Whitehead (anti) Semitism


It’s not a point that I’m going to put a lot of weight on, but it’s worth a quick mention. For Whitehead, Religion in the Making is set up in opposition to “semitism.” Whitehead’s conception of deity is impersonal, cosmic, and cosmopolitan. Privileging Christianity and Buddhism, the semitic god is a terrifying figure, transcendent, powerful, and irrational (pp.54, 66, 72).  Worth noting is the claim that the modern world “has lost God” because Christianity “gradually returned to the Semitic concept” (p.72), by which, unsurprisingly Whitehead means the religion of fear against the religion of love.

While I tend not to use this term to describe bodies of philosophical work, in this case I would suggest that “anti-semitic” is in Whitehead’s case a technical term. I have no idea if Whitehead was himself an anti-Semite, but his model is anti semitic in the narrow sense that it is presented in opposition to semitic concepts, named as such. The problem here is a doubled one. On hand, there is no reason to assume that a “semitic” god-concept depends upon fear and terror.  On the other hand, there is no reason to assume that fear and terror are strictly “semitic” per se, and not generally human.

More interesting are how Whitehead’s remarks about the Old Testament confuse what he means by “semitism.” It’s in the “great reflective books of the Old Testament” that he finds particularly exhibited the element of “detachment” that he wants in religion. By the “reflective books,” he means “the search after wisdom” in what we today call the Wisdom Literature tradition. Instead of the “more exciting denunciations of the prophets,” Whitehead turns to the “detached, middle-class common sense” and the “keen appreciation of actual fact” that “also contributed to the religion tradition of the Jews.” The books he cites are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, while mentioning Job and the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus in Apocrypha (pp.48, 52-3).

So semitic religion is based on fear and terror, which he finds and condemns in Psalms, while the rational religion of the Hebrew Wisdom tradition is one that “does not confine itself to emotional excitement” (p.53). What Whitehead regrets is the way the religions of Christianity and Buddhism “have lost their ancient hold upon the world” (p.43). Typical of his time in the early twentieth century, like a lot of philosophers, Whitehead was confused about the Jews and their religion.

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. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Whitehead (anti) Semitism

  1. dmf says:

    not to excuse this but if one is reading back from the ‘new’ testament hard not to get into some sort of triumphalism or another.
    also perhaps one of the many problems with on the page speculations/abstractions/generalization versus back to the rough-ground human interactions, part of why, pace Heidegger, I’m taken with ‘mere’ anthropologies.

    • zjb says:

      and yet, oddly, in this little book Whithead quotes more from Old Testament than from the New Testament. Maybe because the Wisdom Literature strand is broader in scope than the more narrow New Testament focus around the figure of Christ.

Leave a Reply