Rabbi David Ellenson on "Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic , and the Spirit of Divestment" - NY Jewish Week April 22, 2005 - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

Rabbi David Ellenson on "Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic , and the Spirit of Divestment" - NY Jewish Week April 22, 2005

Main Content
Friday, April 1, 2005

by David Ellenson, President HUC-JIR 

Recent news reports indicate that the decision made by the Presbyterian Church (USA) last July "to be a responsible agent" in the world and advocate a policy of "phased selective divestment" from Israel continues to guide the leadership of this mainline Protestant denomination despite the efforts of Jewish groups and many Presbyterians themselves to reverse this divestment proposal. Furthermore, in February, the Geneva-based Protestant World Council of Churches (WCC) - the major ecumenical voice of the world's mainline Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches - chose to express strong support for this Presbyterian stance. In its resolution, the WCC praised the Presbyterian Church for following the directive of Luke 19:42 to work for "things that make for peace." 

The WCC also lauded the Palestinians for having brought about "positive change in the face of injustice" and noted that recent Palestinian elections have built "a momentum for peace." No such words of praise were forthcoming for Israel, and no historical or present-day factors that might have at least provided some context for an Israeli understanding of how the current situation came to be were mentioned. 

One can only conclude from such silence that the WCC does not believe that recent Israeli governmental policy regarding disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank represents a positive step toward peace in the region. Indeed, the explicit pronouncements of the WCC that denounce Israel for the occupation and for the construction of a "dividing wall," as well as the Presbyterian leaders' refusal to reverse their position, signal their joint judgment that the sole cause of the current conflict and the predominant impediment to peace between Israelis and Palestinians remains the governmental policy of the Jewish state itself. 

For students of Western intellectual history, the timing of such liberal Protestant declarations against Israel are infused with no small irony. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" by the great German Protestant sociologist Max Weber. Weber wrote that Judaism had given birth to a prophetic ethic of moral rationalism that had decisive consequences for the course of modern civilization. In his famed work, he put forth the judgment that the "rationalization of life" that came to fruition in the West through the "Protestant Ethic" - the influence and teachings of Calvinism and Puritanism - had its roots in ancient Judaism. 

While Judaism held an honored place in the cultural and economic history Weber wrote of the West, he nevertheless composed an occidental narrative that reflected his distinct unease with both Judaism and Jews. Weber charged that Judaism attached the truth claims of "moral rationalism" too closely to the narrow nationalistic concerns of the Jewish people. Ancient Judaism bound God's will to a specific ethnic group. In a telling passage on the seminal role that Christianity played in the development of a universal Western ethic, Weber wrote that it was the early Church - particularly through the teachings of Paul - that succeeded in breaking through the stifling tribalism of Judaism. As a result, the universalism inherent in prophetic teaching could now be unleashed. It was Christianity that transcended what Weber regarded as the tribal confines of Judaism. Christianity universalized Jewish moral teachings so they could be made available to the entire world. 

Weber was puzzled as well by the behavior of the Jews themselves. As a liberal, Weber desired the Jew to participate fully in the civic and cultural life of Germany. In his view, modern Jews, even as they acculturated, remained too committed to their own community by refusing to abandon their identity as Jews. Continued Jewish insistence upon "Jewish particularity" - Jewry's "self-segregation" as what he labeled a "pariah people" - disturbed Weber, who felt that the most appropriate Jewish response to the modern setting ought to have been full Jewish assimilation into German society. The ongoing commitments Jews displayed toward Judaism and their own community of hereditary origins upset as well as perplexed Weber, and his writings on Judaism and Jews reflect this underlying ire. 

The one-sided indictments the World Council of Churches and Protestant groups like the Presbyterian Church (USA) have hurled recently against the State of Israel echo the ire Weber put forth when he complained about the "narrowness" of Judaism and protested the "particularity" of Jews a century ago. Their criticism of Israel and praise for the Palestinians is evocative of certain malevolent ancient sentiments. Even when Israel clearly accepts compromises and makes overtures for peace, they are dismissed and ignored. The WCC portrays Israel as incapable of transcending its "Weberian particularism." In contrast, all positive Palestinian actions are applauded as meaningful initiatives for peace. 

As Protestant councils and denominations go forth with their deliberations on "the things that make for peace" in the Middle East, they should be mindful of the unfairness inherent in this particular "Protestant account" of Judaism and the Jews. Protestant leaders today should not repeat the bias attached to these teachings. Indeed, should they desire to escape such prejudice, they would be able to construct a description of the problems and challenges that confront both Jews and Palestinians in this region of the world in an equitable way. Should they do so, they would avoid perpetuating the intolerance that marred Weber and display a Protestant faith that actually asserts the equal worth and dignity of all religions and all people in this region - including Judaism and the Jews. 

Rabbi David Ellenson is president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu