The Vision of the Jew in Modernity

Over the next three years I plan to teach a series of six short courses on Gentiles (and Apostates when I get to the twentieth century) on the view of Jews by gentiles. This series of seminars was impelled by widespread misunderstandings among Jews about how they are considered and conceived by non-Jews. My correspondence with some of my former non-Jewish students on philosophic reflections on Jews also influenced the impulse to work on this series of seminars. The most important impetus, however, may go back sixty years. My first published academic article in my final undergraduate year was called: “Is Jewish survival necessary?” a study of six twentieth century thinkers born as Jews. I concluded that the answer was, “No.” So it is a matter of choice. Why make such a choice. Emil Fackenheim lauded the essay.

This series of seminars is intended to continue a quest started about sixty years ago to try to see how non-Jews might answer the question and why.

Whether Israel has been a catalyst in the recent rise of antisemitism, as Yehoshafat Harkabi, former Israeli Director of Israeli Military Intelligence, claimed, or the increase in antisemitism has taken place quite independently of Israeli conduct, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, opined, both men agreed that antisemitism had deep roots in history. But philo-semitism does as well. Further, a wide spectrum of views on Jews and Judaism exists in between. Yet Jews overwhelmingly focus on what is now a relatively narrow band in the attitudes towards Jews and Judaism. Further, even when gentiles are strong supporters of Israel, such as evangelical Christians, notable Jewish scholars and leaders misinterpret this support as simply and entirely a step to advance the second coming of Christ with no real concern for a Jewish state per se. 

There seems to be a need to discern and understand the way others view Jews and Judaism across a wide range. But perhaps not. Perhaps how others view Jews is irrelevant. For many Christians, this should be the case, since the only judgement that counts is that of Christ. “Why does thou judge thy brother? Or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.” (Romans 14:10) But then this aphorism is but a variation of one in Proverbs with the same intent. “Many seek the rulers favour; but every man’s judgment comes from the Lord.” (Proverbs 29:26)

If the view of Jews by others is important, why so? Is it simply curiosity to see a reflection of ourselves? Or should we be concerned about any gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us? Or does observing the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us add to our self-understanding? Or might we learn that we are not so much products of self-making as determined and defined by others? Then again, understanding how Europeans over the centuries of the modern era viewed Jews might be just as important in providing one angle of insight into the history of European thought as providing enlightenment for Jews.

We cannot answer these questions unless we know more about how Jews are perceived by others. I daresay, we cannot even decide which questions are the more important ones. It is critical, not simply to study the deep roots of antisemitism, but the development of a gamut of views of Jews and the rationales behind those conceptions, at the very least to avoid misconceptions of others. For obvious reasons, the selection cannot be comprehensive.

This seminar series reflects mainly on gentile understandings of Jews and Judaism, with a sprinkling of apostates thrown in, but, in the twentieth century, they become the spotlight. Each short course roughly coincides with a different century beginning with the emergence of modernity in Europe. (See the outline of the series which follows) As I teach the course, I will write a blog or perhaps two on each thinker and will distribute it to my blog list. If you would like to receive the material that I will be distributing in the course (at most 15 pages per week), please drop me a line and I will send them to you each week.

Short Course I      The Renaissance and the New Philo-Judaism

Page assignments, indicated in closed brackets, will be distributed in the prior week to the discussion. Presenters are, of course, expected to cover a wider range of readings.

Dates               Topics – The Sixteenth Century       

15 May 2019   Niccolò Machiavelli (1429-1527)

“The Rule of a Dominion Conquered by Battle,” The Prince (1513) (1532)

22 May 2019   Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)

 In Praise of Folly (1511)  An Inquisition into Faith (1524)

29 May 2019   Martin Luther (1483-1546)

                         On the Jews and their Lies (1543) Parts 11-13

5 June 2019     Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) 

 “Clemency and Revenge,” Essays (1580) [1588; 1595]

12 June 2019   Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) “The Fifth Dialogue,” Cause, Principle and Unity (1596-9)

19 June 2019   Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) Prologue The Jew of Malta (1590) (1 p.) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616) The Merchant of Venice (1596) Shylock’s famous monologue on revenge (1 p.)

Notional Times and Dates (very tentative) for the Remainder

Seminar II   Seventeenth Century (Thursday evenings)

Dates                                                               Topics – The Seventeenth Century

19 September 2019                 Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) “Letter from Galileo to Monsignor Piero Dini (1615)

26 September 2019                 Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) On the Law of War and Peace (1625)

3 October 2019                       Francis Bacon (1561-1626) New Atlantis (1627)

17 October 2019                     Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) The Leviathan (1651) XLV “Of Demonology and Other Relics of the Religion of the Gentiles”

24 October 2019                     Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) Pensées (1670) Section IX “Perpetuity” 583-600

31 October 2019                     Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza (1632-1677) “On the Election of the Jews,” Ch. 3 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) and John Locke (1632-1704) A Letter on Toleration (1689)

Short Course III     The Eighteenth Century Enlightenment

Dates               Topics

13 May 2020               Giambatista Vico (1668-1774) Scienza Nuova or New Science  (1725;1730)

20 May 2020               Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu) (1689-1755) The Spirit of the Laws “How Commerce Broke through the Barbarism of Europe” (1748)

27 May 2020               David Hume (1711-1776) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion                  (1779 posthumously)

3 June 2020                 Adam Smith (1723-1790) The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

10 June 2020               Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) Letters to the Jews (1786)

17 June 2020               Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) The Critique of Judgement (1790)

Short Course IV   The Nineteenth Century

Dates                           Topics

7 October 2020           Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) Desire and Life; Lordship and Bondage 104-119

14 October 2020         Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Stoicism and Scepticism and The Unhappy Consciousness [Christianity], 119-138

21 October 2020         Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855) Fear and Trembling (1843) “A Tribute to Abraham,” 12-20

28 October 2020         Karl Marx (1818-1883) On the Jewish Question (1844)      

4 November 2020       John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) The Utility of Religion and Theism (1874)

11 November 2020     Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) Beyond Good and Evil (1886) Peoples and Fatherlands,

Short Course V           First Half of the Twentieth Century – Apostate Jews

Dates                           Topics

19 May 2021               Henri Bergson (1859-1941) Laughter and the Meaning of the Comic (1900)

26 May 2021               Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) “The Enlightenment and the Jewish Question” (1932)

2 June 2021                 Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) Ideology and Utopia (1936)

9 June 2021                 Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) Moses and Monotheism (1939)

16 June 2021               Simone Weil (1909-1943) The Need For Roots (1943)

23 June 2021               Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) Science, Faith and Society (1945)


2 comments on “The Vision of the Jew in Modernity

  1. Stuart Schoenfeld says:

    sounds very interesting. please include me in the distribution of readings.

    Stuart Schoenfeld Sociology, emeritus Glendon College,York University


  2. Cornelia Baines says:

    Wow! What an ambitious plan!! Two questions reflecting how this non-Jew regards Jews: What is the relative importance of daily experience versus scholarly writings in terms of generating anti-Semitism? And how important is the notion of exceptionalism which I find pronounced both in Israeli thinkers and Americans. And yes Jewish survival is necessary. Cornelia

    Cornelia J. Baines MD, MSc, FACE Professor Emerita, Dalla Lana Faculty of Public Health, 155 College St, Suite 532, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, M5R 1G6. Phone: 416-978-1458


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