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Notes from the Moishe House Beit Midrash

Was the Antichrist Anti-Judaism: Nietzsche and Jewish Tradition

R. Dr Michael J. Harris

Nietzsche's penultimate book was called Antichrist which can refer to the Antichrist, but can also mean anti-Christian in German. It was a rant against Christianity.

What is the purpose of bringing Nietzsche into a Jewish discussion? He was anti-religious: an atheist famous for saying "God is dead". He was insistent throughout his career is that this world is the only one there is. He criticised compassion very heavily; some accuse him of being pro-cruelty.

In some texts he is anti-Jewish as well as anti-Christian; however the speaker finds some strains in his thoughts with echoes with Jewish thinkers too, especially R. Joseph Soloveitchik, the twenty-century leader of American Orthodoxy.

One of Nietzsche's big ideas is that of life affirmation: This world is the only one that there is. Though for him, this was paired with the concept of eternal recurrence:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'

The Gay Science, 341

For him life was about full affirmation: not just the good bits, but also embracing the bad bits.

Nietzsche texts

It was Christianity, with its ressentiment against life at the bottom of its heart, which first made something unclean of sexuality: it threw filth on the origin, on the presupposition of our life.

Twilight of the Idols, X 4

...the outrage of such a revolt against life as has become almost sacrosanct in Christian morality...

Twilight of the Idols V 5

Nietzsche had an un-nuanced view of Christianity; a lot of the literature about him sidesteps the question of whether his view of Christianity is fair.

The Christian conception of God... is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth... God degenerated to the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live!

Antichrist, 18

Wherever the theologians' instinct extends, value judgements have been stood on their heads and the concept "true" and "false" are of necessity reversed; whatever is the most harmful to life is called "true"; whatever elevates it, enhances, affirms, justifies it, and makes it triumphant, is called "false".

Antichrist, 9

He seems to have in mind ascetic Christian values damning the pleasures of the flesh, living life to the full or using your talents and realising your abilities.

In On the Genealogy of Morality, in the First Treatise, he gives a history which some think was meant literally and some as fiction. There are noble races which lived their life to the full. They called their lifestyle good (in German, gut). And there are slaves, the people they conquer, which the noble races called schlecht—bad.

There was a brilliant ruse of the slaves who got revenge by infiltrating the whole of society, including the nobles, with the values that are useful for them as slaves: humility, charity, being passive, not aggressive, etc. What the nobles call good, they call evil (böse).

We now no longer even see the slave rebellion in morality because it succeeded: they succeeded in inverting the morals.

The Jews—a people "born for slavery", as Tacitus and the whole ancient world say... have brought off that miraculous feat of an inversion of values... their prophets have fused "rich", "godless", "evil", "violent" and "sensual" into one and were the first to use the word "world" as an opprobrium. This inversion of values (which includes using the word "poor" as synonymous with "holy" and "friend") constitutes the significant of the Jewish people: they mark the beginning of the slave rebellion in morals.

Beyond Good and Evil, 195

He bashes Christianity again and again for bringing about this rebellion in morals, but says that the Jews were originally responsible for it. What's the historical evidence he gives for this? Not very much! But he is tapping into something here, that society today ([Daniel S: e.g. the concept of human rights]) favours those who deserve it least [sounds Objectivist to me!].

Closely related to these critiques of Judaism and Christianity is his view of the passions:

Formerly, in view of the element of stupidity in passion, war was declared on passion itself, its destruction was plotted; all the old moral monsters are agreed on this: il faut tuer les passions. The most famous formula for this is to be found in the New Testament, in that Sermon on the Mount... [where] it is said, for example with particular reference to sexuality: "if thy eye offend thee, pluck it out." Fortunately, no Christian acts in accordance with this precept. Destroying the passions and cravings, merely as a preventative measure against their stupidity and the unpleasant consequences of this stupidity—today this itself strikes us as merely another acute form of stupidity. We no longer admire dentists who "pluck out" teeth so that they will not hurt anymore... To be fair, it should be admitted, however, that on the ground out of which Christianity grew the concept of the "spiritualisation of passion" could never have been formed. After all the first church, as is well known, fought against the "intelligence" in favour of the "poor of spirit." How could one expect from it an intelligent war against passion? The church fight passion with excision in every sense: its practice, its "cure" is castration. It never asks: "How can one spiritualise, beautify, deify a craving?" It has at all times laid the stress of discipline on extirpation (of sensuality, of pride, of the lust to rule, of avarice, of vengefulness). But an attack on the roots of passion means an attack on the roots of life: the practice of the church is hostile to life.

Twilight of the Idols, V 1

The sensible response to the existence of the passions is not to do what Christianity says and try to destroy them, but to elevate them: spiritualise them. Sublimate them, as Freud would have said.

Instead of taking into service the great sources of strength, those impetuous torrents of the souls that are often so dangerous and overwhleming, and economising them, this most shortsighted and pernicious mode of thought, the moral mode of thought, wants to make them dry up.

Will to Power, 383

People like St Paul have an evil eye for the passions... hence their idealistic tendency aims at the annihilation of the passions... Very differently from St Paul and the Jews, the Greeks directed their idealistic tendency precisely toward the passions... And the Christians? Did they want to be become Jews in this respect? Did they perhaps succeed? —The Gay Science, 139

He's mocking antisemitism here, in the last sentence. But the problem of it is that it can be misunderstood and taken as simple antisemitism.

[Inevitably, someone raised the issue of Nietzsche's relationship to the Nazis (or vice versa). The speaker quoted Yirmiyahu Yovel, faster than I could take him down, though I find what I noted works with the lacunas present: "Although Nietzsche is not ... of the Nazis, he must bear some responsibility for [the way they took him] because ...he was playing with fire.)" Although he includes violence in the list of things which [....], which makes it sound like he's pro-violent, it's clear from other work of his that this is not the case.]

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Nietzsche's pro-life affirmation seems to be anti-asceticism. He advocates a sophisticated attitude to bodily passions.

Rav Soloveitchik takes Nietzsche's critique of Judaism and Christianity (he had indeed read Nietzsche) and expounds a form of Judaism which avoids the pitfalls Nietzsche elaborates on: He expounds a form of Judaism Nietzsche would have found acceptable. And this is a very Modern Orthodox attitude.

R. Soloveitchik famously differs between Halakhic Man and homo religiosus, referring probably to Christianity (but possibly also eastern religions):

Halakhic man's relationship to transcendence differs from that of the universal homo religiosus. Halakhic man does not long for a transcendent world, for "supernal" levels of a pure, pristine existence, for was not the ideal world—halakhic man's deepest desire, his darling child—created only for the purpose of being actualized in our real world? It is this world which constitutes the stage for the Halakhah, the setting for halakhic man's life...

Halakhic Man, 30

R. Soloveitchik is not here saying anything that is not a general Jewish viewpoint.

Many religions view the phenomenon of death as a positive spectacle... They... sanctify death and the grave because it is here that we find ourselves at the threshold of transcendence, at the portal of the world to come. Death is seens as a window filled with light, open to an exalted, supernal realm. Judaism, however... abhors death, organic decay, and dissolution. It bids one to choose life and sanctify it. Authentic Judaism as reflected in halakhic thought sees in death a terrifying contradiction to the whole of religious life. Death negates the entire magnificent experience of halakhic man.

Halakhic Man, 31

Death is a terrible thing because you can't keep the mitzvos once you're dead.

It is here, in this world, that halakhic man acquires eternal life!

Halakhic Man, 31

This can be interpreted in a traditional sense—but also, in the context of everything else he says, that eternal life is acquired here: you are doing what is of eternal value here. This is a daring reversal of the traditional sense.

If you're trying to represent Orthodoxy as putting value on this world, you might have Nietzsche in mind as a representative of modernity.

"Better is one hour of Torah and mitzvot in this world than the whole life of the world to come," stated the tanna in Avot [4:22], and this declaration is the watchword of the halakhists.

Halakhic Man, 31

R. Soloveitchik leaves out the statements that occur immediately before this in the Mishna—"This world is an antechamber: do what you need to do in the antechamber to be let into the banqueting hall," which is the World to Come—and immediately after: "One hour of tranquillity in the World to Come is worth more than the whole life of this world.

He's selectively quoting here to further his argument.

The Halakhah is not at all concerned with a transcendent world. The world to come is a tranquil, quiet world that is wholly good, wholly everlasting, and wholly eternal, wherein a man will receive the reward for the commandments which he performed in this world. However, the receiving of a reward is not a religious act; therefore, halakhic man prefers the real world to a transcendent existence, because here, in this world, man is given the opportunity to create, act, accomplish, while there, in the world to come, he is powerless to change anything at all.

Halakhic Man, 32

Again, he's trying to make Judaism as this-worldly as possible; as opposed to some mediaeval rabbis who regarded this world as an obstacle course to be negotiated in order to get to the World to Come. Compare also Nietzsche's idea of recurrence: every action in this world gains much significance as a result.

[P]assio carnis, the suffering of the flesh... is not to be equated with self-torture, mortification of the flesh, or odium mundi, revulsion towards the world, the condemnation of natural drives or the deadening of the senses and the repression of the exercise of the natural faculties of man. Nothing of that sort was ever preached by Judaism. On the contrary, it displayed full confidence in the inner worth of the naturalness of man.

Family Redeemed, 75-76

Judaism was opposed to any maiming of the natural life for the sake of some transcendental goal, since holiness arises out of the naturalness of man.

Family Redeemed, 77; emphasis added

On the one hand, Judaism never recommended sexual restraint nor exalted the state of celibacy or virginity... A celibate life is considered by the Halakhah and the Aggadah as an unblessed state which contravenes a basic tenet of Judaism... G-d Himself considered a self-denying solitary life of man or woman as bad... One the other hand, Judaism could not approve of the natural sexual life without subjecting it to a remedial process of purification, as it was too well aware of all the evils intrinsic... in unharnessed and undisciplined sexual practices... If it conforms to Halakhah, the catharsis of the sexual instinct justifies it completely... The wedding's nissuin blessings, which deal with the dignity of man and his Divine charism, are very indicative of our attitude towards a purged and remedied sexual desire.

Family Redeemed, 77-78

If Nietzsche were religious, this is how he would have defined religion. (R. Soloveitchik of course talks about restricting sex to a context within marriage, but Nietzsche also feels that one should sublimate one's passions rather than giving them unbridled free rein.)

The sanctification of the human body, the refinement of animal life with all its abundant lusts and passions and its elevation to the level of the service of God—this is the aim of the Halakhah. Yet this refinement does not take place through negation and asceticism, but by the placing of direction and purpose upon natural life.

Uvikashtem Misham, 207

Just look at the sheer amount of halachic literature on food and sex compared to prayer! Halachah is clearly more interested in elevating human life.


We are so used to the Soloveitchik view of Judaism that we think it is not original, and that is what Judaism says. However, the passages from the Rambam show a pretty clear tension. On the one hand:

...bestial things—I mean the preference for the pleasures of eating, drinking, sexual intercourse, and, in general, of the sense of touch, with regard to which Aristotle gave a clear explanation in the "Ethics", saying that this sense is a disgrace to us. How fine is what he said, and how true it is that it is a disgrace! For we have it in so far as we are animal like other beasts, and nothing that belong to the notion of humanity pertains to it.

Guide of the Perplexed, 2:36

This text is clearly pro-ascetic. However, the following passage is in tension with this:

Perhaps a person may say: "Since envy, lust, honour and the like constitute an evil path... I shall separate myself from them extremely and distance myself as far as possible", so that he goes so far as not eating meat, drinking wine, marrying, living in a pleasant home, or wearing proper clothing, but rather [wears] sackcloth, coarse wool and the like as do the idolatrous priests—this too is a bad path and it is forbidden to follow it. One who follows such a path is termed a sinner... Therefore the Sages commanded that a person refrain only from things which the Torah has withheld from him... and concerning all these things and their like, Solomon commanded: "Do not be righteous overmuch" [Eccl. 7:16].

Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot 3:1

These two passages represent two whole strands in Jewish literature. One is found from the Torah itself (which never mentions the World to Come explicitly, where all the rewards are this-worldly), through to some of the statements of the rabbis of the Talmud, such as that the nazirite is a sinner for choosing to forego the pleasures of this world, and Rabbi Yehuda haLevi in the Kuzari; also the idea in Hasidism of avodah sheba<something>iut, serving G-d through the body.

However, there is also an ascetic trend: The Torah talks about the Nazirite approvingly. Bachya ibn Pakuda was very pro-ascetic; also the mystic kabbalists in Safed, and Chasidei Ashkenaz who would roll in the snow. The misnagdim wrote not just about the importance of law but also asceticism, criticising the Hasidim for being fat from all the meat they ate and the wine they drank.

R. Soloveitchik plugs in to the this-worldly strand; this is the one he believes in and believes can use to counter Nietzsche's criticisms.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2011-05-26 11:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I agree with that the view of the Christians who condem the body and only think about the after life is unnatural. It makes people feel bad about themselves all the time and definitely does not help with self-esteem and self-confidence. If people believe all that they more likely to self-harm themselves or even kill themselves or shorten their life with their constant self-harm or neglecting their health in general. What do we know what will happen when we die, anyway? I personally do not believe in any afterlife. We will be dead like any other creature in the world. We are no exception. I am not sure if Nietzsche does or does not believe in an after life.

Date: 2011-05-26 05:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I don't think he did.

link, and an article on R' Soloveitchik

Date: 2011-06-01 04:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mike-koplow.livejournal.com
Very interesting. I linked to this. http://considerthesource2.blogspot.com/2011/06/nietzsche-and-jewish-tradition.html

On R' Soloveitchik's views on asceticism, see also Allan Nadler, "Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man: Not a Mithnagged," Modern Judaism 13 (1993): 119-47.


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