Metaphysics of the Profane

Metaphysics of the Profane: The Political Theology of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem

ERIC JACOBSON
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 352
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/jaco12656
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  • Book Info
    Metaphysics of the Profane
    Book Description:

    Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem are regarded as two of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. Together they produced a dynamic body of ideas that has had a lasting impact on the study of religion, philosophy, and literary criticism.

    Drawing from Benjamin's and Scholem's ideas on messianism, language, and divine justice, this book traces the intellectual exchange through the early decades of the twentieth century -- from Berlin, Bern, and Munich in the throws of war and revolution to Scholem's departure for Palestine in 1923. It begins with a close reading of Benjamin's early writings and a study of Scholem's theological politics, followed by an examination of Benjamin's proposals on language and the influence these ideas had on Scholem's scholarship on Jewish mysticism. From there the book turns to their ideas on divine justice -- from Benjamin's critique of original sin and violence to Scholem's application of the categories to the prophets and Bolshevism. Metaphysics of the Profane is the first book to make this early period available to a wider audience, revealing the intricate structure of this early intellectual partnership on politics and theology.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50153-8
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-16)

    What began with a visit to Berlin, one rainy summer a few years after the fall of the wall, burgeoned into the following study of the intellectual partnership of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, which I wrote over a period of nine years at the Free University of Berlin. Metaphysics of the Profane: The Political Theology of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem concerns an early phase in the thinking of both authors, bound in many ways to the period surrounding the First World War. Their friendship could have begun as early as the fall of 1913, when Scholem’s Zionist youth...

  5. PART I Messianism
    • CHAPTER 1 THE MESSIANIC IDEA IN WALTER BENJAMIN’S EARLY WRITINGS
      (pp. 19-51)

      In the early writings of Walter Benjamin, history is an unending battle between past and future, between the right of law and the right to establish law, between the history of the conquered and that of the conqueror in which both past and present are governed by laws not their own. Accompanying a history of legal tyranny and subjugation, Benjamin submits there is a past containing its own living law, a law insurmountable by worldly dictates, pertaining to historical occurrences and their hidden structure, that he seeks to defend in this early formulation on the work of Gerhard Hauptmann.¹ To...

    • CHAPTER 2 GERSHOM SCHOLEM’S THEOLOGICAL POLITICS
      (pp. 52-82)

      “At this hour, I no longer believe, as I once did,” noted Gershom Scholem in a pivotal moment in his journals, “that I am the Messiah.”¹ With this realization, the young man’s query whether it was he whom God anointed to end human suffering was put to rest. Following the disillusionment that would have to accompany such thought, the groundwork for the task of worldly affairs is initiated, drawn not from a divine mandate but from profane, human reality. The Messiah, in being chosen to fulfill a prophecy announced long before his appearance, has himself little to choose from in...

  6. PART II On the Origins of Language and the True Names of Things
    • CHAPTER 3 ON THE ORIGINS OF LANGUAGE
      (pp. 85-122)

      In a collection of commentaries on Genesis first redacted in the third or fourth century, an idea that would have a lasting impact on Jewish speculation concerning the nature of language was proposed: the Torah was created before creation itself.¹ Like a mysterious new discovery fueled by the sayings of Proverbs—“The Lord made me as the beginning of his way,” “I was beside him like a little child, I was daily his delight”—something, it was believed, preceded the story of Genesis itself.² Various proposals were made in this text, known as Bereshit Rabbah, as to what could have...

    • CHAPTER 4 GERSHOM SCHOLEM AND THE NAME OF GOD: “ON LANGUAGE AS SUCH” RECONSIDERED
      (pp. 123-154)

      Linguistic speculation is metaphysical speculation. With this conclusion from Benjamin’s early essay of 1916, Scholem was to draw a grand survey of Jewish linguistic speculation in his 1970s essay “Der Name Gottes und die Sprachtheorie der Kabbala,” “The Name of God and the Lingustic Theory of the Kabbalah.”¹ Should this essay achieve what Benjamin earmarked for himself many years before—to apply his work and spirit to Hebrew literature—is something that we will never know.² But it is certain that, more than fifty years after Benjamin’s influential essay, Scholem returns to many of the themes and categories Benjamin set...

  7. PART III Justice and Redemption
    • CHAPTER 5 PROPHETIC JUSTICE
      (pp. 157-192)

      In Benjamin’s “Theological-Political Fragment,” and in some of the earliest documents on the notion of the messianic, we find elements of messianic fate in the figure of the tragic hero. But as soon as he appears, tragedy is confined to a prison of muteness that sets the hero apart from the sphere of judgment. The silence he is forced to undergo severs expression from a language ripe with genesic insignia, expression from its own genesic code. Isolated from a transformed conception of tragedy and its delineation of time in the word, the notion of character remains unreflected at the intersection...

    • CHAPTER 6 JUDGMENT, VIOLENCE, AND REDEMPTION
      (pp. 193-232)

      No other period was more crucial for Scholem’s political thought in the early years than the point at which he joined Benjamin in the highly resigned atmosphere that characterized their discussions in Switzerland.¹ This moment of transition in Scholem’s thinking, which culminated in the reevaluation of his earliest political activities, led to a phase that I have already termed a form of anarchist nihilism.² Raging war and disappointment in the Zionist and youth movements had brought their contact with the outside world to a near halt.³ Yet something was to suddenly disrupt these intimate discussions in their sanctuary of practical...

  8. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. 233-234)
  9. NOTES
    (pp. 235-316)
  10. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 317-330)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 331-338)