2020 Annual Assessment

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), George Steiner (1929-2020), and Albert Memmi (1920-2020)


Three important, if very different, 20th century Jewish thinkers came to attention in the last year, R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, George Steiner, and Albert Memmi. Abraham Joshua Heschel came to the attention of the Hebrew reader with the re-issuing of Man Walks in the World: Conversations with Abraham Joshua Heschel.

First issued in the 1975, this volume was edited by the late Prof. Pinchas Peli and contains interviews and conversations with Rabbi Heschel. The new edition contains essays by contemporary scholars on Heschel and his thought.

Heschel’s thought should be understood against the background of American and American Jewish life in the mid-20th century. (Born in Poland, Heschel emigrated to the United States in 1938 from Germany.) Against a context in which America enjoyed paramount material success and religion was increasingly becoming a matter of personal choice and fulfilment, Heschel emphasized that God is outside of human beings and calls to them, making ethical and spiritual demands. Heschel emphasized the transcendent, ineffable nature of God and religious experience and asserted that when one does mitzvot and experiences holiness, one touches something that is beyond the merely human. It is in this framework that mindful prayer with tallit and tefillin (in the Upper West Side’s Gerer shtiebel) and marching for civil rights with Martin Luther King were of one piece. Heschel should be a significant figure both for American and Israeli Judaism. He challenges the spiritual banality of the American Jewish experience and reminds Israelis of the importance of ethics and a universalistic outlook for Judaism.

The noted critic and literary scholar George Steiner passed away in February 2020 at the age of 90. Though thoroughly secular, Steiner’s Jewishness played a key role in both his identity and his writing. For Steiner (as for other Central European Jewish intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt) the Jew is the eternal stranger and outsider who makes the demand for moral perfection and the utopian ordering of society. Steiner understood anti-Semitism as the instinctual “polytheistic” revolt against those demands. Steiner’s most famous claim was also tied up with his Jewishness. Steiner argued that the Holocaust and other manifestations of 20th century political bestiality grew upon the very ground of European literary humanism. “We know that some of the men who devised and administered Auschwitz had been taught to read Shakespeare or Goethe, and continued to do so.” This fact, argued Steiner, undermines the entire enterprise of studying and teaching literature. What is the point of literature if it does not lead to humane action but rather to barbarity?

In accordance with his view of the Jew as the eternal stranger and outsider, Steiner was non- or anti-Zionist. In his well-known essay “Our Homeland, the Text,” he argued that the attempt to build a physical Temple was a mistake.

The Jewish homeland is not physical but rather the text, with its “transcendent mobility,” is the best strategy for survival in the Exile. Called the “last Viennese Jew,” Steiner represents a Central European Jewish intellectual sensibility that may not be with us anymore.

Albert Memmi also passed away in May 2020, nearly a hundred years old. Memmi was one of the founders of post-colonial theory and an important French intellectual in the period after the Second World War. In his essays and novels (particularly those with an autobiographical character), he examined and analyzed the identity of North African Jews that had ceased observing the religious tradition and left the ghetto but were not fully accepted in the North African Arab societies of Tunisia and Morocco, nor in the French culture and society that they were exposed to in the schools of Alliance Israelite Universelle or the university. In fact, these Jews had an affiliation with three identities without being able to fully adopt any of them. Memmi developed a judicious humanist approach, which supported Zionism and the State of Israel together with the national aspirations of Arab societies (including the Palestinians). He succeeded in cultivating these views as a full participant in the literary and intellectual life of France.

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