M.G. Piety

Archive for the ‘Kierkegaard and the Jews’ Category

Part I of the Preface to Tudvad’s book Stadier paa antisemitismens vej

In Kierkegaard and the Jews on December 26, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Stages on the Way of Anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews

By Peter Tudvad



I ran across a couple of articles on Søren Kierkegaaard from the beginning of the 1940s while doing research for a book about a Danish nurse in the German Red Cross during the Second World War. To stumble on article on Kierkegaard was in itself not surprising. What was surprising was that they were in National Socialisten [the National Socialist] and Jul i Norden [Jul in the North], two strongly anti-Semitic publications associated with the Nazi party in Scandinavia.

“Søren Kierkegaard is without question the greatest genius the Danish nation has produced” began one of the articles. Moreover, continues the author, “his writings contain the best instructions for the liberation of the Danish people from the spirit of Judaism which has come increasingly to dominate Denmark and which he saw himself as called by providence to fight. One could thus to this extent be justified in asserting that Søren Kierkegaard was the first Danish National Socialist.”[1]

The author would not have been able to support such a claim, even if he had done extensive research, given that Kierkegaard was vehemently opposed to every form of both nationalism and socialism. On the other hand, there is something to the claim that Kierkegaard wanted to free the Danish people–or preferably all of Christendom–from “the Jewish spirit” which he, like the Nazis, viewed as materialistic, and which he increasingly portrayed as essentially in opposition to Christianity.

A limited agreement with a later political ideology does not, of course, make Kierkegaard responsible for what was committed in its name, but when the agreement consists of an anti-Semitism that indisputably belongs to the historical and cultural presuppositions for the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Jews, it should at least serve to dampen some of the hitherto unreserved enthusiasm for this national icon. Such, however, does not appear to have been the case in that Danish Kierkegaard scholarship–which the Nazi author, Richard Geill, disparages for other reasons–has rarely acknowledged the pronounced anti-Semitic tendencies in Kierkegaard’s authorship.

Geill asserts that “Jews in Denmark do their best to keep the [Danish] people ignorant about Kierkegaard by presenting a distorted and misleading picture of [Denmark’s] greatest son.”[2] He is referring here to a few Jewish scholars who had distinguished themselves in Kierkegaard research in the period before the war. Even after the war, however, the overwhelming majority of Christian scholars appeared not to find sufficient grounds for concerning themselves with the anti-Semitic side of Kierkegaard’s authorship. One can only speculate about the motives for such neglect. It seems reasonable to suppose, however, that there was a general reluctance to turn a critical eye on this aspect of Kierkegaard’s work and thus, and perhaps more importantly, on the theology that profited from the esteem in which Kierkegaard was held.


I realized to my own shame, after reading these two articles, that I had also been all too willing to ignore, or to explain away, Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitism. I thus wrote an article on this topic for the magazine of Jewish culture, Guldberg. I cited Kierkegaard’s references, just as had Geill, to a Jewish editor as a “Jøde Dreng” [Jew-boy] and to “en trællesindet Jøde øvende Herskermagt” [a servile Jew exercising power] as well as his observation concerning this same editor and the distribution of his paper that  “only a Jew could be fitted for this most equivocal of all tyrannies, even more equivocal than that of a usurer (to which the Jew, however, is best suited).”

Kierkegaard, a philosopher ordinarily critical of the status quo, can also be accused of evincing the stereotypical view of the Jews’ purported “Forkerlighed [predeliction] for money” as well as for the assertion that death, in that it was like a merciless usurer, was “worse than the most bloodthirsty Jew.”[3]


The limitations on space placed on an article for a popular cultural magazine did not allow for a full treatment of the issue, but the issue clearly requires such treatment. “Kierkegaard’s relation to Jews and Judaism is an astonishingly neglected area of research”[4] noted a Norwegian philosopher and intellectual historian in 1996. At that time there was, to my knowledge, only one American historian who had done research on this issue and published the results of this research in an article in Kirkehistoriske samlinger (an anthology of church history) in 1992 and latter in two derivative pieces, first in ALEF-tidskrift for jødisk kultur (a magazine of Jewish culture) and then in Kierkegaardiana two years later.[5] “Kierkegaard is and remains one of the most profound and important thinkers for the present age,” he asserted, “but we need to look honestly at his remarks concerning Jews and Judaism. This may be unpleasant, but we must do it despite this.”[6]

He’s right. I believe, however, that even this historian shies away from recognizing the consequences of the premises he’s presented to the extent that he refers to Kierkegaard’s allegedly ubiquitous irony as if his anti-Semitic statements were not really meant seriously. He thus interprets Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitic remarks as camouflaged critiques of the Christianity of his contemporaries. They certainly were meant in this way. Kierkegaard could use Jews and Judaism as a caricatured picture of Christianity, however, only because his anti-Semitism is genuine. The credibility of this historian is further impugned when despite the fact that he asserts Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitism was intended to be ironical, he praises it for its straightforwardness in contrast to the feigned tolerance, that serves only to conceal an arrogant contempt for Jews, who it is assumed, will in the end convert to Christianity, or at least reject their antiquated religion.

“But to demand a pluralistic tolerance–i.e., a tolerance which the present age considers real, genuine tolerance–is perhaps too much, it’s perhaps to demand something that would have been anachronistic” continues this historian, as if a thinker one ordinarily praises for being ahead of his time was unable to transcend given boundaries, and as if there were no one during this time who gave more than lip service to a defense of tolerance, when in fact there were genuine defenders of tolerance during this period.

In any case, Kierkegaard in no way shared lukewarm liberal tolerance and his remarks can thus be offensive and even shocking. On the other hand, there is perhaps an advantage in such offensiveness in contrast to the insidiously “tolerant” forms of anti-Semitism that, each in its own way, furthers the gradual and unacknowledged disappearance of Judaism. Kierkegaard’s rhetoric is provocative. It forces us to take a position. And by taking the issue seriously we come to understand that however offensive the rhetoric may be, it has relatively little to do with Jews or Judaism but is primarily Kierkegaard’s confrontation with the lukewarm and irresponsible form Christianity had taken in his day.[7]

This convenient and self-contradictory apology has since been more or less sanctioned by two short and uncritical references to it by a church historian in an otherwise thorough and rigorous work on the relations between Christians and Jews in a period of Danish history that corresponds closely with that of Kierkegaard. He says first that ‘Kierkegaard’s references to the Jews were much harsher than those of other intellectuals of the period, but then that it is believed that he identified himself with Jews whom he thought were fundamentally unhappy.”  He observes later that Kierkegaard emphasized “Judaism was the enemy of Christianity, but most of what he objected to in Judaism was precisely what he criticized contemporary Christianity for.”[8]

Once again, the reader is instructed to appreciate that despite Kierkegaard’s apparent anti-Semitism, he was not anti-Semitic in that his overarching purpose was an attack on the Christianity of his day rather an attack on Judaism, and it is in this light that one must understand his possible identification of himself with Jews as an unhappy people.

Even though there is more than a grain of truth in this, it is far from being a satisfactory answer to the question of to what extent Kierkegaard was anti-Semitic, whether he became increasingly anti-Semitic with time, and the respect in which his views on Jews and Judaism influenced his theology and vice versa. So far as I know, no one until now has answered these questions, despite the fact that a Danish scholar touched on aspects of the reciprocal relationship between Judaism and Christianity in Kierkegaard’s authorship in 1999.[9]


[1]Richard Geill, “Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne. Kronic” (Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews. Chronicle), National Socialisten (the national socialist), 17 Feb. 1940, nr. 4f, p. 10.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Tudvad, “Stadier paa antisemitismens vej–Søren Kierkegaard og jøderne” (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews), Goldberg, nr. 10, Nov. 2008, p. 34. See also NB 3: 20, SKS 20, 255, 14; NB3: 20, SKS 20, 255, 11f.: NB 10: 51, SKS 21, 283, 5-7: FF: 187, SKS 18, 111, 3 and Stadier paa Livets Vei (stages on life’s way), SKS 6, 308, 11.

[4] Håkan Harket, “Kierkegaards evige jøde” (Kierkegaard’s eternal [or wandering] Jew), Innøvelse I Kierkegaard. Fire essays (Practice in Kierkegaard. Four essays), (Oslo, 1996), p. 134.

[5] Bruce Kirmmse, “Kierkegaard, Jødedommen og Jøderne” (Kierkegaard, Judaism and the Jews), Kirkehistoriske samlinger (collections of church history) (Copenhagen, 1992), pp. 77-107. Also, “Kierkegaard, Jews and Judaism,” Kierkegaardiana, nr. 17, 1994, pp. 83-97, and “Søren Kierkegaard og det jødiske. Var filosoffen antisemit?” (Søren Kierkegaard and Jewishness. Was the philosopher an anti-Semite?) ALEF–tidskrift for jødisk kultur (magazine of Jewish culture), nr. 8, 1992, pp. 25-33.

[6] Kirmse, “Kierkegaard, jødedommen og jøderne (Kierkegaard, Judaism and the Jews), p. 96.

[7] Ibid. 98.

[8] Martin Schwarz Lausten, Frie jøder? Forholdet mellem kristne og jøder i Danmark fra Fridhedsbrevet 1814 til Grundloven 1849 (Free Jews? The relation between Christians and Jews in Denmark from the charter of 1814 until the constitution of 1849), Kierkehistoriske studier, 3, nr. 10, 2005, p. 134.

[9] Klaus Wivel, Næsten Intet. En jødisk kritic af Søren Kierkegaard (Almost Nothing: A Jewish critique of Søren Kierkegaard) (Copenhagen, 1999).


Damning with Faint Praise: Bizarre Defense of Kierkegaard in Danish Newspaper

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, News from Copenhagen on December 16, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Just when you thought the debate surrounding Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier på antisemitismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010), had probably died down, it’s actually flared up again. Ole Jørgensen published what has got to be the most bizarre defense of Kierkegaard yet. Jørgensen’s article, “Sjusk med ord. Søren Kierkegaard var ikke antisemit” (Linguistic carelessness. Kierkegaard was not an anti-Semite) appeared in Monday’s edition of Kristeligt Dagblad (Christian daily news). The title might lead one to suppose that Kristeligt Dagblad is a relatively obscure paper. It isn’t. Remember, Denmark has a state church. The Danish Lutheran Church is the official church of the Danish people. This undoubtedly explains why Jørgensen took it upon himself to defend not only Kierkegaard, but also Martin Luther against the charge of anti-Semitism. Luther, he asserts, merely “chastens the Jews in his book On the Jews and their Lies.” One might be tempted to conclude from that remark that Jørgensen hasn’t actually read Luther (or Tudvad either since Tudvad quotes extensively from Luther’s works where they bear on the Jews).

It’s not clear whether Jørgensen has seriously studied Luther on this issue. What is clear, however, is that Jørgensen has what one could charitably call a rather idiosyncratic understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism. He observes, for example, that far from being an anti-Semite, “Kierkegaard even had a Jew in his employ for several years: Israel Levin, who […] was thus able to advance himself, in the manner Jews are so good at, both economically and socially.” That is, Jørgensen apparently does not see the generalization that Jews are particularly good at advancing themselves economically and socially as in any way anti-Semitic, which is bizarre given such a generalization buys into stereotypes concerning Jews and money, and that there is hardly a worse crime in the eyes of the Danes than social climbing.

Jørgensen observes that “[o]ne should use some other word than ‘anti-Semitism’” to apply to Kierkegaard. “[I]t was more Kierkegaard’s [religious] zeal,” he continues, “that led him to rein in [lægge mundbidslet på] these occasionally mischievous [frække] Jews.”

It wasn’t merely Kierkegaard, or even Luther, who felt it necessary, according to Jørgensen, to “rein in,” or “chasten” the Jews. Christ himself, observes Jørgensen, “pulls no punches” (lægges der virkelig ikke fingre imellem) when he “says to the Jews: ‘You are of your father the devil and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and a father of lies’” (John 8:44).

“See how closely,” asserts Jørgensen, “lies and murder are connected with each other–both with the Jews and with Hitler. The lies of the Jews crucified Christ. Hitler’s lies murdered six million Jews.” Jørgensen’s digression on what he claims is the connection between lies and murder is not merely a stylistic flaw in his piece; his attempt to use this purported connection to draw an analogy between the Jews and Hitler suggests he may be suffering from some sort of cognitive disorder. How could anyone trot out the stereotype of the Jews as “Christ killers” (a stereotype so offensive that even the pope was forced recently to officially repudiate it) in an article that purports to defend someone, anyone, against the charge of anti-Semitism?

“Søren Kierkegaard was not an anti-Semite,” concludes Jørgensen, “That’s a careless us of language and an [attempt to] exploit Kierkegaard’s good name for personal gain.” That is, Kierkegaard was no more an anti-Semite than Luther was, or than Jørgense’s “careless use of language” make him appear to be. Wow, that puts a whole new spin on the expression “damning with faint praise.” It makes the textbook example of “For a fat girl, you don’t sweat much,” seem positively considerate!





News and Forthcoming Posts…

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, Publishing News, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on December 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm

This week was the last week of our fall term here at Drexel, so things have been pretty hectic. I’ve got some news though and several forthcoming posts I thought I ought to let you know about. First the news. Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009) is now available in a Kindle edition. I wrote in an earlier post that it was available in an electronic edition, but the Kindle edition is superior to that earlier electronic edition.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of Kindle, and of electronic books in general. I’ve just discovered iBooks and although I’m not as big a fan of iBooks as of Kindle books, I do like how the pages turn in iBooks and that I can read books on my iPod Touch (you can do that with Kindle books too, I just haven’t tried it yet). The wonderful thing about electronic books is that they’re cheap, they take up no space, and they are a huge boon to scholarship in that they are searchable, and copying and pasting chunks of text into notes or scholarly articles really speeds up both research and writing.

I’m excited to see Crumbs on Kindle because the one thing I did not like about that edition was that it had no index. The Kindle edition makes an index superfluous, though. Why worry about an index when you can search the whole book for any word or phrase you want? The downside of the Kindle edition  is that it doesn’t have the page correlations to the latest Danish edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works, Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, the way the paperback does, so if you plan to do serious scholarly work on either Repetition or Crumbs you will probably want to have both the paperback and the Kindle edition.

The Princeton editions of these works are not yet available in electronic format, so not only does the Oxford edition give you a better translation, it gives you one that is much more suited to scholarly work. If you have any doubts about the relative quality of the Oxford vs. Princeton translations, you can check out an excerpt of the former on The Smart Set website, or just download a sample onto your Kindle (you do have a Kindle, don’t you?).

Now for the forthcoming posts. I’ve been wanting to do a post on Joakim Garff’s talk at the AAR meeting in San Francisco two weeks ago. He made some good points that deserved a wider audience.  Garff graciously sent me a copy of the talk, so I’m going to do a post soon that will summarize and comment on it.

I also plan to do a post that will consist of an excerpt from the preface of Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier paa antisemitismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010). I translated the preface into English for a talk I gave for the Judaic Studies Program here at Drexel. The talk was very well received and made me think that other people might like to check out the preface as well.

Finally, I ran across a review of Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010) in The Review of Metaphysics, so I plan to do a post that will summarize the review and provide some comments on it.

So there’s lots of good stuff coming soon!

Kierkegaard and the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente

In Kierkegaard and the Jews on July 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm

I promised some time ago to post something on the chapter from Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier på antisemismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) that dealt with the theological view of Jews in Kierkegaard’s day. The chapter, which is a hundred pages long, is an extraordinarily rich resource for information about the theological view of Jews throughout European history.

Tudvad provides a detailed account of Luther’s vehement anti-Semitism and emphasizes, through references to later theologians, that Luther’s views provided the foundation for the theology of the countries of Northern Europe. Kierkegaard, in particular, he observes, had to have been familiar with Luther’s views on Jews and Judaism because he would have been required to read Luther as part of his theological studies at Copenhagen University. Scholars are familiar with the fact that Kierkegaard is often critical of Luther. His criticisms of Luther relate, however, to other aspects of Luther’s thought, not to his anti-Semitism.

One of the more interesting parts of the chapter concerns Kierkegaard’s take on what was know as the Fragmentenstreit (the dispute over the fragments)  The Fragmentenstreit  refers to the controversy created by Lessing’s publication of a manuscript he claimed to have found in a library in Wolfenbüttel in Braunschweig and which was subsequently referred to as the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente. The manuscript had actually been written by the Enlightenment thinker Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Reimarus, had argued, to quote Tudvad, “that Jesus understood himself in agreement with the worldly expectations the Jews had of him that he would reestablish the David’s kingdom with all its power and authority in order that God and God’s law would rule over the world through the agency of the Jewish people” (p 236).

Tudvad observes that “Kierkegaard was also aware of the fact that Jesus’ disciples appear to have had the same expectations” (p. 236). He thus needed to find an explanation for the fact that they “suddenly, after [Jesus’] death, gain the courage to risk life and limb for his sake” (p. 236). He finds this explanation, Tudvad asserts after reading the first part of the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente in 1849. Jesus had to die, he decides, in order for the apostles to give up their worldly hopes. “One sees,” writes Kierkegaard, “how unreasonable is the objection (found also in the Wolfb. Fragm: I, § 32 and 33) that the apostles changed their view [of Jesus], and only after his death made him into the savior of the world rather than the worldly messiah they first considered him to be. That’s correct, of course, but the fault is not Christ’s. He’d explained himself. They just couldn’t understand him” (SKS 22, 66, 20-25). That is, Tudvad asserts that it was important to Kierkegaard to make clear that Christ and Christianity were something “completely different from the Messiah, Israel and Judaism” (p. 236).

To be fair to Kierkegaard, however, it should be pointed out that he cannot have been unaware that Christianity, as the apostles understood it, even after the death of Jesus, was a sect of Judaism. It was only later that becoming a Christian did not necessitate first converting to Judaism. Kierkegaard was also, of course, aware that Jesus had himself been a Jew who, as Tudvad points out, “came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it” (p. 236).

My own view of Kierkegaard’s reaction to the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente is thus that he was concerned not so much to distinguish Judaism from Christianity as something negative and opposed to it as to defend Christianity against the charge that it was based on a manipulation, or misrepresentation, of historical fact.

Exhibition on Jews in the Danish Theater takes a Page from Tudvad’s Book!

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, News from Copenhagen on May 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm

There is a new exhibition entitled “Teater og kultur” (theater and culture) in the museum that is part of Hofteatret (the court theater) at Christiansborg Palace on Slotsholmen in Copenhagen. It concerns the relation between theater and the social-political life in mid-nineteenth-century Denmark. This was an extremely tumultuous period in Danish history. It was the beginning of genuine democracy in Denmark as well as the period of the Three Year’s War in Schleswig, a war as divisive for much of Danish society as was the Civil War for American society.

There are three parts to the exhibition. The first is entitled “Breve fra et grænseland” (letters from a borderland) and concerns the effect of the Three Year’s War on Fridolin Banner, a soldier on the Schleswig front, and his father, Johan Daniel Bauer an actor in the Danish Royal Theater who endured not merely constant rumors relating to the conflict in which his son was involved, but also a raging cholera epidemic in Denmark’s capital.

The second part of the exhibition is entitled “Kærlighed og magt I korridoreren” (love in the corridors of power) and concerns Frederik the Seventh and his lover, Louise Rasmussen, also known as Grevinde Danner (Countess Danner), to whom he was “married” as the Danes say “til venstre hand” (to the left hand).

Finally, the third part of the exhibition is entitled “Salomon, Esther og Shylock–jøder på scenen” (Salomon, Esther and Shylock–Jews on the stage). The following is a quotation from the AOK-Guide online (AOK stands for “Alt om København” which translates as “everything about Copenhagen”):

“As Peter Tudvad shows in his book Stadier på antisemitismens vej (stages on the way of anti-Semitism) (2010), Søren Kierkegaard went about in the middle of Golden-Age Copenhagen and contributed to the debate concerning the assimilation of Jews into Danish culture. One can also read in Tudvad’s book about the view of Jews in the theatrical community and their role in the Danish theater. The Theater Museum at Slotsholmen has taken up this thread from Tudvad’s book with an exhibition entitled “Salomon, Esther and Shylock–Jews on the stage.” The exhibition covers the period of Kierkegaard and Johanne Luise Heiberg up until the premier of Henrik Nathansen’s “Indenfor Murerene” at the Royal Theater in 1912–the same year the theater was opened.”

Click here for the AOK-Guide. The article didn’t say for how long the exhibition will be up. My suspicion is that it will be up all summer, so if you are planning a trip to Copenhagen this summer, you should definitely check it out.

I will have more on Tudvad’s book soon!

Rabbi Wolff’s Danish Knighthood!

In Kierkegaard and the Jews on May 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm

It’s been a while since I’ve put up a post. That’s what teaching does, it eats up one’s time, if one does it well anyway. Still I am now only a few pages away from finishing the 100-page-long chapter of Tudvad’s book Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkeaard og Jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) that deals with the theological treatment of Jews and Judaism. The first part of the chapter focuses on the views of 19th-century Christian theologians, with occasional references to Luther and a few other earlier theologians.  (I’m a philosopher rather than a theologian, so I was shocked to learn just how rabidly anti-Semitic Luther was. His views were so extreme, they look more like a kind of mental illness than the sort of character flaw under which we would normally classify bigotry). The second part of the chapter deals with Kierkegaard’s own views. My plan is to make two separate posts, one on the first part of the chapter and another on the second part.

In the meantime, however, I thought I would relate an interesting little story the appears near the end of the chapter about Abraham Alexander Wolff, the chief rabbi of Denmark during the middle to later part of the nineteenth century. Wolff, as you will see if you click on the link to his entry in the online Jewish Encyclopedia, was a talented and prolific scholar and writer. He was also an extraordinarily important figure in the history of Danish Jewry. He was a progressive thinker who is credited with improving relations between Jews and Christians. He was honored for his work with the prestigious Order of the Dannebrog. That is, he was given a knighthood by the Danish king.

That’s when the trouble started. The official sign of this order was a cross which Wolff wore on public occasions, but which he apparently removed before entering the synagogue. This, according to Tudvad, “offended a certain Joseph Perstein, who therefore on the 24th of April 1855 published an article in Kjøbenhavns Adressecomptoirs Efterretninger, or as it was called back then–Adresseavisen, where he demanded of Wolff that he explain why” he did this. Perlstein claimed that one of the requirements of the Order of the Dannebro was that one should be a Christian. A crucifix, he claimed further, ought to be offensive to any Jew, hence he demanded that Wolff either give up his knighthood or his Judaism!

Sad eh, that relations between Jews and Christians had reached the point where what had originally been a sect of Judaism had come in the minds of both Jews and Christians to represent its diametrical opposition. That certainly wasn’t Jesus’ intention, not, in any case, according to contemporary historical scholarship.

More later…

Ahasverus and Vampires

In Kierkegaard and the Jews on February 25, 2011 at 10:54 am

The second chapter of Peter Tudvad’s Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) deals with the legend of Ahasverus, the “eternal Jew” in Danish, or “the wandering Jew,” in English. Ahasverus is a character who supposedly taunted Christ on the way to his Crucifixion and was condemned, as a result, to wander the earth forever. This chapter, which is more than one hundred pages long, examines the legend of Ahasverus in such detail it could legitimately be published as a monograph on the subject independently of the rest of the book.

Students of romantic literature will eat this chapter up because it is filled with references to that period of literary history. In addition to a general survey of literature on Ahasverus, there is a great deal of interesting material on the history of Kierkegaard’s preoccupation with the concept of the wandering Jew. In fact, the material in this chapter could easily form the basis of a dissertation on the subject. I’ll confess, however, that I found making it through this portion of the book something of a hard slog.

One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter, from my perspective, was the similarity that gradually became apparent to me between the legend of Ahasverus, and the mythical character of the vampire. I promised earlier to come with a post on Kierkegaard and vampires. Given the current popularity of vampires, cynical readers might have interpreted this as a shameless attempt to boost the popularity of my blog. I should confess that that was part of my motivation. There really is a striking similarity, however, between Ahasverus and vampires. First, both are “undead.” That is, both are condemned to live forever and, unlike so many people today who appear to think an indefinite extension of the human lifespan would be a wonderful thing, both see this as a fate much worse than death. Both are melancholy and incapable of forming close emotional relationships with ordinary human beings. Even more interesting is that, according to Tudvad, the character of Ahasverus in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab, like the vampire, casts no shadow.

The legend of Ahasverus apparently originated in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages (there is no support for it in Christian scripture). So, it appears, did the legend of the modern vampire. Both were also favorite subjects of authors during the Romantic period. Jungians have argued that the vampire actually belongs to the collection of archetypes inherent in human consciousness. The similarity of Ahasverus to the vampire suggests this figure is simply another instantiation of the same archetype.

There are so many interesting topics to be explored here: What is the historical relation between the two legends? What is the literary relationship? Are they expressions of a single archetype? If so, what does this archetype reveal to us about human nature or about the psyche? So far as I know, none of these questions has been given serious scholarly treatment even though the time is clearly ripe for such treatment.

Please forward a link to this entry to anyone whom you think would be interested in tackling one of these fascinating topics. I can’t wait to read what people are going to write!

Is Christianity Anti-Semitic? Danish Theologian Defends Tudvad’s Book.

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, News from Copenhagen on February 9, 2011 at 1:42 pm

“Long before Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier på Antisemtismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne [Stages on the Way of Anti-Semtism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews] appeared, the theological rationalizations were already lined up,” writes Danish theologian Lone Fatum in Kristeligt Dagblad. “No one had read the book, but everyone had an opinion on it. When the book finally appeared, on the anniversary of Kristalnacht, reviewers immediately banded together. ‘Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic–end of discussion!’”

Tudvad explained in my interview with him, as well as in the Danish media, that he believes that what really incensed critics of his book was less that he had charged Kierkegaard with anti-Semitism than that he had argued there was a disposition toward anti-Semitism in Christianity itself. Denmark, after all, still has a state church, the Danish Lutheran Church. Christianity, for many Danes, is as much a cultural institution as a religious one. Danes have prided themselves, and not without reason, on their historically liberal attitude toward Jews and Judaism. To argue as Tudvad does in his book that Christianity has inherently anti-Semitic tendencies is thus to strike at something that is very near the heart of Danish culture.

Fatum asserts that the numerous efforts to explain away Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitic remarks “appear to support Tudvad’s claim that [the persistence of subtle forms of anti-Semitism] is an problem people are unwilling to face.” Fatum argues, however, that the disposition toward anti-Semitism in Christianity is more pronounced than even Tudvad suggests. All the Gospels, she asserts, were written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, which many early Christians saw as God’s punishment of the Jews for their having killed Christ. Anti-Semitic sentiment, she asserts, is clear throughout the Gospels, but particularly in John (e.g., John 8: 21-47 where Jesus appears to assert that the devil, not Abraham, is the father of the Jews).

But are the Gospels really that anti-Semitic? There is no question that Fatum is correct in her claim that there are numerous passages throughout the Gospels that lend themselves to interpretation as anti-Semitic. According to many New Testament scholars, however, there was a great deal of ambivalence among early Christians concerning their relation to Judaism and this ambivalence is reflected, I would argue in at least the synoptic Gospels, if not in the entire New Testament canon.

There can be no dispute, however, concerning the presence of strong anti-Semitic tendencies among the early church fathers and later Christian thinkers such as Martin Luther, just as there can be little doubt that Kierkegaard was influenced by these thinkers. It is less clear whether Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitic attitudes came directly from this tradition or whether their evolution had a more subtle and complex origin. That’s part of what makes Tudvad’s book such an important work. He attempts to trace the evolution of Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism. Scholars who actually engage with his arguments may come to have legitimate disagreements with him and one hopes that other treatments of this important topic will eventually emerge. For now, though, all we have is Tudvad book. It is nice to see that it is beginning to receive the recognition it deserves.

Yet Another Review of Tudvad’s Book by Someone Who Hasn’t Read It?

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, News from Copenhagen on February 5, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Well, OK, I can’t really be certain that Trond Berg Eriksen, whose review “Antisemitten Kierkegaard?” appeared in the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet, didn’t read the book. If he did read it though, he appears to have a very different edition than the one I have. He claims Tudvad charges that Kierkegaard was a Nazi, but I haven’t come across that charge in my copy of Tudvad’s book.

The review starts off well. Eriksen acknowledges that Tudvad’s presentation of anti-Semitism in Danish politics and literature in the first decades of the 19th century is “thorough, long overdue, and groundbreaking,” and that his “presentation of Jews and Judaism in Kierkegaard’s thought is not bad either,” but complains, in a manner that clearly begs the question, that the two things have nothing to do with each other.

Tudvad acknowledges, in the beginning of the book, that Kierkegaard was far from the worst anti-Semite of his day. His argument, he explains, is that many of the things Kierkegaard says about Jews and Judaism would be deeply offensive to Jews of any period and that they should thus be acknowledged as part and parcel of an anti-Semitism that was pervasive in Europe in the 19th century and which was thus a forerunner to the more virulent form of anti-Semitism that came to such horrific expression in the rise of National Socialism. That’s a relatively modest thesis and Tudvad marshals what appears to be more than enough evidence to support it.

That Kierkegaard was anti-Semitic should not surprise us, because, as many scholars have pointed out, anti-Semitism was pervasive during the period when Kierkegaard lived.  What is surprising is the number of scholars who have used this historical fact to try to discredit Tudvad’s position. The argument goes something like this: Everyone was anti-Semitic back then. Kierkegaard was just like everyone else. Ergo, Kierkegaard was not really anti-Semitic.  The flaw in that logic is so obvious it needs no explanation.

Eriksen’s review, as I observed, starts off well, but then, it appears, he was struck down by some sort of spontaneous brain disease. Not only does he use the same obviously flawed logic described above in an attempt to discredit Tudvad’s thesis, he also undermines his own fallacious argument with the even more bizarre charge that “anti-Semitism,” along with “racism,” is a concept that belongs to a later period. Say what? Anyone who knows anything about history knows that anti-Semitism is as old as Judaism. And, as I explained in an earlier post (see 1/7/11), racism as both a concept and a phenomenon obviously predates Darwin.  Our concept of race changed after Darwin, but the concept goes back at least as far as ancient Greece and is probably as old as human history.

Eriksen’s whole review is a straw man argument in that it is directed at discrediting a much more extreme position than the one Tudvad advances in his book. But then Eriksen, apparently still in the grip of the aforementioned ailment, admits this himself when he acknowledges, toward the end of the review, that Tudvad does not actually make any of the outrageous claims that have so incensed him, but only “insinuates” them.

Enough said.

Stay tuned. There was an excellent article on Tudvad’s book in Kristeligt Dagblad Today. I’ll have a summary of it for you soon!

Tudvad Interview (Conclusion)

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, News from Copenhagen on January 28, 2011 at 9:28 am

Piety: Were there anti-Semitic remarks in Kierkegaard’s published works or only in unpublished ones such as his journals?

Tudvad: Most of his anti-Semitic remarks are in his journals but quite a few can be found in his published works too. But I don’t think that it is really approprite to distinguish between these to parts of his authorship as he himself did not doubt that his diaries too would be published after his death. He even had a title for them: “The Book of the Judge”.

Piety: Has anyone advanced an argument that Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic that is based on anything other than the claim that Kierkegaard’s remarks have to be placed in their historical context?

Tudvad: Yes, several have argued that anti-Semitism is a notion which was not defined until a couple of decades after Kierkegaard’s death, thus, he can not be labeled an anti-Semite. Others have argued that anti-Semitism is a purely racist concept, and that Kierkegaard almost never defines the Jews as a race. But today, in dictionaries of contemporary Danish, you do not define anti-Semitism as something purely racist, but rather as a hostile attitude towards Jews.

Piety: The English theologian George Pattison actually admitted in his article “Søren Kierkegaard was neither better nor worse than his times” that he had not read your book. Is that right?

Tudvad: Yes. – ”Neither better nor worse!” He was surely not worse than some people, and surely not better than quite a few liberal politicians, the ones who fought at the same time for a free constitution that would guarantee freedom of religion. Now, is it really a relevant argument that somebody, and especially one who is considered a genius and far ahead of his contemporaries, was neither better nor worse than his times? Would you excuse somebody living in Germany in the 1930’s or 1940’s the same way?

Piety: How many other people who published articles claiming that Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic had actually read your book? How many admitted that they had not read it?

Tudvad: Until recently none of my critics had read the book but nobody did – without being explicitly asked – admit that they had not read the book. That does not mean that they pretended they had read the book, only that nobody seemed to care about having read the book or not. The conclusion was given: Kierkegaard was not an anti-Semite. So why read the book?

Piety: What do you think was the biggest problem that critics of the book had with it?

Tudvad: That I made clear a tight link between Kierkegaard’s theology and his anti-Semitism. People seemed to be surprised that anti-Semitism as such has it’s origin in Christianity. Maybe they are sincere, but if they are, they certainly do suffer from a heavy suppression of a historical fact. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism, did they?

Piety: Is there anything else you would like to say on this controversy to Anglo-American readers?

Tudvad: Yes, I’m very sad that I was not born in the US, where I could have raised this discussion without being met by so much ignorance and prejudice, so much unwillingness to discuss a rather important aspect of western civilization and the Christian religion.



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