What Does Heidegger’s Anti-Semitism Mean for Jewish Philosophy?

This week “Heidegger hysteria” reaches American shores with the release of the sequestered Black Notebooks [Schwarzen Hefte]of thisGerman philosopher, confirming his “deep-rooted and unambiguous” anti-Semitism.

And yet, as much as Martin Heidegger is scorned for his Nazi sympathies, he remains one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. I would maintain that all serious Jewish philosophy must grapple with articulating a relationship between self and other in the shadow of Heidegger’s concept of Being [DaSein]—just as every contemporary Jewish thinker inevitably must engage this ongoing tension in the study of religion between the political and the philosophical.

I recently corresponded with renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism and philosophy, Elliot R. Wolfson, whose remarkable Giving Beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania has recently come out from Fordham press, about—among a range other things—the implications of the Heidegger revelations for Jewish philosophy and scholarship.

The scope of Wolfson’s recent contributions to modern Jewish philosophy is simply astounding; in particular, I’m thinking of his comparative analysis of Chabad Hasidism and Mahayana Buddhism in Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahm Mendel Schneerson (2009), and his study of the imagination in Jewish mysticism and psychoanalysis in A Dream Interpreted Within a Dream: Oneiropoiesis and the Prism of Imagination (2011), both of which will sustain generations of thinkers to come.

In Wolfson’s new book, which will surely become a touchstone for generations of interpreters, he alerts us to the danger of what Martin Buber aptly calls theomania—the obsession with thinking about God, bordering on idolatry.

Our conversation of decades now recently came to a head in e-mail with this pinnacle publication, and has been edited for length, in what follows:

To begin, how do the recent revelations about Heidegger’s Black Notebooks affect your own philosophical thinking as a Jew and what does it mean (if anything) for the next generation of Jewish thinkers, “Heidegger’s children”?

I have not yet examined the recently published diaries of Heidegger and I am loathe to draw any definitive conclusion based on the few journalistic accounts that I have read.

I will say, however, that the charges of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and his involvement with the Nazi party are obviously not new. In the diaries, we apparently find more evidence of the use of insidious anti-Semitic tropes regarding the rootless Jews, who allegedly play a crucial role in the international conspiracies of both capitalism and communism.

Heidegger’s misguided and vile attitude to the Jews is substantiated by other texts from this period. For example, in the protocols of the seminar “On the Essence and Concept of Nature, History, and State” (1933-34), after discussing the intricate relationship of homeland, fatherland, and the state, Heidegger weighs in on the status of nomads, deploying particularly disparaging words about “Semitic nomads” to whom the nature of the “German space” will never be revealed.

It lies beyond the scope of this interview to treat this complex and sensitive topic, but let me say unequivocally that I have no intention of rationalizing or excusing Heidegger’s unnerving rhetoric.

Heidegger’s moral shortcomings and political blunders attested in his explicit complicity with National Socialism are well known and cannot be easily justified or dismissed as innocuous miscalculations based on insufficient knowledge. The misdeeds and lapses in judgment were deliberate and reflect poorly on Heidegger. As great a thinker as he was, he fell prey to the cultural psychosis that gripped so many Germans during this dark time.

To add insult to injury, he never publicly acknowledged his failings. And yet, I believe it is excessively reductive to evaluate his thought simply in light of historical circumstances and the existential decisions they elicited. I cannot accept, for instance, Levinas’s categorical assertion that Heidegger’s philosophy rests on a “peasant enrootedness” that glorifies the “pagan” existence emblematic of Nazism or his conviction that the barbarism of the latter stems from an elemental evil inscribed within the ontology of being to which Heidegger was still beholden.

Regardless of the position one takes with regard to the relationship of the political and the philosophical, the gift of Heideggerian thought has been enormous, and so, too, the debt of those seized by the haunting reverberations of his voice, including the so-called children of Heidegger, that is, the impressive aggregate of Jewish students.

And so it is with my own work on Jewish mysticism. Over the course of these many years, I have availed myself of certain themes in Heidegger’s oeuvre to elucidate aspects of kabbalistic esotericism and hermeneutics.

Let me note, finally, and perhaps most provocatively, that in both Heidegger and the kabbalists we find a privileging of a particular language as disclosive of the nature of being and the consequent affirmation of a unique cultural destiny of a particular ethnos, a position that harbors the potential for the disvaluing of others under the guise of racial inferiority. To date, no one has had the courage to draw this comparison.

In a forthcoming monograph on Heidegger and the kabbalah, I hope to elaborate this point. Suffice it here to cite the arresting words from Dylan’s John Brown, “But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close / And I saw that his face looked just like mine.”

By reading Jewish texts through the lens of Heidegger and reading Heidegger through the lens of Jewish texts, my hope has been to rectify their respective indiscretions.

One of Heidegger’s most prized children, Hannah Arendt, in her essay, entitled, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition” (1944), once classified the true thinker as either the parvenu who betrays her people outright, or as the pariah who holds them up to be more than the present, but your thinking strikes me as beyond those categories— why?

I certainly do not think of myself as a parvenu but sometimes pariah does seem to fit my lot in life as one for whom being inside has consisted of being outside. If I may quote my own analysis in the third chapter of Venturing Beyond: Law and Morality in Jewish Mysticism (2006) of the dialogue between the doorkeeper and the old man in Kafka’s  famous parable “Before the Law”,

“This is the lesson the priest set out to teach K. through the parable: the obsessive desire to get out from under the authority of law is equivalent to the intractable urge to enter the door through which one would access the law that cannot be accessed. The man is outside the law not because he wants to go in … but precisely because he is already inside, that is, the inside is the vantage point from which he imagines that he is outside.”

For many years now, I have belonged to the community by not-belonging. Maybe that is the key to your depicting my thinking as beyond. To be precise, I have sought to extend beyond the beyond, inasmuch as the category of the beyond still presumes the polarity of interior and exterior, or in a different terminological register, the beyond is a spatial demarcation of transcendence that is to be distinguished from immanence.

My path has been marked by the effort to transcend transcendence, which is to say, to collapse the distinction and thus to entertain the possibility of transcendence that is immanent and of immanence that is transcendent.

To walk this path—the line that is no line—is to venture beyond the beyond. Here we might recall that the term “Hebrew,” ivri, likely reflects an etymology, also found in rabbinic literature, derived exegetically from the scriptural verses

“In ancient times, your forefathers—Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor—lived beyond the river [me-ever ha-nahar] and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the river and led him through the whole land of Canaan and multiplied his offspring” (Joshua 24:2-3).

To be identified as an ivri, a Hebrew, means that one has descended from Abraham who sojourned to Canaan from Mesopotamia, which is on the other side of the Euphrates. Interpreting the text gnostically, this is no longer simply a topographical demarcation; it is, primarily, a symbolic taxonomy that denotes that the Jew is the quintessential other, not in a politico-geographic sense of dwelling in a land that is not indigenously one’s own, but in an ethno-cultural sense of being the minority that resists but at the same time helps to fortify the hegemony of the majority.

To be a Hebrew, in short, is to be the one who bears the sense of difference that delineates the contours of the same. From the gnostic perspective, this inessentiality is the essence of what it is to be Jewish.

Centuries later Derrida gave voice to this sentiment in his explication of Celan’s view that the Jew does not possess any innate properties: “The Jew is also the other, myself and the other; I am Jewish in saying: the Jew is the other who has no essence, who has nothing of his own or whose own essence is not to have one.”

You have written about and reflected at length about the possibility of Jewish philosophy and its canon. What inspired your current engagement with theomania and apophasis, and what implications does it have for philosophy of religion at large? 

My interest in apophasis, or negative theology, is long-standing, going back to my early studies of Neoplatonism and its impact on the philosophical and mystical currents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Early on, I was also struck by the apophatic dimensions found in Hinduism, Taoism, and some forms of Buddhism. My study of kabbalistic and Hasidic texts only reinforced this interest. Based on the many years of reflecting on the apophatic, I came to the conclusion that recent attempts to harness the apophatic tradition of Western Neoplatonism together with Derridean deconstruction in order to construct a viable postmodern negative theology a religion without religion—are not radical enough!

Not only are these philosophies of transcendence guilty of a turn to theology that defies the phenomenological presupposition of an immanent phenomenality, but they fall short on their own terms, since they persist in employing metaphorical language that personalizes transcendence and thereby run the risk of undermining the irreducible alterity and invisibility attributed to the transcendent other.

The logic of apophasis, if permitted to run its course without the intervention of preexisting theological beliefs, would surpass the metaphysical dyad of presence and absence in the atheological unmasking of the mask and the consequent transcending of the need to posit some form of transcendence that is not ultimately a facet of immanence, a something more that is not in fact merely another expression of the totality of what there is, provided we understand that totality as the network of indefinite and ever-evolving patterns of interconnectivity rather than as a fixed system of predictable and quantifiable data.

Apophatic theologies, accordingly, must be supplanted by a more far-reaching apophasis that surpasses the theolatrous impulse that lies coiled in the crux of theism, an apophasis of the apophasis, based on the acceptance of an absolute nothingness—to be distinguished from the nothingness of an absolute—that does not signify the unknowable One but the manifold that is the pleromatic abyss at being’s core, the zero gravitational energy of empty space, the effluent emptiness that is the womb of all becoming.

On this score, the much celebrated metaphor of the gift would give way to the more neutral and less theologically charged notion of an unconditional givenness in which the distinction between giver and given collapses. To think givenness in its most elemental phenomenological sense is to allow the apparent to appear as given without presuming a causal agency that would turn that given into a gift.

This, I hope, will be this book’s contribution to the philosophy of religion at large, and it is with respect to this ungifting of the gift that my indebtedness to Heidegger (and to Derrida, who is similarly indebted to Heidegger) is most discernible. As I suggest in the sixth chapter, Heidegger’s idea of es gibt, “it gives,” implies a giving without any agency of givenness, that is, a giving that gives with no will to give and no desire to be given.

Your thinking about Modern Jewish philosophy attends to classic thinkers as well as those thinking in the margins (like Derrida and Wyschogrod). To what degree are you seeking to speak to those who are entangled in the encounter between mysticism and atheism? How do you feel this kind of radical, mystical apophatic thinking might reach out and “shake hands with atheism”?

I trust that my book will implore others to expand the boundaries of modern and postmodern Jewish thought, although I also continue to desire that the book will be of interest to a broader audience, that the thinking at play will not be ghettoized as of relevance only to students of modern Jewish thought.

Needless to say, I could have included many other thinkers in this volume. I did not operate with any principle of inclusion or exclusion, but I would assent to your singling out the place of atheism and especially its curious connection to mysticism as an important catalyst in my effort to articulate a vibrant Jewish thinking beyond the binary of theism and atheism.

A number of thinkers have reached the conclusion that the aniconic ramification of the monotheistic creed is the undoing and demythologization of theism whence it follows that the final iconoclastic achievement of monotheism would call for destroying the idol of the very God personified as the deity that must be worshipped without being idolized.

Levinas had this in mind when he wrote in Totality and Infinity that monotheistic faith implies a metaphysical atheism, that is, the true expression of monotheism requires one to divest the notion of God of all mythic personifications and all positive characterizations.

In the profoundly ironic formulation of Henri Atlan,

“the ultimate idol is the personal God of theology . . . the only discourse about God that is not idolatrous is necessarily an atheistic discourse. Alternatively, whatever the discourse, the only God who is not an idol is a God who is not a God.”

As it is the case with other mystical traditions, so the kabbalah adds to this insight to the extent that masters of this esoteric gnosis have incorporated the apophatic heritage of Neoplatonism into their experience and description of the infinite.

Rosenzweig’s quip that the path of the via negativa leads to the insight that mysticism and atheism shake hands succinctly captures the sense that the proposition that God can be defined only in his indefinable nature is notionally on a par with both the mystical avowal of the ineffable and the atheistic lack of belief, the conviction of faith and the skepticism of doubt.

On this crucial point, a range of thinkers has been influenced by Derrida’s insistence that the unsaying of apophatic discourse, which is common in mystical testimonies, has always been suspected of atheism. Interestingly, Derrida also spoke of kabbalah as a kind of atheism, by which he intends the polysemic indeterminacy that subverts the monosemic essentializing of God as the metaphysical absolute that is fully present.

Mystical atheism, by contrast, entails a paradoxical reversal: God is most present in the place from which God is most absent.

Nevertheless, the apophatic claims about God’s super-essentiality, God’s being more than being, which is still a being—albeit the being of nonbeing—are indicative of what Heidegger named ontotheology. On the face of it, Derrida is correct and we must distinguish the deconstructive logic of dénégation and traditional negative theology: in the case of the latter, nothing can be spoken because the infinitude of being is beyond language, whereas in the case of the former, the limit of language bespeaks that there is nothing of which to speak, neither the presence of absence nor the absence of presence.

I offer the possibility that the gap between these two worldviews might be narrowed on the grounds that the apophatic pronouncement, literally, a speaking-away, connotes not simply the affirmation of what is negated but also the negation of what is affirmed: the being that is beyond being is a being only insofar as it is not a being—its being, in other words, is not to be.

To empty the fullness of emptiness of the emptiness of its fullness is the task that always remains before us.

Why does it seem that the most rigorous thinkers today engaged in the philosophical theological questions you are grappling with are either from France or Germany rather than America?

There are some important American thinkers engaged in this book, although you are correct that the core of the book deals with European thinkers, who wrote in German and French.

On the most elemental level, my philosophical training was primarily in what used to be called continental philosophy, and especially in hermeneutics and phenomenology. I was also interested in American thought, especially the pragmatism of James, Peirce and Dewey, and in the Anglo-Saxon process thought of Whitehead, but the center of gravity was with German and French philosophy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Thinking about the question in a somewhat deeper register, however, I would say that in these thinkers—and many others could have been added, such as Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Bloch, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, just to name a few—we find, to utilize another Heideggerian motif, the unthought, which is not the limit of what is thinkable, that is, the unthinkable that can never be thought, but the enigma that lies at the center of whatever is thought, the primal mystery of thinking that can be thought only as what is yet to be thought.

In reaching the place beyond the giving and receiving exchange economy of the gift, you take the reader into a state of “givenness”; to what degree is entering into such a state experiential for you as a thinker and how does engagement with such states (whether through painting, poetry, meditation etc.) influence your thinking?

I prefer to dance than to speak about dancing. Indeed, there have been those who have insisted that the latter is impossible, that the singularity of dance leads one invariably to the tautological judgment, to dance one must simply dance.

And yet, as you have written in Mystical Vertigo (2013), the dance has served some thinkers—Nietzsche and Badiou come to mind—as an apt metaphor to depict the life of the mind. In this spirit, I would step back and speak about the dance. I have never separated the speculative and the experiential. I realize this may confuse some people and it may be responsible for my being left out of certain groups, but I have always been committed to the belief that thinking is a contemplative exercise.

I view writing, too, in this vein. My creativity expresses itself primarily in three domains—philosophical scholarship, poetry, and painting. The common denominator of these disparate fields of mental activity is that in each I am seeking to inhabit that place of no-place, the place that I can occupy only by being dispossessed, the place whence I discern that what is most proximate is most distant.

I accept the notion of the poetic as the language that exceeds language, the nonphenomenal form that takes shape beyond the phenomenal limits of the metaphoric—an unbridgeable gap traversed by a verbal leap from the visible to the invisible. My experience of painting accords with this description. In listening to the colors in my mind, I try to leap from the apparent to the inapparent, which is not some hidden object but rather the invisible of the visible, the unseeing that enframes every act of seeing.

Your fluency in the diverse philosophies of world religions is astounding— from the tetralemic mystical hermeneutics of Mahayana Buddhism to the radical theology of Peter Rollin’s work in the emerging church movement to Henri Corbin’s work in Islamic mysticism. To what degree does the porous nature of Judaism affect your ability to be at home in so many traditions while retaining a critical distance as a thinker? 

I used to say to my students that it takes a lifetime to know what Judaism is not.

I have little doubt that the porous nature of Judaism has inspired me since childhood to inhabit the space of multiple intellectual universes. I was reading philosophy, psychology, and the scriptures of other religious traditions from a relatively young age. In the course of time, I began to appreciate that the borders of Judaism are permeable. Indeed, as I have argued in print, what is “outside” at one historical stage becomes appropriated and assimilated to the “inside” at another.

The process of appropriation and internalization of an external influence occurs by means of a creative leap through which the boundaries are traversed, resulting in the destabilization of the inside-outside dichotomy. To the extent that this destabilization is mollified and the outside becomes inside, the balance is regained temporarily so that for the moment one knows one’s bearings.

In the Preface to Open Secret, I remarked that by digging into the soil of a specific cultural matrix one may uncover roots that lead to others. I have remained steadfastly committed to this hermeneutic. My teaching and writing are anchored in the belief that the common roots sustain rather than diminish the rich and irreducible singularity of each path.