Abraham, The Other
“Being-jew would then be something more, something
other than the simple lever–strategic or methodological–of a general
deconstruction; it would be its very experience, its chance, its threat, its destiny.”
When Jacques Derrida was invited to The International Colloquium Jude´ite´s: Questions pour Jacques Derrida, held at the Jewish Community Center in Paris on December 3–5, 2000, from early on until he approached the podium, the subject of Judeities worried him as he “trembled before the title of the conference” (Derrida, 2007, p. 4). His concern speaking about Judeities implied a responsibility behind any response from him, a Jew, due to “incompetence for the [his] lack of culture” (ibid.), he confesses. The answer to this offer, while self-questioning “why me?” to be the chosen one to front this task, is “yes” as an answer to the invitation to deliver a paper at this conference, as if self-delivering the paper was a matter of responding as Abraham responded to God's call to sacrifice Isaac; so, he said “yes, here I am,” (p. 3) a self-presentation represented as a submission. All this circles around the question of how his “belonging without belonging to Jewishness or to Judaism” (p. 8) stresses the responsibility to respond on issues called Judeities, in the plural form, as in the name of the others. In short, answering for them (the Jews) to an audience when dissociations already present themselves in binary forms such as what is “authentic/inauthentic, Jewishness/Judaism, I-you, we-you, male-female, and yet pondering if one can authorize oneself to move from “you are Jewish” to a “I am?” (p. 5-6). This essay aims to underline Derrida’s position on the difficulties to respond to this call to define Judeities in this colloquium under the presence of dualities, which seems more about a personal paper, while questioning the complexities behind modern binary views.
As modernity inherited binary oppositions that reduce distinctions and definitions under a dualistic ontology, these reductions bring the tension of the undefinable, including Judeities, and Derrida wants to challenge those tensions by offering three dissociations. First, dissociations between persons: first person, second person, third person (I am a Jew am, you are a Jew, he is a Jew) by questioning “how do these persons translate into each other?” (p. 5); second, the dissociation between authenticity and inauthenticity (the authentic Jew and the inauthentic Jew) by recalling Jean-Paul Sartre in particular, who “declares himself ready to proclaim the figure of the Jew” (p. 28); third, the dissociation between judeity/Jewishness and Judaism by asking if “one can trust in the alternative between Jewishness/Judaism” (p. 6). In short, in each one of these dissociations Derrida is dealing with are binary oppositions embedded in the modern world of academics (philosophy, politics, religion). Though they are inherited, but they must be inherited critically by deconstructing them under the question of how we think otherwise. It is critical to underline that this colloquium, Jude´ite´s: Questions pour Jacques Derrida, gives Derrida the opportunity to speak about something that is very important and a constant subject in his work. That is, how being a Jew came to his work and as something that bears on his own life where he is never too far away from his traumatic past: a young Jew in a French colonized Algeria and “what was [for him] such an epiphany his first encounter with the word jew during his Algerian childhood” (p. 9). This is a crucial moment in Derrida’s formative years as a child (only 10 years old) when the word jew was never heard within his family, home, or circle of friends; it was only when primary education began (French education, of course) where he heard it as outsiders used it to describe him. The word jew was attached to him from the colonizers and sounded like “a weapon, an insult, a wound, a denunciation, a de-legitimation prior to any right, prior to any legality” (p. 10). The use of the lowercase in the word jew is intentional, as Derrida uses it to refer to his own relation to Judaism, his own Jewish identity, and his experience of Jewish guilt living under a preponderant European antisemitic sentiment during WWII. By using the lowercase, I find that Derrida suggests other symbolisms as well.
The lowercase “j” that Derrida uses seems to imply the identity of the Jew he cannot assume, the Jew he is not sure he is worthy of; like the Jews chosen by God, he cannot see himself as being elected. So, in his own reference, he uses the lowercase version. To a certain extent, I see an implicit sense of tremendous responsibility, as in Abraham, to answer to a call in the name of or to represent others. Derrida uses the subject of chosenness fairly, implying the political ramifications associated with nationalism and nation. For example, the Israeli nation and justification of violence where there is a “dissociation [that] not necessarily threats the communal bond; one cannot more dissociate opportunity from risk in the case of negotiations if one truly wants peace,” (p. 5) in clear reference to the Israel and Palestine conflict. There is a connection between a chosen group, an answer from Abraham to a call, and what Derrida addresses as “there is more than one Abraham” (Anidjar, 2002, p. 1-39). Simply put, the call was not just to the Abraham of Judaism, but also to the Abraham of Christianity and the Abraham of Islam. In other words, it cannot be reduced into one term or tradition, which is what binary oppositions do, and as no binary opposition stands alone, the violence is always on the side of who gives the term.
Returning to the conference title: Jude´ite´s,it is precisely the word Derrida is carrying within himself as a wound, making it impossible to deal with “two appellations, God–and Jew” (p. 11), the latter resembling the original sin in Catholicism from the moment one is born and that denounces an original accusation with guilt or responsibility prior to any fault or act. On the former, the question of God electing one particular community puzzles Derrida, as well as the teleological questions of choosing a group that is subjected to so much suffering. Here, Derrida becomes “cautious on referring himself as part of his own community” (Derrida, p. 15) as the obscure times in a French-colonized Algeria shaped him to his core and stopped his sense of belonging by becoming “a stranger within” (p. 16). This is a key element of what Derrida wishes to refer as deconstructing binary oppositions that only meet two sides, such as judeity/Jewishness or Jew/non-Jew. To put it briefly, Derrida does not endorse this kind of belonging, first, because he is not sure if he would belong in either case, and second, the sense of community definition is subjected to a binary opposition (Jew/not-Jew) leaving aside a wide spectrum of multiple definitions (identities) attached to each individual.
“The childhood and adolescence I am evoking here
have coincided in time with the beginnings
and then the creation of this state, both so singular and so similar to all others,
while the Zionist call was resonating loudly in Algeria after the war.”
Derrida questions the sense of belonging within a community that it calls itself the chosen people, suggesting a duality, us/them or chosen/not-chosen, that is violent. As underlined earlier, the violence is always on the side of who gives the term. Hence, and returning to the question of the colloquium on Jude´ite´s,Derrida ponders the consequences of defining that term under these oppositions, especially when one cannot even call himself a jew. Derrida quotes Jean-Paul Sartre and his “objective description of the inauthentic Jew” (p. 28), not to intentionally criticize him, but to underline that Sartre’s discourse restricted his analysis to French Jews. Derrida accordingly underlined that he finds “excluded from Sartre’s analysis, not only all non-French Jews but also, and equally out of range, are all these strange, non-foreign Jews who, like me, like the Jews of Algeria of my generation, were in a thousand ways, neither French nor non-French,” (p. 20). What we see is a third-person analysis: those are the Jews whom we call Jews, and Derrida explicitly highlights how Sartre himself speaks of Jews in the third person, which by extension, argues the question of the distinction between authentic Jew and inauthentic Jew; who is a Jew and who is not a Jew?The rational, the practicing Jews, the humanists? The dissociation is between judeity [Jewishness] and Judaism, and no matter how this is addressed or tried to be answered, the difficulty that arises from questioning who is an authentic or inauthentic Jew remains in setting up this opposition in the first place. In sum, Sartre does not know what is authentic so it must be left undecidable: “this aporetic experience of undecidability or of the impossible, far from being a suspending and paralyzing neutrality, I hold to be the very condition, in truth, the milieu or the ether within which decision, and any responsibility worthy of the name must breathe,” (p. 31).
The elements behind the difficulties of anti-Semitic violence experienced as a Jew in Algeria of the 1940’s (ironically coinciding with the creation of the State of Israel), remained throughout Derrida’s work as a Jew. I find that his traumatic experiences as a Jew in French-colonized Algeria, charged with a hostile antisemitic environment, might had contributed to his approach to challenging oppositions beyond binary views and borders between oppositional terms. Derrida analyses the difference constituted in a text as a binary opposition not simply challenging the oppositional binary and the violence that entails; he chooses what that binary opposition does not hold. Still, like the Freudian unconscious that awaits to be revealed but cannot be explained, those traumas Derrida carries cannot be put into words, they cannot be translated. They remain as a mark, like a circumcision.
Anidjar, Gil. (2002) “Introduction: ‘Once More, Once More’: Derrida, the Arab, the Jew.” In Gil Anidjar, ed., Jacques Derrida: Acts of Religion. New York and London: Routledge.
Derrida, Jacques. (2007) “Abraham, the Other.” In Judeities: Questions for Jacques Derrida Eds. Bettina Bergo, Joseph Cohen, Raphail Zagury-Orly. Trans. Bettina Bergo and Michael B. Smith. Fordham University Press.