No, Mr. Schwarzenegger, the Capitol Riots were not like Kristallnacht

In a short video, posted on YouTube, the former Conan the Barbarian star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brandished his stage sword and compared it with American democracy. The tertium comparationis between the “hardened steel” of a sword and American democracy was somewhat nebulous, especially as the brief message ended with a call to “healing.” Is our democracy’s resolve “hardened” by challenge, or are we to threaten rioters with the sword of justice? But I am not writing as a critic who might take issue with Schwarzenegger’s poetry.  I am writing about Schwarzenegger invoking Kristallnacht 1938 as a historical parallel to the recent “breaking of glass” in the US Capitol, a parallel that Schwarzenegger vaguely claims to be familiar with because he was from Austria, even though he was born in 1947.

I am not just confused by this parallel. I am disturbed by it. Here is what happened on Kristallnacht, a three-day state-sponsored, highly organized, and nation-wide pogrom unleashed on Jewish houses of worship, business, and private homes that took place from November 9 to November 11, 1938. I am quoting from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum page on “Kristallnacht.”

Nazi Party officials, members of the SA and the Hitler Youth carry out a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms throughout Greater Germany. The rioters destroyed hundreds of synagogues, many of them burned in full view of firefighters and the German public and looted more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses and other commercial establishments. Jewish cemeteries became a particular object of desecration in many regions. Almost 100 Jewish residents in Germany lost their lives in the violence. In the weeks that followed, the German government promulgated dozens of laws and decrees designed to deprive Jews of their property and of their means of livelihood even as the intensification of government persecution sought to force Jews from public life and force their emigration from the country.

After the pogroms, the implementation of German anti-Jewish policy was gradually concentrated in the hands of the SS. Thus, Kristallnacht figures as an essential turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, which culminated in the Holocaust, the attempt to annihilate European Jews during the war.

My own family was victimized on that day. My grandfather, a World War I veteran of the German army, was among those on lists of prominent Jews to be detained in concentration camps that had been established as early as 1933. My mother’s twin brother, then sixteen years old, was not on such a list but a local policemen thought he should be so he sent him away as well. My grandfather was later released as a decorated WW I volunteer. My uncle was released later, which forced the family to release his seat on a Kindertransport they had secured for the twins. My mother escaped to England. My grandparents and my uncle were ghettoized in Mainz and, in early 1942, deported to German-occupied Poland, where they perished.

Kristallnacht was not spontaneous but well planned. It was violent, deliberate, and devastating for the millions of Jews still living in Germany at that time.

As others have argued, there are many parallels between Trumpism and Hitlerism, or Trumpism and fascism. In many ways, popular support for Trump, the cult of personality, the destruction of trust in mainstream media and the creation of a cloud of disinformation that stokes hatred and encourages violence, all this rings familiar and sheds light on the erosion of democratic institutions that preceded the rise of Hitler in Germany who, btw, was elected and legally appointed as Chancellor before he used constitutional emergency powers to eliminate all opposition. The totalitarian state was not established in a day, and the ground was prepared by a decade and more of the erosion of trust in the rule of law.

But the Capitol riot of January 6 is not equivalent to November 9, 1938. If Schwarzenegger is looking for a parallel, here is one: the abortive Beerhall Putsch of 1923 that landed Hitler in prison. To be sure, that was not the end of Hitler’s political career. Let us brandish the sword of Conan to make sure the January 2021 riots were the end of Trump’s.

On Fiction and the Bible

Let’s talk about fiction, fictions, belief and the imagination

The word “fiction” comes from the Latin verb fingere, which gives us the English name for the digits of our hands, “finger,” which we also use as a verb, when we speak of “fingering someone,” meaning to manipulate (from Latin manus: “hand”).

Literally, fiction is something made by our fingers or something our fingers point to. The semantic range of the Latin verb fingo includes the following meanings:

  1. to shapefashionformknead (dough)
  2. to adorndressarrange
  3. to dissemble; I alter the truth in order to deceivefeignpretend
  4. to trainteachinstruct

Fiction is something made to appear before our eyes, something conjured, an alteration of things found.

We can juxtapose fiction to fact, a derivation from the Latin factum, which is also something made. Facere can mean, or be used to express, the following range of actions: to make, do, act, name (in the sense of designate someone for a job, e.g., make him king), perform, work, build, construct, set (e.g. fire), achieve, to be effective, to cause, commit, concoct, establish, fabricate, and more.

We tend to think that facts are not fictions, but the words seem related, as are facts and fictions, if both are essentially made and the products of human (or divine or natural) making.

Facts and fictions are products of making. Facts are made things; fictions are made up things. Things are made or made up by someone or something, i.e., they have a cause. If everything is caused, everything is either fact or fiction. The distinction between fact and fiction points to the difference between intellect and imagination.

Anthropologically speaking, the human experience begins with toolmaking. A tool, say a stone flint, extends the range, strength, or ability of our fingers. It allows us to produce different and better facts. The human experience also begins with speech. Utterings are also a kind of tool in that they extend our range of power beyond the body. To use a spatial metaphor, speech extends our range in two directions, namely, inward and outward. Utterings are also “innerings.” The utterings of our mouths, the sounds we make with the intention of meaning, give voice to our inner lives, to the things we see, hear, taste, and feel and that we communicate with one another. With the ability to communicate comes the possibility of manipulating and dissembling, but also of instructing.

The first evidence of religion is also the first evidence of civilization, namely, the deliberate burial of human remains with gifts for the hereafter. From the very beginning, human lives were not just factual but fictional, playgrounds for the imagination. We may assume (or is it a fiction?) that early human worlds were populated, even dominated, by fictions. This is a probable assumption because we are aware of the arduous process by which humans have learned to distinguish between fact and fiction. The distinction between fact and fiction serves our interest in self-preservation. Knowing, what is fact and what is fiction, is a source of power. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, but no knowledge is as powerful as the knowledge of causes. If I know the actual cause of a thing, I must no longer fear or enslave myself to fictitious causes. Knowledge liberates from enslavement to fictions.

Today we associate the struggle for the knowledge of true causes with the history of science. But where does that leave fiction?

Fiction remains a powerful tool of manipulation for the sake of power. Knowledge does not just liberate the knower from enslavement to fiction. It also enables the knower to create fictions and to manipulate others, by conjuring worlds that are equally or more compelling than facts. The art of using fiction to manipulate others is used in the rhetoric of persuasion, in propaganda, in advertisement and public relations, and of course in politics.

But fiction, the making of our imagination, is also a powerful tool for the powerless, who can imagine themselves as free and empowered.

The knowledge of facts comes with an element of disenchantment. The world of fiction is an enchanted world. We crave fiction more than facts.

Fiction can provide escape from facts. It exercises the imagination. When we are exposed to fiction as fiction, that is when we recognize that what we see, read, or hear is a product of the imagination, we suspend disbelief and enjoy the alternate reality of fiction. This may seem an entirely passive or receptive engagement, but it is, in fact (!), our own imagination that is at work producing the images, faces, feelings, and emotions that fiction conjures for us. This is particularly true where the medium provides mere clues but doesn’t paint the whole picture for us. Our imagination is more active in the production of fiction when we read than when we immerse ourselves in total works of art such as a musical, a movie, or computer-animated virtual reality.

It is our craving for fiction that makes us susceptible to manipulation. We want to believe what we are told, especially if the telling comes with the authority of religious power.

Realizing the difference between fact and fiction is a perennial task; it is work we practice every day and throughout our lives. We don’t already know whose words we trust or whose truth we can safely embrace. Higher education, really any education worthy of that name, encourages us to raise questions: “How do we know this?,” “Is this a fact, or is it a fiction?,” and “If this is fiction, is it harmless or harmful?”


Biblical literature is a complex mix of fact and fiction. On the borders of biblical literature, Jews, Christians, and Muslims each cultivated their own creative engagements with this literature. They have taken from it what they found compelling and instructive and they have made it into new complex mixes of facts and fictions. Modern biblical scholarship is the effort, begun in the 17th-century European Enlightenment, to break the spell or enchantment of the Bible, its hold on the European imagination, and subject it to the same scrutiny as the new science applied to nature. Textual and higher criticism treated biblical literature with the same critical tools scholars applied to any and all received bodies of literature. As archaeological and epigraphic knowledge grew, in the nineteenth century, new comparanda emerged that allowed scholars to see the emergence of biblical literature in its historical context and recognized the presuppositions and cultural assumptions shared by the biblical texts with other ancient texts and inscriptions. It stripped the Bible of its extraordinariness and established critical distance between modern readers and the ancient texts.

Traditional approaches to the Bible have the opposite purpose. Instead of distance they want to establish proximity and identification. Instead of rational and methodical critique they employed the imagination.

There are two major tools, among other traditional ways of creative engagement with biblical texts, namely, interpretation and embellishment.

Interpretation takes the text as sacrosanct, that is, as an unchangeable symbolic body or body of symbols, down to every word and even each letter, including misspellings, diligently copied from generation to generation. To make sense of this body of symbols, interpretation uses strategies such as allegorical interpretation, typology, and the like, to read the text otherwise than written. Using interpretative strategies to bend the text to the will of the interpreter treats the text as figurative rather than literal, i.e., it suggests that the text means more and other than it says. Late ancient and medieval exegetes spoke in this regard of a “fourfold sense” of Scripture, distinguishing, for example, between the literal (Jerusalem, the city), the tropological or moral (Jerusalem=the believer’s soul), the allegorical (Jerusalem=The Church), and anagogical (Jerusalem=Heaven, pointing to the eschatological future of individual or collective redemption). This would be a Christian example. A similarly ascending system of meanings is suggested by the Hebrew acronym PaRDeS (pshat, remez, drash, sod). There is evidence of creative interpretation in the Bible itself, e.g., when Daniel ponders the words of Prophet Jeremiah and finds a way of applying his prophecies to his own time. The library of Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered at Khirbet Qumran since the late 1940’s, included the first known example of a commentary on a biblical book, the Pesher Habakuk.

The other strategy–embellishment or “corrective” retelling–is also evident among the sacred scriptures, for example, if we understand the Books of Chronicles (1 and 2 Chr) as a corrective retelling of Samuel-Kings. [E.g., cf. 2 Sa 24 with 1 Chr 21]

These retellings were exceedingly popular, well-known, and often displaced the biblical version because they were felt to be more satisfying as explanation of certain events or circumstances, such as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise ( Life of Adam and Eve), of ritual obligations (sacred history retold to fit into 50-year cycles in the Book of Jubilees), or of new theological ideas ( immortality of the soul popularized in poetic form in the Wisdom of Solomon).

The New Testament gospels fictionalize the life of Jesus of Nazareth to support the apocalyptic message of the early Christian community and to defend their claim that Jesus was the promised “anointed one” or Messiah. There are variations between these tellings that are obvious when you contrast Mark, whose gospel proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as a powerful divine man who vanquished death, with Matthew and Luke, who add genealogies, pregnancy and birth stories, and different vignettes, with the purpose of providing evidence or arguments either directly from scripture (using fulfillment citations, as Mt does) or by means of allusions and imitation of scriptural style (as Luke does), to create a quasi-biblical life of Jesus of Nazareth and to explain why someone from Nazareth could be the promised anointed one. I call these accounts fictional, among other reasons, because they shared the intention of showing (through the birth in Bethlehem) that Jesus of Nazareth had a significant connection with the House of David, a crucial condition for legitimate messiahship in early and later Christian arguments with the Jews, but they use irreconcilably different “facts” to establish that connection. This contradiction means that either one account is fictional and the other factual, or both accounts are fictional.

Similarly, the Latin Life of Adam and Eve constructs a backstory to the figure of Satan (a biblical figure without real personality or individuality), using poetic biblical passages (from Isa and Ezek) to create a new mythological figure as the great enemy of humankind and the one who, for Christians, was vanquished by Christ. In this fashion the ancient combat myth finds its way back into a biblically inspired fiction.










Spring Courses: Holy City and Maimonides

YHWH, God of Israel

Biblical literature pivots around the relationship between YHWH and Israel. By “YHWH” I refer to the name of the biblical Israelite deity that, in its shorter forms yah and yahu (Greek IAO), appears in numerous theophoric names, such as Hizki-yahu (“IAO is my strength”) and in expressions of praise (hallelu-yah). There are other divine names in the Bible, including those associated with the patriarchs of Genesis (“God of Abraham,” “Strong one of Isaac,” “god of my breasts,” etc) and most importantly variants of el/eloah and elohim, an abstract plural noun often used interchangeably with YHWH. In Ugaritic sources, el refers to the chief god of the pantheon. The notion of the high god of a pantheon is also indicated in the term elyon, i.e., “the Highest.” In the Bible, the mythological pantheon remains relatively undifferentiated. El might appear in the council of gods (see Ps 82:1), but the lesser gods or “sons of god” remain unnamed. They are a generic lot, with one exception: “YHWH, el of the Hebrews” (Ex 3:18), “el of Isra-el” (Ex 32:27 and often). In this case, el is the function, while YHWH is the persona taking on that function.

YHWH particularizes Israel as the nation of YHWH. The same is the case with the national gods of neighboring communities. National gods of other people see, e.g., Chemosh of the Moabites in Num 21:29, Jud 11:24, and cf. 1 K 11:33. In speaking of YHWH as elohenu (“our god”), Israel particularizes itself in relation to a divine being that is theirs. YHWH tseva’ot (LORD of Hosts) is invoked in conjunction with the Ark narrative in 1 Samuel 1–7 and in a number of psalms. In some psalms, YHWH appears to be associated with the north (zaphon), in the Song of Deborah and Barak he appears from the south (teman). He sometimes bears the very epithet rider of the clouds that Canaanite sources associate with Ba’al, a male fertility deity of the kind YHWH likely resembled at the beginning of his divine career. The epigraphic evidence from the Sinai oasis of Quntillet Ajrud attests to YHW’s antiquity as a deity revered by proto-Hebrew tribes.

The pre-history of this deity involves the passage from a local numen with fertility-related characteristics (characteristics of a male deity with a female counterpart) to deity of the Hebrews more broadly, and ultimately a god whose exclusive veneration is a matter of party politics (see the stories about Elijah and the purge staged by the Israelite usurper Jehu; 2 K 10:28) and eventually a matter of state (1 K 22-23) in the late Judahite monarchy. What interests me here is the long duration of YHWH’s intermediate position between the Highest and among the other “sons of God.” Traces of this original way of differentiating between YHWH, the god of Israel, and el elyon can be found, though they are not always obvious, especially when we approach biblical literature with the assumption that YHWH was always consistently identified with the Highest.

Consider the following passage from the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 LXX):

When the Most High apportioned the nations,

When he seeded out Adam’s sons,

fixed the boundaries of nations

according to the number of divine messengers,

that’s when Iakob, his people, became the lord’s portion,

Israel the measured part of his inheritance.[1]

The meaning of these verses is clear. The poem urges the listener to inquire of the elders about the days of old, the very beginning, when the Highest divided unified humanity into a multitude of nations “according to the number of” divine beings. The verses introduce the intimate relationship between YHWH and Israel, a desert foundling (32:10MT), pampered and elevated by YHWH, much as Jerusalem is described in Ezekiel’s poem about Jerusalem (Ez 16). As “Jacob ate his fill and Jeshurun grew fat,” Israel “forgot the god who gave you birth” and turning to other gods, caused YHWH to become jealous and angry, etc. Much like Isaiah’s song about the vineyard (Isa 5), the Song of Moses reviews the benefactions Israel received from its god only to abandon him later on, causing YHWH to threaten the Israelites with “being scattered” (meaning of Hebr. Uncertain) and their memory to be obliterated. But then YHWH reverses himself for fear of Israel’s perdition being misinterpreted as the victory of Israel’s adversaries rather than YHWH’s actions (vv. 26-27). This sequence, which, as mentioned, follows a familiar prophetic pattern, is followed by a section that is more reminiscent of wisdom literature (vv. 28-38) and concludes with a section (vv 39-43) reminiscent of Isaiah 45, with its more exclusivist rhetoric. The Greek version of the Song of Moses culminates in a call to the Heavens, the “sons of god,” “angels of god,” and the “nations” to rejoice “with his people” over his avenging of the blood of his sons.

εὐφράνθητε, οὐρανοί, ἅμα αὐτῷ, καὶ προσκυνησάτωσαν αὐτῷ πάντες υἱοὶ θεοῦ· εὐφράνθητε, ἔθνη, μετὰ τοῦ λαοῦ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐνισχυσάτωσαν αὐτῷ πάντες ἄγγελοι θεοῦ· ὅτι τὸ αἷμα τῶν υἱῶν αὐτοῦ ἐκδικᾶται, καὶ ἐκδικήσει καὶ ἀνταποδώσει δίκην τοῖς ἐχθροῖς καὶ τοῖς μισοῦσιν ἀνταποδώσει, καὶ ἐκκαθαριεῖ κύριος τὴν γῆν τοῦ λαοῦ αὐτοῦ.

Deut 32:43 LXX


The “messengers of god” of verse 8 reappear in verse 43, where they are in parallel to the “sons of god” (υἱοὶ θεοῦ ). Given the composition as a whole, it is difficult to avoid the slippage from a song in praise of the intimate relationship between YHWH and Israel to a song that makes Israel the special inheritance of the Highest himself, namely, if we approach it from the assumption that YHWH is, in fact, none other than the Highest himself.

The Masoretic version disambiguates the identification of YHWH and Highest by replacing the sons or angels of god, according to whose number the nations were divided up in the beginning, with the phrase “according to the number of the children of Israel.” If we assume that the original version of the Song had the Hebrew equivalent of “sons of God” (b’ney Elohim), then the Masoretic scribes only needed to change one word, to remove the offensive meaning, by replacing Elohim with Israel. Even more intriguing is the difference between the Masoretic version of v. 43 and the Greek. The (later) Hebrew is much shorter and omits all reference to the Heavens, the angels, and the sons of god.

The textual transmission of the Song of Moses is thus quite complicated. The older version preserved in LXX seems to offer the more unabashedly mythological view, similar to what we find in other Israelite hymnic poetry, where YHWH is among the lesser gods without therefore losing any of his significance for Israel, while Israel remains entirely beholden to YHWH alone. In fact, the logic of this view is required in order for YHWH to air his grievance over Israel’s conduct in the sight of Heaven (= the Highest), the (other) sons of god, and the nations. Israel is a source of embarrassment for the god to whom this nation was assigned, who found and brought it up in the desert, lavishing care upon it so it grew into a strong and self-satisfied nation. The history of Israel reflected in these images corresponds to what we know about Israelite origins historically and from biblical narrative. The claim here added is that the Highest assigned YHWH to Israel from the very beginning, the days of old. In other words, it was the providence of the Highest, who makes arrangements for every nation (through the agency of his sons or messengers) ahead of time, who gives national identity its definition and duration, that assigned YHWH to Israel and Israel to YHWH.

The logic of much of biblical historiography is the logic of emergence of the dual monarchy of Israel and Judah as a fortuitous rise of a loosely defined tribal community of Hebrews out of the ashes of the collapse of late-Bronze Age upheavals. The normative prophetic tradition that become part of the Jewish canon of scriptures accompanies and punctures this rise with its poignant critiques. The historical books of the Deuteronomistic school shape this view into a coherent narrative based on the idea of a covenant that binds Israel to YHWH, and YHWH to Israel and makes the nation’s ups and downs readable in light of loyalty and disloyality of the Israelites (Judges) and their kings (Samuel-Kings) to YHWH alone. The obligation to worship YHWH alone is not originally tied to a written compact but serves as a symbol of national unity that, over time, meant different things to different groups, movements, and institutions. The rewritten history of the kingdom in Chronicles emphasizes loyalty to the temple and the Levitical priesthood. The prophetic historiographers of Samuel-Kings emphasized the personages of prophets and a few kings who hearkened to their voices. There is most certainly some influence of Assyrian imperial suzerainty treaties on the form of late-monarchy Judahite covenantal thinking. The notion that Josiah reformed the cult and based his reinauguration of a pan-Israelite state on a found “scroll of instructions” is either the case of a historically unprecedent royal act or a later invention that wants to anchor the logic of Israelite history as contingent on the nation’s obligation to worship YHWH alone in its last and perhaps greatest iteration, i.e., in the written Torah of Moses.

What YHWH was to Israel, Chemosh was to Moab, Milcom to the Ammonites, and the Ashtoret to the Sidonians (1 K 11:33). A nation owed veneration, obedience, sacrifice, and exclusive loyalty to their own national deity. What kind of a people would turn to “other gods,” and enter into covenants with them? The story of biblical kingship is bracketed by exactly that charge. At its inception, which –– according to the Book of Kings –– marks the high point of Israelite history, King Solomon is charged with abandoning the ways of his father David when he introduced the gods of others to Jerusalem. (See 1 K 11:7.33). At the end of that historical narrative, King Josiah of Judah is praised for having rectified the offense that led to the downfall of Israel, its partition into two kingdoms, thereby its weakening and eventual destruction, and the “evil” that king after king committed “in the eyes of YHWH.” (See 2 K 23:13) King Josiah’s measures, meticulously detailed in 2 K 23 aim at establishing a bulwark against further foreign domination. His economic measures include the elimination of cult centers outside Jerusalem and thereby the centralization of taxation, strengthening the royal household and enabling the king to pursue wars of conquest and consolidation. This fantasy of restoration created the hubris that eventually led to Judah’s demise at the hand of the Babylonians who mustered much greater resources after emerging from Assyrian domination.

From the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, a kingdom that had proclaimed exclusive loyalty to YHWH alone, emerged a refined, more sophisticated, more wistful culture that used elements of cultic purity, scribal arts, law, and wisdom to refashion and reimagine what it meant to venerate YHWH alone. In that process, and through encounters with new and more sophisticated civilizations, Jewish theology began to change. Prophetic poetry particularized Israel in a novel, more subtle way as the suffering servant of YHWH while YHWH began to be seen as the one creates weal and creates woe, who fashions light as well as darkness (Isa 45), who directs the fate of nations for the sake of his servant, Jacob. As “Israel’ turns into an increasingly fuzzy social body, as their god appears or allows himself to be venerated not just in the Land of Israel but also abroad, the god of Israel grows in stature and merges with the Highest. This new particularization of “Israel” as the covenanted people of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, compared to whom all other gods are mere idols and nothings, with no ears to hear or eyes to see, creates the jarring possibility of the disinheritance that was to be claimed by the nations: if the god of Israel is God, purely and simply, then what does God have to do with Israel? Through his only begotten son he reaches, teaches, and judges all nations. We can see how the Christian interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures draws conclusions that are already prepared for in the trajectory of the history of the relationship between YHWH and Israel. But the Christians are not alone in offering a strong and plausible interpretation of Scripture. Jews, facing the challenges of Christian, and later also Islamic, interpretations of the Israelite legacy, found a variety of ways to reconcile their politically diminished status with the spiritual elevation of YHWH, god of Israel. These included the ways of halakhah and Talmud torah, the ways of custom, the ways of biblical interpretation and storytelling (midrash), the ways of mysticism and philosophy: Israel’s persistence in exile a proof for the existence of God.

Finally, over the last century and a half, the ways of politics and nation-building in an age of secularism have given the original sense of Israelite theology renewed relevance. If each nation has the political right to exist by virtue of the natural right to choose its national existence, then so does Israel. Stripped of metaphysical ballast, YHWH, god of Israel, has once again become readable as a national god among national gods, and Israel as a nation among others.

After all, the name YHWH means, I AM WHO I AM.

[1] Cf. New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) online at I significantly modified this translation based on the basic meaning of the Greek wording.

History and the Bible’s Meaning

Before we look at history we need to know why we need to look at history.

In discussion, when I asked about students’ prior experience with the Bible, students said they became familiar with Bible stories through their upbringing. (A few said they were “Christians” and read the Bible every day.) Their interest in the class was to approach the Bible from a different angle and learn what it was all about. Here is my first stab at such an angle.

One of the things we do before we read any biblical texts is to look at the history and geography of the place from which the Bible emerged. Thinking about the relationship between the Bible and Ancient Near Eastern history may seem self-evident to someone trained in biblical studies, but this may not be so for a beginning student. While it is widely accepted that everything is in some sense “historical” and “contextual,” we must not think that history and context “explain” everything there is to know about a thing or a text. Texts are realities in their own right that respond to other texts. They are written by people who, while writing for a particular time, audience, and purpose, may not be in complete command of the material they put on paper. I am not thinking of divine revelation in the sense of prophets being the mere stylus or fountain pen for a divine author, passive recipients of visions or auditions that they merely repeat orally or in writing, without any input of their own minds and hearts. What I am thinking of is that, as some of the great Romantic savants have argued, language is always more than the person who speaks or writes. Speech, oral and in writing, has a life of its own. Through it we can glimpse the inventions, discoveries, customs, beliefs, affects and aspirations of generations of others than the speaker him- or herself. Where, as in the case of the Bible, most writing is transmitted anonymously, without ascription to an author, we are dealing with the product of layers of scribal communities in the service of purposes and interests we must guess at from the writing itself.

Where writing is the product of institutions, we must consider the political, sacerdotal, socio-cultural, economic, and other institutional contexts. To imagine these institutions responsible for the production of biblical texts requires knowledge, understanding of the methodology by which it is produced, as well as its limitations. In this class, because we can no more than get a very general idea of what biblical literature is about before we delve into the texts themselves, we will largely rely on very basic historical information: What do we know about the history and geography of the people whose history is told in the Bible? What are some of the assumptions shared by the nations of the Ancient Southern Levant about the causes of the historical fates of nations, including their own? What were their major institutions? What were the major historical events to which they responded both in real terms and in form of major bodies of text that accompanied and interpreted their historical experience?

In most basic terms, the Bible is a record of the responses of a nation to the historical experience of emergence, consolidation, growth, crisis and destruction. The force of the Bible rests on the fact that this ancient nation survived the destruction of its major institutions and went on to create a literature of response to destruction that has had a profound impact on the imagination not only of the descendants of that ancient Middle Eastern nation but on people across the globe. The histories that chronicle the rise and decline and destruction of ancient Israelite and Judahite kingdoms, the prophetic books that presaged that fate but also produced oracles of return and conciliation, the covenantal law that served as blueprint for reconstruction, the psalms, wisdom literature, and festal scrolls that lament destruction, celebrate survival, and mark the joyous occasions of harvest and ingathering are claimed not just by the Jews but also by the non-Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth they call “the Christ.”

The primary sacerdotal institution founded on these scriptures, the Jerusalem temple, was destroyed a second time (in 70 CE) when the Roman Empire brutally crushed the Jewish uprising that began under Emperor Nero and his inept procurators, and ended with the newly proclaimed Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus needing not just a victory but money to buy the support of the People and Senate of Rome. Proceeds from the destruction of the Jerusalem temple provided the burse for the building of the Colosseum and many other well-known Roman monuments. Jews and non-Jews refusing to bow to the Emperor drew the ire of provincial administrators. The early Christians were a mix of Jews and non-Jews who denied the emperor the title of “son of a divine one” by applying it to a Jewish messianic redeemer who was expected to return with clouds to judge the living and the dead. While Jews were exempted from Emperor worship, non-Jewish Christians were not. The reward for this defiance was martyrdom. Only later, in the 4th century BCE, did this church surface from the catacombs of Rome and hand the mantle of vicarious divine kingship on earth to the Emperor himself. The triumphant elevation of Christ, “ruler of everything,” conferred Christian sanction on the Emperor Constantine (d. 338) and it changed the Christian movement from a persecuted minority to the dominant political religion of the Roman Empire.

The Bible is the foundational library of several distinct communities. Over the course of the centuries following the second destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE) and the banishment of the Jews from Jerusalem by the Romans, the Jewish tradition divided into two major strands that both affirmed the authority of the ancient scriptures but interpreted them differently, namely, the Karaites and the Rabbanites. Jews lived in the Land of Israel that the Romans renamed “Palestine” to erase the memory of the Jews, but they also lived in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where Jewish communities had resided since before the first destruction of Jerusalem in 586BCE. In addition, there was a sizable Samaritan community around the ancient Israelite sanctuary of Mt. Garizim (near modern-day Nablus). The Samaritans held on to the Pentateuch, the laws of Moses, and to this day celebrate the Passover, as commanded in the Torah.

The Arab Conquest of Syria (635 CE) brought an end to Christian rule in the Holy Land and saw the eventual return of Jews to Jerusalem and even a kind of rebuilding of the Solomonic temple, in form of the Dome of the Rock that graces Jerusalem’s temple mount to this day. The early Islamic tradition saw itself as restoring the religion of Abraham, or Nebi Ibrahim, which Muslims saw as the first and most simple universally valid belief in one God, Creator of all. With this creed they hoped to settle the perennial quibbles between Christians who asserted that God was three in one, and Jews, who believed that YHWH, the God of Israel, was One, and they alone were the chosen people. The Qur’an, the holy book of Muslims, draws on shared antecedents: the story of Moses and the Israelites, the long line of prophets and messengers from the beginning down to the Prophet Muhammad, the Virgin Mary and even Alexander the Great. Christians, a movement that began with a failed Jewish messiah who was condemned by a Jewish court as a rabble rouser and executed by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate around 30 CE, adopted the ancient Jewish scriptures as their own, as from its prophecies, rightly understood, they could derive that Jesus of Nazareth was not just “son of (the) divine” but also son of David and hence called upon to rule and judge the living and the dead. Their claim to the providential suffering, death, and resurrection of the Messiah/Christ Jesus was justified from Scriptures that were beyond reproof: scriptures that were all the more reliable because the Christians had no hand in producing them. It was from Jewish and Roman sources that they could argue that Christ was the child, the son of man, presaged from the beginning to put an end to sin, death, and the rule of darkness over the lives of men.

When we think about biblical texts and their contexts, it is therefore not enough to consider origins: when, under what circumstances, by and for whom were the traditions formed that crystallized into the bodies of written text that have come down to us? We must also ask, how were these texts received, transformed, combined, rewritten, and interpreted so as to become constitutive for the beliefs and practices of Jews, Christians, and Muslims? We will attend to both of these considerations, the origin and reception of texts, over the course of the entire semester and for each text we will read.

As we think about history and context, and before we delve into further details of ancient history as we now understand it on the basis of centuries of discovery and study of the Ancient Near East through archaeology, epigraphy (inscriptions), and historiography, we should clarify – or at least state – a fundamental issue. Why does history matter? Is it only an “auxiliary” science that adds to our understanding of where texts originate? Or is there something more essential here to the character of the texts and their implicit and explicit claims to truth?

We can read the Homeric epics without recourse to history. In order to get a sense of the literary character of the Iliad we don’t need to know whether Troy existed. We take it for granted that Agamemnon, Menelaos, Helen, Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus are characters in an epic poem. It matters little whether they really existed because they are present to our imagination through the art of Homeric storytelling. Roman imagination inscribed itself into that ancient story by making Aeneas, prince of Troy, the founder of Latium and hence Romans the descendants of that ancient and noble people, forced to abandon their home and to migrate to a new, and now once again glorious, home and called upon to rule the world. While the Rome of Virgil and Augustus is real, it matters little whether Troy is more than a myth invoked to glorify the Romans. Not so with the Bible.

On the most basic level, the Bible claims and wants its readers to believe, that YHWH, the God of Israel, is real, that the covenanted children of Israel, the sons of Jacob, the original twelve tribes, or the sacred remnant that survives the destruction of Israel, or those who returned from the Babylonian exile and rebuilt Jerusalem, or another, more narrowly defined group of saints and martyrs, will be the seed from which the God of Israel will rebuild the nation and establish the kingship of God on earth. While not entirely dissimilar to Virgil’s appeal to the noble origins of Rome, biblical history makes the claim that everything depends on worshiping YHWH alone, on worshiping Him the right way, and not the wrong way. Homer is about nobility of character. Virgil is about nobility of descent. The Bible is about the will of a mysterious God whose name translates as “I will (cause to) be what I will (cause to) be.” As the Qur’an emphasizes recollection of the many times God, in his inscrutable mercy, called upon humans to convey his will and intention for them, the Bible as well insists that God not only created the world for humans (and all creatures) to thrive in harmony but, following man’s falling out with his God through disobedience (or some other typically human behavior), that God (the only real one) did not remain aloof but passionately engaged with the human family through the particular calling of a single individual, Abraham, and his descendants. The Israelites, enslaved in Egypt, were called to freedom through Moses who was called by YHWH who heard the cry of the Israelites and recalled his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. YHWH prevents Moses from entering the promised land, but he empowers his successor, Joshua, to lead the Israelites in conquest. After these stories, the deity recedes and only interacts with Israelites through their leaders, the judges, the kings, and most importantly through generations of prophets. After the demise of the kingdom, prophets, too, begin to disappear and are replaced by texts: the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings. It is through the voice of those texts, and through the voices in those texts, that the deity remains present and his demands urgent. The promises remain in force and the fate of the nation remains dependent on people hearkening to the voice that speaks through those texts.

History is relevant because of the claims to historical causality made in the biblical texts themselves. The texts proclaim that the God who created heaven and earth made a covenant with Israel. Therefore Israel’s fate is an indicator of God’s presence in history. This claim did not fail to impress those Christians who believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the real intention behind that ancient covenant, that in Christ a new covenant was made. The claim to Israel signifying God’s presence in history, the presence of the only God who is living, real, who hears, rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, also impressed itself on the Arabian prophet who was approached by the biblical angel Gabriel, or Jibril, and told to “recite,” launching the movement of Islam (literally “submission”).

What distinguishes Homeric epic and biblical telling is the biblical claim to reality, authority, and truth of its proclamation. We will see how this plays out. But it also makes testing biblical claims against what we know from other, independent sources of history all the more important. By necessity, this historicizing approach will relativize biblical claims in many ways. What appears as prophetic speech that seems to speak across times will appear as topical advice to an ancient king in a particular situation of threat where the king’s behavior will determine the immediate outcome in military, political, and economic terms. What appears as a timeless command to honor the seventh day may show traces of Babylonian influence and hence allow us to speculate on the cultural origins of a divine commandment. What appears as a story reflecting Bronze Age history may inadvertently point to the Iron Age, centuries later, as the true setting of the narration. What seems a divine premonition of a future age may turn out to be a vaticinium ex eventu, a prophecy in hindsight, told to show that a king’s revolutionary reforms were not innovations but divinely intended acts, commanded and prophesied generations earlier.

This approach will at first be confusing as it runs counter to pious and naïve assumptions we may bring to the text. Once we become habituated to thinking in these terms, however, we will develop a new respect for the texts and their authors who did not write to deceive but to educate and to build up their community, to instill norms of righteousness, justice, purity, and a fear of God they regard as “the beginning of wisdom.” In other words, the texts were meant to build up the hope, confidence, faith, and devotion of a nation that looked back at its own humble origins, the rise and fall of its institutions of independence, and forged a way of life that preserved them under ever new and changing circumstances.

Ultimately, the question I will ask is not, is the Bible “believable,” but is the Bible “meaningful.”

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.