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  • Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics ed. by Sarah Hammerschlag
  • Jeffrey Mehlman
Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics. Edited by Sarah Hammerschlag. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2018. 268 pp.

This is a wide-ranging, roughly chronological anthology, whose historical and disciplinary breadth, thorough and thoughtful introduction, and even-handed prefaces to its selections make it well suited to pedagogical purposes. Across its twenty-four pieces and its four sections (‘The Israelite of the Republic’, ‘The Cataclysm and the Aftermath’, ‘Universal and Particular: The Jew and the Political Realm’, and ‘Identification, Disidentification’), the anthology is poised between two questions: whether there might be a Jewish strand in French thought; and whether there might be a French strand in Jewish thought. There is a felicitous braiding of the two just prior to the book’s conclusion, when Derrida, in the volume’s longest text (‘Avowing’), hints that given sufficient time he would have ‘sharpened the blade of a crucial aporia: a reading, for today, of what happened in the silence and the secret of a certain Abraham on Mount Moriah’ (pp. 235–36). The allusion is to a Kafka parable with its ‘other’ Abraham, but above all to the (Abrahamic) origin of the Jewish tradition itself. Elsewhere in the book, one encounters the comments of a sage, Jacob Gordin, on the fratricidal motif or frérocité — between Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and above all (via Abraham) Isaac and Ishmael — whose compulsive repetition supplies the very spine of the inaugural text of Judaism, Genesis. Somehow, then, the communitarian hymn on how ‘goodly’ it is for brothers to sit together is interwoven with the obsessive violence aimed at a brother. In keeping with that contradiction, one might remark upon the antisemitic associations that seem to haunt a subset of Hammerschlag’s authors. Thus Bernard Lazare, the first Jew to rise in defence of Dreyfus, but also a volunteer (as the anthologist does not quite tell us, despite signalling the ambivalence of Lazare’s writings on Judaism) to serve on the prize jury for an essay contest sponsored by Édouard Drumont, the ‘pope’ of French antisemitism; then, Simone Weil, capable of writing that the ban on idolatry of the patriarchs, beginning with Abraham, was a fiction of Jewish fanaticism; and Sarah Kofman represented in this book in her focus on Maurice Blanchot’s treatment of the Jew as ‘emblematic figure’ (p. 119), even if the most heterogeneous fragment of his bibliography lay in a series of articles from the 1930s which have never been definitively extricated from the antisemitism of their milieu. Fast forward to Derrida’s text near the end of the anthology, the introduction to which cites the philosopher’s self-description as the ‘last of the Jews’ (p. 215), a culmination of what is at stake in the volume, but also indigne, an object of contempt. And then dial back to the originary case of Abraham at Mount Moriah and the sacrifice of Isaac as it appears in the quintessential novel of French literature, À la recherche du temps perdu. Marcel’s father, mounting the stairs late one crucial night, is observed by young Marcel for his resemblance to the figure of Abraham (in a gravure by Benozzo Gozzoli bidding Sarah take her distance from (du côté de) Isaac, their son, en route to a foundational sacrifice). In the novel, through a supreme irony, Abraham’s surrogate dismisses his wife and all but orders her to spend the night with their son. Yet the second Pléiade edition of Proust tells us that the scene appears in neither Genesis nor Gozzoli’s œuvre. The closest we come to it, philologically, is Abraham telling Hagar, his concubine, to move towards (du côté de) Ishmael and exile. Assemble the pieces and one gets what [End Page 492] Kafka might have called ‘another Abraham’. Proust’s first volume can retain its title, but written differently: ‘“du côté de” chez Swann’, the problematic of difference lodged within the home of Swann, disrupting (but also enabling) the interiority of the Jew. The quintessential French novel intersects with the...


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pp. 492-493
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