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The Duplicity of Philosophy's Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism, and the Jewish Other.

The Duplicity of Philosophy's Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism, and the Jewish Other

By Elliot R. Wolfson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. xxiii + 312 pp.

The most influential German philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), joined the National Socialist Party soon after Adolf I litler was appointed chancellor in January 1933. Heidegger at that date was a mature thinker, and his embrace of Hitler and Nazism cannot be explained as a result of youthful exuberance or naivete. Much more likely as an explanation might be his careerist savoir faire. After joining the Nazi Party, I leidegger was made rector of the University of Freiburg. But careerism is hardly able to account for many of the passages sympathetic to Nazism in Heidegger's lectures and published works after Heidegger surrendered his rectorate in 1934, nor can it account for his silence after the end of the war about Nazi war crimes. As a Der Spiegel interviewer remarked at the very beginning of a conversation held with Heidegger in 1966, "we have always noted that a shadow hung to a degree over your philosophical work because of some events in your life... that were never really clarified." (1) After Heidegger's death, important new texts were published from the years before and during the war, including the Beitrage ztr Philosophie (vom Ereignis) [Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event)] and the Uberlegungen [Ponderings], better known as Schwartze Hefte [Black Notebooks]. These texts only cast an even longer shadow over Heidegger's philosophical project, with their unequivocal evocation of Germany's historical "destiny" to occupy the leading role in humanity's battle against the oblivion of Being and the rise of the twin forms of "machination" [Machensbafi] in the modern world: Americanism and Bolshevism. The task confronting anyone who wants to take Heidegger's thought seriously, as Elliot Wolfson does in his erudite and thoughtful new book, is to understand how it came to pass that Heidegger's philosophy was "shadowed" by the thinker's embrace of the National Socialist revolution as a decisive "event" in the history of Being. Wolfson's book is a clear-eyed confrontation with the shadow of Heidegger's thought and a brilliant if provocative analysis of its origin.

Wolfson's thesis, sure to provoke controversy as he himself is aware ("there will be readers who accuse me" of defending not just Heidegger but his shadow [169]), is that Heidegger stands in the role of Balaam as this gentile prophet is understood in the Hayyim Vital's kabbalistic treatise Etz Hayyim. Wolfson explains that for Vital, Moses and Balaam are the two greatest prophetic knowers of the "supernal knowledge," Moses the greatest within Israel and Balaam the greatest outside of Israel. According to Vital, "even Balaam's gnosis has its origin in the divine gradation" (159). The direct illumination pouring from the highest levels of the divine plenum is visible from the side of humans only insofar as it has been intermixed with the dross thingliness of the material shards [qelippot] of this world. Indeed, the supernal roots of the souls of Moses and Balaam have themselves been intermixed with the dark "dregs" of this world such that "there is an intermingling of the divine and the demonic that destabilizes the boundaries" between Moses and Balaam (159). Wolfson connects Vital's ruminations about the inextricable linkage between divine and demonic ways of knowing with Heidegger's fundamental thesis that Being occludes itself in the surface array of "beings" available for technological manipulation and calculative reasoning. The techno-rational occlusion of Being resembles the kabbalah's description of the shadowing of the divine sparks caught in the qelippot; overcoming this occlusion requires the penetration on the part of the knower, whether the intent is to curse or bless Israel, into the darkest depths of shadow. The "shadow" that the divine light casts is inseparable from the light itself; access to the divine is through the demonic. Heidegger, as Wolfson demonstrates, understood that the unveiling of Being required a descent into the place where the demonic will to technologically master "beings" holds Being in its grasp: "But just as the kabbalistic tradition portrayed Balaam as one who achieved in the realm of the blasphemous the same enlightenment as Moses, so we can think of Heidegger as attaining the uppermost level of knowledge bv descending to the depths of depravity. In the dissoluteness, however, one can discern the pathway of amelioration" (162).

Wolfson's analysis of Heidegger as deliberately descending into the dark realm of the technological "enframement" [Gestell] of what might be called "ontic qelippot" in order to release the ontological truth of Being seems to resemble the Sabbatian kabbalah of Abraham Miguel Cardozo. Wolfson's sense that he will inevitably be misunderstood by many readers arises, I would surmise, from his own silence about whether he is in some measure endorsing a doctrine of "redemption through sin." I do not read Wolfson as asking us to overlook Heidegger's succumbing to the temptation of Nazism or to excuse Heidegger's (to be sure, nonracialized) stereotyping of the Jewish people as representative of humanity's demonic will to enslave the earth to technological mastery. No, the early chapters of Wolfson's book offer one of the most persuasively argued and extensively documented indictments of Heidegger's antisemitism, both in its vulgar and metaphysical forms, to be found in contemporary scholarship. Nor do I find that Wolfson is, like some of Sabbatai Zevi's most ardent followers, encouraging us to follow Heidegger's own pathway into the shadow zone of the demonic. But there are passages in the final chapter in which Wolfson analyzes Heidegger as the "twentieth-century Balaam" (161) that will arouse in some readers the same unease as Robert Alter expressed in his essay in response to Gershom Scholem's Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676. Alter wrote that Scholem's relationship to his subject "is finally Faustian, as Faust in Part Two of Goethe's poem plunges into the depths of the past to capture a beauty and power that will always elude him." (2) If a similar charge of Faustianism were to be brought against Wolfson, I would argue that whatever truth it may hold as little detracts from the significance of Wolfson's achievement in this book (and the forthcoming study on Heidegger and kabbalah) as does Alter's criticism of Scholem's book. There are dangers that any scholar faces who seeks to come to grips with a personality whose self-understanding is as "destinal" as that of a Sabbatai Zevi or Martin Heidegger. We are in Wolfson's debt for undertaking to draw Heidegger into a conversation with the most profound themes of kabbalah, opening the possibility of finding in this modern Balaam a resource with which to bless Israel.


(1.) Heidegger, "Nur ein Gott," 193. Quoted in Janicaud, The Shadow of That Thought, 1.

(2.) Alter, "Sabbatai Zevi," 69.


Alter, Robert. "Sabbatai Zevi and the |ewish Imagination." Commentary 43, no. 6 (1967): 66-71.

Heidegger, Martin. "Nur ein Gott kann uns retten." Der Spiegel, 31 May 1976, 193-219.

Janicaud, Dominique. The Shadow of That Thought. Translated by Michael Gendre. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996.


Bruce Rosenstock is professor of religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His most recent book is Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination (Indiana University Press, 2017). He maintains the digital library Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews at
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Author:Rosenstock, Bruce
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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