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Paganism-Christianity-Judaism: A Confession of Faith

Paganism-Christianity-Judaism: A Confession of Faith

by Max Brod

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Now remembered primarily as Franz Kafta's friend and literary executor, Max Brod was an accomplishered thinker and writer in his own right. In this volume, he considers the nature and differences between Judaism and Christianity, addressing some of the most perplexing questions at the heart of human existence.

“One of the most famous and widely discussed


Now remembered primarily as Franz Kafta's friend and literary executor, Max Brod was an accomplishered thinker and writer in his own right. In this volume, he considers the nature and differences between Judaism and Christianity, addressing some of the most perplexing questions at the heart of human existence.

“One of the most famous and widely discussed books of the 1920’s, Max Brod’s Paganism—Christianity—Judaism, has at last found its way into English translation to confront a new generation of readers. Max Brod is best remembered today as the literary editor and friend of Franz Kafka. In his day, however, he was the more famous of the two by far. A major novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and composer, he was also, as this book demonstrates, a serious thinker on the perennial questions that are at the heart of human existence. . . .Some of his judgments are open to question. Still, with all its limitations, this is a forthright and passionate proclamation of the uniqueness of Judaism. Paganism—Christianity—Judaism was an intellectual and spiritual event when it was first published and it remains a valuable document even now.” —Rabbi Jack Riemer, Hadassah

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[An] outstanding philosophical work, Brod’s Paganism—Christianity— Judaism makes his important distinction between noble and ignoble misfortune, [and] is simply beautiful.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Judaic Studies Series
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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A Confession of Faith

By Max Brod, William Wolf

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1921 Kurt Wolff Verlag, Munich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5663-7



It is now customary for authors who propose to write of rather general matters to include a few introductory remarks on the shortcomings of man's conceptual language.

I am of the opinion that such ceremonies are of no value. We simply have to remember that concepts are all we really have to work with. Even when we wish to attack formulations of concepts, we can only do so by using formulated concepts.

The shortcomings of such a procedure are well-known. The visible and tangible world cannot be caught. It escapes through the holes of the net. The author is hence reminded not to over-estimate himself and particularly his first formulas, but rather to refine them more and more so as to come close to reality, keeping in mind all the time that he can never expect to grasp reality itself.

The same warning must be addressed to the reader. He too must beware of seeing final conclusions in his first formulations. Nor should he make the mistake of believing he has finished the book if, while holding his place in the second chapter, he browses through the last. A book such as this one, the sum total of many years' thinking, can be properly appreciated only if the reader feels himself to have reached its focal point, from which he may view the whole with one glance, seeing simultaneously all the modifications of one basic thought as if they were so many transparent plates.

The earth is dominated by three spiritual powers—paganism, Christianity, Judaism. These represent three ways of interpreting ultimate things, three attempts to relate the visible world with a divine superworld, three ways in which the human soul reacts to the religious experience. How they stand in relation to each other, how their spheres of influence rise and drop—these are basically the elements which determine all events.

Even the universal destruction of human civilization (world wars etc.) is but the last consequence of the dispersion of power among paganism, Christianity, and Judaism. In saying this, I am not referring to any official power but to the secret vibrations which these three modes of life have woven around all senses of mankind. When these three religious possibilities shift places in relation to each other, the future of the earth looks different. I am thinking particularly of Europe and America and some bordering areas, not of the central regions of Asia and Africa, although there too some active powers seem to be on the move. Yet for the time being the body of the Caucasian peoples is shaped by their will to assume a form, and this restricts them in such a manner that it cannot oscillate nor send forth independent waves. The Caucasians do rule. But who rules the rulers?

Everything depends on whether paganism, Christianity, or Judaism will become the guiding spiritual ideal of the future. In anticipation let us state that paganism has the best chances, or rather that an amalgamation of paganism and Christianity is today on the rise and threatens to dominate the world. Somewhere on the sidelines and in darkness is a misunderstood Judaism.

This is how things stand. This is the situation that calls forth my critical essay.

But how can we speak of three paths, since there is only one absolute value, and one heaven?

In one of his articles on the history of religion and sociology, Max Weber replied to this objection as follows:

Like all other inner experiences, the religious one is, of course, irrational. In its highest mystical form it is even the experience par excellence; and, as has been beautifully demonstrated by William James, it is characterized by its absolute incommunicability. It does have a specific character and appears as perception, yet it cannot be adequately reproduced with the instruments of our speech and concepts.... But in spite of that irrationality it is of the highest practical importance to know what the thought system is like which the religious experience occupies and maps out. For here is the source of the important ethical differences among the various religions of the earth.

I am selecting three such thought systems, three typical spiritual attitudes. They are extreme and primary possibilities of the human soul—the simplest elements—to which all other attitudes can be reduced and which occur everywhere under various guises. In defining them in their extreme forms, I am not concerned with the fact that historical experience recognizes additional variations and borderline cases. For the time being, my concept of the three systems must be accepted, the entire book being devoted to their investigation.

Paganism is dedicated to the idea of the continuation of this world. The divine sphere is seen as a continuation of this world.

Christianity is dedicated to the idea of the denial of this world. It sees divinity in the image of a denial of this world, and it strives after the dissolution of the visible world and hopes for the invisible one.

Judaism ... Here I cannot even try to present an approximation. For the time being, however, I am offering this description: Judaism neither affirms nor negates this world. This third possibility will be discussed in the course of this book.

It is true that "denial of this world" does not apply to Christianity as a whole but only to the basic trend of its European development. In the original Christianity of the synoptic Gospels and in the work of outstanding individual Christians such as Dante, Kierkegaard, etc., there are germs of a quite different development. This will be discussed further on in greater detail.

Tentative Definition

Here we shall give a rough sketch for a tentative understanding of pagan, Christian, and, Jewish attitudes.

Paganism approves of the material world without any restriction. It is true that today's pagans call themselves Christians, but they like to walk about in the wraps of pagan animal hides. A harmless name for this is "archaization." All Aryans, Germanics, swastika people-also Gauls, Romans, Hellenes—eagerly revert to the unbaptized state of their respective nations. But the same holds true of the estheticizing Hellenism of the entire world, the great wave of the Renaissance, the "anti-Christ" Nietzsche, and, with qualifications, the "Olympian" Goethe, the "egoist" Stendhal, and Stirner (The Only One)—every philosophy that acknowledges this world without an attempt at modification; physiocracy and the Manchester doctrine; the liberal motto of laissez faire; the ancient polis and the "old Prussian spirit"; monism; biological attitudes, Treitschke's idea of the State and the adoration of "what has evolved historically"—all these are evolutionary forms of the same pagan idea which seeks its divine world in a straight continuation of this one. All those drives which prevail here and now are considered holy. If at one time the power of the individual is preferred, at another time that of the state, this makes no difference in principle. One and the same matter produced the heavens and the earth. Heroes and half-gods are the bridge that leads from man to the gods. Divine things are patterned according to earthly ones. The virtues of paganism are heroism, aristocracy, health, strength, daring, survival of the fittest, the morals of the masters. Paganistic society is based on service and obedience, on heroism and allegiance, ducal leadership and 'loyalty' of the subjects.

Christianity means a complete turning away from all natural drives, and thus the utter negation of paganism. The drives are "sinful," they are "the old Adam," which must be driven out, the "original sin," which, according to the clerical authority of Bellarmin, consists of the loss of our supernatural, which means spiritually free, nature (ex sola doni supernaturalis ob Adae peccatum amissione). According to Luther "the clay from which we have been formed is damnable," and Calvin put it most severely: "ex corrupta hominis natura nihil nisi damnabile prodire" (only damnation can come from man's corrupt nature). Therefore even man's "good works" are entirely worthless; and, in Augustine's words, they are only "racing along very fast next to true life" (cursus celerrimus praeter vitam). The century-long struggle between Protestants and the mildest Catholic attitude (as formulated by Moehler, for instance) concerns itself only with the problem whether good works and love (fides formata) have a secondary value next to saving grace, or not even that. Out of the entire life in this world, which becomes increasingly dim, the Christian chooses one complex, which gathers all light, and only that complex is to him important and worth experiencing—the Savior's sacrificial death. This achieved a vicarious satisfaction (satisfactio vicaria) for all sins, and created grace, the bridge to a purer world, the only bridge. This uniqueness, the historical fact of the transcending event, is characteristic of all of Christianity, although individual Christian sects differ as to the conditions under which grace invades the personal life of the individual (the Catholics believing in faith and sacraments, the Protestants in faith alone). This uniqueness of the spiritually decisive event is only a symbol of the devaluation by Christianity of all other life in this world. It is, so to say, the other side of that devaluation and draining. If any deed or experience could bring consolation or salvation of a metaphysical importance, "Christ would have died in vain," as Paul expressed it. But the earth must be viewed as a vale of tears, for "My kingdom is not of this world." If, therefore, the individual becomes the sole bearer of inner experiences, it is not because Christianity considers the individual important (it is simply nonsense to credit Christianity with the discovery of the "I" or the "individual," as has become the fashion) but rather because any social intercourse and any outward movement of the soul is a concern of this world; for carnal existence is basically uninteresting and incomprehensible. The "I," however, represents the minimum of existence and besides is indispensable, and thus it can only be tolerated by the Christian. The isolated individual—the monk and the ascetic—is the type of that morality.

At this point we can only mention in passing that Judaism does not deny this world all its importance, and yet it does not take part in the pagan idea of "only this world." It has not always been understood that Judaism ascribes importance to a certain order in this world, although the role of the "Law" in Judaism has been widely misinterpreted. What is true in such and similar descriptions is that Judaism never took its eyes off this world, off nature, good deeds, social work, or the joy of the spirit. In that respect Judaism has always been quite "worldly." But that "worldliness" is of a different kind. It is a worldliness not for its own sake but for God's sake, whose throne is the world, and for the sake of the miracle, which can bring man so close to his God, who is aglow with love, that he may exclaim: "Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth, for Thy love is sweeter than wine" (Song of Songs I:2). This miracle which happens to man does not take him out of life, as is demanded by Christian teaching, but it is just that miracle which enables him to work, in the midst of life, through deeds blessed by grace. Thus I have called that miracle "this-worldly miracle." "A miracle has occurred to me, therefore I shall do something useful," said Rabbi Simon bar Yochai. This is a statement which may offend the ears of a degenerate Europe. But to me it is the central statement of Judaism. Later I shall have more to say on this. But one thing must be anticipated at this point. To the Jew the visible world is not the scene of a miracle which has happened once—a saving deed performed two millennia ago once and for all—but in this miracle the world opens itself up, and in unpredictable ways, to the miracle, to the encounter with God, although such encounters are rare occurrences. (Every generation is said to have thirty-six righteous men!) We must never follow the pantheistic self-illusion of considering these encounters as a matter of course. But since the possibility of a miracle can never be excluded, and since it is not tied to any definite "marching route" (the experience of Christ), but rather claims for itself the entire expanse of earthly diversity—at least potentially—Jewish thinking considers the entire visible world as eminently important. Everywhere there slumber "sparks of divinity," not only in so-called sacramental deeds but also in our entirely rational or purely physical functions: in study, in the washing of one's hands, in partaking of food, etc., and—again potentially—even in sin, according to the profound teaching by Rabbi Akiba. We must never disregard material situations and shades of meaning in the world of phenomena. Judaism is the least abstract of all religions, and so its great and original codification, the Talmud, contains life in its entirety, with its most minute details, the day and the hour of the individual as well as that of the group, medical experience, science, legality, history and its interpretation, literature, agriculture, the culinary arts, etc.—in short, existence in all its fullness. And yet all this is not pagan, it is not simply an affirmation, but it stands under the aspect of the miracle, of sanctification, of eternity. Now those two worlds—that of temporality and that of the miracle—are not placed side by side or against each other in a rational manner; but out of the innermost heart, out of the structure of the work, there emerges that which gives Judaism its incomparable character and a significance which has not yet been properly utilized by mankind. It is a charmingly impenetrable integration of otherworldly wisdom (Aggadah) with the wisest worldliness (Halachah), of poetry and deed, of myth and practice—an integration incomprehensibly concise to those who have not studied the Talmud thoroughly. This integration sometimes occurs in one single sentence or even one single syllable. Since I have made mention of the great and symbolic word "Talmud," I take this opportunity to declare emphatically that I am not thinking of today's infirm Judaism in connection with this enthusiastic description of the creative power of the Jewish genius. I am thinking only very little of today's attempts at a new Jewish life, something that tries to rid itself of weakness and shadowy existence, in contrast to the immeasurable treasure of tradition, which has been so badly administered, so little utilized, so greatly abused and yet is so rich in what is important to this time of need.

The Amalgamation

It is just because of the exaggeration of their contrasts that paganism and Christianity show a strong affinity for each other. We come now to the strange fact of amalgamation of Christianity and paganism, and one of the main tasks of this book is to prove the existence of and the need for that amalgamation. Judaism, which moves outside of that strict contrast of pagan Yes and Christian No in a sphere which has as yet been hardly understood, is less prone to such an amalgamation. On the other hand, the form which today's Christianity has adopted, and which I shall call neo-Christianity, is particularly fit to melt with paganism into a seductive illusion of faith. It is thus quite understandable that a literary leader of neo-Christianity points out that Christianity has left its Jewish origin and has become a European concern of Aryan nations. That popular "de-Judaizing" of Christianity is nothing but another expression of the Christian-pagan amalgamation.

At the beginning of World War I another of those neo-Christians, the brilliant and subtle philosopher Max Scheler, wrote a book (Der Genius des Krieges), in which, out of the principles of Catholicism, a "heroic," "German"—which means utterly pagan—Weltanschauung is justified and war is sanctified.

It is true that other tendencies in Christianity are opposed to these trends of amalgamation, and it is there that the Jewish spirit finds affinity with Christianity. Dante, the great lover and the great universal politician of a realm of peace on earth, and Kierkegaard, who takes hold of this world "by virtue of the paradox," are the exalted figures of that strict Christianity which is furthest removed from the temptations of paganism. Along with Dante and Kierkegaard, we should remember those Christian geniuses referred to on page 54.

I am writing this book not as a leisurely bystander; rather, in these last years, I have penetrated more deeply into the machinery of the world and of the hearts of men than ever before. Many things of which I had been convinced have become unclear to me. Answer came from other quarters and led in different directions from those expected. Paganism, Christianity, and Judaism were important to me only so far as they gave me an answer to what happens to us today and to the world as a whole.


Excerpted from Paganismâ"Christianityâ"Judaism by Max Brod, William Wolf. Copyright © 1921 Kurt Wolff Verlag, Munich. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Max Brod (1884-1968) was a Czech novelist, essayist, and editor. His novels included The Redemption of Tycho Brahe, Three Loves, and The Magic Realm of Love; he was also well-known as a friend and collegue of Franz Kafka, and he served as the editor of Kafka's letters and diaries after Kafka's death.

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