Two facets only of Jewish experience command the attention of the generality of media-literate individuals in the West: the Holocaust and the state of Israel. In the minds of a large number of people, a perverse equation is the end-result. Without remainder the identity of the Jewish people is associated with death and torture by the Nazis, and death and torture of the Palestinians by the state of Israel. Add to that a third facet, the wondering that dwells in the heart of many Christians and non-Christians, why did they crucify Jesus, what did he do to deserve that, and a situation is created in which a little knowledge is truly a dangerous thing.
An excellent conference is scheduled to take place at the University of Minnesota. The keynote speaker is Alvin Rosenfeld, who will ask the question: “Is There an Anti-Jewish Bias in Today’s University?” As if to say that the one place anti-Jewish bias should not exist is the university, given its core values, populated as it is with many Jewish academics whose commitment to the institution’s core values is beyond question.
But that was also the case under National Socialism, and did not prevent the Third Reich, with its commitment to racial purity, from cleansing the ranks of the German university of Jews. The symposium, co-organized by a well-known Hebrew Bible scholar, Bernard Levinson, and Bruno Chaouat, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, both of the University of Minnesota, will examine the impact of Nazi ideology on core academic disciplines in the period of the Third Reich, including anthropology, philosophy, classics, Assyriology, theology, law, and music.
Johannes Renger, an Assyriologist, will give a lecture entitled: “German Assyriology 1933-1945: A discipline in troubled waters between emigration and compliance with the regime.” The subject is an important episode in a larger story which needs to be told for a variety of reasons. It is not possible, I would hope, to study Akkadian without hearing a bone-chilling story or two about the Bible and Babel controversy, and some account of the Benno Landsberger – Wolfram von Soden saga. But maybe it is possible to study Assyriology without also studying the history of Assyriology, which is frightening in my eyes.
In reviewing an old post on a related topic – the anti-fascism of Pius XI which came to expression in his participation in the defense of a thesis by a student of the Biblicum, Giorgio Castellino, a thesis in which the claims of Friedrich Delitzsch to the effect that Israelite religion was a degenerate offshoot of Babylonian religion were carefully put to rest, I notice that I did not provide enough context for a typical reader of the post to understand what is at stake. Much work remains to be done in the sense of elucidating the history of the fields of biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern studies at the intersection of larger historical events. I trust that Renger’s contribution will clarify a number of questions. As specialists know, a figure like Wolfram von Soden is still polarizing (compare this essay by Eckart Frahm with this dissertation by Jakob Bo Flygare).
Going forward, what I wish would be understood is the extent to which anti-Judaism and anti-Christianity, and a visceral distaste for adherents of both religions, go hand-in-hand today. The sense of déjà vu is strong for anyone with a knowledge of German intellectual history. With that in mind, I conclude this post with an excerpt from an important essay by Susan Marchand (who is also presenting at the symposium). It illustrates the dangers of the anti-theological mindset, a not unusual mindset among today’s literati. In brackets, I add a few clarifications for those unfamiliar with the protagonists discussed:
[The famous Assyriologist and anti-Semite] Hugo Winckler noted a similar transformation in the ﬁeld, one produced, in his view, by his generation’s “pure philological-historical engagement with the Semites,” something that clearly distinguished its work from that produced by its theologically-trained ancestors. The enormous scandal caused by Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch’s two lectures entitled “Babel und die Bibel” suggests just how shocking [and appealing] this material was in Wilhelmine Germany [Friedrich was the brilliant and wayward son of Franz Delitzsch, one of the great Hebraists of the 19th century; a shift away from Christian pieties to Romantic and nationalistic pieties invested Germany more than a century ago; the shift is embodied in the difference between father and son]. In the wake of Delitzsch’s ﬁrst lecture in 1902, public opinion forced the Kaiser to distance himself from Delitzsch’s suggestion that the Old Testament was little more than transcribed [and degenerate] Assyrian wisdom; by 1905, the controversy had resulted in the publication of 1,650 articles and 28 pamphlets. It is instructive that this German version of the Scopes Trial [my emphasis] involved orientalist, rather than natural scientiﬁc, undermining of the Bible.
“Pure philological-historical engagement”: be careful what you wish for. The parallel function of the Babel/Bible and evolution/creation controversies is also worth pondering. The instinctive reaction of many who come down with both feet on the side of the modernists in modernist/fundamentalist debates is an absolute need of critical review.
We live in an age in which naïve but also deliberate misreadings of the Old Testament such that the God of its pages and the people said God relates to are treated as moral monsters are frequent, and go largely unchallenged. Who will pay the steepest price for such misreadings? I think I know already.