The story of Cain and Abel re-visited
“I know that everything essential and great originated from the fact that the human being had a homeland and was rooted in tradition.” - Martin Heidegger
“For me Heidegger is the greatest philosopher of the century, perhaps one of the very great philosophers of the millennium: but I am very pained by that because I can never forget what he was in 1933. He has a very great sense for every thing that is part of a landscape; not the artistic landscape, but the place in which man is enrooted. It is absolutely not a philosophy of the émigré! I would even say that it is not the philosophy of the emigrant. To me, being a migrant is not being a nomad. Nothing is more enrooted than the nomad. But he or she that emigrates is fully human: the migration of man does not destroy, does not demolish the meaning of being”[i] – Emanuel Levinas
In his famous essay ‘Jerusalem and Athens: some preliminary reflections’ [ii] Leo Strauss refers to Western civilization as oscillating between two poles of wisdom: Athens - the polis, the birthplace of democracy, where under the reign of reason philosophy, art and science were venerated; and Jerusalem - the city of God where it is God's LAW that supplies truths above reason. The Western man, according to Leo Strauss, is constructed complementarily by both biblical faith and Greek thought. I would argue that all attempts to reconcile the Jewish imperative of “first act and then listen” with the Greek urge for understanding above all else, are doomed to failure. It is not Athens and Jerusalem but rather, Athens or Jerusalem. To refute the common view that traces the clash between Athens and Jerusalem back to the Maccabean war, where Jewish monotheism won the battle against Hellenic paganism, I argue that the disparity between Athens and Jerusalem is ingrained in the primordial split between the tiller of the soil and the wandering shepherd. It is the biblical rivalry between Cain the dweller, signified by the craving for rootedness, and Abel the wanderer.
The myth of autochthony associates Athens with rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) as disparate from ‘Jerusalem’ marked by wandering and rootlessness. The Old Testament (the voice of Jerusalem) tells us that God prefers Abel's sacrifice to Cain's offering: “And in process of time…, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstling of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and his offering; But unto Cain and his offering he had not respect.” It is evidently clear that the bible consistently leaned to the side of the wanderer. Therefore, to a certain extent, the bible should be seen as a subtext for understanding Jewish history, where the narrative of wandering and exile is already present. Oddly, this implicit concurrence between Jewish repetitive history of wandering and exile as anticipated by biblical narration is blurred and disregarded. When biblical scholars are asked why there is not one hint that might give a clue to God's arbitrary preference of Abel over Cain, they insist on providing this story as an example of God's inexplicable conduct. One does not need to be a biblical scholar to discover that the Cain and Abel story is only a sinister prologue for other biblical stories that are to follow.
The myth of autochthony [iii] should be employed as a Rosetta Stone for an alternative reading of Western antagonistic history between Hebraism and Hellenism. The myth which constructed the people of Athens as the children of the earth, opposes the biblical master narrative, where under God's command Abraham was compelled to leave ‘his country, his kindred, his father’s house unto the land of Canaan.’ Abraham's lament: “I am a stranger and a sojourner” stamps 3000 years of Jewish history. With the revival of the Greek legacy, völkisch ideologies (later over-shadowed by nationalism), restored the concept of autochthony. Hence, the battle between Judaism and Hellenism goes beyond paganism versus monotheism, to the perception of the gods of earth and heaven, who are near you, in you, with you - as contrasted with the Jewish absent transcendental god. [iv] To the question: “what does he live for?” Anaxagoras answers, “to contemplate the sun, the moon and the sky”. In his lectures on Earth and Heaven, Heidegger tells us how the old Hölderlin dwelled on the authentic essence of the Greeks as the proper element of the occidental. For Hölderlin, Greece meant ‘tenderness’, the glance of reflection of the ‘athletic eye’. This conjunction of Earth and Heaven, and beauty as truth comes through the place in which the poet dwells. “Sweet it is then to dwell, under the high shade of trees and hills”. In the Greek way, the wanderer comes to rest only by traveling poetically. Jerusalem, on the other hand, means dwelling poetically and never ending one’s traveling. It is the poetic craving for Zion from the rivers of Babylon, followed by the failure to grasp in Palestine the sweetness of dwelling.
Heidegger highlights the myth of autochthony through Hölderlin’s poetry. He binds landscape and rootedness with the primordial affinity to the Greeks. For the völkisch ideologists the kinship with the Greeks functioned as an aesthetic religion, for an authentic German homecoming; a path that was meant to rescue the Germans from enlightenment and modernity.
A homeland for Heidegger was not a region demarcated by the boundaries of political enclosure measured by the science of cartography. The ownership of a land is a pre-legal, pre-economic entity, possessed by dwelling; in contrast to the Jerusalem way, which reduced the Promised Land into a mere real estate marketplace, where prices are climbing or plummeting according to seismographic vibrations of anti-Semitism.
For Hölderlin, the church steeple with its metal roof, “is a source of happiness for those who walk on a secured path with its nearness”. In his view, the regional silhouette of the church steeple embraces earth and heaven within the realm of belongingness to the native landscape. In Israel, where rural life is dying out, there is no skyline silhouette that contours the landscape between earth and heaven. Jerusalem is where the sacred is buried under a cluster of asphalt urbanity, where Jews are estranged in a promised land without a promise, where the synagogue, founded as a gathering place for dispersed people to preserve their observance from getting loose, is marked by blind belief and non-belongingness. It is the Jerusalem tradition of wandering and rootlessness that prevails.
Like Spengler, Heidegger saw metropolitan urbanity as marked by rootlessness. That by adhering to the cosmopolitan values of modernity, the Westerners lost their roots, their vivid power of thought, and became deracinated beings. It is 'The spread of asphalt intellectualism' that characterize those who abandoned the permanence of the soil for the fluidity of a capital and so they are doomed! Heidegger charged the German as a Volk with a spiritual mission to move the West out of its technological-imperial sphere. Yorck pointed to the Jews as a tribe “....which lack a feeling for the soil”. [v] What marks the Jews as a danger in Heidegger’s eyes is their rootless urban identity. The Jews as urban people proved to be very successful in the mid 19th century in filling the ranks of the professional classes. In the new liberal capitalist period of the industrial revolution, the Jews more than other ethnic groups, were great survivors in the marketplace, uniquely ready for urban life. They were literate and experienced middlemen, they were mobile, ready to pack up and move, chasing new opportunities and economic niches. In the language of the Heimat, he describes the Jews as marked by Diaspora and exodus - they resist the principle of autochthony. Heidegger's lucid analysis identifying the division between the ultimate wanderer and the tiller of the soil, is not anti-Semitism, it is the story of Cain and Abel re-told. Similarly, Heidegger’s statement: “Bolshevism is in fact Jewish” [vi] is a revelation, an observation referring to the wanderers as the inventors of internationalism and cosmopolitanism.
Heidegger was the philosopher that unveiled the latent threat enclosed within the attempt to reconcile Jerusalem with Athens.
An academic atmosphere dominated by those who define themselves as Jewish scholars ends with an intellectual paralysis caused by an ethical double bind. Just by adding the prefix Jewish to their title (a Jewish philosopher, a Jewish writer, a Jewish sociologist) these thinkers announce their belonging to a tribal racial blood community while simultaneously they keep propagating the ideas of cosmopolitanism, universalism and internationalism.
We should remember the links of some Jews in the Bush Administration to those who started out as Trotskyites and ended up as devoted Neo-cons. Chaim Weitzmann’s statement that there are no English Jews but rather Jews who live in England confirms Heidegger’s assertion. Heidegger is neither an anti-Semite nor a racist. On the contrary, he rejects any kind of biological racism. Oddly enough, it is actually the Jews that perpetuated themselves as a racial ‘blood community’. The Jewish Israeli lobby’s success in the Bush Administration verifies it as such. This is just one example.
I argue that the political correctness vicious apparatus spreads smoke in our eyes, blinding us from seeing the devastating impacts of these ethical oxymorons created by the endless preaching about ethics. In other words, all attempts to pacify Athens and Jerusalem emerge from the sinister holes set by political correctness. The gap between Jerusalem and Athens should be portrayed also by differentiating between national identity defined as a Volk and marked by autochthony vs. a blood community which never grows roots in a homeland (or anywhere else) and thus became the symbol for Diaspora, migration and exodus.
For Heidegger a Volk identity is constituted through history. He interprets the Athens and Jerusalem hostility not in religious terms but as an ontological split where attachment to the soil cannot accept the uncommitted wanderer.
Since the beginning of time, human beings were destined (as individuals, groups or tribes) to wander from one place to the other. But we should not substitute the urge for survival with the desire for dwelling. Wandering and emigration should be seen as an inevitable means for striking roots in a new dwelling, it is never an aim in itself. Heidegger and other thinkers of his time strived to portray a geo-political mind-set of German rootedness and Bodenständigkeit (the eternity of the soil). What sounds like autochthonous supremacy can be interpreted as the link of the Volk to its homeland. For Völkisch ideologists, a homeland is a mythical space that has its roots in the soil of the native earth, as a place for the historical unfolding of the Volk [vii]. For these neo-Hellenist thinkers, Greek autochthony was inseparable from the origins of philosophy [viii]. Setting the foundations of the Graeco-German affinity left its powerful mark upon German academic life and on intellectual elite in the early 20th century till the outbreak of WWII.
This intellectual enterprise was banned in the aftermath of the war as it was deemed to legitimize the Nazis’ brutal acts in the name of political exclusion.
After 1933 Heidegger became preoccupied with the idea that ‘the true revolution’ had to come from the university. He described the university as a bureaucratic vortex that turned into an institutional centre for professional research and teaching. He sought to restore the essence of the German university and bring it back to its original spirit, which had been lost. Only by returning to its origin in archaic Greek thinking could the crisis of the West be resolved. He was close to saving academic thought from its paralyzed condition, and would have done so, if only the Nazis had not diverted it away for many years afterward.
The more we engage with Heidegger’s thought, the more the discrepancies between him and Jewish philosophers come into view. Ernst Bloch the German Marxist philosopher (1885-1977) conceived Heidegger’s philosophy to be a dismissal of the 1789 ideas of rationality, individual liberty and the ‘universal role of the law’. Bloch, who himself came from a wealthy Jewish family, mocked Heidegger’s and Hölderlin’s poetic thinking regarding the secret Germany of the soil and the chthonic subterranean forces of rootedness as being irrationalist provincial love. While Heidegger celebrated the völkisch dream of the Vaterland, Bloch insisted on a European international ideal for Germany. While the German elite was pre-occupied with the question “who are we?” the Jerusalemite moralized the Germans ‘to cover up their identity’ and to shadow their German essential Dasein. Like Heidegger, Bloch found in antiquity the sources for the German future. But while Heidegger followed Hegel, Hölderlin and Fichte in privileging the Greek arche, Bloch nominated his Hebrew ancestral origins as a more proper model for fostering the democratic values of a new Germany. Bloch's utopian ideal for Germany was a cosmopolitan international 'community of the spirit'. While Bloch repudiated the German Sonderweg in the name of Marxism, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) who described himself as Heidegger's intellectual brother, in his famous book The Star of Redemption [ix], denounced the preliminary assumptions of Hellenic autochthony regarding land, territory, earth, soil, roots and 'indigenous home' as treacherous and deceitful. Like Bloch, he pointed to the Jewish origins as the real arche. Rosenzweig, who asserted that the uniqueness of the Jewish people is founded upon their blood bonds: “only blood gives present warrant to the hope for the future,” calls into question the Heideggerian geo-philosophical discourse regarding the soil as the basis of a political community. By referring to ancient Jewish history of estrangement, wandering and Diaspora, Rosenzweig denounced Hellenism, which ruled the whole of Western philosophy, as evil. Levinas, as a recent prominent voice of Jerusalem, claims that the commitment to rootedness is dangerous. Like Rosenzweig who asserted that “being a people means something besides being rooted in a land,” Levinas argued that “the chosen home is the very opposite of a root. It indicates disengagement, and wandering” [x].
Hence in the battle between Athens and Jerusalem, the present day presents us with a definite victory of Jerusalem. We can realize how in the realm of philosophy and cultural studies ‘völkisch’ aspects as distinct from nationalism are overwhelmingly violently dismissed. Their stress on the affinity with the Greeks as bound to the spiritual aversion to Jerusalem is eliminated from the academic discourse. In fact, cosmopolitanism and internationalism as promoted by Jerusalem philosophers from left to right (Marxist, Neo-Marxists, Frankfurt School and critical studies, to Husserlian Phenomenology and constructivism, up to Leo Strauss’s universal monism echoed by American and British Neo-Cons), are triumphant beyond any doubt. Secular Jewish intellectuals are outsiders looking in not only as Jews among non-Jews, but also as people alienated from their own Jewish culture. This explains their success in portraying modern alienation and initiating radical paradigms of post-modernity, constructivism and critical studies. After inventing internationalism they are the advocates of globalization cosmopolitanism and a boundless free economy.
In their panic to assimilate into the German society by converting to Christianity, many Jewish German intellectuals failed to notice that some of the leading German minds were ecstatically abandoning their Christian faith in favor of Hellenist neo-paganism. So the more the Jews tried to fit in, the more they generated hatred and antagonism. What started as völkisch ideology ended with excessive nationalism, aggression and militarism. It may be suggested that the Nazi’s shift toward radical militarism blocked the final, most constructive chance, for saving the West from its decay.
After 1938 the disillusioned Heidegger could see how national socialism was as trapped in nihilism and imperial domination as those who he repudiated so long before. From 1946 (Letter to Humanism) Heidegger stressed the affinity of Greek and German in order to revive European culture. “It is our choice, today…to preserve European culture by cultivating its spiritual elements - or let it be destroyed by the greediness of globalization and by being blurred by empty cosmopolitanism.” By 1955 Heidegger shifted his terminology by pointing to the dangers of ‘calculative thinking’, and the way the legal took over ethics and morality.
While Heidegger does not discuss the subject of ethics overtly, Levinas adds some more pages to Heidegger’s treatise in a way that devastates the whole Heideggerian enterprise. While all that Heidegger can say about ethics keeps within the aura of ‘aboutness’, Levinas leads us around in circles, filling up the gap of what is missing in Heidegger’s text. He makes us sweat in the effort to understand ‘otherness’. But if lecturing ethics is an ethical act, then God save us from this sort of ethics! Levinas is not alone in this obsession about otherness. It was Buber before and Derrida afterwards that tried, each in his way, to moralize us with the same theme. Rhetorically, I would ask why people who conceive their distinctness in terms of blood bonds, are so fixated with preaching about ethics and otherness. Heidegger was not a modest philosopher, but when he got close to the notion of ethics his silence signals a vigilant response-ability.
We can see how the Greeks’ myth of autochthony paved the way to exclusionary xenophobic politics. But it is the task of cultural studies to take the courageous path and diagnose and analyze the maladies of our culture: to bring back to light the whole generation of ‘Athens’ philosophers that had foreseen the degeneration of the West 100 years ago. How did it happen that academic curriculums substitute the profundity of Heidegger’s philosophy with the compulsive study of his subversive disciples? This victory of Jerusalem confirms Heidegger's fears of the Judification of Western culture.
Much has been written and discussed about Heidegger’s affiliation with the Nazis but despite the fact that he is considered one of the most profound philosophers of Western culture (even Levinas admits he is the greatest), his völkisch geo-political ideas are ignored and his treatise is taught as a unique philosophical poesies. Is it for reasons of political correctness that we can not admit openly that Heidegger was not affiliated to the Nazi party; but rather, it is the other way round: The Party that it was originally is the party that went too far! [xi] The disillusioned Heidegger in 1938 identifies Hitler's political ambition of targeting the whole of Europe by force as an expression of a Cartesian will for domination. With his attunement to the poetic arche of the Greek he asserted in 1942 that: “the essence of power is foreign to the polis.”
To conclude, Levinas’s idealization of the curse of wandering, turning migration into a virtue, is already foretold in the expulsion from Eden story. It is the Jewish God who says to Adam: “Cursed is the ground for thy sake…. In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of your life.” This is how the odyssey of wandering, cosmopolitanism, internationalism, the free market and the globalized economy starts. The questions that should be posed are: How did it happen that the intellectual world is totally dominated by the philosophers of Jerusalem whilst the voice of Athens is silenced? Is it the fear of Fascism that causes a forgetfulness of being? Are the blind spots of Political Correctness taking us onto a treacherous trail of darkness? I shall argue that since Marx was never blamed for Stalin’s genocides, why should Heidegger be the scapegoat for Hitler’s crimes?
[i] Levinas. E., (1998), Entre Nous: On thinking-of-the-other (N.Y. Columbia) p 117.
[ii] Strauss, Leo, (1997) Jewish philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, Athens and Jerusalem; some preliminary reflections', (Albany State University of N.Y. Press) pp 377-405.
[iii] The term autochthony is mentioned by Homer. See: Homer, The Illiad (Chicago University Press, 1961) book 2, lines 546-7. It is the myth about the Greeks as autochthonous human beings.
[iv] What Jung concluded as: 2000 years of Christian Judified civilization that masked the true natural Aryan God within.
[v] Paul Yorck von Warteburg “Katharsis” in Die Philosphiedes Grafen (Gottingen: Vandenhoeckh & Ruprecht), 1970 pp 174-5.
[vi] See in: Karl Jaspers, (1984) Philosophische Autobiographie, (Munich: Piper), p 101.
[vii] Bambach, Charles P. Heidegger’s Roots, p 157.
[viii] Fichte for instance deployed the myth of autochthony to exclude the non-Germans from the originary people. By referring to the non-Germans as Barbarians he differentiated between the native, the Urvolk, and the foreigner, the autochthonous and the allochthonous.
“the German remained in their original dwelling places of the ancestral stock while the others emigrated elsewhere; the German preserves the original language of the ancestral stock while the other adopted foreign language.”
[ix] On the subject of ‘blood and spirit’ see: Rosenzweig, F., (2005), The Star of Redemption (Madison; University of Wisconsin Press) p 299.
[x] Levinas.E., (1969) Totality and infinity, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press) p 172.
[xi] On this subject and Heidegger’s geo-political philosophy see: Bambach Charles, (2003), Heidegger's Roots: Nietzsche, national socialism, and the Greeks. (Ithaca: N.Y. and Cornell University Press).
Dr. Ariella Atzmon is a Senior Lecturer in the Schools of Education and Law, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
© Copyright by Ariella Atzmon