by Laurent Guyénot for the Saker Blog
Karl Marx on the “Jewish Question”
Karl Marx saw the reign of money and materialism in modern capitalistic society as the ultimate triumph of Judaism. For “what is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.”
“The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. […] The Jew is perpetually created by civil society from its own entrails. […] The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world.”
Marx understood Jewishness as a mindset, and thought that material greed became the driving force of bourgeois society because it had always been the real basis of Judaism, its inner force, its bloodstream. He wrote this in 1843, at the age of 25. He had already formulated some of his most fundamental ideas, such as this one, in the same article: “Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.” To dismiss this article as the work of an immature Marx influenced by the anti-Semite prejudices of his days would be all the more absurd that Marx was born and raised in a Jewish family (his father, Herschel Levi, had changed his name and had his whole family baptized when Karl was six years). Rather we may consider Marx’s thought on the “Jewish question” as one of the seminal insights of his understanding of man’s alienation.
Already convinced that religion is a superstructure shaped by the relations of production, Marx also wrote in the same paper: “Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.” We will agree with Marx if we understand the Jew’s “religion” to mean the dominant Reformed Judaism of nineteenth-century Western Europe. For that form of Judaism was the recent outcome of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, whose stated purpose was to transform Jewishness from an inassimilable national identity into an assimilable religious identity, at least in the eyes of Gentiles—“Be a Jew at home and a man in the street” was the Haskalah motto.
But then, where shall we find the secret of the “real Jew”? How did Jews become materialistic? Shall we agree with Abraham Leon, who builds up on Marx in The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (1946), to argue that “the Jews constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function,” an economic function including usury, which has shaped their mentality. “They are a class, or more precisely, a people-class.” The problem with that theory is that it explains Jewishness as formed much later than the Hebrew Bible and independently from it. Here I must disagree with Marx and Leon, and agree with most Jewish thinkers, both religious and secular, that the Bible is the pattern of Jewishness.
We can attempt to reconcile that view with the Marxist one, if we search for the root of Jewish materialism in the ancient history of the Hebrews as told in Exodus, when Moses first encountered Yahweh on the “holy ground” of Mount Horeb or Sinai, while looking after the flocks of his father-in-law, the Midianite priest Jethro (Exodus 2-3), who later instructed him how to rule over the Hebrews (18:19-25)? A number of scholars, starting with Charles Beke (Mount Sinai a Volcano, 1873, and Sinai in Arabia and of Midian, 1878), have stressed that if we take this story seriously, Moses inherited his father-in-law’s religion, whose god seemed inseparable from a sacred mountain which “shakes violently”, sends “peals of thunder and flashes of lightning” and “smokes like a furnace” (19:16-19), and which is clearly located in the volcanic region of north-west Arabia called Midian (as even saint Paul knew: “Sinai is a mountain in Arabia, ”Galatians 4:25). If we follow this theory, which has recently gained ground, Yahwism was originally the religion of a confederation of semi-nomadic proto-Arab tribes living in the semi-desert Hejaz, who set out to conquer lower Syria, a prosperous and urbanized region of the Fertile Crescent where they had already been trading and raiding for centuries. The major innovation made by Moses to the Midianite cult was to provide Yahweh with a means of leaving his volcano: a luxurious gold-plated tent, the detailed specifications of which are given in Exodus, chapters 25 to 31. No wonder that, from that time on, Yahweh appears as the warlord of a people set out for plunder: “All the silver and all the gold, everything made of bronze or iron, will be consecrated to Yahweh and put in his treasury” (Joshua 6:19).
This historical perspective goes a long way to explaining the essence of Judaism, but only if we add that it is not the events themselves that shaped Jewishness, but their crystallization into Holy Scripture; not the Jews’ real history, but the Jews’ story about their past. What is important is not what happened (or not) in Moses and Joshua’s time, but the sacred value attached by Jews to their legend. Identity is memory, not history, and the biblical narrative is the cornerstone of Jewish identity. It is the ultimate and vivid source of Jewishness, its unchangeable genetic code, which has shaped the Jews’ relationship to the world for 2,500 years. In this article, I follow on Marx’s insight and ask: To what extent is material greed the underlying ideology of the Hebrew Bible? This, of course, will lead to a circular reversal of Marx’s assumption that Jewish religion is a product of the Jews’ practical materialism. Rather, I will argue that accumulating the wealth produced by others is the very function assigned to the Jews by their Bible. It is Yahweh, they learn, who ordered Moses to lead the Hebrews to the Canaanite land “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27), then told them: “You will suck the milk of nations” (Isaiah 60:16).
“Mine is the silver, mine the gold! Yahweh Sabaoth declares”
Yahweh’s Temple seems to have been primarily intended as the gigantic vault for the precious metals looted from Gentile peoples:
“I shall shake all the nations, and the treasures of all the nations will flow in, and I shall fill this Temple with glory, says Yahweh Sabaoth. Mine is the silver, mine the gold! Yahweh Sabaoth declares.” (Haggai 2:7–8)
The Jerusalem Temple was simultaneously a place of worship and a central bank, perhaps the very first of history. Jewish communities dispersed around the world sent their annual contributions there. It is the subject of Cicero’s court speech Pro Flacco: his client, Lucius Valerius Flaccus, governor of Asia, had prevented the Jewish communities under his jurisdiction from sending their annual contributions to Jerusalem. These contributions had been seized in several cities, to the satisfaction of non-Jewish residents. Cicero defended Flaccus’s measure as economically wise. The riches stored in the Temple, the virtual property of the hereditary priestly cast, have given rise to the legend of Salomon’s fabulous treasure. According to 1Kings 10:14, “The weight of gold received annually by Solomon amounted to six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold,” one talent weighing approximately 30 kg.
It is enlightening to compare Yahweh’s greed for gold with Christ’s teaching:
“But store up treasures for yourselves in heaven, where neither moth nor woodworm destroys them and thieves cannot break in and steal. For wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be too” (Matthew 6:20–21).
When Jesus overthrew the stalls of the money-changers and merchants of the Temple, he was challenging Judean institutional religion, and it is unfair to accuse the priests who had him arrested and crucified of having betrayed Yahweh.
While we’re at it, in order to get a new picture of Yahweh, let’s compare the terms of the covenant he offered to the Jewish people, “If you faithfully obey the voice of Yahweh your God […], Yahweh your God will raise you higher than every other nation in the world” (Deuteronomy 28:1), with the terms of that other covenant offered to Jesus, when “the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all these, if you fall at my feet and do me homage’” (Matthew 4:8-10).
From the Bible Jews have learned and will continue to learn that their God-given destiny is to “feed on the wealth of the nations (or Gentiles)” (Isaiah 61:5), and also that banking is the way to do it:
“If Yahweh your God blesses you as he has promised, you will be creditors to many nations but debtors to none; you will rule over many nations, and be ruled by none” (Deuteronomy 15:6).
Joseph, son of Jacob, was the first to put this blessing into practice. Having risen from the status of a slave to that of chancellor of Pharaoh, he favors his kinsmen and obtains for them “land holdings in Egypt, in the best part of the country, the region of Rameses.” Responsible for managing the national grain reserves, he stores large amounts during the years of plenty; and then, when famine strikes, he negotiates a high price for the monopolized grain and thus “accumulated all the money to be found in Egypt and Canaan.” The following year, having created a monetary shortage, he forces the peasants to relinquish their herds in exchange for grain: “Hand over your livestock and I shall issue you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money has come to an end.” One year later, the peasants have nothing left “except our bodies and our land,” and so have to beg, then sell themselves in order to survive: “Take us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will become Pharaoh’s serfs; only give us seed, so that we can survive and not die and the land not revert to desert!” And so the Hebrews, after settling in Egypt, “acquired property there; they were fruitful and grew very numerous” (Genesis 47:11-27), which is the sure sign of God’s blessing, according to the Torah. A people endowed with such a holy book has a huge advantage in the competition for the control of wealth—the same advantage as the psychopath uninhibited by any sense of justice.
“For dust you are and to dust you shall return”
Yahweh has no reward stored up in Heaven for anyone. His blessings to those who “fear” him are purely earthly: to be “full of days,” to have numerous offspring and a great fortune. Man’s only survival is through generation and wealth, according to the Torah—blood and money are strangely homonymic in Hebrew, as Jacques Attali has signaled. The archetypal illustration of this is the story of Job. He expects no consolation after death for his suffering in this world: “If man once dead could live again, I would wait in hope, every day of my suffering, for my relief to come” (Job 14:14). Alas! “A human being, once laid to rest, will never rise again, the heavens will wear out before he wakes up, or before he is roused from his sleep” (14:7–12). As the only reward for his fidelity to Yahweh, Job gets a 140-year extension on earth, numerous offspring, “fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand she-donkeys” (42:12).
Another telling example is found in Isaiah 38: When King Hezekiah “fell ill and was at the point of death,” he expresses no hope of meeting Yahweh in some Otherworld, but instead despairs at the prospect of not seeing him in his Temple anymore. In response to his prayer, Yahweh grants him an extra fifteen years of earthly life. The Song of Hezekiah that follows clearly states that death holds no promise of any life: “those who go down to the pit can hope no longer in your constancy” (Isaiah 38:11-19). Yahweh has nothing to do with the dead, whom he “remembers no more” (Psalms 88:6).
Yahweh does not reside in any kind of Other World, where the righteous could hope to meet him after death. The Hebrew Bible differs from all religious traditions of Antiquity by the inability of its authors to conceive of an afterlife other than as a dreamless sleep in the humid darkness of Sheol, where the good and the bad descend indifferently. Death in Sheol is virtual annihilation, the closest thing imaginable to nothingness.
Judaic tradition knows nothing of the funerary myths so popular in other cultures, whose heroes explore or conquer the Other World. Polytheistic peoples placed their fundamental hopes in an otherworldly Paradise, often endowed with a miraculous spring or a “tree of life,” that provides eternal life and youth. It is the “world where there is no death.” No such hope is given by Yahweh to his people. The Promised Land of the Hebrews is an accessible geographical place situated between the Nile and the Euphrates; it is a destiny that is exclusively terrestrial and collective. Yahwism has focused all his people’s hope on this earth. In fact, the Yahwist scribes have turned the universal myth of the blessed afterlife on its head; the Persian Pardès (Garden) with its tree of eternal life is not, in Genesis, a future promised to the righteous after death, but a past lost forever for all mankind. And there they have staged the drama introducing into the world the double scourge of death and labor; for death in their eyes bears no promise, and work no spiritual reward.
At the core of this biblical materialism is the notion that man is entirely earthly: dust he is and dust he shall return (Genesis 3:19). Some will object that the Torah has two terms to designate the immortal spirit: nephesh and ruah. But nephesh, misleadingly translated in the Greek Septuagint Bible as psyche, designates a “living being,” and sometimes translates simply as “life.” It applies to animals as well as to men, and it is intimately related to blood in the food prohibitions of Leviticus 17. The Hebrew word ruah, translated as pneuma in the Septuagint, means “breath,” “respiration,” and thus also designates life, for animals and humans alike. Thus there is no notion of immortal soul in the formula of Genesis 2:7: “Yahweh God shaped man from the soil of the ground and blew the breath of life [ruah] into his nostrils, and man became a living being [nephesh].”
In my book From Yahweh to Zionism, I have emphasized the antinomy between the Egyptian religion entirely focused on the Other World, and the Jewish religion aimed at this world only, which led Egyptians to regard it as an anti-religion. This is something that all biblical scholars have recognized since the 19th century. Sigmund Freud drew from the science of his day when he wrote in his Moses and Monotheism (1939):
“No other people of antiquity [than the Egyptians] has done so much to deny death, has made such careful provision for an after-life […]. The early Jewish religion, on the other hand, had entirely relinquished immortality; the possibility of an existence after death was never mentioned in any place.”
Quite correctly, Freud restricts his statement to “early Jewish religion”, often referred to as “ancient Hebraism”, but which I call Yahwism. The evolution of Judaism during the last two thousand years is another story. In the Hellenistic period, Greek and Egyptian dualism infiltrated Jewish thought. But significantly, the Jewish Hellenistic books (written in Greek) that have made it into the Christian Old Testament have been excluded from the Hebrew canon. And their only legacy within Judaism is the idea of physical resurrection, which results from a materialistic twist applied to the Greek concept of anastasis, “awakening”, originally a simple metaphor of the afterlife based on the euphemism of death as sleep.
More recently, Reformed Judaism has also tried to inject the immortal soul into Judaic dogma. But, as I said before, it is the end product of West European Jews’ effort to assimilate. It was deeply mimetic of Christianity in its effort make Jewishness a strict matter of religion rather than of nationhood. And it is highly significant that, when Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the eighteenth-century Haskalah, decided to convince his fellow Jews to accept the creed of the immortality of the soul—a necessary condition for the elevation of humanity according to him—he did not rely on the Jewish tradition. Instead he produced a dialogue in the style of Plato, titled Phaedo or the Immortality of the Soul (1767). This exempted him from admitting that he was borrowing the notion to Christianity—which anyway inherited it from Greek philosophy.
Many Jewish intellectuals actually protested against the introduction of that foreign body into Jewish thought, and their reaction would become a central tenet of Zionism. According to Moses Hess (Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question, 1862), “Nothing is more foreign to the spirit of Judaism than the idea of the salvation of the individual which, according to the modern conception, is the corner-stone of religion.” The essence of Judaism is “the vivid belief in the continuity of the spirit in human history.”
“My covenant must be marked in your flesh”
I believe that materialism is the most fundamental premise of Hebraism, and, by consequence, the bedrock of Jewish culture and its influence on Western society. Even Jewish tribalism is but a corollary of materialism, in as far as as it reduces the individual to his genetic heritage. Yahweh’s obsession is to keep his chosen people’s blood pure, and this in turn is linked to exclusive monotheism: Yahweh forbids Jews to marry their children to non-Jews because “your son would be seduced from following me into serving other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:3). But the real causal connection is arguably the opposite: the exclusivity of cult can be seen as a religious justification for endogamy. This is the viewpoint of social psychologist Kevin MacDonald, who in A People That Shall Dwell Alone, argues that Judaism is a “group evolutionary strategy among peoples.” This is also the viewpoint of some Jewish secular thinkers, such as Isaac Kadmi-Cohen, who claims in an Essay on the Jewish Soul (1929) that, “divinity in Judaism is contained in the exaltation of the entity represented by the race.” The historical fact that Jews are genetically mixed is irrelevant, here: what is important is the cognitive fact that many if not most of them believe they are the descendants of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.
Circumcision reinforces the primacy of the physical. As “the sign of the covenant” between Yahweh and Abraham, “marked in the flesh” of every male eight days after birth, “generation after generation” (Genesis 17:9–14), it perfectly symbolizes the unspiritual nature of Yahwism. It is like an artificial genetic trait, or a transhumanist mark, but by substraction. Spinoza was on the mark when he wrote: “I attribute such value to the sign of circumcision, that it is the only thing that I esteem capable of assuring an eternal existence to this nation.”
It could be argued that circumcision softens the strict endogamy of Judaism, since it can be a rite of admission into the Jewish community. True, but that never happens in the Bible. Let me briefly recall the edifying story of Shechem, a Canaanite prince who fell in love with Jacob’s daughter and asked to marry her. He was ready to give Jacob’s clan anything, “whatever you ask. Demand as high a bride-price from me as you please.” His father Hamor pleaded for him:
“My son Shechem’s heart is set on your daughter. Please allow her to marry him. Intermarry with us; give us your daughters and take our daughters for yourselves. We can live together, and the country will be open to you, for you to live in, and move about in, and acquire holdings.”
Jacob’s sons then “gave Shechem and his father Hamor a crafty answer,” demanding that “you become like us by circumcising all your males. Then we will give you our daughters, taking yours for ourselves; and we will stay with you to make one nation.” Hamor, trusting the good intentions of Jacob’s tribe, convinced his male subjects to be circumcised. Three days after the operation, “when the men were still in pain,” Jacob’s sons attacked them and “slaughtered all the males,” then “pillaged the town.”
They seized their flocks, cattle, donkeys, everything else in the town and in the countryside, and all their possessions. They took all their children and wives captive and looted everything to be found in the houses.” (Genesis 34:1–29)
So much for Jewish proselytism in the Bible!
One cannot fail to see a link between the metaphysical materialism of the Hebrew Bible (denial of a specifically human soul) and its total contempt for the lives of non-Jews, often undistinguishable from their livestock. In distant ennemy cities, Yahweh instructs his people,
“you will put the whole male population to the sword. But the women, children, livestock and whatever the town contains by way of spoil, you may take for yourselves as booty. You will feed on the spoils of the enemies whom Yahweh your God has handed over to you.”
But in the nearby towns, “you must not spare the life of any living (breathing) thing” (Deuteronomy 20:13-16). So, in Jericho, “They enforced the curse of destruction on everyone in the city: men and women, young and old, including the oxen, the sheep and the donkeys, slaughtering them all” (Joshua 6:21). So with the Amalekites: “kill man and woman, babe and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1Samuel 15:3). From the Midianites, however, Moses allowed the Hebrews to spare “young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves.” At the end of the day, the spoils “came to six hundred and seventy-five thousand sheep and goats, seventy-two thousand head of cattle, sixty-one thousand donkeys, and in persons, women who had never slept with a man, thirty-two thousand in all,” not to mention “gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin and lead” (Numbers 31:3–31). It is my hypothesis that such assimilation of non-Jews to animals and booty is directly linked to the denial of their spiritual nature. Isaac Kadmi-Cohen points out that, “in ancient Hebrew, the verb ‘to die’ applies to all living things, human or beast. For Hebrews, one uses the euphemism ‘rejoin one’s people’ (Héasef léamo).”
“I instituted an eternal people”
In the Hebrew Bible, the immortality that is denied the individual is reinvested entirely on the people as a whole: “I instituted an eternal people” Isaiah 44:7. Ultimately, it is as if the Jews were united by a collective, ethnic, genetic soul. Maurice Samuel writes in You Gentiles (1924): “The feeling in the Jew, even in the free-thinking Jew like myself, is that to be one with his people is to be thereby admitted to the power of enjoying the infinite.’” In the same vein, Zionist activist Alfred Nossig wrote in Berlin in 1922: “The Jewish community is more than a people in the modern political sense of the word. […] It forms an unconscious nucleus of our being, the common substance of our soul” Thus it is said that a Jew’s soul is the Jewish people. Or should this collective soul be named Yahweh?
The point that Judaism is a kind of tribal soul has been made by by several Jewish thinkers. The American rabbi Harry Waton, writing in his A Program for Jews and Humanity in 1939, is a good example. Drawing from his understanding of the Bible as speaking only of “an immortality right here on earth,” and from his understanding of Judaism as concerned only “about this earth,” he concludes:
“The Jews that have a deeper understanding of Judaism know that the only immortality there is for the Jew is the immortality in the Jewish people. Each Jew continues to live in the Jewish people, and he will continue to live so long as the Jewish people will live.”
That is the logic behind such warnings as issued by Benzion Netanyahu, father of the Israeli Prime Minister, against marrying non-Jews:
“Only by intermarriage can a person uproot himself from a nation, and then only in so far as his descendants are concerned. […] Quitting a nation is, therefore, even from a biological point of view, an act of suicide.”
What appears to be missing in Yahwism from the point of view of any other religion is at the same time its greatest strength. For an individual has only a few decades to accomplish his destiny, while a whole people has centuries. The national orientation of the Jewish soul injects into any collective project a spiritual force and endurance with which no other national community can compete. It explains the extraordinary capacity of Jews to advance long-term objectives through transgenerational networks. The Neocons are the most recent and the most formidable of these networks. And nothing is more revealing of their philosophy than the admiration professed by their mentor Leo Strauss to Machiavelli (surely a “secret Jew”, according to Neocon Michael Ledeen, because “if you listen to his political philosophy you will hear Jewish music.”) Strauss believes that the genius of Machiavelli is to have understood that the true patriot is the one who, knowing that he has no individual soul and therefore no risk to be damned, puts no moral limit to what he can do for his country. This is the exact opposite of Christ’s words: “What gain, then, is it for anyone to win the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8:36).
- Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, 1843, on www.marxists.org/archive. ↑
- Online on www.marxists.de/religion/leon ↑
- As recently propounded by Swiss scholar Thomas Römer in his lectures in the Collège de France, 2011-2012, on www.college-de-france.fr/. ↑
- This number is the probable origin of the Number of the Beast in Revelation 13:18. ↑
- “Currency” (DaMim) is the same word as “blood” (DaM, plural DaMim), a “dangerous and luminous proximity” according to Jacques Attali (Les Juifs, le monde et l’argent, Fayard, 2002, p. 36). ↑
- According to a more accurate translation than the New Jerusalem Bible, too ambiguous here. ↑
- To understand how Egyptians regarded Jewish “religion”, read Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism, Harvard University Press, 1998, or, by the same author, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. ↑
- Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, Hogarth Press, 1939 (archive.org), pp. 33-34. ↑
- For example, the Book of Wisdom (or Wisdom of Solomon), written in Greek in Alexandria in the first century BCE, asserts that “God created human beings to be immortal,” and criticizes those who “do not believe in a reward for blameless souls” (2:22–23). But even within the Greco-Jewish literature of this age, the materialist viewpoint prevails: according to Ecclesiastes (or Book of Ben Sira), also not in the Jewish Tanakh, “the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same: […] everything comes from the dust, everything returns to the dust” (3:19–20). ↑
- The verb anistanai appears in chapter 12 of the Book of Daniel (12:2-3), written in Greek, together with the Greco-Egyptian notion of the good dead transformed into bodies of light, but the notion has undergone a materialistic twist in the Books of Maccabees, where anastasis becomes the miraculous resuscitation, at the End of Time, of the dismembered bodies of the martyrs, for which no immortal soul is needed. ↑
- Moses Hess, Rome and Jerusalem: A Study in Jewish Nationalism, 1918 (archive.org), pp. 48, 64-65. ↑
- Kevin MacDonald, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, Praeger, 1994, kindle 2013. ↑
- Isaac Kadmi-Cohen, Nomades: Essai sur l’âme juive, Felix Alcan, 1929 (archive.org), p. 143. ↑
- Isaac Kadmi-Cohen, Nomades: Essai sur l’âme juive, op. cit., p. 141. ↑
- Maurice Samuel, You Gentiles, New York, 1924 (archive.org), pp. 74–75. ↑
- Alfred Nossig, Integrales Judentum, 1922, pp. 1-5 (on www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/item/DXCTNNZZ3INPTI2S3MYPGLQOFR3XSW22) ↑
- Harry Waton, A Program for the Jews and an Answer to All Anti-Semites, 1939 (archive.org), pp. 52, 125, 132. ↑
- Benzion Netanyahu, The Founding Fathers of Zionism (1938), Balfour Books, 2012, kindle 2203–7. ↑
- Michael Ledeen, “What Machiavelli (A Secret Jew?) Learned from Moses,” Jewish World Review, June 7, 1999, on www.jewishworldreview.com/0699/machiavelli1.asp ↑
- Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, University of Chicago Press, 1978. As usual, Strauss here attributes his own deepest thoughts to others, as a cryptic way of addressing only those who are qualified for the truth. ↑