Judaism and Enlightenment

Judaism and Enlightenment, by Adam Sutcliffe, Cambridge University Press 2003

Adam Sutcliffe’s basic argument, that Enlightenment thinkers had a confused attitude to Judaism, is made abundantly (and repeatedly) clear over the course of this scholarly and highly readable book.

Enlightenment thinkers tended to represent Judaism as a uniquely backward and, most importantly, legalistic religion, characterised by petty rules and rituals, and inimical both to the radical Protestant belief in the supremacy of the individual conscience, and to the humanistic emphasis on freedom and reason.

Undoubtedly this is an unsubtle interpretation of Judaism, but Sutcliffe does not bother to refute it. His concern is to show a flaw in the Enlightenment project, and his treatment of Enlightenment attitudes to Judaism is simply a means to this end. The Enlightenment project famously insists on tolerance, but if Enlightenment thinkers saw Judaism as an intolerant religion, how could they tolerate that?

‘Toleration of Judaism thus falls prey to a suppressed paradox: if this religion is intrinsically inimical to any notion of individual intellectual freedom, then how can it be encompassed within the bounds of a toleration that is based on the absolute paramountcy of this ethical value?’

Well, that depends what Sutcliffe means by ‘encompassed within the bounds of a toleration’. Intellectual freedom certainly includes the right to oppose intellectual freedom. This is only a paradox if toleration is taken further to imply validation. It needn’t.

If toleration is to mean any more than ‘not being a rabid bigot’, it must mean a willingness to allow genuinely objectionable ideas and traditions, without actually endorsing them. In contrast to the vapid embrace of everything that characterises contemporary ‘multiculturalism’, it must mean argument in place of censorship, critical engagement rather than indifference. To tolerate something is to object to it in a civilised manner. As Sutcliffe shows, some Enlightenment thinkers failed to do even that, but he also confuses straightforward intellectual hostility with political intolerance.

A more profound paradox explored by Sutcliffe is that Enlightenment thinkers’ intellectual hostility to Judaism coexisted with, indeed was inextricable from, an enduring fascination with the Hebrew tradition, a tradition that of course contributed substantially to the European culture from which the Enlightenment emerged. Indeed, one question not dealt with explicitly in Sutcliffe’s book is whether the Enlightenment can really be said to have transcended its particular history, or whether the aspiration to universalism is inevitably frustrated by its own cultural roots.

This problem was experienced during the Enlightenment as a failure to secularise Judaism. Those aspects of the Hebrew tradition that were admired by Enlightment thinkers seemed inextricable from the superstition and ritual that they despised. They could not account for the persistence of Judaism as a unique tradition. For Sutcliffe, this demonstrates a fundamental flaw in the Enlightenment – it couldn’t assimilate complicated realities into its rationalistic template. But there is an alternative interpretation: what if Judaism really is unique, not in religious or intellectual terms, but in historical terms?

The Marxist historian Abram Leon accounted for the persistence of Judaism by analysing the unique role of the Jews in European society over the centuries. In this account, the mistake made by Enlightenment thinkers was not that they attempted to explain Judaism in secular terms, but simply that they went about it the wrong way, by limiting themselves to the intellectual dimension.

In an important sense, Leon cuts Sutcliffe’s Gordian Knot, but the matter is complicated by something beyond the scope of Sutcliffe’s book. Any contemporary discussion of Judaism and Enlightenment is overshadowed by the suggestion that the Enlightenment led to the Holocaust. It is often argued that the dogmatic rationalism eschewed by Sutliffe is not just mistaken but dangerous, that the hubristic humanism of the Enlightenment led inexorably to the high-tech inhumanity of the gas chambers (and the Gulag).

In his introduction, Sutcliffe cites Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument in Dialectic of Enlightenment:

‘Enlightenment rationalism, they argued, had become self-destructive: having crushed the remnants of myth, uncertainty and individuality that are essential to the human spirit, it had become an instrument of economic domination and cultural deception, from which the mass delusion of antisemitism served as a convenient decoy.’

It is this sentiment, rather than the ‘history of the tension between Judaism and Enlightenment, and the continued anomalousness of Jewish identity in today’s world’ that as Sutcliffe argues, ‘valuably disrupts hasty certainties and offers a potential guard against the seductions of rationalist absolutism.’ It is not the Enlightenment’s failure to assimilate Judaism that undermines its legacy, so much as its disavowal by intellectuals.

As a scholar Sutcliffe is of course entitled to raise doubts about the Enlightenment, but in such a profoundly conservative intellectual climate, his call for modesty resounds beyond the merits of his own argument.