In the opening pages of Eliyahu Stern’s new book “Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s,” there is a picture of a cracked yellow wallet.
At first glance, it appears like any other money holder of its era. Upon closer examination, however, one notices the Hebrew words bleeding through the wallet’s skin. It is, in fact, a historic relic from one of the many pogroms that destroyed Russian Jewish communities during the late 19th century.
Longstanding anti-Semites, the Cossacks, perpetrated these pogroms and targeted the most valuable and sacred possessions of their Jewish victims. Often, these items were found in synagogues, and after being looted were repurposed into salable goods. This unusual wallet, for instance, was originally a Torah scroll. Today, it sits on a library shelf in Connecticut.
The historic and cultural symbolism of this wallet is twofold, explains Stern, an associate professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history at Yale University who has also served as a consultant to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Firstly, it’s tangible proof of the anti-Semitic violence in 19th century Russia. More importantly, though, it gives testimony to the dark train of thought running through the Western intellectual canon: Philosophers from Kant to Marcion have glorified Christendom’s spiritual development in opposition to a “materialism” they defined as “Jewish.”
These cultural cliches are as derogatory as they are insulting, Stern says, citing the images of greedy, money-obsessed Jews bowing to the Lord of Shylock, engaging in mercantile and usurer activities that reflect a materialistic doctrine inscribed in their sacred scrolls.
“Historically, Jewish materialism was used by anti-Semites seeking to demean the value of Judaism,” says Stern, from his office at Yale University. “It’s often been used as a way of delegitimizing Judaism’s spiritual and religious values by those who depict Judaism as a cover for hoarding, egoism, and an expression of difference.”
Historically, Jewish materialism was used by anti-Semites seeking to demean the value of Judaism
But another, albeit less well-known, story exists.
“Jewish Materialism” is actually a distinct ideology — as Stern’s latest book explores through research and analysis — that was developed by Russian Jews in the late 19th century.
Roots of ‘materialism’
Principally, the ideology defined Judaism and Jewish identity within the “material” aspect of the universe. It arose in reaction to the impoverished conditions that Jews had to encounter in the Tsarist kingdom, where they were forbidden to live or work outside the area known as the Pale of Settlement.
“Jews in Russia during this time began to reform Judaism, looking towards its resources, which could shed light on the fair distribution of wealth,” Stern says.
“That would become the start of a whole host of Jewish political movements, including Bundism, Zionism and Territorialism,” he says.
“All of these [ideologies] began with one fundamental idea — that Jewish identity is fundamentally rooted in the physical-material world,” Stern adds.
Stern says Jewish materialism kick started a monumental shift in the way Jews perceived what Judaism itself was principally about. It was no longer simply a spiritual belief system comprised of ritual or learning, but seen instead as something more abstract, encompassing metaphysical ideals.
The historian points out that Jewish materialism held a myriad of viewpoints and ideological leanings, and that there is no one size fits all definition of it as such.
For people such as Moses Leib Lilienblum, materialism entailed promoting a materialistic perspective on life in which social practices and religious institutions were scrutinized according to universal scientific principles of efficiency and utility.
For the Darwinian Joseph Sossnitz, materialism meant promoting a “materialist religion,” a metaphysical argument about the nature of the universe; for Jewish Marxists, like Aaron Shemuel Lieberman and Isaac Kaminer, it involved analyzing history based on labor being the first principle of life.
“With Jewish materialism, Judaism began to be seen much more about people’s physical well being and protection,” Stern explains. “And that would begin the story of Marx as the secular Moses and the prophet of the Pale of Settlement in Russia.”
“Marx spoke about certain problems relevant to Jews at that time, and to specific strains within the Judaic tradition,” says Stern. “This resulted in a large amount of Jews abandoning Judaism and becoming communists.”
The prophet Marx
Stern points to how Jewish socialists — especially members of the Jewish Labor movement the Bund — began to take on Marx’s ideas during this time with religious-like fervor. They often saw books like “Capital” through the same kind of hermeneutic spiritual prism with which they viewed the Torah, and certain Jews began seeing biblical motifs in Marx’s writing, too.
In fact, Jewish German Social Democrat leader Karl Kautsky was so disturbed by this that he spent half of the forward he wrote to the first Yiddish edition of “The Communist Manifesto” in 1899 instructing religious leaders to stop referring to Marx’s work as the Torah or the Bible.
“What Jews saw when they read Marx was that one did not have to be a citizen of a state to be political or to be a revolutionary, and that the problems of economics were directly related back to civil society,” Stern says.
“Marx also gave Jews the idea that to be political doesn’t mean to lobby for greater rights, it means to be aware of yourself as a laborer. And being aware to act on the capacities on this world,” he says.
This last point was extremely pertinent for Jews at the time, Stern points out, because Jews were a stateless people who enjoyed almost no rights or protections.
It’s no wonder, then, that Marx’s writing instantly connected with the vast majority of Jews dwelling in the impoverished conditions of the Pale of Settlement in the mid- to late-19th century.
Stern says to understand the history of Jewish materialism, one really has to understand the social and economic conditions of the northwest provinces of the Russian Empire in some detail at least.
“From 1795 onward Jews in Russia were living in this defined area, the Pale of Settlement, where they were only able to perform a limited set of labor tasks — to collect taxes, to become liquor salesman, to be merchants, to be peddlers, or be rabbis,” says Stern. “But they couldn’t own any land. And they couldn’t take any jobs outside the Pale of Settlement.”
Not only was Jews’ economic mobility limited in Russia at the time, but they also became increasingly endangered. Stern says this arose in parallel with the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861.
“What you began to see during this period was increased economic competition from the serfs, who began to encroach on the small number of labor activities that Jews could engage in,” Stern explains.
This then created economic strife between Jews and serfs, resulting in a multitude of pogroms.
Birth of the fatalistic Jew
Jews in Russia during this period began to reevaluate their social and economic position in society — and three political ideals, especially.
“Firstly, Jews no longer saw history as progressively getting better or improving,” Stern says. “Secondly, Jews lost faith in the project of trying to get the Russian government to emancipate them. This is a very important point because the pillar of Jewish politics in western Europe was always [about] the principle of emancipation.”
“And thirdly, Russian Jews gave up on the Rabbinic tradition being reformed,” Stern adds. “Once Jews give up on these three principles, they began to say, ‘Let’s not think about the state, but something universal — society at large.’”
As Stern points out, until the beginning of the 20th century, the vast majority of Jews in the world resided in Russia, with the lingua franca for the most part being Yiddish. But some spoke Russian, and a number could read Hebrew, too.
So how, then, were Jews going to communicate as a united cohort? And what medium would allow their political ideals to flourish into something resembling a collective conscious or an imagined community?
An important figure here was the forerunner of cultural Zionism, Peretz Smolenskin. As Stern’s book recalls, Smolenskin founded The Dawn (Hashahar) in Vienna in 1868, which became the leading Jewish European newspaper of its time. The paper did not favor Jewish statehood, territorial ambitions, or specific political policies. But it did view Jews as a historical people and a defined collective.
Thus the idea of a “Jewish public” emerged.
“Zionism used the Hebrew language to create a reading public,” Stern says. “So if a Jewish person was living in Vilnius or Paris, and another was living in Warsaw or Berlin, they might never have met each other. But Hebrew print said you all have a shared set of concerns that you can find on this page.”
“Jews might not have had a shared language or a shared geography, but reading in Hebrew created a Jewish public that morphed into a national body,” says Stern.
With Bundists, says Stern, the lingua franca was Yiddish. “It also gave them a sense of being part of the labor struggle throughout Europe. So Jews’ languages became the basis for a reading public, which itself gave them a sense of national consciousness that created different kinds of political movements.”
A distinctly wrong turn
Stern’s book concludes by looking at how Jewish materialism still has cultural relevance today, both in the global Jewish Diaspora and in Israel. But mainly, he points out, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Historically, Jewish materialism inspired Europe’s most oppressed Jews to lift themselves out of poverty, Stern says. But today, Stern claims biblical texts are being used by Jews to promote consolidation of corporate greed. And, he says, genetic studies are being cited by some Jews to prevent other Jews from intermarrying.
Stern says some Jews in Israel are currently using bio-territorial politics — gleaned from the fundamental writings of Jewish materialism — to lay claim to the idea that “Jewish blood and the soil of the Land of Israel are composed of the same molecules.”
As an American Jewish progressive who sees this tradition of politics emerging from Jewish materialism, Stern is vocally critical of what he sees as the rapid rightward shift in Israeli politics in recent years — something he views as a betrayal of Zionism’s founding principles.
“What is the State of Israel’s relationship to the protection of Jewish bodies?” Stern asks. “And what does it do with its Palestinian inhabitants? What about their relationship to the fair and equal distribution of resources? Is that even possible in the present conditions?” he asks.
Stern believes that the State of Israel has completely diverged from the road map on which the Jewish state originally set out when it was established in 1948 under the guiding principles of Zionism.
“Why does Israel have one of the largest gaps between its poor and its rich,” Stern asks rhetorically, “when this was a country founded upon the fair and equal distribution of resources, which would allow Jews to take part in a full range of their labor capacities?”
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