„There Is a Jewish Flavor in What Christians Are Saying“

In remembrance of Vilém Flusser (1920–1991)

(Editorial compilation by Angelika Matzka)

The 27th of November 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Vilém Flusser’s death due to a road accident. Vilém Flusser was a Czech-Brasilian media philosopher and communication scientist. He had been invited to hold a lecture at the University of Prague in 1991 – for the first time after his flight from Prague in 1939. On his return journey just before the Czech-German border the accident happened. There is plenty of information on his personality and his scientific work on the internet.

In the year 2000 a book was published in German with different shorter texts (newly edited in 2014 by the Europäische Verlagsanstalt). This also includes three until then unpublished texts from his legacy, which gave the book its title: “Being Jewish”. 1

In this volume, Flusser approaches the subject from three angles: existentially, culturally and religiously (even though he was not religious himself). Although he himself did not want to be understood as a Jewish philosopher, he could not avoid the fact of his Jewishness. This shows in this little book in many ways.

Jewish thought does not mean “the Jewish thought”. Nevertheless, the texts in this booklet open many windows for a better understanding of Jewish thinking. They also make us aware of how little is known in the Church of this other way of looking at the world and at the realities of life. Newly discovered connections and new ways of thinking invite us to take a fresh look on Jewish-Christian relations.

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The existential approach

„In order to be free, the conditions determining the existence have to be accepted in order to overcome them later.“ (1/57)
Accepting the conditions means:
„It is not enough ascertaining that I am a Jew, that I am accepting myself as Jewish in order to overcome the condition related to it. It presupposes that I experience this condition, with everything that is fruitful and inspiring in it, with everything that is ordinary, and that I admit that all my internal and external experiences, my wishes, values, all knowledge and all gestures are characterized by this condition.“ (1/59)

Flusser understands himself as an assimilated Jew
„I was thrown into this world as a Jew, who cannot fully accept himself as a Jew. If I were to identify myself as a Jew, I would betray certain conditions of my existence, which are contrary to being a Jew. But if I were to deny my being a Jew, I would betray one of the elements of my being in the world. … I can only live authentically if I succeed in raising conditions contradicting each other on the level of a synthesis.“ (1/61)

The cultural approach

Here, Flusser takes as his starting point the situation of Jews, born and raised in the Western world, who
„are western in a slightly different manner than the others who are also participating in our culture. … Our culture, by nature, is Greek and Jewish. Its myths are Jewish and Greek, its being in the world, the way it looks at the world, experiences and feels the world and deals with it is Greek and Jewish. … The two western legacies are incompatible. Greeks live and think »essentially« and Jews »existentially«” (2/67)

This striking difference Flusser exemplifies as follows:
„»Justice« for example is called »dike« in Greek and means balance between extremes. Jews use the word »Tsedaka« for justice, meaning victory of the good over the evil. …»Truth« (»aletheia«) means for Greeks the objective revelation of the existence; for Jews it is the inter-subjective revelation of the eternal (»Emet«). … In Greek anthropology, ideas are the home of humans and human beings are essentially ahistorical. In Jewish anthropology humans are made in the image of God in order to reign over the world and thus humans are historic. These two anthropologies are not compatible with each other. …
In Western history there have been different syntheses of these two cultures: The example with the greatest evidence is Christianity. … As soon as one of the two cultures is taking dominance, the other inevitably starts to protest. Thus, the Reformation can be interpreted as a protest of Judaism against the Aristotelian Hellenization of the Church and contemporary structuralist formalism can be seen as a protest of Hellenism against Jewish historical thinking. History of the West is the dialectic struggle between these two legacies. …
If we want to save our culture, we must accept it, and this remains a doubtful task, both morally and existentially. Who knows whether our culture deserves to be saved, considering the crimes committed (enslavement of the blacks, Nazism, etc.) and the contradiction in its worldview. Such reflections are theoretical since we as Western people have an intrinsic interest in the survival of the West. We would die along with it.“ (2/68 f.)

„As Western people of the 20th century we Jews are victims of the same inner contradictions as all the others participating in Western culture … The difference between us Jews and other occidentals is that we are directly connected to the roots of our culture. Inside of us, we can still experience the existential climate of the original Judaism, but not that of Hellenism.
This capability to remember (Hebrew “Zekher”), is scandalous in the eyes of other occidentals. … this scandal might be one of the explanations for antisemitism. It is indeed scandalous that the Jews have not disappeared like the Greeks. In addition, Jesus, the founder of the West, was a Jew …” (2/70)

„Our role in the West is to bear witness of that which is recklessly called »Jewish values« . … Different to Greek values, Jewish values are usually models for concrete conduct. Others erroneously and with disdain call them »rites«. … It is very important not to forget that original Judaism is a sum of concrete models of a behavior which gives meaning to an absurd life.” (2/70 f.)

However, models of behavior are scandalous because they are saying: something should be like this. And in doing so they also show also that it can be like this, and even should be like this. Thus, they become an affront and a provocation. But:
„Should we abandon engagement out of fear of provocation, we would not live neither as Jews nor as human beings at all. (2/72)

The religious approach

The third text may be the most controversial for Christians. Flusser’s approach is somehow unconcerned since he was not religious himself. At the same time, he was well acquainted with Christianity as the point of origin and integral part of the history of the Western world. His observations reflect what he perceived of Christianity. Here, he provides ample food for thought.
„For Christians, Judaism has been overcome both through an inner dialectic – namely by Jesus and those who followed him – and an outer dialectic – by absorbing certain Hellenistic elements. From a Christian point of view, it cannot be understood, why Judaism did not dissolve in Christianity. The Jews should have been the first ones to convert to Christianity, and indeed many did so. The fact that others stubbornly refused to convert, even when faced with auto-da-fés, is scandalous for Christians and is one of the roots for antisemitism. … The question indeed remains: Why did the Jews not convert?“ (3/81)

In this point, Flusser is not so much interested in the question whether there is an existential right for the rejection of conversion, which would therefore justify all the suffering which was afflicted on Jews. His main concern is whether there is a religious justification for this rejection since this issue does not only affect Judaism but ultimately the whole world as far as it is based on Judaism (i.e., predominantly Christian or Muslim countries).
„Christian arguments favoring conversion are very strong. Christianity is in fact the overcoming of Judaism because it articulates many aspects which are only implied in Judaism. It is the overcoming of Judaism because Jesus, the founder of Christianity, is indeed a perfect Jew and it overcomes Judaism by spreading its importance in the world, thus conquering the West. Regarding the Jews themselves, Christian arguments have failed because they did not grasp the essence of Judaism. Judaism as a religion is neither an accumulation of dogmas as understood by Christians, nor an accumulation of rules as believed by many Jews, but Judaism is a specific experience of the holy. In nature it is neither a world view nor a moral code, but it is the confrontation with the Other. … Christian arguments however do not grasp what Jews are interested in: How do you have to live in the presence of the Other?
Christian arguments prove to the Jews that Christians are heathens and that they have kept little from Judaism. There is a Jewish flavor in what Christians are saying and therefore dialogue is possible, but the flavor has evaporated so much that it has become almost a caricature.“ (3/82 f.)

The following demonstrates that the cause for this evaporation of flavor is inadequate practice. The question how one has to live in the presence of the Other is not the same as the often-quoted postulate among Christians to see Jesus in your neighbor. The neighbor is not Jesus. He is the Other, created by God in his image – Flusser talks about the “specific experience of the holy”. Thus, a certain cognitive method forms, in which each encounter with an Other leads one beyond oneself and recalls the origin.
„Being a devout Jew is a task. Using Greek terms, it is not dogma but practice.
For this reason, Jews have so stubbornly resisted conversion. They condemned Christianity because of its practice and not because of the arguments, which seemed inessential to them. …  For Jews, Christianity is like a license to avoid the daily confrontation with the holy … In the words of my cousin David 2 during a theological seminar: »Do you think that Jesus has suffered this disgraceful death at the cross so that you may desecrate the Sabbath by driving your car?« In today’s religious situation where even the foundations of the Jewish-Christian religion are endangered, this is of major importance. …
Although Christian arguments did not convert the Jews, they unfortunately have estranged from Judaism the person of Jesus, the very greatest Jew who has overcome the normal condition of a human being. The consequences are immeasurable.“ (3/83 f.)

Flusser‘s reflections are more than 30 years old, the Western world which he referred to contained already what has intensified since in many ways. Positively, he sees the potential of Judaism, because
„it can lead to a responsible life in an absurd world, acknowledging the holy in the other person.
The importance of this kind of Jewish fundamentalism which is difficult to describe, cannot be overemphasized in today’s situation.“ (3/85)

Flusser’s analysis of the time shows to him that the basis of Judaism and Christianity is obviously the same. But in Judaism it is “even more buried”.

According to Flusser, the reason for the crisis of Western religiosity is
„in our incapacity to experience God in the other person. It is a crisis of trust in human beings. God is dead because we neither trust the other person nor ourselves.“ (3/85)

Flusser’s view derives from what he encounters in Western society – and he articulates it in terms of the biblical creation account, where it says: “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1,27). He continues:
„It is neither a crisis of Judaism nor of Christianity but a crisis of Judeo-Christianity. …
I believe that what distinguishes our culture from the others is precisely this experience of the Holy in man. We can express this at least in two ways. Either God can be experienced as a human being, as an Other, who addresses us with »you« and whom we also address in the same way. Or man is the only image of God, which we have. That is … anthropology, based on the Holy, the oldest Jewish legacy of the West.“ (3/85 f.)

It is this legacy that Flusser saw endangered. If the West would be overrun by other cultures the above-mentioned common basis would be lost. Therefore, his urgent appeal:
„To be a religious Jew today means according to my viewpoint to make aware – oneself and other Jews and Christians – of this Jewish-Christian common basis.” (3/86)

1 V. F., Jude sein. Essays, Briefe, Fiktionen. CEP Europäische Verlagsanstalt, Hamburg 2014. In it:
Jude sein (1) – existentieller Aspekt; (Being Jewish (1) – existential approach)
Jude sein (2) – kultureller Aspekt; (Being Jewish (2) – cultural approach)
Jude sein (3) – religiöser Aspekt. (Being Jewish (3) – religious approach)
The page numbers after the citations refer to the text and page numbers, e.g. (1/57)

2 David Gustav Flusser (1917–2000) was professor of Early Christianity and Judaism of the Second Temple Period at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem till 1988.