Larisa Reznik and Daniel J. Schultz
Adam Y. Stern’s book Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy opens with a parallel set of observations: the first takes note of the ubiquity of survival-talk in the public sphere and the second registers the persistent association of Jews and survival. In the former instance, Stern has in mind the myriad ways “the figure of the survivor has come to mediate the representation of current events, from genocide, climate catastrophe, and mass shootings, to disaster capitalism, sexual violence, terminal illness, and more”; in the second, Stern is thinking not only of the Holocaust survivor’s exemplarity, but of how “survival underwrites the narration of Jewish history (the survival of the Jews) and Jewish politics (the survival of Israel)” (ix). How, the study asks, might these two fields of survival-talk be brought together? What, if anything, does this survival-talk across secular, biological, political, and planetary domains have to do with Jewish survival?
Stern’s answer to this question, and the book’s main provocation, is that these heterogeneous expressions of survival are already linked. They carry with them the signature of a Latin Christian political theology of survival. Secularism does not mark the overcoming of Christianity; it marks, rather, its universal global translation. This is captured, for Stern, by Derrida’s neologism globalatinization, a sign which both hides and globalizes a Latin Christian grammar of concepts and style of power. Stern’s theo-political genealogy tracks this Christian morphology of survival through exemplary scenes of its ongoing translation.
Representing the best impulses of an interdisciplinary approach, Survival marshals the resources of religious studies, theology, continental philosophy, media studies, psychoanalysis, postcolonial thought, and translation studies, to name a few. While the core chapters of this book engage Arendt, Benjamin, Rosenzweig, and Freud, along the way, a reader will tarry with the Talmud, the Eucharist controversies, the Gospel of John, Friedrich Kittler’s “discourse networks,” Shakespeare, Conrad, the postcolonial thought of Abdelkebir Khatibi, and so much more.
The respondents in this Symposium further expand this already capacious archive. In addition to drawing out the deep resonance of Stern’s analysis of Jewish survival with the way survival circulates in Black and Indigenous Studies, these responses — in the way they draw alongside, contest, and extend Stern’s claims — betray disciplinary desires (for a different archive) and anxieties (about the way Stern has configured his own). A book like Stern’s cannot not awaken these wants and fears, the desire for an emancipatory subject of history and the anxiety about what happens if such a subject is abandoned. If Enlightenment critiques of Christianity, which promise its overcoming, work to intensify the sensation of human freedom, expanse, and futurity, genealogical work like Stern’s, which reframes this supposed overcoming as yet another chapter of Christianity’s insidious self transformation, can amplify a readerly sensation of claustrophobia. It can make it seem as though history were a yoke to be borne or a horizon of closure to be endured.
Stern is not, however, resigned to such closure, even as he resists the consolations of a subject of history. He models resistance to the globalatinizing figuration of survival in the book’s remarkable epilogue. There he offers us, if not an alternative, an image — linguistically condensed in the Hebrew-Arabic neologism talmid-hakham-in-sumūd — on the basis of which something like an alternative might be elaborated. This attempt at a local translation of survival, one derived from Jewish and Palestinian sources, refuses globalatin mediation. The fact that one can construct an alternative Jewish genealogy of survival, however, does not mean there’s reason to believe it will be any less violent, subsumptive, or in the business of replicating sovereignty everywhere it goes. The parting gesture of Survival then offers a point of entry into an investigation of Jewish alternatives but does not assume that something good will necessarily be found there. In the responses collected here, the perils and the promise of Stern’s project come into sharper relief.
Joseph Winters’ response — “(Jewish) Survival Beyond (Christian) Resurrection” — weaves Stern’s theo-political genealogy of survival into the poetic figuration of black being, or to that mode of survival that Kevin Quashie has termed “Black aliveness.” What is at stake here is a form of aesthetic world making where what survives, in Winters’ words, “is never separable from the violence and the terror that produce remnants and ruins.” This notion, which draws on the “weak messianism” of Walter Benjamin’s famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” captures the double sense of survival pervades Stern’s genealogy: survival is not only what remains, but also the wreckage and ruination that enables what remains. Winters introduces this thematic with James Baldwin’s remark: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. So, I’m forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive.” This forced optimism disallows any suggestion that survival here is triumphant or emancipatory; instead, it is very much, to borrow a phrase from Christina Sharpe, “in the wake.” Winters brings these tensions to a crescendo through a remarkable reading of Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me.”
If Winters’ reading of Survival transposes Stern’s problematic from the German-Jewish philosophical domain to the poetic domain of Black study, it does so leaving the project’s genealogical method and central claims intact. Conversely, Julia Reinhard Lupton’s response — “Surviving Shakespeare, Dreaming of Michelangelo, Honoring Arendt” — offers a different angle of approach, one that attempts to disrupt Stern’s genealogical procedure and to furnish a counter-reading of his major interlocutors. Where Stern finds in Jewish narratives of survival a rearticulation of, and complicity with, Christian salvation history, Lupton finds Jewish thinkers taking up Christian formulations in order to make them more capacious and elastic, allowing them “to accommodate other voices, vistas, and questions.” In addition to reading these German Jewish thinkers otherwise, Lupton supplements her counter narrative with a rich visual analysis of two minor Jewish figures in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes — Achim and Eliud, ancestors of Christ (Mt 1:1-16). Unlike the major prophets who loom large on the lavishly painted ceiling, Achim and Eliud are tucked away, painted on either side of a lunette and are weakly tethered to the overall theology of the fresco program. “The cramped, divided picture planes,” writes Lupton, “yield a range of comportments not exhausted by New Testament typology.” This acute sensitivity to an ongoing Jewish resonance and remainder in Christian art and thought is meant to resist the hegemony of Christian closure, something Lupton repeatedly does in exceptional readings of Shakespeare that both draw alongside and critically probe Stern’s own.
In framing their reading of Stern’s iterative ask, “who is speaking about survival?,” Eleanor Craig reminds us that Stern is asking “whose epistemologies and concerns inhabit” texts and how might we talk about textual complicity in terms of that inhabitation, rather than some authorial intent. Craig’s reading of Stern’s question might be less about who is speaking about survival and more about whose survival is (and is not) being spoken. Framed in
that way, Craig, like Winters, orients Stern’s inhabitational accounting toward new archives and possibilities for solidarity with a range of others for whom the call of globalatinizing survival is a proleptic death knell—those of Indigenous Studies and related disciplines that seek to publicize the“arrangements of domination” undergirding the very project of Western “civilization.” Stern’s analysis illuminates the growing zone of indistinction between domination and practices of freedom. Adding to this analysis, Craig, following Gerald Vizenor, calls upon survivance to hold open a space for practices of freedom that cannot be wholly translated into the dialectic of domination and resistance. Vizenor locates survivance in Indigenous knowledge and practice. By marking affinities between Survival’s search for a language in colonial Palestine for responding to the threat of annihilation that is not already overwritten by survival’s globalatinized effects and the idiom of survivance, Craig points to opportunities for solidarity across populations whose disparate histories nonetheless share in both the effects of survival and the arts of survivance—however diverse and untranslatable such arts (must) remain across contexts.
Nitzan Lebovic focuses on the gap between sovereignty and biopolitics that a genealogical approach indebted to Foucault and interested in the question of secularization like Stern’s must traverse. Lebovic reads the survivor as a figure that appears on the faultline between the regime of sovereignty and the regime of biopolitics. From this vantage point, Lebovic offers a provocation, asking just how exemplary is “the survivor” to this genealogical story and might another sort of figure serve equally well for tracing the seam of transition from sovereignty to biopolitics. Lebovic proposes the figure of “the stranger” refracted through the German-Jewish philosophical, historical, and sociological scene, drawing on Georg Simmel as a resource for theorizing the stranger. As a marginal figure accorded x-ray vision into the contradictions of secularization, which the transition between the regime of sovereignty and biopolitics names for Lebovic, the stranger also renders visible the hegemonic effects of the secularization of Christian norms, forms, and grammars. Yet because “the stranger” is a figure of ambivalence, whose legacy is not so firmly tethered to the twin polls of Christian survival–the fittest and the least fit–he holds out the possibility of traversing the shift between sovereignty and biopolitics that modulates the risk of “giving Christianity the last word.” Like Lupton, Lebovic worries that Stern leaves us with no way out of the regime of globalatinization that Stern’s genealogy of survival presents. Like Craig, Lebovic also gestures towards the desire for a counter-genealogy of survivance. Ultimately, Lebovic concludes that neither the survivor nor the stranger can serve as a starting point for such a counter genealogy, as both figures are “too civilized, too much the product of a turbulent West.”
These responses, taken together with Stern’s generous individual replies, give incipient shape to a transdisciplinary conversation. The attempt here to trace the lines of force that traverse “survival” yield strikingly original readings of canonical figures and stage a series of direct confrontations with some of our most intractable political problems.
Daniel J. Schultz is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology at Whitman College. His work, which explores themes that range from medieval art history to political theology to postcolonial historiography, has appeared in venues such as The Journal of Religion, Word & Image, Political Theology, and History and Theory. He is currently writing a book that examines the ways religion is constituted as an object of knowledge in Michel Foucault’s later works.
Larisa Reznik is Lecturer in Religious Studies and Jewish Studies at The University of Chicago. Previously, she was Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Pomona College. Her research and teaching focus on modern Jewish thought, religion and politics, critical theory, and gender and sexuality studies. She is currently working on two book projects, tentatively titled Modern Jewish Thought and the Politics of Political Theology and Theological Realism and the Jargon of Authenticity.
Surviving Shakespeare, Dreaming of Michelangelo, Honoring Arendt
Surviving Shakespeare, Dreaming of Michelangelo, Honoring Arendt
Figure 1: Michelangelo, Achim and Eliud, Sistine Chapel lunette. https://www.wga.hu/html_m/m/michelan/3sistina/6lunette/03/index.html
This painting by Michelangelo [Fig 1] is one of several lunettes and spandrels in the Sistine Chapel featuring the Ancestors of Christ. Overshadowed by the more famous depictions of God and his Prophets, the Ancestor series consists of small family groups skootched into leftover spaces in the Chapel’s upper walls. Deprived of the knowledge that vest the Prophets with their dignity and momentum, these minor characters from Matthew 1:1-16 are trapped in an interminable before-time. The cramped, divided picture planes yield a range of comportments not exhausted by New Testament typology, from ennui and alienation (notice the backs turned to each other and the viewer) to tenderness and care (the mother on the right prepares a makeshift meal for her baby).
The Ancestors of Christ rank for me among Michelangelo’s most compelling images. They have also long struck me as evocatively Jewish, so I was excited to learn in recent work by Asher Biemann that Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) chose to view these works as portraits of “Jews in exile.” In other words, the Jewish Neo-Kantian from Marburg read these scenes as images of survival, in the sense developed so brilliantly by Adam Stern in his new book. The category of the Holocaust survivor, stripped of shame by writers such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, became a veritable “secular saint” for both diaspora communities and the state of Israel after World War II (4). Yet survival, Stern argues, is not a Jewish idea at all, at least in any straightforward sense, but rather a complex by-product of Christian theology which has been unreflectively reabsorbed by modern Jewish thinkers as well as embraced by Israel’s state project. The process of constructing Jewish survival began long before the Holocaust, when Church fathers such as Augustine reread the “Old” Testament as prophecy and prefiguration of the New, to whose truth the survival of the Jews and their books bear witness (27). This fateful strategy authorized Christendom’s repressive toleration of the Jews as a necessary if reviled corpus mysticum, both dead and alive, embedded in salvation history (29).
Reaching back into Paul and the early church but focusing on modern German Jewish thought, Stern’s central tactic is to find the Christianity in Jewish thinkers, exposing the complicity of their survival narratives with the Eucharistic manufacture of presence, Christ’s resurrection, and the king’s two bodies. Thus, he writes of Arendt,
Because Christianity for Stern is ultimately synonymous with capitalism and imperialism, or what he calls, following Derrida, globalatinization, Arendt’s recourse to Christian figures such as Lazarus, her citations of Augustine, and even her turn to the English language (20) ultimately limit what she has to offer on the history of anti-Semitism and the birth of biopolitics. Although Stern says that he “follows Arendt by asking about the history of survival” (18), he finds her guilty of “secreting (in the double sense of the word) a singularly Christian topography of survival” (20).
But what is Arendt actually saying when she quotes Augustine? Arendt certainly did not think that human beings are incapable of creating; art occupies a key transitional bridge between work and action in The Human Condition. Arendt is arguing rather that the creation story thematizes the introduction of the unpredictability of human actors into the totality of the world considered as a made thing, and any attempt to treat human worldliness as the object of social engineering, household management, or military calculation is bound to fail (or at least reach a terrible stalemate). In The Human Condition, Arendt places the origins of the bureaucratic, post-political state in the Christian Middle Ages, and she explicitly criticizes the translation of Greek political terms into “Roman-Christian thought.” What she is trying to retrieve from humanity’s created status, in other words, is the capacity for politics, whose manifold contingencies are bound up in doing, speaking, and appearing to and before others (Eve to Adam, Adam to Eve), a fundamentally dramatic scene that the biopolitical state only imperfectly manages.
In Arendt’s 1933 essay “Original Assimilation” (note the ironic Augustinian title), she compares the Jewish salon hostess Rahel Varnhagen to Adam: “Purely independent, because born into no cultural world, without prejudice, because it seemed no one judged before her, as if in the paradoxical situation of the first human being, she was compelled to appropriate everything as if she were meeting it for the first time.” Varnhagen’s assimilation is “original” because it flows out of and gives shape to the disengagement from Jewish tradition predicated by emancipation and enlightenment. In this secular midrash, Arendt uses creation and its discontents to analyze the Jewish predicament, deprived of a politics, in the early 1930s.
In The Star of Redemption Rosenzweig notes that whereas the first days of creation are judged by God to be “good [tov],” the creation of humanity on the sixth day is “very good [tov me’od]” (Gen. 1:31). Building on rabbinic commentaries, Rosenzweig identifies this “very” with a “supercreation” within creation, a surplus he identifies with human mortality, which “portends the revelation of a life which is above the creaturely level” by introducing historicity and the possibility of renewal into the teeming yet closed world of creation’s earlier stages. This de-completion that completes creation is doubled in the institution of Shabbat, a messianic interim or “time that remains” that opens a clearing for human action by suspending everyday work and labor. Arendt emphasizes birth or natality, whereas Rosenzweig emphasizes death or mortality, but both find in Genesis a torsion within creation that introduces historicity into the world conceived as a made thing. Eric Santner argues that German Jewish thinkers developed the topos of createdness and creaturely life because it allowed them to conceptualize “a specifically human way of finding oneself caught in the midst of antagonisms in and of the political field.” German-Jewish writers including Arendt, Auerbach, Rosenzweig, and Benjamin take up createdness in its Christian formulations but loosen Biblical typology’s grip on the story in order to accommodate other voices, vistas, and questions.
Stern exposes the Christian core of modern Jewish thought by troubling Arendt’s reliance on Augustine and Rosenzweig’s affinities with Pseudo-Dionysus. Hermann Cohen’s response to Michelangelo as processed by Asher Biemann suggests a somewhat different tactic: how does Jewishness continue to resonate within Christian art and thought? How do such remainders suggest paths into and beyond secularization for both Jewish and Christian artists and thinkers?
Let’s take Shakespeare. Stern reads Hamlet as a Eucharistic allegory: “In a crucial historical translation—’at the heart of the ghost story called Christianity’—Shakespeare analyzes the aura and reproducibility of the king’s portrait as a political theology of a survivor-ghost” (137). If you read Hamlet for reminiscences of Torah, on the other hand, you might overhear Polonius rewriting the Book of Proverbs, Hamlet wallowing in Ecclesiastes, the Ghost delivering his commandment on Mosaic tablets, and Claudius and his stepson jockeying for possession of Davidic kingship. Hamlet’s Bible broadens the tropes of survival well beyond the resurrection celebrated in the Mass, to include the feint of madness, the agony of repentance, and the competing forms of discourse and study associated with Torah (Moses) and wisdom (Solomon). Even Hamlet’s liberatory “interim” in Act Four, which allows him to affirm his role as minister and scourge but also as forgiver and forgiven, has a messianic tenor.
What whispers in Hamlet howls in Lear, the Shakespearean tragedy that displaced Hamlet after the Holocaust. Lear has long been compared to Job and the prophets, and artists in the eighteenth century, responding to the increasing prestige of Shakespeare as a secular scripture, depicted Lear in the style of Michelangelo’s Sistine portraits. In many illustrations, Lear raging on the heath evokes the outstretched arms of Michelangelo’s storm-and-creator-God. The Anglo-Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, fresh from his Italienreise, used Michelangelo’s nested schemata to design a whole Shakespeare gallery, a secular Sistina. It was William Blake, however, who most closely channeled the forced inventiveness of exile that Hermann Cohen later intuited in Michelangelo’s Ancestors. Blake’s image of Cordelia and Lear in prison captures the lassitude and abandonment of Michelangelo’s refugees and honors their remodeling of leftover intervals for acts of imagination, companionship, and care.
Figure 2: William Blake, Lear and Cordelia in Prison, c. 1779. Tate Britain. Photo: Tate. https://www.tate-images.com/preview.asp?image=N05189
Like my father-in-law Frank Reinhard’s generation of assimilated German Jews, Arendt was thrust into her Jewishness by the events of the 1930s, which she survived by becoming a refugee while aiding others in their exodus from Europe to Palestine and the United States. She could not save Benjamin from death, but she did carry his writings out of Europe and see them into print: survival of another kind. In the “Introduction” to Illuminations, Arendt compares Benjamin’s citations to pearl fishing, alluding to The Tempest. Shakespeare in turn assembled his underwater wonderland from the prophet’s psalm of thanksgiving in the Book of Jonah. Arendt’s pearls—luminous, portable, secreted around trash and trauma, and belonging to sea change—proffer a different, more magnanimous, Shakespearean trope of survival than the ghosts, hosts, and dead dictators that Stern finds in Hamlet and Julius Caesar.
Stern’s genealogical approach unmasks survival’s darker purposes by “provincializing the presumed universality of regnant codes” and “analyzing the text of dominant discourses” (10). Although I came of age on deconstruction, genealogy often leaves me feeling bereft of valuable tools and fellow travelers. There are moments, however, when Stern pauses from the necessary work of critique in order to seek a way forward. In the stunning Epilogue, Stern provides an affirmative genealogy of the Palestinian virtue of ṣumūd—“agency, ability, and capacity in dire circumstances” (184), the forms of endurance that shine in Michelangelo’s lunettes. Stern couples ṣumūd with the rabbinic identification of the sarid or remnant with the talmid hakkam, “a student listening to the call of Torah (even at night),” that is, under conditions of persecution and dearth (186). Such devoted and courageous study, Stern suggests, is a form of Jewish survival less contaminated by Christian-colonial thinking than the post-war “Holocaust survivor” has become. And Stern’s own work is surely itself such an act of nocturnal study, insofar as he is keeping alive the tradition of Jewish thought that flourished before, between, and after the first two world wars, within a new “dark time” (in Arendt’s phrase) marked by the moral compromises of Israel, the march of climate change, and, as we write, the prospect of WWIII.
Figure 4: Hannah Lupton Reinhard, Song of the Sea, 2021. Oil and Swarovski crystals. Private collection. https://seasons.la/exhibitions/16-hannah-lupton-reinhard-beshert-beholden/overview/
Whither Jewish (post-secular) art today? This final image, Song of the Sea, was the centerpiece of an exhibition entitled “Beshert / Beholden,” the 2022 solo debut of painter Hannah Reinhard Lupton (named twenty-six years ago after Hannah Arendt and, yes, my daughter). In this large oil painting bedazzled with Swarovski crystals, the exodus from Egypt becomes an afterparty where Instagram girlfriends trample a Chagallesque dejeuner sur l’herbe. If the headless dancers at the back of the painting mimic the maidens of Botticelli, the women in the foreground, one braiding the hair of another, resemble Michelangelo’s snapshots of Jewish solicitude in exile. Beshert is Yiddish for soulmate. Hannah’s nymphs are dear to each other because they are braiding stories greater than themselves in a world they did not make (“O cursed spite that these were born to set it right”). This granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor from Weimar is finding her way through the ruins of art history and the leavings of Judaism in full knowledge that for her generation, survival of any kind is a burning question. Reading Torah deep into the night, Adam Stern has given us a refreshed and chastened archive with which to think about these predicaments.
5.31.23 | Adam Stern
Response to Julia Reinhard Lupton, “Surviving Shakespeare, Dreaming of Michelangelo, Honoring Arendt”
Why do you bend such solemn brows on me?
Think you I bear the shears of destiny?
Have I commandment on the pulse of life?
—William Shakespeare, King John
Perhaps it was inevitable. Long since resolved. Always already “determined, predestined, foreordained.” In a word: beshert. Much like Rosenzweig, I will have remained Jewish: a talmid-ḥakham “reading Torah deep into the night.” But if there was never any avoiding these shears of destiny, I am grateful that the decisive judgment has come by way of Julia Reinhard Lupton, whose phenomenal counter-reading so carefully braids together the unthought strands winding their way through my genealogy of Christian survival. Indeed, Lupton’s post-critical gaze cuts through my hermeneutics of suspicion—with its proliferation of “ghosts, hosts, and dead dictators”—in order to weave a “more magnanimous” text. Following a multimedial path that runs between two exiles, two Hannahs, two Adams, and two “eves,” Lupton calls for a Jewish thinking of survival centered on “acts of imagination, companionship, and care.”
But let me begin again by returning to Lupton’s preliminary diagnostic. First, Lupton contends that my readings of “German-Jewish writers including Arendt, Auerbach, Rosenzweig, and Benjamin” forget that their sustained engagements with “Christian formulations” were always attempts to “loosen Biblical typology’s grip on the story in order to accommodate other voices, vistas, and questions.” In Arendt’s case, the turn to St. Augustine was never about Christianity as such but rather about a more general, even universal inquiry into “humanity’s…capacity for politics.” Second, Lupton asks what it might mean to move beyond a Eucharistic reading of Hamlet, by keeping an eye out for the “reminiscences of Torah” scattered across Shakespeare’s wider corpus. In doing so, Lupton highlights a range of Jewish “resonances” and “remainders” in various allusions to such biblical books as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Exodus. Finally, Lupton seeks to “broaden the tropes of survival well beyond the resurrection celebrated in the Mass, to include the feint of madness, the agony of repentance, and the competing forms of discourse and study associated with Torah (Moses) and wisdom (Solomon).” In sum, Lupton suggests, my genealogy of survival will have spent a little too much time on Christianity and critique. Not enough on Jewishness, Torah, and humanity.
I cannot help but affirm my solidarity with Lupton’s provocation. The archive she compiles gestures toward a vision more attentive to the forms of kinship, relationality, and solicitude that might constitute an ethics of survival. After all, what could be more important for us, here and now, “within a new ‘dark time’ (in Arendt’s phrase) marked by the moral compromises of Israel, the march of climate change, and, as we write, the prospect of WWIII”? Who would dispute that today “survival of any kind is a burning question” (not to mention a question of planetary burning)? Is it not time to move beyond genealogy, critique, and deconstruction toward a more useful paradigm of interpretation? Are there figures, texts, and vocabulary that could guide us through this age of catastrophe? Words or images that would allow us to picture survival in a different way?
It is with this possibility in mind that Lupton introduces the Yiddish word beshert, or “soulmate,” as an evocative frame for thinking Jewishness, humanity, survival, and gender in the present. In her most extended definition, Lupton tenders beshert as a name for those “who are dear to each other because they are braiding stories greater than themselves in a world they did not make.” Lupton is right. And I will always read beshert in the remarkable sense she has suggested here. But I also recall that beshert often carries a more ironic tenor: a fate tinged with “trouble, disaster, and sorrow” (Ibid.). Beyond an act of braiding, the word beshert can involve an act of cutting…like a pair of scissors [shern] destined to determine the borders of a frame, the edges of an image, and the limits of a world.
After others, then, I find myself wondering about the framing of the world that these besherts have been fated to inhabit. Does this world have a name? And if so, what could it tell us about the sovereigns who pass the “shears of destiny” above the heads of some and across the necks of others? There are no doubt options: be it the Anthropocene, Anglocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene, or any of the other “cenes” that scholars continue to propagate. But would it be so strange to suggest, as Michelangelo and St. Augustine believed, that we also live and die within the Christocene? If it is strange to think about Christianity in this way—to think that Christianity may be more than simply a “religion”—the question is undoubtedly: why? What strategies have made it possible to secure Christianity within such a limited domain? How did the massive theological-political-legal-economic apparatus of Christendom manage to marginalize itself? And for what reasons? Is secularization an exit from religion? Something that happened to Christianity as if from the outside? Or is it, as Marx, Derrida, and others have suggested, an internal relève (destruction/retention), whereby Christendom dissolved itself only to ensure its furtive expansion?
In this sense, it was never my intention to suggest that the German-Jewish thinkers whose texts I read were neither German nor Jewish. What I hoped to ask was whether a scholarly overemphasis on these twin identities has diverted attention away from another, more difficult problem: how their texts conceptualize Christianity as a protean historical complex. I wanted to think more about why appeals to otherwise significant differences between Protestants and Catholics, Athens and Jerusalem, universality and particularity, center and margin, antiquity and modernity, secular and religious, Being and Absolute Knowledge, so frequently end up turning Latin Christianity into a transparent but inessential passageway between more fundamental (archeological and eschatological) moments. As Lucia Hulsether recently reminded us: “We cannot understand the dynamics of a putatively neutral global secular market absent attention to its Christian genealogies and tactics of subject production. The point is one to take personally: if you are a person who goes shopping, or who watches reality television, or who participates in American politics, or who goes to work, you have already been formed by the Protestant norms [note Hulsether’s slippage—A.Y.S.] that pervade everyday life in capitalist modernity.” Just think of all those religious, secular, post-secular, Jewish and non-Jewish Jews, who would never personally accept the label: Christian. Or then again, all those talmidei-ḥakhamim “reading Torah deep into the night.”
So, yes, the political is personal and the personal is political. I follow Jill Robbins in thinking that “modern Jewish philosophies…cannot think themselves as Jewish without this relay through, this going by way of, the Christian.” As a good reader of St. Augustine, Franz Rosenzweig knew that Jews had long been “living letters of the law,” old testamentary figures, and witnesses (témoins) to Christianity’s progressive march toward redemption. But as Rosenzweig’s text also shows, Jewish survival (“slay them not”) is only a transit-point (témoins) for a broader encounter with Latin Christianity: the discursive cauldron, in which our contemporary definition, representation, and production of human survival has received its most consistent articulation. I speak here of that “glorious cadaver,” that wounded and resurrected body—“that guy” (as the Hebrew phrase goes)—whose image likely hangs in a museum near you.
But if Rosenzweig is right—if the human (read: Man) has always survived within this empty space between God and corpse—then one might want to investigate how this distinction has enabled empirical projects of (de)humanization: Who are the gods? Who are the corpses? Needless to say, the answer to these questions will have everything to do with the histories of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, settler-colonialism, and more. Which is why I end not simply with the talmid-ḥakahm but with ṣumūd (never the first without the second). Two names that—like beshert—bear signatures that exceed their significance. While each could easily come under the heading of “survival,” together they enact a certain refusal of the biblical, colonial, Zionist, and Latin Christian tropes that “survival” purports to universalize. In the hesitation that precedes translation, these untranslatable terms circumscribe the limits of a word that should never be understood as a metalinguistic concept but instead as a mark with a parochial materiality, historicity, and genealogy. At very least, I think, such a gesture could help us think more deeply about the contingency of the political vocabulary we have inherited from a globalatin world we did not make but to which we are nonetheless beholden if not beshert.