God Inter­rupt­ed: Heresy and the Euro­pean Imag­i­na­tion Between the World Wars

Ben­jamin Lazier
  • Review
By – October 28, 2011

In an age mis­trust­ful of author­i­ty and inher­it­ed wis­dom, heresy exerts a strong appeal. The bril­liant schol­ar Ben­jamin Lazier makes a con­vinc­ing case that two reli­gious here­sies exert­ed far-reach­ing influ­ence on Weimar-era thought well beyond the con­fines of reli­gion. His sub­ject is not the­olo­gians like Buber and Rosen­zweig, but rather three oth­er Ger­man Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als: the polit­i­cal the­o­rist Leo Strauss, the philoso­pher Hans Jonas, and Ger­shom Scholem, the author­i­ta­tive his­to­ri­an of kab­bal­ah and mysticism. 

Lazier maps their ideas between the twin poles of Gnos­ti­cism and pan­the­ism. Gnosticism’s heresy is that it con­flicts with monothe­ism by posit­ing two gods”: an evil demi­urge called God in the Hebrew Bible who cre­at­ed a sin­ful world, and the tran­scen­dent but absent true deity revealed in the New Tes­ta­ment. Its appeal is that it seems to account for God’s per­ceived dis­tance, or alien­ation, from human beings who are mired in a mate­r­i­al world of imper­fec­tion and temp­ta­tion. Pan­the­ism tries to repair that alien­ation by posit­ing that God is not just man­i­fest in all cre­ation, but actu­al­ly is the nat­ur­al world. Its heresy is that it col­laps­es the dis­tinc­tion between the Cre­ator and the created. 

Hans Jonas, whose research­es brought Gnos­ti­cism into con­tem­po­rary dis­course, repu­di­at­ed the gnos­tic pagan­ism and nihilism of his teacher Hei­deg­ger part­ly by embrac­ing a philo­soph­i­cal biol­o­gy” that antic­i­pat­ed the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. Leo Strauss believed in a realm of jus­tice whose exis­tence pre­ced­ed human beings, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly posit­ing tran­scen­dent ori­gins while insist­ing that God is inac­ces­si­ble and divine author­i­ty is there­fore lost. Ger­shom Scholem came to under­stand God’s absence para­dox­i­cal­ly as the traces of His pres­ence: cre­ation was enabled by God’s with­draw­al in an act of tzimtzum (self-dimin­ish­ment). The author tells how these three friends came to their respec­tive con­clu­sions in the con­text of Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish thought start­ing with Spin­oza. Ben­jamin Lazier nav­i­gates the eddies and trib­u­taries of these intel­lec­tu­al cur­rents with aston­ish­ing clar­i­ty, eru­di­tion, con­fi­dence, and wit. This book is a land­mark, a tour de force of both syn­the­sis and orig­i­nal thought. Index, notes. 

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