[Marxism] The price of monotheism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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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