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Reviewed by:
  • The Jewish Derrida
  • Richard A. Cohen
The Jewish Derrida, by Gideon Ofrat, translated by Peretz Kidron. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001. 201 pp. $17.95.

A more accurate title for this book would have been The Non-Jewish Derrida. After reading it, whatever the author’s intentions, one is fully convinced that Derrida knows next to nothing, and wrote nothing serious or important, about the Judaism he never learned or practiced. For a deconstruction hard-liner like Ofrat, who appears to be in the same position as Derrida, however, it is precisely this lack or absence that somehow —God only knows—constitutes Derrida’s Jewishness. The Jewish Derrida is a book by an obvious outsider to Judaism whose conception of Judaism is based on the celebration [End Page 153] of outsider status. That is to say, it is based on the well-known European cliched constructions of “the wandering Jew” or the “Jew as other,” in contrast to an informed understanding of any actual Judaism. If uncritical hagiographic apologist deconstruction is your cup of tea, this is your book.

Before I sound too cranky, however, I will allow Ofrat and Derrida, as cited by Ofrat, to damn themselves. The following are taken from The Jewish Derrida.

Derrida: “It turns out that I don’t know Hebrew, or very little, I have a very poor knowledge of Jewish history or the texts of Jewish culture. This ignorance requires me . . . to shift to the metaphorical, rhetorical, allegorical dimension of Judaism. Circumcision, for example” (p. 11).

Ofrat: “Derrida proves his Jewish identity neither by laying tefillin (phylacteries) nor by fasting on Yom Kippur, nor by having his sons [by his non-Jewish wife] circumcised; rather, he proves it by the experience of absence, by the experience of the Jewish abyss, by the death of his Jewishness, by its nullification” (p. 34).

Derrida: “I bear, in negative fashion if I may put it so, the heritage of that amnesia which I have never had the courage, the strength, the means to resist” (p. 17).

Ofrat: “Hebrew is Chinese to him, as he admits . . . (p. 113).

Ofrat and Derrida: “On the one hand, ‘one may say that he [Heidegger] perfumes National Socialism’ . . . and, ‘on the other hand, in taking the risk of perfuming Nazism, it is possible that he was seeking to rescue it when he imprinted upon it the principle of realization, realization as self-authentication . . .’” (p. 119).

Ofrat and Derrida: “Derrida has to touch the talith (‘I touch it without knowing what I am doing . . .’) . . . Thus, Jacques Derrida remains, wrapped in his private talith, oblivious as to whether or not it brings benediction, the talith of which he knows nothing, really. . . . ‘I would sing of the singular softness of my talith, a softness softer than soft . . .’” (pp. 157, 159).

Ofrat: “Judaism constitutes a ‘black hole’ in the philosophy of the French Jewish thinker” (p. 182).

Enough. On the question of the moral and political significance of Derrida’s lifelong devotion to the thought of Heidegger (“Derrida’s spiritual father” [p. 118]), who was, of course, an unrepentant member of the Nazi party from 1933 to 1945, Ofrat is an apologist (thankfully a brief one, spending only two pages on this question). On the question of Derrida’s vehement and vituperative defense of Paul de Man’s cover-up of his pro-Nazi journalism in Belgium, Ofrat has nothing at all to say.

This book does not engage what might be the interesting and deep question of the relation between deconstruction and Judaism. Rather, it is a compendium, a catalogue, perhaps even an encyclopedia of what are probably Derrida’s every reference, allusion, comment, or passing remark having anything, however remotely, to do with stereotypes, cliches, texts, and rituals commonly associated with Judaism. I do not know if Derrida’s works have been scanned and entered into computer format, but the unity of The Jewish [End Page 154] Derrida seems to be the result of a “Word Search” program set to such terms as “circumcision,” “talith,” “Jew,” etc. As for Ofrat’s commentary, it is simply more of the same, that is, more of the speculative and personal pastiche one finds...

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pp. 153-155
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