With the Israelite Every Thing is Ancient and Nothing is Obsolete. — The Genius of Judaism, 1

Decorated initial I

n 1833, at sixty-seven, Isaac D’Israeli published anonymously a pamphlet, The Genius of Judaism, that expressed his views of Jewishness and Judaism. The pamphlet, which perhaps owes its title to François-René de Chateaubriand’s famous treatise The Genius of Christianity (1802), is a philosophical inquiry into the causes of the separatism and cultural backwardness of traditional Jews whose devotion to the study of the Talmud and loyalty to their leaders and religious teachers, derided modern European science and learning, and, in consequence, were ousted from mainstream culture and civilization. It seems that D’Israeli’s original aim in writing this book was to debunk the traditional rabbinic authority over the Jewish people. At 266 pages, the author expounded the principal causes that have separated the Jews from other nations and made them a special object of hatred and exclusion. He wrote sympathetically about the Jewish people, particularly about its splendid past, but disparaged the rabbinic interpretation of Judaism. As a theist influenced by Voltaire and other eighteenth-century French philosophes, he criticized Judaism’s strange ritualism, superstitions, kosher dietary laws, and discrimination against women. In his view, rabbis, adhered to ‘an obsolete, stultifying national identity, one that prevented, rather than promoted their acculturation into the modern world’ (Spector 34). D’Israeli certainly did not oppose Judaism, but he questioned the validity of the Oral Torah or Oral Law, contained in the Talmud, as the divine authority for the Jews.

[T]he institutes of Moses are not in reality the laws of the Jews. Two human codes have superseded the code delivered from heaven; the one originates in imposture — that of their traditions; the other is founded on tyranny — that of their customs. … [A] system of superstitions has immersed the Hebrews in a mass of ritual ordinances, casuistical glosses, and arbitrary decisions, hardly equalled by their subsequent mimics of the papistry. [77-78]

D’Israeli stated that the original ‘religious Judaism of the Theocracy degenerated into Rabbinical Judaism, by fabulous traditions and enslaving customs. Dictators of the human intellect, the Rabbins, like their successors, the Papal Christians, attempted to raise a spurious Theocracy of their own’ (78).

D’Israeli had written earlier variously on the subject of Jews. For example, his novel Vaurien (1797) contains a chapter called ‘A Jewish Philosopher’, in which he presented his views on Rabbinical Judaism in a slightly ironic way. In Curiosities of Literature he included two essays, ‘Talmud’ and ‘Rabbinical Stories’, but it was in The Genius of Judaism that he declared himself explicitly to be a supporter of the assimilation of the Jews in modern societies. Earlier, he had disavowed his religious bonds with the Jewish community when he had all his four children baptized in 1817, although he and his wife never converted. For D’Israeli being a Jew meant sharing a historical, cultural identity and not a religious one. The issue of Jewish assimilation was debated in the nineteenth century in England and other European countries. Many Jews abandoned the traditional Jewish community and were taking the values of modern secular culture of Europe. However, horrified Orthodox Jews treated their assimilated compatriots with horror. Yet assimilation became a major force for disintegration in the lives of European Jews from the second half of the eighteenth century. Of course, not all Jews wanted to assimilate. A significant number of them tried to preserve their religious and national identity through strict separation from goyim (gentiles). In Chapter 12, titled ‘Of the Causes of the Universal Hatred of the Jewish People’, D’Israeli claimed that in ‘refusing to assimilate, the Jews set themselves off as a nation within a nation’ (Spector 34).

As a freethinker, D’Israeli, who repudiated what he thought of as rabbinic superstitions, obscurantism, ritualism, affirmed that Jews should ‘educate their youth as the youth of Europe’ (265). In The Genius of Judaism he stated unequivocally that the Talmud should be treated as a ‘curiosity of antiquity and not as a manual of education’ (265). In his view, Judaism has been totally misrepresented by rabbis, who ‘went on corrupting the simplicity of the ancient creed’ (264). By elevating the Talmud as the supreme book of Jewish law, the rabbis, in D’Israeli’s view, ‘walled in the human intellect’ making the ‘national genius stationary and unchangeable’ (99). Interestingly, D’Israeli criticised the rabbis, but praised the Karaites, the ancient offshoot of Judaism, whom he called ‘Jewish Reformers or Protestants’ for their rebellion against the ‘degrading servitudes and the bewitching superstitions of rabbinical Judaism’ (10). Karaites, who were in favour of the written Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) handed down to Moses by God, opposed the Talmudists. It should be noted that Karaism, which dates back over a thousand years and is still alive in Israel and Eastern Europe (Lithuania), rejects the Oral Law (Talmud) and follows literally the word of the Torah.

Although D’Israeli remained an English Jew for the rest his life, he rejected his cultural and ethnic background. Sheila A. Spector contends that ‘Isaac D’Israeli’s attitude towards his Jewishness was always problematic at best’ (24). In The Genius of Judaism, which ‘reveals a love-hate relationship with his ancestral faith and with his people’ (Glassman 35), D’Israeli described several causes of the separation of the Hebrews from other peoples. It was mainly due to their traditional laws, the Sabbath, the multitude of their rites and customs including the practice of circumcision and strict dietary laws forbidding certain meats and aliments to be eaten. D’Israeli exposed the narrow-mindedness of rabbis, who significantly contributed to ghettoization of their people in medieval Europe in order to preserve their traditional Judaism. D’Israeli’s book might have been as well titled ‘What’s Wrong With Judaism?’, because the author was mostly concerned with the ‘rabbinical idolatry’ (70) and not the strengths or roots of Judaism.

Yet, in spite of the title of his pamphlet, D’Israeli was quite vague in stating what the ‘genius of Judaism’ might be. Initially, the term ‘genius’ signified an early form of national identity, or the ethos that unified the group. In the seventeenth century, genius ‘referred to the particular characteristic that distinguished the individual from the general population’ (Spector 26). For Lord Shaftesbury (1671‒1713) ‘national genius’ meant ‘national identity’ (Smith 75). For Johann Gotfried Herder (1744‒1803) ‘every nation has its peculiar “genius”, its own way of thinking, acting and communicating’ (Smith 75). D’Israeli must have known these authors and what he probably meant by the ‘genius of Judaism’ in his pamphlet was the national identity of Jews. D’Israeli affirmed perspicaciously that the permanence of the Jewish people in spite of the most adverse circumstances was the most characteristic manifestation of the ‘genius of Judaism’. “Subdued yet unvanquished, scattered yet not lost, the dispersion of a people without their dissolution is a phenomenon in the annals of mankind; no human power has broken the solitary unity of this ancient people” (114).

In the light of the above, Isaac D’Israeli’s position presented in The Genius of Judaism can be called modern Liberal Judaism (Henriques 145). The author castigated traditional Judaism based on the Talmud, which in his opinion contains ‘an infinite number of casuistical cases, a logic of scholastic theology, some recondite wisdom, and much rambling dotage, many puerile tales, and oriental fancies’ (91). D'israeli advocated inner reform of Judaism and called on Jews to pursue secular education in the spirit of the Enlightenment. He believed that the assimilated and emancipated Jews would fully participate in the modern liberal world and enjoy its advantages: “To free themselves of their superstitions will not be the least difficult conversion of the Jews. The common enjoyment of civil rights will neither endanger the genius of Judaism, nor the genius of Christianity” (266). However, it should be emphasized that Isaac D’Israeli’s deep commitment to the ideals of the Enlightenment did not preclude him from maintaining his Jewish heritage. He never repudiated Judaism even though he assimilated to English culture.

Related material

  • The Talmud” (by D’Israeli)
  • References and Further Reading

    D’Israeli, Isaac. The Genius of Judaism. London: Edward Moxon, 1833.

    Endelman, Todd M. Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979.

    Glassman, Bernard. Benjamin Disraeli: The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory. Lanham, New York, Oxford: University Press of America, 2002.

    Henriques, U.R.Q. ‘The Jewish Emancipation Controversy in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Past & Present, 40 (Jul., 1968), 126-146.

    Ogden, James. Isaac D’Israeli. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

    Peterfreund Stuart. ‘Identity, Diaspora, and the Secular Voice in the Works of Isaac D’Israeli’. In: Sheila A. Spector (ed.) The Jews and British Romanticism. Politics, Religion, Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 127‒47.

    Ruderman, David B. Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry's Construction of Modern Jewish Thought. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000.

    Smith, Anthony D. National Identity. Reno, Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1991.

    Spector, Sheila A. Byron and the Jews. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010.

    Spevack, Marvin. ‘D’Israeli & Disraeli and The Genius of Judaism’, Aschkenas, 15:1 (2005), 135–149.

    Last modified 8 December 2019