Epic Poetry and Jewish Peoplehood

In the following considerations I take my cue from Hermann Cohen’s aesthetic theory, as presented in Sebastian Wogenstein’s informative book on “tragedy and Judaism from Cohen and Levinas” (Horizonte der Moderne. Tragödie und Judentum von Cohen bis Lévinas. Heidelberg: Winter, 2011). Similar to Myriam Bienenstock’s more recent monograph on Cohen und Rosenzweig (Alber 2018), Wogenstein takes his point of departure from Hegel’s early theological writings, zeroes in on the aesthetic problem of tragedy (its coming into being in the age of Solon and Aeschylos, and the political and religious issues that arise from it), and thus sets the stage for a discussion of modern Jewish thought as a “critique of the critique critique” (to quote The Young Karl Marx movie), or rather as an inspired replique to Hegel that avoids the aggressive (anti-Jewish) dialectic and provides a more capacious interpretation of aesthetics, politics, and religion as mutually constitutive elements of the cultural consciousness.

So much as an explanation of where I am coming from right now. For the remainder of my review of these and other fairly recent books on Cohen you (and I) will need to wait for its publication in Modern Judaism.

What I am interested in right now is this. Wogenstein describes (on pp. 66f) Cohen’s analysis of the epic poetry of Homer (in Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls), showing that it is epos which creates the self-perception of an aggregation of people as a nation (Volk). In other words, according to Cohen, nationality is a product of art rather than nature. It transforms an aggregation of people from a variety of origins into a political unity. In an aside, Wogenstein’s Cohen also mentions that it is impossible for modern nations to produce epic poetry as the epos presupposes the “foggy world” (Nebelwelt) of myth. (Little did Cohen know that there was going to be a close imitation of myth employed in the production of modern hyper-nationalism, or rather, his entire theory aimed at the prevention of such a thing.)

While the ostensible subject is the creation of a Greek national identity from a variety of tribes, it intrigues me to think about how his theory might apply to the Torah and the Jewish people. This is not idle speculation. The parallel is not far fetched. Jewish peoplehood is, and always has been, based on a national epos, the Torah. Jews refer back to the Torah as the point of national origin whenever there is a crisis in the unity of the Jews, whenever the unified origin and character of the Jews as a people or nation is in question.


The Torah itself claims a dual origin of the Jews. Genesis describes a world of related nations emanating from the loins of Abram (“exalted father”). Exodus describes the moment at which the descendants of Jacob/Israel as well as the mixed multitude that eloped with them from Egypt are covenanted at Sinai and hence constituted as a political nation. In Genesis, the Israelites are a product of nature, but so are others. Their natural origins are not what distinguish the Israelites. In Exodus, the Hebrew slaves are not the only ones blessed by the escape from Egyptian forced labor. Once again, their natural unity is negated and their predisposition to serve as a “chosen nation” is entirely questionable, as evidenced in their general behavior toward Moses. The Book of Numbers makes it abundantly clear that, in terms of their disposition, the Israelites are the same before and after Sinai. The only thing that has changed and that provides the precondition of their future success is the order those assembled at Sinai accepted and placed upon themselves.

Christian and Muslim interpreters of the Israelite epic story of origin always emphasized the natural deficiencies of their biblical antecedents. Jewish tradition eventually placed the origin of the Torah of Sinai to before the creation of heaven and earth and hence into a nebulous world of myth. In medieval mysticism, the “mixed multitude” was forgotten in favor of the notion that Israel achieved a special ontological status at Sinai, an extra soul that made Israel alone into a human being in the full sense. The lower the social status of the Jews, the more assertive their ontological status. Not so in the Torah.

The Torah satisfies another characteristic of epic poetry. It strips the narrative of origins of its topical, contemporary aspects and transposes the story of unification into a time long ago. Quoting Cohen (as cited by Wogenstein p. 68, my translation):

Proceedings and actions are depicted as events [Begebenheiten] and, in terms of tense, placed in the past, a most distant past. Any current interest is eliminated, and therefore stripped of anything personal or transitional of the political present.

It was this sentence that jogged my recollection of S. David Sperling’s excellent book, The Original Torah. The Political Intent of the Bible’s Writers (New York 2003), which argues that the Torah was, in fact, an allegorical representation of Iron Age political realities set in a distant past. The most persuasive textual evidence Sperling provides for this provocative thesis is the obvious parallel between the Deuteronomistic narrative of the sin of King Jeroboam I and his two sons and the alien fire carried before the LORD by the sons of Aaron. To seal the parallel between the Deuteronomistic account of Jeroboam and the story of Aaron, Sperling adduces the Golden Calf incident and its suggestive connections with the establishment of the sanctuary at Bethel. Sperling makes no statements about the redactional history of the Torah where we find the favorable story of Bethel of Genesis 28 and 35 side by side with the negative story about Aaron and the bull images of Exodus.

It is surely not easy to reconstruct the editorial history of the Torah, but it is less difficult to match some of the narratives with realities and recollections from the history of the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms as well as to recognize the needs of the period of reconstruction following the exile and the reestablishment of Jerusalem as a temple city as reflected in biblical law. It has long been recognized that there are echoes of all the major epochs of Israelite and Jewish nation-building in the Torah. It is as if the great epic narrative of common origin and covenanting continued to be worked out as the political community was forced to reconstruct itself over and over again under changing circumstances. And every time, it was the epic narrative of origin that had to accomplish the task of unification: not only of the nation or community, but of its complex and disruptive past. It thus provided not just a single epic story that bound people of different origin together, but it became a record of a series of revolutionary changes in the constitution of the nation whose origin it narrates. It is precisely the composite nature of the Torah that reconstitutes and repairs the nation by collecting the fragments of national history and institution-building into a single continuous narrative.

One Comment

trunnion ball valve posted on August 26, 2022 at 2:12 am

Epic Poetry and Jewish Peoplehood | Michael Zank1661494354

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *