Kierkegaard's Alleged Anti-Semitism
Caricature of Søren Kierkegaard in Corsaren, August 1846
by Tamar Aylat-Yaguri
When Johannes Climacus, Søren Kierkegaardʼs pseudonym, defines Christianity, he writes:
Christianity is spirit; spirit is inwardness; inwardness is subjectivity; subjectivity is essentially passion, and at its maximum an infinite, personally interested passion for one’s eternal happiness. (Postscript, 33)
How does he come up with this definition? One of the main sources that he uses for it, is his view of Judaism. He has a clear picture of what it means, and in wanting to become a Christian, he is determined to leave Judaism behind and completely negate it. For him the definition of Judaism could go like this: Judaism is nature; nature is worldly needs; worldly needs are objective; objectivity is essentially desires, and at its maximum a ceaseless, general interest for success in every earthly benefit.
There seem to be 3 areas in which Kierkegaard defines Judaism as the negation of Christianity:
In its world-view, Judaism favors “nature” and aims at “immediate” comfort: “Judaism is divinely sanctioned optimism, sheer promise for this life,” says Kierkegaard.
Christianity concentrates on “Spirit” and suffering. The Christian individual is in collision with the world. Kierkegaard finds these differences in world-view striking, and he says,
It makes an infinite difference whether I assume that the mark of my being a pious man whom God loves is that I succeed in everything, possess all the earthly benefits, etc. (this is Judaism), or that the mark is simply that I am the suffering one, always having opposition, adversity (God’s fatherly solicitude to keep me awake) and finally suffering the opposition of the world because I adhere to God and confess Christ (this is Christianity). (Journals and Papers, 2219).
Ethically, Judaism is portrayed as the religion of sexual self-indulgence, while Christianity upholds virtuous chastity. Judaism establishes family life as a form of godliness, emphasizing God’s commandment of propagation. Christianity repudiates this by demanding an absolute adherence to the relationship with God (Christ), which can lead to hatred of father and mother, of son and daughter. Kierkegaard concludes,
Judaism is godliness which is at home in this world; Christianity is alienation from this world. In Judaism the reward of godliness is blessing in this world; Christianity is hate toward this world. (Journals and Papers, 2221). Kierkegaard adds: Of all religions, the Jewish religion is closest to humanism. Its formula is: Stay close to God, and things will go well with you in the world. Christian piety is far, far too high for us. (Journals and Papers, 2218).
Kierkegaard portrays Judaism as a religion of collectivity, the Jews were a historical nation in a profound sense. But Christianity is the higher religion because it focuses upon the individual. Viewing Judaism as a collective, Kierkegaard ironically ponders:
In what sense the Jews can be called the chosen people is a big question. They were not the happiest of people; they were rather a sacrifice which all humanity required. They had to suffer the pains of the law and of sin as no other people. They were the chosen people in the same sense as the poet and the like often are—that is, the most unhappy of all (Kierkegaardʼs Journals and Notebooks 3, 234).
I presented this analysis of Kierkegaardʼs view of Judaism in a conference that we held in Tel-Aviv university. In the audience were a few learned secular and religious Jews, and I was sure they would object to his account and see it as over simplistic. But to my surprise no one said that and later some said to me that they could identify themselves as Jews according to Kierkegaardʼs definition.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy, as philosophy, is free of anti-Semitism. We can call him anti-Semite if he assumes a positive view of Christendom and juxtaposes that to a negative view of Judaism. But Kierkegaard does not assume a positive view of Christendom.
He struggles to discern between Christianity as an ideal and Christendom as an actuality. True, he takes Judaism to be inferior to Christianity, but Christendom is also inferior to Christianity. He downgrades the Jewish way of life because it is collectivist, unchaste, and concerned with nature, comfort, and this life. He downgrades Christendom because it is Jewish, because it is collectivist, unchaste, and concerned with nature, comfort, and this life.
Kierkegaard’s negative judgment of Judaism is precisely his negative judgment of Christendom. He does not juxtapose a positive view of Christendom with a negative view of Judaism. His philosophy is not – and cannot be – anti-Semitic. His view of Jews, no less than his view of local Christendom proves to be essential to his philosophy and his life – underlying its positive goals. Judaism and Christendom mark the place from which Kierkegaardʼs Christian life quest must begin.
About the Author:
Dr. Tamar Aylat-Yaguri teaches Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, Israel. She is the author of Human Dialogue with the Absolute, and coeditor of The Authenticity of Faith in Kierkegaardʼs Philosophy.