Messianic (Weimar Germany) (Political Theology)


I’m not sure at what point messianism became such a dominanting topos in contemporary Jewish thought. I think it has something to do with the synthesis of Cohen and Levinas in contemporary Jewish philosophy during the 1990s and today under the impress of Benjamin, and now Schmitt and Agamben. A very good friend wrote a very good book about messianism in modern Jewish thought. My own more contrarian opinion is that I don’t think it’s such a big deal in Buber’s I and Thou. In the Star I think it’s penultimate to a more apocalyptic, eschatological conception of redemption, and I think if Cohen had had time to finish the Religion of Reason, the messianic would have taken a back seat to atonement and to the peaceful death assured to a stabilized human subject by the good God revealed by the prophet Ezekiel –not by the social prophets, for whom God was the holy God of morality and pity.

As the messianic assumes all the rage in the political theology discourse since 9/11, I’ve I’ve come to the opposite belief that the “messianic” is and was perhaps always either the wrong answer to the problem of totalitarianism or the pathetic attempt to arrive at one. For Schmitt and perhaps for Benjamin, it was either the State or God (or divine violence, or the messianic, or whatever). Only one or the other can enjoy the status of absolute power. With Agamben, the vision is more anarchic –an inoperative divine law works in tandem with an inoperative state. (If I’m not getting this right, someone please feel free to help out and to correct me).

I wish we could get more critical distance on this rather bizarre concept. Regarding Benjamin, my own souring reflex is to wonder if the messianic was just a little too cute. And if it wasn’t cute, it’s maybe better to say “almost dangerous.” Viewed critically, I think with Benjamin it’s part and parcel with his flirtation with Judaism and totalitarianism, Scholem and Brecht, with Schmitt looking over the shoulder. Almost as bad are Buber’s reflections on the messianic in Kingship of God and Prophetic Faith, texts from the 1930s and 1940s under pressure from Nazism.  The idea that the Kingship of God might occupy all areas of life sounds like the flip side of the very totalitarianism that the idea was meant to oppose.

While one can appreciate these things historically, today things like the messianic, “divine violence,” now-times shot through with splinters of messianic time, or even the clarion call to neighbor love sound pretentious or ridiculous. I’m not sure why anyone today would want to adopt this stance.

I think I’m with the Babylonian rabbis on this one, at least as I now understand them. About the messianic, I think they were quite cold. The rabbis, or at least the late redactors, seemed to have thought that for the messiah to come, the whole world, their world, would have to be turned upside down. The generation that preceded the coming of the Messiah has the face of a dog. It’s a world without Torah, and in which scholars are held in contempt, no longer enjoying the status that scholars have always believed that they should enjoy. The messianic signifies to them is the true end of the world they loved because the world they loved was dominated, not by God, but by Torah and by their own hermeneutical acumen.

That’s at least how I read the main thrust of the relevant material in b. Sanhedrin (around folio page 97a), which is a locus classicus for this kind of speculation in the Bavli. I just don’t think the Messiah is something they wanted. To cite from another passage related to ordinary physical suffering, they wanted neither it nor its reward. Anticipating what they saw to be the worst, the rabbis, I think, tried to put the Messiah in a liturgical box. The messianic is a poetic utterance, not a practical desire, and certainly not a political program. For the Germans, one can see what might have drawn them to the messianic. Their milieu was indeed dog-faced. In contrast, the rabbis own political place seemed to have been much more pragmatic.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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5 Responses to Messianic (Weimar Germany) (Political Theology)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    i am still not sure about this. i just finished reading an intellectual biography of benjamin and the author’s take on his theses on history (which represent a sort of closure to his whole project) is that they are centered on a critique of both facism and soviet marxism, that is, totalitarianism as a whole, because both idealize the domination of nature with technology and, by extension, require a technology of social domination. the problem being the working of domination. i see no reason why this would be any different with respect to divine domination.

    my running reading is as follows: his aim is to locate “sparks” or stars in history and use them via some sort of prophetic/intuitive allegorical method to form “constellations” in which the messianic becomes evident. that is, the messianic is not a phenomenon which intrudes on history but one that emerges from history, or, from a certain way of reading it. i see this as tied to the restoration of storytelling in the sense that the storyteller draws thematic lines between the story recieved and the context of its retelling and, in doing so, effects a novel appropriation — i.e. something which is both an organic part of a tradition and, at once, future directed. in so many words: creative continuity.

    i dont think that this is a particularly toxic notion, and i do think that it is a fair interpretation of a certain strand of his messianism.

    i would not deny that the essay on violence flirts with a toxic form of messianism, but just as contemporary political theology can adopt one strand and ignore others, i see no reason why one cannot either:

    a) acknowledge that benjamin was a complex thinker who actually finished very little of his work so that much of it lies open to interpretation

    b) pick up on another strand and emphasize that instead.

    the question for me is always: what can be salvaged? or, perhaps more positively stated, what is the highest form to which this line of thinking can be pushed?

    I think that your reservations are well put and have challenged me to rethink my own positions, but i take that as a challenge to go back and reformulate….

    e.g. though much has been made about the death of storytelling in benjamin, i think this is a complete mistake. the storyteller tells his story precisely at the moment of death, thus, the death of storytelling is itself the moment of storytelling, its continuance. why cannot the same sort of re-reading be accomplished for other central themes? is the issue benjamin or his reception?

    • zjb says:

      Whether or not WB renounced totalitarian communism, well, I’m not sure I’m going to buy that one. It sounds apologetic, so I’d want to see the evidence. The communism was all tied up with Brecht, who was a brute, and “historical materialism,” and “revolution,” and all that stuff. It’s not just the essay on Divine Violence, by the way. It’s also in the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the first draft of which according to Adorno was even more tendentiously ideological than the one that got published. So sure, WB was complex, except when or where he wasn’t. I think you get the messianic in WB rather neatly. I just think the rabbis in the Bavli were more cynical about all this stuff, which maybe is big in Kabbalah-Hasidut, but which really isn’t my cup of tea. And then you tie this stuff up with politics? Ok. If you buy that, I have a mosque to sell you in Hebron.

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    ouch! 🙂

    the rabbis may have been cynical about all this stuff but they were not ready to renounce it either. part of what i am driving at is that, in general, the way the rabbis dealt with things that they disagreed with or were troubled by was not by excluding them from text/consideration but specifically by serio, us engagement and by recording that engagement. there is a moderating force in taking things seriously, regarding them as potentially viable, but subjecting them to criticism. in a sense, keeping them beholden to give account.

    it would be dishonest for me to say that i dont find a certain compelling aspect to these messianic thought images, but even if i didn’t, i dont know that i would be quick to put them in herem either…. i would be granting them freedom to metastasize without any counterforce on my part

    • zjb says:

      it may well be that these messianic ideas are in some way indispensible for thought to move forward. but “where” do you put these ideas? i think the rabbis were right, if i’m right about “the rabbis,” to shrink-wrap them in liturgy.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    or in texts to be subjected to analysis. same contradiction/problem as with the memory of amalek. what a strange thing to demand the erasure of amalek from history and then include the memory of amalek in a text which repels erasure! why? i think: to erase is to set free, to remember is to control – at least to some extent – the form something takes, to have a say in its development. i dont think that in this regard we are saying something substantially different. you say: it is tamed through liturgy. i say: it is tamed through study. but, it comes to mind that wolfson has written about the transition from liturgy to study and back again.

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