The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Book Reviews

Forgiving Heidegger

Nathan Goldman

Illustration (detail) by Shay Colley/The Architectural Review; courtesy of the artist.

Is forgiveness possible?

In 1963, at a colloquium in Paris dedicated to the subject of forgiveness, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas presented the first in what would become a regular series of analyses of Talmudic texts. Later published under the title “Toward the Other,” Levinas’s remarks begin with introductory comments on method and on the meaning of forgiveness and atonement in the Jewish tradition and proceed to an explication of his chosen Talmudic text. But near the end of his observations, things get personal.

In the final narrative in Levinas’s selection from the Talmud, Rab Hanina bar Hama is the third rabbi to interrupt a textual commentary as it is being delivered by another rabbi, Rab, who refuses to begin his commentary again, as he has already done so twice. “How many times am I to repeat myself?” Rab demands. Rab Hanina is gravely offended. Every Yom Kippur eve for the next thirteen years, Rab begs for forgiveness, but Rab Hanina will not grant it. From this perplexing story, Levinas pivots to a matter concerning his own teacher, Martin Heidegger:

One can, if pressed to the limit, forgive the one who has spoken unconsciously. But it is very difficult to forgive Rab, who was fully aware and destined for a great fate, which was prophetically revealed to his master. One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger. If Hanina could not forgive the just and humane Rab because he was also the brilliant Rab, it is even less possible to forgive Heidegger.

Heidegger’s sin is, of course, his support for the Nazi Party—one we continue to reckon with more than fifty years after Levinas’s remarks. Thanks to the publication in 2014 of the first volumes of Heidegger’s enigmatically titled Black Notebooks, the extent of his anti-Semitism has become even better known. In these notebooks, Heidegger writes that “world Jewry…free from all attachments, can assume the world-historical ‘task’ of uprooting all beings from being.” He also speaks of “the cleverness of calculation, pushiness, and intermixing whereby Jewry’s worldlessness is established.”

The publication of the Black Notebooks has occasioned a new wave of Heidegger scholarship that aims to understand the philosopher’s work in light of this disturbing new material. Elliot R. Wolfson’s The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism, and the Jewish Other is part of this wave, but it approaches Heidegger’s anti-Semitism from a unique vantage. As Wolfson writes in the book’s preface, he comes to this subject “not as a member of the Heideggerian guild” but “as a scholar of Jewish mysticism, albeit one whose work has been deeply informed by the disciplines of hermeneutics and phenomenology and especially by Heidegger.” If what is at issue in Heidegger’s entanglement with Nazism is the confrontation between his thinking and Jewishness, reckoning with this entanglement should involve confronting his thinking from a Jewish perspective.

The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow does not advance a central thesis or ask a central question. Instead, in each of its more-or-less self-contained chapters, Wolfson roams through Heidegger’s oeuvre, often meditating on a theme more than building an argument. Because of the book’s diffuseness, Wolfson is able to provide insight into a variety of subjects orbiting Heidegger’s Nazism, including his failure to publicly atone. Heidegger’s reticence to talk about the Holocaust is understood in terms of his own interpretation of speech and silence; Wolfson thus explains the silence (without morally justifying it) as an enactment of Heidegger’s idea that “only by not speaking could he properly speak” of certain grave subjects. 

Wolfson adroitly situates the Black Notebooks’ anti-Semitic analyses within Heidegger’s work to show how Heidegger, by ascribing “worldlessness” to Jews on the basis of their nomadism, denies their humanity. Despite this, Heidegger’s anti-Semitic nationalism sits uneasily with Nazism’s because of Heidegger’s disdain for biological racism. For Heidegger, the German people are exceptional not by blood but by dint of their historical destiny, rooted in a homeland and language, that determines a unique relationship to being itself. Heidegger understands Jews as deficient in each of these respects and therefore deficient ontologically.

But Wolfson reveals Heidegger’s relationship to the idea of homeland to be subtler than this in his careful reading of Heidegger’s das Unheimische, “the uncanny”—etymologically (and therefore, for Heidegger, essentially), “the unhomely”—which Heidegger sees as essential to human being, for which “being homely is a becoming homely in being unhomely.” Wolfson parses this: “The prefix of Unheimische, therefore, does not signify the negation of Heimische, the lack of a home, but rather the interplay of presence and absence such that the absence of being at home is the way of being present at home.”

Although Heidegger himself never pressed these notions past German chauvinism, Wolfson demonstrates that they show sparks of an understanding of homeliness and foreignness more complex and more moral than the Nazis’ absolute will to annihilate the other. He guides the reader through just such readings of the ideas in question as discussed by the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, and identifies a striking “congruity between Rosenzweig’s sense of Jewish existence as an exilic state of spatiotemporal ungroundedness and Heidegger’s emphasis on the unhomeliness of the human condition in the face of the nothingness of being.” This suggests an affinity between Heidegger’s thinking and the Jewish tradition belied by Heidegger’s explicit animosity toward that tradition.

Indeed, in a subsequent chapter, Wolfson turns to the young Heidegger’s work on “the contrast between Jewish messianism and Christian soteriology” to find the source of his later disdain of Jewish conceptions of time and to counter that disdain with Jewish texts that closely accord with Heidegger’s own views. Uncomfortable though it might be to admit, Heidegger’s thinking is part of the Jewish textual tradition. It emerged from the work of his Jewish-born teacher, Edmund Husserl, and inspired a generation of Jewish thinkers, among them Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Hans Jonas. It is not an exaggeration to say that Heidegger’s work is an essential link in the chain of twentieth-century Jewish thought. The problem is that it is not only a non-Jewish link, but also an anti-Jewish one. By considering Heidegger’s relation to less obviously pertinent Jewish sources, Wolfson helps to reveal the scope and complexity of the importance of Heidegger’s thinking within a Jewish frame.

Wolfson draws a parallel between Heidegger and “Balaam, the prototype of the non-Israelite soothsayer.” He describes the way Balaam, a prophet from a city near the Euphrates River who appears in the Book of Numbers, is interpreted by kabbalistic literature as a kind of demonic counterpart to Moses. “Balaam,” Wolfson writes, “represents the irrefutable outsider, who attains the status of the consummate insider, and thus problematizes the rigid distinction between external and internal.” After detailing the evolution of the intricate relationship between Balaam and Moses in kabbalistic literature, in which the evil of Balaam and the good of Moses come to be imbricated, Wolfson tentatively makes the comparison:

Heidegger is the twentieth-century Balaam, embodying the nefarious side of knowledge—what we might label philosophical wizardry—albeit infused with sparks of light.… Just as the kabbalistic tradition portrayed Balaam as one who achieved in the realm of the blasphemous the same enlightenment as Moses, so we can think of Heidegger as attaining the uppermost level of knowledge by descending to the depths of depravity.

The comparison he draws between the kabbalistic intertwinement of light and darkness and Heidegger’s thought about the essential link between truth and untruth is compelling in its own right, and useful for thinking about Heidegger’s errors. But to understand those errors as an essential consequence of Heidegger’s way of thinking—even with Wolfson’s caveat that the errors remain utterly condemnable—needlessly aggrandizes Heidegger in a way that is in line with the philosopher’s own estimation of himself. It’s also a strange claim to make in a book in which it is argued that insights similar to Heidegger’s can be found elsewhere, in the Jewish tradition, voiced by thinkers whose depravity does not match his. There’s a missed opportunity here to use the Balaam comparison to make sense of Heidegger as a troubled non-Jewish thinker in a lineage of Jewish thinking. Furthermore, such an explanation of the relationship between the brilliant and the terrible in him is a way of forgiving him too easily.

Forgiving Heidegger should be, as Levinas has it, “difficult,” even if we were to put the man aside to focus on the thinking. To forgive Heidegger’s thinking might mean not absolving it, but rather reckoning with and redeeming it so that we can make use of it, despite its great—and, in some cases, irredeemable—flaws. The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow is an excellent exercise in this kind of nonmoral forgiveness. But it is limited by its deference to thinking of Heidegger as he thought of himself. This approach bears fruit, but it allows the philosopher himself to loom too large over his own legacy. As we continue to engage with Heidegger’s thinking, we would do well to realize that the reason to forgive it—to attend to it with generosity as well as severity—is not because he deserves it but because we do.