[Marxism] The price of monotheism
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Mon Apr 15 06:48:48 MDT 2013
April 15, 2013
Biblical Blame Shift
Is the Egyptologist Jan Assmann Fueling Anti-Semitism?
By Richard Wolin
Biblical Blame Shift
Jan Assmann has been described as the world's leading Egyptologist—a
characterization that few these days would dare to dispute. A
74-year-old emeritus professor at the University of Heidelberg and
honorary professor at the University of Konstanz, Assmann has held guest
professorships at Yale, the University of Chicago, the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in
In his more recent work, Assmann has taken the corrosive spirit of early
modern Bible criticism a step further. In The Price of Monotheism
(Stanford University Press, 2010) and related studies, Assmann ignited
an international controversy by claiming that the Old Testament, by
discriminating between true and false religion, was responsible for
ushering in unprecedented levels of historical violence. Provocatively,
he has designated this fateful cultural caesura—whose origins lie in the
sacred texts of ancient Judaism and which Assmann describes as a
world-historical transition from "cult to book"—as the "Mosaic
distinction." It is a perspective we must transcend, he contends, if the
world is to surmount the theologically authorized violence and hatred
that have been responsible for so much bloodshed and misfortune. "We
cannot change history, but we can change the myths into which history is
continuously transformed through collective memory," writes Assmann in
Of God and Gods (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008). "This is the road
that should be taken. Monotheism itself pushes us to go beyond the logic
of exclusivity and the language of violence."
Assmann argues that biblical monotheism, as codified by the Pentateuch,
disrupted the political and cultural stability of the ancient world by
introducing the concept of "religious exclusivity": that is, by
claiming, as no belief system had previously, that its God was the one
true God, and that, correspondingly, all other gods were false. By
introducing the idea of the "one true God," Assmann suggests that
monotheism upended one of the basic precepts of ancient polytheism: the
principle of "divine translatability." This notion meant that, in
ancient Mesopotamia, the various competing deities and idols possessed a
fundamental equivalence. This equivalence provided the basis for a
constructive modus vivendi among the major empires and polities that
predominated in the ancient world.
Assmann readily admits that the ancient Middle East was hardly an
unending expanse of peaceable kingdoms. However, he suggests that before
monotheism's emergence, the rivalries and conflicts at issue were
predominantly political rather than religious in nature. For this
reason, they could be more readily contained. Monotheism raised the
stakes of these skirmishes to fever pitch. According to Assmann, with
monotheism's advent, it became next to impossible to separate narrowly
political disagreements from religious disputes about "ultimate ends"
(Max Weber) or "comprehensive doctrines" (John Rawls). According to the
new logic of "religious exclusivity," political opponents to be
conquered were turned into theological "foes" to be decimated.
What Assmann essentially describes in his writings is an improbable and
presumptuous theory of historico-theological "blowback."
By introducing the "Mosaic distinction," Assmann argues, the Old
Testament established the foundations of religious intolerance, as
epitomized by the theological watchwords: "No other gods!" "No god but
God!" Thereafter, the pre-monotheistic deities were denigrated as
"idols." As Assmann explains: Ancient Judaism "sharply distinguishes
itself from the religions of its environment by demanding that its One
God be worshiped to the exclusion of all others, by banning the
production of images, and by making divine favor depend less on
sacrificial offerings and rites than on the righteous conduct of the
individual and the observance of god-given, scripturally fixed laws."
These measures and techniques infused monotheistic religious practice
with a new stringency—an element of fideistic absolutism—that differed
qualitatively from the more diffuse cult practices of its polytheistic
predecessors. Moreover, by introducing the idea of a transcendent and
omnipotent deity, monotheism was guilty of estranging its adherents from
the natural world—a tendency that stood in marked contrast with the
world-affirming and life-enhancing orientation of pagan belief systems.
In Of God and Gods, Assmann goes so far as to suggest that the "religion
of the book" was proto-totalitarian. "The Torah with its commandments
and prohibitions ... served as a script for leading one's life, running
one's business, performing the rituals, ruling the community, in short
regulating every aspect of individual and collective existence," he
argues. "This was a new phenomenon in the history of writing as well as
that of religion and civilization generally. Never before had writing
served such comprehensive functions."
At the risk of lapsing into what, by his own admission, might be viewed
as anti-Jewish stereotypes and polemics, Assmann invokes several
chilling, if familiar, instances of mass slaughter from the Old
Testament as confirmation of his thesis concerning the inherent
relationship between "exclusive monotheism" and predatory violence. To
be sure, many of these episodes were directed inward: expressions of
divine retribution aimed at the errant Jews themselves for their
egregious lapses in faith. Assmann cites the tale of the golden calf
(Exodus 32: 27-28), in which 3,000 Israelites meet their death. At Baal
Pe'or (Numbers 25), where Hebrew men are discovered fraternizing with
Midianite women and worshiping their idols, only the pre-emptive
execution of 24,000 wayward Hebrews can forestall even greater divine
fury. Lastly, Assmann cites the Lord's draconian recommendation in
Deuteronomy that, in their impending conquest of the Canaanite lands,
the Jews must "let no breathing creature live."
In all of these instances, the logic of "No god but God!" establishes
what Assmann characterizes as a cultural semantics of religious
intolerance, culminating in the herem ban: a biblical version of jihad
in which no living creature shall be left alive.
Of course, there is no archaeological evidence to support the claim that
any of these alleged divinely mandated bloodlettings actually occurred.
Instead, it is commonly acknowledged that they were conceived by the
anonymous biblical authors as cautionary tales to illustrate the risks
of straying from the basic precepts of the Old Testament's austere
ethical injunctions. One of Assmann's methodological failings is that he
jumps too quickly from considerations of "textuality" or "mnemohistory"
to questions of actuality. Fortunately, not everything one finds in a
text is automatically translated into historical practice.
Assmann's disparaging construction of ancient Judaism has been harshly
criticized by Old Testament scholars. He consistently denigrates
biblical monotheism as a "secondary" or "counter religion," thereby
impugning its originality by claiming that its doctrines were
parasitically dependent on their opposition to ancient pagan practices.
Assmann has also been accused of providing an overly sanguine and
harmonious portrait of interstate relations among the proponents of
ancient polytheism—Babylon, Assyria, and so forth. However, in the
ancient world, the Israelites were not the only group who, in times of
warfare, invoked the dreaded herem, or ban on conquered peoples. Since
the discovery almost 150 years ago of the Moabite stone, dating from the
eighth century BC, we know that other nations in the ancient Middle East
engaged in similar practices—as the Moabites apparently did against
Israel. Another discomfiting aspect of Assmann's veneration of ancient
paganism is that, since the 1980s, a similar orientation has
predominated among the advocates of the European New Right, whose
hate-filled texts have often provided the script for and fed the
intolerance of the Europe's far-right political parties. (For a good
example, see Alain de Benoist's On Being a Pagan.)
A major failing of Assmann's approach is that it systematically neglects
ancient Judaism's robust moral inclinations toward tolerance and
neighborly love. Numerous prescriptions in the Old Testament, known as
the Noachide Laws, stress the importance of providing hospitality and
succor to strangers. As we read in Leviticus (19:33-34): "When a
stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The
stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you,
and you shall love him as your self, for you were aliens in the land of
Egypt." Thus, contra Assmann, lurid tales of plunder, bloodlust, and
divine retribution fail to tell the whole story.
A number of astute critics have also pointed out that, from a
social-evolutionary perspective, biblical monotheism represents a
significant ethical breakthrough, providing a normative basis for the
idea of universal human brotherhood—a characterization diametrically
opposed to the "exclusionary" mentality that Assmann considers
predominant. Historically, the Exodus parable, which Assmann judges the
ur-text of exclusionary monotheism, has served as a foundational
narrative of political emancipation: humanity's deliverance from the
injustices of bondage and oppression.
Assmann censures monotheism's ostensible "world alienation"—its embrace
of a transcendent, invisible God who dwells outside of, rather than
within, the world. But that divine barrier, in fact, underwrites the
ethical distinction between justice and injustice, what is and what
should be, mere life versus life led according to principle. This
perspective conveys the idea that the moral life is something that must
be achieved by a demanding process of existential reorientation and
conversion. It "alienates" men and women not from the world as such, but
from the world conceived as a locus of oppression and injustice. That
was the reality that the Israelites were forced to confront during their
400 years of bondage in ancient Egypt.
Thus as the journalist Thomas Assheuer has pointed out in discussing
Assmann's work: "The appeal to a just God was the answer to an
experience of violence and suffering that can no longer be compensated
by myth." Assmann downplays the significance of divine transcendence as
an ethical breakthrough and neglects the coercive power of myth as an
ideological consecration of fate—that is, a justification of mere life,
however needlessly unjust it may be.
Whereas ancient polytheism sanctified the injustices of fate—humanity's
entrapment in the world as it is—the Mosaic religion protested against
that condition and its moral inadequacies. The covenant at Sinai
represents the promise of an elevated life: a moral life. Henceforth,
secular powers that fail to measure up to the standards and precepts of
the Ten Commandments stand exposed for their ethical deficiencies.
Moreover, the seemingly harsh Deuteronomic injunction—that, in the lands
they are about to conquer, the Israelites must "let no breathing
creature live"—is deceptive, since in subsequent passages we find the
Jews living peacefully among the Canaanites and other local tribes. As
Michael Walzer shows in In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible
(Yale University Press, 2012), on both philological and textual grounds,
the Old Testament is inherently susceptible to a plurality of readings.
"Given the different rulers—judges, kings, and priests—and the arguments
over kingship," Walzer writes, "there can't be anything like an
authoritative political constitution in the Hebrew Bible. ... In the
end, there are no authoritative readings." Assmann, conversely, serves
up a peculiarly reductive and disapproving interpretation of biblical
monotheism—a portrait that is distinctly at odds with his professions of
solidarity with "postmodern pluralism," which he regards as a desirable,
21st-century epistemological corollary to the spirit of ancient polytheism.
Assmann's argument is often scattershot and filled with
qualifications—so many that if one took all of them at face value, there
would remain virtually nothing of substance. But upon closer scrutiny,
what Assmann essentially describes in his writings is an improbable and
presumptuous theory of historico-theological "blowback." In his view, it
was the ancient Hebrews who, by virtue of the "Mosaic distinction" and
the cultural semantics of intolerance they unleashed, conceived the
notion of holy war: a divinely ordained doctrine of total annihilation.
Tragically, it was the same cultural semantics of intolerance that, at a
later point, returned to smite the Jews themselves in the most
prodigious and far-reaching instance of mass murder ever recorded: the
In other words: What one sows, one reaps. In Assmann's view, ultimately
it was not the Germans who were responsible for the Holocaust. It was
the Jews themselves who were responsible, by virtue of having conceived
and implemented a doctrine of "religious exclusivity" whose ultimate
historical repercussions could in biblical times only dimly be
perceived. Thereby, Assmann effectively recycles the shopworn canard
that it is the Jews themselves who are responsible for anti-Semitism.
It is in that vein that, in Moses the Egyptian, Assmann praises Freud's
strategy in Moses and Monotheism of asking "'how the Jew came to attract
this undying hatred.'"
In this way, Assmann seeks to refute Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's
controversial thesis in Hitler's Willing Executioners (Knopf, 1996) that
it was a specifically German variant of "eliminationist anti-Semitism"
that was responsible for the Holocaust. Yet Assmann goes to the opposite
extreme, effectively exculpating the actual perpetrators by suggesting
that their motives were irrelevant. Instead, the historical key to
anti-Semitism is to be found in the Old Testament, as interpreted by
In Moses the Egyptian, Assmann clarifies the biographical motivations
subtending his investigations by informing us, "It is in a rather
personal attempt to 'come to terms with'" the German past "that I embark
on the writing of this study about Moses the Egyptian." He continues:
"The present text reflects my situation as a German Egyptologist writing
50 years after the catastrophe which Freud saw approaching, knowing the
full extent of the genocide which was still unthinkable in Freud's time."
Here, one might plausibly inquire: What contribution might an
Egyptologist be able to make toward understanding the Holocaust, an
event that postdates Assmann's area of scholarly expertise by some 3,500
years? We find the answer to this question a few lines later, when
Assmann grandiosely informs us that, by re-examining the cultural
"confrontation of [ancient] Egypt and Israel," he seeks to furnish "a
historical analysis of anti-Semitism."
But the term anti-Semitism is a relatively recent coinage. It first
appeared in Wilhelm Marr's prejudice-laden 1879 study, The Victory of
Judaism Over Germany. Among historians, the term has been conceptually
serviceable for distinguishing the ideology of modern racial
anti-Judaism from anti-Judaism's more traditional, religious strains. To
restate these facts is merely to underline what should be obvious: The
analytical and historical value of seeking to account for modern
anti-Semitism via recourse to the biblical antagonism between Israel and
Egypt is manifestly limited. It is at this point, moreover, that one
runs up against the analytical and conceptual limits of "mnemohistory"
as a method of historical explanation.
But there is another essential component of Assmann's highly speculative
theological "blowback" thesis that falls beneath the threshold of sense.
The Holocaust cannot be conceived as a modern instance of "religious
exclusivity"—this time, perpetrated against the Jews rather than by
them—since, as is well known, the Nazis openly disavowed monotheism
(Christianity as well as Judaism) in favor of neo-paganism. The ideology
of the master race was predicated on the doctrine of Aryan racial
superiority, which provided the Nazis with their right to dominate
supposedly inferior racial groupings. Thus, in point of fact, Europe's
Jews were victimized by the recrudescence of the herem ban as practiced
by ancient pagans, for which we now have corroborating archaeological
evidence. If this insight holds, it stands Assmann's argument on its
head: It was paganism's return, rather than its eclipse at the hands of
biblical monotheism, that helps to explain the destruction of European
Jewry at the hands of the swastika-bearing Nazis. In this case, too,
Assmann seems to be scratching where it doesn't itch.
Under the cover of solving the historical riddle of anti-Semitism by
tracing it back to the "Mosaic distinction"—and thus insinuating that
European Jewry was ultimately the victim of a brand of theological
intolerance that the ancient Hebrews had themselves introduced—Assmann
has merely added fuel to the flames.
Richard Wolin teaches history and political science at the Graduate
Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is The
Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and
the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton University Press, 2010).
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