Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition

Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition
Brian Britt—

Secondary literature on the work of Walter Benjamin tends to polarize around Jewish tradition and identity without explaining them. This essay proposes a notion of displacement to address the question of Jewish tradition in Benjamin through brief discussions of his biographical context and two of his works: "Critique of Violence" (1921) and German Men and Women (1936).

Philip Taaffe, Angelus Novus, 2013, Mixed media on canvas, 38 x 37 1/4 inches(96.52 x 94.62 cm) © Philip Taaffe; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. 

"Taaffe, who studied with the artist Hans Haacke, credits Benjamin as a major influence on his work" (personal communication, October 15, 2015).


Scholars who disagree sharply over the importance of Jewish tradition in Walter Benjamin’s work tend not to explore what Jewish tradition means for him. The publication of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, the most nuanced and complete biography to date, presents an opportunity to revisit and reframe this question.1 One thing Jewish tradition could mean is observant Jewish practice, which even casual readers of Benjamin realize does not apply. Consider how the story of his abortive attempt to attend Rosh Hashanah services in Berlin Childhood Around 1900 reveals a “suspicion [Argwohn] of religious ceremonies” and also somehow contributes to his sexual awakening (SW 3:386). An earlier sign is his October 1912 letter to Ludwig Strauss on Judaism and Zionism, which affirms a cultural Zionism for Benjamin in Germany, including lines that echo Martin Luther: “Ich bin hier gebunden,” and “Hier will ich stehen” (GS 2:838). Jewish tradition can also mean the modern idea, grounded in Luther’s polemical battle for faith over works, that religion is primarily a matter of belief. This essay approaches Benjamin’s Jewish tradition as an abiding concern of his work as well as his life. For Benjamin, Jewish tradition, and tradition in general, survives in modernity through what I describe as mechanisms of displacement. Far from the grand narratives of progress, decline, and eternal recurrence, displacement refers to the numerous ways in which traditions change and survive, even in the face of modern denials of tradition.

Secularist scholars of Benjamin typically consider religion, even Judaism, as a belief or faith, meaning, I suppose, a doctrine or set of doctrines.2 As a scholar of religion, I have always found this idea confusing, because I do not know how to observe or understand religion as belief: it could mean a public statement of belief, like a creed, but is that by itself a meaningful indicator of a person’s identity? Or it could mean some kind of lasting mental state. But even there I get lost: how do you hold a belief about invisible, supernatural realities in your head for any length of time? It reminds me of a magician who says, “Think of a card.” I think of a card, I hold the idea, the image, and the name of that card in my consciousness. But then my mind wanders—I think of a joke, an old friend, or my next meal. Will my attention deficit spoil the trick, or my religious identity?

Jacob Taubes argues for the idea of religion as belief when he argues that when Benjamin said Messiah he meant Messiah: “[T]here is a Messiah. No shmontses like ‘the messianic,’ ‘the political,’ no neutralization, but the Messiah.”3 Secularist readers of Benjamin seem to have belief in mind when, like Habermas, they brush aside all the religious and metaphysical language in his work. Of course, defining religion simply as faith misses the point of Judaism and other religions, even Christianity. If religion means anything at all, it has to involve belief and action. But even belief and action together do not encompass Jewish tradition for Benjamin, whose thinking on tradition includes the kinds of subtle, displaced phenomena included in the category of displacement. Tradition survives through displacement in spite of modern intentions, as Gershom Scholem’s well-known letter to Franz Rosenzweig on modern Hebrew shows.4

A third, related model of Benjamin’s Jewishness is inheritance, the idea that his use of Jewish tradition came him by virtue of his identity, both in terms of nature and nurture. We can leave aside for now the nature model, which appears in Freud’s fascinating but problematic notion that we could somehow inherit tradition unconsciously, and turn to the biographical question of Benjamin’s Jewishness: His practice was minimal, and his belief, even if we could observe it, would not give us much to go by. There is another, less difficult variable to measure, though: his identity. Here we have broad agreement: the world thought he was Jewish and so did he. And with resources like the new critical biography by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, we can bring this question into new focus. Here we see Benjamin with his family of origin, among school friends, collaborating with Scholem, challenging Buber, and reading Kafka. We also see him giving his son presents and performing a puppet show for Hanukkah.5 Most of all, we see a fascinating individual embedded in a particular and short-lived context of post-emancipation German Jewish life. The inheritance of Goethe and Kant figured more prominently for him than that of Maimonides or even Mendelssohn, and yet it would be totally wrong to overlook the abiding role of Jewish identity and even a kind of Jewish learning in his work.

Before we take a quick glimpse of two texts where this complex question of identity comes into focus, let me linger on this question of inheritance. It can be tempting to extrapolate from Benjamin’s limited use of Jewish thought to a broad understanding of the tradition, but letters, manuscripts, and accounts by Scholem, along with critical biography, allow us to trace nearly every Jewish idea and reference in his work. In a recent article, political theorist Charles Lesch argues, for example, that the concept of Shekhinah holds the key to Benjamin’s critique of Kant, and he extends his argument to a much wider engagement with rabbinic sources than Benjamin could possibly command. Only in a footnote does Lesch admit that Benajmin consulted nineteenth-century Christian authors, Franz von Baader and Franz Joseph Molitor, as his authorities on Shekhinah.6

The idea of inheritance also shapes arguments that Benjamin’s methods of quotation descend from rabbinic tradition; this idea, which has variants in Susan Handelman’s Slayers of Moses as well as Yerushalmi’s Freud’s Moses, plays out in essays on Benjamin’s practices of quotation by Josef Furnkäs and Manfred Voigts.7 In both cases, there is a fine line between inheritance as something passively received or absorbed and the more active, idiosyncratic model of appropriation of Jewish ideas at play in Benjamin’s work.8

Far from passively inheriting Jewish tradition, Benjamin theorizes the inheritance of tradition. This inheritance can be framed in terms of displacement, the shifting and transformation of religious beliefs and practices he identifies in his early and late writings.9 Drawn from Freud and Benjamin, the idea of displacement means that traditions change rather than go away, but the inheritance of tradition does not conform to simple grand narratives of decline, progress, or eternal recurrence. Writing from his German Jewish vantage point, Benjamin consistently engaged the problem of tradition, pushing against these grand narratives and affirming tradition even as he immersed himself in modernist of art and culture. In his early essays on language (“On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” 1916) and philosophy (“On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,” 1918) as well as his late writings on Surrealism (1929), Paris, and history (“On the Concept of History,” 1940), Benjamin poses the challenge of relating supposedly secular forms of modern culture to pre-modern tradition framed in religious terms. His studies of language, thought, and culture restlessly disclose modern displacements of tradition.

Two of the most nuanced readers of Jewish tradition in Benjamin are Irving Wohlfarth and Gillian Rose. They both understand that Benjamin’s Jewishness begins with the prosperous German-Jewish context of his family of origin, which involved minimal exposure to traditional observance and rabbinic sources, and that it continues with the intense intellectual friendship with Scholem, with the figures of Ernst Bloch, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig as prominent early influences. Finally, Benjamin tailored and applied what he had learned and developed from these engagements in a highly idiosyncratic, unsystematic, and original body of work. Wohlfarth offers this useful formulation about politics and literature: “The German Jew is [sic] no position to speak out on political matters, but he is peculiarly well-placed to be a ‘critic of German literature’—and by this detour, to address German politics after all.”10 Rose resists the inheritance model, but she sometimes deploys it nevertheless, as in her discussion of “haggada” in the essays on Kafka or “Zakhor” in “On the Concept of History.”11

"Critique of Violence" (1921)

Around the time he wrote “Toward a Critique of Violence,” Benjamin was reading works on politics by Jewish thinkers Gustav Landauer and Erich Unger (GS 7:446-447). Landauer, a prominent Jewish anarchist and close friend of Buber, had been executed in 1919, and Unger belonged to a group of Jewish intellectuals, led by Oskar Goldberg, who were interested in esoteric Jewish ideas. Like Benjamin, Unger was an assimilated Jewish Berliner who affirmed Jewish identity but resisted Zionism, and Benjamin praised the combination of religious and political ideas in Unger’s work.12 In ways neither fully articulated, they both embodied and theorized the displacement of Jewish tradition in modern life and thought. Of course, the influence of Unger and Landauer built upon Benjamin’s earlier readings and conversations with Scholem, Bloch, and Buber. For all of these thinkers, there can be no easy distinction between Jewish tradition and modern political thought. All of them incorporated ideas and elements of Jewish tradition into distinctive programs of thought. But for none of these thinkers could Jewish tradition be defined in simple terms as belief, practice, or inheritance.

For present purposes, one detail from the “Critique” deserves attention, and it resonates nicely with Benjamin’s reading in anarchist and Jewish thought as well as with his “Theological-Political Fragment”: this is the use of Numbers 16, the story of the revolt of Korah, as a case of “divine violence.” How Benjamin chose this text is not certain, but the episode provides the title for a contemporary novel by an author cited elsewhere by Benjamin: Die Rotte Korahs (“The Horde of Korah,” 1919) by the well-known Austrian author and literary critic Hermann Bahr.13 The novel depicts the protagonist’s discovery of his Jewish identity, along with the depth of anti-Semitism in his culture. (The phrase “die Rotte Korahs” itself, though biblical, represents an anti-Semitic slur in the novel.) Bahr’s novel would likely have been familiar to Benjamin since Bahr was a prominent literary figure who associated with Karl Kraus and others, and it would explain Benjamin’s otherwise puzzling choice of Numbers 16 to illustrate the divine violence in the “Critique of Violence.” Specific biblical references in Benjamin’s work are infrequent and rarely detailed, and there are several other biblical episodes, such the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19) and the plague on the firstborn (Exod 12), that a layperson like Benjamin would likely identify to illustrate divine violence. Whether Bahr influenced Benjamin is uncertain, but they both illustrate how the biblical story of Korah could be displaced to modern political issues of anti-Semitism (for Bahr) and political violence (for Benjamin).

German Men and Women (Deutsche Menschen, 1936)

The case of German Men and Women poses a paradox: here is a collection of letters from the 18th and 19th centuries celebrating German writers and thinkers, all of them non-Jewish, but when he inscribed copies for his sister, Scholem, and Kracauer, Benjamin described the book as a Jewish ark written when the fascist flood began to rise. And he published the book under the pseudonym Detlef Holz to conceal his Jewish identity. I’ve explored this puzzle elsewhere14, but I would only say here that the case of Deutsche Menschen makes it very difficult to disentangle German from Jewish identity, something Paul Mendes-Flohr, Georg Mosse, and many others have shown; in fact, Benjamin’s book inscribes their combination, even in 1936, as a kind of quixotic hope. But this mixing of German and Jewish identity only continues the centuries-long entanglements of Judaism and Christianity theorized by Daniel Boyarin and others. This hybridity need not be schizophrenic or divided in any way; as Benjamin and the Berlin Jewish Museum show, this is a positive historical identity no more or less authentic or complete than any other. To quote a popular saying about cultural trends: “It’s a thing.” Earlier I brushed aside Freud’s notion of tradition as something inherited with or without our conscious awareness. This idea plays out in Moses and Monotheism in terms of a notion of tradition that can be unconsciously inherited; the “forgotten material,” he suggests, is “not extinguished, only ‘repressed’”; and somehow it gets passed down through the generations through unconscious dispositions.15 While I share the doubts about this speculative, “Lamarckian” concept of tradition raised so well by Yosef Yerushalmi in Freud’s Moses,16 there is another element of Freud’s thinking I would like to claim for Benajmin’s use of Jewish tradition: displacement, the idea that traditions change shape and character in all sorts of ways rather than simply go away. This idea of displacement fits Benjamin’s orientation to tradition, which opposes the modern secularist narrative of progress, traditionalist visions of decline, as well as Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. For Benjamin as for more recent “postsecular” thinkers like Talal Asad,17 tradition never just goes away; even the most iconoclastic modernisms bear the afterlife and traces of the past. The inversions, paradoxes, and formal experiments of Benjamin’s thought identify the displacements of tradition in ways that open space for critical thought, and, I would argue, agency.18

Against the grand historical narratives of progress, decline, and eternal recurrence, the displacement of traditions preoccupies Benjamin from his early studies of literature to his late work on modern culture. If his work insists on critical awareness of the complexity, multiplicity, and contexts of cultural forms, it reflects the complexity of his life, which no biographical formula (tragedy, heroic tale, mourning play) or simplistic label (Marxist, aesthete, theologian, melancholic, Jew, German) can capture. It is ironic that scholarship on Benjamin so often resorts to such formulas and labels when he devoted a substantial part of his work to their critical examination. It takes a Critical Life like the biography of Eiland and Jennings, one that resists generalizations, embraces complexity, and reads the life with the work, to recognize more fully the significance of Benjamin’s thought.19



1 Walter Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
2 See Beatrice Hanssen, Critique of Violence: Between Poststructuralism and Critical Theory (New York: Routledge, 2000), 23.
3 Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 70.
4 Scholem, “Thoughts About our Language (1926),” in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, ed. Avraham Shapira, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997), 27-29.  Dipesh Chakrabarty makes a similar point in Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 115-137.
5 Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, 221, 243.
6 Charles H.T. Lesch, “Against Politics: Walter Benjamin on Justice, Judaism, and the Possibility of Ethics,” American Political Science Review 108 (2014): 227 n. 15 [218-232].  See also Udi E. Greenberg, “Orthodox Violence: ‘Critique of Violence’ and Walter Benjamin’s Jewish Political Theology,” History of European Ideas 34 (2008): 324-333.
7 Susan Handelman, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983); Yosef Yerushalmi, Freud's Moses : Judaism Terminable and Interminable (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991); Josef Furnkäs, “Zitat und Zerstörung. Karl Kraus und Walter Benjamin“ in Verabschiedung der (Post-)Moderne? Eine interdiziplinäre Debatte, J. Le Rider und G. Raulet, eds. (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag), 216  [209-225]; Manfred Voigts, “’Die Mater der Gerechtigkeit’: Zur Kritik der Zitat-Begriffes bei Walter Benjamin,” in N. Bolz and R. Faber, eds., Antike und Moderne: zu Walter Benjamins "Passagen" (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1986), 97-115.
8 See the description of Kraus’s writing as „der großartigste Durchbruch des halachischen Schrifttums...“ in Benjamin’s fragment on Kraus:  GS 2:624.
9 I derive the idea of tradition as displacement from Freud and Benjamin in Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), 191-212.
10 Irving Wohlfarth, “’Männer aus der Fremde’: Walter Benjamin and the ‚German-Jewish Parnassus,’” New German Critique 70 (1997): 33 [3-85].  
11 Gillian Rose, “Walter Benjamin—Out of the Sources of Modern Judaism,” in Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 199, 207 [175–210].
12 See Eiland and Jennings, 133-134.
13 The 1919 novel The Horde of Korah (Die Rotte Korahs, by Hermann Bahr) is a philo-Semitic novel in which the main character discovers his Jewish identity upon receiving an inheritance. Bahr was a prominent Austrian playwright and essayist whose work Benjamin cites in his 1931 essay on Willy Haas (“Theologische Kritik,” GS 3:276). In the likely event that Benjamin was familiar with Bahr’s novel, its use of the biblical Korah casts Korah in a sympathetic light: the “divine violence” against Korah, though revelatory, is no more palatable or justified than anti-Semitism! 
14 Britt, “Identity and Survival in Deutsche Menschen,” Benjamin-Studien 3 (2014): 83-104.
15Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage, 1967), 120, 125.  
16 Yerushalmi, Freud’s Moses, 30-35.
17Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).
18This is the argument of my forthcoming book, Postsecular Benjamin: Agency and Tradition (Northwestern University Press).
19Eiland and Jennings lament how selective previous studies of Benjamin have been:  “The result has all to often been a partial or, worse, mythologized and distorted portrait” (Eiland and Jennings, 7).

Brian Britt is Professor and Chair in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. His research examines biblical texts and traditions with special emphasis on literary methods and contemporary culture. His fourth book, Postsecular Benjamin, will be published next spring with Northwestern University Press.


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