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.

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

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    Superb ❢

  2. Mara Benjamin says:

    There was a nice session that tied in with these questions at the SBL/AAR – a bunch of rabbinics people working on the categories of “law” and “ritual” in interesting ways. Missed seeing you there.

  3. Adam peter says:


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