Missing Jews. Preliminary Remarks About the Function of Jewish Spaces in the Making of “New Germany”[1]

It is not a very revolutionary insight, that “science” is not a separate, stable entity, but a product of the culture, in which it is embedded. This is possibly all the more true when the object of science is “another culture”: Any encounter with the “other,” be it in the course of anthropological field research or the reading of texts, is necessarily framed and nurtured by the lived experiences, the memories, the ethical sensibilities and aesthetical intuitions of the scientist. Any interpretation is, unavoidably, informed by the interpreter’s epistemological and ideological frameworks and the specific epistemological norms set forth by academia.

Inasmuch as the foundational paradigms of European modernity and its institutions emerged out of Christian theological thought, and – more often than not – used the figure of the Jew as their antithesis, it seems vital to reflect upon academic knowledge production especially when the object of inquiry is Judaism: Awareness as to one’s own particularity, and the roots of one’s own epistemological foundations may prevent the unconscious reproduction of modernity’s profound ambivalence towards Jews and Judaism.[2]

In this paper, I would like to set forth some preliminary observations regarding a unique, and (in Germany) relatively new approach to the study of Judaism as advocated by the University of Potsdam’s School of Jewish Theology and its two adjunct rabbinical schools. The central argument of this paper is threefold: Firstly, I describe Germany’s post-unification state ideology, which entailed a “return of Jews” and the “flourishing of Jewish life” as a means of admission into the circle of civilized states. The “Jewish revival” was fostered both from above – as exemplified in the state’s substantial financial support of anything Jewish – and from “below,” as exemplified in the development, expansion and diversification of so-called “Jewish Spaces.” At the same time – and this is my argument’s second part – the established Jewish communities were weak: The prominence of Jews and Judaism in Germany’s national consciousness was disproportionate to the communities’ numerical size; and Jewish self-consciousness, knowledge, and commitment – in short: Jewish life – were precarious, probably especially so in Berlin, a city which was up to the years after unification a geographical and political island. My third argument, and a more specific investigation of the above mentioned schools, sets in here: The combination of weak communities, extensive Jewish Spaces and a political will to have Jewish life flourishing, created a very unique breeding ground, upon which the power-relations between Jewish Spaces and Jewish communities could be inverted.

It is important to note, however, that even though individual agency is part of this story, my paper is an analysis of the processes and structures, that enabled certain developments – it does not claim, that actions of individual ranks and files are determined by these processes and structures. Research into the individual motivations of the latter would constitute a separate research, with a different kind of methodology.

The Development of the “Jewish Space”
The first academic institution of Jewish Studies in post-war Germany is the Institute of Jewish Studies in Berlin. It was established in 1956, a time when Jews did not consider Germany a “livable” place. In postwar-Germany, Jewish communities saw themselves as Liquidationsgemeinden, “communities set up for the sole purpose of temporarily harboring and caring for individuals who were to leave Germany shortly there after.“[3] In Berlin, for nearly forty years, the city’s Jewish population had thus stagnated at around 5000-6000 members, and actually declined to ca. 3500 people before the first “quota refugees” from the former Soviet Union arrived in the 1990’s. In face of a Jewish community living in an “armoured cocoon,”[4] there was accordingly little or no communication between Berlin’s Institute of Jewish Studies and the local Jewish community,[5] and a conscious differentiation between Jewish knowledge as produced and practiced by Jewish communities and academic Jewish Studies.

Since the early 90ties observers of Jewish life in Germany describe a change in attitude of Jews vis-à-vis their presence in Germany, a development accompanied by a massive popularity-boom of anything “Jewish” among non-Jewish Germans.[6] Such changed attitude among Jews and non-Jewish fascination with “things Jewish” have generated what Michal Bodemann calls a proliferation of the Jewish fringe.[7] Diana Pinto has termed this fringe a “Jewish Space,”[8] Ruth Ellen Gruber – more ambiguously – “virtual Jewishness,”[9] and Michael Brenner “non-Jewish Jewish cultures.”[10] Approaches and valuations of virtual Jews, Jewish spaces or non-Jewish Jewish cultures, however, vary and are largely dependent on the observer’s own conception of Judaism and Jewish identity. Diana Pinto interprets the Jewish Space positively as a cross-fertilizing meeting-ground between non-committed Jews and non-Jews, and advocates “an adaption of Jewry to the overarching standards of civil society, a shift from Judaism as a coherent religious definition, to a weaker, less easily circumscribed entity: Jewish culture.”[11] Others take a more ambivalent, suspicious stance: Michal Bodemann characterizes the Jewish fringe as a “meeting ground of Jews and non-Jewish Germans from ‘Judaizing milieus’,” and concludes: “At these fringes – and at these fringes alone – the cultural expressions and the thinking of Jews and non-Jews about Jewish matters are sometimes ‘virtually’ identical’.” (…) But to which degree and in which ways do distortive imaginations of Jews still play a role? It is both a disconcerting and a positive development at the same time.”[12] Ian Leveson has offered the most critical analysis of the “Jewish Space”:

The Jewish Space mainly concerns what the non-orthodox would see as ‘profane’ activities, thus, since halakha is not regarded as being so relevant in this context, the definition of what is ‘Jewishly authentic’ in the Jewish Space may be subject to dispute: on what basis is the word of the Jewish participant to be privileged over the non-Jewish participant, when the principal of individual autonomy and not halakha is adopted in the worldly Jewish Space? (…) More critically, the apparent similarity of practices might lead to confusion over who may speak publicly on behalf of Judaism. (…) when representing Jewish views to the outside world, the choice of interlocutors by the dominant culture can have an inordinate effect on which views are heard and what image of Jewry becomes widespread. In a situation where there are diverse Jewish and ‘Jewish’ voices, different streams and denominations, and those who claim to be Jewish but wouldn’t be recognized as such by some or all Jews, as well as a large body of converts from the dominant culture, the potential for different voices increases, especially as some of these groups understand their relationship as competitive. The non-Jewish world can then employ a strategy of ‘picking and choosing’, if not ‘divide and rule’; there is a danger of a strategy of substitution, of only ‘safe’ voices being listened to and ‘uncomfortable’ but authentic voices being stifled.[13]

In the following I will argue that Ian Leveson’s analysis of the Jewish Space and his working hypotheses have, during the ten years since he wrote his paper in 2006, gained substance. Specifically, I will argue that the Potsdam-based School of Jewish Theology, and its adjunct rabbinical colleges (the Reformed Abraham Geiger College and the Conservative Zakharias Fraenkel College) are reflections of the development of Jewish Spaces, in which Judaism is defined by and large by the collective national needs of German non-Jews.

Academic Jewish Studies in Berlin, both in the School of Jewish Theology and in the Institute of Jewish Studies, thus share a common starting point: the absence of Jews. Yet, whereas Berlin’s Institute was never much affected by this absence through claiming academia to be a place in which religious difference is neutralized through “science,” Potsdam’s School of Jewish Theology reflects the development of the Jewish Space in the early 90ties, and claims the empty chair of the Jew to belong to itself, or more precisely, to its own homemade Jews: Jews, that are born out of Christian societies and embody a “docile” version of Judaism, a Judaism that does not entail any disruptive elements of “law” and coheres, in its emphasis on key-words such as “dialogue,” “tolerance,” or “progress,” to the needs of contemporary Germany. Inasmuch as a rabbinical seminary is supposed to produce the participative and productive subjects of Jewish life, such conformism provokes questions: What happens when both consumers and arbiters of Judaism are products of Jewish Spaces, when entire “Jewish careers” are being conducted in Jewish Spaces alone, when Jewish Spaces are granted representational and political power, when Jews and Judaism are being identified and become synonymous with the actors and events of Jewish Spaces?

“New Germany” and its witnesses
The School of Jewish Theology was established in 2013 in Potsdam, a city in close proximity to Berlin. The School is part of the state-university of Potsdam and thus principally open to students of all confessions. Yet, it explicitly dissociated itself from the Berlin-model of “Judaistik”, and declared to study Judaism not as an object to be dissected by historians and philologists, but rather, as a living tradition.[14] It represents, accordingly, the academic branch of its two “An-Institute” (associated institutes), one Reformed rabbinical college named after Abraham Geiger (founded in 1999) and lately, one conservative rabbinical college named after Zakharias Fraenkel (founded in 2015).

The establishment of the Potsdam-schools was part and parcel of a larger German project: Following the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany was no longer marked by the past, the war, the Holocaust. Instead of being a mere “booster-territory” against the threats of the cold war, Germany became a main player in the midst of unified Europe, and eager to prove its new self: a multicultural, modern state. In this post-war, national salvation history, Jews were given a pivotal role: A “flourishing of Jewish life in Germany” would be the strongest proof of Germany finally having overcome its past and thus heal a wound of a national body; a body, which was previously suffering from its missing limb. The “Jewish revival” is thus always embedded also in a story of national recovery and salvation: it is “good,” because it is a German-Jewish revival.[15]

kundgebung-gegen-judenhassIt is important to note, that an embrace of the Jew as witness does not necessarily reflect an embrace of multiculturalism, let alone an active support of (Jewish or other) minority-interests falling into the category of religious practice. The wish to be granted entrance into the ranks of civilized states has cultivated a language of multiculturalism, yet both informal stigmatization and state-sanctioned de-legitimation of practiced, public difference has so far remained intact, or have even been enforced.[16] Germany thus invests in a “flourishing of Jewish life” not because it is committed to the support of religious difference, but because its terms of national exclusion have changed: Whereas in the past, the integrity of the German nation was achieved through safeguarding the purity of the “German race,” the nation is now kept pure through the exclusion of religious elements, that endanger the so-called “Wertegemeinschaft” (the “community of values”). When the former vice-president of Berlin’s House of Representatives argued in 1990 for a diminution of bureaucratic obstacles for Jews from the former Soviet Union who want to immigrate to Germany, he thus could validate his liberal immigration-policy through praising the Jews’ “cultural fitness”: “Those people are doctors, artists, scientists, not Jews with a caftan and sidecurls!”[17] The German interest in a flourishing of Jewish life, the place of the Jew in German identity-politics, is thus ambivalent: On the one hand, Jews are the ultimate guarantors of the “new Germany” and as such, have to remain witnesses of Germany’s transformation, an “other” forever – yet on the other hand, they are not permitted to be “too much other,” embodying “too much” difference.

It is this ambivalence to which the Potsdam Schools cater. Reflecting the political will to invest in Jewish life in Germany, the ordination of the Abraham Geiger Kolleg’s first three liberal rabbis 2006 in Dresden, was referred to as an event of national importance: “The Geiger institute for the training of rabbis is a symbol of a vibrant Jewish community with international connections,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote in a letter in honor of the occasion; and German President Horst Köhler described the event as “special because many did not believe that after the Holocaust Jewish life would flourish in Germany.” Geiger College President Rabbi Walter Jacob said in his address, that “all of Germany rejoices with us.”[18] German politicians did not only celebrate but even took an active part in the very making of these new rabbis: Preceding the first ordination ceremony, it was the federal government which forced the Central Council of Jews in Germany to accept the Union of Progressive Jews into Germany’s Jewish communities, so that financial support was hereafter provided to all denominations, including the non-orthodox – a move which was of course essential to the creation of a German employment market for the College’s future alumni.[19]

Governmental support for the education of liberal rabbis was gained on account of a political necessity to have “Jewish life flourishing,” with above mentioned active intervention in internal Jewish affairs being justified as a concern for internal Jewish diversity.[20] The schools’ founder and managing director, however, did not content himself with “diversity,” but argued in addition, that German liberal rabbis are needed, because a “cultural clash” had emerged between Germany’s Jews and their rabbis: “The education of local rabbis will play an important role in the taking over of the Jewish community, because the Jews of Germany are fed up with Israeli rabbis. The German communities will stop hiring rabbis from Israel, because a cultural clash has emerged…Reformed Jews will eventually make up for at least 40% of the Jewish community, and the Orthodox no more than 10-15%, like in the States” (emphasis mine).[21]

However, Germany’s Jewry is unlike American Jewry, and it seems difficult to estimate if, and in how far, Germany’s Jewish communities indeed found themselves alienated from their orthodox rabbinic leaders. Jews from the former Soviet Union make up for the large majority of Jews in Germany today[22] and even though most of them – apart from a handful of baalei tshuva – have no memory of Jewish community- and/or family life, and little or no knowledge of Jewish practices and texts, they are usually not aligned with Reformed synagogues, but frequent the Jewish events and services provided by the delegates of Chabad Lubavitch and to a lesser extent, other local orthodox communities. Despite being non-observant themselves, they cling to orthodox representation and frequently tag liberal Jewish institutions as “German,” with “German” indicating here something coming close to: “not Jewish.”[23]

What is certain, however, is that a “cultural clash” was apparent between German non-Jews and orthodox rabbis – in the words of Julius Schoeps, a scholar of German Judaism from the University of Potsdam: “The German government is fond of the Reformers, because according to them, these are people one can talk to. The behavior of orthodox rabbis serving in the state is perceived by the German public as problematic, because it contradicts the expectation, that Jews behave as an integral part of Germany’s liberal society.”[24] In an article covering the liberal rabbis’ ordination ceremony, the new rabbis’ worth is, accordingly, exemplified via a comparison with Frankfurt’s orthodox rabbi, who caused uproar when avoiding a handshake with Frankfurt’s female mayor. “The man with a black hat,” so the journalist, “is from Mea She’arim, and does not leave his room but for studying.”[25] In contrast to such deviant Jews, the Abraham Geiger Kolleg would provide Germany with rabbis who hold an academic degree and whose fluency in German liberal culture makes them far more “integrated” then orthodox, “imported” rabbis can ever be. I’d thus tentatively suggest that German politicians’ intervention in internal Jewish affairs was motivated not only by an unattached concern for Jewish diversity, but just as much by their need for a particular kind of Jewish leadership: One which is willing to testify to Germany’s transformation into a place, that is “good for Jews,” and which embodies modern liberal values, while simultaneously radiating “Jewish authenticity” as materialized, for example, in a deliberate deployment of religious language (the College’s Hebrew name is Bet ha-Midrash), symbols and ceremony.

Rabbis made by Jewish Spaces
The “new rabbis’” level of integration is commonly marketed as their greatest asset. Unlike their predecessors in pre-war Germany, however, they have, for the most part, never been embedded in any more “traditional” Jewish community, and lack memories, knowledge and experience of the latter. This lack is usually not pointed out or reflected upon by the new rabbis themselves (at least not publicly) but it does come up occasionally in journalists’ depictions of Germany’s “Jewish revival”: “Strasko (a liberal rabbi educated at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg) is a cool rabbi. His favorite movies are Kill Bill, Black Hawk Down and other shockers. He loves the music of the anti-Semite Richard Wagner, he is an excellent cook, and loves excellent wine. He speaks German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and English, and since January, he also learns French. His wife Sandra writes a blog about chocolate. They share their apartment with a cat, but don’t want children. (…) Young rabbis like Paul Moses Strasko are not, as described by Jewish historian Michel Friedman, “born on graves.” They are rabbis without a rabbinic tradition, they are not the sons or grandsons of other rabbis, they are not carriers of knowledge accumulated over hundreds of years. They are smart, but they lack the wisdom of generations and the bitter taste of destruction. They are rabbis without an own experience of the Holocaust“ (emphasis mine).[26]

This depiction seems apt. Germany’s new rabbis did not accumulate fame and reputation within the Jewish world, then aimed to change things from within and eventually departed from normative practice and/or ideology. They are not reforming Judaism in order to be granted entrance into German society, but rather, are themselves products of permeable Jewish Spaces. Reflecting the omnipresence of Jewish Spaces in contemporary Germany, a significant percentage of “new rabbis” accordingly had previously converted to Judaism: the Jewish Space is not only a space of contact for Jews and non-Jews, it can function also as a bridge of non-Jews into Judaism – whereby conversions can (but do not necessarily have to) remain embedded within the ideological, political and theological frameworks of the convert’s previous non-Jewish identities. Noting the prominence of former Christian theologians among liberal rabbis, Barbara Steiner, for example, suggests that the theological relations between Judaism and Christianity not only trigger a Christian engagement with Judaism, but also allow for a conversion, that is not related to a “question of religious change, but a correction of (previous) belief, cohering to a return to the urtext.”[27] While this option may have always existed on a theoretical level, it is the context of Jewish Spaces, which turns it into a practically feasible move: Whereas in the past, Christians explained the challenges of the world they live in in terms of overcoming Judaism, in present-day Germany, Judaism can be defined as part of a Christian theological paradigm embodied by Christians, who “return” to where they belong in the first place.[28]


When choosing to represent a kind of Judaism that emerged in 18th and 19th century Germany and explicitly claimed Protestantism as its role model, the “new rabbis” thus embark upon a project that differs fundamentally from that of their predecessors in pre-war Germany: In pre-war Germany, the Reform-movement cannot be read but in the context of anti-Semitism and the Enlightenment; the attempt to “reform” Judaism cannot be dissected from Jews’ hope to finally belong to the “civilized,” to be German citizens, to gain access, to become human.[29] Abraham Geiger’s educational enterprise, the emergence of progressive Judaisms, were not some kind of a natural, evolutionary process, but a reaction to what some Jews believed was demanded of Judaism by a singular modernity, which was not inclusive of Judaism. The attempt to uplift Judaism on a civilizational scale thus can be read not only as a path to a positively inscribed “German Jewish symbiosis,” but also as a form of cultural oppression.[30]

Today, however, this context has changed. For one thing, the concept of multiculturalism allows religious communities to articulate different answers to modernity than assimilation – a circumstance that the anti-Semitic climate up to the 1930’s simply did not. Moreover, the “new Germany” defines itself as an antidote of anti-Semitism and Nazism and has a vital interest in supporting whatever contributes to a picture of a new “flourishing of Jewish life” in its midst. The naming of the Rabbinical College after Abraham Geiger in present day Germany thus does not signify an attempt of the Jewish subaltern to progress, to assimilate and wipe out his otherness, but an attempt of the German hegemon to revive a “comfortable” Judaism, with Jews, who are valuable to his own needs: Jews, whose socio-political-religious values are wholly compatible with those of the majority, whose solidarities, lived experiences, memories, and webs of knowledge were nourished by Germans philosemitic desires, and not by Jewish communities, families and institutions beyond these desires. The new “trend” of philosemitic Germany is, accordingly, not the engagement with the Holocaust, aka, the moment when the story of Jews and Germans was irreversibly divided. The new trend is the Haskalah, when Germans and Jews supposedly entered a symbiosis, or at least “could” have entered a symbiosis had not the Nazis “irrationally” interrupted this process.[31]

In contemporary Germany then, it is not the Jew, who runs danger to assimilate, but the actors of hybrid Jewish Spaces, that claim (and are given) representational offices and power: Power, which does not reflect any internal Jewish prestige, say, accomplishments in the interpretation of Jewish religious texts or work in Jewish communities, but power granted from without, rewarding Jewish-inflected, progressive-style Germanism – to quote the Abraham Geiger College’s website: “pluralism, progressiveness, self-discovery, personal questions of faith and spirituality, social justice and academic excellence.” Every disruptive sense of Jewish law and Jewish particularity is being tamed (and substituted) here by references to culture, individualism and reason.[32] It is as if, once again, the incorporation of rabbinic education into a state-university saves “religion” from superstition, disintegration and backwardness, and assures Jews’ and Judaism’s “progress” along the lines of a secular, liberal nation-state.

[1] I would like to thank Sander Gilman, Daniel Boyarin and Hillel Ben Sasson for reading and commenting on this paper. All mistakes, inaccuracies and shortcomings are, of course, my own.
[2] In the words of Lilliane Weissberg, “Jewish Studies has in recent years become a popular field for the exploration of one’s own German identity via the study of the Other.” Cf. Lilliane Weissberg, “Reflecting on the Past, Envisioning the Future: Perspectives for German-Jewish Studies,” in: GHI Bulletin no. 35 (fall 2004), p. 13.
[3] Y. Michal Bodemann, “A Jewish Cultural Renascence in Germany?” in: Ian Leveson/Sandra Lustig (eds.), Turning the Kaleidoscope. Perspectives on European Jewry. New York – Oxford: Berghahn Books: 2006, p. 165.
[4] Ibid., p. 166.
[5] Lilliane Weissberg (2004, p. 13) notes that many of the Jewish Studies departments were established in towns like Duisburg or Trier, which did not have a post-war Jewish community, and even in those towns which did have a community, the relation between those departments and the community was “tenous, to say the least” (p. 13). She holds that “by declaring German-Jewish history to be concluded, Jewish Studies departments in Germany, too, could easily justify their indifference to the concerns of contemporary community life” (p. 26). I am not sure if “indifference” is an apt description, yet it is noteworthy that the rapid numerical growth of German Jewish communities through the immigration of Russian Jews was neither accompanied by a change of demographics among students, nor did it somehow influence the curricula. German Jewish Studies on the one hand and German Jewry on the other seem to have lived on separate planets.
[6] Scholars differentiate between the phase lasting from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, and the “philosemitic phase” lasting from the 1990’s to the first decade of the 21st century. It is debated whether this “philosemitic phase” is nowadays still strong as it was, or if the wind has veered again, approximately since the Second Intifada.
[7] Y. Michal Bodemann, 2006, p. 174. While all scholars unanimously note the popularity-boom, relatively little academic attention was given to its motivations, circumstances and effects.
[8] Diana Pinto, “The Jewish Space in Europa,” in: Leveson/ Lustig, 2006, p. 179-­‐186.
[9] Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish. Reinventing Jewish Life in Europe, Berkeley: University of California Press 2002.
[10] Michael Brenner, “The Transformation of the German-­‐Jewish Community,” Morris and J. Zipes (eds.), Unlikely History. The Changing German-­‐Jewish Symbiosis, New York: Palgrave 2002, p. 58.
[11] This is how Leveson summarizes Pinto’s article “A New Role for Jews in Europe” (see Levenson/Lustig, 2006, especially pp. 31-32, 24 and 39) in his paper “Jewish Space – no medium for Yiddishkeit? – And its possible effects on Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewry.”
[12] Y. Michal Bodemann, 2006, p. 175.
[13] Ian Leveson, “Jewish Space,” pp. 10-12.
[14] “Die jüdische Theologie unterscheidet sich von anderen Gebieten jüdischer Gelehrsamkeit dadurch, dass, wer sie betreibt, innerlich der Wahrheit, die er zu ergründen sucht, verpflichtet ist. Es ist zum Beispiel möglich, jüdische Geschichte völlig unbeteiligt zu studieren. Der Historiker, der über jüdisches Gedankengut, über das jüdische Volk oder jüdische Institutionen arbeitet, muss nicht unbedingt den Wunsch verspüren, mit seiner Lebensführung die Ideale des Judentums auszudrücken. Er muss nicht einmal Jude sein. … Während der Historiker aber danach fragt, was sich in der Vergangenheit des jüdischen Volkes ereignet hat, stellt der Theologe die persönliche Frage, welche Elemente der überlieferten jüdischen Religion hier und heute sein Leben als Jude noch bestimmen. Der Historiker benutzt sein Fachwissen, um nachzuweisen, was die Juden früher geglaubt haben. Der Theologe lässt sich auf die schwierige, für den, der sie erkannt hat, aber auch gewichtigere Aufgabe ein, herauszufinden, was ein Jude in der heutigen Welt zum Inhalt seines Glaubens machen kann.” (Louis Jacobs, Was ist jüdische Theologie, 1973), quoted on the School of Jewish Theology’s webpage.
[15] The founder and director of the School of Jewish Theology explicitly describes the establishment of a School of Jewish Theology equal in status to Christian theology within a state-university to “heal the deep wound, that exists since 200 years in the history of the emancipation of Judaism in Germany” (Michael Hollenbach, “Jüdische Theologie an einer Staatlichen Universität,” in: Deutschlandfunk, 26.05.2015.
[16] Berlin’s Senate, to mention just one example, keeps on defending its so-called “Neutralitätsgesetz,“ a law that defines institutions such as schools or courts to be a “neutral space,“ in which Muslim women wearing a hijab cannot serve. Ruth Ellen Gruber (2002, p. 10) notes that “Jews are often viewed as symbols of all persecuted peoples: honoring lost Jews and their annihilated world can become a means of demonstrating democratic principles and multicultural ideals, regardless of how other contemporary minorities are treated, be they Turks, Roma, North African, or whatever.“
[17] This anecdote is reported by Peter Schäfer (1991, p. 213).
[18] See Amiram Barkat, “Rabbis Ordained in Germany for the First Time since Shoah,” in: Haaretz, 15.09.2006 Y. Michal Bodemann (2006, p. 170-171), too, notes that “(a)nother reason for the renascence that should not be overlooked is the continuous public financial and, within specific limits, political support given to the Jewish community. Of its twenty-four million Euro budget, the community receives from the City Senate and from other public sources twenty-two million. (…) There can be no doubt, furthermore, that the Jewish Community, from questions of immigration and building permits to cultural programing such as street festivals, had been enjoying the special sympathy of the Berlin Senate. (…) The well over a hundred thousand Muslims in Berlin have not received any comparable concessions.“
[19] The founder and managing director of the Potsdam Schools, Walter Homolka, actively forced the issue up to the constitutional court, where he won the case. The court win enabled the Government to appear to play the role of the mediator while forcing the Central Council of Jews to accept the compromise, which was that the Progressives could enter the Council if they desisted from pursuing their own public-law institution (“Anstalt der Öffentlichen Rechtes”). This court win has weakened the Council considerably as a political body and stored up problems for the future. Thanks Ian Leveson for pointing this out to me.
As a result of said intervention into internal Jewish affairs, neither the Israeli Embassy nor the representatives of the Central Council of Jews in Germany attended the ceremony: “Geiger executive director Rabbi Walter Homolka told Haaretz that the Israeli Embassy did not respond to the college’s invitation. The president of the umbrella organization of the German Jewish community, Charlotte Knobloch also did not attend, due to her opposition to Reform congregations joining the organization under pressure from the German government.” Cf. Amiram Barakat, “Rabbis Ordained in Germany for the First Time since Shoah,” in: Haaretz, 15.09.2006.
[20] Amiram Barakat, “Does the Jewish Community in Germany come back to life?” in: Haaretz (hebr.), 18.09.2006.
[21] Ibid.
[22] According to the Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der Juden in Deutschland membership-numbers of Jewish communities in Germany have risen from 29.089 in 1990 to 102.472 in 2003 as a result of migration from the former Soviet Union.
[23] Since the beginning of the century, especially Berlin also witnesses an influx of Israeli Jews; they, however, are commonly self-identifying as secular and are not aligned with any Jewish institution, be it liberal or orthodox. German Jews, that is, those who returned to Germany after the war, have their “strongholds” in Frankfurt, Munich, and Düsseldorf. Among them may be some, who are “alienated” from “imported” rabbis, yet, my impression is that among this sector, too, one is prone to stick with orthodoxy in matters of representation – possibly also because Jews who returned to Germany after the war did not accumulate enough independence and self-confidence for promoting cutting-edge positions in matters of religious representation, surely not in deviance from Israeli politics of religion.
[24] Cf. Amiram Barakat, “Does the Jewish Community in Germany come back to life?” in: Haaretz (hebr.), 18.09.2006.
[25] Hans Riebsamen, “Kuriosum Rabbiner,” in: Frankfurter Allgemeine, 14.09.2006.
[26] Andrea Jeska, “Kein besseres Land für Juden,” in: Die Zeit, 04.04.2012.
[27] Barbara Steiner, Die Inszenierung des Jüdischen. Konversionen von Deutschen zum Judentum nach 1945, Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen: 2015, pp. 91-92.
[28] Of course, this is not to say that a conscious, or active Christian past automatically and necessarily generates a conversion to Judaism that remains within said Christian context. There are numerous examples of different biographies. The point I make is that this option exists, and that it is not a marginal phenomenon.
[29] The College defines itself as an inheritor of the pre-war German Jewish Reform movement, however, vast differences are apparent not only in terms of the protagonists’ biographies and contexts, but also in terms of religious ideology. Germany’s Reform movement was, apart form its radical edges, more conservative than its surviving cousin in the USA at the turn of this century might suggest, so that this is rather a revival of an import from the USA.
[30] Bernhard Rothstein in a critique of Jewish “identity-museums” describes this aptly: “For European Jews, moreover, the Enlightenment meant something very different from what it meant for others: less a matter of discovering universal laws than of disclosing the ways in which Jews might one day be considered part of universal humanity, accepted in society with the same rights as other citizens. Often, in adapting to this highly contingent face of universalism, Judaism was susceptible not so much of finding as of losing itself.“ (Cf. Bernhard Rothstein, “The Problem with Jewish Museums,“ in: Mosaic, 01.02.2016. This point is, of course, not new at all. Critique of the “Wissenschaft des Judentums” specifically was articulated by Gerschom Scholem and countless others. Counter-readings of the Enlightenment are, in a much broader, fundamental sense, a basic assumption of diverse strands of postcolonial, feminist and queer studies.
[31] It may be worth mentioning that Jewish institutions in Germany today are commonly named after the protagonists of the “German-Jewish symbiosis.” Berlin’s Jewish high school, for example, is named after Moses Mendelssohn, and a scholarship foundation for students after Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich, another proponent of pre-war “Jewish-Christian dialogue.”
[32] Whatever information might be of relevance beyond these key-words – such as concrete curricula of the rabbinical program, for example – is not accessible to the public. Curricula of the School of Jewish Theology are, of course, accessible, as they are part of the University of Potsdam’s general course-catalog.

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Dear readers,

After two years, Mandolina has decided to go on an extended vacation.

In part, there are practical considerations: Writing a blog is really time-consuming and a difficult thing to do as a young mother. It is a lots a lots of work, and the reason I have embarked upon this nonetheless is, in large part, due to the constant encouragement, critique and appreciation of diverse readers. Clapping myself on the shoulders now, I also believe that there do not exist many platforms that ask questions about contemporary usages of narratives such as the “Jewish revival” in Germany, its actors, its political context, anti-Muslim racism, “new” Germany’s self-image and so on. My vacation then is absolutely not due to over-saturation or a feeling of “having done my work here,” having “accomplished something.” Quite the opposite.

I think that with every day that passes, these subjects become more and more urgent. Therefore, my plan (or at least, my intention) is to place the blog’s themes into non-bloggish contexts: Not to marginalize my work through framing it as blog-posts, as random “personal” reflections, but as research, born out of personal, acute experiences and interests, but grounded in theoretical frameworks that go much beyond this. I am not sure at all if this is going to work out, and to be sure: I will not abandon this little ship here – just post with much less frequency.

Thank you all for two years of walking with Mandolina, who is not (yet) president, but who knows who knows…the times they are a changin’

Hannah aka Mandolina




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The Truth That Lies Within

Sometimes, when reading childrearing-advises, the etiquettes of baby-food, all those leaflets about breastfeeding, I feel like taking a slice of white bread (that kind of bread you can squeeze like chewing gum), cover it very thickly, generously, with marshmallow-spread, and eat it and feed it. I feel as if I should start smoking also, drink more coffee, and stop breastfeeding immediately.

fafa0ad004da70af1f8f1c2f4cf3ea92This is because I have to fight nature: A birth is good, when it is natural. Breast-feeding is good, because it is natural. Carrying a baby in a baby-sling is good, because it is natural. Co-sleeping, organic food, organic cotton clothes: good, because natural. Nature hovers over pictures of more or less naked, spotless, porcelain-white bodies of babies, modern variants of medieval portraits of baby Jesus: Pristine, pure bodies undistorted by the artificial, external interventions of culture. How much organic cotton or self-made pumpkin-soup do I need in order to atone for a circumcision, I ask myself. How much nature outweighs all that pollution induced by bottle-milk and food in little glass-tins? (And how much good, exactly, has ever come out of arguments of “nature” for women?)

The creation of a human being as natural and organic as little white Jesus in his crib is ideologically inseparable from the notion of a truth that lies within. According to this notion, whatever is brought upon a child by external forces (such as religious authorities or a law, a societal convention etc.) is essentially inferior to the truth that lies within: in the heart. That which you think, because your free reason has induced you to think so, that which you do, because you feel this the right thing to do, is better, “more true,” then that, which you do because of “submission.” Children, that are being “indoctrinated” into a particular tradition/knowledge-system, for example, are thus not only deemed not free, they are also stripped of the capability to see the truth that lies within their essence, their own “true” being. They can neither truly belief, nor truly think. They cannot even truly love: Without having discovered their individual, untainted, undistorted essence, they are emotionally immature slaves – a trope that currently finds its most widespread expression in representations of Muslim men (> “religion”) as unable to cope with their suppressed desires.

The assumption of an inner truth’s superiority, its very existence even, is not a primordial, universal characteristic of humankind. In as far as the history of thoughts is concerned, it was most prominently Paul, the Apostle, who differentiated between a text’s “outer body” and its “inner meaning,” and set them into a hierarchical relation.

477e0d23cfa1def0c9a5b8ab1ad4180cTo Paul, the law given to Moses at Mount Sinai was Scripture’s “outer meaning,” associated with flesh and slavery, and represented by Hagar and Ishmael – whereas the new covenant of Jesus Christ came to uncover Scripture’s “inner meaning,” the truth, to be associated with spirit and freedom, and represented by Sarah and Isaac. Through differentiating between “slavery” based on the fear of law/the performance of ritual, and “freedom” based on an inner yearning for morality, Paul could interpret God’s promise to Abraham – the continuity of Israel that is – as resting not with the Jews and their “carnal” law, but with universal, non-bodily spirit, set free by faith in Christ and available to all of humankind. This is obviously not to suggest a direct dependency or a straight line leading from Paul’s exegetical moves to advertisements of toddler’s food, yet it is to point out that advertisements of toddler’s food entail notions of “the good” and “the truth,” that are culturally specific.

The discovery of one’s “inner truth” is usually not described as a process that involves a loss, let alone a loss to be mourned: it is just about shucking off false fears, freeing belief from law, love from submission, abandoning that, which stops us from realizing our potential.

According to its own account, therefore, secular education cultivates nothing but the very natural order of things: it enables us to discover our selves, what we “really are,” deep down inside our hearts. It never exerts force, is never violent, or unreasoned, and if it interferes, it is well-meant advice, it reacts, it saves: its interests are always good. We have overcome formal religion – the primary cause of bloodshed – and are now taking upon ourselves to help those, who have not yet overcome religion, to be educated into critical thinking and freedom: How can all human beings strip off their fears, their false beliefs, and dwell in universal spiritual bliss? This is not violence, it simply prevents fanaticism from taking over and secures children’s capability of independent reasoning and critical thinking. It is all in everybody’s very best interest – even if some might sense a dull discomfort sneaking into their hearts, a whiff of dread, when their selves, their collectives, their memories, their bodies are being destroyed in the course of their cultural elevation.


Der Maler von dem Loch, George Grosz (1839-1959)

The human being whose truth rests inside “happens” to be the ideal participant of capitalist economies: An individual, freed from the conventions of the collective, someone who has an “essence,” and will sense bliss when this “essence” is realized. The pricier a product is, the more it is, accordingly, individualized: marketed as something not related to mass production, but as a product that “is you,” and is “being made especially for you”: hand-picked, watered by moon-light, designed individually from scratch paper, each needle’s stich pierced with love into hand-colored linen, elevating you through giving you the opportunity to show-case your own, individual being – which of course finds itself in constant need of something that is “even more you” than the stuff you already call your own. A minor coincidence it is, that those who cannot enact their individuality through individualized consumption, but are struggling to keep their bodies alive through gaining access to food, water and medical care, are also those who will find their lives more likely to end as collateral damage.

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About Ideological Purity and Solidarity

israelite-4-7-2016-ophir-pictureA couple of weeks ago, Ophir Toubul visited together with a few other activists of Tor ha-Zahav the mother of Elor Azaria, a soldier who is currently trialed for gunning down a Palestinian man without any self-defensive reason whatsoever. The visit was a public media-event, designed to showcase Tor ha-Zahav’s non-elitist embeddedness in the midst of Mizrahi Israeli mainstream. Toubul et al have not always been there: As many of the most prominent and fervent figures of the Mizrahi empowerment movement, they have spent their formative years working on effacing whatever was “Mizrahi” about them, so as to resemble as close as possible the country’s cultural-political Ashkenazi elite: They made themselves into secular, academically educated, and more or less left-wing men. Those, who heaved anti-Mizrahi racism on the table, were Mizrahim, who participated in urban, left wing, secular, read: Ashkenazi culture.

In line with this sociological positioning, the fight against anti-Mizrahi racism could be smoothly tied to the fight against the occupation: “Intersectionality” was the word of the day in any case, and the fight of one oppressed group could thus reasonably be configured as inseparable from the fight of another oppressed group. Theoretically compelling as this is, however, some irritating hard facts remained: For the one thing, it seemed that Palestinians did not really join the fight, as they had (and have) nothing to gain from allying with another marginalized group. They opted for the “Ashkenazi-Palestinian axis.” More troubling even, it seemed that even Mizrahi Israelis themselves did not flock in Mizrahi empowerment initiatives in any notable numbers: Not much of a surprise, the flair of anti-Zionist, secular Mizrahi men married to Ashkenazi women from Tel Aviv, did not quite appeal to them.


Toubul’s visit of Elor Azaria’s mother is the radical end of a development that originates in the realization of above-mentioned hard facts. Earlier in history, Toubul had dissolved his Mizrahi cultural hipster platform Café Gibraltar, initiated the more politically explicit Tor ha-Zahav, and supported Aryeh Deri, leader of the religious Mizrahi party Sha”S, in the last elections. It does not take much sophistication to detect a radical disruption from the more academically inspired, more “classical” left wing, and “ideologically clean” discourse, that characterized the earlier days of Mizrahi discourse: Toubul et al claimed a legitimacy to address Mizrahi concerns and needs in and of themselves, without previously educating Mizrahim into solidarity with Palestinians. Probably with a grain of despair, but with a greater grain of pragmatism, the foundational agenda of Toubul’s Tor ha-Zahav is, that substantial change of Israeli society in favor of Mizrahim will happen through the work of Mizrahim, and only Mizrahim.


This is not to support the Tor ha-Zahav-visit of Elor Azaria’s mother. There is absolutely nothing that would somehow mitigate, let alone justify, Azaria’s murder of another human being. This was a hate crime, which is – needless to say – part of a larger context, yet that larger context does not turn the crime into “Elor Azaria is the son of all of us.” He is not.

This is to point out that more often then not, there do exist huge sociological and ideological gaps between the advocators of the diverse “empowerment” movements and those, who actually are to be empowered, between those public figures who opt for a participation of minorities and those who actually are embedded in those minorities. In the wake of the thwarted military coup in Turkey and Erdoğan’s “stabilizing” measurements, for example, many German left wing activists furiously terminated any future collaboration with any German Turk, who did not publicly condemn the president’s actions, as Lady Bitch Ray wrote in a public letter to Kübra Gümüşay, “if you stand in solidarity with ethnic and religious minorities, why do I see you solely in networks and cooperations with IGMG- and DITIB-affiliated headscarf-women, who issue zero critique against the Islamic patriarchy (…) and how does this fit the pro-AKP and pro- Erdoğan postings and insinuating Turkey-paroles of Betül Ulusoy on facebook?” Or in a more straightforward, “slightly” Sarazzinesk fashion, the head of Neukölln’s social democrats disclaimed that “it is part of her (Betül Ulusoys) image, that she advances freedom of thought and women’s rights – but this post (a facebook-post in which Ulusoy defended Erdoğan’s post-coup politics as an opportunity to get rid of some “dirt”) shows what kind of ideology is hidden behind her pose: that her attack against the law of neutrality is not motivated by a concern for women’s rights, but serves the aims of political Islam.”


Again: I have not the slightest intend to defend either Erdoğan’s measurements, or to express sympathy with Elor Azaria’s mother. Yet, if the aim is to bridge the gap between the public proponents of empowerment and those, who are to be empowered, then the very last thing to expect is ideological purity as defined by left-wing academics. A quick glance at Jewish orthodox communities in Germany may suffice: Said communities do have, without doubt, a vital interest in forming political unions with Muslim communities, given that both are religious minorities and hence (in different ways) subject to anti-religious cultural racism. Yet, you won’t be able to organize with any Jewish orthodox community your next Naqba-exhibition, just as you won’t – with all likelihood and I am sorry if I am wrong – install an Armenia-exhibition in your neighborhood’s mosque.

If you enter the ring with the idea of collaborating solely with enlightened, politically woke academic left-wingers, you may very well have incredibly interesting, radical and smart discussions in your private kitchen, but the only benefiters of this will be you, your friends, and your tea-pot. This is, of course, legitimate: I’d be the very last person on earth, who’d sympathize with “the people’s” political views. I absolutely do not think that “the people’s” politics is by virtue of its being the view of the masses in any sense superior to the politics of Berkeley-style academic discourses, that ethical politics is a matter of the guts, instead of books. Yet the legitimacy and necessity of walled, elitist discourses notwithstanding, it seems about time to face the political consequences of walled, elitist discourses: the failure of Berkeley in terms of concrete, political impact. Thus, instead of dividing the world into “good and bad,” it seems about time to acknowledge that each and everyone has different interests, that go along different loyalties and solidarities, that cannot always be harmonized: No one, besides secular academic individuals, whose interests are being represented and protected in any case, have the privilege to opt for a clean “only good.”


It may well be, that much of this post is inspired by my own positioning as a religious, orthodox Jew, whose ultimate solidarity is with the Jewish orthodox collective – even if my politics, at times, diverge from the accepted norm in said collective. This is, accordingly, not about being anybody’s poster girl, but about delineating an individual, non-negotiable realm, that exists despite those tensions: I will, for the life of me, not collaborate with people – Jews and non-Jews alike – who mock religious practice and authority, or who target orthodox Jews and Muslims as a bunch of retarded primitives. This is a deal-breaker. Nor will I discuss any single one orthodox “controversial” issue with anybody but the community that is going to bear the consequences of those discussions. This is then less about what’s “right” or “wrong” as judged from a super-human bird-eye perspective, but about the legitimacy of specific loyalties and solidarities, that co-exist in ambiguous tension with others.

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“As if He had Destroyed a Complete World”

After the flood when Noah offers animal sacrifices, God withdraws from earth. Upon smelling the incense of the animals’ flesh, He first acknowledges that human beings’ hearts have an evil inclination from youth onwards (Gen 8:21), promises that He will no longer destroy all life on earth, allows the consumption of animal flesh (ibid. 9:3), and announces within one and the same phrase the prohibition of bloodshed and the murderer’s capital punishment, to be administered and executed by humans themselves: “Whoever sheds a man’s blood, by a man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6).

The human being’s role as judge is new: Even though Cain, after having killed his brother Abel, fears that someone might kill him on account of his act, God at this point in time still rejects the human’s role as judge and prevents the slaying of Cain. Only after the flood, in this world of Noah, murder is no longer punished by God, but by human beings. The setting up of courts is, accordingly, one of the seven laws that are according to the rabbinic tradition incumbent upon every human being, the “Noahide laws.” From the flood onwards, God, as if disappointed and demoralized by His creatures’ sinfulness, delegates the responsibility to install justice, including capital punishment for murder, to all of humankind.

Intuitively, the two “ends” of Genesis 9:6 – the prohibition of bloodshed and the capital punishment of a murderer at the hands of man – may give rise, at least in a contemporary reader, to a sense of tension, or a paradox: How can God state the absolute inviolability of human life, and at the same time allow human beings to execute capital punishment?[2] The background of this perceived tension is the common formulation of the demand to respect another human being’s life in terms of universal, or natural rights: Each and every human being has a right to physical integrity, the protection of life and well-being, as the notion of life’s immutability is ordinarily articulated in the “modern West.”

The difference between formulating respect for life in terms of universal rights versus as a prohibition of taking an innocent life, may at first seem a difference of form, rather than one of content. Both formulations seem to come down to the same thing: the prohibition of bloodshed. Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self, p. 11) explains that “[t]he difference lies not in what is forbidden but in the place of the subject. Law is what I must obey. It may confer on me certain benefits, here the immunity that my life, too, is to be respected; but fundamentally I am under the law. By contrast, a subjective right is something which the possessor can and ought to act on to put it into effect. To accord you an immunity, formerly given you by natural law, in the form of natural right is to give you a role in establishing and enforcing this immunity. Your concurrence is now necessary, and your degrees of freedom are correspondingly greater. At the extreme end of these, you can even waive a right, thus defeating the immunity.”


Marc Chagall, Cain and Abel (Lithograph 1960)

In biblical law then,  a murderer does not violate an individual’s “natural right” to physical integrity. A murderer commits a transgression that violates God, His “image” in mankind, His law and His entire creation. In line with this, the first commandment – the announcement God makes concerning Himself, “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt out of the House of Bondage” – and the sixth commandment – “Do not murder” – were read as parallels: “How were the Ten Commandments given? Five on one tablet and five on another. It is written: I am the Lord your God (Ex 20:1; Deut 5:6) [on one tablet] and parallel to it [on the second tablet] it is written, Do not murder (Ex 20:12, Deut 5:16). Scripture teaches that regarding anyone who spills blood, it is as if he diminishes the image” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Ba-hodesh, parasha 8). The first commandment is a mirror of the sixth commandment.

When a murderer is punished with humanly imposed death, he is thus not simply sanctioned for violating a divine command, such as any other transgressor: A murderer’s act is of no less than cosmic magnitude and dimension; it leaves a real mark on the world and affects the world as a whole, not just an individual’s “right” to physical protection and wellbeing. Accordingly, a murderer’s guilt is, as mSanhedrin 4:5 expresses, “as if he had destroyed a complete world.”

Murder needs to be addressed by the human community beyond the mere punishment of the murderer: When a murdered body is found and the murderer cannot be identified, a broken-necked heifer atones for the spilling of blood  (Deut 21:4-9); and an unwitting murderer has to flee to the “city of refuge” until the death of the officiating High Priest (Num 35:25 and 35:32). Even though in the first case, the murderer cannot be brought to justice and in the second case is deemed undeserving, the land, that was forced to absorb the spilt blood, requires atonement and the exile of the murderer. Murder is, as Devora Steinmetz describes, “[u]nique among crimes in that the act has an essential reality distinct from the legal responsibility of the perpetrator and the possibility of bringing the murderer to justice.”

As an act that effects a human’s relation with the world as a whole, with the land, with God and with other human beings, murder requires of necessity a “repair” at the hands of the world: “Whoever sheds a human’s blood, by a human shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made humans” (Gen 9:6) is a chiastic structure, repeating each word of the first clause in reverse order in the second. The second clause virtually mirrors the first, and thereby emphasizes, first, the exact correspondence of offense (murder of man) and punishment (death at the hands of man), and second, the recovery of the creation’s cosmic, metaphysical balance, as if a circle is being closed: When the murderer of man is punished with death by man, what has become out of balance is reinstated, the world’s injury is “fixed,” the land is being atoned for, and cosmic order is reinstalled.

[2] Cf. Greenberg, “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law,” in Menahem Haran (ed.), Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume. Studies in Bible and Jewish Religion dedicated to Yehezkel Kaufmann on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday, Jerusalem: Herbrew University 1960, 5-28 (pp. 15-16): “This view of the uniqueness and supremacy of human life has yet another consequence. It places life beyond the reach of other values. The idea that life may be measured in terms of money or other property, and a fortiori the idea that persons may be evaluated as equivalences of other persons, is excluded. Compensation of any kind is ruled out. The guilt of the murderer is infinite because the murdered life is invaluable. […] The effect of this view is, to be sure, paradoxical: because human life is invaluable, to take it entails the death penalty.”
[3] “For this reason alone was man created, to teach you, that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes guilt to him as if he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, Scripture ascribes merit to him as if he had preserved a complete world” (mSanhedrin 4:5, according to ms Kaufmann A 50, Budapest Akademia, and ms Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, 3173 (דה רוסי 13). According to the Vilna-edition and the ms Jerusalem Yad Harav Herzog of the Bavli, the text reads, “whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, Scripture imputes guilt to him as if he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel.” Yet, the gemara on this mishnah in bSanhedrin 38a implies that the amoraim are commenting on a version of the mishnah, which does not contain the addition “of Israel.”
[4] Cf. also Sifre Numbers 161, tKeritot 4:3, bKetubbot 37b, mSota 9:7 and Maimonides, Hilkhot Rotzeah 10:8.
[5] Steinmetz, “Crimes and Punishments, Part II: Noachide Law, Brother-Sister Intercourse, and the Case of Murder,” Journal of Jewish Studies 55,2 (2004) 278-305.

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About “Male” Religion and “Female” Freedom

At the peak of Germany’s latest “circumcision-debate,”[1] talkshow host Anne Will invited an orthodox rabbi, so as to let him defend the position of his folks. Inexperienced with contemporary religious tribunals, the rabbi brought forth what was, to him, the single one relevant argument: “If circumcision is going to be forbidden, we will continue in any case…because it is written in the Torah: On the eights day, his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev 12:3). Needless to say that with this explanation, the rabbi gave the audience the gratification of being easily identifiable as a religious fanatic: he was – as is obvious from what he just said – a fundamentalist one cannot reasonably talk to.

Of course, not all Jews quoted the word of God in order to illuminate circumcision’s raison d’être. Some willfully followed the choreography, which dominates religious tribunals from the Middle Ages onwards, and has the accused trapped in (of course futile) attempts to prove Judaism’s compatibility with Christian and/or secular notions of the truth. Whether such rhetorical compliance is a strategic choice or a matter of conviction – one thing is certain: Any speech about God in a secular space has to grapple with the ways, in which secularism has not only installed a division between earthly and divine power, but also rearticulated “religion” in a manner that is compatible with modern sensibilities and modes of governance.[2]

Germany’s “circumcision-debate” did not come alone. The debate needs to be read as an integral part of the religious debates that preceded and followed it – most of which were directed against Muslims, Germany’s principal bearers of “religion.” This is not to deny the circumcision-debate’s unique qualities and dynamics, which developed when Germans figured that circumcision is not only a Muslim, but also a Jewish practice – yet, I hold that the circumcision-debate’s ideological context are all those debates, that had previously scrutinized, stigmatized and criminalized the religious practice of Muslims: The debate about the “meaning” of a hijab, about prayer in public schools and universities, about religious education in mosques or Islamic kindergartens, about Muslim girls’ participation in swimming lessons, about handshaking, to mention just a few.

A central element in all these debates is an anxiety about the subject’s free will and the way the latter is deployed vis-à-vis her body. During the circumcision-debate, for example, one of the most notorious and powerful arguments against the rite focused on the obvious lack of “free will” on the part of the child: How can the German State permit Muslim and Jewish parents to inscribe the bodies of their innocent minor offspring with an irreversible religious mark? How can parents force a religion upon a child that does not have the slightest understanding of what said religion is all about? More generally, this argument is time and again brought forth also against the religious education of children: Children should either grow “naturally,” without any “premature indoctrination,” or learn about every religious tradition, so that they may henceforth choose from among what they “liked best.” In order for a religious practice to be accepted at least by left-wing liberals in favor of “religious diversity,” it is thus crucial for this practice to pass as an expression of an individual’s free choice. Accordingly, both hijab-wearing women and their secular supporters defend the hijab in public spaces as an individual choice, and not as a religious obligation.

The practice of circumcision, however, does not fit this strategy. It completely undermines the standard arguments of left-wing liberals in favor of religious diversity and self-determination, because circumcision simply cannot aptly be described as “just another choice.” It is obviously not the child’s “choice,” but neither is it the parent’s “choice”: From a Jewish religious perspective at least, circumcision is not a choice among any number of equally worthy options. There is no marketplace of different practices, from which a “consumer” may pick whatever suits her best, because the body is here not a thing, which an individual owns and with which she can do whatever she is inclined to do. It is not a commodity to possess, analogous to a thing being purchased. It is, rather, something that defines the self long before the latter is able to capture itself in language (hence, the obligatory and pre-discursive character of circumcision). The rite’s opponents thus detected, quite accurately, that circumcision is, indeed, about subjugation, in which an individual’s “free choice” does not take center stage.

In this respect then, practices such as circumcision fundamentally contradict contemporary identity-politics, which do not recognize the body as a guarantor of stable (gendered) identity and a site of self-evident (masculine) power: In contemporary Europe, difference is no longer explicitly, in a socially acceptable way, articulated through reference to the body, that is, through gender and/or race. This does of course not mean, that gender has ceased to work, that it is an obsolete category. Rather, I’d suggest that difference, that was previously articulated in terms of gender and race, is today negotiated primarily in terms of “male” religion vis-à-vis “female” freedom: The face of Islam – again: Islam as the primary bearer of “religion” – is decisively decoded as male and black, that is, the “old” way of being male. It is autocratic, violent, physical, and dangerously virile, it even “conquers.” It is, if I may, everything the “new,” Western male was once, but is no longer. In contrast to the “old” manliness of religion/Islam, the “new” manliness – that is, the new way of exercising cultural superiority – entails a disavowal of the male body as a site of symbolic and actual power: the face of the New Right in Europe does not feature archaic machismo, but female leadership figures, and female self-determination against religious (male) authority as one its most prominent pet issues.

My question then is: Are all those debates about the embodied practices of “religion” a reflection of a sense of insecurity regarding the cultural superiority of this “new” manliness? Or why do Europe’s “new men” feel such an urgent need to constantly hurt the bodily integrity of others, to unveil female hair, faces and bodies, to obligate children to shake hands, to circumvent the public bowing down in prayer, to define the proper look of the male sexual organ – to emasculate whatever reminds them of what was once, but is lost? Why do so many people attack the body in an age, which has stripped the body of any innate, intrinsic meaning? Is this because the “enchanted” body is (still) too desirable?


9e67349cb1bec817b7bf99a4d976026d[1] For an analysis of previous German circumcision debates see Robin Judd, Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933, Cornell University Press 2007.

[2] A person, who embodies a religious practice, that runs counter these notions, thus faces something like an ever-ongoing Fanonic moment: Even before uttering a first word, she has to take into account that her audience yields secularism a non-negotiable necessity and religion a threat – with the threat growing proportionally to her religion’s distance from modern notions of what a religion is, and how it should behave like.

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Who Is Mandolina?

On a late afternoon, a chilly spring-day, I rushed down Gihon Street of Jerusalem’s Abu-Tur neighborhood. I had to get to the main street’s bus station, to catch number 74 downtown. A few months earlier we had married, and moved from Nahla’ot to Abu-Tur, into an apartment of a house, that people referred to as “the last house of Gihon Street.” It was not that this street ended with our house – our house gained its appellation simply because it was the last house of Gihon Street’s Jewish part. Right next to it, the remains of a wall from the 67’-war marked the “border,” the border between “Jewish Jerusalem,” and the other, unknown, “Arab Jerusalem”: that part, which is – from the perspective of the city’s Jewish inhabitants – some kind of a white spot or a black hole, where the names of neighborhoods and streets become indistinguishable gibberish, where I would not get along, be lost, a total stranger.

Yet, a stranger I was also in “Jewish Jerusalem”: Women who looked like me were sitting in the bus next to me, reading Psalms, or calling their families on their mobile phones to organize the Shabbat’s set up – yet I had no family in Israel, and instead of Psalms, I had just discovered Talal Asad’s “Formations of the Secular.” Jerusalem’s German expats didn’t offer any refuge, too: as a convert, who deliberately chose to belong to the not-yet-enlightened Psalm-readers, I was referred to as a more or less pitiful person, whose academic brain melts away like a snow-man in the sun. I was, in short, an assemblage of unrelated parts, with myself (and my apartment, coincidentally) being located at an unidentifiable in-between place, where no other people were dwelling, where there was no recognizable community, no solidarity, no natural buffer-zone.


On that chilly afternoon, on my way to the bus-stop, I met Mandolina. Mandolina – who did not have her name back then – was a cat, maybe one month old, not bigger than a fist. She was dwindled up in a bush next to the street, crying, because her belly was ripped open. There were branches, thorns, dust and dirt, and a bundle of blood, bowels entangled around legs, with a faint breathing body. Frantically, I searched for the phone-number of the city’s veterinary emergency. Someone picked up: Yes, they would come, but it may take a while.

I waited next to the bush. The hours passed by. The sun slowly vanished, the sky turned red, and the air became cold and serene. I am not sure, cat, what we are doing here, I told her. She kept on breathing; I kept on waiting.

It was dark already when the veterinary service arrived. With a pair of tongs, similar to those that are used to pick up rubbish from the street, they grabbed her, placed her in a metal cage, took my phone number, and drove away. She will not make it, they told me.

Mandolina, however, made it. Three days later, I got a phone call from the veterinary service: The cat had survived surgery, but it couldn’t remain any longer at the veterinary station. Outside, the chilly weather and the rain would turn the wound inflammatory, so if I could take the cat into my home? Yes, I said, sure, the cat can stay with me!

Again, she was locked up in a metal cage. When the veterinary service worker opened it, she ran out in total panic, crushed a few times against the walls, and eventually hid behind the fridge. Ok, he said, goodbye then.

For two weeks, she left her hideaway only during the nights, in order to eat some of the food, which I had placed next to the fridge. In the night, I heard her wandering around, yet as soon as she heard the rustling of my blanket, she ran back to the fridge, her refuge. We advanced in small steps: First, she stared at me when I was sitting at my computer, a few meters away from the fridge. Weeks later, she stared at me also when I was walking around in the apartment, hiding only when I came too close to her fridge. It took a few months, until she dared to touch my hand with her little nose. In the meantime, we had built her a little shack in the garden right next to our apartment’s window, from where she could jump in- and out. She never became fully domesticated.

When we left Jerusalem for Berlin, Mandolina stayed behind. I placed a full plate of food next to her shack – she immediately came to fetch it – and I closed the windows of our apartment, the garden’s backdoor, the apartment’s door, and left the “last house” of Gihon Street. I passed the place where I had found her, walked down the street to the bus stop, to the central bus station, to the airport. Our neighbors agreed to give her food, yet we lost contact with them. I have no idea what happened to Mandolina: for a few weeks, she probably waited for food to be placed next to her shack. I hope that she made it, and am tentatively optimistic: Even though she had always remained small, she had a strong survival instinct, and luck, too.


When setting up my blog, one of the stages of registration entailed the naming of the site’s domain. I didn’t know that, unlike the blog’s title, I could of course not change the domain-name later on. And that’s how a blog called “Mandolina” came into being: It was simply the first name that came to my mind. She remained in my heart, if you wish to phrase it like that.

This name fits, however, because much of my writing here is a continuation of something, that started many years earlier in “Gihon Street’s last house,” during the time Mandolina was living in our garden (which was not officially “our garden” at all). The feeling of insecurity and melancholy of this time have vanished, yet still, the blog’s vantage point is that moment when turning from a self-evident, naturally belonging agent into an object, or a “problem,” of contemporary notions of “the good,” the reasonable, the right, the important. Of course, this means that this blog is not about pleasing the majority of readers: it is about re-thinking that, which pleases the majority of readers. It is, at the end of the day, about finding words for a vantage point, that is situated at the margin of a place, where street-names sound familiar, and glides into another place, that is the dominion of another law, quite literally. A place, where me and Mandolina gradually lost our panic, reassembled our selves, and tried to make sense of this fragile, particular beginning of a new life.


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