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Jewish Cryptotheologies of Late Modernity

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This book aims to interpret ‘Jewish philosophy’ in terms of the Marrano

phenomenon: as a conscious clinamen of philosophical forms used in order to
convey a ‘secret message’ that cannot find an open articulation.
The Marrano metaphor, alluding to the forced conversion of Sephardic
Jews to Christianity, is employed here, in the domain of modern philosophical
thought, where an analogous tendency can be seen: the clash of an open
idiom and a secret meaning, which transforms both the medium and the
message. Focusing on key figures of late modern, twentieth century Jewish
thought; Hermann Cohen, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Franz
Rosenzweig, Theodor Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Jacob Taubes, Emmanuel Lévinas
and Jacques Derrida, this book demonstrates how their respective manners
of conceptualization swerve from the philosophical mainstream along the
Marrano ‘secret curve’.
Analysing their unique contribution to the ‘unfinished project of modernity’,
including issues of the future of the Enlightenment, modern nihilism and post-
secular negotiation with religious heritage, this book will be essential reading
for students and researchers with an interest in Jewish Studies and philosophy.

Agata Bielik-Robson is Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of

Nottingham and at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish
Academy of Science in Warsaw. Her research interests include: modern Jewish
thought, psychoanalysis and philosophy of religion. She is co-editor of Judaism
in Contemporary Thought (Routledge, 2014).
Routledge Jewish Studies Series
Series Editor: Oliver Leaman, University of Kentucky

Studies, which are interpreted to cover the disciplines of history, sociology,

anthropology, culture, politics, philosophy, theology, religion, as they relate to
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Jewish affairs. The remit includes texts which have as their primary focus
issues, ideas, personalities and events of relevance to Jews, Jewish life and the
concepts which have characterised Jewish culture both in the past and today.
The series is interested in receiving appropriate scripts or proposals.


An Introduction Selected Studies by
Dan Cohn-Sherbok E. I. J. Rosenthal
Erwin Rosenthal
Lévinas Hyam Maccoby
Edited by Seán Hand
Oliver Leaman DESIGN
Its Beginning, its Definition, its End
John Wilkinson
Norbert M. Samuelson
Margaret Betz Hull


Jewish Philosophical Perspectives Abraham ibn Ezra’s Introduction
Edited by Daniel H. Frank to the Torah
Irene Lancaster
Jewish and Christian IMAGE OF THE BLACK IN
Philosophical and Theological JEWISH CULTURE
Perspectives A History of the Other
Edited by Paul Helm Abraham Melamed
Daniel Summerfield An Anthropological Perspective
Maureen Bloom
Don Isaac Abravanel: Defender of PERPLEXED
the Faith Silence and Salvation
Seymour Feldman Donald McCallum


MEDIA The Jewish Body and the Politics
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Mediating the ‘Other’ of Regeneration

Edited by Tudor Parfitt with Yulia Todd Samuel Presner
The Birth of an Elite David Aberbach
Edited by Emanuela Trevisan Semi
A Meeting of Civilizations
ART IN ZION Edited by M. Avrum Ehrlich
The Genesis of National Art in
David Brenner
David Patterson
Tradition and Transformation
S. Leyla Gürkan
An Introduction
Irene Kajon
ANTISEMITISM AND Jewish Interpretation and
MODERNITY Controversy in Medieval Languedoc
Innovation and Continuity Gregg Stern
Hyam Maccoby
JEWS AND INDIA Reality and Metaphor in History,
History, Image, Perceptions Religion and Culture
Yulia Egorova Edited by Mitchell B. Hart
Continuity, Crisis and Change HISTORY
Moshe Aberbach; Edited and The Great Rabbi Loew of Prague
translated by David Aberbach Meir Seidler


M. Avrum Ehrlich Birth and Evolution
Boaz Cohen
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Israeli Messianism and its Critics ZIONISM

David Ohana The Crisis of Culture, Life Philosophy
and Jewish National Thought
The Holocaust and After THE EUROPEAN JEWS,
Edited by Roni Stauber PATRIOTISM AND THE
THE GLOBAL IMPACT OF THE A Study of Literature and Social
OF ZION David Aberbach
A Century-Old Myth
Edited by Esther Webman JEWISH WOMEN’S TORAH
THE HOLOCAUST AND Orthodox Religious Education and
JEWS Ilan Fuchs
History and Identity in the Museum
K. Hannah Holtschneider EMMANUEL LÉVINAS AND
WAR AND PEACE IN JEWISH A Critique and a Re-Appropriation
TRADITION Aryeh Botwinick
From the Biblical World to the Present
Edited by Yigal Levin and Amnon JUDAISM IN CONTEMPORARY
Traces and Influence
JESUS AMONG THE JEWS Agata Bielik-Robson and Adam
Representation and Thought Lipszyc
Edited by Neta Stahl
Religion and Israel’s Media Philosophical Marranos
Yoel Cohen Agata Bielik-Robson
Jewish Cryptotheologies of
Late Modernity
Philosophical Marranos
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Agata Bielik-Robson
First published 2014
by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
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© 2014 Agata Bielik-Robson
The right of Agata Bielik-Robson to be identified as author of this work has
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or
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Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or
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without intent to infringe.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Bielik-Robson, Agata.
Jewish cryptotheologies of late modernity : philosophical Marranos /
Agata Bielik-Robson.
pages cm -- (Routledge Jewish studies series)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Jewish philosophy--20th century. I. Title.
B5800.B54 2014

ISBN: 978-1-138-77449-0 (hbk)

ISBN: 978-1-315-77446-6 (ebk)

Typeset in Times New Roman

by Taylor and Francis Books
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Acknowledgments ix
List of abbreviations x

Introduction: Jewish clinamen, or the third language

of Jewish philosophy 1

Myth, tragedy, revelation 39

1 Individuation through sin: Hermann Cohen between

tragedy and messianism 41

2 ‘Job-like questions’: The place of negativity

in Rosenzweig 63

3 Revolution of trauma: Walter Benjamin and

the Tragic Gnosis 84

The antinomian spectre 123

4 The antinomian symptom: Lévinas’ divine comedy

of violence 125

5 The identity of the Spirit: Taubes between

apocalyptics and historiosophy 166

6 The fire and the lightning rod: Tarrying with

the apocalypse 213
viii Contents

Jewish modernity 231

7 The promise of the name: ‘Jewish nominalism’ as the critique

of idealist tradition 233

8 Another nihilism: Disenchantment in Jewish perspective 255

9 Jewish Ulysses: Post-secular meditation on the loss of hope 292

Bibliography 319
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Index of names 331

Index of terms 336
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I would like to thank Karen Kilby for her constant encouragement; Christopher
Thornhill for his wonderful editorial job and great patience; Adam Lipszyc
for his harsh intellectual friendship; my husband, Cezary Michalski, for long
and inspiring discussions; and, last but not least, Oliver Leaman for his help
and support without which this book would not have appeared.
A smaller version of the chapter “‘Job-like Questions’: The Place of
Negativity in Rosenzweig” appeared as “Oedipus Meets Job. On Neighbourly
Relations between Jews and Greeks in Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption,”
in Dialogsphilosophie, Rosenzweig Jahrbuch No. 7, Münich: Herder Verlag,
A part of the chapter “The Revolution of Trauma: Walter Benjamin and the
Tragic Gnosis” appeared as “The Unfallen Silence. Kinah and the Other Origin
of Language” in Lament in Jewish Thought. Philosophical, Theological, and
Literary Perspectives, eds. Illit Ferber and Paula Schwebel, Haag: de Gruyter,
A fragment of the chapter “The Identity of the Spirit: Taubes between
Apocalyptics and Historiosophy” appeared as “Modernity: The Jewish
Perspective,” in New Blackfriars, No. 1 (2013), Oxford: Blackwell.
A smaller version of the chapter “The Fire and the Lightning Rod: Tarrying
with the Apocalypse” appeared as “Tarrying with the Apocalypse. The Wary
Messianism of Rosenzweig and Lévinas,” Journal for Cultural Research No. 3
An earlier version of the chapter “The Promise of the Name: ‘Jewish
Nominalism’ as the Critique of Idealist Tradition” appeared in Bamidbar.
Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, No. 3 (2012), Vienna: Passagen
I would like to thank all these publishers for allowing me to reuse the
fragments of my work in the book.
List of abbreviations
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CC Jacob Taubes, From Cult to Culture: Fragments Towards a

Critique of Historical Reason, ed. Aleida Assmann, Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 2009
DE Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of
Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott,
ed. G. Schmid Noerr, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002
GP Emmanuel Lévinas, ‘God and Philosophy’, in Of God Who
Comes to Mind, trans. Bettina Bergo, Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1998
GS Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften. Sieben Bände, Vol. I–VI,
ed. Rolph Tiedemann and Hermann Shweppenhäuser, Frankfurt
am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972–1991
IL Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans.
Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1968
JJC Gershom Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected
Essays, ed. Werner Dannhauser, New York: Schocken Books,
LMA Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans.
Robert M. Wallace, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985
LY Gershom Scholem, Lamentations of Youth: The Diaries of
Gershom Scholem, 1913–1919, ed. and trans. Anthony David
Skinner, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007
MIJ Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism: And Other
Essays on Jewish Spirituality, New York: Schocken Books,
MM Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia. Reflections on a
Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, London: Verso, 2005
MT György Lukács, ‘Metaphysics of Tragedy’, in Soul and Form,
trans. Anna Bostock, Merlin Press: London, 1974
ND Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton,
London: Routledge, 1990
NTR Emmanuel Lévinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette
Aronowicz, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990
List of abbreviations xi
OB Emmanuel Lévinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence,
trans. Alphonso Lingis, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981
OE Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko,
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009
OG Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans.
John Osborne, London: Verso, 1998
R Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Auto-
biographical Writings, New York: Schocken Books, 1978
RR Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of
Judaism, trans. Simon Kaplan, Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press,
SR Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. William W.
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Hallo, Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame

Press, 1985
SW1–4 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vols. 1-4, ed. Howard
Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard
University Press, 1996–2003
SU Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia, trans. Anthony Nassar,
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000 (translation based
on the second revised edition of Der Geist der Utopie, 1923)
TB Gershom Scholem, Tagebücher nebst Aufsätzen und Entwürfen
bis 1923. 2 Halbband 1917–1923, Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer
Verlag, 2000
TI Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exter-
iority, trans. Alphonso Lingis, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,
TO Emmanuel Lévinas, ‘The Trace of the Other’, trans. Alphonso
Lingis, in Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy,
ed. Mark C. Taylor, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
TP Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Dana
Holänder, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003
U Walter Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels,
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978
UL James Joyce, Ulysses, New York: Vintage International, 1990
USH Franz Rosenzweig, Understanding the Sick and the Healthy:
A View of World, Man, and God, trans. Nahum Glatzer,
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999
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Jewish clinamen, or the third language
of Jewish philosophy
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Let me begin with two poems.

The first was created by Judah Halevi, the legendary 12th-century Jewish-
Spanish poet writing both in Hebrew and Arabic, and a great defender of
Jewish faith against Hochmat Yevanit, the false ‘Greek wisdoms’ of philoso-
phy. The title of this poem is Your Words Are Perfumed Like Myrrh, where
God is the addresse, and the fragment in which Halevi criticizes the Greeks
goes as follows:

Let not Greek wisdom entice thee

Which bears no fruit but only blossoms.
Its upshot is that the earth was never stretched forth
That the tents of heaven were not extended,
That there is no beginning to creation,
And no end to renewal of the moons.
Hear the words of her confused sages,
Built on shallow and hollow foundation,
And you will turn away with heart empty and shaken,
But with a mouth full of trifling phrases.
Wherefore, then, shall I seek crooked paths,
And forsake the open highway?1

What is this dubious ‘Greek wisdom’ which, according to Judah Halevi,

should not entice a Jewish ear? It is a teaching of being that knows no
beginning and no end; a teaching of nature, physis, which, unlike creation,
beriah, rolls in the eternal return of the same, offering no hope and no respite
from its monotonous rhythm of endless repetition.
According to the classical definition of Aristotle, physis is a system of all
beings that fall under the inexorable rule of cyclical alternation between genesis
kai phtora, generation and corruption; the tragic rule that knows no exception.
This is precisely the gist of the Greek wisdom against which Halevi protests
the strongest: the tragic sense of life that ‘has no fruit but only blossoms’, and
where everything that has come into existence can only blossom for a while,
for it is doomed from the start to wither, before it can truly begin to be, and
2 Introduction
truly mature in being. Only seemingly, therefore, is Greek philosophy focused
on being, on what really exists, ontos on. In fact, as Halevi suggests, it is a
science without foundation, perplexed and confused, where everything solid
melts into air and all being is tinged with nothingness from which it can never
separate itself properly. For it is only the teaching of creation, and God as the
creator, which can lay a proper foundation for our understanding of what
truly exists. The very concept of being as such, apparently the most cherished
centre of Greek thought, becomes possible and tenable only within the
metaphysics which bases itself on the notion of creation.
In this manner, Halevi, although he writes his poem against all philosophy
originating in ‘Greek wisdoms’, nonetheless makes a strong philosophical
statement of his own. Without wanting it, he philosophizes. Despite the overt
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declaration, which refuses to engage with ‘shallow and hollow’ Greek words
and promises to listen only to the divine words perfumed like a myrrh, the
poet becomes seduced by the power of the philosophical form, if not the
content, and produces an argument. He does not just listen to the word of
God, and does not just comment; the form in which he opposes the Greek
wisdom of the endless and timeless universe is already contaminated by this
very wisdom’s mode of reasoning.2
Thus, even the most pious Jew gets dragged, against his will, into philoso-
phizing. It will be my argument here that this poem – on the surface fiercely
anti-philosophical, but deep down rather counter-philosophical – can be trea-
ted as a paradigm of all intellectual attempts that come under the heading of
‘Jewish philosophy’. The mixture of anti-philosophy, which explicitly declares
war against the Greek genre of thinking, and counter-philosophy, which
implicitly engages in creating counter-arguments, aimed to oppose the Greek
vision of the uncreated cosmos, will become a characteristic feature of this
uneasy, deeply troubled thing we call, for the lack of a better name, ‘Jewish
philosophy’, from the Hellenistic times of Philo of Alexandria up to the
postmodern, neo-Alexandrian times of Lévinas and Derrida.
Judah Halevi’s famous treatise The Kuzari, written in 1140, is the best
example of this paradoxical fusion. Using the story of the dialogue between
the pagan King of Khazars and the Jewish Rabbi, who managed to convert
the former to Judaism, Halevi produces a string of beautifully rounded
philosophical arguments in favour of creatio ex nihilo and against the whole
of Greek philosophy, which, as we are told again, should not entice the ear of
a true believer.3 It is not an accident that Halevi is often compared to the
Islamic thinker Al-Ghazali and is thought to occupy an analogical position
within Judaism; just as Al-Ghazali, the celebrated theologian of the Islamic
kalam, rallied all the arguments he learned from Aristotle to turn them
against the Greek sage and thus to defend ‘the God of theologians’ against
‘the God of philosophers’, so did Halevi, who used the whole philosophical
arsenal to bring it to self-destruction. But, the question immediately arises,
can one borrow the argumentative form of the ‘Greek wisdom’ without taking
any of its content? Can this split between form and content be as clear-cut as
Introduction 3
it appears to Al-Ghazali or Halevi? Or, can one ‘marry the speech of stran-
gers’, in this case the speech of Greek philosophy, and still maintain all the
innocence and freedom of a single bachelor, monolingual in his faithfulness to
Jewish religion?
The second poem, where the phrase ‘marrying the speech of strangers’
appears, was written by the contemporary Jewish-American poet Charles
Reznikoff. Reznikoff, himself a descendant of East European Jewry, who
spoke some Yiddish but not Hebrew, created in the 1960s the poetic cycle
Jerusalem the Golden, which offers a modernized rereading of the Tanakh, the
Hebrew Bible. Being a poet, moreover an emphatically Jewish poet, but
unlike Halevi no longer safely rooted in the knowledge of Hebrew, Reznikoff
was acutely aware of the linguistic problem posed by such identification. This
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is why, already in the first part of the cycle, Reznikoff gives us his own version
of The Song of Songs where the nuptial celebration between Solomon and the
Shulamite becomes a symbol of the linguistic marriage between the poet,
‘Hebrew by heart’, and the English language, the passive matter of words
ready to be impregnated by the foreign impulse, or an empty form ready to be
filled with a foreign spirit:

Like Solomon,
I have married and married the speech of strangers;
None are like you, Shulamite.4

The marriage between the Hebrew heart, ardent yet mute, and the English
Shulamite, the Shakespearian vocabulary of words, which is like no other in
its eloquence, is a true marriage; it creates an offspring which is a ‘third lan-
guage’, not to be reduced to the separate identities of its parents. It is pre-
cisely the idea of this ‘third language’ that becomes the guiding motif of
Reznikoff’s poetry. In the part 77th of Jerusalem the Golden, entitled ‘Joshua
at Shechem’, he writes about the Jews condemned to live in the linguistic

And God scattered them –

Through the cities of Medes, beside the waters of Babylon.
And God looked and saw the Hebrews,
Citizens of the great cities,
Talking Hebrew in every language under the sun.5

The situation of ‘Jewish philosophy’ is exactly like the one described by

Reznikoff: it is the singular predicament of the ‘third language’ in which
Jewish thinkers talk Hebrew in words, concepts and arguments bequeathed to
them by Greek philosophers.6 Some of them, like Judah Halevi, would still
claim that they can keep the elements safely separate and always tell the
Hebrew and Greek wisdom apart, but most of them, in fact, would rather
admit that the fusion is inseparable, as indeed in a true marriage, and that
4 Introduction
‘talking Hebrew in every language under the sun’ does not leave the Jewish
component untransformed.

Philosophical Marranos
We can thus see ‘Jewish philosophy’ as a primarily linguistic problem: speak-
ing one language with the help of another, a case of an instantaneous bilin-
gualism. This brings us immediately to yet another metaphor coming from
the Jewish tradition, namely that of Marranos, the Spanish Jews forced to
convert to Christianity, who nonetheless preserved their secret Jewish faith:
the Marranic ‘Judaism undercover’, where the unspoken Hebrew shines
through but also subverts the overtly spoken dialect of the imposed ‘speech of
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strangers’, in this case the Christian religion. It is not an accident that the first
Jewish thinkers who entered the world of modern Western thought were
mostly of Marrano origin: not just the radical followers of Sabbatai Zevi, the
17th-century false Messiah, who proclaimed the messianic revolution and,
having converted to Islam and Christianity, left Jewish ghettos of Eastern and
Southern Europe to spread the revolutionary news, which eventually led some
of them to take active part in the French Revolution – but also such eminent
individuals as Uriel da Costa, Isaac la Peyrère and Baruch Spinoza.7 The last
one of this great philosophical line, Jacques Derrida, openly claimed to be ‘a
sort of marrane of French Catholic culture’,8 and this declaration prompted
him to articulate this peculiar experience of the ‘third language’, which we
would like to call a ‘philosophical Marranism’ – to denote a type of thinker,
like himself, who will never break through the Joycean ‘Jew-Greek, Greek-Jew’
confusion, but nonetheless will try to turn it into his advantage. That is, to
marry the speech of strangers and let the Hebrew talk through it: to do
counter-philosophy with the help of philosophy.9
There are many ways to approach the phenomenon of ‘Jewish philosophy’,
but the way I find most convincing focuses precisely on the linguistic aspect of
this problem. I say ‘problem’, for even the very existence of such a practice as
‘Jewish philosophizing’ remains highly problematic, a fact which is so well
testified by Halevi’s rejection of philosophy as ‘the wisdom of the Greeks’.
Yet, despite Halevi’s warning, a hybrid entity called ‘Jewish philosophy’
nonetheless emerged, giving rise to many doubts and questions concerning its
status and legitimacy. These doubts only intensified with the birth of modernity
when many Jewish thinkers, who still considered themselves Jewish despite
the fact that they had lost their footing in the traditional Jewish culture,
entered the Western intellectual world. For the medieval Jewish philosophers,
such as Saadia or Moses Maimonides (but also Halevi in his philosophical
phase, while writing The Kuzari), thinking according to Aristotle or Plotinus
was mostly a matter of appropriation, which would leave the essential struc-
ture of Jewish thought intact, or at least so they thought. Yet for these
modern thinkers, so often already acquainted with the Marrano experience,
‘philosophizing’ meant a confrontation with a radically foreign linguistic
Introduction 5
medium, which would issue in a wholly new reflection on the language of
philosophy; first of all, putting in doubt its alleged and self-professed uni-
versality. Always accused of particularism, the Jewish thinkers started to turn
tables and throw the same objection against the Western philosophy that
formulated it in the first place.
But they rarely do it openly under Jewish auspices. Franz Rosenzweig bit-
terly protested when The Star of Redemption landed as a ‘Jewish book’ on the
same shelf with other pious and educational Bar Mitzvah presents for young
boys.10 He feared that his ambitious effort to create neues Denken, ‘new
thinking’, would be thwarted the moment it opened itself defencelessly to the
objection of non-universality. Walter Benjamin’s celebrated image of the
puppet and the dwarf, in which the former represents the public philosophical
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discourse and the latter stands for hidden ‘ugly and wizened’ theology, goes
even deeper in the ‘Marrano’ direction by encoding the strategy of deliberate
secrecy and ruse; once fully revealed, the Jewish theological message would
lose all its conceptual force.11 Still later, Max Horkheimer, asked during an
interview for German radio about the shortest possible definition of the
Frankfurt School (in a manner similar to the question famously posed to
Rabbi Hillel who offered the most concise definition of Judaism ‘while
standing on one foot’), answered immediately that it was a ‘Judaism under-
cover’.12 But the true master of the secret turns out to be Jacques Derrida in
whom the ‘Marrano tendency’ culminates and at the same time flips over to
the other side, becoming a secret du Polichinelle, a non-secret secret secretly
known by everybody where the phrase ‘but don’t tell anyone’ (used by
Derrida in Archive Fever) ironically turns into positive, though still indirect,
Derrida is particularly useful here, mostly because of his openly declared
linguistic promiscuity. By discarding faithfulness to any monolingual tradi-
tion, he stands firmly on the post-Babelian grounds of the dispersion of
idioms that can approach universality only horizontally: not by assuming a
transcendent and superior meta-position, but by engaging in clashes and
stormy ‘marriages’. There is no such thing as a homogenous universal
language. Yet universality can be approached by ‘marrying the speeches of
strangers’, which completes the broken whole on the horizontal level, without
usurping the God-like point of view hovering over the clamour of differences.
As Walter Benjamin says in ‘The Task of the Translator’ (the essay which
serves Derrida as the canvas of his Babel variations), the only possible strat-
egy of universalization rests on the awareness of particularity of all languages,
which then lend themselves to the practices of translation (Übersetzung)
and completion (Ergänzung). The universal can only be made out of the
patchwork of mutually strange idioms that are forced into ‘marriage’ by the
Elaborating on the metaphor of Babel, Benjamin argues that, while lan-
guages are foreign in their dispersion, they also are not complete strangers to
one another because they all hide the memory trace of ‘pure language’, which
6 Introduction
is the true universal language spoken only in the paradise, but no longer
allowed in the post-paradisiac and post-Babelian condition of the Fall. The
ultimate goal of Benjamin’s musings on the nature of translation is precisely
the exposition of the horizontal idea of pure language:

[ … ] all suprahistorical kinship between languages consists in this: in

every one of them as a whole, one and the same thing is meant. Yet this
one thing is achievable not by any single language but only by the totality
of their intentions supplementing one another: the pure language.14

The Benjaminian pure language, strangely resembling Frege’s idea of truth as

one and the same denotation ‘meant’ by all the sentences in all the languages,
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is indeed synonymous with the Truth of Revelation. Hence, translations only

assists ‘the growth of languages’ by pushing their hidden meaning towards
becoming manifest. ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own lan-
guage that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues,’ says Benjamin
(ibid., p. 261, emphasis added). And then, by almost stumbling on Reznikoff’s
metaphor of ‘marrying the speeches of strangers’, Benjamin approvingly
quotes Pannwitz, a German theoretician of translation: ‘He [the translator]
must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language’
(ibid., p. 262).
And while Benjamin still remains ambivalent as to the dispersion of lan-
guages, unsure whether to treat it as a blessing or a curse, Derrida – pushing
strongly into the ‘Marrano’ direction – interprets ‘the task of the translator’ in
a decidedly non-nostalgic manner. In ‘Tours de Babel’, the essay partly
devoted to Benjamin, he declares an impossibility of a ‘universal tongue’15
and praises the Babelian dissemination as the first move of deconstruction:

The ‘tower of Babel’ does not merely figure the irreducible multiplicity of
tongues; it exhibits an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of tota-
lizing, of saturating, of completing on the order of edification, architectural
construction, system and architechtonics.
(Ibid., p. 104)

Moreover, Derrida goes as far as to claim that Babel is, in fact, one of the
divine names and that ‘the proper name of “confusion” will be his [God’s]
mark and his seal’ (ibid., p. 107). The legend of Babel, therefore, tells an alter-
native story of God’s revelation where ‘confusion’ turns out to be His proper
name, perhaps even more real than the one revealed at Sinai.16 To reach
universality does not mean to escape the confusion in a vertical manner but to
stay at its level and work through the differences it creates.
This is precisely the paradox of what we will call here a ‘Marrano strategy’.
The uneasy and deeply problematic discipline of thought called ‘Jewish phi-
losophy’ became gradually so unhappy with its own nomenclature that it
Introduction 7
began to claim universality, a true universality, so far unmatched by any lan-
guage declaring to be universal: philosophy or Christianity. These ‘philoso-
phical Marranos’, always accused of soiling the universal form of philosophy
and its Christian avatar with parochial Hebrew content, eventually turned
this accusation to their own advantage and formulated their standpoint as
follows: at least we know we are particular and can start from there, while
you, our accusers, remain mistaken as to your own alleged universality and
thus can never know or doubt your presuppositions. In fact, the whole evo-
lution of modern Jewish thought can be seen as the shift in regard to the issue
of universality. Initially, this issue would arouse an envy and desire to be
‘properly’ universal, to imitate philosophers as well as Christians, who, as it is
stated very clearly in Spinoza, seem to offer two distinct ways to achieve
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rational transparency: in knowledge and in morals. Then it would gradually

provoke a protest against such one-sided claims and, as in Hermann Cohen,
would give rise to counter-claims, arguing that ‘the language of prophets’ is,
in fact, as universal as ‘the language of philosophers’. And finally, the issue of
the universal meta-language would simply dissolve by giving way to the
‘horizontal’ view that grants particular biases to all languages, and – as in
Benjamin and Derrida – desires only that they should play against each other
in the movement of both mutual deconstruction and completion.
In this manner, the Marrano strategy matures from its beginnings as a
negative tactic of envy and resentment to become in the end a positive tactic
of the ‘true’ universalization of philosophical discourse, which openly draws
out of the sources of Jewish messianism. We can understand this Jewish-
Marrano messianism as an after-Babel project to mend the broken whole
from within, horizontally, without assuming the lofty and proud position of a
general meta-language, but through the effort of bi- or even multilingualism.
Just like many Marranos before, who embraced Christianity more than they
would like to admit, these ‘philosophical Marranos’ would not mind being
addressed by the famous phrase of Paul, whom they regarded as, in fact, one
of the best representatives of Jewish messianism (simply following here
Deuteronomy and Jeremiah): ‘circumcised by heart’. For only this mute yet
ardent Hebrew heart, when talking through the languages of strangers, tes-
tifies to the surviving presence of the ‘true Israel’. At the same time, however,
their effort could not be perceived only in terms of giving in to the Christian
‘speech of strangers’. On the contrary, their linguistic messianism is not a
repetition of the Paulian gesture of universalization; although it aims at the
same goal, it wants to achieve it differently, better, wiser and more truthfully
to the Jewish messianic tradition. The ‘philosophical Marranos’ know that
the true universalism cannot be founded by declaration – ‘neither Jew, nor
Greek’ – and then sealed with the acceptance of the philosophical meta-
language, as it happened in Christianity. The road to universality does not
lead through the purification of ‘neither, nor’ but through the ‘marriages’, that
is, the confusions and conjunctions, of the Joycean ‘Jew-Greek; Greek-Jew.’
Not through subtractions, which want to reach the deep naked core of a
8 Introduction
purely universal human nature, but through collisions of differences, which
happen all the time on the surface of linguistic encounters.17

The Jewish clinamen: From indifference to concern

In creating a more intriguing version of the problem called ‘Jewish philoso-
phy’, I am following Harold Bloom and his theory of clinamen as the first
stage of creative revision of the original, as presented in The Anxiety of
Influence and A Map of Misreading. The notion of clinamen, the Latinized
name of Democritean parenklisis, the swerve of atoms producing an accident
of newness in the otherwise determined universe, serves Bloom as a blueprint
for the revisionary efforts of the poets who struggle with their powerful
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precursors in order to win the trophy of originality. Now, if we apply Bloom’s

revisionary scheme for the purposes of Jewish philosophy, we shall see that
the clinamen with which the modern Jewish thinkers swerve away from the
body of Western thought is not so much a helpless local declension or a
parochial lessening of the universal paradigm (producing such limited intel-
lectual phenomena as ‘Jewish Romanticism’, ‘Jewish Enlightenment’ or ‘Jewish
Marxism’) as it is a deliberate act of rivalry. The stake of this competition is,
just like in Bloom, validity. The only difference between the poets and the
thinkers here is that while the former fight for originality, i.e. a place in the
poetic lineage closer to the foundational origins, the latter fight for uni-
versality by questioning the very rules of universality as set by the dominant
So far I have been very skilful in avoiding one distinction that, in the con-
text that occupies me here, appears rather unavoidable, alas. It is the clichéd,
worn out distinction between Athens and Jerusalem, which came into
existence thanks to Tertullian, the 2nd-century Church Father who famously
exclaimed: ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ This was
obviously a rhetorical question, for the answer was already implied: nothing.19
In this manner, Tertullian inaugurated the whole line of Christian thinkers
who have either opposed or found problematic the massive borrowing that
Christian theology has taken from the Greek philosophy, most of all from
Plato and Aristotle. Tertullian was kept in the shadows during the Patristic
and Scholastic times, but re-emerged as an important precursor in modernity,
inspiring such thinkers as Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, Matthew Arnold
and Lev Shestov. It was thus Tertullian who gave impulse to the further ela-
boration of the Athens versus Jerusalem motif along the lines of the following
modern distinctions: the Pascalian difference between raison d’esprit et raison
du coeur; the Kierkegaardian contrast between rational logic and the leap of
faith; the Arnoldian cultural tension between Greek ‘sweetness and light’ and
Jewish ‘fanaticism of heart’; and the Shestovian reason against revelation.
I have been avoiding this Tertullianesque lineage mostly because it is a very
Christian version of the events, which Jewish thinkers approach with justified
Introduction 9
misgivings. Not that they do not have their own variant of this opposition;
Judah Halevi’s poem gives a good account of the tension between Shem and
Yaphet, or between Torah and Sophia, the ‘teaching’ and the ‘wisdom’, as
seen precisely from the Jewish perspective.20 But what differs in these two
approaches is the criterion. In the line inaugurated by Tertullian, it is always
rationality versus irrationality; the mundane logic of Greek philosophers
opposed to the scandalous, absurd, and surreal event of God’s crucifixion. It
ascribes reason to the Greeks and revelation – the more irrational, the more
authentic – to the Jews and, a fortiori, to the Christians. And it is precisely
this particular criterion, turning faith into an emphatically irrational decision
which severs rationality from religiosity, that is met by such a strong protest
on the Jewish side. As Lévinas says in ‘God and Philosophy’: ‘It is to doubt
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that this opposition constitutes an alternative’ (GP, p. 57).

For the Jews have no problem whatsoever with calling Judaism, in
Hermann Cohen’s words, a ‘religion of reason’, i.e., a religion that defined
revelation as the first enlightenment, disenchanting the world from the pagan
cosmic gods. One of the most interesting aspects of ‘Jewish philosophy’, as
I want to see it here, is that by mixing and marrying different languages, it
can also subvert and undermine its clichéd distinctions and introduce phrases
that sound meaningless on the well-trodden monolingual paths of Western
thought, as precisely this one: ‘religion of reason’. This formulation is an
offense to those Christians, who, especially in modernity, usually do not see
themselves on the side of the Enlightenment – and a scandal to the radical
secularists who wish to purge their thought from the last remnants of theism.
Yet it is the most apt definition of Judaism ever provided and, at the same
time, the most accurate definition of the subject of the so called ‘Jewish
philosophy’, which, at its best, reflects on this peculiar, alternative rationality
coming ‘out of the sources of Judaism’, not to be conflated with the Greek
logos and its cosmic, unrevealed hochmat yevanit.
Let us focus now on two concrete examples: two illustrations of how
modern Jewish thinkers reflect on their own status as thinkers, or as repre-
sentatives of what we call here, very tentatively, ‘Jewish philosophy’. The first
example will be offered by Leo Strauss. A great specialist in Plato and all
things Greek, he wrote a few essays on Jewish matters, among them
‘Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections’, written in 1967. Many
contemporary American acolytes of Strauss strive nowadays to turn him into
an eminent and dedicated Jewish scholar, yet it seems to me that the only
difference in this essay, which sets Strauss just an inch apart from the tradi-
tionally Christian approach to the Athens-Jerusalem question, is the bold
reversal of the title: ‘Jerusalem and Athens’. Strauss begins:

All the hopes that we entertain in the midst of the confusions and dan-
gers of the present are founded positively or negatively, directly or indir-
ectly on the experiences of the past. Of these experiences the broadest and
deepest, as far as we Western men are concerned, are indicated by the
10 Introduction
names of the two cities Jerusalem and Athens. Western man became what
he is and is what he is through the coming together of biblical faith
and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and illuminate our
trackless ways into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and

So far, so good. But the difference itself, which Strauss subsequently elucidates,
will sound very disappointing to the Jewish ear:

We must then try to understand the difference between biblical wisdom

and Greek wisdom. We see at once that each of the two claims to be true
wisdom, thus denying to the other its claim to be wisdom in the strict and
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highest sense. According to the Bible, the beginning of wisdom is fear of

the Lord; according to the Greek philosophers, the beginning of wisdom
is wonder. We are thus compelled from the very beginning to make a
choice, to take a stand. Where then do we stand? We are confronted with
the incompatible claims of Jerusalem and Athens to our allegiance. We
are open to both and willing to listen to each. We ourselves are not wise
but we wish to become wise. We are seekers for wisdom, philosophoi. By
saying that we wish to hear first and to act to decide, we have already
decided in favour of Athens against Jerusalem.
(Ibid., pp. 379–380)

On Strauss’ account, even the smallest doubt, indecision, reflecting vacillation –

all these attributes of a questing (Strauss would say zethetic) attitude, already
betray our allegiance to the paradigm of philosophical Athens, for Jerusalem
requires nothing less than an absolute obedience, a humble hearkening to the
word of revelation (‘Let us never forget that there is no biblical word for
doubt,’ ibid., p. 381). Can there be any common land between these two
cities, any form of a double allegiance that could create a ‘Jewish philosophy’?
No, says Strauss. There is no such thing; only the strict Kierkegaardian
‘either, or.’ But not even this; we are merely deluding ourselves that we stand
in front of any alternative. Already perceiving this situation as a possibility of
choice places us inescapably on the side of Athens. Modern men, living in the
condition of questing, given multilingual choices, alternatives, possibilities,
are already philosophers. The simple childlike faith of Jerusalem is lost to
them forever.
If we follow Strauss (and many contemporary Jewish scholars unfortunately
do so), the very concept of ‘Jewish philosophy’ will become an oxymoron, a
contradiction in terms; perhaps even the less charged formulation ‘Jewish
thought’ will become highly problematic too, because the absence of alter-
natives, which Strauss ascribes to Jewish faith in revelation, precludes any
possibility of thinking. No parochial declension is possible here, not to men-
tion even more serious competitive clinamen; any ‘marrying’ of these two
idioms is doomed to fail by producing only stillborn hybrids. But those who
Introduction 11
follow Strauss on this point fail to see his Socratic irony; they do not take full
account of his diagnosis according to which no one can choose the simple way
of Jerusalem in modern times, even the most devoted believing Jew. His
apparent defence of Jerusalem as a separate wisdom of harkening to the
revealed Word turns out to be the final stroke, the last nail to the coffin of the
religious paradigm in modernity. Imagining himself as a ‘Jewish Socrates’,
Strauss makes a deliberate conversion to philosophy, all the more determined
precisely because of his previous religious upbringing, which he knows he
must leave behind. Strauss, whom so many Jewish scholars nowadays hail
as the greatest Jewish thinker of the 20th century, practically declares our
discipline impossible. What an irony indeed.
Yet there is another contender to the title of the greatest Jewish thinker of
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the 20th century, and this one should be much closer to us, the hopeful
representatives of ‘Jewish philosophy’: Franz Rosenzweig, an older colleague
of Leo Strauss, whom he acquainted at the Jewish Free Learning House in
Frankfurt. Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption offers the best example of the
‘third language’, a true child of the stormy marriage between philosophy and
religion. Despite his official ‘return to Judaism’, Rosenzweig does not pretend
that the modern world, in which languages marry one another and choices
abound, can be erased; he is determined to practice precisely what Strauss
deems impossible: ‘modern Jewish thought’. But he knows that in order to do
so he cannot rely on the classical opposition of Jerusalem and Athens, as it
re-emerges – albeit in a strange Jewish-Tertullianesque variation – in the essay
of Leo Strauss. In Rosenzweig’s highly innovative approach, the usual vector
of the relation between ‘the Hebrews and the Hellenes’ becomes reversed. It is
not the Greek philosophy that delivers categories to capture the specificity of
Jerusalem by privation or negation (as lacking rationality, freedom of thought
and wonder), but the other way round: Athens, and the whole philosophical
formation ‘from Ionia to Jena’ is perceived and interrogated from the position
of Rosenzweigian ‘new thinking’, deriving – to use Hermann Cohen’s phrase
again – straight ‘out of the sources of Judaism’.
This dialogue is not so much a philosophical symposium as a religious
encounter. Now it is not the two systems of thought – one free to seek
wisdom, the other restrained from the start by the revealed word, that stand
against one another – but rather two forms of religion, two types of faith and
decision, which rely on two different models of obedience. Rosenzweig wants
Athens to defend and prove its own form of religiosity in the face of Jewish
revelation. This ingenious reversal of the perspective constitutes the first part
of The Star of Redemption, where Rosenzweig, inspired by Nietzsche, exam-
ines ‘Greek religiosity’ as the tragic religion of the natural sublime, with
which no man can argue, and juxtaposes it with the Jewish revelation which
offers the possibility of a new, truly revolutionary change in our attitude
towards the deity, conceived now in terms of dialogue, loving exchange and
the partnership of the covenant. Athens, therefore, stands not so much for a
questing freedom of philosophy as for a tragic decision to see life as
12 Introduction
constrained by fate, death, and natural necessity, from which there is no
escape. Jerusalem, on the other hand, stands not so much for fanatical obe-
dience as for a religious revolution that allows an Exodus from the Egypt of
self-enclosed nature and liberates life from the power of death. It is not the
pairing of reason versus unreason that delivers the right criterion of difference,
but the opposition of two fundamental decisions: life against death, which
also happens to be the opposition of life against being or, in the last instance,
love against indifference.
Rosenzweig’s case shows very clearly that apart from its formal character-
istics (the ironic reversal of the claim to universality), the Jewish clinamen
possesses a very palpable content value that we can describe, in its original
atomistic terms, as a swerve of concern against the free-fall of indifference.
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From Halevi to Heschel, Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Lévinas, and Derrida, there

continues a ‘crooked path’ of thinking that breaks with the ‘open highway’ of
the neutrality that constitutes Greek ontos on. In Thorleif Boman’s words, it is
a ‘dynamic strain of Hebrew thought’22 that tries to breathe life into the stony
cosmos of indifference, and with it care, concern, complaint, but also a pos-
sibility of affirmation, of saying an emphatic yes, yes … Thus, even Strauss,
who otherwise has no trust in Hebrew thought, conceiving of it as a simple
form of belief, will claim that ‘the Presence of God or His Call elicits a con-
duct of His creatures that differs strikingly from their ordinary conduct; it
enlivens the lifeless, it makes fluid the fixed’.23 This is precisely the pivot on
which Rosenzweig builds his practice of Neues Denken: a ‘life-centred view’
(Lebensanschauung) that privileges the perspective of the living and sees in
their precious and particular life a possibility of affirmation in which being,
shaken out of its indifference, can finally say ‘yes’ to itself. The clinamen,
which becomes so visible in Rosenzweig, but can also be applied to the whole
modern Jewish thought, can thus be called messianic; it offers itself as a
redemptive correction/alternative to the predominantly tragic ‘worldview’
(Weltanschauung) which accompanies the philosophical discourse from the
moment of its inception.24
This ‘new thinking’ – the function of which is to tell stories, or, to be more
precise, to tell dynamic and ‘warm’ Hebrew stories within the immobile and
indifferent structure of Greek concepts; to breathe in possibility into necessi-
tarian universe – locates itself on the very antipodes to the silence that
surrounds the ‘religious man’ in Tertullian, Pascal and Kierkegaard. Nothing
is further from the Rosenzweigian opening of philosophical language to the
living word of story than the Tertullianesque gesture of rejecting all logos in
the name of the ineffable, blind obedience to revelation. Tertullian’s credo quia
impossibile, Pascal’s ‘sacrifice of the intellect’, Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’, or
Strauss’ ‘faithfulness to the word’ do not look for another language; having
transgressed the discourse of philosophy, they fall into silence, where hear-
kening obedience replaces all speech. Rosenzweig, however, chooses a radi-
cally different approach that produces a surprising reversal of this traditional
motif of talkative logos and silent faith. When interrogated by the vital
Introduction 13
questions of life, death, and better life, venturing ‘beyond being’ and its static
indifference, the idiom of the Hebrews bursts with eloquence, while the lan-
guage of the Hellenes turns strangely mute, chocking on the never asked,
indeed non-askable, questions.
It is precisely for this reason that Rosenzweig protested so vehemently when
some commentators classified The Star of Redemption as a ‘Jewish book’. For
the book he had written (mostly in the trenches of the First World War on the
Serbian front) is one of the most universal works that has ever been created
by Western thought; a true guide for the perplexed modern man who lives the
Babel-like life, constantly shifting grounds between Athens, Jerusalem, and
Rome – to name just three cities and three different languages he must learn
to speak. Its universality, however, is not that of a transparent meta-language;
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if there is a Jewish thinker who truly ‘married the speech of strangers’, it was
certainly Rosenzweig who understood Greeks better than they could ever
understand themselves, but also changed the way in which Jews, projected
into the corner of their imposed particularism, were forced to perceive, or
rather misperceive, their vocation. If he achieves the messianic ‘neither Jew,
nor Greek’, it is not through the discursive tower of Babel, but through the
horizontal dialogue of languages that all become richer in this confrontation,
tending not towards the hostility of mutual contradiction, as in Strauss, but
towards friendship of mutual completion. Franz Rosenzweig ‘marries the
speech of a stranger’, which also means that he manages to turn the stranger
into a neighbour, thus giving Reznikoff’s nuptial metaphor the truly Jewish
flavour of ‘neighbourly love’. In Rosenzweig, the Bloomian agon comes its
full circle: from the initial anxiety of rivalry into a loving reconciliation in
which the hierarchy between the mighty precursor (Greek thought ‘from
Ionia to Jena’) and the aspiring ephebe (new thinking) becomes finally
flattened and all idioms seem to find themselves in the same horizontal
Babelian fix.25
The Rosenzweigian clinamen, which we detected here as characteristic of
all ‘philosophical Marranos’ of Western modernity – to push thinking
‘beyond being’, unmoved and unconcerned, into new areas of transontological,
messianic unrest and anxiety – finds its ultimate formulation in Emmanuel
Lévinas. His thought, as Robert Gibbs has already shown, is indeed strictly
correlated with Rosenzweig’s anti/counter/philosophical strategy, which aims
at redefining thinking as a category wider than philosophy or, alternatively, at
changing the meaning of the term ‘philosophy’, so it can comprise also das
neue Denken, deriving from the biblical imagination.26 Thus ‘God and Philo-
sophy’, Lévinas’ late methodological manifesto from 1975, begins by exposing
the parochiality of Greek ontological thought as founded on the arbitrary
gesture of being:

This dignity of an ultimate and royal discourse comes to Western philo-

sophy by virtue of the rigorous coincidence between the thought in which
philosophy stands and the reality in which this thought thinks. For
14 Introduction
thought, this coincidence signifies the following: not to have to think
beyond that which belongs to the gesture or movement of being.27
(GP, 55)

Following Rosenzweig, Lévinas wants to venture ‘beyond being’, just like he

wants to undermine the seemingly universal discourse of philosophy, which
based its claim to validity on mirroring reality as it is. For both of them, being
is not a neutral, abstract, all-encompassing category. Rather, it implies an
ontological choice, which is also a choice of indifference; a certain gesture,
and as such a bias that calls into question ‘the dignity of the ultimate and
royal discourse’ of philosophy originating in Greece. In this manner, by
exposing the ontological gesture as such, Lévinas wishes to return to the place
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of origination (the Bloomian place of both originality and universality) that

precedes Heidegger’s seemingly ultimate ‘return to the Greeks,’ zurück zu den

The problem that is posed, and which shall be our own, consists in asking
ourselves whether meaning is equivalent to the esse of being; that is,
whether the meaning which, in philosophy, is meaning is not already a
restriction of meaning; whether it is not already a derivation or a drift
from meaning [ … ] This supposition can only be justified by the possi-
bility of going back, starting from this allegedly conditioned meaning, to
a meaning that would no longer express itself in terms of being, nor in
terms of beings.
(GP, p. 57, emphasis added)

Here is the culmination of what we can finally dub as the Marrano herme-
neutics of suspicion towards the philosophical idiom, which it aimed to
expose precisely as an idiom: particular, local, itself a product of a self-unaware
decision, a biased gesture, a declension. In his provocative attempt to ‘think
beyond being’, Lévinas makes a clinamen which is to correct the initial
clinamen of the Greek thought and thus open a space of a true universality
before or in-between the decision to follow either the finite being or the infi-
nite life. But he can show this place of origination only due to the faithfulness
to his own bias, his own messianic thrust that, unlike the Greek dispassionate
and contemplative mind that mirrors the neutral status quo of what is, fills
itself with anxious attempts to press new meanings out of the masses of being
and move it ‘beyond’, into the promise of ‘more life’.
At the same time, however, Lévinas seems to be caught in the ironic
ambivalence of the diagnosis he himself wishes to subvert at the very begin-
ning of his essay, and which we should quote in its original inverted commas:
‘Not to philosophize is still to philosophize.’ It would appear that just like
Halevi, who professed his hatred of all philosophy in immaculately philoso-
phical terms, Lévinas, being far more conscious of his uneasy entanglement,
does precisely what he wished to undermine. For just like Halevi, who
Introduction 15
attempted to convince the non-Jewish audience about the superiority of his
own faith, Lévinas plays the philosophical game of universality even as his
play consists in the radical correction of the rules as initially set in ancient
Greece. Or, to put things more paradoxically: he still plays the game of uni-
versality, even if he shows that the ambition of the universal, ‘ultimate and
royal’ language as such is in itself impossible. By denouncing philosophy’s
desire to represent one necessary language of rational mankind, Lévinas does
not renounce universality altogether; he rather looks for it in the clashes of
idioms, which reveal ‘many’ under the alleged ‘one’, as well as plastic possi-
bilities under the rigid necessity. He may not be happy with the Pascalian
opposition between God of Believers and God of Philosophers, but he none-
theless wants to preserve an alternative; to make fluid what seemed fixed,
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i.e., sealed within the ontological idiom of being’s self-sufficiency.28

The antinomian spectre

But there is yet another feature of the Marrano strategy, which plays no lesser
part in its subversive games against all seemingly solid and homogeneous
philosophical languages; the antinomian spectre.
It is because of this hovering spectral presence that, throughout this book, I
want to keep the Marrano metaphor as open as possible in order to preserve
the mesmerizing and symbolic force that it exerted on many Jewish thinkers
of late modern times and lent justification to their ‘cryptotheological’ efforts.
This metaphor, therefore, is to work in Hans Blumenberg’s sense of the word,
that is, as a flexible vivid image that can attract new meanings depending
on the changing historical circumstances. The significant exception here was
obviously Gershom Scholem who not only felt spellbound by the Marrano
metaphor, but also delved in detail into what he called ‘Marrano theology’.
The fascination with which so many 20th-century diasporic Jews approached
the ‘Marrano theology’ as a living hypothesis is thus clearly indebted to
Scholem’s not purely historical work devoted to present it as a still actual
phenomenon within the Jewish world. Now, thanks to Scholem, we bestow
the Marrano idea with a rich symbolic potential, far surpassing the sorry fate
of the Sephardic Jewry who were converted by force to Christianity but kept
their Jewish identity under cover as a ‘hidden faith’. We link it rather to the
Sabbatians who, as Scholem has shown, were mostly Marranos. And probably
the most famous of them, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, wrote an entire treatise,
Magen Abraham (The Star of Abraham), devoted to the messianic significance
of Marranism, in which the seeming vice of secrecy cunningly turns into a
virtue of deeper truth. For, says Cardozo, the true faith can only be hidden.
Only what is concealed can be an authentic faith; what becomes positively
revealed is nothing but an official religion. Hence the real faith needs to pro-
tect its subversive-antinomian character by avoiding open pronouncement
and articulation. It was thus mostly due to this Marrano influence that
16 Introduction
Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam became almost immediately interpreted as an
act of free will, demonstrating that only ‘hidden faith’ can be genuine: inner,
unconcerned and unhindered by official norms and religious institutions.
Cardozo believed that Marranos are the truly chosen people, ‘the righteous
remnant of a true Israel’, destined to save the world and spread the divine
message through all the nations by subverting their pagan institutions from
within. Sabbatai, therefore, not only followed the way of those reflexive
Marranos, but also justified it and showed its deeper spiritual meaning; now,
to convert to Christianity or Islam meant to be able to expand the messianic
practice of ‘lifting the sparks’ from the realm of kelipot, the ‘broken vessels’,
and to penetrate the darkest regions of the created world (such as the Islam,
at that time no longer so hospitable to the Jews or Roman-Catholic Edom). To
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choose faith in a hidden way meant a deliberate effort to keep the antinomian
impulse opposed to all oppressive laws of this world, both secular and reli-
gious, from contamination with a fallen reality; to maintain it in a form of a
hovering spectre, distanced from any direct positive realization.29
In presenting what may seem to be a purely historical interest in Marrano
theology, Scholem comes to the fore as a thinker whose ambitions far surpass
the merely historical. In his characteristically titled ‘Ten Non-Historical Theses
on Kabbalah’ (emphasis added), Scholem, who no longer wishes to pass for a
neutral historian of the Jewish world, says in deceptively simple words:

The kabbalist claims that there is a tradition (Tradition) of truth which

can be handed over (tradierbar). This is a very ironic claim since the
truth, of which it speaks, is anything but capable of being handed over
(tradierbar). The truth can become known but not passed on, for pre-
cisely in what can be passed on, the truth is no longer. The authentic
tradition remains hidden; the falling tradition stumbles upon an object
and shows its greatness only in the fact that it falls.30

In his wonderful essay on Scholem, Harold Bloom – following Scholem’s own

desire to become finally ‘unhistorical’ – lovingly ‘exposes’ him as a secret
follower of Abraham Miguel Cardozo, only barely masquerading as a
disinterested scholar of Jewish history:

Gershom Scholem, masking truly as a historical scholar, was the hidden

theologian of Jewish Gnosis for our time [ … ] Rarely unmasking, Scholem
sometimes hinted his truest desires. One of these hints is his sequence
of ‘Ten Unhistorical Aphorisms on Kabbalah,’ first printed in 1938:
Authentic tradition remains hidden.31

Although Bloom, as he himself avows, is ‘delighted’ by this ‘sublimely

outrageous’ thesis (ibid., p. 59), he also immediately spots the paradox that
attaches itself to any Marrano declaration of a similar kind. For, ‘if authentic
tradition must remain hidden, then not only institutional Judaism becomes
Introduction 17
inauthentic’ (ibid., p. 56), this predicament must befall ‘Scholem’s own speech
and writing’ too. Yet this paradox is not the end of the story, for it merely
calls us to read Scholem ‘in between the lines’ – to brush his texts against the
grain and pull out from them all the ‘secrets’ they protect better than any
‘uncharacteristic silence could have done’ (ibid.). We shall soon see that
Scholem’s silence was indeed anything but ‘uncharacteristic’: for him, it was
an equivalent of the via negativa through which every tradition must pass in
order to renew itself. More than that, it was also a point of break or crisis
approaching destruction and oblivion – a ‘fine line between religion and
nihilism’32 – in which the Marrano experience could dialectically turn to an
advantage. Himself a ‘product of the purgatory of assimilation and secular-
ization’,33 Scholem, via his highly characteristic ‘Hebrew silence’, attempted
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the experiment of reset and renewal: the near-death experience of the dis-
appearing tradition from which it would rise once again, strengthened and
Yet, as I have already indicated, the true contemporary champion of the
Marrano strategy, cunningly playing with the ‘revealment and concealment’
of the secret antinomian spectre, is Jacques Derrida. Unlike Lévinas – ‘the
last true Jew’ in theory, a philosophical Marrano in practice – Derrida
performs his tricky Marrano identification in full. He performs it, but, being a
‘true’ Marrano (which, as Bloom rightly observes, is a paradox in itself), he
never – or very rarely – talks about it openly. There are but few instances in
his work where he alludes to his ‘secret’. In Archive Fever, Derrida playfully
divulges his Marrano sympathies, while referring to Yerushalmi’s essay on
the photographs of ‘last Marranos’ in Portugal made by Frederic Brenner.
While watching the portraits of the Portuguese Marranos, Yerushalmi asks:
‘But are they really the last?’ and this question receives a kind of oblique reply
from Derrida: no, they are not; this secret tradition will continue. And not
only does he assert that he has ‘always secretly identified’ with the Marrano
heritage (immediately adding in the joking parenthesis: ‘but don’t tell anyone’),
but also drags into this heritage of Jewish secrecy the father of psychoanalysis
himself by saying that ‘this crypto-Judaic history greatly resembles that of
psychoanalysis after all’.35 Then, on the next few pages, Derrida gives us a
brief prolegomena to any future Marrano strategy, which he identifies with
messianicity, ‘radically distinguished from all messianism’ (ibid., p. 72): a
universal form of Jewishness which, in distinction to the ‘terminable Judaism’
of the rabbinic formation, remains interminable, inextinguishable, indestructible,

It can survive Judaism. It can survive it as a heritage, which is to say, in a

sense, not without archive, even if this archive should remain without
substrate and without actuality [ … ] This is what would be proper to the
‘Jew’ and to him alone: not only hope, not only a ‘hope for the future’,
but ‘the anticipation of a specific hope for the future’.36
(Ibid., p. 72)
18 Introduction
This is what ‘constitutes Jewishness beyond all Judaism’: ‘To be open toward
the future would be to be Jewish, and vice versa [ … ] In the future, remem-
ber to remember the future’ (ibid., pp. 74, 76). And although Derrida quotes
Yerushalmi’s definitions of the ‘Judaism interminable’ not without an irony,
he nonetheless confirms that what counts in this whole enormous archive,
accumulated obsessively by the Jewish archons of memory, is the unique
index of its imperative to remember: it is not past-oriented towards the acts
of grounding and legitimating a supposedly distinct ‘Jewish identity’ (for
which he gently reproaches Yerushalmi), but future-oriented, proleptic and
unprecedentedly open – a futurité.37
This messianic index, although maintained only by the archive of tradition,
is thus also something that destroys the archive in its function of preserving
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and guarding the nation’s particularity. So, if Yerushalmi says: ‘Only in Israel
and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative
of an entire people,’38 Derrida will immediately twist this identificatory
sentence with its pathos of distinction into a messianic formula of a promised
universalization which, in the future, will abolish ‘the alternative between the
future and the past, or between “hope” and “hopelessness”, the Jew and the
non-Jew, the future and repetition’ (ibid., p. 79). The messianic futurity cannot
but be universal and thus an-archive/an-archic; even if it grows within a par-
ticular archive-tradition, it cannot but aim at the transcendence of this parti-
cularity. To turn the archive into ashes is thus the secret vocation of this very
archive, just as, according to the Sabbatian-Marrano wisdom, the fulfilment
of the Torah was nothing but the final destruction of the Torah: ‘The secret is
the very ash of the archive’ (ibid., p. 100).39
The hyper-formulaic power of zakhor, the incantation of the phrase that
impresses with the force of ‘the strong light of the canonical’ emerges again in
Derrida’s later essay ‘Abraham, the Other’. And once again it associates
itself immediately with the motif of secrecy. Following the theme of the
‘Freudian impression’, the Niederschrift of the unconscious which keeps its
inscriptions intact in their materiality but also beyond signification, Derrida
talks about zakhor in terms of a deeply hidden code, heavy and material with
the weight of a sheer impression, Eindruck. As such it comes closer to what
he calls the bodily archive of circumcision; a kind of an inner circumcision – a
‘circumcised heart’ – yet without the Paulian connotations of pure spirituality;
it remains material, despite the fact of being secret and inward:

Hence this law that comes upon me, a law that, appearing antinomian,
dictated to me, in a precocious and obscure fashion, in a kind of light
whose rays are unbending, the hyper-formalized formula of a destiny
devoted to the secret – and that is why I play seriously, more and more,
with the figure of the marrano: the less you show yourself as jewish, the
more and better jew you will be. The more radically you break with
the certain dogmatism of the place or of the bond, the more you will be
faithful to the hyperbolic, excessive demand, to the hubris, perhaps, of a
Introduction 19
universal and disproportionate responsibility towards the singularity of
every other.40

This hyper-ethical, hyper-political, hyper-philosophical responsibility ‘burns

at the most irredentist core of what calls itself “jew”’ (ibid.). Secret, spectral,
remnant-like; refusing to be captured in any philosophical idiom ‘belonging
to being’; antinomian in its injunction to break every law and attend to sin-
gularity only; universal in its effervescent indefinability – this ‘core of what
calls itself a “jew”’ will burn ‘interminably’ until, according to the meaning of
‘irredentism’, it recovers what had been lost: the sense of a messianic justice,
buried under so many archives and so many overt identifications of the official
‘Abrahamic religions’.41
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In ‘Faith and Knowledge’, Derrida, again secretly assuming the elusive

Marrano in-between, will thus describe his messianicity as deliberately non-
identifiable: ‘This messianic dimension does not depend on any messianism. It
does not follow any determinate revelation. It does not belong properly to any
Abrahamic religion’42 – while belonging to all of them at the same time.
Strangely echoing the esoteric teaching of the lost ring as we know it from
Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, Derrida’s messianicity also comes about as a
common, yet invisible, spectral part, simultaneously belonging to and exclu-
ded from the Abrahamic religions. We shall often return here to the spectral
dimension of the messianic Spirit – the last Marrano incarnation of the
Hebrew ruach, passing through many historical disguises as pneuma, Spiritus,
Geist, and finally the Derridean le spectre – so, for the moment, I suspend the
prolonged discussion on the proper identity of Derrida’s messianic ghost.43
Suffice it to say that Derrida is very much concerned in preserving the anti-
nomian features of the spectre, which he strongly contrasts with anything
utopian. In a polemic with Fredric Jameson apropos his book on Marx,
Derrida says:

Nothing would seem to be at a further remove from Utopia or Utopian-

ism, even in its ‘subterranean’ form, than the messianicity and spectrality
which are at the heart of Specters of Marx [.] Messianicity (which I regard
as a universal structure of experience, and which cannot be reduced to
religious messianism of any stripe) is anything but Utopian: it refers, in
every here-now, to the coming of an eminently real, concrete event, that
is, to the most irreducible heterogenous otherness. Nothing is more ‘rea-
listic’ or ‘immediate’ than this messianic apprehension, straining forward
toward the event of him who/that which is coming. I say ‘apprehension,’
because this experience, strained forward toward the event, is at the
same time a waiting without expectation an active preparation, anticipa-
tion against the backdrop of a horizon, but also exposure without
horizon, and therefore and irreducible amalgam of desire and anguish,
affirmation and fear, promise and threat [ … ] Anything but Utopian,
messianicity mandates that we interrupt the ordinary course of things,
20 Introduction
time and history here-now; it is inseparable from an affirmation of other-
ness and justice.44

Anything but utopian, where utopia may suggest a certain domestication of

our messianic hopes and levelling them to the sober demands of reality prin-
ciple (which has always been the practice of philosophy),45 the messianic
apprehension contains the antinomian moment in which promise and threat,
desire and anxiety, cannot become disentangled. ‘Apocalypse’ rightly has two
meanings that both preserve the antinomian ambivalence: revelation and
destruction – or, putting things more mildly, more in the Derridean vein:
affirmative disclosure and violent interruption. The otherness and justice
cannot be separated either, for justice is precisely what is not: as iustitia aliena,
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wholly alien from being, it does not (yet) belong to the laws of this world.

The science of anti-being

We will find a similar intuition in many of the twentieth-century philoso-
phizing Jews – Scholem, Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Bloch, Taubes, Lévinas – who,
despite all the differences between them, attempt to maintain the antinomian
spark and associate it with the most precious ideatic core of Jewish revelation.
The clinamen from ontology and its central concept of being, which we have
detected in their Marrano strategy of writing with and simultaneously against
the philosophical idiom, reaches its culmination in the counter-science of anti-
ontology; a firm conviction that being cannot be left to its own devices and
that the false calm of the Parmenidean tautology – being is, nothingness is
not – must be disturbed by the antinomian message coming from somewhere
else. This ‘somewhere else’ is an admittedly tricky notion, easily dismissed by
the philosophical ‘science of what is’ (Adorno), yet the whole effort of our
philosophical Marranos goes precisely in the direction of the paradoxical
securing its original insecurity; in making it operative within the mechanisms
of being.46
The recent vogue in Jewish thought is not very favourable towards the
antinomian idea. The works of Paul Mendes-Flohr, Anson Rabinbach, Peter
Elli Gordon, Benjamin Lazier, Michael Fagenblat, Robert Gibbs, Eric Jacobson,
Moshe Idel or Martin Kavka – to name just a few magnificent authors in
this field – tend to downplay it or marginalize it as a momentary surge of
revolutionary apocalypticism, which they attribute to the historically specific
situation of the interwar generation of German Jewry, disappointed with their
predecessors’ haskalic belief in reason and progress and opting for a more
violent and decisive break in the continuum of Western history.47 My book
goes very much against this assumption; contrary to their socio-reductive
theses I remain convinced that the antinomian emphasis of the last generation
of philosophical Marranos (from Scholem, via Lévinas, to Derrida) is the
absolute intellectual peak in the evolution of Jewish thought. After centuries
Introduction 21
of not always successful tarrying with the power of the philosophical, these
Jewish thinkers finally come to a formula that puts them firmly on the map of
universal speculation: revelation is a science of anti-being. This formula revo-
lutionizes the difference between Athens and Jerusalem, which once again
emerges with a new ideatic force; far from being, as Martin Kavka has put it
recently, ‘our pet mosquito sucking our lifeblood’,48 this opposition not only
does not weaken the contemporary speculative thought, but supplies it with a
new vigour.
Kavka’s attempt to level Athens and Jerusalem on the basis of their
common meontology, i.e., the ‘science of non-being’, which eventually develops
into negative theology, is particularly adversarial to my intentions. Kavka’s
instinct is to go for a universal – or, to put it more precisely, universally
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messianic – notion of nothing, which appears on both sides of the cultural

divide, and bestow it with a common sense of potentiality, disenclosure, and
open development. In both traditions, being, surrounded and pervaded by
nothing, opens itself to a becoming in the positive sense of the word as
historical self-perfection; on the grounds of such messianically reinterpreted
meontology, Plato, Hegel and Lévinas can finally shake hands. It is a bold
enterprise, in which Kavka, following Lévinas’ appropriation of Plato, actively
messianizes philosophical tradition, yet, just as it was the case of his predecessor,
this venture must soon meet its limits. For in these two traditions, the ‘meon-
tological conundrum’, as he himself calls it, takes on rather incompatible
Using Kavka’s terms, we could say that there is a specifically Jewish clina-
men on the theme of Greek meontology, which turns the latter’s neutral
non-being into an active anti-being and as such parallels the Jewish ‘concerned’
swerve on the Greek theme of the eternal indifference of ontos on. Contrary
to Kavka’s conviction, I tend to believe that there are two very different paths
leading to the discovery of the most general, all-encompassing categories that
medieval thought called transcendentalia: the philosophical and the revela-
tory. While the pinnacle of early Greek thought is constituted by Parmenides’
seemingly tautological being is, non-being is not, the very pinnacle of the
revelatory thought is achieved with the antinomian intuition of the divine anti-
being, which precisely because of this opposition is called ‘divine’. While the
former is reached via contemplative neutrality, the latter is captured in an
affective pathos that rebels against the submission to the rules of existence;
while the former derives its nothing out of reasoning on the conditions of
being, the latter forms its notion of nothing out of the emotional distance
towards everything that exists and its inherent ontological laws, verging, as in
Lévinas’ almost Manichaean case, on horror and disgust. And while the
former looks for the transcendental possibilities of being in the conditioning
realm of ‘beyond-being’, the latter looks for the ethical alternative to the dis-
contents of existence given as it is. Once again, it is Lévinas who formulates the
essentially antinomian, ethico-subversive nature of the revealed transcendence
in the most precise terms:
22 Introduction
God is not simply the ‘first other,’ or ‘the other par excellence,’ or the
‘absolutely other,’ but other than the other, other otherwise, and other
with an alterity prior to the alterity of the other, prior to the ethical
obligation to the other and different from every neighbour, transcendent
to the point of absence, to the point of his absolute confusion with the
agitation of there is [il ya] [ … ] In order that the formula ‘transcendence
to the point of absence,’ not signify the simple explication of an excep-
tional word, it was necessary to restore this word to the meaning of every
ethical intrigue, to the divine comedy without which this word could not
have arisen.49
(GP, p. 69)
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Greek meontology will always lack this antinomian dimension. Non-being, as

in Heidegger’s variation on ‘the early Greek thought’, will be rather imagined
as a cradle of beings, the abyss of Seyn from which all particular phenomena
emerge only in order to return to it. We encounter the same idea in the
Neoplatonic notion of the divine superessentia: the otherwise-than-being or
hyper-being which is nonetheless an affirmative more-than-being, a nourishing
source of everything that is. The Hebrew anti-ontology, on the other hand,
will always imagine God as a nihilizing counter-principle to the world, which
threatens and traumatizes the creaturely being to its very core. ‘Apocalypse’,
let’s repeat it again, rightly has two meanings: revelation and destruction.
What it reveals is not a maternal cosmic womb of superessentia that holds
being in its nourishing pleroma, but a radical otherness that views the enter-
prise of being with accusatory suspicion, undermining its seemingly self-
evident right to be. The antinomian feeling that engenders this alternative
perspective is originally and inescapably ethical: as Benjamin says, it is a
vague, yet determined, presentiment that man is better than his gods who
are the law-giving gods of this world; a hunch that eventually leads to the
anticipation of an unknown distant God who is yet too good to be.50
But the greatest speculative challenge of this anti-ontology is to make it
work. The antinomian flame, guarded by the otherness of revelation, can
either remain absolutely transcendent to the world or can destroy the world,
but it is hard to conceive how it can be made operative within the world: to
be present, active and capable of transforming being from the inside. Again,
no one understood the risky dialectics of the messianic-antinomian message
better than Scholem:

Nothing seems simpler that the messianic idea – the vision of redemption
and liberation – which the prophets of Israel revealed to the people of
Israel, all creatures in His image and the whole cosmos in general. How
‘simple’ seems the sublime truth of this message – and how complex,
controversial, even tragic, it turns out to be as soon as it enters the world
and begins its work! Suddenly, the abysses opened themselves in the idea,
Introduction 23
in the very moment there appeared the first attempt to exhaust its meaning
and ground it in reality.51

All philosophical Marranos wrestle with this abyssal problem, trying to find a
space for the antinomian works in between Barthian diathesis and Hegelian
dialectics. Karl Barth and Hegel are more than just their historical inspira-
tions; philosophically speaking, they indeed constitute two opposite poles of
the antinomian speculation. While Barth formulates an extreme, almost
‘Marcionite’, version of the diathetical opposition between God and world
that makes it passive and static, Hegel incorporates the antinomian impulse
into the immanent history of being to such an extent that it loses its critical
‘power of the negative’. The twentieth-century philosophical Marranos move
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on the scale between diathesis and dialectics, emerging as, alternatively,

Jewish Barthians (early Benjamin, Lévinas52) or Jewish Hegelians (Rosenzweig,
Adorno, Fackenheim), but most of the time as a troubled mixture of both
(later Benjamin, Bloch, Taubes, Derrida). Convinced that the antinomian
message constitutes the very essence of their ‘hidden faith’, the philosophical
Marranos protect it from disappearing from the face of modernity always
endangered by, in Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s words, falling back into the
immanentist ‘myth of what is’. They want to guard it, but they also want it to
work. And this double bind – a very Derridean predicament indeed – determines
their various paths; though rarely victorious in formulating solutions, they are
always challenging in their efforts to pose one of the most important – if not
the most important tout court – philosophical problem of our times.

As all contestants in the Bloomian revisionary agon, those modern philoso-
phical Marranos wish to go back to the very source, reset the conditions of
the game, and play it again, only this time play it better. By marrying the
speeches of strangers, turning them to their own advantage, and then learning
how to ‘talk Hebrew in every language under the sun’, they do not just express
their ‘hidden faith’, which couldn’t have found more direct articulation, they
renew and renegotiate the conditions of modern Western thinking – by chan-
ging it not just on the margins, but at the very centre, at its core and origin.
Nor should it be thought that they leave only enigmatic traces of their exotic
formation on the neutral corpus of thought. By challenging the very notion of
contemplative neutrality and indifference, and pressing for their own all-
moving, dynamic, anxious and restless life-centred – or singularity-centred –
view, always based on choices and decisions, they challenge the very idea of
an abstract universality. Having always been accused of parochiality and thus
acutely conscious of their own idiom, they finally turn their own idiomacity
into a virtue and project it onto other languages, which in the end are exposed
as nothing else but simply ‘speeches of strangers’, equally other, mixed and
24 Introduction
idiomatic. Pace the ideological conviction of philosophy that it represents the
unmoved being under the auspices of the Unmoved Mover, this ultimate God
of Philosophers, the philosophical Marranos see all thought as ultimately
springing from fundamental moves and gestures, which then leave an indelibly
biased idiomatic trace on every discourse, be it ontological or transontological,
tragic or messianic. The universality they envisage is not the one of the con-
templative paralysis that would still all that moves; rather, it is the one that
resides in letting these myriad moves and gestures come to the fore, no longer
pretending to hide behind the seemingly presuppositionless and unconditioned
This book is going to explore the intricacies of the ‘Marrano’ revisionary
agon in modern philosophy. Yet it is not a book in the history of ideas, rather
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it is a speculative intervention, the aim of which is to cut into the very middle
of actual philosophical debates. The Jewish clinamen, due to which modern
Jewish philosophy uses and abuses the fundamental categories of Western
thought, is predominantly cryptotheological. But I do not use here the word
‘theology’ in a sense which figures in Lévinas’ ‘God and Philosophy’, i.e. as a
being-biased science of God, whose history is the same as ‘the history of the
destruction of the transcendence’ (GP, p. 56). I use it in a much more neutral
way, which can also embrace the special slant of Jewish religious thinking,
which I have already named as the swerve from the free-fall of indifference
towards concern and anxiety, refashioning the world in dynamic terms of
ontological insufficiency and the need for redemption. The prefix ‘crypto’
reflects here the Marrano stance of our thinkers in question, who rarely dis-
close fully their Judaic sources of inspiration and if so, then usually for the
non-religious purposes aiming at the renewal of Western modes of thinking.
The following chapters will demonstrate how the Jewish clinamen works in
specific fields; how it slants the major concept of Western tradition: tragedy,
negative theology, the sublime, messianism, vitalism, Enlightenment, disen-
chantment, atheism, reason, negativity, nominalism, dialectics and – last but
not least – post-secular thought. All these guiding themes of Western culture,
once submitted to the cryptotheological misreadings of philosophical Marranos,
emerge out of their agons thoroughly transformed. Bestowed with what
Lévinas calls ‘new meaning’, deriving from the wider, fresher, original, still
unrestricted place of sense-giving, they begin to tell an alternative story of
modernitas. A story still vibrant with an unfulfilled promise, still ongoing, still
hopeful – truly an ‘unfinished project of modernity.’
The three chapters that comprise Part I, ‘Myth, tragedy, revelation’, form a
quite separate and not at all minor revisionary agon that we could also title as
‘Jewish (mis)readings of Greek tragedy’. It starts with Chapter 1 and Hermann
Cohen, who first introduced the conceptual triad – the mythic, the tragic
and the messianic – which concentrates on the middle term, Greek tragedy
as an intermediary category, poised between the pagan universe of the all-
encompassing Oneness and the messianic universe of an individuated multi-
tude. Cohen, who opposes prophets and philosophers with ease, nonetheless
Introduction 25
has a problem with the idea of tragedy which escapes the neat antagonism of
Hebrews and Hellenes, for tragedy also tells the story of individuation,
although merely in negative and in vain. Cohen focuses on the notion of the
tragic sacrifice and then radically transforms it in his reading of Ezekiel,
where it becomes an ‘inner sacrifice’, aiming at the purification of sins and an
individuated working through of one’s yetzer (desire). This triad – the mythic,
the tragic and the messianic – offering a new schematization of Western
thought, will then prove absolutely crucial for Cohen’s direct descendants,
Rosenzweig and Benjamin. Additionally armed with their strong reading of
Gyorgy Lukàcs’ ‘Metaphysics of Tragedy’, they take their Jewish agon with
Greek tragedy to new speculative heights, where it becomes a decoy for a
fundamental revision of the whole modern philosophical paradigm, which
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they perceive as insolubly mixed with the ‘tragic worldview’: to them, Benjamin
especially, the whole span of thought ‘from Ionia to Jena’ is thus coextensive
with the transformations of the tragic ‘from Aeschylus to German Trauerspiel’.
Chapter 2, ‘“Job-like questions”: The place of negativity in Rosenzweig’,
continues the reading of Rosenzweig from the introduction, by focusing on his
misprision of the tragic hero as standing on the threshold of revelation. As in
Cohen, tragedy appears here as a transition between the mythic and the
religious world and marks the moment in which the self is born: already
individuated, yet still non-dialogic, ‘mute as a marble’. At the same time I
attempt a critical reading of Rosenzweig whom I reproach for neglecting the
figure of Job, most of all Job the rebel, who – logically speaking – should be
present in The Star as the true ‘dialogic hero’, and as such the Hebrew
counterpart for Oedipus. I argue that without taking into account Job’s
negativity – his complaint against God and the world he created – there can
be no true and convincing passage from the mythic to the messianic, which is
precisely the subject of The Star.
Chapter 3, ‘The revolution of trauma: Walter Benjamin and the Tragic
Gnosis’, closely follows Benjamin’s interpretation of ancient tragedy from his
Trauerspiel book. Tragedy, to which he gives his own peculiar spin, or his
own cryptotheological clinamen, emerges out of his reading as a Tragic
Gnosis: a vague premonition of the messianic, all the more valuable precisely
for its being secret and inarticulate. I argue that in his gnosticizing misreading
of the tragic hero, Benjamin projects most of his peculiar ‘Marrano metho-
dology’: the hidden faith in the hidden God, which remains ‘true’ as long as it
stays concealed, silent or (as Derrida would have it later) ‘spectral’, and as
such immune to the contamination by the mythic powers of being. In Benjamin’s
elaboration, the tragic hero – a magnet of fascinated attraction to the philo-
sophical German Jewry of the 1920s and 1930s – turns into an honorary first
Marrano avant la lettre, hiding the messianic message even before it became
Part II, ‘The antinomian spectre’, opens with Chapter 4, ‘The antinomian
symptom’, devoted mostly to Lévinas, in which I dwell precisely on the issue
of Jewish negative theology manifesting itself in active antinomianism: the
26 Introduction
eternal ‘somewhere else’ of radical transcendence which cannot reveal itself in
being directly, only leaving an aporetic and subversive trace. This aporia
appeared already in the chapter on Benjamin and tragedy, but in the case of
Lévinas it becomes particularly acute, forming a kind of an unresolved syn-
drome. I argue that Lévinas’ more or less conscious failure to integrate the
idiom of revelation and the idiom of philosophy is projected by him on the
level of theory itself and thus distorts the idea of radical transcendence, which
consequently becomes too synonymous with the traumatic, all-shattering
encounter with the Other. Though otherwise quite sympathetic to the asso-
ciation of revelation with ‘traumatic break’, I argue that Lévinas pushes the
traumatic aspect of the Divine Other too far, leaving us (and himself) in the
condition of an unworked-through symptom. By juxtaposing Lévinas with
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Rosenzweig, I attempt to show that the latter is much more aware of the
necessary clash of idioms and protects his thought from projecting this antag-
onism on the level of content. While Lévinas’ narrative of the trace bounces
back and forth between the two non-dialectical extremes of immanent atheism
and self-prostrating mysticism, Rosenzweig builds a dialectical story of a
messianic vocation that can be inscribed into what Scholem calls a typically
modern Jewish theological position, the ‘pious atheism’.
The issue of the antinomian messianism returns in Chapter 5, ‘The identity
of the spirit: Taubes between apocalyptics and historiosophy’, in which I try
to reconstruct Jacob Taubes’ consciously anti-Hegelian and anti-Heideggerian
interpretation of the ruach as a subversive and elusive energy that cannot be
captured by the pagan opposition of Eros and Thanatos. At the same time,
Taubes’ struggles to save the specificity of the Hebrew Spirit, making him
constantly oscillate between Karl Barth’s diathesis and Hegel’s dialectics, offer
the best illustration of the difficulty that gets in the way of any thinker con-
cerned about the workability of the antinomian impulse. The identity of the
Spirit waltzes through its historical manifestations – Biblical ruach, Gnostic
pneuma, Trinitarian Spiritus, Hegelian Geist and Derridean spectre – never
capable of resting in any single one of them.
Chapter 6, ‘The fire and the lightning rod: Tarrying with the apocalypse’,
takes on once again the problem of Jewish antinomianism, which it divides
into two streams: the ‘hot’ or ‘impatient’ messianism of the openly apocalyptic
thinkers (Benjamin, Taubes, Bloch) and the ‘wary’ messianism of the thinkers
who tarry with the apocalypse and try to bring the fire of the revelatory love
down to earth, turning it into ‘works of law’ (Lévinas and Rosenzweig).
Feeling far more sympathetic to the latter position (which I also find more
authentically Jewish), I focus here on the Rosenzweigian dialectics of love and
law, which, as I argue, derives from Hegel’s famous definition of work as a
‘delayed destruction’. If apocalypse/revelation is to work within the creaturely
condition, and not simply destroy it, it must be delayed, postponed and partly
negated by the system of ‘lightning rods’, which defend against the divine
violence, yet, at the same time, render it operative here and now in the form
of divine legislation. By reverting Scholem’s critique of Rosenzweig, in which
Introduction 27
the former accuses the latter of taming too much the apocalyptic power in
Judaism, I try to argue that it is actually Rosenzweig’s greatest theoretical
achievement. His notion of the Jewish law as a defence mechanism and a
‘lightning rod’ that partly neutralizes the revelatory fire, is the best and most
convincing apology of law (and not just Jewish law) known in modernity; it
can only be matched by Moses Mendelssohn’s famous defence of the ‘religion
of legislation’ against the monopolistic claims of Christian love in his
Part III of this book moves into more general fields while exploring the
characteristic of Jewish modernity. Chapter 7, ‘The promise of the name:
“Jewish nominalism” as the critique of the idealist tradition’, explores the
motif of the ‘transformation of speech’ as the most vital operation of the Hebrew
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Spirit. It wishes to demonstrate that the Jewish clinamen in contemporary

linguistic philosophy resides in its unique interest in the name as, in Benjamin’s
words, ‘the true call of language’. I propose to call this position a ‘Jewish
nominalism’, which, again, differs radically from all forms of modern nomin-
alism, for it skilfully avoids two extreme standpoints: instrumental conven-
tionalism on the one hand, and ‘speech magic’ (Sprachmagie) on the other
(which I attribute to late Heidegger, especially from the period of Unterwegs
zur Sprache). In Jewish nominalism, the name figures as the seal of the finite
creaturely condition and the mark of the singularity of the living, which, as
Adorno says, ‘cannot be deduced from thought’ but must always remain the
ultimate horizon of all thinking.
Then, in Chapter 8, ‘Another nihilism: Disenchantment in Jewish perspec-
tive’, I deal with the positive uses of ‘disenchantment’ as a religious category.
Against the widespread Christian prejudice, according to which modernity is
the nihilistic age of the destruction of the sacred, I argue – following Cohen
and Scholem – that modernity can also be perceived as the most ‘religious’ of
all epochs, which has finally realised the imperative of Entzauberung as
demythologization and purged the material world of the last remnants of the
magical immanent sacrum. This chapter attempts, therefore, to offer a strong
Jewish redefinition of modernity, understood as a religious category and in
religious terms, but also a defence of modernity against its religious and irre-
ligious critics who accuse it of the nihilistic desacralization of being (from
Nietzsche to Deleuze and, strangely enough, Radical Orthodoxy). Needless to
say, for the philosophical Marranos being as such cannot be desacralized, for
it can never become sacred in the first place. Holiness resides somewhere
else – always somewhere else and ‘otherwise than being’.
And finally, Chapter 9, ‘Jewish Ulysses: Post-secular meditations on the
loss of hope’, in a way a coda to the whole volume takes on the subject of
post-secular thought which I want to see in an alternative manner to Habermas,
Žižek, Badiou, and Milbank; as a religious correction to modernity, which
does not annul its secular self-definition but only adds – or rather enhances –
the dimension of the messianic promise and hope, which fell into oblivion due
to the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’. In juxtaposing Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s
28 Introduction
Dialectic of Enlightenment and Joyce’s Ulysses, the two works that sport the
figure of ‘Jewish Odysseus’, I attempt to demonstrate the duplicity hidden in
the concept of Enlightenment as, at the same time, the Greek ‘myth of
coming out of myth’ and the Hebrew Exodus. While Joyce’s reading of mod-
ernity plunges it into the unconquerable dominion of myth, Adorno and
Horkheimer leave at least a trace of hope, by pointing to its overshadowed
double: the still ongoing project of Exodus and its still unfulfilled messianic
promise. In the end, I regard the ‘post-secular option’ as a choice of idiom
characteristic of all philosophical Marranos, detectable in all their writings
avant la lettre. In their attempt to infuse modern Western philosophy with
‘other meanings’, deriving out of the sources of Judaism, the first religion of
revelation (or, as Cohen claims, simply ‘religion per se’), they had always been
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realising what the post-secularists wish to do now explicitly, often merely

opening the already opened doors. Alternative modernity, alternative ration-
ality, alternative materialism, alternative disenchantment, alternative theology,
alternative dialectics – all these post-secular motives had long been present in
Cohen, Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Taubes and Adorno. Their in-betweens and
thirds, offering optional ways out in the seemingly closed conceptual system
without exit – between tragedy and messianism, between diathesis and dialectics,
between sacred and profane, between religion and enlightenment – have been
supplying contemporary philosophical thought with an urgency and vigour
for a long time already.
The main purpose of the book is to articulate what has always been present
in Western thought merely implicitly, secretly, caught in too many agonistic
interplays of forces – too ‘Marrano’ in a way. It wishes to make this unique
revisionary agon, played by modern philosophical Marranos, at least partly
explicit, and by making it overt, to show how it changed the modern thought
forever – not just on the margins, but by cutting into its very core. The desire
for this uncovering, which this book ventures to realize, was born from a
sense of frustration that overwhelmed me every time I read one of the many
excellent and deeply learned studies of Benjamin, Adorno, Bloch, Bloom or
Lévinas that take no account whatsoever of their indebtedness to a different
conceptual heritage and play out their thought only on the familiar grounds
of a well-established institution called ‘philosophy’: from Ionia to Jena, and
from Heidelberg to Paris. This frustration was akin to the deep sense of
estrangement one feels in front of a perfect behaviourist description that gives
a full but ultimately senseless account of human actions, because it lacks
these few central categories – will, motivation, affect – that breathe subjective
life into what we do. In the case of philosophical Marranos, the omission of
the few central categories deriving from the Jewish heritage amounts to a
similar eclipse of meaning; without them their thinking loses structure and
driving force, lacks breath and liveliness.
There is, however, one worry that remains: that by making this strategy so
articulate, we will only spoil the hide-and-seek game of the philosophical
Marranos and their deeply treasured ‘secret’, the Derridean supreme irony
Introduction 29
of whispering ‘but don’t tell anyone’. Yet, considering all the Babel-like con-
fusions in which our contemporary thought abounds, we are ready to take
this risk.

1 See Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi, ed. Heinrich Brody and Nina Salaman,
Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1946, pp. 16–17.
2 In his essay on Halevi’s use of philosophical argumentation, Barry S. Kogan
demonstratively shows that, despite his reluctance towards it, Halevi knows his
philosophy very well: ‘The philosophical reader will surely recognize that behind
the explicit reference to conclusive, demonstrative claims lies the well-known clas-
sification scheme of dialectical, rhetorical, poetic and sophistical premises and
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arguments.’ Barry S. Kogan, ‘Judah Halevi and His Use of Philosophy in the
Kuzari’, in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, ed. Daniel
H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 118.
3 This time the main target of Halevi’s objections against Greek metaphysics is the
absolute indifference of the First Cause and the aimlessness of the whole enterprise
of being: ‘With God there is no being pleased and no feeling hatred, because He, may
He be exalted, is beyond desires and aims [ … ] Likewise, according to the philo-
sophers, He is beyond the knowledge of particulars because they change with the
times, whereas there is no change in God’s knowledge. Therefore, He is not aware
of you, let alone of your intentions and actions, nor does He hear your prayers [ … ]
Everything goes back to the First Cause, not because of an aim it has, but rather
because of an emanation from which a second cause emanated, then a third, and
then a fourth set of causes. These causes and their effects are necessarily connected
to one another and have become a part of a continuous chain. Their necessary
connection is eternal, just as the First Cause is eternal; it has not beginning.’ Judah
Halevi, The Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion (The
Kuzari), trans. B. Kogan and L. Berman, in Oliver Leaman, Daniel H. Frank and
Charles Maneking, The Jewish Philosophy Reader, London and New York: Routledge,
2000, p. 204. It is exactly on the same, typically Halevian, impulse that Abraham
Joshua Heschel, one millennium later, will distance himself violently from the
Aristotelian Neoplatonism and call the Jewish God ‘the most moved mover’: ‘In
the prophets the ineffable became a voice, disclosing that God is not a being that is
apart and away from ourselves [ … ] that He is not enigma, but justice, mercy [ … ]
He is not the Unknown, He is the Father, the God of Abraham; out of stillness of
endless ages came compassion and guidance.’ Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is
Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997,
p. 133 (emphasis added).
4 See The Poems of Charles Reznikoff: 1918-1975, ed. C. Reznikoff and S. Cooney,
Jaffrey, New Hampshire: Black Sparrow Books, 2005, p. 93.
5 Ibid., p. 113.
6 The term ‘third language’, which I am going to explore in greater detail later,
derives from Derrida’s interpretation of the letter of Gershom Scholem to Franz
Rosenzweig of 1926, known under the title Bekenntnis über unsere Sprache (‘Con-
fession on the Subject of Our Language’), in which Scholem issues a warning
against the rapid profanation of the lashon ha-kodesh, the holy language of Hebrew,
as the untoward consequence of the creation of the secular ivrit, the everyday
speech of Jews in Israel. Derrida claims that the letter itself is written in a ‘third
language’, neither German nor Hebrew, neither profane nor sacred, which, pre-
cisely because of its indeterminacy, allows a mediation, a middle ground, between
30 Introduction
the two; a passage, as well as a translation: ‘One might let oneself be tempted here
by what I take the risk of calling a hypothesis of the third language. By these words
I do not mean a foreign language, German, in which will be formulated a warning
that would concern two practices of Hebrew, the sacred and the secular. The
expression third language would rather name a differentiated and differentiating
element, a medium that would not be stricto sensu linguistic, but a middle/milieu of
an experience of language that, being neither sacred nor profane, permits the passage
from one to the other.’ ‘The Eyes of Language: The Abyss and the Volcano’, in
Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, trans. Gil Anidjar, London and New York:
Routledge, 2001, p. 200. On the category of the ‘third language’ as the mediator
between the sacred and the profane, theology and philosophy, see also Karen
Underhill, Bruno Schulz and Jewish Modernity, unpublished doctoral dissertation,
defended at the University of Chicago (June 2011), available as http://gradworks.
7 Scholem comments: ‘The crisis [of tradition], which took the form of the phe-
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nomenon called Spinoza, merely made manifest to the outside world the traumatic
impact of the Sabbatian movement within the Jewish world.’ Gershom Scholem,
‘Die Theologie des Sabbatianismus im Lichte Abraham Cardosos’, in Judaica 1,
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1963, p. 121.
8 See Jacques Derrida, Circumfession, in Jacques Derrida and Jeffrey Bennington,
Jacques Derrida, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 170.
9 On this see mostly Jacques Derrida, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’, in which he takes
on Joyce’s pun on ‘Jewgreek is greekjew. Extremes meet’ and concludes in the
manner which already anticipates the idea of the ‘third language’: ‘Are we Jews?
Are we Greeks? We live in the difference between the Jew and the Greek, which is
perhaps the unity of what is called history.’ In Writing and Difference, trans. Alan
Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1978, p. 153. The Marrano position,
which I want to expose in this book, is therefore a complex dialectical strategy,
mediating between Isaac Deutcher’s famous ‘non-Jewish Jews’ or George Steiner’s
‘meta-rabbis’, i.e. Jewish intellectuals striving against their particularistic back-
ground in order to achieve a universal validity, and those Jewish thinkers who are
fully content to write nothing but, to use Rosenzweig’s chagrined formulation,
‘Jewish books’. It comes closest to what Paul Mendes-Flohr in his influential book,
Divided Passions, calls ‘bi-valence’. Mendes-Flohr explains: ‘I am principally
interested in Jewish intellectuals for whom Judaism and Jewishness remain a source
of pride and salient dimension of their lives marking a meaningful spiritual, cul-
tural and ethnick affiliation. In contrast with those Jewish intellectuals who find
themselves caught ‘between ambivalent borders,’ these intellectuals seek to tread
upon a ‘bivalent way’ in which Judaism and ‘the universal’ will enjoy equal valence.’
Paul Mendes-Flohr, Divided Passions: Jewish Intellectuals and the Experience of
Modernity, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991, p. 15. The Marrano
strategy is indeed bi-valent or bilingual, but harbours an even more ambitious
goal – to demonstrate an ongoing appeal of Judaic motives and thus to oppose the
widespread ‘supersessionist’ prejudice of Jewish anachronism.
10 See most the preface to the second edition of The Star of Redemption where
Rosenzweig complains about the misplaced reception of his book.
11 See Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Concept of History’, in Illuminations: Essays
and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
12 See Max Horkheimer, ‘Die Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen [Gespräch mit
Helmut Gumnior 1970]’, in Gesammelte Schriften in 19 Bände, Vol. VII: pp. 385–404,
Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1985–1996.
13 In emphasizing the role of the Marrano metaphor in the development of modern
Jewish thought, I am developing the ideas which I first formulated, together with
Adam Lipszyc, in the introduction to our collection of essays Judaism in
Introduction 31
Contemporary Thought: Traces and Influence, London: Routledge, 2014. On the
issue of Derrida’s ‘Marranism’ see also two contributions from this book: Yvonne
Sherwood, ‘Specters of Abraham’ and Urszula Idziak-Smoczyńska, ‘Deconstruction
between Judaism and Christianity’.
14 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Selected Writings, Vol. I., ed.
Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University
Press, 1996–2003, p. 257 (emphasis added).
15 Derrida, Acts of Religion, p. 107.
16 This strong (mis)reading of Derrida’s ‘Marrano’ (mis)reading of Benjamin is
offered by Adam Lipszyc in his chapter on Derrida in Traces of Judaism in 20th
Century Philosophy (Ślad judaizmu w filozofii XX wieku), Fundacja im. Mojzesza
Schorra, Warszawa 2009, to which I am heavily indebted.
17 The most extreme Marrano strategy was applied by Jacob Frank, the Polish
apostate Messiah, who thought about himself as an improved incarnation of Jacob
the Patriarch. As a second Jacob, Frank came to ‘wipe away the tears of Esau’ and
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stage the promised, yet missed, encounter between the patriarch of Israel and the
lord of the pagan Edom (in Frank’s understanding, Roman Catholicism in general
and Catholic Poland in particular). This encounter was the crux of the Frankist
secret doctrine concerning the ultimate messianic event, which consisted in con-
quering-befriending Edom without losing any of the vitality of Jewish faith
(obviously not to be confused with the ‘deadness’ of Rabbinic Judaism, completely
discarded by Frank as an empty shell). This vitality spoke to Scholem and con-
tinues to speak to Polish Jews today, who find in Frankism a vivid inspiration in
their intellectual engagement with modern thought. See, for instance, an energetic
pronouncement by one of the leading Polish Jewish philosophers of the younger
generation, Adam Lipszyc, who in his review of Paweł Maciejko’s Mixed Multitude
(the best and most authoritative account of the Frankist movement to date), says:
‘Perhaps, it would be possible to demonstrate that Frank and his ‘words’ determine
the crucial point of an alternative Jewish modernity: modernity suffused with an
eerie, both fulfilled and unfulfilled, messianism; modernity simultaneously faithful
and unfaithful to tradition, which would consist in a complete exodus from the
ghetto and an equally complete participation in the surrounding un-Jewish world,
and yet, at the same time, would remain detached from it. This alternative Jewish
modernity could be viewed as the truly “unfinished project” which outlined the
most proper manner of being and continuing to be a Jew [ … ] We, the Polish
Frankists, are true to this idea. We are not particularly entranced by the personal
features of our master, or by his aggressive reluctance towards the world of mean-
ings, which he attempted to replace with his own divinised body (or, to me more
precise, with his miraculously self-augmenting and self-multiplying phallus), even-
tually with the body of his daughter, Eva. Yet, we treat his intervention as the
source of our modern existence and our modern identity. What we find constitutive of
our identity today is the Frankist exodus from the name Israel and the entrance
into Edom-Poland; both identical and non-identical with assimilation, differing
from it by an infinitesimally narrow fold of detachment. Unlike Gershom Scholem,
we don’t think that the only result of the Frankist exodus was the shallow world of
the 19th century reform, which, for him, constituted a negative incentive to oppose
it dialectically in the form of the Zionist movement. As the House of Bondage and
the Promised Land are one and the same place, we, the Polish Frankists, do not
intend to go anywhere. The Frankist exodus annulled the straightforward geo-
graphical dimension of the messianic idea, which depended on the distinct aware-
ness of the uprooted people. But it doesn’t mean that we simply decided to grow
roots and give up on messianism. Our singular condition cuts into the dualism of
nomadic life and rootedness, of messianism fulfilled and unfulfilled: we live in the
space and culture of Edom, but we do not accept it in the form in which it appears
32 Introduction
to us. We do not believe in other places, where the Kingdom could emerge; we do
not believe in any historical moment, when the Redeemer could come, because
Jacob Frank – without saving us and without even giving us an autonomous area
in Podolia – led us out of the space of expectation into the domain of Edom.
Secretly committing our messianic gestures, we deform and transform the world
that surrounds us, for we know that the redeemed world is already right here,
merely looking a little bit different. Totally disinherited, deprived of our own
rituals, covered in Esau’s rags, we do not have our own distinct identity. As Jacques
Derrida said, we have only one language and this is not our language.’ Adam
Lipszyc, ‘The Confession of the Multitude (A Red Letter)’, in Literatura na Świecie,
No. 9–10, 2012, pp. 446–447.
18 It would also be tempting to see Harold Bloom himself and his revisionary theory
of poetry as a perfect example of such Jewish intellectual rivalry in modernity,
positioning itself on the very opposite of the humble parochial modes of declension.
On this see Agata Bielik-Robson, The Saving Lie: Harold Bloom and Deconstruction,
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Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011.

19 See Tertullian, ‘On the Prescription against Heretics’, in The Writings of Quintus
Sept. Flor. Tertulianus, Vol. II, trans. Peter Holmes, Edinburgh: T & T Clark,
1870, p. 246.
20 On the Jewish variant of this opposition see the recent collection of essays: Orietta
Ombrosi, ed., Torah e Sophia: Orrizonti e frontiere della filosofia ebraica, Genova-
Milano: Casa Editrice Marietti S.p.A., 2011.
21 Leo Strauss, ‘Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections’, in Jewish
Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish
Thought, ed. Kenneth Hart Green, Albany: SUNY Press, 1997, p. 377.
22 See Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. New York and
London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970, p. 27.
23 Strauss, ‘Jerusalem and Athens’, p. 381 (emphasis added).
24 In his reflections on the Book of Job, Ernst Bloch will thus say simply that ‘the
[Jewish] dichotomy is not between good and evil, Ormuz and Ahriman, but
between indifference, so to speak, and love [ … ] Here evil and trouble seem to be
not realities willed by Yahweh or by a God opposed to him, but realities in their
own right, which exist and flourish in and through the distance kept by God. They
are fate, let loose in complete indifference, and indifferently frustrating man’s
concerns – like the cosmic nature-demon at the end of the Book of Job.’ Ernst
Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, trans. J. T. Swann, London: Verso, 2009, pp. 104–105.
25 In his great book on Rosenzweig, Peter Eli Gordon describes his intellectual strategy,
while writing The Star of Redemption, as a ‘performance of Jewish difference’: ‘For
Rosenzweig as for a number of other Weimar intellectuals, Jewish philosophical
and national “distinctiveness” was the fruit of imagination, a performance of dif-
ference that gained its very identity in borrowing from the German philosophical
tradition; it was not the somehow natural expression of a self-sufficient Jewish
identity and an integral Jewish canon of ideas. Thus a careful investigation of
Rosenzweig’s philosophy must leave behind any commitment to the idea that it
truly belongs to an isolable canon of modern Jewish thought. Or rather, it does
belong to such a canon, but only because it performs this isolation as a philosophical
doctrine.’ Peter Elli Gordon, Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and
German Philosophy, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, pp. 120–121. This
description is absolutely correct, yet it is somehow wrong in its overall tone,
implying an unfavourable comparison between the assimilated and partly dis-
oriented Weimar Jewry and a German philosophical tradition, supposedly
well-entrenched in its identity. Whereas the Marrano strategy, which I want to
attribute to Rosenzweig (who once obliquely compared himself in a letter to a friend
to those ‘charged of Judaising in Spain a couple of centuries ago’, ibid., p. 104), is
Introduction 33
far bolder in turning this seeming vice into a virtue. Not only does it say yes to the
performance of its own difference, but also imposes this performative principle on
other traditions, refusing to see them as uniform and self-sufficient, the German
philosophical tradition included. Thus Rosenzweig would not only approach the
Hebrew narrativism via the lenses of Schelling’s erzählende Philosophie, but would
also approach Schelling as a late pupil of kabbalah, who introjected its haggadic
element into his own idealist idiom. Any identity and any difference must, there-
fore, be performed: there are no natural expressions and no isolated canons
anywhere in the post-Babelian world, either Jewish or German.
26 See Robert Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Lévinas, Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1994.
27 Compare also the fragment from Lévinas’ Talmudic readings: ‘It is doubtful that a
philosophical thought has ever come into the world independent of all attitudes
or that there ever was a category in the world which came before an attitude’
(NTR, 102).
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28 To emphasize this ambivalence was precisely the critical point made by Derrida
who, in ‘Violence and Metaphysics’, accused Lévinas of not taking seriously
enough the rules of the philosophical game he himself plays. Yet ‘God and Philo-
sophy’, published in 1975, already takes into account Derrida’s deconstructive
criticism and makes of this ambivalence a conscious weapon of choice.
29 Scholem writes: ‘For Cardozo the apostasy of the Messiah represented a kind of
highest justification of the apostasy of the Spanish Marranos in 1391 and 1492.’
Gershom Scholem, ‘The Crisis of Tradition in Jewish Messianism’ (MIJ, p. 64). In the
following essay, ‘Redemption through Sin’, Scholem shows the link between
Cardozo’s Marrano theology and the later radical development of the Sabbatian
movement in which ‘messianism was transformed into nihilism’: ‘The psychology
of the “radical” Sabbatians was utterly paradoxical and “Marranic.” Essentially its
guiding principle was: Whoever is as he appears to be cannot be a true “believer.”
In practice this means the following: The “true faith” cannot be a faith which men
publicly profess. On the contrary, the “true faith” must always be concealed. In
fact, it is one’s duty to deny it outwardly, for it is like a seed that has been planted
in the bed of the soul and it cannot grow unless it is first covered over. For this
reason every Jew is obliged to become a Marrano’ (MIJ, p. 109).
30 Gershom Scholem, ‘Zehn Unhistorische Sätze über Kabbalah’, in Judaica 3, Studien
zur jüdischen Mystik, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973, p. 264.
31 Harold Bloom, ‘Scholem: Unhistorical or Jewish Gnosticism’, in The Strong Light
of the Canonical: Kafka, Freud and Scholem as Revisionists of Jewish Culture and
Thought, New York: The City College Papers, No. 20, 1987, p. 55. Seeing himself
as a grateful heir of Scholem the non-historian, Bloom then continues his praise,
which I can only fully endorse: ‘Indeed, for a host of contemporary Jewish intellec-
tuals, the Kabbalah of Gershom Scholem is now more normative than normative
Judaism itself. For them, Scholem is far more than a historian, far more than a
theologian. He is not less than a prophet, though his prophecy is severely limited
by his evasiveness’ (ibid., 76).
32 Gershom Scholem, ‘Zehn Unhistorische Sätze über Kabbala’, p. 271.
33 As Paul Mendes-Flohr characterizes both Scholem and Benjamin in ‘The Spiritual
Quest of the Philologist’, in Gershom Scholem. The Man and His Work, Albany,
NY: SUNY Press, 1997, p. 14.
34 Scholem says in his diaries: Wer Hebräisch schweigen kann … , ‘But the one who
could keep silent in Hebrew … ’ (TB2, 164). The whole fragment, from which I
took this quote, evolves round the importance of silence as the only right expres-
sion of the Teaching that should guide the Zionist youth: ‘Hebrew must be the
superlative of the Teaching’s silence. The person able to be silent in Hebrew surely
partakes in the quite life of youth. There is no one among us who can do this. We
34 Introduction
cannot use our existence as an argument precisely because silence, or more accu-
rately stillness (die Stille), is the step in which a life can become an argument,’
entry from 1 April 1918 (LY, p. 219). Probably the first person to notice Scholem’s
‘duplicity’ was his favourite pupil Joseph Weiss who in 1947, in an essay com-
memorating Scholem’s 50th anniversary, wrote: ‘Scholem’s esoterism is not an
absolute silence, it is an art of a camouflage [ … ] The secret metaphysician parades
in the clothes of a strict scientist. Science is Scholem’s incognito,’ quot. after Ellettra
Stimilli, ‘Der Messianismus als politisches Problem’, in Jacob Taubes, Der Preis
des Messianismus, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2006, p. 139. For more
on Scholem’s inclination towards secrecy, see the essay ‘The Revolution of Trauma’,
which contains a section on Scholem’s early piece on ‘the unfallen silence’, also in
this volume.
35 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 70.
36 The internal quotes refer to Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Freud’s Moses. Judaism
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Terminable and Interminable, Yale University Press: New Haven, 1991, p. 95. This
‘interminability’ chimes well with Rosenzweig’s notion of ‘eternity,’ which he ascri-
bed to a Jew as an ‘eternal remnant’: a revealed, universal, and not yet realised
potentiality of being, which the Jew carries in himself, even when enmeshed in the
very midst of historical existence. See also Gerard Bensussan’s great interpretation
of the remnant motif in Rosenzweig and Derrida, in Judeities.
37 The necessary connection between messianicity, futurity and universality was first
fully endorsed by Ernst Bloch who (perhaps in less subtle terms than Derrida)
criticized the Christian thinkers for the destruction of the radical futurum by their
reliance on the Platonic notion of anamnesis: ‘It is simply that their systems are
bound together with Greek thought, which is being-oriented and anti-historical,
instead of which the historical thought of the Bible, with its Promise and its
Novum – with the Futurum as an open possibility for the definition of being, right
up to the point of Yahweh himself [ … ] Hence too the difference between epi-
phany and apocalypse, and between the mere anamnesis of truth (remembering,
circular line) which stretches from Plato to Hegel, and the eschatology of truth as
of something still open within itself, open with Not-yet-being.’ Bloch, Atheism in
Christianity, pp. 44–45.
38 Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Seattle and
London: University of Washington Press, 1996, p. 9.
39 This is why I cannot agree with Robert Gibbs who, in his otherwise very clever
essay on messianic epistemology, somewhat flattens Derrida’s subtle reasoning by
concluding that Derrida’s rendering of ‘in the future, remember to remember the
future’ amounts to a ‘formal claim’ that fully ‘decontextualizes it from the Jewish
people’. Robert Gibbs, ‘Messianic Epistemology’, in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin
Hart, eds., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments, New York and London: Routledge,
pp. 123–124. This decontextualization, if it indeed occurs, never completely leaves
the Jewish realm; rather, it is a recontextualization in which Jewish revelation
regains a universal appeal, solely on the grounds of what it says, and a such cannot
remain limited to ‘Jewish people’ only.
40 Jacques Derrida, ‘Abraham, the Other’, in Judeities: Questions for Jacques Derrida,
ed. Joseph Cohen and Raphael Zagury-Orly, trans. Bettina Bergo and Michael B.
Smith, New York: Fordham University Press, 2007, p. 13 (emphasis added).
41 In the preface to Judeities, the editors of the volume, Joseph Cohen and Raphael
Zagury-Orly, explain why they chose this rather unusual term: ‘We have chosen the
term judeity to express a certain equivocation, an undefinable and undeterminable
diversity, that may well constitute the interiority of Judaism today. In other words,
judeity, as we evoke it, should in no way be understood as a more ‘authentic’
reformulation of Jewish identity [ … ] That is the dual possibility of simultaneously
Introduction 35
questioning what is understood under the term judaism and interrogating the rela-
tionship (if there is one) between Jacques Derrida’s writing – itself invariably
inscribed in the tension of the undefinable – and those multiple judeities’ (Judeities,
p. xi, emphasis added). Again, it is a wonderful description of Derrida’s extremely
delicate intentions of abstaining from a clear Judaic identification, but as in the
case of Peter Eli Gordon depicting the intellectual condition of the Weimar Jewry,
it lacks the component of bold assertiveness, equally present in Derrida’s ‘Jewish’
writings, which I call here the Marrano strategy. As far as I know, only Helene
Cixous goes as far as to attribute to Derrida openly ‘a desire to be a Marrano’
which she, in ‘This Stranjew Body,’ compares to the Kafkan desire to be an Indian
(Judeities, p. 56). Derrida ‘marinates himself ’ in his ‘Jewfeint’ mode (ibid.): ‘nor-
catholic norjew midjew midsame midindian midhorse [ … ] He finds himself, finds
himself anew, in feint and truth, a marrano. An adoption that sits well with his
essential way of assenting to the secret, of giving to secrets their incalculable share’
(ibid., p. 55). Also John Caputo called Derrida ‘Jewish without being Jewish’. See
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John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without
Religion, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997, p. xvii.
42 Jacques Derrida, ‘Faith and Knowledge’, trans. Samuel Weber, in Religion, Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 18.
43 This will be the topic of Chapter 5, ‘The identity of the Spirit’.
44 Jacques Derrida, ‘Marx & Sons’, in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on
Jacques Derrida’s ‘Specters of Marx’, ed. Michael Sprinker, London: Verso, 1999,
pp. 248–249 (emphasis added).
45 See Derrida’s rejoinder to the contemporary Spinozists, Montag and Negri, who
wish to do ‘new ontology’, i.e. stick to the actual, the present, and the reasonably
possible – ‘at the risk of restoring everything to order, to the grand order, but to
order’ (ibid., 257).
46 The antinomian intuition, which is the main speculative hero of this book, is
probably best explained by Horkheimer’s Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderem which
he very clearly elucidates in his already-mentioned interview for German radio.
Asked by the interlocutor: ‘Is this utter caution in dealing with the unknown
derived from Jewish heritage?’ Horkheimer replies: ‘Yes, and in the same way this
utter caution has become an element of our social theory which we called the
Critical Theory. “Thou shalt not make a graven image of God,” says the Bible.
You cannot depict the absolute good [ … ] Should we not ask ourselves why this
shyness exists? No other religion apart from Judaism knows it.’ Quoted in Paul
Mendes-Flohr, Divided Passions, p. 374. The ‘shyness’, which avoids a full positive
representation of the ‘good-to-come’ is thus a particular and characteristic feature
of Jewish heritage, yet at the same time, a feature that can – should – be commu-
nicated universally, for it contains a valid ethical intuition that runs contrary to the
Christian (or post-Christian) sense of an imminent fulfilment. On the latter issue, see
most of an inspired reply of Martin Buber to his Protestant interlocutor, Reverend
Schmidt, who accused Jews of ‘blindness’ in regard to the divine incarnation of
Jesus Christ: ‘We, Israel, understand in another fashion our inability to accept
the Gospel [ … ] We know that universal history has not been rent to its founda-
tions, that the world has not yet been redeemed.’ Martin Buber, ‘Church, State,
Nation, Jewry’, in David W. McKain, ed., Christianity: Some Non-Christian
Appraisals, New York: McGraw Hill, 1964, p. 180; my emphasis.
47 The only significant exception to this overwhelming tendency to mute the high
apocalyptic tone of this particular Jewish generation is Michael Löwy whose
works – Redemption and Utopia, as well as Elective Affinities – strongly champion
the revolutionary schwung of the German-speaking Central European Jewry. Yet
the problem with Löwy is that while very pro-revolutionary, he is not at all anti-
nomian; his model of social utopia remains firmly entrenched in what he calls the
36 Introduction
Bachofenian speculation of Walter Benjamin, i.e. the image of the pre-historical
golden age of the anti-hierarchical and promiscuous Muterrecht. In case of Löwy,
therefore, we do not deal with the antinomian revolution, but with a ‘chthonian
revolution’ (which is a very apt name given to this phenomenon by Ned Lukacher
in ‘Walter Benjamin and the Chthonian Revolution’, boundary 2, Vol. 11, No. 1–2,
Autumn 1982–Winter 1983, pp. 41–57). There is, however, another important
exception, whom we can list as an ally without any doubts: Kenneth Seeskin, whose
Cohen influenced work consistently paves way for the modern understanding
of Jewish messianism with a strong antinomian twist. For instance, see his recent
Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2012.
48 See Martin Kavka, Jewish Messianism and the History of Philosophy, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 2: ‘As a result, this book vigorously rejects
the Athens-Jerusalem problem that has been our pet mosquito, sucking our life-
blood since the third century CE,’ i.e. from the times of Tertullian’s dramatic
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49 Thus, when Kavka says that the change which occurred in Lévinas’ thought and
which consisted in him dropping the term ‘meontology’ for the sake of ‘metaontology’
is irrelevant, we can only say the contrary is true. It rather means that Lévinas, no
longer satisfied with his never fully successful appropriation of Plato, gave up on
the meontological interpretation of his autremont qu’être and moved decisively
towards a new idiom which – passing via the meta stage of separation – should
eventually be called anti-ontology. It is precisely this anti-ontological, extremely
antinomian standpoint, rebelling against all nomos of the Earth, all possible laws of
being as such, which gives the severe, trenchant flavour to what Michael Fagenblat
rightly calls Lévinas’ ‘ethical negative theology’ (see Michael Fagenblat, A Cove-
nant of Creatures: Lévinas’ Philosophy of Judaism, Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2010, pp. 111–139). Kavka, however, is right, when he points to Lévinas’
hesitations on that point (on the problems of Lévinas’ antinomianism, which never
actually reached the mature phase of an active anti-ontology, see Chapter 4 in this
volume, ‘The antinomian symptom’). On the Hebrew anti-ontological pathos, see
also critical remarks of Jean-Francois Lyotard who, in his essay ‘Figure Fore-
closed’, compares Jewish (and Lévinas’ particularly) wholesale rejection of being to
a psychotic foreclosure. Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Figure Foreclosed’, in Lyotard
Reader, trans. Andrew Benjamin, Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. It is also worth men-
tioning here the ultra-critical position of Phillip Blond, the co-creator of Radical
Orthodoxy, who openly accuses Lévinas of Manichaeism: Phillip Blond, ‘Emmanuel
Lévinas: God and Phenomenology’, in Phillip Blond, ed., Post-Secular Philosophy:
Between Philosophy and Theology, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 103–120.
50 The theme of Jewish messianism as differing radically from the Christian one,
precisely because of its antinomian dimension, occurs frequently in Scholem who
links it with the radical openness of the Jewish concept of the future, unconstrained
by any image of the already fulfilled messianic time: ‘[The Christian] world is built
on the principle that redemption already took place and the Redeemer had already
appeared, so even if the work of redemption itself is not yet completed, it none-
theless had begun and does not offer a hope in a wholly other distant future
[ein ferne Zukunfthoffnung]’: Gershom Scholem, ‘Ursprünge, Widerspruche und
Auswirkungen des Sabbatianismus’, in Judaica 5, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp
Verlag, 1992, p. 123. The same motif emerges in the recent work of Willi Goetschel
who also focuses on the open future horizon of the Jewish messianic thought as the
most characteristic ‘Jewish difference’ which modern Jewish philosophy guards and
develops: ‘In reclaiming the messianic as a project of philosophy in opposition
to theology, Jewish philosophy from Spinoza to Derrida foregrounds the task to
respond to the messianic philosophically rather than contain and discipline it
Introduction 37
theologically. More than a border dispute between philosophy and theology or
between Jewish and Christian claims, the issue is to open philosophy to innovation,
change, and the open future to come.’ Willi Goetschel, The Discipline of Philosophy
and the Invention of Modern Jewish Thought, New York: Fordham University
Press, 2013, p. 15. And when I talk about the ‘antinomian spectre’ as hovering both
menacingly and messianically over the all too ‘positive’ modern thought, Goetschel
ingeniously pseudonames this ghost as dybbuk: ‘Jewish philosophy then, it could be
said, is philosophy’s dybbuk: the marginalized, muted, and repressed that returns
and haunts the claim to universalism that excludes and silences what could enrich
it’ (ibid., 7).
51 Scholem, ‘Ursprünge, Widerspruche und Auswirkungen des Sabbatianismus’, p. 120
52 On the Barthian inspiration of Lévinas, compare, for instance, this fragment from
The Epistle to the Romans: ‘The decision lies in our answer to the question – Do
we, in the unknowable, apprehend and love the Unknown God? Do we, in the
complete Otherness of the other [ … ] hear the voice of the One? [.] If I hear in the
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neighbour only the voice of the other and not also the voice of the One [ … ] – then,
quite certainly, the voice of the One is nowhere to be heard.’ Karl Barth, The
Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1968, pp. 494–495 (emphasis in original).
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