Interview with Prof. Sarah Hammerschlag on Modern French Jewish Thought

When the works of French Jewish thinker Andre Neher (d. 1988) were translated into English, for example  Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz (JPS 1980), the work did not make a splash in the United States. When the Algerian born Henri Atlan, the brilliant polymath biophysicist and philosopher who combined systems theory with the Kabbalah of Rabbi Eliyashiv, had five of his works translated into English about eight years ago, the American Jewish community took little note of it. And the many works of Rabbi Betzalel Leon Ashkenazi, known as Manitou (d.1996), the French Algerian thinker have still not been translated into English.

In short, modern French Jewish thought is largely unknown in the United States. A recent anthology seeks to bring the richness of these writers to an American audience, Sarah Hammerschlag’s Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics (Brandeis University Press, 2018).

The author of the anthology, Sarah Hammerschlag has her doctorate from the University of Chicago is a scholar in the area of Religion and Literature. Her research has focused on the position of Judaism in the post-World War II French intellectual scene. She is the author of The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought(University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)  The Figural Jew received an Honorable Mention for the 2012 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award, given by the Association of Jewish Scholars, and was a finalist for the AAR’s Best First Book in the History of Religions in 2011. She has written essays on Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled “Sowers and Sages: The Renaissance of Judaism in Postwar Paris.”

The volume Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics (Brandeis University Press, 2018) was one of my favorite Jewish books of 2018 with its twenty-four well-chosen texts to illustrate the length of French Jewish thought. The range of texts go from the early days of the French Republic with their emphasis on universalism as French Israelite of the Republic to the Jewish questioning of their status by the end of the 19th century. Then Hammerschlag gives ample attention to the renewal of Jewish thought after WWII in French. To her credit, she gives full attention to the role of Sephardic Jews and Sephardic universalism and includes the writings of the Jews of the Maghreb, specifically Algeria and Tunisia as part of French Jewish thought.

Modern French Jewry starts with the French Revolution’s emancipation of its Jewish citizens and  the Napoleonic Assembly of Notables (1806), and convening of the “Sanhedrin” (1807), along with the integration of the Sephardic Jews in the papal cities. Jews sought integration and acculturation into France. At the end of the century, the Dreyfus affair shattered for many French Jews that dream of integration. After WWII and the Vichy regime, there was a need for a rejuvenation of Jewish life. There was also a mass immigration of Jews from the Maghreb bringing their traditionalism into French Jewish life. The convening of the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de langue Francaise, a meeting of French-speaking intellectuals which met at least every two years beginning in 1957,become the source of many of the published lectures on Bible, Talmud, Maharal, and Kabbalah by Levinas, Andre Neher, Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Éliane Amado Levy-Valensi and others.

Among the wide range of authors included in this volume are Joseph Salvador, Edmond Fleg, Jacob Gordin, Vladimir Jankelevitch, Albert Memmi, Shmuel Trigano, Henri Atlan, Leon Ashkenazi, Helene Cixous, and Jacques Derrida. Hammerschlag provides a fine introduction to the volume and short introduction sketches to the texts. The volume focuses on the themes of the universal and the particular and identification and disidentification with France, bringing up the ancillary topic of Zionism. This book should be in all major Jewish libraries and should without question be read by those who teach modern Jewish thought.

The standard survey of modern Jewish thought, however, is almost entirely focused on German thinkers moving from Moses Mendelssohn to Zunz to Cohen & Buber, then reaching Franz Rosenzweig. Today, it also includes Heschel, Solovetichik & Feminism. If you are lucky, it also includes Emmanuel Levinas as the sole French Jewish thinker. The question is how to integrate the rich French Jewish thought into the study of modern Jewish thought. This morning, I spoke to a professor who teaches modern Jewish history and thought, who liked the book, but said it would have no affect on his teaching. He did not see where these thinkers fit in.

In order to be integrated into Modern Jewish thought, there would need to be a guide to French Jewish thought giving the instructor ideas for an alternate syllabus to the usual German centered one. Maybe an article and then a symposium of how create a course that contains both French and German thinkers. Or maybe some new textbooks. None of this takes away from Hammerschlag’s fine volume, but now it is up to members of the field to figure out how to best use it.

I especially appreciated her inclusion of Zadoc Kahn’s “Speech on the Acceptance of His Position as Chief Rabbi of France” and Sylvain Levi’s essay “Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU)” because many works on modern Jewish thought include a section on Geiger and Hirsch as the founders of Reform and Neo-Orthodoxy. Rabbi Zadoc Kahn as a paradigm of more universal form of a modernizing “Orthodoxy” serves as a contrast to the German experience in that  Rabbi SR Hirsch wrote a long essay criticizing Kahn’s approach. So too, the inclusion of the importance of the AIU shows the type of Jewish day school so influential in France and the Maghreb. These essays were included, but the book did not have a great concern for how these ideas created the traditional Jewish childhood education of many of these thinkers, especially the Sephardic thinkers, who attended the AIU schools.  

 I would have liked an essay from the scholar Salomon Munk, or another scholar, to serve as a contrast to German Wissenschaft des Judentums. In addition, Hammerschlag specifically included Stéphane Moses to show conduits from German thinkers to the French thinkers, but I would have liked a 19th century version also. The volume includes both Jewish philosophers and authors who write about Jewish identity creating resources for both a class in intellectual history and one in thought, which can at times seem like two distinct projects.

Finally, I hope someone else continues this project and produces an anthology of French Jewish thinkers on faith, Torah, theology, and Kabbalah. Much of the literary production of the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de langue Francaise was about faith and Torah. Noticeably different than Germany and the United States, the French Jewish intellectuals found meaning in Maharal, Nefesh Hahayyim, and Aggadah.

The American project of a melting pot and of peoplehood along with suburbanization and denominations created a very different form of integration than in France.

In Israel, these post-war writings have more traction and integration than in the USA. There have been conferences and symposiums on these works and many translations in to Hebrew. Some of these French authors retired to Israel where they gave lectures. These French authors also had students who moved from France to Israel who became rabbis including Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Rabbi Uri Sherki of Mechon Meir, and Rabbi Eliyahu Zini of Haifa. The writings of these French authors also serve as a base for further thought. For example, Rabbi Ream Hakohen of Yeshivat Othniel uses Andre Neher’s essay “The Jewish Dimension of Space” (included in this volume) to develop his own settler ideology of space and land.

We have to thank Prof Hammerschlag for this volume. As a book with twenty-four separate essays, you can dip into the volume to see the diversity of French Jewish thought. This interview is itself very rich providing an introduction to many aspects of French Jewish thought.  Maybe, if you will find something that speaks to you in the book or the interview, you might consider looking at the volumes of French Jewish thought that have been translated in prior decades.  

Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion:  Hammerschlag, Sarah: 9780231170598: Books
  1. How was France a unique Jewish opportunity?

As the first modern European state to emancipate its Jewish population, it stood for the possibility of freedom and equality. The fact that the consistory system established under Napoleon made the nation’s highest Jewish leaders employees of the state didn’t hurt this perception either. 

2. What was the concept of Universalism in French Jewish thought? How did the concept of Jewish Universalism change?

It is constitutive of the very distinction between Judaism and Christianity that Judaism is distinguished as a particularlism from “Catholic” Christianity.  Christianity, after all, emerges to overcome the particularism of Jewish law.  But the French Enlightenment brought with it a new claim to universalism based on humanist principles and thus  held the promise of realigning this demarcation.  These principles are enshrined in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man whose first article declares that men are born and remain free and equal in rights.  Numerous Modern Jewish thinkers have argued that Judaism itself was the originator of this principle by virtue of its monotheism—one God entails a unified humanity.  Thus we find in French-Jewish thinkers from the 19th century a commitment to reveal both that Judaism was the original universal humanism and that its concept of universal humanism is consistent  with the French Enlightenment ideal.

The question of how to maintain this claim while explaining Jewish difference is the challenge that these thinkers faced.  Joseph Salvador, writing in 1860 in his book Paris, Rome Jerusalem, handles it by arguing that every idea needs an exemplar and Judaism and the Jewish people play that role, exemplifying peoplehood as the ideal form of universalism. It is the very fact that their peoplehood is constituted by virtue of a law, or a covenant that makes them paradigmatic for all peoples.  

James Darmesteter, writing in 1892 makes his case based on the books of the prophets. In both cases the claim was one of  arguing for an identification between Enlightenment humanism and Judaism. This argument for identification is perhaps clearest in the mission statement of Alliance Israélite Universelle: If…you believe that the influence of the principles of ’89 is all powerful in the world… that the example of peoples who enjoy absolute religious equality is a force…come give us your membership, your cooperation.” 

While there is some backlash to this way of thinking at the end of the 19th century,  both because of the emergence of Anti-Semitism and growing movements of nationalisms across Europe, including Zionism, the claim for a certain species of Jewish universalism never really disappears in French-Jewish thought.  In the post-1945 era one finds the explicit move to reformulate its expression. Emmanuel Levinas, for example, clearly describes the Jewish people as the carrier of a universal message, but one which is itself at odds with Enlightenment thought.  For if the Enlightenment thinkers formulate their universalism in rational terms, the Jewish people are the carrier of an ethical ideal, which precisely stops rationality in its tracks and makes it question its drive to assimilate difference.  One  finds different approaches in Léon Ashkenazi  and Henri Atlan, among others, but what they share is the move to distinguish Judaism from both Christianity and liberal humanism.

3. How did the Holocaust change French Jewish Thought?What was the purpose of the Colloquium in post-war French Jewry?

The Holocaust clearly changed Jewish thought for every community of survivors.  What makes France’s situation unique on the European continent is that its Jewish population fared better than any other nation occupied by the Nazis. Of the 300,000 present, 75,000 were deported, few of which returned. 

But perhaps more importantly WWII was a reckoning with the promise that France represented.  For many Jews, both observant and secular, the fact that it was the French government itself that instituted race laws against them in October of 1940 brought about a shattering of identity with the state and a movement to rethink what it meant to be a French Jew.  Judaism could no longer be conceived as one of France’s religions on equal par with Catholicism and Protestantism.  The reactions to this shift in identity, however, were multiple and the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de langue Francaise, a meeting of French-speaking intellectuals which met at least every two years beginning in  1957,  was one place in which various possibilities could be tried out.  At the first meeting much of the conversation was around the very subject of what Judaism was—a religion, a nation, a race, an order or alliance.

 From the beginning the colloque understood its mission as a reconceptualization of the Jewish intellectual. The prolific scholar and thinker André Neher ,  who served as president of the Colloque and  was among its most consistent participants, outlines this shift in the preface to the first volume of proceedings:  the Jewish intellectual needed to be transformed from one  whose identity as intellectual emerged from his or her (mostly his) concern to look outward beyond Judaism to one who used his education and training to examine his own tradition. 

What emerged was a series of conferences in which the colloquium participants addressed a question of contemporary significance by drawing on Jewish sources to show how these sources, whether Biblical, Talmudic or Kabbalistic could shed light on the current moment.  Themes ranged from “the question of the state” to the conception of femininity in Judaism to “Timidity and Audacity in Jewish Thought.” While the speakers and attendees shifted from year to year, Neher, Ashkenazi and Levinas provided the backbone of most meetings by presenting  biblical  commentaries (Neher), Talmudic readings (Levinas) and Kabbalistic interpretations ( Ashkenazi). Among the other participants were journalists, psychoanalysts, philosophers and political figures, usually including a range of religious and more secular figures. 

Each talk was followed by robust debate which is itself preserved in the volumes of the proceedings. In many ways these meetings were the  beating heart of the post-war French-Jewish intellectual renaissance and have recently been re-initiated by a new group of French-Jewish intellectuals.

4. What is the relationship of Asheknaz thinkers and Sephardi thinkers in French thought?

Because of its geographic position between Germany and Spain, France’s Jewish population has been a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities since the medieval period.  In fact the southern Sephardic communities in Bordeaux and Bayonne were emancipated before the Ashkenazic communities of Alsace and Lorraine because they were understood to be more enlightened.

The early 20th Century saw an influx of Ashkenazic Jews as a consequence of the Pogroms and then the waves of refugees in the 1930’s escaping Nazi rule.  These Ashkenazi newcomers brought a variety of levels of observance as well as  multiple political ideologies.  Among them were Zionists, Anti-Zionists, Bundists, Marxists and Hasidim, among others.

North African Jews are a very important part of the story of French Judaism both before and after decolonialization.  Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship in 1870 with the Crémieux Decree, although it was revoked during the Second World War. Even for Jews from neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Morocco, protectorates of France, the sense of identification with France before the war was inculcated by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which ran schools across the Mediterranean basin. 

The influx of Jews from North Africa to France in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which was clearly accelerated by the process of decolonization and the Algerian war had a profound impact on French Judaism.  The arrival of North African Jews diversified the community even further. It also shifted the balance between the communities. 

By the mid-1980’s the Mizrahi Jewish community constituted the majority of the French-Jewish population.  They are often credited with adding new life and vigor to French Jewish cultural practice, but they also brought different styles of observance and different conceptions of Jewish identity, which sometimes caused friction with the established leaders of the French-Jewish community.   Despite the presence of the Alliance Israèlite Universelle in a number of North African countries, many émigrés were less assimilated than their contemporaries in the Metropole. They had maintained a connection to the traditional texts and styles of Jewish learning and tended, thus, to be less self-conscious about their observance, having not absorbed the same pressures to assimilate as their peers from the Metropole. The very division between nationality and religion which had developed within the French-Jewish tradition didn’t easily translate to the North-African Jewish experience. Their commitment to Zionism was often more militant, and less conflicted, which ultimately also helped solidify Jewish commitment to Zionism in France.

5. What was unique about the speeches of Rabbi Zadoc Kahn?

Rabbi Zadoc Kahn was the chief rabbi of France from 1889 to 1905, a time of great significance in France’s history and particularly in French Jewish History.  Not only did he have the opportunity to reflect on what the centennial of the revolution meant for France’s Jews, he then also had to lead the French Jewish community during the Dreyfus Affair and just up to the time of the 1905 law that separated Church and State in France.  It was a pivotal time, but he was also in many ways a pivotal figure.

From an Alsatian community, he served as chief Rabbi when Alsace itself was not a part of France as a consequence of the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war, which meant that the center of gravity for French Judaism itself shifted to the capital.  It was a time thus of loss but also the time in which French Judaism underwent its most extensive reforms since the Sanhedrin. This included changes in the Shabbat Services, such as further emphasis on French language, outreach to women, as well as an expansion of childhood religious education..

He was a leader of the movement to create an academic study of Judaism in France , creating the first French organization for Jewish Studies, the Société des études juives in 1880, which helped coordinate and promote the  science of Judaism in a  French key.  La Science du judaïsme was itself a direct translation and import from Germany, but its character clearly shifted in translation. 

Succinctly this difference can be summed up in terms of the host culture in relationship to which Jewish Thinkers needed to situate themselves. While in the German provinces this entailed understanding Judaism according to an account of historical development, the emergence of its idea. In France the task was to relate Judaism to the tradition of French universalism and humanism, to show that French Republicanism represented the reemergence  of a vision that was originally Hebraic.  Zadoc Kahn sought both to help develop the academic study of religion in France into one rivalling Germany’s, but at the same time to help it maintain its distinctly French character.

In all his efforts he was forward thinking in his sense of how Judaism could be strengthened by modernization, without at the same time embracing the Liberal/Reform tradition that had begun in Germany.  He was the quintessential embodiment of what it meant to be an Israélite–and thus of the possibility that one could be fully assimilated into the French nation and remain deeply observant, deeply Jewish, at least from the perspective of those who claimed it. I wanted to include him in the volume as a historical point of perspective.  He can help us to think both about what the past and the future of French Judaism looked like at the cusp of the 20th century, and to recognize what the culmination of a century of French-Jewish citizenship looked like in the persona of the community’s highest leader. 

6. Why was Sylvain Levi included?

Sylvain Levi (1863-1935) is in many ways an outlier in the volume, for his intellectual career was not primarily in the study of Judaism.  An expert in Sanskrit and Indian religions, he is certainly best remembered outside of the Alliance israélite universelle for his scholarly contributions to those fields.

I included him because I think of the Alliance israélite universelle as itself such an important contributor to the character of French Judaism, that I wanted to find a way to give it voice.  Levi’s reflections on its contributions in 1932 provide that perspective.  In addition, it is fascinating to me to see how the organization itself helped perpetuate a conception of Jewish universalism and how ambivalent it was about the Zionist project as a consequence. Levi’s comments after he had visited Palestine in 1918  encapsulate the anxiety that a Jewish state would compromise the perpetuation of that Jewish universalist vision, particularly in its French form:  “The French genius with its passion for universal humanity…is the closest parent of the messianic spirit; it is its natural safeguard against the sectarians who have never given up stifling it.”

7. What was the message of Jacob Gordon? What was his influence?

It is difficult, of course to sum up the thought, writing and teaching of Jacob Gordin (1896-1947)into a message. He is a fascinating and understudied figure. Besides his thesis “Investigations on the Theory of Infinite Judgement [Untersuchungen zur Theorie des unendlichen Urteils] in 1929, we only have unfinished manuscripts and articles—many of them entries in the Encyclopedia Judaica—and transcripts of his courses from his students. Partially that is a consequence of his dying young, at the age of 51, just at the moment when his influence began to take hold and partially it is a consequence of the tumultuous times in which he lived. He was in Saint Petersburg in 1917 for the Russian Revolution, in Berlin for Hitler’s rise to power and in Paris in June of 1940 when the Nazis invaded. At the same time, he was enormously influential on many important figures included in the volume: on Emmanuel Levinas, André Neher, Léon Ashkenazi and others.

What’s fascinating about his thought is the confluence of Hermann Cohen’s Neo-Kantianism with strands of Jewish Mysticism.  The result is a teaching that rests heavily on the notion that the Jewish people have a particular role to play in the universe.  In the text I included in the volume, which was itself pieced together from lecture notes, Gordin describes the Jewish people as les ménagères, the housekeepers of the universe and describes suffering as purification. This lecture was given at the end of World War II to Jewish youth contemplating what it meant to remake the post-war world.  He was at the time advocating for the importance of the Jewish diaspora in playing this role and thus resisting the pressures of Zionism.  However, Léon Ashkenazi, one of his most significant disciples, would later argue that he thought that if Gordin had lived past 1947 he would have embraced the Zionist movement.

8) What was Leon Ashkenazi’s early view of the diaspora?

Ashkenazi (1922-1996)  who was born in Oran, Algeria and came from a long line of influential rabbis on both sides of his family.  At Seventeen he joined the Éclaireurs israélites, the Jewish Boy Scouts and became one of its most influential leaders, so much so that he is often referred to for his scout name, Manitou, given to him for his dynamism and charisma.  He was partial to Kabbalistic interpretations of Torah, particularly to a reading of the tradition that centered on the claim that the Genesis stories of the lineage and generations of the patriarchs held the secret of human history. 

As for his early view of the diaspora, it  was close to his teacher Jacob Gordin’s,  a view clearly evident in his 1954 essay “Judah and Israel” in which he describes the diaspora as serving as the spiritual center of Judaism and the state of Israel as the physical center . “If the Levites had fulfilled the religious task of the Israelites in biblical times, allowing the other tribes to occupy themselves with temporal matters, now the Diaspora was to play the priestly role, thus allowing the Israeli Jews to be occupied with temporal concerns,” Ashkenazi wrote.    It was his 1956 encounter with Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook that changed his perspective and convinced him that a new era had arisen and with it a new task: to become a Hebrew in the land of Israel.

9. How  does Albert Memmi give an Existential reading of Jewishness?

Albert Memmi (1920-2020), who grew up in Tunisia, was himself a product of this history of French citizenship in North Africa and the school system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle.

 In Portrait of a Jew he describes being torn between multiple worlds.  His father, a harness maker was pious, but by his adolescence, as I write in the anthology, the sources of Memmi’s identification with Judaism had already began to shift. He describes himself in turn as a Zionist youth, a patriotic French Universalist during lycée and a Tunisian nationalist.  Each of these identities were thwarted in turn by the events of his lifetime and led him to an exploration of Jewish identity as “a fate.” 

Memmi was an interlocutor of both Sartre and Fanon and one can certainly see a certain overlap in their vocabulary and sense the parallels that emerge in Memmi’s portrait of the Jewish “situation.”   What one finds in “Portrait of a Jew” is an attempt to describe the Jewish experience without recourse to religious categories, but out of the experience of anti-Semitism, a task which might even seem to follow from Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (Réflexions sur la question juive) (1946). He was ultimately an ethnic particularist and a Zionist, but not based on the claim of their being a racial or ethnic essence to the Jewish people, rather it is a consequence of  reckoning with centuries of exclusion and coming to the conclusion that the state of Israel was a historical necessity.  That said  he rejected the religious justification for the state’s existence and vocally supported Palestinian rights.

10. How did Richard Marienstras give a vocation to the diaspora?

As Richard Marienstras (1928-2011) himself describes in Être un people en diaspora (1975), paraphrasing Count Clermont-Tonnere, the promise of the revolution was to given everything to Jews as individuals and nothing to them as a nation.  The French offer of emancipation seemed thus itself to assume a dichotomy: either Jews were a nation, defined as a collective, or Judaism was a religion, thus an individual assertion of a belief system or une confession in French.  The later possibility is established in France as a counter-conception to national identity. 

Marienstras,, who was renown as a Shakespeare scholar  was also a polish émigré who had spent time in Palestine as well as in Tunisia. He  wrote to resist the dichotomy, particularly as it had itself been reinforced by the Zionist movement which itself reclaimed Jewish nationhood in Palestine.  For him, this choice was a false one, especially given the two millennia of diasporic Jewish existence.  Diaspora was a vocation in the sense that it offered the possibility of minority belonging, a form of political identity that resisted the hegemony of the nation-state.  Along with minority groups in the U.S. such as Native Americans, and African Americans, as well as regional identities in France, such as the Basque people, Marienstras saw diasporic Jews as playing an important political role, voicing resistance to both capitalism and statist politics. 

While the American civil rights movement was certainly something of an inspiration for him, he also saw the long Jewish history of diaspora as serving a paradigmatic role for other diasporic groups.  He envisioned a future in which diasporic peoples could work together as forces of resistance.

11. How did Henri Atlan present universalism? Can you say anything on his views on Kabbalah God, or Judaism?

Henri Atlan is an incredibly fascinating and multi-talented person.  A medical doctor, biophysicist and a philosopher, his works range across these fields.  He has described himself as something of a Spinozist.  

Atlan has a very interesting essay, not included here, in which he addresses his views on Jews/Judaism and universalism. The essay called “A chosen people” contrasts Jewish universalism, which Atlan describes as one that begins from Jewish particularity and achieves universality “by taking differences into account,” with the Christian and Islamic universal monotheisms which follow a model based on the election of believers.    Jewish election, he suggests is actually more in tune with ancient polytheisms, in which a god chooses a people and thus is fundamentally a tribal god.

For Atlan, Jewish election only becomes scandalous when read through the lens of the later traditions of Christianity and Islam.  Atlan’s familiarity with Kabbalah came originally by way of Léon Ashkenazi and the Chabad master Zalman Schneerson, brother of the late rebbe, with whom Atlan studied in Paris. 

Kabbalah, Atlan came to realize had its own logic, its own formal rationality.  In his work Les étincelles de hazard, for example,  the Kabbalistic retelling of the fall serves as a means to understand the human condition, not as a source for sin but as a mythological expression of a range of issues pertinent to human experience, from knowledge to sex to technology.

12 What was Helen Cixous’ view of her Judaism?

For Hélène Cixous (1937- ) her Judaism is closely tied to her experience as a woman.  She initially experienced both as sites of exclusion and marginalization.  It is clear however that her Jewishness is also a means of identification with a certain experience of uprootedness in modernity, an experience which is certainly not only of negative valence for her.  She has written lovingly about Kafka, Freud, Celan and the Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector,  and it is clear from these texts that she has felt a strong sense of identification with these figures. She saw these writers as teachers, who could show us how to mourn but also how to hope, a way of embracing, what she called, quoting Paul Celan, the Singbarrest, the singable remains. 

13. Are  there points you want the reader to know about how French Jewish thought differs from German Jewish thought?

More important to me than simply distinguishing the two is the possibility that French Jewish Thought can help us broaden how we understand what constitutes Modern Jewish Thought.

Certainly, German Jewish Thought has provided the fundamental paradigm for Modern Jewish Thought and to some extent has limited how we conceive of the genre.  From its earliest coinage, the canonical texts of Modern Jewish Thought—Buber, Cohen, Rosenzweig, Fackenheim among others—were understood as valuable for their edifying potential.  They were read as guides to how to understand what Judaism can offer the modern observer.

Without foreclosing on this possibility, I want to expand the genre to include texts that ask even about its very terms and engage in their historical-political constitution and negotiation. If we take Modern French Jewish Thought to have commenced with the Assembly of Notables, then we can think of it as a tradition preoccupied by the very terms of modernity and Judaism. French Jewish thinkers perennially had to deal with explicit political pressures coming from outside beginning with  the need to prove that Judaism was a religion and not a national identity, a pressure that is reversed by the end of the 19th century when they are accused of being the secret architects of the French Revolution. One can sense those pressures at work in the self-descriptions of Judaism, but this helped induce  the creative work of mining the tradition’s sources to address these pressures.

Of course, the other way to distinguish the two follows from their historical scope.  German-Jewish Thought essentially reaches an endpoint with the Holocaust.  But it was only in the late 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s that French Jewish thinkers became deeply familiar with the interwar German  canon, thus postwar French Jewish Thought provides a postwar chapter to the Weimar German story, even as it has its own history leading up to the Second World  War.  The French had to contend with how to think about Jewish diasporic existence in Europe after WWII in a way that was unparalleled in other nations.  

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