Kierkegaard the Anti-Semite

I once was stuck in a slow elevator and was asked by my fellow traveler for some seasonal Torah. I proffered a thought from Maharal developed by a Kedushat Levi. When I was done, the person said with dismay that they are not our mesorah (tradition) and instead he recited a third-hand insight of Soren Kierkegaard as the true Rav Soloveitchik tradition (mesorah). Centrist Orthodoxy has invested much in its incorporation of Kierkegaard’s theology of submission, sacrifice, and absurdity. Modern Jewish thought has been willing to override Rabbinic readings of the Bible to affirm those of Kierkegaard. Repeated essays by Milton Steinberg, Louis Jacobs, Emil Fackenheim and Jon Levenson as well as statements by Walter Wurzburger and others did little to divest Orthodoxy of its Lutheran moorings. In general, modern Jewish thought has taken a liking to Kierkegaard when compared to its use of other modern thinkers.

However, all this may change soon. Last year there was a new book in Danish by Peter Tudvad Stadier paa Antisemitisms Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the Way of Antisemitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010). The book has elicited controversy and as of December 2010 has had approximately 90 articles published in the Danish media on the book, some of which appeared even before the book itself. This controversy has yet to make it into the American Jewish media and I only found out about it on an academic philosophy list. You are getting it first.

The Danes have been portrayed as non-antisemitic because they kept the Holocaust out of Denmark. But Peter Tudvad’s book includes a broad survey of antisemitism in Denmark especially the 1819 Hep Hep riots against the Jews. “We had one, a pogrom, in Denmark in 1819 too, which was so severe that the king had to declare Copenhagen, his capital, in a state of emergency. The city was under a curfew for several weeks, and the military patrolled the streets of Copenhagen.” The new book shows that Kierkegaard was heir to the inherited Danish economic and social antisemitism as well as Lutheran theological antisemitism. Danish scholars have been quick to defend Danish honor by claiming that Kierkegaard was typical for his age without dealing with all of Tudvad’s evidence.

To document this controversy the Kierkegaard scholar M.G. Piety, associate professor of philosophy at Drexel University in Philadelphia has created a blog called “Piety on Kierkegaard.” The blog is sporadic and it has taken her two months to provide enough information for me to post a decent blog post. (I wanted to post as soon as I found out about the book but her blog still did not have enough information.) For the most important posts, see here and here and here.

Piety offers an interview with the Peter Tudvad, the author of the controversial book. Here are some excerpts.

Piety: Not much is known in the English-speaking world about the controversy over your new book. Can you give a brief summary of it?

Tudvad: That might be difficult as the row lasted for about two months, and was very intense. A newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, published an interview with me about three weeks before the book was actually published. The reporter was shocked by the quotations I had included in the preface, which I let him see, such as Kierkegaard writing that the Jews were typically usurers and as such bloodthirsty, that they had a penchant for money (due to an abstract character, as Kierkegaard supposes), and that they dominated the Christians.
As I told the reporter, Kierkegaard was of the opinion that the Jews would eventually kill the European Christians – something which he wrote in an entry in his diary, but which was omitted from the Hong’s translation, I guess on purpose – and that they had an extraordinary sexual appetite and thus many children. They were, according to Kierkegaard, mundane and had no real spirit, no quest for the eternal bliss.

the reason that we have seldom discussed this aspect of his theology might be that we were afraid of damaging his image, his reputation, thus losing the prostrate respect many have for one of the few internationally renowned Danish authors.

His diaries have always been considered a key to the understanding of his published works, so if one, for example, with the help of his entries can link his antisemitisme with his theology, and vice versa, I think we really ought to discuss the problem seriously

Piety: Do you think Kierkegaard was anti-Semitic? If so, in what sense?

Tudvad: Yes, I do. Sure he was not a kind of anti-Semite as the Nazis. He hated any kind of collectivism, and he would certainly not have participated in the pogrom in 1938. Nevertheless, I published my book on November 9, i.e. on the anniversary of the Kristallnacht in 1938, but my point was, that anti-Semitism and pogroms are not exclusively a German phenomenon.

My point is, that Danes are not less disposed to anti-Semitism than Germans, Poles, Russians or any other peoples, and that words are not harmless. So, Kierkegaard’s words are not harmless either. Some Danish Nazis actually referred to him in 1940 as their ally against the Jews.

Piety: The English theologian George Pattison actually admitted in his article “Søren Kierkegaard was neither better nor worse than his times” that he had not read your book. Is that right?

Tudvad: Yes. – ”Neither better nor worse!” He was surely not worse than some people, and surely not better than quite a few liberal politicians, the ones who fought at the same time for a free constitution that would guarantee freedom of religion. Now, is it really a relevant argument that somebody, and especially one who is considered a genius and far ahead of his contemporaries, was neither better nor worse than his times? Would you excuse somebody living in Germany in the 1930’s or 1940’s the same way? [The regnant view that he was not worse than his times is Bruce H. Kirmmse, “Kierkegaard, Jews, and Judaism,” in Kierkegaardiana vol. 17 1994]

Piety: What do you think was the biggest problem that critics of the book had with it?

Tudvad: That I made clear a tight link between Kierkegaard’s theology and his anti-Semitism. People seemed to be surprised that anti-Semitism as such has it’s origin in Christianity. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism, did they?

Tudvad’s new data will likely be debated in the Jewish community in the upcoming years. Kierkegaard will now receive the same treatment as Heidegger, Ezra Pound, or Paul DeMan, especially when the antisemitic passages that were censored out are all returned. Closer to the mark he will receive the same treatment as the other Germanic Lutherans whose theology had Marcion antisemitic overtones such as Adolf von Harnack and J. F.W. Schlegel On the other hand, my Centrist Orthodox elevator companion will probably not be interested in the entire debate.

5 responses to “Kierkegaard the Anti-Semite

  1. lawrence kaplan

    Alan: Take a look at her picture. M. G. Piety — what a great name!– is a woman.

    Interestingly enough, the emphasis on sacrifice, summission and the absurd are more in K’s pseudonymous works. Take a look, however, at a book K. wrote in his own name, Works of Love, which presents a more “Jewish” and ethical view.

  2. First, I don’t think there’s anything wrong, per se, with using outside opinions to elucidate Torah. Samson Hirsch frequently quoted Schiller and other (non-Jewish) German writers in his drashim.

    Is it not possible that K, despite his anti-Semitism, has some pretty important and relevant things to say?
    I think that this is important investigative work because it gives a fuller picture of a famous person, but I question how it affects reading K’s philosophy–if it does so at all.

    Similarly, I like Pound and Eliot; but for Dostoevsky, however, his anti-Semitism pairs so nicely with his facile novels that I have no problem dismissing him and any relevance he might have to my life.

  3. lawrence kaplan

    Lazar: Dostoevsky’s novels are facile? Surely you jest. Crime and Punishment, for example??? And you really prefer Pound, of all people to Dostoevsky?

    Alan: Why haven’t you corrected this post, and changed “him” and ‘his” to “her.” M= Marilyn.

  4. Interesting, thank you. I came across this while doing research as I am taking a class about Kierkegaard. A better question might be: So who wasn’t an antisemite? I have to say that I was surprised to discover Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also an antisemite despite his opposition to Hitler which lead to his execution. I discovered this in an article by the insightful Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, which discussed the antisemitism of Bonhoeffer, Neimoiler and Barth.

  5. He certainly doesn’t seem at all in the category of Heidegger or Ezra Pound or Paul de Man, at least from the above. As you know, Heidegger was a collaborator with the Nazis.

    Not sure what the Marcion antisemitic overtones you refer to are in Schlegel, but it sounds intriguing. He married one of Moses Mendelssohn’s daughters.

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