Power and the Messiah
A Conversation: Zvi Ben-Dor Benite and Uri S. Cohen. A conversation among authors, scholars, and sages about history, power, and the Messiah. Starting with Walter Benjamin’s distinction between “weak” and “strong”
A Conversation: Zvi Ben-Dor Benite and Uri S. Cohen.
A conversation among authors, scholars, and sages about history, power, and the Messiah. Starting with Walter Benjamin’s distinction between “weak” and “strong” messianic forces and history, this program presents three Italy-related stories.
We begin with Primo Levi, and his writing of the concentration camp presented in negative messianic terms: Auschwitz as an uncanny messianic state of power, a utopia/dystopia. Couched in his words is a reflection on the turbulent relationship with modern Jewish power that never ceased to trouble him.
Forming bridges across time and space, the conversation goes back to early 16th-Century Italy and explores two examples of imagined “strong” messianic power. The first is the book Yeshuout Meshicho (The Salvation of His Anointed, Italy 1497), Don Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel’s angry polemic against Christianity and, in effect, against history and the world. Writing after the expulsion from Spain, Don Isaac presents a new version of world history and the place of Jews in it, restoring power to the Messiah.
The third story is about the Messianic pretender David HaReubeni–a dubious figure claiming royalty and a sizeable Jewish army who appeared in Rome in 1523 and presented Pope Clement VII with a war plan against Islam. To some of his contemporaries, this episode signaled the return of Jewish power from the regions of myth to actuality.
Walter Benjamin discussed the figure of the messiah in his last essay Theses on the Philosophy of History, written while and attempting a desperate escape from Vichy’s France before taking his own life on September 26, 1940.
Living through the collapse of all hope for the progressive consciences of Europe under the rise to power of Fascism and Nazism, in his Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin criticized historicism and a notion of the past as a continuum of progress. Rather, he sees past and present in multi-directional relation to one another “for every second of time is the strait gate through which Messiah might enter.”
Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is a Professor in the Department of History, the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, and (by courtesy) in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. He is the author of Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China (Harvard, 2005), The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford 2009). He is co-editor of Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought Writings on Identity, Politics, and Culture (Brandeis, 2013), and of The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept (Columbia 2018).
Professor Uri S. Cohen teaches Hebrew and Italian literature at Tel Aviv University, where he moved from Columbia University on a reverse brain drain grant. He works on comparative literatures and civil wars. He is the author of: Survival: Senses of Death between the World Wars in Italy and Palestine and The Security Style in Hebrew Letters. In addition, he has written extensively on Primo Levi, including the recent Primo Levi between Literature and the World. He is a co-founder of the fintech startup FUGU and is currently working on a counter-biography: The Essential Primo Levi.