Max Nordau: Beyond a Jewry of muscle

"In the same year that Otto Weininger killed himself, Max Nordau composed an important letter to a Jewish gymnastic club in Germany founded a few years earlier."

A JEWISH solider stands guard outside a building days after the British Mandate ended in 1948 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A JEWISH solider stands guard outside a building days after the British Mandate ended in 1948
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1903, Austrian-Jewish psychologist and philosopher Otto Weininger rented a room in the house where Beethoven died, took a pistol, and shot himself in the heart. Weininger, born a Jew, converted to Protestantism on the day he received his PhD, and was well-known as the author of a disturbing tome titled Sex and Character. The study of the emasculated Jew living in a world of masculine Aryans, argued that the male character was positive and honorable while the female character was weak and negative. For Weininger, the Jews embodied all that was female. Weininger wrote: “As there is no real dignity in women, so what is meant by the word gentleman does not exist among the Jews.” This blend of misogyny and self-hatred haunted the 23-year-old. Conversion to Christianity was not enough to make him a true man. Self-inflicted death was his only road to redemption.
In the same year that Otto Weininger killed himself, Max Nordau composed an important letter to a Jewish gymnastic club in Germany founded a few years earlier.
In this letter to the young men of the Bar Kokhba Club, Theodor Herzl’s closest colleague in the nascent Zionist movement and a celebrated and controversial social critic called for the creation of a “Jewry of Muscle.”
In his letter Nordau wrote, “The desire to take hold of a proud past finds a powerful expression in the very name chosen by the Jewish gymnastic society in Berlin. Bar Kokhba was a hero who refused to suffer any defeat. When victory was denied him, he knew how to die. Bar Kokhba was the last embodiment in world history of a battle-hardened and bellicose Jewry.”
The Diaspora Jew for 2,000 years denied the needs of the body and lacked the masculine instincts to go to war. Nordau, stridently anti-religious, urged the modern Jew to put aside the volumes of Talmud that chained the young to the house of study. Sunshine and good air would benefit the Jew. Where Otto Weininger saw no hope for the Jew to be an honorable man, Nordau’s Zionism answered that, indeed, with the right training and education the Jew could epitomize his ancestors of the ancient world – the Maccabees, the Zealots and Bar Kokhba. Jews are the scion of heroic warriors and not just the sons and daughters of meek and weak scholars.
If this was Nordau’s last word on the history of Diaspora Jewry, Nordau would seem to fit the mold of Micha Yosef Berdichevski, an influential Zionist thinker who denigrated the tradition of the rabbis of Yavneh and celebrated the liberating force of the “New Hebrew” not tethered to the life-denying strictures of religion. But Nordau, despite his promotion of a “Jewry of Muscle,” had a far more nuanced understanding of Jewish history than Berdichevski.
In the opening address on the state of European Jewry at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Nordau contrasted the state of Jews in the emancipated West with the Jews of Eastern Europe. Professor Michael Stanislawski in his study of Zionism and the fin de siècle, writes that Nordau’s presentation was “electrifying.”
As a psychiatrist, Nordau’s understanding of Jewish tradition and the psyche of the medieval Jew was simply brilliant. Despite his harsh criticisms of religion, Nordau understood that the ghetto was not a prison house for Jews but a “refuge.” Emancipated Jews lacked the authenticity of those Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement who knew who they were and did not bend over backwards to be accepted by Gentile society.
WHILE I agree with Professor Stanislawski that there was something disingenuous and condescending about Nordau’s portrait of the Jewish “noble savage” – the influence of poet Heinrich Heine impacted Nordau significantly – it is still heartening that the same man who called for a “Jewry of Muscle” did not dismiss his ancestors as weaklings who lacked authenticity. Otto Weininger dishonored and debased Jews. Nordau is the ultimate contrast to Weininger. His call for Jewish masculinity – the glories of masculinity was very much a theme that runs through the thought of Europeans thinkers living at the end of the nineteenth century – was necessary and powerful. But his respect for the past and his psychological insights remain cogent today.
Today, the “Jewry of Muscle” is a reality. Whether in the Maccabee games, the Olympics and, most of all, in the IDF, Jews in Israel and many in the Diaspora have learned Nordau’s lesson. This is especially critical now in the face of enemies who want to wipe the State of Israel and the Jewish people off the map. But the early settlers who formed self-defense units in the pre-state era were not what novelist Amos Oz called “circumcised Cossacks.” The strength of brain power, education and scholarship is critical to the future of Israel at the center of world Jewry. Max Nordau understood that both values – the modern and the medieval – were necessary, though by no stretch of the imagination was Nordau shying away from the concept of the “New Hebrew.” Nordau’s great achievement was to recognize that the authentic Jew embodied the power of the fist and the power of the brain. Together, these powers are unstoppable.
The author is a rabbi, writer and teacher in South Florida.