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The Non-Jewish Jew

Lawrence Bush
April 2, 2017

Isaac Deutscher, biographer of both Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, was born near Cracow, Poland on this date in 1907. Raised in a khasidic milieu, he was a child prodigy in Torah and Talmud but at the age of 13 he “tested God” by eating treyf food at the grave of a holy man on Yom Kippur, and became an atheist. A journalist, essayist, and poet, Deutscher joined the Polish Communist Party in 1926, but was expelled six years later for criticising Stalinism. At the start of World War II, he moved to England, where he wrote for The Observer and became the chief European correspondent for The Economist. In 1958, Deutscher wrote The Non-Jewish Jew, in which he affirmed the abiding influence of Judaism on his intellectual life and politics, and considered the creative role played in history by Jewish heretics from Elisha ben Abuya to Karl Marx to Leon Trotsky, all shaped by Jewish particularist-universalist tensions. Critical of Zionism but sympathetic towards Israel’s reason for being, Deutscher became an influential figure on American college campuses during the anti-Vietnam War years before dying at age 60 in 1967.

"A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man’s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds." --Isaac Deutscher

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.