“Historicizing Weininger: The Nineteenth-Century German Image of the Feminized Jew” by Ritchie Robertson

Reference: "Modernity, Culture, and 'the Jew'" by way of Google Books

Otto Weininger’s notorious best-seller Sex and Character (Geschlect und Charakter, 1903) was probably one of the most influential doctoral theses ever written. It was admired by Strindberg, Karl Kraus, Kafka, Broch, Musil, Doderer, Schoenberg and Wittgenstein.1 Some of its notoriety came from the fact that a few months after completing it the 23-year-old Weininger performed a dramatic suicide in the Vienna house where Beethoven had died. But it also told contemporaries something they wanted to hear. It appealed to its readers as a backlash against the nascent women’s movement and by offering a gendered definition of modernity. Modern culture, according to Weininger, has been so thoroughly feminized that women now dictate the terms of masculinity. The women’s movement is largely a front behind which women impose on modern culture a mindless sexuality opposed to all the true cultural achievements which are the work of man. And here the influence of women coincides with that of Jews. Both are working to degrade modern culture, to undermine the achievements of the male, Aryan mind and spirit, and to press the claims of the erotic, female and Jewish body.

The idea that modern civilization is Judaized has a long history in anti-semitic polemic.2 It extends from Marx’s denunciation of the Jewish huckster as the characteristic figure of modern capitalism and Wagner’s polemics against the ‘Jewish’ commercialization of the arts to Wilhelm Marr’s racialist portrayal of a society infested with Jewish influence and Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s vivid picture of a racial chaos, stirred up by Jews infiltrating gentile society, that is threatening to swamp the few remaining islands of pure Aryan identity. The nexus between conceptions of Jewishness and of femininity, however, is less familiar. My purpose here is to trace the history of Weininger’s identification of Jews as essentially feminine.

The key text is Weininger’s thirteenth chapter, which maintains with perverse ingenuity that the Jews as a people are predominantly feminine. Jews, like women, lack the Kantian intelligible self and capacity for reason. Hence the Jews’ aversion to the state as an association of rational beings, their attachment to the family and their attraction to Communism with its community of goods. Property (Eigentum) is connected with individuality (Eigenart), but Jews are not individuals. The Jew has no self and hence no self-respect: hence there cannot be a Jewish gentleman, just as women have no real dignity. Instead, Jews display insecurity and pushiness. Admittedly, they also resemble women in relatively seldom committing crimes. But this merely shows that Jews and women have a deficient moral sense: being amoral, they cannot rise even to immorality. Women’s taste for matchmaking corresponds to the Jewish use of the male marriage-broker. Both Jew and woman are adaptable, being without any intrinsic character; but while the woman is passively pliable, the Jew is active, indeed aggressive, in assimilating himself. Both have put their stamp on modern civilization, which is Jewish and feminine. And whichever of Weininger’s basic feminine types–the mother or the whore–she embodies, the Jewish woman is the woman par excellence: ‘no woman in the woman represents the idea of woman so completely as the Jewess.’3 The Jew is sexually obsessed, but without true masculinity: ‘The Jew is always more lustful and sensual, although less sexually potent than the Aryan man.’4

Weininger’s book gains its plausibility from lending a systematic, quasi-scientific character to the assumptions about gender and race that its readers already took for granted. Stereotypes of gender interacted with those of race. But the word ‘stereotype’, implying a static visual image, seems unsatisfactory. For gender identity is not static but relational. The sexual terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ denote intrinsic qualities which can be described in biological terms, but ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are realized in relation to others: the same male person may feel and be considered masculine in relation to some people and feminine in relation to others.5 So it would be best to say that here Weininger applies simultaneously two models of male Jewish gender identity in relation to the masculinity of gentiles. One is a surplus model: the Jew has more sexuality than the gentile male, though his sexuality (‘more lustful and sensual’) is not under rational or ethical control; the other is a deficit model: the Jew has less sexuality, i.e. less potency, than the gentile male. Both models can be interpreted as ascribing femininity to the Jew: a femininity equated with sensuality, or a femininity defined negatively as lack of male potency.6 Pursuing the interplay between categories of gender and race,  Jacques Le Rider has illustrated ways in which thought about sexual and racial difference in turn-of-the-century Vienna was structured by the triangle ‘masculine — feminine — Jew’. The male Jew could be imagined as unmanly, as located between the masculine and the feminine.7

This complex of taken-for-granted assumptions gains a specious plausibility from the fact that analogies between women and Jews are not found solely in the sphere of the imaginary. There is a clear parallel between women and Jews, as Hans Mayer has shown, in the history of their search for acceptance in a European society which long required them to suppress their ‘otherness’ and conform to the male and gentile paradigm of humanity.8 It would be naive to suppose that stereotypes bear no relation to reality. But the elements of empirical truth they contain should perhaps be seen as similar to factual data included in works of fiction: as devices that lend verisimilitude to an essentially fictional structure. To historicize the notion of the feminized Jew, it is necessary to inquire, not directly into nineteenth-century history, but into the nineteenth-century imaginary.

Although the ‘feminized Jew’ appears distinctly only in the nineteenth century, the analogy between Jews and women, and their exclusion from European standards of manhood, always lies ready to hand. Jews’ abstention from warfare could be understood as excluding them from aggressive masculinity: Spinoza hints at this in saying that ‘the principles of their religion make them effeminate.’9 Nor could they practise those virtues gendered as male. In Richard Cumberland’s philosemitic play The Jew (1794), the mercernary Christian merchant asks the Jew Sheva, whose obsequious (feminine) manner conceals his charitable nature: ‘What claim have you to generosity, humanity, or any manly virtue?’10 An old tradition, found in the MIddle Ages, asserts that male as well as female Jews mensturate; as late as 1789 the Abbé Grégoire in his Essai sur la régénération physique, moral et politique des Juifs, thinks it necessary to deny this superstition, ascribing it to haemorrhoids.11 More oddly, Grégoire also remarks: ‘Almost all have scanty beards, a common mark of effeminate temperaments.’12 But effeminacy, and indeed sexual slurs in general, are not a prominent part of popular antisemitism before the twentieth century. The language of nineteenth-century antisemitic treatises and pamphlets has been minutely examined: it very occasionally accuses the male Jew of lechery, but never of effeminacy.13

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, we find the stereotype of the sensual Jewish woman. In some respects she serves as model for the notion of the feminized Jew. Her ancestry includes such belles juives as Shakespeare’s Jessica and Scott’s Rebecca.14 When she emerges in nineteenth-century Germany, however, her character is also based on the descriptions of women in idealist philosophy. Here the more differentiated portrayals of women in the works of Goethe and Schiller is replaced by a view of them as deficient in character, pliant, dependent on men. Kant describes women as hopelessly dependent on others and hence, with very few exceptions, incapable of exhibiting character.15 Fichte goes much further: nature and reason require a woman to submit absolutely to a man, to yield up her individuality and be rewarded by man’s magnanimity. For Schopenhauer, women have limited rational powers and compensate for their physical weakness by instinctive deception; a truthful and genuine woman is an impossibility.16

In the writings of sexual emancipation by the ‘Young German’ writers of the 1830s, we find the Jewish woman presented as the most sensual and therefore the most feminine woman. The best example occurs in the scandalous novel Wally the Skeptic (1835) by Karl Gutzkow. Tame though it seems now, this novel was outspoken enough to provoke the German Federal Diet to ban all further publications by the six main Young German writers. Its semi-emancipated heroine Wally reflects that she, as a Christian, is a self-divided character, oppressed by the unattainable moral standards required in her religion. By contrast, her Jewish friend Delphine is a unified character whose emotional, sensual nature is not yet sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought, and thus, in Wally’s opinion, a typical Jewish woman. ‘In the case of a Jewess everything is reduced one-sidedly to love, there are no second thoughts: her love is entirely vegetative in its nature, oriental, as though confined in the hot-house of a harem which permits everything, every game, every feminine (but sensual and moving) instinctive action, everything, everything: and therefore Delphine is filled with love.’17 In calling Delphine oriental, Gutzkow introduces the familiar western image of the sensual oriental woman, the odalisque. Another writer affected by the federal ban, Heine, introduces a similar oriental woman into his great poem of fantasy Atta Troll: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1847). In a visionary episode, the narrator beholds three supernatural women riding past: the Greek goddess Diana, the Celtic fairy Abunde, and the Jewish Herodias. The last appeals to him intensely, eliciting an acknowledgment of his Jewishness and attracting him partly by her sadistic play with John the Baptist’s head, tossing and catching it like a ball. Heine is convinced that she had John killed because she loved him. Here the Jewish woman is again established as ultra-feminine, but that now means that she is a femme fatale.18

To continue reading, please click here.