The Virtue of Meaningless Bourgeois Religion (Ancient Judaism) (Max Weber)


“Meaning” can sometimes seem like it is all the rage around some corners of the contemporary Jewish discourse, particularly in relation to religion and ritual. “Have a meaningful fast.” “What is the meaning of life?” “The synagogue seems to so many to be utterly devoid of meaning.” You get the point. “Meaning” is not a term that I use much. In the various worlds of contemporary theory, the very concept is retardataire. “Meaning” is tied up with language, semiotics, symbolism, and other theoretical themes left behind in the turn away from the linguistic turn. Reading Max Weber confirms why we might be better off without the pretentious term.

Doing due diligence for the Religion Studies Theories and Methods Seminar brought me to Weber’s Ancient Judaism. Weber, of course, was very interested in “meaning” precisely because he thought we lived in a meaningless world. This is in the definition of basic sociological terms in the opening chapter of the massive Economy and Society. For Weber, meaning is only a subjective ascription assigned to social action. Weber’s study of ancient Judaism re-enforces that subjective-social definition of meaning that is rational and humane.

Not so interesting about Ancient Judaism is the way the book is intended to shore up Weber’s thesis about the origins of capitalism in the Protestant west. Setting aside the anachronism, part of the point is to argue against Sombert and maybe Marx that the Jews and Judaism are unimportant engines of modern capitalism. Weber argues that the pariah status of the Jews does not lend itself to capitalism and that, in Judaism, the study of law and ritual practice are more important than making money. At the same time, Weber sees in the religion of ancient Israel a precursor form of rationalism that he contrasts with the religions of India, as well as the cosmo-theology reflected in the religions of China. In the Hebrew Bible the world is not fixed, not mystical, not magical, possessed of no “meaning” beyond history and human action. To be sure, one can inquire about the divine purpose, the anger of God, etc. But “[b]eyond that, there was nothing. This presupposition indeed, precluded the development of speculation about the ‘meaning’ of the world in Indian fashion” (p.225, cf. pp.206, 313, 317, 398).

Based on a picture of a world without meaning, Weber’s thoughts about the flat affective character of Israelite religion are utterly disenchanting. After Buber and especially Heschel, the argument seems counter-intuitive, indeed contradicted by charismatic prophetic visions of a world saturated by meaning, by the pathos of God. I am suggesting here that to grasp this part of Weber’s argument depends upon a recognition of ancient Israelite texts as literary art-objects. Indeed, reading such texts leaves one with two alternative interpretations. One possible interpretation is that the prophetic text reflects that real, overpowering of some immediate religious experience, reflecting the actual pathos of a great religious affect that saturates the prophet. An alternative interpretation is that the prophet is a literary persona and that prophetic books constitute no direct recording device of some intentional subjective state of lived consciousness, but is itself a carefully crafted poetic device. In support of the latter possibility is what Weber identifies as the suppression of prophecy by the “bourgeois” priests in the history of ancient Israel (pp.380-2). In like manner, the hot expectation that would seem to animate in our sources the idea of the future redemption is recognized by Weber to have been ultimately compressed into the limiting frame of “soulful longing” (p.399),  a subjective state with no genuine objective meaning apart from its own expression. Weber also insists that what others will later call the messianic idea in Judaism is a strictly religious one, not political. In line with the argument in “Politics as a Vocation,” prophets are not politicians. Weber’s data for ancient data is primarily textual, which calls attention to the artful compression of literary-religious expression beyond which they “mean” nothing.

A takeaway from reading Weber’s analysis in Ancient Judaism is that “meaning” is as overrated a phenomenon as the bourgeoisie is an underrated one. The concluding pages to Ancient Judaism indicate the power of endurance enjoyed by this particular religious form. Weber speculates that the appeal of Judaism in the ancient world to converts, especially after the collapse of Hellenic states, was the grand and majestic idea of God, the elimination of cult deities, a vigorous ethic, and a fixed order of life offered by ritual (pp.419-20). In the self-formation of this pariah people, prophecy and ritual contribute to the making of an exclusive “confessional association” (p.336). Viewed from an opposite perspective, the failure of Christianity to convert the Jews was due to what Judaism had to offer the members of an exclusive “confessional association,” namely a stable tradition and structured way of life, “the strength of the firmly structured social community, the family, and the congregation.” These closing words to Ancient Judaism read like a paean to the bourgeois virtue of the Jews. “All of this,” he wants his readers to appreciate, “makes the Jewish community remain in its self-chosen situation of a pariah people as long and as far as the unbroken spirit of the Jewish law, and, that is to say, the spirit of the Pharisees and the rabbis of late antiquity continued and continues to live on” (p.424).

Has Weber confused the religion of ancient Judaism with the rabbis or with the modern synagogue? It will help to remember that Das antike Judentum is itself a period piece. It appeared in the 1917–1919 issues of the Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialforschung right in the midst of and after the maw of the Great War. Consider too the simple decorative device on the front cover of the 1952 English translation. I might be overreading Weber’s thesis, but would argue that he encourages us to consider the religion of ancient Israel as priestly, bourgeois, and rational, not prophetic, radical, and mystical. The same goes for the modern Judaism of his day. In the face of catastrophe, the legacy of ancient Judaism and the picture of modern Judaism would be that of small comfort and humble virtue of social association in a meaningless world.

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An excellent resource on understanding anti-Semitism from a left, anti-racist perspective put together by Jews For Racial & Economic Justice. The text is agnostic about Zionism, an ideology it refuses to reject out of hand, even as it supports legitimate criticism of the State of Israel. Primarily writing for non-Jews, but not just, the authors do not shy away from calling out anti-Semitism as it appears on the left. Appealing to Jewish difference and the diversity of Jewish difference, the vision of the Jewish people is global, multi-racial and inter-ethnic. An interesting document reflecting upon the Jewish left at our historical moment, you can read the whole thing here. It comes as close as it comes to pitch perfect.

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Spiritual Journeys of Allen Ginsberg (Yaakov Ariel) (Tel Aviv University)

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American Jewish Millennial Jewish Identity (Ari Kelman,

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What they reject in religion is “law” and “authority.” For anyone interested in these kinds of things, there’s a fascinating study of young American Jews and Jewish identity just out, which you can read here. The co-authors are Ari Y. Kelman, Tobin Belzer, Ilana Horwitz, Ziva Hassenfeld, and Matt Williams. The misleading title of the study is “Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers” (Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society  23, no. 1 [Fall 2017]: 134–167). The title is misleading only because the “traditional Judaism” at stake is a form of post-traditional traditional Judaism. The basic argument is that millennial American Jews identify less by “ethnicity.” They tend also to be hostile to “religion,” even as they increasingly turn to “family” and to re-constructed expressions of “tradition,” including traditional ritual.

By way of personal confession, I never understood the turn to this figure in contemporary American Jewish thought. As a graduate student, I found appeals to “authority” to be alien, impersonal, and irrelevant, at least to the kinds of things and questions that interested me. Understanding the difference between charismatic authority versus patriarchal and bureaucratic authority, between loose authority of example and strict authority of institutions, I reacted to the term as against some kind of metallic substance. That was back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Has the term proven itself in the meantime? Kelman et. al, would suggest not, that it was always a dead pseudo-relic. This makes certain sense. After all, those who enjoy authority would not have to theorize about it.

As for the turn to tradition and against “religion,” this is, I would suggest, a post-Holocaust turn, anticipated back in the 1960s by Richard Rubenstein in “The Meaning of Torah in Contemporary Jewish Theology,” a 1963 address that appeared in After Auschwitz. Against the commanding God of history, against the religion of the prophets, Rubenstein saw a much deeper sense in the ritual traditions of the priests and its exposure to the God of nature. We all of us live in the shadows of catastrophe, under which appeals to religious authority, to the power of God, come across as beside the point.

The takeaway about religion is fundamentally “confused,” by which I mean nothing pejorative. In their study, Kelman observed that those who are critical of religion today understand it in terms of a distant God, unyielding legal norms, moralism, strict judgement, totally binding on those who accept it, and associated, psychologically, with “fear, guilt, and irrationality.”  The God of religion as young American Jews understand it today mirrors precisely the God of History, or rather the caricature of that God, rejected by Rubenstein in the 1960s in the wake of the Holocaust. But the very people interviewed in the study who embrace religion reject that type of so-called traditional religion. What the parties to either camp agree about is the rejection of the “authoritarianism” that the members of the majority camp finds in religion and that members of the minority camp fail to see in that very same phenomenon.

Kelman write, “Those in our sample who identified as not religious tended to offer a stricter definition of religions than those who identified as religious or those who did not describe themselves explicitly as either religious or not. The smaller number of our respondents who spoke positively about the religious dimensions of Jewishness described it in both highly personal and highly universal terms. For these eight interviewees, religion could be both a vehicle for personal meaning and a model for a kind of liberal politics. Most important, they described religion as something more flexible than did their not-religious counterparts, saying that participation did not rely on perfect faith, obedience, law, the Bible, or guilt” (p.144).

I have always wondered about a concept of modern religion as aesthetic community, and it is beyond ironic that the religion rejected by the critics of religion is not the religion embraced by those young people who embrace religion. That something is so amiss here about “Jewish religion” may have everything to do with one of two things. Either the liberal rabbinate today is completely out of touch with the culture and there is little to their training at the seminaries that would connect them to it; or something is radically wrong with “religion” as a concept with which we are better off without. In either case, the study signals a potential death knell for the American synagogue unless this gets figured out fast.

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The Elementary Forms of Religious “Life” Are Psycho-Biological (Durkheim)


Re-reading The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, I thought I knew what to expect. What I did not expect was the emphasis in Durkheim on “life.” I should have expected it. It’s there in the clear light of day in title of what in Religious Studies is his best known work. Usually, one reads the word “Religious Life” as just a colloquial stand in for society and social life –and nothing more. Is Durkheim a social reductionist. Yes, and no. From Durkheim one expects sociology, and here sociology of religion, not Vitalism, Lebensphilosophie, and other types of wooly speculation from the fin de siècle. Generally, in our text, representations (i.e. images and other religious ideas and mental data) take a back seat to rites as a form of social action. They are epiphenomenal to their material social base. And for the most of the book, this is truly the case, except for a critical moment of deep unhinging in the book’s concluding pages. Durkheim, of course, was a sociologist, not a metaphysician. He was not, however, a strict materialist.

It’s all in the conclusion of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life where Durkheim picks up on the consecration of things putting human subjects into contact with a source of “religious energy” comparable to heat or electricity. What does it mean to call religious technique a “mystical mechanics”? (Elementary, p.422)  What is the substrate of religious life? Writing about “idealization,” Durkheim suggests that is not “real society” with all its flaws. So crude a being as real society could never inspire feelings like love, enthusiasm, self-sacrifice. For that is required the image of a perfect society in which truth and justice reign, not so much a well defined, observable, empirical fact, but rather something along the order of a dream or other fancy. (Keep in mind that in The Division of Labor in Society Durkheim maintained that social solidarity, which is a moral phenomenon, is not strictly observable). For all that, religions is realistic, made in the image of real society, even as it provides a glimpse of reality that has been “enlarged, transformed, idealized.” Stepping away from empirical sociology, Durkheim observes how “persistent idealization is a fundamental feature of religions.” It is from this perspective that one might understand the argument that the sacred is superadded to the real, suggesting the possible conclusion that the sacred is in some sense not simply social, but superadded to the social real. Collective life awakens religious thought as something intense and effervescent, feeding off a swarm of “vital energies” that become “hyper-excited” (Elementary, pp.423-4).

What is weird is the notion that hyper-excited religious “representations” pop off their social basis and take on their own autonomous “life.”

Writing against “historical materialism,” Durkheim rejects the crude Marxist view that religion simply translates social realities into another language. To be sure, social life depends upon that material base. But Durkheim insists that collective consciousness is “no mere epiphenomenon of its morphological base, just as individual consciousness is something other than a mere product of the nervous system.” The particular elementary form of religious representations are rather a “sui generis synthesis” of individual consciousness. Especially in myth and embedded in ritual activity, they are the product of “a whole world of feelings, ideas, and images that follow their own laws once they are born. They mutually attract one another, repel one another, fuse together, subdivide and proliferate; and none of these combinations is directly commanded and necessitated by the state of the underlying [material] reality. Indeed, the life this unleashed enjoys such great independence that it sometimes plays about in forms that have no aim or utility of any kind, but only for the pleasure of affirming itself” (Elementary, p.426).

This is a somewhat shocking passage. It departs from the empirical methodology that defines Durkheim’s study. It stands to bear in mind, however, that the title of Durkheim’s text is not “The Elementary Forms of Religion,” but rather the The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Invoking a subject of biology, the emphasis here is on life itself, positing at this speculative moment the view that the life force of religious representations is incarnated in individual consciousnesses, made in the image feeding off society (Elementary, pp.426-7). As religious representations are ultimately rooted in biological life, in society as a biological form, sacred beings stand apart as living, autonomous, fertile and fecund. At their highest pitch, the life they enjoy is pure play with no social utility. They are for their own sake.

Where is this peculiar line of thought coming from?

At a moment of reflection, these playful thoughts at the end of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life correspond to another speculative moment in Durkheim’s oeuvre. They are already there in The Division of Labor in Society, part of the inspiration for which Durkheim ascribes to “recent philosophical speculation in biology” (p.34). This debt, relatively unremarked upon in the scholarly literature,  speaks to the pervading spirit of the biological sciences undergirding Durkheimian sociology. Indeed, this biologism goes a long way to explain the racism and sexism, the interest in phrenology (skulls and brains), etc. that are such an integral part of chapter 4 of The Division of Labor in Society. Beyond that is the truly strange thing that, as understood by Durkheim, the social division of labor is itself isomorphic to the biology of cell division. Indeed, these philosophical speculations in biology caused Durkheim to muse that the division of labor is a “fact of generality” that goes beyond the scope of economic theory. The division of labor, including the division of labor in religion, applies to the human organism just as well as to societies. The division of labor “becomes almost contemporaneous with the coming of life upon earth.”

Is religion a function of the division of labor in society? Are its roots just as organic? Can we ourselves speculate about Durkheim that, for him, religion, no less than the division of labor, is not merely a social institution based on human intelligence and will. Can we assert that for Durkheim, religion is itself a function of the division of labor? It would then seem that, for Durkheim, religion too is “a general biological phenomenon, the condition for which must seemingly be sought in the essential properties of organized matter,” and that both religion and the division of labor would appear to be “no more than a special form of this general development” (Division of Labor in Society, p.34).

Against strict realism and at the verge of idealism, Durkheim claims that mental representations (we assume this would include religious ones as well) are “not a simple image of reality,” “a motionless shadow projected by us onto things.” They instead feed off an intense “force that stirs up around us a whole whirlwind of organic and psychological phenomena.” With its genesis in collective life, this effervescent life-force is composed of nervous currents that accompanies the formation of ideas flowing within cortical centers, “passing from one plexus to another” and “vibrating within motor centers, where it determines our movements, and within the sensorial centers where it evokes images.” Durkheim understands that vibration is “the stronger the more intense the representation itself, and the more the emotional element in it is developed” (Division of Labor, p.75).

Everyone knows that for Durkheim religion is a social function. Less commonly appreciated is that society is itself understood by him to be a product of the division of labor. But the division of labor is itself not simply a social function. It is also a biological function, and so too is religion. Religious representations are vibrating, animate, elemental, which is why religion or the sacred has to be understood as a function not just of society, but of “life itself.”

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Religious Life & The Division of Labor in Society (Durkheim)


Reading The Elementary Forms of Religious Life for the Religion Department graduate Theories and Methods seminar, I am now concluding that you cannot understand this foundational text without having read The Division of Labor in Society. In other words, “religious life” cannot be understood apart from the “division of labor.” Perhaps the most important contribution of this text is the light it sheds on how Durkheim conceived two points of interest, being the place of the individual in society and what he thought would be the future evolution of religion. Reading the two books together underscores the degree which

The main substantive argument in The Division of Labor in Society is familiar enough. It makes the distinction between pre-modern societies founded upon “mechanical solidarity” versus modern ones that depend upon “organic solidarity.”

Durkheim defines “mechanical solidarity” in terms of the automatic solidarity allegedly established between people who bear the exact same characteristics in common.  By this, Durkheim means not just what we today call cultural characteristics or constructs. By “resemblance,” Durkheim means biological and even physiological features. Individually in the “horde,” everyone physically (literally) resembles everyone else. “They all look alike” is pretty much the claim about men and women in “less developed” societies (i.e. less developed by the difference and then social threading introduced by the division of labor). Mechanical solidarity rests on shared norms enforced by the repressive law founded on vengeance, a prime example being biblical law. In the discussion of mechanical solidarity in The Division of Labor in Society, a liberal expression of anti-Judaism sits cheek by jowl with racism and sexism (see especially chapter 4).

What Durkheim calls “organic solidarity” is a weaker form of solidarity than mechanical solidarity in that it is not based on automatic recognition of identity and the positing of common ends. With his eye on private property and contract law, Durkheim understands organic society not as a direct relation between persons and persons, but between persons and things (pp.91ff). Organic solidarity is that which brings about the division of labor in society, based as it is on the assumption of individual human difference.

Durkheim’s thesis is not as straightforward as it seems. Basic is the argument that society actually becomes more effective “in moving in concert at the same time as each of its elements have more movements that are peculiarly its own” (p.102). This is not a one-off claim. A liberal, Durkheim is committed to the value of individual liberty, which he posits not in opposition to group life but as a product of it (p.330, cf. p.218). This is because he insists that the true moral function of the division of labor is to create between individuals a feeling of solidarity based on complementary differences (p.46) The division of labor is that which makes society possible by connecting up individuals who would otherwise be independent (p.49). Perhaps most surprisingly, Durkheim maintains that, as a moral phenomenon, social solidarity is a nonmaterial datum not amenable to direct, empirical observation, but which “shows its presence through perceptible effects,” chiefly through law (p.52). Against laissez faire capitalism, it is law, economic regulation, and the state that secure individual liberty and intra-group solidarity (see especially the argument against Spencer in chapter 7).

But nor is the individual free. “Organic” societies are said to be “organic” insofar as they consist of a “system of different organs, each one of which has a special role and which themselves are formed from differentiated parts” (143). In such a society, precisely because the relations are “organic,” the individual is not free to break away from the group without doing damage to itself and to the social organism. Again ironically, mechanical solidarity constitutes a tie which can be easly broken and forged even while it  absorbs the individual segment (theorized as such) into the community. Traditional society is in one sense a loose social form. Whoever does not “deviate unduly” from the group is incorporated without much resistance into the group. In contrast, an organic society composed of differentiated but complementary parts cannot be grafted onto older ones without undergoing disruptive change. Mechanical solidary binds people together less strongly than does organic solidarity even as organic solidarity becomes loose as we scale up the social evolution (pp.118-19).

For Durkheim, the trick is to track out and develop new forms of social solidarity that are not based on similarity and on blood relations, but which promote “common faith” in which the dignity of the individual human person is the “object” of worship.  “[L]ike all strong acts of worship,” this common faith has already acquired its “superstitions” in what turns out to be a “sort of religion” impelling the will to a non-social end. Durkheim maintains that it is the division of labor itself that fulfills the role once performed by common consciousness, holding together the social entity that emerges and evolves out of the “social protoplasm” now that religion no longer pervades the whole of social life swallowing up the individual as it is claimed it once did (pp.134-5, 138, 141, 143). Durkheim outlines the evolution of religious representations (i.e. theological ideas) from the so-called primitive religions in which the sacred beings are integrated into the world, to Greco-Roman paganism, and then finally in Christianity in which the gods and God are supposed to be separated out to the point of hostility. About the modern religion, Durkheim concedes, “The God of humanity has necessarily a less defined meaning.” And yet it is also his claim that the more general the common consciousness and the more remote God is from “things and men,” the more “scope” is left for individual variations (pp.227-8).

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Leon Wieseltier & The Limits of Jewish Moralism


Especially for those of us exercised by so-called Jewish ethics, “The Sins of Leon Wieseltier” which you can read here by Joseph Epstein at the Weekly Standard is cruel and painful reading, excellent for the take down of a sexual predator while getting at what for us here was an emblem of contemporary Jewish thought. What stands out is not just the man’s preening and ambitious arrogance, but the character of a moral bully whose example marks out the limits of Jewish ethics. Epstein marks out the “moral diatribes,” claims to “[deep] moral imagination,” calling out the “moral idiocy” of others, assuming to be the “moral conscience of the intellectuals, the Jews, the nation at large,” the “high moral dudgeon,” the “moralizing tone,” the “moralizing, the portentousness, the pomposity.” Maybe it’s true that what Wieseltier only ever cared about literariness, not ethics and certainly not humility, the cardinal virtue in “the Jewish tradition.” He knew how to dress it up, putting Jewish morality on show before the literary set. For those of you regretting with sadness his passing from the scene, one should consider the damage done first to people and then to ideas.

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