Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition

In his forthcoming book Postsecular Benjamin, Brian Britt analyzes Benjamin’s engagements with religious traditions as resources for contemporary debates on secularism, conflict, and identity. Below is an excerpt from “Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition ​that originally appeared as part of The Future of Benjamin, 7+2 Articles, edited by Nitzan Lebovic with Commentary  by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings. 


Scholars who disagree sharply over the importance of Jewish tradition in Walter Benjamin’s work tend not to explore what Jewish tradition means for him. The publication of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life presents an opportunity to revisit and reframe this question.1 One thing Jewish tradition could mean is observant Jewish practice, which even casual readers of Benjamin realize does not apply. Consider how the story of his abortive attempt to attend Rosh Hashanah services in Berlin Childhood Around 1900 reveals a “suspicion [Argwohn] of religious ceremonies” and also somehow contributes to his sexual awakening (SW 3:386). For Benjamin, Jewish tradition, and tradition in general, survives in modernity through what I describe as mechanisms of displacement, the numerous ways in which traditions change and survive, even in the face of modern denials of tradition.

Secularist scholars typically consider religion, even Judaism, as a belief or faith, meaning, I suppose, a doctrine or set of doctrines.2 As a scholar of religion, I have always found this idea confusing, because I do not know how to observe or understand religion as belief: it could mean a public statement of belief, like a creed, but is that by itself a meaningful indicator of a person’s identity? Or it could mean some kind of lasting mental state. But even there I get lost: how do you hold a belief about invisible, supernatural realities in your head for any length of time? It reminds me of a magician who says, “Think of a card.” I think of a card, I hold the idea, the image, and the name of that card in my consciousness. But then my mind wanders—I think of a joke, an old friend, or my next meal. Will my attention deficit spoil the trick, or my religious identity?

Jacob Taubes argues for the idea of religion as belief when he argues that when Benjamin said Messiah he meant Messiah: “[T]here is a Messiah. No shmontses like ‘the messianic,’ ‘the political,’ no neutralization, but the Messiah.”3  Of course, defining religion simply as faith misses the point of Judaism and other religions, even Christianity. If religion means anything at all, it has to involve belief and action. But even belief and action together do not encompass Jewish tradition for Benjamin, whose thinking on tradition includes the kinds of subtle, displaced phenomena included in the category of displacement. Tradition survives through displacement in spite of modern intentions, as Gershom Scholem’s well-known letter to Franz Rosenzweig on modern Hebrew shows.4

Far from passively inheriting Jewish tradition, Benjamin theorizes the inheritance of tradition. This inheritance can be framed in terms of displacement, the shifting and transformation of religious beliefs and practices he identifies in his early and late writings.5 Drawn from Freud and Benjamin, the idea of displacement means that traditions change rather than go away, but the inheritance of tradition does not conform to simple grand narratives of decline, progress, or eternal recurrence. Writing from his German Jewish vantage point, Benjamin consistently engaged the problem of tradition, pushing against these grand narratives and affirming tradition even as he immersed himself in modernist of art and culture. Benjamin’s studies of language, thought, and culture restlessly disclose modern displacements of tradition.

German Men and Women (Deutsche Menschen, 1936)

The case of German Men and Women poses a paradox: here is a collection of letters from the 18th and 19th centuries celebrating German writers and thinkers, all of them non-Jewish, but when he inscribed copies for his sister, Scholem, and Kracauer, Benjamin described the book as a Jewish ark written when the fascist flood began to rise. And he published the book under the pseudonym Detlef Holz to conceal his Jewish identity. I’ve explored this puzzle elsewhere6, but I would only say here that the case of Deutsche Menschen makes it very difficult to disentangle German from Jewish identity, something Paul Mendes-Flohr, Georg Mosse, and many others have shown; in fact, Benjamin’s book inscribes their combination, even in 1936, as a kind of quixotic hope. But this mixing of German and Jewish identity only continues the centuries-long entanglements of Judaism and Christianity theorized by Daniel Boyarin and others. This hybridity need not be schizophrenic or divided in any way; as Benjamin and the Berlin Jewish Museum show, this is a positive historical identity no more or less authentic or complete than any other. To quote a popular saying about cultural trends: “It’s a thing.”

The idea of displacement fits Benjamin’s orientation to tradition, which opposes the modern secularist narrative of progress, traditionalist visions of decline, as well as Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. For Benjamin as for more recent “postsecular” thinkers like Talal Asad,7 tradition never just goes away; even the most iconoclastic modernisms bear the afterlife and traces of the past. The inversions, paradoxes, and formal experiments of Benjamin’s thought identify the displacements of tradition in ways that open space for critical thought, and, I would argue, agency.8

Against the grand historical narratives of progress, decline, and eternal recurrence, the displacement of traditions preoccupies Benjamin from his early studies of literature to his late work on modern culture. If his work insists on critical awareness of the complexity, multiplicity, and contexts of cultural forms, it reflects the complexity of his life, which no biographical formula (tragedy, heroic tale, mourning play) or simplistic label (Marxist, aesthete, theologian, melancholic, Jew, German) can capture. It is ironic that scholarship on Benjamin so often resorts to such formulas and labels when he devoted a substantial part of his work to their critical examination. It takes a Critical Life like the biography of Eiland and Jennings, one that resists generalizations, embraces complexity, and reads the life with the work, to recognize more fully the significance of Benjamin’s thought.9


1 Walter Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

2 See Beatrice Hanssen, Critique of Violence: Between Poststructuralism and Critical Theory (New York: Routledge, 2000), 23.

3 Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 70.

4 Scholem, “Thoughts About our Language (1926),” in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, ed. Avraham Shapira, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997), 27-29.  Dipesh Chakrabarty makes a similar point in Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 115-137.

5 I derive the idea of tradition as displacement from Freud and Benjamin in Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), 191-212.

6 Britt, “Identity and Survival in Deutsche Menschen,” Benjamin-Studien 3 (2014): 83-104.

7 Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

8 This is the argument of my forthcoming book, Postsecular Benjamin: Agency and Tradition (Northwestern University Press).

9 Eiland and Jennings lament how selective previous studies of Benjamin have been:  “The result has all to often been a partial or, worse, mythologized and distorted portrait” (Eiland and Jennings, 7).

Postsecular Benjamin: Agency and Tradition is available for preorder here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *