Reviewed by Eli Lederhendler (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2010)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Jewish Ethic, Capitalist Ethos
It is possible to quibble with Jerry Muller's opening statement, that "capitalism has been the most important force in shaping the fate of the Jews in the modern world"--as opposed, say, to nationalism, for example--but few would challenge his second assertion: While Jews seem to have been blatantly singled out in the discourse of capitalism (to their credit or, all too frequently, to their detriment), the subject has until very recently rarely merited a reputable academic examination. Of the extant studies, perhaps the one most closely resembling Muller's is Freddy Raphaël's two-decades-old book, Judaïsme et capitalisme (1982).
Muller offers in this articulate work an overall discussion of this Jewish singularity and a guide toward understanding the intricate love-hate relationship that Jews themselves appear to have developed with market economies. Muller includes four essays in this volume which, taken together, "aim to show the relevance of the experience of the Jews to the larger themes of modern European history: the development of capitalism, Communism, nationalism, and fascism" (pp. 6-7).
In the first chapter, Muller treats what he dubs "the long shadow of usury," summarizing the notional "Jew" as a figure of enduring resonance in the modern Western social and economic tradition. Here he has been able to draw on his own more detailed analyses in his The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought (2002) as well as the recent scholarship of Jonathan Karp (The Politics of Jewish Commerce, 2008). In this chapter, Muller affords the reader an extremely accessible brief analysis of the view taken by Karl Marx on Jews and money, as well as the triangular "debate" over capitalism, its social significance, and the relevance of the Jews to the notion of a market society, reflected in the writings of Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Werner Sombart. Muller's culture hero in this regard is Simmel, who "neither downplayed nor overstated the role of the Jews in capitalist development," and, moreover, "presented a conception of man under advanced capitalism that was far richer and more open than the caricatures of the purposeless accumulator or spiritless professional … that haunts the pages of Weber's Protestant Ethic, or the soulless calculator of Sombart's The Jews and Modern Capitalism" pp. 59-60). While diligent in exposing the roots of anti-Jewish animus in the vast discourse on capitalism, Muller finds it more fruitful, and certainly more to his purpose, to explore those significant thinkers whose view of the linkage between Jews and capitalism might be called "positive."
In chapter 2, Muller engages past and current research literature over the question of the Jewish response to capitalism. Muller's analysis is mostly concerned about capitalism as a social mechanism for fulfilling the potential of exchange, and clearly that fulfillment can be linked to the deployment of ingenuity, skills, experience, and the identification of opportunity--all of which, Muller argues, can substantiate historically the case for the Jews' evident success, given a level playing field. Specifically, Muller asks: What might account for modern Jews' successful performance in commercial and professional niches, and what might account for the anti-capitalism evinced by a significant minority of Jews in the modern era?
On the first of these questions, Muller adopts the "human (or "cultural") capital" approach, tracing behavioral patterns of very recent times back to social-situational histories that carried successive generations of Jews up from "proto-bourgeois" trades (peddling, hawking, pawnbroking, small-scale retail) to entrepreneurship in commerce, manufacturing, real estate, and finance. Additionally, while he eschews the idea that capitalist "values" are embedded in classical Jewish culture per se, he (like others before him) entertains the idea of a cultural imprint of Judaism in terms of above-average literacy, a religious legitimation of this-worldliness, and the sacred value assigned to community formation, whose effect held wider social-economic import in the realm of mutual interdependence.
Like most other observers before him, Muller does not query the underlying premises that culture can be passed on intergenerationally as "propensities" and "traits"; that the rabbinical ideal of book-learning in the sacred sphere was of practical consequence for most (male) Jews and was, moreover, readily transferable to secular professional or humanistic training; that values and behaviors are directly and causally linked; or that Judaism is sufficiently unlike Catholic and Protestant Christianity in all or most of these spheres as to afford a built-in margin of Jewish distinctiveness.
Thus, Muller reminds us that "Talmudic and halachic legal debates concerning commercial activity shaped the minds of generations of Jewish men, all of whom were expected to study the Talmud to the extent possible" (p. 86). This statement sweeps aside such basic complications as the rather scant access which most Jewish men had to extensive Talmud study, the relative atrophy of Jewish commercial jurisprudence after the Middle Ages, or the challenges to such reified portrayals of "culture" that have characterized recent theory. Similarly, it sidesteps recent the thrust of recent historiography that places new emphasis on the vital economic roles of women, in the domestic sphere and beyond, which cannot be characterized as having rested on generations'-long traditions of the study of torts and contracts. Finally, it ignores the problem involved when attempting to fit this model to some of the most successful achievers among men of Jewish descent, many of whom found Judaism and all its associations to be virtually dead weight, easily and eagerly sloughed off at some crucial point along their road to high finance, elite professional positions, and/or upper-class marriages. By the same token, it has long been recognized that the most traditionalist-oriented sectors of the Jewish population are rarely the staging ground for powerful forces of enterprise or professional success.
Yet, while the cultural propensities argument may well have run its course by now, the arguments Muller introduces based on the social positioning of Jews (more so, perhaps, than some other minorities) in proximity to urban and mercantile activity cannot be as easily gainsaid. And Muller's brief against Milton Friedman's old complaint that Jews have singularly benefited from capitalism while singularly bad-mouthing it, is cogently argued.
In chapter 3, Muller considers the "radical anti-capitalism" of Jewish communists, doing so mainly via revisiting the "myth" of Jewish bolshevism as an aspect of antisemitic rhetoric, while also giving a brief account of the prominent communists of Jewish origin who surfaced in Russia, Hungary, and Germany between 1917 and the post-WWII era.
Capitalism and the Jews lastly takes on the question of Jewish nationalism--in its Zionist form, particularly--within the framework of the peculiar dilemmas of minority-group and diasporic national movements. This final chapter in Muller's book is also the shortest, and is delivered with a less well-grounded argumentation, based largely on an exegesis of Ernest Gellner's interpretation of ethno-nationalist phenomena under modern capitalism. Clearly a great deal more must be said about the economic and political development of Palestine Jewry prior to 1948 and Israel post-1948 than can be inferred through a schematic reading of the modern fate of European Jewries.
Altogether, Capitalism and the Jews joins a small but growing group of perspicacious studies (such as Derek Penslar's Shylock's Children  and Karp's already cited The Politics of Jewish Commerce) that aim to rescue the economic aspects of modern Jewish history from the margins of contemporary historiography and argue for the primacy of economic relations in social and political affairs.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Eli Lederhendler. Review of Muller, Jerry Z., Capitalism and the Jews.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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