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Excluding from Humanity: Through United Bears to the Palestinian Talmud Today

Pages 245-260
Published online: 11 Oct 2021


This essay articulates a structural feature and difficulty in the notion of universal humanism: the mechanism of inner exclusion. First, by discussing the historical paradigm of membership in “Israel,” a conceptual–theoretical description of inner exclusion comes into view. There then follows a comparative analysis of inner exclusions in three discourses: schematic universal humanism, exemplified in the art installation United Bears, Kant’s universal experience of sublime, and the Palestinian Talmud (PT) approach to the divine law. The PT model suspends the impulses of the universalization, let alone the unification of law. This suspension is excluded from within in Kant’s universalism of a fully citable law. The applied result of this essay is that historical inclusion of the Jews in universal humanity ignores the conditions that enabled their exclusion from humanity in the first place.


I would like to thank Elad Lapidot, Edouard Nadotchii, Ilya Dvorkin and Alexander Lvov for a series of productive conversations at various stages of my work on this research. I would also like to recognize the support of Gordon and Gretchen Gross Professorship in Jewish Thought in preparing the article for publication.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).


1 I understand “Israel” in the broadest sense, ranging from the biblical Jacob to Christian groups competing with what they summarily posit as the “Jews,” to other groups of religious or political faith taking part in such competition, to the modern state of Israel.

2 Is this example unique? Since many groups always compete for what Israel names and titles, the question of one Israel versus many Israels constitutes a paradox more complex than the Argo. Argo insolubly names and titles either one or more than one ship, and so is the case with Israel. Still, ships are only “whats” and lay no claims on their names. However, groups do compete for the core title.

3 I share Alon Confino’s call to go beyond racial imagination toward emotions and “phantasms” in explaining the Nazis’ advancement toward a nation and then a world without Jews. See: Confino, A World Without Jews. Along these lines, this essay gestures beyond studying the phantasms and emotions of the Nazis to explore the broader rationality (including the irrationality) of National Socialist thought and of its aftermath today, on which the notion of the inner exclusion offers a vista point.

4 Quoted from Wyss, Kain: Eine Phänomenologie und Psychologie des Bösen, 396.

5 Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, 3. I thank Steven Weiss for the reference.

6 Advanced from nonbelonging to the world altogether to an animal species, the Juden, although still nonhuman, paradoxically represent the universal humanity, even if only as universal animality. Agamben’s interpretation of “bare life” is not totally foreign to this approach.

7 Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt.

8 See: Gasché, Storytelling: The Destruction of the Inalienable.

9 The theological and the political converge at this point at the very core of the Nazi discourse. If existence, taken as independent of any definable essence, as it is in traditional theology, is associated primarily with G-d and only therefore is attributable to humans, then denying the Juden the divine image (see note 6) leads to denying them not only humanity, but also existence, as well. In this scheme of things, cockroaches might not exist, but are still entities/essences in the world. The Juden, by contrast are denied existence: denied the divine semblance, i.e. existence, the Juden, by contrast, are not only “a bad essence,” but also, in the very core of the Nazi discourse, do not exist, for theologically, existence is bestowed by the divine. A concrete political translation of that move was the task to alienate (entfernen, remove) the Juden from the world of the nations.

10 See, for example, Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism?

11 See: Gumbrecht, The Powers of Philology. Gumbrecht follows and is arguably subversive of similar and earlier views of Foucault (who in turn follows Heidegger).

12 For an analysis of the resulting “secularization” of Jewish existence and its crisis in the context of Western liberal society, see, for example, Mufti, “Critical Secularism,” 2–9; Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony; Raz-Krakotzkin, “There Is No God,” 71–6; Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion.

13 Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, Goy: Israel's Others and the Birth. Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi reconstruct the evolution of the category of the goy as a reflection of an ethnic and stable understanding of Jewish existence. This essay both builds upon and departs from their work in suggesting a different approach, which traces the ways in which the non-Jew became the rule according to which universal humanity is constructed. For a heuristic polemics around Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s work, see further: Dolgopolski, “The Poke Between or the Complex Negativity.”

14 See: Dolgopolski, “The Poke Between or the Complex Negativity.”

15 The schema for united humanity comes from the wildest of the possible candidates to resemble a human; it is least domesticated among other candidates – cats, dogs, horses, etc. Yet the bear is not a cockroach, either, for the bear is close enough to the general schema of the body of a human to do the work. This particular plastic bear happens to be a symbol of Berlin, thus intimating a connection of the united bears to World War II, as a visitor, at least this visitor, could clearly sense.

16 See his Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason, B 186, A 176. As part of “statuary laws” (idem) the Iranian and the Palestinian Talmuds alike would be viewed as documents of “political belief.” Such view misunderstands Jewish tradition by reducing it to a “religion.” Indeed, in this optics, Kant misunderstands the two Talmuds even before explicitly dismissing them as “political religion” (i.e. as statuary laws of “political belief.”) Batnitzky’s How Judaism Became a Religion, helps us see the mistake. The book describes the transformation of Jewish tradition into a “religion” in modernity. That helps explain how Kant misunderstands the Talmuds as late ancient texts, even before dismissing them as a “wrong” “religion” versus his “religion in the bounds of bare reason.” Paradoxically, misunderstood as “religion,” the two Talmuds provide a more powerful contrast and a clearer scope of what Kant excludes from within. His hope for or even demand of agreement, along with his closely connected assumption of the possibility that people can agree with the “maxim of your will,” tacitly exclude the Talmud’s sense of disagreement as telos, especially in its PT version of suspending the possibility to cite a divine law, per the reading below.

17 I have previously developed a series of descriptions leading to understanding the inner exclusion: a teleology of true disagreement in relation to the fifteenth-century Talmudic Aristotelianism; the well-structured uncertainty in relationship Talmudic Aristotelianism of the fourteenth century; and remembering the open past in relationship to the documents of the Iranian Talmud. This essay broaches an analysis of the Palestinian Talmud, where the teleology of disagreement manifests in what I will describe as the practice of suspending the possibility to cite divine law.

18 The fragment’s explicit theme, the role of a party’s will to exit from a marriage contract, may seem to be “statutory” in Kant’s terms. Yet as the analysis will show, the composition takes issue with the limits of “statutory” or in this case “cited” law in regulating the conflict of wills in the case.

19 pt Gittin 4:1 Sussman page 1066. Accessed via www.yerushalmidb.com. Accessed 23 December 2020.

20 The stakes might be of a case in which the now divorced woman sold the divorce obligation to the messenger for a part of the money.

21 Because any such clearly stated procedural rule can hardly be found in Scripture, the task of the characters in PT is both to cite such a rule and to formulate it as if for the first time. Remarkably, it becomes very hard to differentiate one from the other.

22 Such sensitivity is no longer in the Babylonian Talmud, where the main concern is in memorizing and defending the record of the rules, no longer in grappling with the very question of the possibility or impossibility of formulating such rules.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Sergey Dolgopolski

Sergey Dolgopolski is Professor at the Departments of Jewish Thought and Comparative Literature and Gordon and Gretchen Gross Professor of Jewish Thought at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.

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