Jewish Studies Walter Benjamin
by
Jacob Hermant
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0239

Introduction

Born on 15 July 1892, Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin was a German-Jewish philosopher, cultural-literary critic, and political theorist. Living through the First World War, the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Nazism, Benjamin lived primarily in Berlin and Paris, and died of suicide on the French-Spanish border on 27 September 1940 when, with the group of refugees with whom he was escaping, border authorities denied him entry into Spain. Benjamin’s writings are interdisciplinary in nature, covering literature, aesthetics, theology, material culture, film, and many more wide-ranging fields. He is most often thought of in relation to critical theory, especially due to his affiliation with figures of the Institute for Social Research, commonly known as the Frankfurt School, who were most influenced by Freud, Hegel, and Marx. His most well-read essays are common inclusions in anthologies of critical theory, and he was heavily influenced by literary modernism and Marxist politics, especially by way of the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. However, among Benjamin’s many interests and commitments, Judaism is an early influence that remains throughout his writings, most notably at the very beginning and end of his philosophical career. Benjamin’s lifelong friendship with Gershom Scholem, the preeminent scholar and historian of Jewish mysticism, highlights this attraction to Jewish readings of language, translation, history, and politics. Not all of Benjamin’s work deals specifically with Judaism, and it is sometimes present as a secondary, even tertiary level of analysis and contemporary reception. For this reason, along with Benjamin’s interdisciplinary, eclectic, and broad range of interests and the esoteric nature of his writing, sources both from and about Benjamin can require critical work to uncover the Jewish core of many of these texts. The following citations include books and articles explicitly taking up Benjamin and Judaism, but it is equally common for Benjamin’s Judaism to appear in short bursts or flashes in relevant texts, appropriately in the spirit of his conception of messianic time. Part of the exciting aspect of welcoming Benjamin to a prominent location in Jewish studies is that oftentimes some work must be done to bring out this necessary and major part of his philosophical development; this work leads to a more complete understanding of Benjamin, and of the ebbs and flows of 20th-century Jewish thought.

General Overviews

These works form a broad and wide-ranging review of Benjamin’s life and thought. Though they are not all explicitly written from the position of placing Benjamin directly and exclusively within Jewish studies, all these texts aid in the task of situating Benjamin as a Jewish thinker. These authors and works take up, at least in part, the question of Benjamin and Jewish studies while also offering overviews of his work that are valuable to scholars of all levels. Scholem 1981 is perhaps the greatest record of Benjamin’s lifelong study of Judaism, as Scholem writes of their decades of friendship and his own opinion that Benjamin was, and remained, primarily a Jewish thinker throughout his entire intellectual life. A more recent biography, Eiland and Jennings 2014, provides a sweeping and detailed view of Benjamin’s life, following Jewish and non-Jewish trends to outline his intellectual and personal journey and growth. Benjamin’s correspondences find him at his most personal, while still debating with his interlocutors. Benjamin and Scholem 1992 tracks the letters between Benjamin and his closest friend, the philosopher and Kabbalist Gershom Scholem, and remains one of the most fundamental sources for Benjamin’s engagement with Judaism. Benjamin 1994 provides all of Benjamin’s letters from his many correspondences, for example with Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, showing the different ways his Jewish influences marked his discussions with various figures. Benjamin 2021 provides a new edition of his essay on violence along with relevant, newly translated fragments and supplementary materials and commentary. Greenberg 2007 undertakes a record of biographies in the field of so-called Benjamin Studies, and the relevance of Benjamin’s Judaism in the cited projects becomes a theme that the author follows as this field develops. Beginning to turn from the primarily biographical, Arendt 2019 introduces a collection of Benjamin’s essays with a thematically-driven account of his life, told un-chronologically, that weaves in uniquely Jewish positions and interests Benjamin held in relation to the rest of his varied corpus. Steiner 2002 relates a discussion with Gershom Scholem about the necessary prerequisites for reading about Benjamin, the twelve steps of which find Jewish history and theology as foundational to even approaching Benjamin’s work. Wohlfarth 1997 treats Benjamin’s many interests and thematic periods with a focus on both Jewish studies and metaphors of Judaism, such as Kabbalah and fairy tales, and especially through an account of the German-Jewish culture of Benjamin’s lifetime.

  • Arendt, Hannah. “Introduction.” In Illuminations, by Walter Benjamin. Edited by Hannah Arendt, vii–lxiii. Boston and New York: Mariner Books, 2019.

    Arendt, a close friend to Benjamin, recounts her perspective on his life, writes about the different stages of his career, and highlights the tension between Judaism and Marxism in his work and personal politics. She finds Benjamin within his German-Jewish geopolitical context and sees how it forms his writing and ideas. She focuses especially on his strong intellectual friendships, his treatment of Kafka, and his views on Zionism.

  • Benjamin, Walter. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910–1940. Edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno. Translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226279572.001.0001

    This collection includes all the preserved letters Benjamin himself wrote. It records many of his friendships, plans, and productive debate and discussion with his interlocutors. It is a key resource for uncovering the person of Benjamin behind the published and recovered works, and finds his letters that take up Judaism and Jewish sources, including his plans to study Hebrew, with notable friends like Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, and Theodor Adorno.

  • Benjamin, Walter. Toward the Critique of Violence: A Critical Edition. Edited by Peter Fenves and Julia Ng. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503627680

    Fenves and Ng’s collection of sources from Benjamin in conversation with his essay on violence, all newly translated, finds new life in an already canonical text. The essay itself, with its discussion of the Biblical Korah in relation to themes of political and divine violence, is core to Benjamin’s context in Jewish studies, and this new edition both emphasizes and challenges this position through the many supplementary materials.

  • Benjamin, Walter, and Gershom Scholem. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem. Edited by Gershom Scholem. Translated by Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    Presenting the full correspondence between Benjamin and his lifelong closest friend, Gershom Scholem, this collection centers the role of Judaism in Benjamin’s life and work, in part due to Scholem’s early influence on him regarding Jewish sources. The most famous exchange in this collection finds the pair debating the expressibility of God in human language.

  • Eiland, Howard, and Michael W. Jennings. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

    These authors, both experts on Benjamin, have created a detailed and comprehensive biographical overview of Benjamin’s entire life and philosophical output. The relationship between his Judaism and the rest of his personal and intellectual commitments are clearly shown, if not the book’s focus. For all Benjamin scholars, this biography is a necessary resource, and for Jewish studies scholars it also helps situate Benjamin’s perspectives on Judaism within his writing.

  • Greenberg, Udi E. “Remembering Walter Benjamin: Benjamin and His Biographers.” Biography 30.2 (2007): 194–212.

    DOI: 10.1353/bio.2007.0038

    Greenberg provides an overview on Benjamin through the various biographical works about him. Opening on the tension between two early biographies, one emphasizing Judaism and the other Marxism, Greenberg finds in Benjamin a relationship to Judaism very different from other Jews of his time. In addition, he outlines the popular modern conception of Benjamin as a heroic figure stemming from existing with the tension of his often-oppositional ideological attractions.

  • Scholem, Gershom. Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.

    Scholem provides perhaps the most canonical book in the discussion of Benjamin as a Jewish thinker. Describing their meaningful and productive friendship, he prioritizes his belief of Benjamin’s primarily Jewish influence and his regrets regarding Benjamin’s later Communist turn. Scholem summarizes Benjamin’s intellectual output through this lens, alongside insights into Benjamin’s methods and attitudes, painting a picture of a brilliant mind and a difficult yet rewarding friendship.

  • Steiner, George. “To Speak of Walter Benjamin.” Benjamin Studies 1 (2002): 13–23.

    The literary critic George Steiner relates a discussion he had with Gershom Scholem about crafting a theoretical syllabus for preparing someone to study Benjamin. The twelve topics open and close with discussions of Judaism, positioning it as a framing device throughout for the hopeful student of Benjamin. Steiner finds Benjamin’s relationship to Judaism to be the single all-encompassing aspect of his thought, defining and determining all his work.

  • Wohlfarth, Irving. “‘Männer aus der Fremde’: Walter Benjamin and the ‘German-Jewish Parnassus.’” New German Critique 70 (1997): 3–85.

    DOI: 10.2307/488499

    Benjamin’s assimilated German-Jewish context, childhood, and identity is for Wohlfarth foundational to his writing. He presents an abridged biography that prioritizes this analytical lens, tracking for example Benjamin’s deliberations with and between Zionism and Marxism, or his treatment of Kabbalah, to understand how Benjamin inherited and engaged with Jewish history, tradition, and theology throughout his life. He also takes up the theme of the Jewish refugee in relation to Benjamin.

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