From Hasidism to Marxism

Isaac Deutscher lived from 1907 to 1967, a period of Jewish history as eventful as any in the previous two thousand years. Born near Krakow to a family of Gerer Hasidim, he became one of the world’s foremost Marxist journalists and historians. This was a journey, as he himself understood it, from the Middle Ages to modernity, from dusty superstition to cutting-edge historical science. The Non-Jewish Jew, a collection of Deutscher’s essays on Jewish subjects that first appeared in 1968 and that has just been reissued by the radical publishing house Verso, begins with a biographical sketch by his widow, Tamara Deutscher, organized around the image of vaulting a historical gulf. “That gulf was so immense that it baffled and fascinated him,” she writes. “It both amazed and amused him” that his early memories belonged to the same person as his adult achievements. How did the boy “with a thick black crop of hair [and] curled sidelocks,” knocking timidly on the rabbi’s door to wake him for morning prayers, become the radical orator who addressed a crowd of 15,000 students at a Berkeley teach-in? 

Practically the only source for Deutscher’s early life is this memoir, “The Education of a Jewish Child,” which quotes him extensively and seems to be his own authorized version. While it documents a journey away from Judaism, it is a text strikingly crowded with Jewish echoes. For instance, it tells the story of Isaac’s great-grandfather, a mitnaged (though the term is not used) whose “fanatic convictions” led him to prohibit his son from becoming a Hasid. The son, Isaac’s grandfather, was desperate to join the court of the Gerer Rebbe, but when he set out on the journey, his father moved heaven and earth to stop him, even calling in the Austrian police. This is very much like the story that Nachman of Bratslav told under the title “The Rabbi’s Son,” in which a father repeatedly thwarts his son’s efforts to join a Hasidic rebbe. At the end of that tale, we learn that the omens which appeared to support the father’s ban were actually the work of Satan and that the meeting, which never took place, would have brought about the coming of the Messiah. 

The rebellion of Deutscher’s grandfather was archetypal, and so was his own. Indeed, his story reads like a classic maskil’s autobiography; he could be Salomon Maimon talking about Lithuania in the 1760s. Deutscher, too, was a talmudic prodigy who grew first disillusioned with his learning and finally contemptuous of it.  At the age of 13, Tamara Deutscher writes, Isaac delivered a discourse about the kikayon, “a bird [that] is big and beautiful and unlike all other birds,” which appears once in 70 years and whose saliva has miraculous curative powers. The question the young Deutscher had to answer, drawing on a multitude of authorities, was whether this saliva was kosher—and he did this so impressively that he was immediately ordained a rabbi. 

So what if the kikayon, in the Bible, is not a bird but a plant, the “gourd” that God causes to grow to shelter Jonah? So what if, as Bernard Wasserstein has pointed out, this account bears no relation to how rabbis were actually ordained? Whether the mistakes and exaggerations were Tamara’s or Isaac’s, the story served to communicate the desired message: Nothing could be more foolish, more of a waste of intellectual power, than traditional Judaism. At the age of 14, Tamara’s memoir continues, Isaac confirmed his break with religion with a spectacular blasphemy. He taunted God by eating a ham sandwich, over a rabbi’s grave, on Yom Kippur. When no bolt from the blue followed this triple sin, he knew that God did not exist. (Still, he was afflicted with terrible guilt, less on God’s account than on his parents’: “At the family table I could hardly lift my eyes. I had never felt more remorseful in all my life.”) 

What followed is briefly sketched by David Caute in his 2013 book Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic, a double study of Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin. As a teenager Deutscher plunged into Polish literature, writing poetry and criticism and translating Thomas Mann. In 1927, at the age of 20, he joined the Polish Communist Party and served as the editor of its clandestine press. But he turned out to be a premature antifascist. In 1932, he published an article warning of the threat of Nazism at a time when the communists still regarded the social democrats as the main threat. Deutscher was expelled from the party, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since most of the Polish Communist leadership was murdered by Stalin in 1938. 

This series of events turned Deutscher into a strong critic of Stalinism, but didn’t shake his allegiance to Marxism or to the ideal, as opposed to the real, Soviet Union. He managed to escape Poland at the last moment, moving to London in April 1939 as a correspondent for a Zionist newspaper. After a brief, unhappy attempt to serve in the exiled Polish army, Deutscher remade himself, in an amazingly short period of time, into an English journalist, joining the staff of The Economist. After World War II, he became a leading pundit on Soviet and Eastern European affairs, a position bolstered by his groundbreaking biographies of Stalin and Trotsky. For two decades at the height of the Cold War, Deutscher flourished as a sympathetic but critical interpreter of communism to the West. Caute describes him as one of the “major thinkers and politically influential intellectuals of the twentieth century.”


Isaac Deutscher. (Illustration by by Mark Anderson.)

In Deutscher’s own view, his life was a demonstration of the power of enlightenment. And it is this self-understanding that grounds the arguments about Judaism made in The Non-Jewish Jew. The earliest of these essays, a plea on behalf of postwar Jewish refugees, was written in 1946; the latest, a harshly critical analysis of Israeli actions during and after the Six-Day War, appeared in 1967, not long before his death. This was a period in which all of the utopian hopes that had fueled Deutscher’s early communist idealism had foundered. Instead of emancipation, the Jews of Europe had experienced annihilation. Instead of ending anti-Semitism, the communist
regime in Russia mounted strong attacks on Zionists and “rootless cosmopolitans.” And in an era when Marxist theory predicted the decline of the nation-state, the fate of the Jews was dependent on the flourishing of a Jewish state. Faced with such contradictions, Deutscher was forced to deploy all his dialectical ability, and a certain amount of sheer evasion, to keep faith with the Marxism he cherished.

In “The Russian Revolution and the Jewish Problem,” for instance, Deutscher writes ruefully that “the Bolsheviks took an over-optimistic view of the chances of solving the Jewish problem.” There are two premises taken for granted in this formulation: that the existence of Judaism was a problem, for which a solution was needed; and that Russian communism was sincerely dedicated to eradicating anti-Semitism. If it failed, Deutscher believes, this was due partly to the deep roots of Christian Jew-hatred and partly to the Jews themselves. 

For, Deutscher suggests, how could Gentiles help noticing that Jews shirked combat duty in the Red Army, that they gravitated to white-collar and managerial jobs in the new Soviet state, and that they were stubbornly addicted to “the art and the tricks of petty commerce”? As for Stalin’s postwar paranoia about the Jews, was it not justified by the fact that “the Jews in Russia had a penchant, so to speak, for America and for their relatives there”? If American armies had marched into Moscow, wouldn’t the Jews have been “collaborators”? In this way, Deutscher manages to validate both the communist and the anti-communist attacks on Jews in Eastern Europe. They attracted hatred because they were too prominent in the party, and they attracted hatred because they didn’t love the party enough. 

In any case, the only solution to the failings of communism is more communism, but the right kind this time—internationalist and revolutionary, rather than Stalinist and Russian-nationalist. This is the communism to which Deutscher converted as a young man, and “converted” is the right word. For while Deutscher believed that the movement from Hasidism to communism was a movement from superstition to reason, it is easy from our vantage point to see that it was really the exchange of one faith for another. These faiths were convertible, for Deutscher as for many others, because they actually had much in common. Both were messianic, looking forward to a time when all the evils of life—human life, but specifically Jewish life—would be abolished. Both combined intellectual subtlety with emotional exhilaration. Both were based on a canon of sacred texts—the Torah, Marx’s Paris manuscripts—that demanded close exegesis and study. Both looked to charismatic leaders as embodiments of a sacred process—the Gerer Rebbe, Lenin. 

Strictly speaking, in communism there is neither Jew nor Greek. Yet as the title and substance of The Non-Jewish Jew suggest, Deutscher did not stop thinking of himself a Jew even after he had become a historical materialist. Considering the world he lived in, and the events he lived through, this is hardly surprising. But it raised a significant personal and ideological problem for Deutscher: What makes a person a Jew if he no longer believes in Judaism? “To me the Jewish community is still only negative,” he writes in the essay “Who is a Jew?” “Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I, therefore, a Jew.” Yet in some other sense, he was one. How could this be?

Practically speaking, Deutscher concludes, what keeps him a Jew is anti-Semitism. This was not a new idea—Spinoza said much the same thing, as did Theodor Herzl—but in the wake of the Holocaust it took on a new urgency. Now it was not just the fact of anti-Semitism that precluded assimilation; what was more, the memory of the victims of Nazism made the hope of assimilation look deeply dishonorable. Deutscher would have laughed at the religious terminology of Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment—do not give Hitler posthumous victories—but he shared it intuitively. “I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated,” he concludes in “Who is a Jew?” “I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy.” In the same essay, Deutscher also writes that “Nazism was nothing but the self-defense of the old order against communism,” but it is as a Jew, not as a communist, that he experiences the pain and disgrace of the Nazis’ crimes. 


If one rejects both of the traditional definitions of Jewishness, as a religion and a nation, and yet still feels oneself to be inescapably Jewish, how can that feeling be given content and coherence? It is the continuing salience of this question that justifies the reissue of Deutscher’s book; for in its title essay, he gave an answer that still inspires many Jews. “The Non-Jewish Jew” has become famous because, in the Hegelian spirit Deutscher knew so well, it performs a brilliant dialectical reversal. Being hostile to Judaism, he concludes, does not make one a bad Jew; on the contrary, it makes one the best Jew of all. That is because the essence of Judaism lies not in obedience to God or Law, or in identification with a people, but in heresy. True Judaism is the faith that rejects Judaism. 

Deutscher begins his argument by reaching back to his talmudic training and recalling the figure of Elisha ben Abuyah, the heretical Sage known as Acher, “the other.” Acher appears several times in the Talmud as a Jewish authority who broke with the Rabbis in some profound but unspecified manner. In a famous story—which Deutscher does not cite, though he surely knew it—Acher is one of the four sages who enter the Pardes, the orchard of paradise, where he was unable to bear what he saw and “uprooted the plants.” For Deutscher, however, he was an adventurer who—in an allusion to another famous tale—“rode beyond the boundaries.” “What made him transcend Judaism?” he asks.

The question is loaded, of course—the Talmud does not speak of Acher as someone who transcended Judaism, but as someone who vandalized it. But Deutscher is sure that Acher represents the best Jewish tradition, the one that also includes “Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud . . . They all found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, and too constricting. They all looked for ideals and fulfillment beyond it.” The freethinkers and revolutionaries he cites experienced Judaism as a prison or a ghetto, because they wanted to belong to another, more capacious community—the community of humankind. 

What they did not recognize, and Deutscher doesn’t recognize, is that Jews already belong to that community, even if they are not heretics. There is no such thing as a human being who is immediately universal. Home, as T. S. Eliot wrote, is where we start from, and Judaism is at least as good a place to start as any other. What really unites the great figures in Deutscher’s canon is that they believed that there was something particularly disqualifying about Judaism as a habitation of the universal. Deutscher praises Freud, for instance, because “the man whom he analyzes is not a German, or an Englishman, a Russian, or a Jew—he is the universal man . . . whose desires and cravings, scruples and inhibitions, anxieties and predicaments are essentially the same no matter to what race, religion, or nation he belongs.” But of course, the people whom Freud analyzed mainly were Jews. This does not necessarily mean they did not have the same “desires and cravings,” as everyone else—though then again, maybe it does mean that. How would we know, unless we took the fact of their Jewishness seriously, rather than immediately and anxiously “transcending” it?

For Deutscher, the rejection of Jewish particularity in the name of what he calls “universal human emancipation” is Judaism at its best. “I hope,” he writes in the essay’s peroration, “that, together with other nations, the Jews . . . will find their way back to the moral and political heritage that the genius of the Jews who have gone beyond Jewry has left us.” Logically, however, this makes no sense. The Jews who went beyond Jewry could not have accomplished this feat if there was not a Jewry to go beyond. A society made up entirely of heretics is as unimaginable as a society made up entirely of revolutionaries; the prestige of the exception requires that it be exceptional. And there is something unseemly about claiming that prestige for oneself. Saying that one is a Jew in the tradition of Spinoza and Heine is rather like saying that one is a Christian in the tradition of Kant and Beethoven: nice work if you can get it, but almost no one can.

But the real problem with the ideal of the “non-Jewish Jew” is that it is not, as it claims to be, an idea that transcends religion in the name of humanity. It is, rather, a restatement in secular terms of one of the most profound dynamics in European culture. This is the movement from letter to spirit, from law to love, from particular to universal, that is at the heart of the self-understanding of Christianity. Deutscher carefully avoids this comparison by choosing Acher, rather than Jesus, as his preferred Jewish heretic. But whenever a Jew tells other Jews that they are merely concerned about themselves, while he cares about the redemption of all mankind, he is, whether he admits it or not, recapitulating the original anti-Jewish movement of Christian civilization. 

That is why any theologian could say of Christianity exactly what Deutscher says about Spinoza’s thought, that it was “Jewish monotheism carried to its logical conclusion and the Jewish universal God thought out to the end; and once thought out to the end, that God ceased to be Jewish.” Contemporary philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have not failed to pick up on the symmetry of Christian anti-Judaism and Deutscher’s Jewish anti-Judaism. They have embraced the idea of the non-Jewish Jew because it gives anti-Judaism an impeccably Jewish pedigree, and thus immunizes them against the charge of anti-Semitism. 

But reading Deutscher shows that this is a thin distinction. In “Who is a Jew?” he writes, “it is strange and bitter to think that the extermination of six million Jews should have given a new lease of life to Jewry. I would have preferred the six million men, women, and children to survive and Jewry to perish.” Jewry—that is, Jewishness—deserves to perish, Deutscher believes, because Marx was right, and Judaism is just another name for capitalism. Thus his Marxist millennium would mirror the Nazi millennium: Both would be judenrein. The apparent inability of Western thought to imagine an ideal society that is not predicated on the elimination of Judaism is the great and perpetual danger for Jews who live in that society. We don’t escape that danger by clamoring to eliminate ourselves.




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