The Judaism of George Steiner

First Things

From: First Things

by J. J. Kimche

George Steiner, who died earlier this year, was one of the most influential Jewish intellectuals of the last half-century. He produced a foundational text in the philosophy of translation, the first thorough introduction to Martin Heidegger in English, major investigations into the nature of tragedy and the cultural ramifications of postmodern hermeneutics, and a work of Holocaust fiction that occasioned widespread controversy. His crossing of cultural, linguistic, and professional boundaries garnered both praise and opprobrium. The obituaries and retrospective articles ensuing upon his passing have shown him to be as controversial in death as he was in life.

Yet in Jewish studies, both traditional and academic, Steiner’s writings are almost totally neglected. This seems, at first glance, a grave injustice. Steiner wrote extensively on Judaism, the Holocaust, Zionism, and the “Jewishness” of the Jewish thinkers who blazed across the intellectual firmament of prewar Europe. Der Judenfrage, the concatenation of inescapable questions surrounding Jewish origins, identity, and survival, was one of his chief concerns. But what was the nature and quality of Steiner’s Jewish writings?

Steiner’s Jewishness, as he admitted, “bristles with complications.” His youth in a cosmopolitan home in prewar Europe knew little of Jewish practice or education. He never attached himself to Jewish communal institutions in the many cities in which he lived, nor did he appear learned in canonical Jewish texts. He was not literate in Hebrew, Yiddish, or Judeo-Aramaic. The significance of this last point can hardly be overstated. George Steiner, who built a career on exploring the subtleties and nuances of language, whose magnum opus on translation theory stresses the untranslatability of canonical texts, whose literature seminars at the University of Geneva were always conducted in the language of the text under investigation, never confronted his Jewish textual heritage on its own terms. This fact does much to illuminate his fantastically creative and highly contentious understanding of Judaism.

Steiner’s portrayal of Judaism is unusual for a modern secularist, in that it defends an essentialist view of Jewishness, arguing that certain immutable qualities define and anchor Jewishness across its historical and cultural permutations. Yet Steiner dismisses the usual hallmarks posited by other essentialist Jewish thinkers: claims of racial, religious, ethical, or national uniqueness. His brilliant and disturbing essay on the subject, “Our Homeland, The Text” (1985), argues that the Jew, like the biblical patriarchs, lives a life of self-exclusion. Spurning society, nature, and passion, the Jew seeks closeness with a transcendent God, which translates practically into a withdrawal from all social and temporal spaces. The Jew has no earthly home; alienation, wandering, self-isolation, and retreat into a vortex of exponentially expanding texts are the essence of Jewishness. The textual canon is the true home of every Jew, and every commentary is a return. This textual Judaism repudiates all attempts to place political, nationalistic, ritualistic, or racial components at its core. The Kingdom of David, the Bar-Kochba Revolt, and Zionism are dismissed as antithetical to true Judaism, whose textual nature underpins its migratory, multilingual, and cosmopolitan attributes.

This view of Judaism lends itself to an ethically based exceptionalism. The Jew, in Steiner’s eyes, is always a stranger, ceaselessly migrating through countries, cultures, and languages, always—and this is the central metaphor—a guest in another’s home. The eternally exiled nation exemplifies Geworfenheit (“thrownness,” a Heideggerian term for the existential disposition of being thrust into an environment of neither one’s fashioning nor one’s choosing), thus teaching the rest of humanity the value of living as “guests of life and truth.” It is this aspect of their existence, this disposition forced on them by the vicissitudes of history, that lends the Jews their ethical ­superiority. The oppressed, bookish, unworldly Jews are superior, contends Steiner, because they have never subjugated another people, never soiled themselves with national realpolitik, never subjected their enemies to the rack or the firing squad. A Jew is one who treads lightly in every circumstance, who treats all with the deference due to a host, whose presence jolts all societies from the pursuit of ethnic or cultural homogeneity. The Jew is the world’s moral irritant, the exemplar of suffering and otherness that gives the human conscience no rest. Through this eternal restlessness, both physical and moral, the Jews actualize their mission unto humanity—a role Steiner terms “an honor beyond honors.”

This paradigm motivates Steiner’s non-Zionism. If the mission of the Jews is bound up with their eternal role as guest, if their moral purity is acquired at the price of rootlessness and displacement, then any attempt to settle is a repudiation of Jewishness. Nationalism is thus an impoverishment of the Jewish spirit, a betrayal of the principles that fueled all prior spiritual and intellectual accomplishments. Zionism can never be forgiven for normalizing the Jew, for introducing political expediency, racial discrimination, and territoriality into Jewish history. Nothing could be more degrading for the people of Isaiah and Spinoza than to sink to the level of Jezebel and Herod, exchanging parchment and pedagogy for ministers and missiles. Despite his grudging admission that Israel has proven necessary for the physical protection of the Jews (a “sad miracle”), disappointment over the Jews’ turn from itinerant scribes to nation-building settlers pervades Steiner’s writings. Like the Hebraic prophets of old, Steiner castigates his fellow Jews for reneging on their historical mission and betraying their raison d’être.

Yet Steiner’s portrayal of the textual Jew (which may claim distant descent from certain strains of Medieval Kabbalah, the details of which Steiner gleaned from his friend ­Gershom Scholem) is far from optimistic. The textual canon at the center of Jewishness represents a patriarchal auctoritas that is both protective and oppressive. On the one hand, the Jews’ textual corpus is a haven in which they find equilibrium and repose. Their role as God’s clerical scribes, punctiliously keeping the books up to date, underwrites (a metaphor Steiner never tires of employing) their seemingly preternatural survival over the centuries. On the other hand, these same texts are the Jews’ death knell. The Jews’ holiest texts outline, with shattering precision, the horrendous suffering that has proven to be their historical destiny. Every prediction of woe that thundered forth from the mouths of the prophets was eventually visited upon the Jews. The Jews had the misfortune not only to preserve their Holy Scriptures obsessively, pursuing meaning in every letter and nuance, but to live out the Scriptures’ predictions. To read and reread, to learn by heart, to expound and venerate the texts that spell one’s own inexorable suffering demands immense fortitude. This framework complicates any idyllic portrait of the Jews as noble scholars, whose daily excursions into the world of text free them from worldly concerns. The text is the great homeland and protector of the Jews; it is also their greatest ­oppressor, the principal catalyst of their woe.

Steiner’s textual theory of ­Judaism has implications far beyond the boundaries of Jewish communities. The Jews, Steiner claims, not only have held fast to their own characteristics, they have molded the Western world in their image. Centuries of Jewish textuality produced an ethos of minute analysis and abstract speculation, two causal factors in the emergence of modernity. Steiner advocates what I would term the “Coiled Spring” theory: the assertion that the intellectual climate of Western modernity is the result of Jewish creativity exploding outwards, like a coiled spring, at last unconstrained by discrimination and hatred. Steiner is hardly the first to notice that the West’s cultural and intellectual scene is largely an outgrowth of the genius of aberrant, iconoclastic Jews: Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Kafka, ­Wittgenstein, Einstein, Levi-Strauss, Benjamin, Arendt, most of the ­Vienna Circle, and the entire Frankfurt School. What is unusual about Steiner is the extent to which he attributed the achievements of these individuals to a specifically Jewish cultural legacy. For him, their works constitute a “secular deployment of the long schooling in abstract, speculative commentary and clerkship in the [Jewish] exegetical legacy (while at the same time a psychological-sociological revolt against it).” Particularly in the cosmopolitan worlds of mathematics, music, chess, and the hard sciences, where transcultural geniuses could receive a hearing, the reverberations of this Jewish ­textual ethos have been immense. Even Deconstruction is judged by Steiner an Oedipal rebellion, an attempt by a coterie of Jews to overthrow their canonical heritage. The great changes emanating from the salons of Paris and Berlin, the laboratories of ­Harvard and Yale, the studios of Hollywood, and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange are portrayed by Steiner as direct heirs of the Beit Midrash.

It thus transpires that Steiner’s most audacious claim is not that the Jews’ textual homeland has proved unexpectedly portable, durable, historically prescient, or psychologically oppressive—rather, that it has expanded to encompass Western civilization, and thus become the heritage of humanity as a whole. Modern thought, in its most creative and most destructive iterations, is little more than “the dance of the Jews.”

These ideas make up Steiner’s basic understanding of his patrimonial religion. There is, of course, far more to his Jewish output than has been outlined above. His writings on the Holocaust, which conceive the Shoah as both the decisive cultural event in European history and the response of a frustrated world to the demands of Judaism, deserve an entirely separate study. In such a study belongs a discussion of his novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. (1981) and the controversy it occasioned. At the novel’s end, a long speech by Adolf Hitler at his fictive postwar trial cites the chosenness of the Jews as the template for the Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy. Many readers worried that the novel failed to challenge or ironize Hitler’s self-defense, and effectively gave it the last word. Steiner disclaimed any sympathy for the Führer and reminded his critics that Milton’s Satan likewise gives long, self-justifying speeches that are not directly refuted. But the speech is unavoidably provocative, not least because it chimes in some respects with Steiner’s own interpretation of the Shoah.

The sketch provided here is enough to raise the hackles of any perceptive student of Judaism, who will immediately perceive that Steiner’s Judaic writings are vulnerable to a series of gravely wounding objections. ­Steiner’s depiction of Judaism fails to take into account some of the tradition’s most salient elements. His assertion that Judaism rejects any form of territoriality is simply incompatible with the major thrust of the Hebrew Bible (which is replete with verses emphasizing the centrality of the land of Israel and the temple), mainstream Jewish liturgy (which emphasizes the restitution of national sovereignty over the biblical homeland), and the Jewish calendrical cycle (in which lamenting the exile plays a central role). Moreover, Steiner’s understanding of Jewish textuality as an escape from the mundane realities of the physical world contradicts much of Jewish textual activity since the fall of the ancient Israelite commonwealth. Many Jewish texts focus upon the halacha—the comprehensive nexus of legal minutiae that guides the everyday activities of the observant Jew. To the extent that the Jewish canon is, in this idiosyncratic way, practical and life-oriented, it implicitly qualifies Steiner’s Platonic depiction of the Hebraic scholar, whose textual obsessions underwrite an escape from the demands of physical existence.

Finally, the prescriptive elements of Steiner’s Jewish theory are, to put it mildly, morally ­dubious. Steiner advocates the perpetuation of a traumatic exilic existence for the Jewish people, maintaining the purity of mankind’s “moral irritant” at all costs. Though he was troubled by the torments of the Jews, Steiner’s primary allegiance was to his cosmopolitanism, to a set of universal moral standards that could bind all the peoples of the earth. The existence and experiences of the Jewish nation were not ends in themselves, but one factor in a larger calculus of universal utilitarianism. If the rest of the world may glean moral instruction from it, then Jewish suffering should go ­unprotested. (This may be an uncharitable reading of Steiner’s position, but it is a plausible one.) However high-minded may be the principles behind it, vanishingly few flesh-and-blood Jews could possibly assent to this proposition. If nothing else, it demonstrates Steiner’s determination to be perceived as a citizen of the world first and a Jew second. Steiner’s universalist loyalties seem finally to overwhelm his Jewish identity.

Steiner’s work eludes neat conclusions. His textualized portrayal of Jewishness maintains an internal consistency and may contain a grain of truth in respect to specific Jewish communities throughout history. It lends a grandeur and significance to the travails of the Jews, and it heralds a much-needed conversation about the potential merits of a diasporic existence. It is also wildly inclusive and strangely optimistic. If all that is necessary for a person to claim authentic Jewishness is to connect to a certain textual canon (rather than practice a religion, claim ethnic membership of a tribe, or support a nation-state), then anyone may claim a stake in the ongoing project that is the Jewish people.

Complications and contradictions abound. Over and above the gaps in his Jewish scholarship, Steiner’s positions appear ever less defensible in light of recent decades of Jewish activity. Is it possible to believe in a Judaism shorn of its connection to a territorial homeland? Can a historically conscious individual claim with a straight face that the Jews are better off without the physical and cultural protections of a nation-state? Must the Jews always bear the moral weight of humanity on their shoulders, regardless of the cost? Few will be able to answer these questions in the affirmative.

J. J. Kimche is a PhD candidate specializing in Jewish intellectual history at Harvard University.