Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s (Yale University Press, 2018) is a radical new book that uncovers a hitherto ignored intellectual movement in...

Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s (Yale University Press, 2018) is a radical new book that uncovers a hitherto ignored intellectual movement in Jewish Eastern Europe, and finds new antecedents to the story of modern Jewish history. In it, Professor Eliyahu Stern recontextualizes a group of Jewish thinkers who sought to understand the ways in which Jewish identity could be interpreted not in terms of law, tradition, and ritual practice, but, after an engagement with the thought of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, in terms of land, labor, and bodies. “Jewish materialists” asked what it meant to be a Jew in a period when rabbinic authority waned, and the physical pressures of poverty and anti-semitism dominated daily life, a time when to be religious was an economic choice.

The central chapters of the book focus on several different forms of materialism – what Stern terms social, scientific, and practical materialisms – best captured in the works of figures such as Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz, Moses Leib Lilienblum, and Marxists Aaron Shmuel Lieberman and Isaac Kaminer. Using vast archival sources, Stern builds out this new framework and uncovers the ways in which, without an understanding of their materialist context these thinkers have been misrepresented by their biographers and in their collected works, often as a result of their posthumous adoption by competing ideologies.

Rather than framing this narrative as a lachrymose story of secularism, the inevitable rejection of religion, Jewish Materialism highlights how this group of thinkers found renewed meaning in the Bible and Kabbalah, and it discovers a Jewish genealogy that took notions physicality and social justice seriously. The consequences of this intellectual revolution foreshadows with profound effect the competitive marketplace of Jewish political ideologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not only did they leave a legacy of distinctly Jewish materialist thought, but a reinterpretation of the Jewish intellectual tradition as well. After reading this book it is hard not to see the events of the 20th Century in a new and richer light, and to ask, what are the stakes of Jewish identity?

Eliyahu Stern is Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual and Cultural History at Yale University.


Moses Lapin is a graduate student in the departments of History and Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He often describes himself as a young Hannibal Buress.

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