Jewish Materialism

The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s

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Eliyahu Stern
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , March
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Eliyahu Stern’s Jewish Materialism is an intellectual history of a group of Russian Jews communicating with one another publicly and privately in the 1870s. For Stern, the debates among these “roughly twenty-five intellectuals born in the northwestern provinces of the Russian Empire” (6) mark a pivotal turning point in the history of Jewish self-imagination. Their attempts to reconcile Jewish theology with empirical science, ontological materialism, and Marxism created a way for Jewish religion and Jewish peoplehood to stand independently of Jewish theism. Wanting to improve the material conditions of Jewish people living in the Russian Pale of Settlement, these intellectuals catalyzed an imagined community of Jews. It is in this broad political-economic sense of concern for material conditions that Stern locates his own understanding of the distinctiveness of “Jewish materialism” as an intellectual movement: it is “the assumption that Judaism is primarily rooted in people’s material well-being and the distribution of resources in society” (190).

Stern adapts the emic category of “materialism” that pervades the conversations among his sources for his own etic purposes in order to argue that the Jewish materialism of the 1870s led to the development of a Jewish self-understanding that underpins both cultural Zionism and, more broadly, a transnational Jewish identity. Stern’s etic definition of “materialism” as merely a concern for material well-being enables him to extend beyond a narrower, yet fascinating argument that a synthesis of materialist philosophy and Judaism laid the groundwork for secular ways of being Jewish in the 20th and 21st centuries. Instead, he makes the more ambitious claim that Jewish materialism helped effect the notion that Jews are a single people, regardless of individuals’ (lack of) beliefs or practices. Stern’s strategic shift to a more capacious definition thus mirrors his argument that the Jewish materialists of the 1870s were responsible for a far broader impact on the material conditions of Jews than scholars have thus far acknowledged. This semantic slippage can be frustrating for a reader interested in how the perspectives that Stern has excavated from Hebrew, Yiddish, and German sources understand themselves. These disparate senses of “materialism” often connect only weakly, and as Stern guides his narrative thread, his broad analytic definition sometimes elides the more specific usage of his subjects. The question of what’s in a name thus haunts Stern’s endeavor. Is the fact that these intellectuals used the term “materialism” in various ways, even if only to disagree with it, enough to unify them into a “Jewish materialism,” which in turn leads to a global Jewish peoplehood? 

In the book’s first chapter, Stern describes the socio-economic conditions of Jews living in the Russian Pale of Settlement in the 19th century in order to explain the appeal of empirical approaches to politics and economics for Jewish intellectuals. For reformers, including the Russian aristocracy that sought to extract more value from lands occupied by Jews, traditional Jewish ways of life impeded economic development. The book’s second chapter examines the efforts of intellectuals like Moses Leib Lillienblum to reinterpret Jewish tradition in order to merge it with “the principles of rational egoism and a materialist calculus for making life decisions” (58). This reinterpretation relied on empirical economic studies like those of Ilya Orshanski and Abraham Uri Kovner. Kovner’s writings were anticlerical in the sense that they criticized as wasteful the tremendous financial resources that Jews living in the Pale dedicated to religious education. Lillienblum shared some of Kovner’s concerns, though unlike Kovner, who converted to Christianity, he sought to reform Jewish tradition by turning to 19th-century socialist thought and to the calculating positivism of John Stuart Mill. This intellectual labor helped create a hybrid of materialism and Judaism, but as with the German higher criticism’s impact on Christianity, Lillienblum’s synthesis posed a significant challenge to traditional Jewish theology.

In chapters 3 and 4, Stern looks at thinkers like Joseph Sossnitz and Tsvi Hirsch Rabinowtiz, who wrestled directly with the theological implications of ontological materialism and suffered criticism for their views. Both Sossnitz, with his scientific materialism, and Rabinowitz, with his positivism, turned away from a supernatural conception of God and reworked Judaism to make it more compatible with materialist philosophy. Sossnitz’s arguably most well-known student, Mordecai Kaplan, went on to co-found Reconstructionist Judaism and articulated a Jewish naturalism that takes Jewish “tradition seriously without taking it literally” (Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism, Reconstructionist Press, 1958, 29). Unlike the scientists Sossnitz and Rabinowitz, Judah Leib Levin and Aaron Shemuel Lieberman averred a more political materialism in the form of Marxism, which eschewed ontological claims as too much “metaphysics” and focused instead on empiricist methods of inquiry and the improvement of material conditions. Lieberman translated Marx into Hebrew and “proposed a new theory of history that merged Marx’s insights with Jewish ideas” (125). Though unlike Marx, Lieberman argued for the importance of a temporary imaginary of Jews as a distinct people in order to propagandize them, like Marx, he also thought Judaism would dissolve along with other religions and national identities through the achievement of communism.

In the book’s fifth chapter, Stern focuses on the “forefather of Cultural Zionism, Peter Smolenskin” (147), who was not a materialist in the scientific or Marxian senses, though he published the writings of several of the most prominent Jewish materialists in his newspapers The Dawn and The Truth. Engaging Smolenskin enables Stern to pivot away from the more modest thesis that appears to follow from the preceding chapters—namely that the challenges posed by scientific empiricism and ontological and Marxian materialisms led to the development of a kind of secular Judaism that does not require belief in the supernatural or observance of Jewish religious practices in order to be part of the Jewish people. Rather than merely extend the Jewish materialism of the 1870s into forms of naturalistic Judaism that flourished in the 20th century, such as Kaplan’s Reconstructionism or Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture movement, Stern argues that Jewish materialism made possible an imagined community of Jews who share something really (i.e., materially) distinctive even if they do not share religious beliefs or practices. It was the idealist Smolenskin who developed a theory of Jewish Geist, or a cultural spirit shared by all Jews, in sharp contrast to Lieberman’s view that Jewish national identity was a social construction at an intermediary stage on the way to universal human unity. With Smolenskin, the non-materialist publisher of many of the Jewish materialists, Stern finds a fulcrum capable of connecting the Jewish materialism of the 1870s to secular Jewish nationhood. Though this more ambitious thesis at times obscures the fascinating trajectory that Jewish Materialism charts into secular Judaism, scholars who build on Stern’s research will ultimately decide which of the two arguments will prove the most significant.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph Blankholm is Assistant Professor of Religious Studis at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eliyahu Stern is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual and Cultural History at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, CT.


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