- Moses Hess and Modern Jewish Identity
Ken Koltun-Fromm's Moses Hess and Modern Jewish Identity is one of the most important contemporary analyses of the significance of the writings of Moses Hess on [End Page 173] the development of modern Zionism. Koltun-Fromm offers the reader a radical reexamination of the works of Moses Hess, not from the standard philosophical, religious and sociological perspectives but also from the perspective of rhetoric. In exploring Hess from a multiplicity of levels and approaches we begin to get a picture of the complexities within and around the man and his works. We see Hess's ambivalence, contradiction, conflict, and struggle with his Jewishness, with his socialist political-philosophical concerns, with his secular nature, and with his growing sense of the importance of nationalism in the lives of Jews in general and in himself in particular. We also begin to see Hess's concern for and critique of Marx and the Marxist brand of socialism that ultimately led to antisemitism of the left. Yet the central point of this book and its important contribution is in its explication of the significance of identity.
It is in Koltun-Fromm's conceptionalization of identity in general, and Jewish identity in particular, that we see evidence of his works' pioneering power. Koltun-Fromm points out Hess's flaws and brilliance. He also portrays Hess as a modern man in every way. Hess is torn between his passions and his beliefs and ideologies. Hess embraces Jewish tradition while rejecting Jewish tradition. In exploring Hess's work Rome and Jerusalem Koltun-Fromm explores the tensions and conflicts of the nineteenth century for the non-religious Jewish intelligentsia of Europe. He points out that "Judaism is a national tradition, a nexus of memories, rituals, texts, and race, but not, claims Hess, a repository of philosophical truths" (p. 106). Hess is ultimately attacking the reformers both Jewish and non-Jewish who would reform "the historical basis of our tradition" rather than understand the "lessons of Jewish historical religion" (p. 106).
Koltun-Fromm ends this important work with some very critical and complex understandings. He says, "we should acknowledge Hess's racial theory as a powerful and persuasive narrative of self-affirmation. . . . It represents Hess's attempt to restore the lost national heritage of the Jewish people. For this reason, betrayal is the most destructive vice in Hess's theory of the good. The Reformer is a traitor to his people, race, and family. . . . Hess still believes he can offer a defense for Jewish national identity based on foundational or scientific premises" (p. 124).
In the end Koltun-Fromm argues that Hess's works "are scarred; they are texts that reveal the excellences and faults in Hess's struggle for a coherent narrative life, and the deceit and integrity that form it. Yet, Hess is right to say that beauty lies in imperfection. Hess's works are despite, or rather because of the scars, that much better and more valuable for the struggle" (p. 125). In the end, one can also say about this work of Ken Koltun-Fromm that it is a tour de force of understanding of the rhetorical nature of the narrative tradition and its impact on the creation of at least one major and significant aspect of modern Jewish identity: Zionism and Jewish nationalism.
California State Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance