedon, and much for the same reason, institutes and organizations tracking anti-Semitic incidents are understandably interested in having something to report. Anti-Semitism is “sexy” because it hurts emotionally; not only Jews, but all decent people are upset when they hear about such incidents. All members of civilized societies feel bad when told of their failure to curb anti-Semitism. This is not to say it does not exist and that it is not entrenched.

What is anti-Semitism? It is hard to say because it seems amorphous. Some see it as an outgrowth of Christian anti-Judaism, but ancient Greek and Roman sources show elements of anti-Jewish rhetoric that precede the rise of Christianity. The intellectually most lazy blame it on the Jews. Why do they  insist on their difference? What makes them so special? The traditional answer to this type of resentment was Jewish humor. This no longer works. The mid-20th-century European genocide of the Jews has made it impossible to laugh it all off.

There is also the well-known phenomenon of anti-Semitism without Jews. Anti-Jewish resentment may be kept alive by a reaction to being called on one’s anti-Jewish resentment. After all, anti-Semitic is the one thing decent people can agree on not wanting to be, which makes those who express anti-Jewish sentiments look bad. Today, two generations after the destruction of European Jewry, people who never fully repressed their anti-Jewish sentiments are more willing to voice their resentments openly. This is how we arrive at the present moment. Liberals are surprised at the resurgence of sentiments they thought no longer existed because they had been successfully tabooed.

A further complexity. Many statistics of anti-Semitic incidents lump together anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist events. This equation is justified to the extent that both types of events are traumatic for Jews. But they are not therefore the same. In fact, part of the trauma arises from the confusion sown by well-meaning people upset about the “mainstreaming” of anti-Semitism, esp. in democratic societies, who don’t distinguish between these two phenomena. I admit that they are sometimes indistinguishable. There obtains a certain anti-Israel hysteria among western liberals that can look a lot like anti-Semitism. Many liberals feel that Israel is – or should be – an extension of western liberalism and should behave accordingly. When Israel misbehaves by those standards, many western liberals are disappointed. On one side, there is a disappointed love. On the defensive side, there is the charge that the disenchanted liberals measure Israel by unrealistic standards. Passionate criticism does not make critics of Israel or Israeli politics into anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. Those of us critical of Israel must ask ourselves whether our intense attention to Israeli transgression does not play into the hands of genuine adversaries of Israel. But I don’t think that we do Israel and the defense of its right to exist a favor if we equate every expression of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Is BDS a form of anti-Semitism? The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is a form of political speech promoted by Palestinians and supported by their supporters abroad. BDS is a powerful weapon that can hit Israel where it hurts, which is the Israeli economy. But is it anti-Semitic? Not necessarily. Many people, Jews and non-Jews, support BDS as a form of international pressure brought to bear on Israel to return to the negotiating table. It is a means compatible with the political end of the establishment of a viable Palestinian state that can thrive in peace and co-existence with Israel. Yes, all anti-Israel rhetoric hurts those of us who love Israel. But as long as it is political speech aimed at a just and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is not the same as anti-Semitism. Advocacy on behalf of Palestinian rights is not always or inevitably anti-Semitic.

There is a lot of confusion everywhere, some of which is stoked by people who want us to be confused. Emotions run high, which can be exploited by those who want us to act emotionally rather than thoughtfully. And sometimes well-meaning influencers and thought leaders make mistakes. Sometimes people say hurtful things. But there are remedies.  Demonization, in either direction, is not one of them.

Postscript: On Wednesday, December 10, 2019, the White House published an Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism

There have been many comments on this in the media. If you are interested in my take, read this follow-up piece to the above blog post, published as a POV in BUToday.

Whence the proliferation of late Second Commonwealth Jewish literature?

I haven’t done a word count, but just looking at the size of Charlesworth’s edition of the OT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, it seems obvious that, sometime, during the late Second Commonwealth, Jewish culture exploded into a burst of literary activity. I am not even thinking of the Alexandrian Jews, most prominently among them Philo of Alexandria (c 20 BCE to c 40 CE), who lived in multinational royal metropolis and had access to the greatest library ever assembled. (Eat your heart out, Widener.) Alexandria gave us the first Greek translation of Jewish sacred scriptures whose allegorical interpretation paved the way for the dissemination of the Christian way among Greek speaking god-fearers. The world’s most successful persuasive literature, the Christian New Testament, would not have become the bestseller it is without those antecedent scriptures and interpretive traditions.

But that’s not what this post is about. I am thinking of the plethora of writings produced in Hebrew and Aramaic in the Land of Israel, many of which were damaged or lost in the devastations that followed the Jewish rebellions against Roman rule, some of which was hidden away and unearthed later, or preserved in translation and Christian and other sectarian adaptations. Examples include the Book of Jubilees, apocalyptic Enoch literature, the Damascus Document, the Testaments of the Patriarchs, the Apocalypse of Moses (Life of Adam and Eve), and many others. We have long used the term “pseudepigrapha” for many of these writings, a term of classification that files these books (as opposed to biblical literature) as circulating under false authorial ascriptions. Whether or not this is the most helpful classification does not matter to me. It points to a difference between biblical literature and those many other works that begin to appear around the second century BCE. My question is: why then? Here are a few reasons.

  1. One answer is Greek paideia. While we think of priests neglecting their sacrificial duties to run to the Jerusalem gymnasium where they would exercise in the nude, we should also think of other aspects of Greek education, such as literacy. While, until the advent of the Greeks, literacy may have largely been the purview of professional scribes, Hellenism may have given scribal culture a boost. Acquisition of Greek was necessary for administrative reasons. But it may also have boosted “indigenous” or traditional scribal practices. This brings me to the next point.
  2. Resistance to “Hellenism” gives rise to a self-conscious culture of “Judaism.” The term, and its juxtaposition with hellenismos, first appears in Second Maccabees. But what did it signify? Aside from the “household Judaism” (Andrea Berlin) that seems to have taken root under the Hasmoneans, the same age (late 2nd c BCE) also sees the return of Paleo-Hebrew on Hasmonean coinage. Hellenization proceeded here and elsewhere by way of such juxtapositions. The same Ptolemaic and, later, Roman rulers acted as Pharaoh’s toward their Egyptian subjects and as Macedonians or Romans toward their Greek-speaking subjects. In Ioudaia/Yehud this system of government seems to have given rise to a culture of repristination that included bringing back (or manufacturing) ancient Hebrew literature and script; a fostering of non-Hellenistic household practices; a veneration of the ancestral laws, and the like. The Jews were not alone in this new emphasis on antiquity. (See Gardner, Gregg, and Kevin Lee Osterloh. Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.)
  3. The new focus on the ancestral laws and prophetic literature gave rise to different interpretations, criticism of the ruling family whose right to serve as high priests and quasi-kings was questioned on the basis of the sacred literature they fostered, and social movements that turned hostile toward the presence of foreigners and foreign rule. We have an echo of this in the Jewish prayer, al kis’o lo yeshev zar. 
  4. Apocalyptic literature is only one among many genres, some of which thrived and took off, while others eventually withered. We know that some Jewish writers of that age turned the story of Moses into verse drama (Ezekiel the Tragedian).  Others wrote Psalms or rewrote sacred history to fit into fifty-year periods (Jubilees, cf. the genealogy of Joseph in Matthew 1), introduced new characters into the world of Jewish imagination (Mastema in Jubilees), or gave a more prominent role to angels. Some latched on to priestly notions of purity and holiness, others were attracted to preachers of repentance who proclaimed the imminence of divine kingship.

As a result of these and related developments, Jewish writing proliferated. One of the ironies: by way of Greek, Ethiopic, Syriac, and other translations, Jewish literature became popular far beyond the borders (however defined) of the Land of Israel. Pilgrims flooded to Jerusalem. The royal house of Adiabene even built a palace there and supported the Jewish uprising against Rome. Jerusalem turned into a symbolic center onto which people from many nations could project notions of resistance to evil, impurity, and the dominance of Rome. The rest, as they say, is history.


Would FB have allowed Hitler to post?

My former student and CAS alum Sonari Glinton drew my attention to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent statement and op-ed on Hitler and Facebook. I had seen the headline when it was first reported but didn’t think it was very significant. Hitler is always a convenient way of stirring our emotions. Setting aside SBC, what is the substantive issue?

Hitler was undoubtedly a brilliant master of propaganda and the mistake people made was to underestimate how easy it was to manipulate public opinion, and how ruthless and disciplined the Nazis were going to be when it came to controlling the media. The critical term here is Gleichschaltung. We see some of the same tactic used by autocratic rulers today. The incarceration of upwards of a million Uyghurs in Chinese “reeducation” camps represents a chilling, underreported case.

So what about FB and free speech in the US? We are experiencing a curious and novel phenomenon that cannot be explained by the analogy with Nazi Germany. There is so much information mixed with mis-information that people are confused, tune out, or make the choice of only listening to what they agree with, stifling true political discourse and debate. This “polarization” is stoked by the propagandists who sow confusion, stoke emotion, and seed disintegration. 

So, what is the antidote? In my view, it is very simple. Rather than singling out FB, US Congress should bring back the FCC Fairness Rule, which was in place until 1987. The Fairness Rule, first introduced in the US in the 1930’s, just as Nazis and Bolsheviks were shutting down dissent, guaranteed that mass media had to offer fair and balanced reporting, to assure listeners and viewers were exposed to different points of view. The insular worlds we inhabit today are the result of the Reagan administration’s elimination of the Fairness Rule.

Would FB have allowed Hitler to post is therefore the wrong question. FB is an easy target. Instead of attacking a single enterprise, no matter how big, we should call our lawmakers and impose rules of good behavior on all media outlets. Bring back the Fairness Rule!

The Ben Shapiro Performance: Why It Was Shameful

Yesterday, a much hyped appearance of Ben Shapiro at BU came and went, and we are all left to puzzle what this performance was all about. By performance I mean everything that came before and the event itself. By the time I was thinking of attending the event had sold out. Sold out lectures are a rarity here at BU. Name recognition helps, as apparently does notoriety. But let me get to the main point.

Black BU folks demonstrated against the lecture because of its title. The title of the talk suggested that Shapiro was going to argue that “America was not built on slavery but on freedom.” But if the reports on his lecture are accurate, that’s not what he said. In his lecture he allegedly acknowledged the evil of slavery and acknowledged the ills of Jim Crow segregation. From what I gather where he differs is that he wants people to distinguish the present from the past and recognize that America has changed to be a more inclusive and post-racial society than people sometimes want to believe. In other words, Shapiro came across as a liberal rather than a conservative. But the title was formulated to provoke a strong reaction and it did, because it is offensive. What I don’t understand, if Shapiro is not a racist or a white supremacist, who acknowledges the evils of slavery and argues for freedom for all, and if this represents the views of the student group that invited him, then why the offensive title? Bait and switch? Signaling to the alt-right while appearing as a mere conservative?

To say that America was not built on slavery but on freedom is an absurd statement because it was built on slavery and freedom, namely freedom for slavers and others who benefited from the economic wealth created by the enslavement of Africans who were deprived of their basic rights. And to say that this is a matter of the past willfully ignores the lasting and ongoing effects of slavery and segregation. The Elie Wiesel Center held a series of events on economic racism and we clearly need to educate our students and the public further on this subject.  We cannot speak of freedom as a fact either. Freedom is an aspiration, not a fact. Economic racism is.

You can read Joel Brown and Amy Laskowsky’s report on the event HERE.

UPDATE: On December 9, the Elie Wiesel Center, along with the BU African American Studies Program and the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies program, organized a response to Ben Shapiro. You can read about it HERE.

Hermann Cohen on the Figure of Job

Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) remains one of the best-known, though barely read, modern Jewish philosophers. Of his major works, only his posthumous Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism has been translated into English. His studies of Kantian philosophy and the three volumes of his own system of philosophy remain untranslated.

The most important theme in Hermann Cohen’s philosophy of religion is the idea of atonement. Atonement, in German: Versöhnung, presupposes that human beings are in conflict: with the gods, with other humans, and within themselves. I will return to Cohen in a moment. First I want to introduce Job, once again.

The biblical figure of Job presents the case of a conflict between human being and human fate. With no fault of his own, Job finds himself exposed, deprived, abandoned, accused, and he challenges the biblical deity, as the warrant of a moral world order, to give an account that would reconcile Job to his suffering. Job is the closest we come to a tragic hero in the Hebrew Bible. There is no indication that Job’s suffering might be considered meritorious. He is not a martyr. His blood will not accomplish reconciliation, in fact, his blood, i.e., his life, is to be spared so as to experience the exposed nature of human beings all the more clearly. This tragic hero must remain alive so as to expose the chasm between human and God.

Now to Cohen’s interpretation of Job. We are fortunate to have a cache of Cohen’s notes on the subject of atonement that survived in an envelope kept among the papers of Paul Natorp, Cohen’s colleague at the University of Marburg/Hesse (Germany). On one of these pieces of paper, Cohen jotted down the following.

One stage in the question of atonement is the accusation of the gods and God: Prometheus and Job, that is, theodicy. The weakness of the earthbound human being, that coins itself in lament, forms a moment in the atonement with God. His moral consciousness has the power to purify him; and what lacks falls to God. (Zank 2000, p. 508)

Theodicy, a term coined by the late-17th to early 18th-century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, refers to the question, si deus, unde malum, or: if God exists, whence evil? In other words, the question of Job. Two things stand out to me in Cohen’s note. One is the comparison between Job and Prometheus. In what way are they similar? In Greek mythology, Prometheus steals heavenly fire and shares it with human beings, for which he is eternally punished. But perhaps Cohen is not thinking of the Prometheus of Greek myth as much as he is thinking of Goethe’s poem “Prometheus.” Goethe’s Prometheus indeed lashes out at the gods. (You can read the poem, in German and English, at

The second thing is that Job’s lament, unlike Goethe’s “Prometheus,” leads to reconciliation through resignation (see Gesine Palmer’s comments on Job here: In other words, atonement relies on the human being’s acceptance of fate, leaving it to God to work things out. Cohen makes this insight constitutive of the moral consciousness exemplified by Job. This decidedly unheroic behavior, unlike the contempt for the gods expressed in Goethe’s poem, is characteristic of Cohen’s distinction between religion and ethics. While ethics constitutes the foundation of our struggle to alleviate suffering, religion means acceptance of, and hence reconciliation with, the fact of human limitation. Here is how Cohen puts this in another note.

Sin as ignorance (ki lkhol ha’am hi bishgagah). Instead of ‘b’ maybe ‘k’? Relocation from the will to the intellect and humiliation of the same as highest quality of the human being as spirit. The idea of redemption and atonement is the motif of tragedy. The anagnorisis therefore as an important moment. Connection of religion and art recognizable in this fundamental motif. The atonement of religion means the reconciliation with the human fate and resignation to it, for the purpose of the recognition of the kingdom of God. (Zank 2000, p. 506-7)

 The biblical verse cited at the beginning of this note (Num 15:26) is recited at the beginning of Kol Nidre, the liturgy on the eve of the Day of Atonement. Cohen bends the text towards a question of moral insight. If all sin is as if committed in ignorance, then all sin can be forgiven. Sin means separation, damage to the perfection of the primordial soul, forgiveness means dependence. We cannot entirely repair ourselves but require God to fix what we have broken. Therein lies the humiliation of which Cohen speaks. We cannot think ourselves out of this dependence. This, then, is what Job represents: even though he regards himself as innocent, his comprehension of the moral nature of the universe is shown to be deficient. Even Job errs, even if unintentionally. He accepts the divine rebuke of his presumption, which is a presumption that this universe answers to the moral reckoning of the human intellect.

Cohen sees the human being of religion as reconciled to human limitation. He contrasts this further with the human being of dramatic poetry. (Cohen’s younger contemporary and admirer Franz Rosenzweig draws a similar distinction between the heroic individual of the arts and the human being shaped by revelation.) This emerges from a third note.

Atonement is the basic concept of religion, simultaneously however also of art, especially of dramatic poetry, therefore of that which represents the relation of human being and fate. That is of human being and God. In this the connection of art and religion shows itself: Both represent each one kind of unification of nature and morality. And thus it can be understood why both need and deal with the Idea of Atonement. But the difference is instructive: What art calls atonement and produces as such religion does not recognize or seek as such. In art atonement is the destruction of the individual in its glorification as a hero; in religion: the preservation of the individual, but at the expense of heroism? (Zank 2000 p. 506)

 In the published version of these deliberations, the final question becomes an assertion. (See Cohen 1907 pp. 365 ff.)

Job also appears in Cohen’s 1915 treatise of religion in the context of systematic philosophy, Begriff der Religion im System der Philosophie, pp. 70 ff, where he returns to the problem of theodicy. Cohen starts his disquisition on the trope of righteous suffering (why does the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper) by turning suffering into a precondition of righteousness. Utilizing a traditional rabbinic notion, which considers the suffering of the righteous as yissurei ahavah, or suffering as an indication of divine love, Cohen states more generally that righteousness always requires suffering. Quoting from my exposition (Zank 2000, p. 377):  

No one ‘is’ righteous, except one who is in the process of becoming righteous. The process of becoming righteous is inaugurated by the process of reflection on suffering that is the precondition of becoming a moral self. The story of Job is thus read against the grain of the assumption that Job suffered innocently. Without his suffering he would not be the righteous Job that he becomes only as the story unfolds. The prologue represents the timeless perspective of God for whom Job is always righteous; yet Job realizes what in our human perspective is a mere potential only as occasioned by suffering.

            Keeping human agency in the process of liberation separate from divine care for the individual, suffering is made an integral part of the struggle of liberation which is really a struggle for the generation and becoming of the self as a moral agent. Yet the moral potential and the sufficiency to engage in this constant struggle is the human prerogative. God is therefore not involved in punishment. To conceive of suffering as punishment is part of the process of practicing the moral work of idealization, of transforming isolated individuals into human beings.

            Suffering therefore poses no exception or challenge to the correlation of God as redeemer and human being as self-liberator. The forgiving God is exculpated from causing wanton destruction and pain as the human being learns to conceive of herself as the one who is legitimately, rightfully, deservingly punished for their own sin. The recognition of individual culpability therefore involves recognition of the fact that God must be blamed neither for the evil we wreak upon others nor for that others wreak upon us. By not distinguishing social evils in this context, Cohen implies that no suffering at all, not even that caused by “a higher force,” should be attributed to God as its providential and particular author. But it is nevertheless to be regarded as punishment and thus as a challenge to take upon oneself the yoke of self-transformation. Just as in the Ethics, therefore, punishment is an aspect of the “ethical concept of the human being” (p. 70).   

I offer these few excerpts from Cohen and from my exposition of his Jewish philosophy of religion and ethics as an encouragement for readers to take Cohen seriously as a Jewish thinker and ethicist. My book, from which I quote and which includes the above quoted notes from the Natorp archive, is about to be reissued by Brown Judaic Studies in a second e-book edition that will make it more widely accessible. I hope it will stimulate renewed interest in Hermann Cohen.


Works cited

Cohen, Hermann, Begriff der Religion im System der Philosophie, Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1915.

Cohen, Hermann, Ethik des reinen Willens, second edition, Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1907.

Zank, M. (2000). The idea of atonement in the philosophy of Hermann Cohen: With an appendix of manuscripts from the National and University Library, Givat Ram, Jerusalem and Nachlass Natorp Ms. 831 (Hessisches Staatsarchiv, Marburg). Providence, RI: Brown University.







Apocalyptic Literature

The term apocalyptein (Greek), means to uncover or reveal. Apocalyptic literature refers to a genre of writing that may combine cosmic/astrological speculation with historical review in the guise of a revelation. At the heart of apocalyptic writing seems the imminence of an end to present turmoil and tribulation, in other words, the fate of the community for whom these texts are written is about to change in a grand reversal of power. As Jesus puts it in the NT gospels, “the last will be the first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). In regard to its concern with the fate of a collective, apocalyptic literature conforms to the social and political dimension of biblical literature. However, in contrast to the earlier prophetic tradition, it is not simply a “sacred remnant” that will escape the coming wrath, a remnant or shoot from which the whole may be rebuilt. Rather, apocalyptic writing makes vindication dependent on belonging to a group or movement who excel in piety, devotion, or obedience to a particular “teacher of righteousness,” as in the Qumran community or early Christianity. Compared with older genres of biblical literature rooted in the experiences of the Israelite and Judahite monarchies it thus constitutes an innovation. It presupposes the conditions of diversification and contestation of the Israelite/Jewish heritage that is typical of the late second commonwealth.

The only true apocalypse in Tanakh is found in the Book of Daniel. Only Daniel 7-12 are fully apocalyptic in literary character. The early chapters of Daniel constitute a Persian-age diaspora narrative about Jewish piety in the Babylonian exile. Some stylistic antecedents to the Daniel apocalypse can be found in the visions of Ezekiel as well as in the parts of Isaiah and the prophet Joel. The exact relation between apocalyptic and prophetic genres is a matter of debate.

The date of Daniel 7-12 has long been established as the late first half of the 2nd century BCE (c. 165 BCE), the time of Seleucid king Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” and the changes in the YHWH cult of Jerusalem imposed by Antiochus and the Hellenizing faction of Judahite priests, events also reflected in Maccabean literature (esp. 1 and 2 Maccabees) and described by Josephus Flavius in the Antiquities of the Jews. An important Jewish apocalypse from the time (c. 100 CE) following the destruction of the second temple (70 CE) is Fourth Ezra, now part of the Book of Esdras , which can be found among the Old Testament Apocrypha as well among the historical books of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox editions of the Old Testament.

Apocalyptic texts include a review of history up to the time of the writing in form of a foretelling. (Similar: Genesis 15:13-16). What makes these texts puzzling and bewildering to uninitiated readers is the use of cryptic imagery as well as unfamiliarity with the historical particulars referenced in these writings. The schema in Daniel and elsewhere is that a pious visionary of old is given a preview of future history in veiled images that are subsequently interpreted by an angelic guide. To the community of readers for whom such texts were produced, most of this history is a familiar recent past, leading up to their own moment of tribulation, and offers them the hope of an imminent divine intervention, an end to their suffering, removal and punishment of a violent regime, and the advent of a just and divine ruler. The text ends with predictions of an imminent end to the present age, which is governed by evil forces, the sudden appearance of a divine redeemer, and scenarios of a grand reckoning (e.g. “last judgment”), with punishment for the wicked and reward for the righteous few.

It is in apocalyptic literature that we first encounter ideas about a sequence of world-ages or aeons (Greek aion), which gives us the popular motif of a “dawning of a new age” and creates an understanding of history as divided into epochs running toward historic completion (“end of history”), rather than circular, repetitive, or illusory. Some apocalyptic literature shows the influence of astrological speculation. While this indicates a turn from restorative concepts of history to utopian, future oriented ones, the apocalyptic future is essentially scripted or fated in heaven, not open for humans to change, influence, or delay. The only escape from the imminent judgment may be individual repentance and/or joining the preferred movement of saints and martyrs.

Apocalyptists see history as unfolding on two plains: a lower world of injustice and suffering of the righteous and their oppression by a sequence of evil regimes, and a hidden upper world where divine righteousness prevails that will eventually become manifest on earth as a “kingdom of heaven” (malkhut ha-shamayim). This replaces the older view where collective suffering of a nation was motivated by the anger of the nation’s god who allowed, or called upon, others to wreak punishment for the sins of the nation. This older view of the fate of the nation and its causes is evident not only in the Bible, as in the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 27-28, but also in the Moabite Stone. It was part of an Iron Age koine (a common symbolic vocabulary or system of interpretation) by which states explained periods of misfortune.

A major difference between the older view and that espoused by the apcalyptists is that the earlier view reflects a national (or monarchical) perspective, whereas the latter reflects the view of a party without direct access to power, in other words, it is by nature “sectarian,” namely, it represents the view of a party or social-religious movement that finds itself on the margins of power but hopes to be vindicated and restored or elevated to power. The marginality or outside view of the apocalyptists may also explain why this literature takes recourse to the literary devices of speaking about the present in form of a pseudo-prophetic revelation received long ago that alludes to contemporary affairs in veiled imagery. Expressing the view of a powerless minority, the apocalyptists must have labored under the pressures of censorship or outright persecution. Apocalyptic writing became popular among many groups and movements, including – over time – marginalized Christians and Muslims, who counted themselves among the righteous few and hoped to be vindicated in the end. The attractiveness of the apocalyptic genre is rooted in its appeal to the pious persecuted and suffering saints.

The message of apocalyptic writing is directed to people who have no direct influence or agency on the historical plain, who find themselves in the position of mere observers or victims of violence enacted upon them by others, including powerful opponents within their own community. A striking aspect of this literature is the vindication of suffering and the passivity with which the divine intervention is hoped for and expected. There is thus a Stoic element in this literature that echoes with the attitude emphasized and promoted in other, non-apocalyptic works of  late second temple literature, such as Fourth Maccabees.

Daniel 12:3 also provides us with the first attestation of hope for reward and punishment in the hereafter, including individual resurrection and reward for the righteous few who keep the faith during the present times of repression and tribulation. This should be compared with other late second commonwealth Jewish writings, such as the Wisdom of Solomon, that promote belief in the immortality of the soul. The two beliefs (resurrection and immortality) are not identical and there seems to have been an ongoing debate on the correct view. (Cf. Jonathan Klawans, Josephus and the Theologies of Ancient Judaism, chapter 3). Belief in an immortal soul is of Greek philosophical origin and reflects the culture of Jewish Hellenism. Belief in bodily resurrection and posthumous judgment has a Hebraic foothold in the prophetic vision of Ezekiel 37 (Valley of Dry Bones) and became orthodox rabbinic Jewish belief. The doctrine of posthumous judgment was firmly rooted in Egyptian religion, which preserved the body as a precondition for the successful passage of the Ka or spiritual essence of a person to the hereafter where a person’s deeds were weighed on a scale of justice. Egyptian religion became thoroughly popularized over the course of the first millennium BCE and it is possible that it exerted a quiet influence on the Judahite population, esp. during the century of Ptolemaic Egyptian rule that preceded the turmoil caused by the Seleucid conquest of Jerusalem (198). While the Book of Daniel is composed in the Persian-age lingua franca of imperial Aramaic, the apocalyptic worldview it represents may well have been influenced by other sources as well.

In addition to the canonical Book of Daniel, examples of Jewish apocalyptic writing include works attributed to the biblical figure of Enoch (cf. Gen 5:24; cf. Hebr 11:5), the Book of Watchers from Qumran (incl. in the Ethiopic version of Enoch), Fourth Ezra (part of Christian 2 Esdras), 2 Baruch, and others adopted by var. Christian traditions. Christian versions of Jewish apocalyptic texts, among them parts of the Book of Revelations, the only apocalyptic book included in the New Testament, and 2 Esdras, underwent Christian editing and include additions and interpolations that give the text a Christian orientation.

The apocalyptic genre helps us to understand many of the literary tropes that are prominent in the New Testament and some of the fundamental beliefs proclaimed by early Christians, including John the Baptist preaching repentance and immersion for purification in anticipation of an imminent judgment, apocalyptic scenarios (e.g. Matthew 24; Revelation), Paul’s urge to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth in anticipation of the second coming of Christ, the idea of the Christian community as a new humanity, a sacred remnant that embodies the righteous few to be saved in the coming judgment, heavenly visions and other apocalyptic revelations in Paul, Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of god, the title “son of man” (a reference to Daniel 7), and the belief that Christ conquered death/was resurrected/could not be killed. This list also shows that there were various competing versions and interpretations of the events associated with Jesus, many of which resonated with the apocalyptic frame of mind.

Among the more recent and ongoing consequences of apocalyptic literature is the use made of this literature by various modern fundamentalists. Evangelical Christians are thoroughly enamored with the idea that the apocalyptic predictions of Daniel and Revelations are as yet to be fulfilled. Many believe that they are in fact being fulfilled in our own days and that the second coming of Christ (an apocalyptic belief) is imminent. The Apostolic Church as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but also more “mainstream” Evangelicals, are apocalyptic in their outlook on history and in how they view their own place in history. This attitude already played an important role in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English philo-Semitism which influenced British foreign policy, including the British government’s support of the Zionist project. This reflected the belief that the English were called upon, as a Christian nation, to hasten the second coming of Christ by helping the Jews to return to their ancient homeland and rebuild their commonwealth. Today, similar beliefs are espoused by many American Evangelicals, including members as CUFI (Christians United for Israel), in their support for Zionism, the State of Israel, and initiatives to build the Third Temple. This kind of political activism is not, strictly speaking, apocalyptic, but is empowered and driven by the belief that God’s “plan” is being implemented and that the “end times” are near. The popularity of the Left Behind series indicates the popularity of this kind of thinking in terms of end-time scenarios among American readers.





Job and the Question of Evil

Human acts of evil are subject to punishment. In Genesis 6 the biblical deity concludes that the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth. As result, human lifespan is reduced, and the initial crop of human beings is wiped out by the flood. Post-diluvial humanity is assured that such destruction will not occur again. Instead, humans are obliged to act in accordance with a set of basic laws on which all societies are to be founded. These include the seeking of blood revenge on murderers by the collective. In other words, the collective must overcome the force of those who continue to act in accordance with the law of the jungle, where might makes right. This suggests that civilization, including, as the rabbis interpret it, the establishment of courts of law, is an antidote to human depravity. Human evil is thus not a subject of consideration other than in a legal sense. It is taken for granted and dealt with by law and order. A second consideration of human evil is in play when the fate of nations is considered. War, defeat in battle, conquest, and expulsion are divine punishment for collective transgressions, esp. for the failure of a society to act in a lawful way. Both the lives of individuals as members of society and the faring of entire nations are a matter of justice.

Some laws and much wisdom literature deal with a category of transgression that are also subject to divine justice, namely, sins that happen in secret that cannot therefore rise to the attention of courts of law. Individual suffering can thus be seen as the result of transgressions committed in secret that are a matter of divine justice. The agency of divine punishment may be natural or human. The suffering of a transgressor always comes from God, no matter the intermediate causes.

But what if the suffering individual is righteous and innocent? What then of divine justice? Job’s friends suggest that there is no such thing as an innocent individual. And since God is just and there is no thing that is not caused by God, suffering is always an indication of evil and hence deserved. The whirlwind speeches of YHWH suggest that, God is indeed the cause of everything, but in ways we cannot comprehend. The simple reduction of suffering to divine punishment is therefore rejected. Not all suffering is the result of a divine intention to punish. To avoid the conclusion that the divine is completely uninvolved in human suffering, the Book of Job suggests the possibility that the suffering of the righteous may be the result of a test. (Cf. Eccl. 3) It also suggests that this test is prompted and administered by an agency that does not share the same favorable impression God has of the righteous, a probing into true character that is based on the suspicion that a person who acts righteously may do so out of self-interest. The suffering of the righteous thus becomes a test of their true loyalty to their god or their faith. It is, in any case, a test of human character. But is it not also a test of the divine character? What God is it who subjects a human being to suffering to win a bet against one of his subordinates? Is Satan also being tested? But Satan, in this case, only does his job. The God of the prologue in heaven and YHWH of the whirlwind speeches appear different. Are they the same character? Perhaps it is us, the readers, who are being tested. By presenting different possibilities but no clear answer the Book of Job raises, but does not definitively answer, the question, si deus unde malum. (If God exists, whence evil?)

The origin of natural evil is relegated beyond rational comprehension. It is too high for us. What about human evil? Its origin is also mysterious, as we are not told how human evil comes to be lodged in the depth of our inclination. It is not absurd to build on this mystery the doctrine of hereditary evil and attribute it to the “fall of man,” the primordial sin of disobedience (the Islamic tradition would say, pride or arrogance) depicted in the story of Adam and Eve. Anything going back to Adam and Eve is human nature. Apocalyptic passivity (see the next blog entry) may be justified from this fact: primordial evil is beyond fixing by law, we are fated to sin, and hence we require extraneous intervention to be “redeemed from sin.” This, of course, being the Christian adaptation of Jewish apocalyptic passivity, which – on its own account – is more collective and an expression of the powerlessness of the oppressed in an age that did not yet fathom the possibility of revolution, calling instead for a revolution from above.

But what of evil in the Jewish tradition? There is no doctrine of original sin in Judaism. Why not? Because the law, which is “not in heaven” but “near you” and “in your mouth,” is seen as sufficient to address human evil. But is it the law alone and of itself? That’s precisely what Paul doubted. What then is the Jewish answer to Paul?

Modern Jewish philosophy raises precisely this question. In my estimation, the most profound Jewish answer to the problem of evil can be found in the philosophy of Hermann Cohen.

[Continue reading HERE.]




Transactional and non-transactional religion

In recent politics, the word “transactional” has been used a lot. Transactional politics are rootless politics where everything is governed by the self-interest of the moment. The opposite of transactionism are politics governed by policies and relationships by contracts. Transactional politics atomize relationships into moments of transaction. Non-transactional politics seek continuity and predictability.

If we apply this to the study of religion, especially to the relationship between a human being and her god, we can perhaps understand the fundamental difference between magic and religion. Let us say all religion is driven by human interest in self-preservation. We project an image onto the screen of heaven (or other locations of divine presence) that is either transactional or non-transactional, depending on whether we believe that the powers on the other side, on whose benevolence we depend, relate to us in a transactional or a non-transactional way. Are they seeking momentary advantages and can they be bribed by gifts (sacrifice) or are they interest in a long-term relationship? Self-interested powers that can be bribed provide the basis for all magic. Relationships between us and such powers are atomistic, occasional, as needed. The veneration of saints, the conjuring of spirits, and other manifestations of shamanism are purely transactional.

In contrast, gods interested in relationships are profoundly political. They aim at the endurance of a family, a city, a dynasty, a state, or an empire, but in any case, their goal is for a collective entity to succeed, to attain an enduring earthly existence. Non-transactional religions usually condemn and repress shamanism, namely, when they perceive transactionalism (do ut des) as an insult to the majesty and purpose of deity, a purpose these order-seeking religions want to make pervasive. Hence the repression of paganism.

This is not to say that all political religions are necessarily ethical or non-transactional in character. Some are fully blown systems of repression, forcing subjects (subdued collectives, conquered populations) into submission and imposing fear even when they employ the language of love and loyalty. The Assyrians were like that. Their chief god Asshur was like that. He acted out of self-interest. He was transactional. He did not last.

Biblical covenantalism initially employs summo-deism (“no other gods before me”) and later absolute exclusivism (“I am He, there is no Other”) to establish the collective identity of “Israel” as a covenanted nation. The prophetic campaign against Baalism is not just about idolatry (no images) but also about exclusivity and hence about identity established by ritual action. (You shall not act that way.) The purpose of biblical religion, if one can speak in such anachronistic and generalizing terms (the people described in biblical literature for the most part had no “Bible”), is ultimately about the correlation between the God of Israel and Israel, two ideal entities whose boundaries are constantly negotiated and modified in light of changing realities. But there would be no mutual responsiveness between Israel and the God of Israel if the relationship between God and nation were merely transactional. The predictability of the downfall of the nation depends on the predictability of the nation’s God. The relationship is casuistic: blessing follows obedience to the laws (not sentimental piety but persistent lawfulness of society is at stake here); curses threaten increasingly severe failures of society. (See Deuteronomy 27-28)

Where does the individual come into play? Is personal prayer inevitably transactional? I am reminded of the collective confession of sin in the scripted prayers for the Day of Atonement. It is we who have sinned (not I), and the purpose is not just to seek forgiveness and life for the individual (which is certainly implied in the myth of God’s opening books to inscribe each individual and fix their fate for the next year; a “memento mori”) but to indemnify both ourselves (from futile vows; Kol Nidre) but ultimately to accept God’s sovereignty over the world (creation and kingship are the themes of New Year/Rosh Hashanah), life and death of individuals (Yom Kippur), and the thriving of the community (Sukkoth). All this culminates in a celebration of the Torah (Simchat Torah). The covenant is fixed in a book that assures us that the relationship between Israel and the God of Israel is not transactional but affirmed forever.

Chag sameach!

What I learn from finals

The end of a semester is always bitter-sweet. Among the sweetness is that as students buckle down and work on their final papers, one’s own brain switches back to research and writing. I love how that happens from one moment to the next. The part of you that was preoccupied with making sure your students were alright empties out and is immediately flooded with ideas instead. I love that.

The bitterness, really a bit of a depressing moment, consists in the fact that you made fifteen, twenty, sometimes more, new friends that you will most likely not see anymore after classes are over. The rare pleasure is that email from nowhere or that returning student that tells you that your efforts were not wasted after all. We make a difference in our students lives if we are present to our students.

And then there is the joy of back and forth that starts with a student’s idea for a final paper. It leads to conversation, to thinking together, and finally to a paper to which you respond, which – in turn – leads to new thoughts and ideas. It’s when students help you think anew and differently. Sometimes it is their most charming mistakes that make you realize where you’ve made assumptions all along and never clearly stated what ought to have been stated from the beginning. One learns even and especially from flawed student writing. So here is my thanks to all of my students this semester. Thank you for making the effort, for putting thought and work in your paper, and even if you did not get an A, let me assure you that I learned something from you.


The Return. Comments on a play by Hanna Eady and Ed Mast

How do you express an insight that is complex, particular, personal and yet political, one that cannot be expressed in a sentence or two? For some of us, expressing a differentiated insight requires interminable conversation. For others, writing a book. For Palestinian playwright Hanna Eady and his American collaborator Edward Mast it requires writing a play. Many plays, in fact. Right now in Boston, you can see “The Return” at the Calderwood Pavillon, produced by Guy Ben-Aharon’s “Israeli Stage.” (See 


Philana Mia and Nael Nacer in “The Return.” Photo credit: Israeli Stage (2019).

The Return is about a love-affair between a Jewish Israeli woman and an Israeli Palestinian. There is a complex metaphor right here. As the audience response showed after the show we attended, it depends on who you are, and on your own story, how you parse this metaphor and everything else that happens on the stage: whether you identify with the Israeli woman who escapes to America after betraying her lover to the police and accusing him of false representation, then returns to ask his forgiveness; whether you identify with the hapless Palestinian who pays, for the moment of forgetting his place, with being put in a kind of special hell where he is forced to simultaneously forget and remember his place; whether you feel that the Israeli-Palestinian story only signifies itself or points to a larger truth about power and identity, privilege and exclusion.

The play offers no way out of the constraints of what seems fated, that “iron cage” here represented by police surveillance and hints at brutalization, and ultimately rooted in a zero-sum mentality that is finally acknowledged. The Palestinian, initially a sad creature of ghettoization and control, is eventually released from his internal prison by the return of his former lover. There is a moment of realization and recognition on this island of the mutually condemned, that should also take place and complete itself in the audience. Talya realizes that she cannot overcome her fear that, whenever she tries to see the other person in equal dignity and with equal rights to the land, she will see him as an enemy, out to destroy her. Samer realizes that love is greater than politics. It liberates him to be himself, to retrieve his name, to recognize the place burned off his skin as being indelibly imprinted on his heart. But it is his love for the other that makes him return to himself.


Philana Mia and Nael Nacer in "The Return."

Philana Mia and Nael Nacer in “The Return.” Photo credit: Israeli Stage (2019).

Eady and Mast found a way of elevating the Palestinian Israeli experience by giving it a voice that expresses both itself and something that touches us because it is a human voice. We are told that seeing one another, and seeing one another as human, and acknowledging our deepest fears, is the necessary, though not sufficient, condition to restore our own humanity.

There is another side to this play. Talya, though ostensibly Israeli, serves as the mouthpiece for Ed Mast who, in a conversation following the play, eloquently spoke of his own realization of how blind most white people are to the entitlement that comes with whiteness. Talya, not realizing this, is fated to fail. Her role is more didactic than fully human. She remains obtuse to her actions and is thus fated to repeat the mistakes of the past that she so urgently wishes to erase. She is tragic, because she recognizes that there is something beyond her personal agency. She cannot fix what she’s broken, even though she tries, because she acts without full self-recognition. What her character projects is that love is not strong enough to overcome the systemic politics of control that feeds on the fear of those who impose their collective will on others. The oppressed achieve freedom and dignity, the oppressors, not so much.

What I mind about this is that this role is scripted onto a woman’s body. The Jewish (American) woman has no self-recognition. She remains unredeemed, while the Palestinian man emerges as a transformed and transformative agent who takes his own fate, and hers, into his own hands by recognizing who and where he is. He is the one who awakens from the nightmare. He also reasserts his manhood. The play ultimately reasserts the gendered logic of power that is bound to perpetuate the conflict in one form or another because it assigns justice to one side only, exaggerating the flaws of the other and failing to fully humanize both. Perhaps some degree of agitprop is unavoidable here. Even where it fails aesthetically, political theater has a place in that it makes us think harder about that hard border between politics and humanity.