The Intellectual Challenge Essay

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The Intellectual Challenge

The intellectual challenge was equally unprecedented. From the beginning of the modern age, there were significant segments of the intellegentsia which did not content themselves with any of the newly fashioned apologies for Judaism. They accepted the ideals of the “outside” — liberalism, nationalism, and, later, socialism — not because they had supposedly originated in Judaism but because they had not. What made these values attractive was that they promised to fashion a new secular world which would transcend and destroy all aspects of “medievalism.

” The assimilationists, those Jews who consciously strove to give up their own identity entirely in order to become undifferentiated individuals in the modern world, were thus truly messianic. The very completeness and unconditionality of their surrender to the dominant values of the majority were a program for the final solution of the Jewish question: let the Jew become like everybody else, yielding up his claim to chosenness and being relieved of his role as scapegoat.

Let society run on its universal and immutable principles, rooted in reason and natural law, which know neither positive nor negative exceptions for the Jew. Above all, let him disappear from the center of the stage, his own and the world’s, to be one among many equally important small incidents in the history of mankind. This was a kind of messianism that could have arisen only out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, for it was fundamentally at variance with both the Jewish and the Christian concepts of such an age.

Jew is equally important to the traditional Christian version of the “end of days”: he is not chosen but damned, but that is negative chosenness; he is doomed to wandering and suffering, because he once rejected Jesus, but the indispensable preamble to the Second Coming and the “end of days” is his conversion. It is beyond doubt that the long-standing Christian desire to convert the Jews was a significant aspect of the climate of opinion toward the end of the eighteenth century which prepared the ground for their emancipation.

Liberal Christians believed that this would be a short cut to the devoutly desired result. So the Abbe Gregoire, the leader of this school of thought in revolutionary France, argued in a famous essay written in 1787 and published two years later, as the delegates were gathering to the meeting of the Estates-General in Paris, that “the granting of religious liberty to the Jews would be a great step forward in reforming and in converting them, for truth is most persuasive when it is gentle.

”  What is even more apparent is that many of the philosophies of the Enlightenment, despite the ethical universalism and the vague deism or atheism in religion with which they were consciously subverting Christianity, were most reluctant to part with “old-fashioned” anti-Semitism.

In fear of censorship and the Bastille, they may, indeed, have had to shoot their arrows of ridicule at Moses instead of the Apostles, in order to conduct their war against the Church in Aesopian language; but there is an edge and a nastiness to Voltaire’s comments on the Jews, an insistence that it is hardly conceivable that even reason can reform them, which sets one of the patterns for modern anti-Semitism: to uphold a universal and secular ideal — e. g. , liberalism, nationalism, or socialism — but to exclude the Jews from its purview and effect.

Nonetheless, at its most ideologically consistent, the Enlightenment proposed full acceptance of the Jew in the new society of which it dreamed. His faults — which even pro-Jewish writers like Dohm, Mirabeau, and Gregoire waxed eloquent in describing — were, they maintained, not innate but caused by his unfortunate estate, and his claims to chosenness could be disregarded as a psychological defense the Jew found it necessary to cultivate to relieve the misery of his enslavement.

All this would disappear, transmuted into good civisme even among this, the most difficult group to usher into the life of the modern world, once all of society is reformed. It is therefore true, as Nordau once observed that the Emancipation came to the Jews not out of humanitarian fervor, not as a reconciliation of age-old conflicts, but for the sake of the abstractions, reason and natural law. But the Jewish enthusiasts of assimilation chose to overlook that the Emancipation was not essentially conceived out of tender regard for the Jews: they preferred to accept it with passion as the totally messianic era that it purported to be.

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  • Date: 20 May 2017

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