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  • Futures of Jewish Exemplarity
  • Jakob Egholm Feldt

Georg Simmel's "The Stranger" (1908) might be considered an exemplar for the processual relationship between the particular and the general in history. As Elizabeth Goodstein notes in her book on Simmel, the stranger exemplifies Simmel's social theory, holding that over time and across various events, particularities can evolve into general forms or abstractions, and they may become a lens through which we see what has happened and what will happen in a different way.1

Of course, such processes do not constitute a rule; not all particulars become exemplary of an abstraction, a concept, or a historical and social form—but it can happen. This is the reason that, I claim, Simmel makes the example of Jewish history as the classic through which we can understand the meaning of the stranger.2 Strangeness happened to the Jews not because of something essential to Judaism or Jewishness, or because of divine missions, but because of the events, historical processes, and categories that we use, a posteriori, to illuminate the boundaries of present and historical experiences. The Jews and Jewish history became a historical and social form with which to think, to predict, and to make sense of experiences. This is not an organic, essential aspect of Jewish history; yet it has been acted upon as such many times.

The Jewish stranger is itself both specific and general. It is a deeply contextual modernist form, ingrained into the historical and social imaginary of Simmel's time, as well as a new way of understanding the becoming of historical and social forms—abstractions that are both contextual and transcendent. With Simmel's framework, we can think of the relation between Jewish history and the stranger as an analogy to the relation between process [End Page 311] and form; we might even paraphrase Simmel and say that the stranger is an inorganic appendix to Jewish history—but is nevertheless treated as an organic part of it.3 Recently, research into the histories and possible futures of cosmopolitanism has revisited this conception of Jewish history, demonstrating how it opens up new expectations for the future.4 Seen from the perspective of its uses by scholars from Simmel to Zygmunt Bauman—who arguably took the stranger the furthest into Jewish history—the stranger has something to say about Jewish history.5 It is productive.

Simmel was not the first to see Jewish history in this way, or the last, as Goldberg and others have discussed.6 Since the Enlightenment, historians and philosophers had considered the Jews and Jewish history an anomaly vis-à-vis general historical progress or, more specifically, an entity contributing to universal values such as "justice." Often this "anomaly" was associated with Spinozism—not as a strict following of Spinoza's philosophy but as an outlook on historical and social processes: secular yet prophetic, "one" yet diversified, contingent yet teleological.7 In this context, the example of Jewish history plays a particularly significant role. The example is not "a case," in the sense of "one among many," nor is it unique, as if unrelatable to other instances, but the exemplar is more than itself. It reveals a potentially novel prospect that follows from the dialectic between the example and the generalities that the example represents. Jewish history becomes an entity with more meaning attached to it than its plain example suggests.8 This conception of Jewish history as a theory-practice nexus has had defining impacts on modern Jewish history, from Zionism to cosmopolitan philosophies, which appropriate Jewishness as a central resource for diasporic or nomadic politicocultural ethics. [End Page 312]

While Simmel considered Zionism to be unfeasible and unnecessary and his personal association with Jewishness involuntary, his writing nevertheless offers an explanation for one understanding of the trajectory of Jewish history.9 The stranger relies on a German-Jewish indexicality and an already well-established historical and social imagination in which Jewish strangeness played a significant part, but it is also much more than that. Simmel's stranger teaches us that historical events—what happens and has happened—precede the being, the subject, who becomes what it is only after...


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pp. 311-313
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