The Jew of Culture

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The Jew of Culture is a posthumous work by cultural theorist Philip Rieff. Presented as the final volume of Rieff’s Sacred Order/Social Order trilogy, it contains selections of Rieff’s work published from 1952 through 1982, plus a previously unpublished essay written about 1994. Before his death in 2006, Rieff agreed that his former student, Arnold M. Eisen, would assemble these writings around the concept of “the Jew of Culture.” Eisen worked with coeditor Gideon Lewis-Krauss to shape a work that is essentially a retrospective on Rieff’s intellectual career.

Rieff explicitly introduced the idea of “the Jew of Culture” in the 1970’s, at the time when his writing style had taken a turn toward oracular pronouncements and his attitude toward modern culture had become sternly disapproving, if not condemnatory. By that period in his work, Rieff considered a culture a way of ordering and organizing individuals around principles and practices that had to be sacred if they were to be meaningful. Rieff was Jewish by heritage, and he saw Judaism as a primal culture of Western civilization. Christianity had emerged from Judaism, and Christianity had defined itself either as a continuation of Judaism or as an opposition to Judaism. Therefore, the Jew of Culture, in Rieff’s perspective by the 1970’s, was not just a Jewish intellectual or cultured individual, but a representative of the oldest tradition of sacred order underlying Western civilization.

The selections in this book can be read both as representatives of the Jew of Culture idea and as illustrations of the development of this idea in Rieff’s thinking. The first piece, on British novelist and statesman Benjamin Disraeli, was written at the beginning of the author’s career. Although Disraeli had been baptized into the Church of England when he was twelve years old, he had been born a Jew. Rather than deny his Jewish heritage in frequently anti-Semitic Victorian England, he took pride in it and often seemed to dwell on it, even after he rose to the position of prime minister. Rieff argues that Disraeli was able to conceive and pursue a vision of England as the New Israel because of his nostalgic attachment to the Old Israel. The Disraeli chapter introduces Rieff’s view of religious tradition as the source of order and structure in life, bringing individuals into a social existence, and it hints at the special importance Rieff attributes to Judaism as a religious tradition.

The second chapter is a brief review of the book Büchlein vom gesunden und kranken Menschenverstand (1921; Understanding the Sick and the Healthy, 1953) by the little-known Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. The editors include it to demonstrate Rieff’s interest in Jewish religious thought and to show the development of his thinking in preparing to write about a much greater influence on Western culture, Sigmund Freud.

Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, first published in 1959, was Rieff’s first major work. In this key revisionist study of Freud, Rieff argued that the father of psychoanalysis occupied a position at the center of an intellectual revolution that shifted attention away from the perspective of society shaping the individual and toward that of the individual creating society out of instinctual conflicts. Although Rieff was ambivalent about the heritage of psychoanalysis in this work and critical of Freud’s successors, Rieff regarded Freud as an intellectual pioneer. The Jew of Culture reprints the preface to the second edition of his book, followed by a section from the book entitled “The Religion of the Fathers.” In these pages, Rieff wrote at length on the role of Judaism in Freud’s life and thought. Religion, in Rieff’s view, organizes the character of individuals by means of faith. Freud attempted to develop a new theory of culture, based on the idea of the primacy of the individual, to address the decline of religion as a source of social organization. However, Rieff maintained in this preface, Freud ignored the role of the Jewish tradition and of his own complex identification with Moses in making possible the rethinking of the relationship between the individual and society. In Freud as a “psychological Jew,” Rieff found a basic contradiction. A heritage from a religiously based culture established the organization of Freud’s personality and intellectual creativity, but...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Reference-Research Book News, August, 2008.