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Isaac Deutscher’s Non-Jewish Jew

April 24, 2017 | Adam Kirsch

Born to a ḥasidic family in Austrian-ruled Poland, Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967) forsook the life of a talmudic prodigy to become a Marxist historian, writing the definitive biography of his hero, Leon Trotsky. In his essay “The Non-Jewish Jew”—recently republished together with his other writings on Jewish themes—Deutscher argues that the best products of the Jewish tradition are those who abandoned it, notably including Benedict Spinoza, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Leon Trotsky. Adam Kirsch writes in his review:

The freethinkers and revolutionaries [Deutscher] cites experienced Judaism as a prison or a ghetto, because they wanted to belong to another, more capacious community—the community of mankind. What they did not recognize, and Deutscher doesn’t recognize, is that Jews already belong to that community, even if they are not heretics [from Judaism]. There is no such thing as a human being who is immediately universal. Home, as T.S. Eliot wrote, is where we start from, and Judaism is at least as good a place to start as any other. What really unites the great figures in Deutscher’s canon is that they believe that there was something disqualifying about Judaism as a habitation of the universal. . . .

But the real problem with the ideal of the “non-Jewish Jew” is that it is not, as it claims to be, an idea that transcends religion in the name of humanity. It is, rather, a restatement in secular terms of one of the most profound dynamics in European culture. This is the movement from letter to spirit, from law to love, from particular to universal, that is at the heart of the self-understanding of Christianity. Deutscher carefully avoids this comparison by choosing Aḥer [the 2nd-century-CE talmudic sage-turned-heretic], rather than Jesus, as his preferred Jewish heretic. But whenever a Jew tells other Jews that they are merely concerned about themselves, while he cares about the redemption of all mankind, he is, whether he admits it or not, recapitulating the original anti-Jewish movement of Christian civilization. . . .

In [his essay] “Who Is a Jew?” Deutscher writes, “it is strange and bitter to think that the extermination of six-million Jews should have given a new lease on life to Jewry. I would have preferred the six-million men, women, and children to survive and Jewry to perish.” Jewry—that is, Jewishness—deserves to perish, Deutscher believes, just because Marx was right, and Judaism is just another name for capitalism. Thus his Marxist millennium would mirror the Nazi millennium: both would be Judenrein. The apparent inability of Western thought to imagine an ideal society that is not predicated on the elimination of Judaism is the great and perpetual danger for Jews who live in that society. We [Jews] don’t escape that danger by clamoring for our own elimination.

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