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A must-read for Christians.

David Nirenberg's Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

(New York: W.W. Norton, 2013). 610 pp. $35

David Nirenberg has given us a volume that anyone interested in the history of Western culture and politics, as well as those working in the area of theology, must read. Whatever differences one might have with the author here or there in his massive study, the overall achievement is monumental. But it is not merely a book that must be read. It is also a volume that must be absorbed and discussed in scholarly communities that wish to contribute positively to the framing of Western culture into the future.

The central argument put forth by Nirenberg is that "anti-Judaism" very often constituted the framework for what was acceptable and what was destructive as Western society moved through the centuries. "Anti-Judaism" became a core element in the self-understanding of intellectual, political, and religious leaders in the West. Intellectual, political, and religious opposition was often portrayed as rooting out so-called "Judaizing" tendencies from Western consciousness.

Despite the title, Nirenberg does not focus his attention on the concrete impact of "anti-Judaism" on the Jewish community in Western Europe--though he recognizes that impact. He writes as a descriptive historian rather than as a prescriptive or even judgmental scholar. He does not see his task as assessing the moral status of those who promoted the anti-Judaic mindset; rather, he wishes to show that it became a fundamental barometer in the evolution of Western society and even before, in the ancient worlds of Egypt and the Roman Empire. It is interesting that he does not include Greece in his analysis even though Grecian culture has had a major influence on the development of Western consciousness and the socio-political institutions it created. As a sidebar comment, the reader sometimes does get the impression that Nirenberg is trying so hard to validate his basic thesis about the role of anti-Judaism that he omits anything that does not quite enhance such a validation. Perhaps the omission of ancient Greece in his study is one of those "anythings."

The range and depth of Nirenberg's scholarship is strikingly impressive. This makes it difficult for a reviewer to comment extensively on sections of the book that fall outside the review's academic parameters; this is certainly the case with this reviewer. Hence I will leave it to others to assess the full quality of his arguments in the sections on ancient Egypt, the Islamic community, and the writings of William Shakespeare. With regard to Nirenberg's contention that Islam, in its beginnings, picked up the anti- Judaic theme and recontoured it to its own needs, I wonder if he should examine more explicitly the Islamic literature coming out of medieval Spain to see whether Islamic thought in this setting showed any variance with the overall Islamic tradition that he has studied. There in fact may be no variance but the more open-minded approach to Judaism (and Christianity) exhibited by scholars in Muslim Spain forces us to at least raise the question.

Given my own scholarly expertise, I would like to focus on Nirenberg's chapters dealing with Christianity's contribution to the spread of the anti-Judaic mindset as well as his analysis of the rise of modernity in European intellectual and political circles, where religion was marginalized in terms of formative influence or even totally discarded. Even so-called "secularists" often embraced the anti-Judaic argument against their opponents.

In terms of Nirenberg's section on the contribution of the biblical and patristic tradition to the cultivation of the anti-Judaic thesis I would score his analysis quite highly. In fact, I would argue that no serious biblical scholar of theologia can ignore the challenges he has presented in this section. It is a must read for Christians. But having made this strong commendation I need to add a caveat and a distinction.

The distinction is the easier of the two. There is little question that Christian theology over the centuries interpreted biblical texts, especially from the Pauline literature, in the way that Nirenberg describes and thus contributes mightily to the process of solidifying anti-Judaism as part of the bedrock of Western culture. But the question remains, and this is the caveat, did the early church and subsequent theologians correctly interpret Paul? There is a growing consensus among Pauline scholars today, both Christian and some Jewish, that Paul was badly misinterpreted on the Jewish question. Nirenberg shows an awareness of this recent scholarly literature on Paul that began with the work of E. P. Sanders, but he really does not incorporate it into his basic analysis of Paul in any significant way. This in my judgment represents a scholarly defect in his presentation.

Moving to his analysis of the modern period, I find his claim for the centrality of the anti-Judaic outlook rather persuasive. It significantly influences some of the leading thinkers of the period such as Immanuel Kant, as well as many of the leaders who championed the rise of democracy in Western Europe. As one trained in ethics, I cannot recall that the anti-Judaic mindset was ever presented in my own academic training as a central issue for these modern thinkers, who shaped both secular and religious thought in key areas such as ethics and theology. The textual evidence Nirenberg presents for his argument relative to the modern period seems to substantiate his claim about the perdurance of anti-Judaism as a defining element in modern European thought. Ethicists in particular need to take note of Nirenberg's analysis.

As a historian, Nirenberg has confined himself to Western thought, primarily in a European context. But we do live in a global society. And so his analysis, while brilliant in the main, has its limitations. For one, it would be helpful if Nirenberg were to do some comparative analysis with developments in Eastern Christian thought. And as the intellectual traditions of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are beginning to intersect with Western thought there is need for other scholars better grounded in non-Western thinking to compare the pervasiveness of anti-Judaism in Western thought with the pervasive elements in non-Western thought. So I regard Nirenberg's volume as essential reading but--in our globalized society-- still incomplete.

John T. Pawlikowski *

* John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, PhD, teaches at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, and is a JSA Board member. He has written extensively on antisemitism and Jewish-Catholic relations.
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Title Annotation:Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition
Author:Pawlikowski, John T.
Publication:Journal for the Study of Antisemitism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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