- Secularism and Hermeneutics by Yael Almog
The past three decades have witnessed a sea change in scholarship on secularism and secularization. If once-dominant narratives described the evacuation of religion from modern public life, theorists such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have redefined secularism as a tool of governance by which modern states seek to harness and regulate acceptable forms of religious expression. At the same time, historians of eighteenth-century Europe—the fulcrum on which traditional understandings of secularization rest—have challenged simplistic oppositions of religion and Enlightenment. Works such as Jonathan Sheehan's The Enlightenment Bible (2005) and David Sorkin's The Religious Enlightenment (2008) have shown instead how reappropriations of religious texts have shaped new concepts of citizenship, culture, and law. In Secularism and Hermeneutics, Yael Almog synthesizes and advances this wide-ranging literature to contend that modern hermeneutics, often considered the quintessential practice of secular interpretation, emerged out of Enlightenment-era religious conflict. Blending readings of Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schleiermacher, G.W.F. Hegel, and others with pointed interventions in contemporary theory, Almog invites readers to rethink not only commonplaces about the Enlightenment but also their own interpretive practices.
At the core of Secularism and Hermeneutics lies an analysis of Enlightenment efforts to read the Bible not as a sacred text of revelation, but as a universal document of human culture. The novel hermeneutics that arose in the German-speaking Enlightenment, Almog argues, centered around a new vision of the Bible as the basis for a universal reading community. Efforts to achieve this community, however, foundered on the confessional diversity of German societies, exemplified in the battle over Jewish emancipation. For the central protagonists of Enlightenment hermeneutics—the Pietist philosopher Johann Georg Hamann as well as Herder, Schleiermacher, and Hegel—the Hebrew Bible recorded the origins of humanity's religious consciousness, but its meaning had become obscured through an insular Jewish communalism. It was Christianity that gave voice to the Bible's universal core and could interpret its message for the modern state. Yet Jewish authors spoke back, seeking inclusion in the Enlightenment public sphere without abandoning their religious heritage. Almog reconstructs the emergence of modern hermeneutics from [End Page 401] the entanglements of Christian and Jewish thought, as both sides sought to mediate confessional commitments with articulations of shared humanity.
The first half of the text centers on the tension between Protestant efforts to create a universal reading culture, underpinned by supersessionist logics and the defense of Jewish reading practices advanced most notably by the Orthodox Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Herder and Goethe deplored the Hebrew language as a barrier to comprehension, regarding the work of translation as both a lamentable loss of meaning and a necessary condition of universal readership. Mendelssohn, by contrast, declared Judaism a forerunner of Enlightenment toleration, with its emphasis on oral transmission and refusal to coerce belief in God. Drawing on postcolonial approaches to the encounters of Islam and Western thought, Almog characterizes Mendelssohn's position as one of "situated universalism" (91). Rather than breaking with Enlightenment universalism from the standpoint of Judaism, Mendelssohn insisted on their interdependence. Although not framed as such, Almog's reading of Mendelssohn marks a break with critical theorists of secularism such as Asad and Mahmood. While the latter seek to expose political secularism as an effort to reinscribe Protestant norms as standards of liberal citizenship, Almog argues instead that secular hermeneutics emerged in contentious negotiation among confessional models of reading, with none conclusively imposing its own standards.
The book's second part shifts from philosophy to literary criticism, spotlighting how novels such as Heinrich Heine's Der Rabbi von Bacherach (1840) and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche (1842) challenged the constricted (and antisemitic) universalisms promoted by the Protestant mainstream. In Heine's novel, Almog finds a moving testament to the persistence of Jewish suffering perpetuated not only by self-imposed separation but by the scapegoating and bigotry of the Christian majority—a foil to Protestants such as Schleiermacher, who rooted Jewish difference in a lack...