A complicated, ultimately rewarding history tracing how the engagement with “Jewish questions” have shaped 3,000 years of Western thought.
Nirenberg (Medieval History and Social Thought/Univ. of Chicago; Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, 1996, etc.) fashions a fascinating, albeit densely academic study of how writers and thinkers from Jesus to Marx to Edward Said have recycled ideas about Jews and Jewishness in creating their own constructions of reality. From the earliest eras, people have been formulating ideas about, and mostly against, Jews, despite their relatively small numerical representation on the world stage—e.g., the Egyptians resented the Jews as “agents of a hated imperial power” (the Persians). Enlisting his formidable army of sources, Nirenberg demonstrates how, in the ancient world, Jews were viewed as noncitizens, a force to be repelled against and even exterminated. Characteristics of “misanthropy, impiety, lawlessness and universal enmity” attached to Moses and his people would be reaffirmed in writings from the Christian Gospels to Shakespeare. Church officials equated Jews with carnality and the flesh, while the Muslims deemed them “hypocrites” and “non-believers.” In the medieval era, Jews worked for monarchs as moneylenders, and thus, resisting their influence became a preoccupation from the Spanish Inquisition to the Enlightenment philosophes. Even the revolutionaries of France were attempting a conversion from an ancient, loathed “Mosaic” system of “slavery to law and letter” to one of truth and freedom. Nirenberg doggedly probes how these inherited ideas of Jewishness created (especially to the modern reader) a “creeping calamity,” coloring history itself. The author takes issue with lazy “habits of thought” that even the greatest thinkers dared not reflect on and challenge.
A bold, impressive study that makes refreshing assertions about our ability to redirect history.