Thursday, July 27, 2017

Susannah Heschel - The Aryan Jesus in Nazi Germany: The Bible and the Holocaust

I had intended to post this back when I posted some videos by her father, Abraham Joshua Heschel but politics and other things intervened.

Her scholarship pointing out the part that late 19th and 20th century racial theory (based in contemporary biology) had in denying the Judaism of Jesus shows that the relationships producing 20th century, German anti-semitism was more complex than a cartoon, Colorforms, history diorama approach to the issue can contain.

Marilynne Robinson, in her review of The God Delusion -  after a paragraph defending Jews against evolutionary psychological claims slamming Jews for their alleged moral exclusivity -  pointed out:

Dawkins says, “I need to call attention to one particularly unpalatable aspect of its [the Bible’s] ethical teaching. Christians seldom realize that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. ‘Love thy neighbor’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew.” As for the New Testament interpretation of the text, “Hartung puts it more bluntly than I dare: ‘Jesus would have turned over in his grave if he had known that Paul would be taking his plan to the pigs.” Pigs being, of course, gentiles.

There are two major objections to be made to this reading. First, the verse quoted here, Leviticus 19:18, does indeed begin, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,” language that allows a narrow interpretation of the commandment. But Leviticus 19:33—34 says “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. . . . You shall love the alien as yourself.” In light of these verses, it is wrong by Dawkins’s own standards to argue that the ethos of the law does not imply moral consideration for others. (It would be interesting to see the response to a proposal to display this Mosaic law in our courthouses.) Second, Jesus provided a gloss on 19:18, the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. With specific reference to this verse, a lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells a story that moves the lawyer to answer that the merciful Samaritan—a non-Jew— embodies the word “neighbor.” That the question would be posed to Jesus, or by Luke, is evidence that the meaning of the law was not obvious or settled in antiquity. In general, Dawkins’s air of genteel familiarity with Scripture, though becoming in one aware as he is of its contributions to the arts, dissipates under the slightest scrutiny.

Nor is Dawkins’s argument from history impressive. He cheerfully posits a “Zeitgeist” that wafts us to ever higher states of ethical sensitivity, granting lapses, specifically those associated with Hitler and Stalin: “We are forced to realize that Hitler, appalling though he was, was not quite as far outside the Zeitgeist of his time as he seems from our vantage-point today. How swiftly the Zeitgeist changes — and it moves in parallel, on a broad front, throughout the educated world.” Dawkins fails to note that the racial anti-Semitism that arose in Germany in the later nineteenth century had appeared to recede, until Hitler and others revived it. The article on anti- Semitism in the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911. describes the movement as a German “craze” that had “shown little activity since 1893.” According to the article, “While it remained a theory of nationality and a fad of the metaphysicians, it made considerable noise in the world without exercising much practical influence.” So, although Dawkins’s Zeitgeist might seem a harmless fudge, a spiritus ex machina meant to rescue his Darwinian atheism from the charges of bleakness and emptiness, it excuses his consistent inattentiveness to history. It is precisely the swiftness with which the Zeitgeist can change that makes it profoundly unworthy of confidence.

I really love Susannah Heschel, this talk has lots of hard truth in it but this is a hard truth. And it's a far more complex truth than the comic book version of history can process.


  1. That quote from the Robinson essay reminds me that Dawkins was banned at a Berkeley appearance (on, I think, KPFA, the Pacifica station) because of his anti-Islamic attitudes, which prompted Stephen Pinker to defend Dawkins as one of the great thinkers of our time; or some such nonsense.

    Dawkins' "zeitgeist" is Pinker's "Angels of our better nature"; the two deserve each other, and both are about as important to human thought as, well, Donald Trump. Trump, unfortunately, is in a position to be more influential and damaging, but honestly, it's not that hard to draw links between the three of them. Which is a real "zeitgeist" issue, not a manufactured one based on ignorance of what the term means.