Workday Jews

Have the Jews been the quintessentially modern people? Or was modernity instead something alien to them, a force that struck them with a violent shock? Did their long experience as a highly commercialized, mobile, and marginalized group prepare them to be the vanguard of a new world, or did they, like uprooted peasants and colonial subjects, struggle to adjust to changes that initially overwhelmed them? Should the Jews, in other words, be placed among the chickens that laid the modern world, or does it make more sense to count them among the eggs?

Chad Alan Goldberg and Eliyahu Stern each address one of these alternatives, while exhibiting little apparent awareness of the other. Goldberg’s Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought is a brief, tightly wound, precisely conceptualized, and surgically executed comparison of how sociologists in France, Germany, and the United States conceived of the causal relationship between modernity and the Jews, while Stern’s Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s provides an expansive reinterpretation of Eastern European Jewish intellectual history at the moment when Jews’ liberal modernizing ideologies became radical and revolutionary.

Black and white photo of man with beard leaning forward
Émile Durkheim in an undated photo.(Wikimedia.)

Goldberg’s perspective is from the outside looking in, drawing on non-Jewish social theorists such as Werner Sombart, Max Weber, and Robert Park and assimilated or converted Jews like Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Georg Simmel, all of whom debated whether Jews were avatars of modernity or anachronistic relics. Stern’s account, in contrast, is told almost entirely from the internal perspective of Eastern European Jewish intellectuals writing in Yiddish and Hebrew. Figures like the mercurial Moses Leib Lilienblum, the spiritual nationalist Peretz Smolenskin, and the socialist Aaron Lieberman tried to understand and respond to what capitalism and nationalism were doing to the people of the Jewish Pale. Both books rely on a familiar cast of characters, yet they aim—each with a considerable degree of success—to recast their protagonists’ ideas in new ways.

Goldberg’s study hinges on a puzzling fact: The great modern sociologists tended to portray Jews either as scarily protomodern or recalcitrantly backward. While Goldberg isn’t the first to notice this startling dichotomy, he has analyzed it more thoroughly and systematically than anyone else, even constructing a table situating his thinkers along a horizontal axis of “advanced” and “backward” and a vertical axis of “positive” versus “negative” constructions of Jews. Thus, Simmel, Sombart, and the early Karl Marx viewed Jews as ahead of their times, while Durkheim, Weber, and the later Marx saw them as backward. All of the above (though one might question Simmel’s placement here) depicted Jews negatively, regardless of whether they viewed them as ahead or behind. Of the figures Goldberg considers, only the American sociologist Robert Park and his circle fall unambiguously into both the “positive” and “advanced” quadrant.


Although Goldberg has a general theory about the place of Jews in modern social thought, he is not indifferent to considerations of local context. Durkheim, for instance, though not an observant or even affiliated Jew, constructed a theory of Jewish backwardness that, whatever its validity, had the virtue of undermining the reactionary anti-Semitic idea that Jews were somehow responsible for the French Revolution. Himself a champion of the principles of 1789, Durkheim suggested that traditional Jewish life exemplified the principle of “mechanical solidarity,” an outmoded form of communalism that was at odds with the revolution’s individualist spirit. This was a sly maneuver, since it meant that Jews typified the same reactionary order that the anti-Semites now aimed to restore! Nevertheless, Durkheim was less interested in condemning the backwardness of his coreligionists than in approving their eventual adaptation to the modern liberal order.

This was a similar move to the one made by the young Marx, albeit in his case with far greater anti-Jewish animus. Goldberg, I am happy to report, is not interested in rehearsing the familiar denunciations of Marx’s fascinatingly ugly essay “On the Jewish Question” but is preoccupied with a more interesting problem. In that early (1843–1844) text, Marx appears to identify Jews with the alienating spirit of modern bourgeois society, a realm of private property, hucksterism, and the war of all against all—in other words, the new capitalist regime. Yet in Marx’s later works, particularly Capital, his few scattered remarks on Jews depict them as relics of a premodern form of “merchant capitalism,” a type that Marx insists could never on its own have birthed a new world.

Goldberg uses this tension in Marx’s writing to launch his general theory: namely, that the peculiar dualism casting Jews as either progressive or regressive ultimately derives from what he calls a secularized Protestant “habit of thought” of reckoning in metaphors derived from Christian theology. In particular, social theorists unconsciously adopted the replacement theology which posited that Christianity had superseded Judaism, the New Testament and Covenant having decisively displaced the old ones. This helps explain Marx’s seemingly grotesque description of commodities which function as money as “inwardly circumcised Jews.” As Goldberg insightfully explains, this means that modern capitalists have so absorbed and improved upon medieval Jewish usury that they no longer need any corresponding outward sign (Old Testament physical circumcision) but instead exemplify Paul’s inward “circumcision of the heart.”

According to Goldberg, nearly all of the classical sociologists he considers unconsciously appropriated the supersessionist schema, albeit in different ways. “[T]he relationship between Jews and Christians,” he writes, “formed a code for signifying the relationship between premodernity and modernity.” Because Jews functioned as a seemingly inescapable trope for Jewish and non-Jewish theorists alike, they could be invoked as powerful symbols in debates about modernity with little consideration given to actual Jewish lives and communities.

Werner Sombart, for instance, built on the basic outlook of the early Marx, who seemed to identify capitalism with finance and finance with the Jewish “spirit of hucksterism.” But Sombart discounted the later Marx, who noted that Jews had little to do with the modern factory system of mass production, which he now identified as the hallmark of the exploitative capitalism. In contrast, Sombart’s contemporary Max Weber sided with the later Marx’s focus on industrial capitalism, although for Weber religious outlook was more important than class. Weber identified the Jews with an earlier and limited form of economic life—“pariah capitalism”—that lacked Protestantism’s ascetic drive toward salvation, which Weber famously deemed necessary for the modern capitalist revolution. As in the supersessionist schema, Weber’s “Protestant ethic” universalized an ethos—in this case, worldly—that was implicit but never fully realizable in Judaism. In yet another variation, Georg Simmel’s 1900 Philosophy of Money inverted Marx and Sombart by characterizing money as a supremely liberating institution which, by reducing all commodities and values to a cash nexus, set people free to reorganize their relationships on the basis of choice rather than feudal compulsion. Simmel’s equation of money with Jews was not wholly positive, yet, as Goldberg wittily remarks, if Simmel did not quite overturn Marx’s anti-Jewish curse, “like that of Balaam at Mount Peor, he at least made it appear as a mixed blessing.”

Goldberg’s chapter on Park and the Chicago school of sociology he founded in the 1920s with William Thomas is by far the book’s most innovative. But it also complicates his supersessionist hypothesis. For what Goldberg finds here is a rich body of sociological research that paints Jews in an almost philo-Semitic glow. Park, who had studied under Simmel in Germany, transformed his teacher’s concept of “the stranger”—almost certainly modeled on the image of the Jew—into the “marginal man.” This was a type who lived in the interstices of the old world of tribal community (or ghetto) and the new world of urban coexistence. “The emancipated Jew was,” wrote Park, “historically and typically the marginal man, the first cosmopolite and citizen of the world.” With its focus on immigration, urbanization, and the recasting of a melting pot America, Park’s Chicago school came to view Jewish immigrants as exemplary. It was not Jews’ assimilation that so impressed Park but rather their capacity to develop institutions like the New York kehila and the vibrant Yiddish press that served to facilitate immigrant adaptation while also subtly transforming the American scene. “In the case of the Jewish group,” he observed, “we find spontaneous, intelligent, and highly organized experiments in democratic control which may assume the character of permanent contributions to the organization of the American state.”

It is hard to fit such an outlook into Goldberg’s framework of transposed supersessionism. German sociologists like Sombart had regarded Jews as avatars of economic modernity and predicted their transcendence through the advent of socialism (once again conceptually paralleling Christianity overcoming Judaism). But for Park and co., the Jews themselves appear as the messiah. The emancipated or deghettoized Jew is not, in the writings of the Chicago school, even a deracinated Jew. Indeed, Jews retain much of their distinctive identity within the new American ethnic mosaic. Park’s Jews are the solvent of civilization, but there is no need for the Jews themselves to be solved. There is in fact no Jewish question at all. Thus, if we are to apply Goldberg’s supersessionist categories consistently we find that there is no place to park Park.

Illustration of man with beard
Portrait of Moses Leib Lilienblum. (Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo.)


After one reads Goldberg’s account of modern sociological theory as secularized supersessionism, it is startling that in Jewish Materialism Eliyahu Stern seeks to redeem the title phrase from its long history as a stock Christian anti-Semitic slur. The Church Fathers’ “carnal Judaism” became transposed in the 19th century into “conspiracy theories that posited the existence of a small but powerful [Jewish] cabal . . . that manipulated world markets.” But as Stern informs the reader, this is not the Jewish materialism that he will explore in the pages that follow. “In reality,” observes Stern, “Jewish materialism was an ideology developed in the second half of the nineteenth century by Jews who were socially oppressed and lived in dire poverty.”

Stern tells a new story about the beginnings of a body of thought which turned out to be crucial for many of the mass movements of modern, 20th-century Jewry: emigration, Zionism, socialism, even the everyday nonaffiliated folk Judaism of post–World War II American Jews. Jewish Materialism is not so much an effort at uncovering fresh source material but rather at recovering the real but long misunderstood nature of Russian Jewry’s intellectual transformation in the second half of the 19th century. I stress intellectual transformation because while the book seeks to grasp how Jews came to refocus their efforts on achieving material deliverance from poverty and hardship, Jewish materialism, as Stern conceives it, is ironically about ideas.

Materialism, loosely defined as the notion that physical needs and drives, not ideas, determine history, has a long genealogy in Western thought dating back to the Greek Democritus. By a specifically “Jewish materialism,” Stern means Jews’ realization that the “acquisition of the necessary means of survival and their ability to appropriate the physical world [was] essential to what it meant to be Jewish.” More pointedly, this was the effort to define the material as comprising a distinctive, essential, and—contra the anti-Semites—decidedly positive foundation of Jewish identity.

Stern makes it clear that this new materialist outlook was not characteristic of Western Jews who lived as small minorities in liberal, free market societies but rather of their Eastern European brethren, the Jewish masses of the Pale. As he puts it: “For unlike their coreligionists in Paris and Berlin, Jews residing in Russian lands in the second half of the nineteenth century remained landlocked, sidelocked, and locked out of major labor markets and state offices.”

In truth, Stern tends to understate the impact of previous Western efforts to “productivize” the Jews, that is, to reconstitute their relationship with nature, land, and labor by channeling them into nonmercantile occupations, including crafts and farming. Although he was hardly free of anti-Jewish prejudices, the great Prussian reformer Christian Wilhelm von Dohm was acutely aware of widespread Jewish poverty when he penned his influential On the Civil Improvement of the Jews (1781). More to the point, the path-breaking Western maskil Naphtali Herz Wessely (whom, like such later like-minded “enlighteners” as Mendel Lefin and Joseph Perl, Stern oddly does not mention) anticipated in 1782 some of the core themes of a later Jewish materialism when he lamented the overproduction of Talmud scholars and the consequent shortage of Jews educated to be socially useful, as well as the obliviousness of traditional Jews to the demands of physical, earthly reality.

Stern wishes to stress the opposition, even antagonism, between Western liberal Jews who aimed to free their coreligionists from the taint of materialism and the Ostjuden who came to embrace materialism not only as a means of physical salvation but—proudly—as a pillar of their own sense of self. Yet this opposition can easily be exaggerated, and there was plenty of overlap between West and East and between idealistic enlighteners and hard-nosed materialists. While Stern admonishes the reader not to confuse the cohort whose history he traces here with adherents of the Haskalah, in truth the two groups overlapped. The core Enlightenment demand for Jewish occupational productivization was echoed by virtually all of those whom Stern here labels materialists.

Even in the earlier phase of the Haskalah, such demands entailed a revaluation of traditional values. Hence, insofar as physical labor and livelihood (as opposed to Torah study) were typically seen as women’s work in Eastern European Jewish culture, the material realm of the body was construed as feminine. The pursuit of Jewish materialism now necessitated a masculinizing of labor. For this reason, Moses Leib Lilienblum (who exemplifies in his biography the shift from maskil to materialist) called on young Jewish men to take up the breadwinning roles that had hitherto been relegated only to their mothers, wives, and daughters. The new Jewish man, he implied, must now become the old Jewish woman!


However, Stern is also right to see these earlier figures of the Jewish Enlightenment as mere influences on a movement that really gathered steam only when economic modernization began to penetrate the Russian Pale, ironically sinking Jews deeper into poverty and creating problems that Tsar Alexander II’s reforms failed to address. As scholars have long understood, a decisive shift in the consciousness of the Jewish intelligentsia occurred in the decade and a half before the 1881 outbreak of widespread anti-Jewish pogroms in the Pale. Disillusionment with top-down solutions, dissipating faith in the harmonious intentions of the non-Jewish masses, along with currents of Romanticism shifting eastward had all prepared the way for new approaches. But this turn has usually been understood in terms of rising Jewish nationalism or even the beginnings of revolutionary fervor. Stern is the first to raise the banner of materialism as its overarching conceptual rubric. Thus, Stern’s account begins in earnest in the 1860s and 1870s, a period of increasing radicalization of the broader Russian intelligentsia whose Jewish counterparts would now begin translating materialist tracts like Friedrich Albert Lange’s History of Materialism into Hebrew and Yiddish, while also absorbing the influences of the positivists like Dmitry Pisarev, writers such as Turgenev and Chernyshevsky, and eventually Karl Marx, too.

The goal for Jewish materialists like Lilienblum wasn’t fitting into the non-Jewish occupational structure; it was bread. This shift away from liberal assimilationism went hand in hand with a break from earlier efforts at religious reform. Lilienblum—who had once been active in such movements—presently professed little interest in the Jewish soul; it was the Jewish body alone that mattered now. Stern is also on target in showing that the growing Jewish attraction to Marx in the 1870s was not a reflection of Marx’s own confused and confusing statements about Jews. Instead, he astutely remarks, “the Jewish materialists teased out the messianic universal aspirations and nationalist assumptions that they saw behind Marx’s theories of revolution.” If they had read Marx’s “On the Jewish Question,” the only statement these Russian Jews would have identified with was his insistence that we consider not the Sabbath Jew with his extra Sabbath soul but the actual “workday Jew.”

Not all Jewish materialists disdained the religious dimensions of Jewishness. As Stern shows, some repurposed religious tradition. The Hebrew science writer Joseph Sossnitz, at the end of a long intellectual odyssey, embraced a version of Judaism as a dat chomrit, a material faith. Aaron Shmuel Lieberman, the leading Jewish Marxist of the decade, sought to harness the kabbalistic theories of Isaac Luria and Moshe Chaim Luzzatto to a theory of divine-human redemption in which human labor rather than asceticism did the work of redemptive tikkun. Stern even recasts Peretz Smolenskin, the renowned founder of Jewish spiritual nationalism, as ultimately a materialist. What is clear at least from Stern’s account is that Smolenskin felt himself sufficiently engulfed by the growing materialist tide to acknowledge that while Jews were uniquely a nation defined by Geist (spirit), in order to realize their religious aspiration for redemption, Israel must manifest itself in a material form by acquiring a land and spoken language of its own. When, in the aftermath of the 1881 pogroms, the leading Russifying Jewish liberal Dr. Leon Pinsker adopted as his key metaphor the image of a disembodied nation that could be cured only by finding a material body to house its tormented soul, we are truly convinced: Jewish materialism had clearly won the day!


The authors of both of these excellent works reserve their concluding remarks largely for score settling. Stern takes the opportunity to strike out at the antimaterialist agendas of liberal Western Jews and especially the American German Jewish establishment whose philanthropic largesse, Stern might be forced to admit, probably did more to materially benefit impoverished Jews than all of the theories hatched by the ideologues of the Russian Pale. For his part, Goldberg, who maintains a studious reserve throughout his book’s four chapters detailing the prejudicial characterizations of Jews concocted by the giants of sociology, takes the gloves off at the end to knock their contemporary disciples down to size. After all, he reasons, “the point of historical inquiry is not to discover forms of life different from our own . . . but to recover what has been forgotten in order to emancipate ourselves from it.” Quite so. The current manifestations of the earlier “habits of thought” he now seeks to indict include both orientalist critiques of Zionism that belittle modern Israel as the expression of an anachronistic nationalism and, alternatively, “occidentalist” identifications of Jews with a soul-crushing neo-liberal order that undermines communitarian and even national values (think George Soros!). Disparaged as the ghosts of past generations or the phantoms of future shock, it appears that Jews remain maddeningly anomalous within the theoretical discourse of our own times as well. Perhaps the reason is that modern Jews themselves have never been simply one thing but many at one and the same time: Western and Eastern, rich and poor, entrepreneur andluftmensch, capitalist and socialist, backward and advanced. It is not—or not only—the supersessionist inheritance that makes Jews appear ripe for theorizing but the false imperative of seeking to capture in a singular characterization their frustrating diversity.

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