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Rabbi Wolff’s Danish Knighthood!

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…

Tudvad Interview (Conclusion)

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.