Nietzsche the Jews and Ressentiment

Yirmiyahu Yovel

In a volume dedicated to Nietzsche's Genealogy there is no need to dwell on the meaning of ressentiment . My aim in this essay is to see how this key concept (together with another, "self-overcoming") functions when applied by Nietzsche to both Jews and anti-Semites. These two polarities haunted Nietzsche throughout his creative life, and occupy a more central place in his thought than is usually recognized.[1] Liberally using quotes, I shall organize this essay as a kind of case file, somewhat following Nietzsche's own handling of Wagner.

First, a few methodological remarks: (1) My interest focuses on Nietzsche's own thought, not on its various uses, abuses, vulgarizations, and the like (although these are of great interest and importance when studying empirical history), nor on what is called "Nietzscheanism." (2) I am addressing Nietzsche as philosopher; that is, I consider his view of the Jews in its links with the rest of his thinking, rather than as a fleeting or occasional reflection that any intellectual, artist, writer, or scientist might have framed about the Jews. (3) While examining Nietzsche's words in their philosophical context, attention should also be given to their rhetorical context and to how they sound among the other voices coming from Nietzsche and from others. (4) Nietzsche is commonly described as "ambivalent" about the Jews (but the term itself is left ambiguous). I shall try to explicate the structure of that ambivalence and clearly bring out its precise components.

To do this we shall have to make certain distinctions: first, between Nietzsche's attitudes toward anti-Semitism and toward historical Judaism . Second, within historical Judaism three further phases are to be distinguished: Old Testament Judaism, whose "grandeur" Nietzsche adored: the "priestly" Judaism of the Second Temple, which he profoundly despised and condemned as the parent of Christian culture; and the post-Christian

Jews in the Diaspora and modern times, whom he defended, admired, and saw as a healing ingredient for his "new Europe."

To understand this complex relation—a seeming paradox—we must recognize a major methodological point. When Nietzsche attacks the anti-Semites or defends the Jews, he has in mind concrete entities: the contemporary Jewish communities living in Europe, and the actual anti-Semitic movement working against them. By contrast, when criticizing ancient Judaism, Nietzsche approaches it as a psycho-cultural (or "genealogical") category ; it is for him a qualitative feature deeply ingrained in Western culture, whose psychological structure Nietzsche—as the "genealogist" of that culture—is out to analyze and expose.[2] Hence the characteristic gap between his critique of second temple Judaism and his defense of contemporary Jews. Unlike the anti-Semitic theorists, both vulgar and subtle—and also unlike many Jewish apologists—Nietzsche avoids carrying over his negative analysis of ancient Judaism into his attitude toward contemporary Jews . This methodological epoche , a self-disciplinary move (and a hallmark of his uncommon psychology), allows Nietzsche to be—at the same time, and with the same passionate ardor—both an anti-anti-Semite and a critic of ancient Judaism, the cradle of Christianity.

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