Sarah Hammerschlag, The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought, Reviewed by Jonathan Judaken

Are Jews a perpetual outsider, “other” or stranger? Are Jews rootless individuals or communal? We have an important new book exploring the theme of Jew as outsider in French Jewish and non-Jewish thought and a great review of that book by an expert on Sarte’s Zionism. There are other, less focused, reviews out there, but this one captures both the value and limits of Hammerschlag’s volume. I was going to post this last month and did not get to it.

Sarah Hammerschlag, The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought, University of Chicago Press, 2010, 298pp., $25.00 (pbk).

Reviewed by Jonathan Judaken, Rhodes College

Sarah Hammerschlag’s The Figural Jew offers an insightful new interpretation of how a cluster of postwar French thinkers (Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques Derrida) represented Jews and Judaism in their thought. To do so, she zeros in on the figure of the wandering Jew. Ahasverus, an icon of the medieval Christian imagination…
The Wandering Jew embodies the figure of the Jew as nomad, stranger, outsider: the uprooted. As such, Ahasverus represents the antithesis of the French nation. This is true for both the universalist Republican legacy of the enlightenment that emancipated Jews in the French Revolution and for the integral nationalist tradition that stems from Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras.

Hammerschlag seeks to explain how, over the course of postwar French thought, the trope of the wandering Jew, which once served as a quintessentially anti-Semitic icon, was revalorized. Here is her narrative in a nutshell: it began with Sartre’s celebration of an existentialist conception of Self as diasporic. Levinas buttressed this notion with a moral gloss. Blanchot gave Levinas a literary twist that emphasized the figurative elements of the trope. Derrida then gave full play to the self-conscious tropological deployment of the Jew.

For Hammerschlag, there are three key aims to following the trail of the wandering Jew in postwar French thought:
First, to show how Sartre and Levinas mined the resources of anti-Semitism and exploited them in order to define an ideal that could be differentiated from both nostalgic nationalism and the rhetoric of universalizing humanism. What is generated in the process is a figural Jew, an archetype for a new kind of difference in particularity whose function is to suggest that there is a positive moral valence to resisting the discourse of belonging that dominates both the universalist and the particularist versions of political identity (18, emphasis added).

The second aim is to show that in the self-referentiality that figurative discourse entails — that in pointing to Jews as figural — Sartre, Levinas, Blanchot, and Derrida, along with their deconstructive ilk, avoid repeating the dynamics of exclusivity and anti-Semitism through their repetition of Jewish tropes. I will say more about this below.

Hammerschlag rightly praises the central strand of Sartre’s Réflexions, which argues that Jewishness is represented as an intensification of the existentialist’s choice. The Jew is rootless; he is a stranger; he is defined and determined by the gaze of the other. The existentialist hero embraces his circumstances and the freedom and responsibility that exist therein. He does not flee; he chooses and engages. The Jew, as the stranger, as a ‘type who has nothing, no homeland,’ has a function like Kafka’s hero (93).

To her detriment, however, Hammerschlag does not consider Sartre’s long and sustained defense of Zionism and Israel. From 1948 through to his final days, Sartre was an articulate defender of Zionism as a Jewish liberation movement. In one of many statements that make the same point again and again, he wrote:

I will never abandon this constantly threatened country [Israel] whose existence ought not to be put into question. . . . I know that my stance earns me the enmity of certain Arabs who cannot understand that one is able to be at the same time for Israel and for them (Jean-Paul Sartre, “Ce que Jean-Paul Sartre avait dit à ‘Tribune Juive'”).

Sartre laid the philosophical ground for this position in his Réflexions sur la questions juive, where he insisted that Zionism represented one form of Jewish authenticity. Wrote Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew:

he may also be led by his choice of authenticity to seek the creation of a Jewish nation [nation juive] possessing its own soil and autonomy; he may persuade himself that Jewish authenticity demands that the Jew [Juif] be sustained by a Jewish national community [communauté israélite].

Does not the stance that Sartre took on Israel and Zionism force us to question Hammerschlag’s reading of the figural Jew in his work?[1]

A similar complaint can be made about her interpretation of Levinas. Since what Levinas presents for Hammerschlag is “a philosophy of uprootedness” (119), she is critical of the ambivalence in Levinas’ own position on the State of Israel (see 161, for example). She is troubled as well by the legacy of some of his followers, like Benny Lévy, whose Judaism was defined by a return to orthodox forms of communal ritual observance (see 163, for example).

Lévy complained in his last work, Être juif, that Levinas had too often emphasized the universalist trace in his writings about Jews. Part of what attracted Lévy, the former leader of the French Maoists, to Levinas’s thought was his references to the authority of the Talmud and Halachah (Jewish Law) in his Jewish writings. Clearly entailed by this form of Judaism (in all its permutations) is communal observance: the daily ritual life of Jewish prayer, the shared study of Jewish texts, holy days, and adherence to the ceremonies of the Jewish life cycle.

To cite only one reference of countless in which Levinas calls for revivifying Jewish communal life, we can turn to his essay, “How is Judaism Possible?” In it, he surveys a set of communal institutions that can help revitalize the Jewish community, including new types of Jewish schools, youth movements, Jewish studies in the academy, yeshivot integrated into a Jewish higher-education system, and the State of Israel as a prod to Jewish community building:

The community needs truths that generate life. It needs a doctrinal and philosophical teaching that can be given on the level of cultivated minds. This teaching . . . can be created only by the community itself. It must be sustained, if need be provoked, at all events co-ordinated and unified. Pluralist tendencies do not exclude the unity of the institution in which they might be grouped (“How is Judaism Possible? in Difficult Liberty, 251).

How then do these twin issues of Sartre’s and Levinas’ defense of Israel and Zionism, coupled with Levinas’ advocacy of Jewish communal life sustained by rabbinic Judaism square with Hammerschlag’s rendition of the story of the figural Jew? Clearly Sartre and Levinas were both advocates of modes of Jewish communal life that do not always neatly tear apart the mythic and the figurative.

Glossing these incongruities, in the end, Hammerschlag hangs her hat on a specific deconstructive trajectory that her book rightly celebrates:

First appearing in Blanchot’s texts, and later developed in various directions by Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Georgio Agamben are visions of community that refuse both the universalizing and the particularizing options. What all these figures have inherited from Blanchot is a resistance to and suspicion of communal fusion, a suspicion, that is, of the modes of identification that bind people to a group, whether through territory, language, culture or ethnicity (263).

The risk is that her radically immanent readings, attentive to the deconstructive thrust of her argument, miss the contextual specifics that led Sartre and Levinas to make the claims in their work that augur against Hammerschlag’s reading of that work.

Indeed, without the broader context as an indicator of how writers understand the meaning of the word Juif, I remain unsure about how one disentangles the mythic from the figurative use of images of Jews and Judaism. Barrès clearly recognized that the Jew in his texts were “figural.” He was aware that “Jew” or “Jewish” could be deployed as an adjective that embodied a whole complex of forces. He said so. The texts of Shakespeare and Augustine and St. Paul suggest the same thing. So whether writers recycle myths about Jews and Judaism or creatively disrupt these figures of exclusion depends a great deal on not only what they said, but also how they said it, and crucially in what contextual frame.

What Hammerschlag misses, however, is the anomaly that perplexes some of those interpreters. What in the body of Sartre’s thought enabled him to both critique racial essentialism and reiterate anti-Semitic tropes of Jews and Judaism? How could the thinker whose core insight is “existence precedes essence” himself trot out essentialist stereotypes of Jews and Judaism?
[1] See Jonathan Judaken, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question: Anti-antisemitism and the Politics of the French Intellectual, Nebraska, 2006, chapters 4 and 8. Read the rest of the long Review Here.

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