“The Economy of Salvation”: Religion, Economy and Conflict

June 12, 2018

On Sunday - Monday, 10-11 of June, SICSA  held a colloquium titled: The Economy of Salvation: Religion, Economy, and Conflict.

The term ‘economy’ is mostly used for designating the system of exchange between people. Yet limiting its resonance to the material realm often conceals the social, cultural and theological significances embedded in economic behavior and norms. Looked upon from idealist Weberian perspective, materialist Marxist perspective, or theological one, economy bears cardinal impact on the identity and place within society of both individuals and collectives. It is therefore no coincidence that economic prejudices loom in racist approaches, from ancient times to our days.

Economy figures out not only in the construction of self-identity – and consequently of Otherness – but also in the conception of social utopia. Religious visions of redemption are tied with imageries of economy, aptly epitomized in the Christian concept of the “economy of salvation”, which we use as a convenient metaphor for the link of redemption and economy. This linkage retained its force in secular contexts as well: both Socialism and Capitalism envisioned the way to utopia through economic precepts. Economy is also often sought (with varying levels of success) as the middle way for conciliating violent conflicts – a pragmatic approach for reaching visionary ends, at times as a means for sidestepping religious collisions.

Certainly, the Jew is an archetype at the center of many of these processes, in the past as well as the present. As such, the Jewish case would serve as a springboard to a discussion that illuminates this broad and effective phenomenon, beyond the borders of Anti-Semitism. 

This forum seeks to shed light on the entanglement of religion, economy and conflict, by bringing together scholars from different fields who engage the subject using various methodologies and diverse case studies. This colloquium has two major intentions: bringing conceptual and theoretical perspectives together with the examination of concrete case studies, and creating a dialogue between historical and contemporary orientations of understanding conflicts.  Through this effort we will be better able to address past and present questions.  



Prof. Chad Alan Goldberg

“Why the Economy Is Not So Profane as We Might Think: Ecclesia and Synagoga in Modern Social Thought”

Even though sociologists of religion have questioned the secularization thesis, it continues to exert a surprising influence on contemporary thinking about the roots of social conflict. As philosopher Michael Walzer puts it, secular and materialist thinkers have “always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion” and therefore tend to regard “religious zealotry” as a “superstructural phenomenon” that “can only be explained by reference to the economic base.” From this perspective, poverty is the underlying cause of manifestly religious antagonism or violence, and the solution is either (in the radical version) anticapitalism and anti-imperialism or (in the neoliberal version) the pacifying effects of doux commerce, common markets, and economic integration. This perspective fails to appreciate the enduring though often concealed influence of religion, even in seemingly secular discourse about the social world. Drawing on my recently published monograph Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought, I argue that the historical opposition between Jews and Christians has served as a basis (partly unconscious and repressed) for the opposition between the traditional and the modern, as well as related dualisms derived from it. This argument is illustrated by two examples drawn from the book: debates over (1) modern capitalism in Wilhelmine Germany and (2) the State of Israel and “Zionism” in the present. In both cases, the historical relationship between Jews and Christians has served as a cultural code for distinguishing the traditional from the modern. The key question for the sociology of religion is therefore not whether modernity means secularization, but how the religious inheritance of the past structures our understandings of modernity. The paper concludes that recognition of this latent religious substrate may be necessary for the effective resolution of even seemingly secular conflicts.



Jonathan Karp

“Ghetto Economics and Jewish Emancipation”

This talk shows the key historical links between the image of Jews as a “ghetto” population and an economic identity that is insular, commercial, backward, yet powerful. The malleability and resilience of this linkage made it a central thread of analytic treatments of modern Jewish history from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

I begin with the locus classicus of ghetto economics: Simone Luzzatto’s 1638 Discorso on the Jews of Venice.  While I make short stops to discuss the reception of Luzzatto in late seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, my main focus is on the period of the 1890s to the 1940s, a period in which discourse by and about Jewish economic life remained preoccupied with the ghetto’s enduring legacy.  I look at three main instances in which the Jewish ghetto economy functions as the rhetorical engine that drives the analysis of Jewish emancipatory prospects. The first is Theodor Herzl’s historical discussion of the permanently disfiguring effects of ghetto economics on European Jewry’s social structure and status. The second is Abram Leon’s Marxist treatment of The Jewish Question, wherein the genocidal fate of the Jewish “people-class” (he wrote during World War II) was a direct result of its economic obsolescence in contemporary capitalist society. The third is the writings of the Chicago school of sociology, particularly Robert Ezra Park and his Jewish student, Louis Wirth, both of whom viewed the legacy of the Jewish ghetto experience as operating in profound if productive tension with American liberal economic institutions.        

As these examples suggest, Luzzatto’s depiction of an insular yet potent ghetto economy offered a profoundly suggestive basis for a range of analyses of Jews’ problematic confrontation with economic modernity.