Scholarship, Activism, & Jews Who Tarry (Max Weber)


After so many years, the conclusion of Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” still has the power to bring up short a Jewish reader. Writing against armchair prophets, the main thesis of the essay is to draw a bright red line between the work of the scholar from practical political work. Speaking to his generation of German youth who hunger for religion and religious truth, Weber sets up this stark choice. Either “man” up and come to terms with the reality of our disenchanted world, or go back to church.  For those who in his day “tarry for new prophets and saviors,” Weber cites Isaiah’s oracle, “He calleth me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if you enquire, enquire ye: return, come.”

Out of the blue, the concluding paragraph refers to the Jews of Weber’s own day. “The people to whom this was said,” namely the Jews, “has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken to realize its fate.”

Sounding like a political Zionist, which he was not, Weber concludes, “From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and we shall act differently. We shall set to work and meet the ‘demands of the day,’ in human relations as well as in our vocation. This, however, is plain and simple, if each finds and obeys the demon who holds the fibers of his very life” (“Science as a Vocation” in  From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, p.156). Shaken to the core, the sociologist calls critical attention to the miserable condition of a dreamy pariah people as a negative foil with which to model political work in relation to the vocation of scholarship.

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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