Abstract

The question of Dostoevsky and the Jews has provoked controversy from the 1870s to the present. Dostoevsky’s essay “The Jewish Question,” published in the March 1877 issue of his Diary of a Writer, portrays Jews as implacable enemies of the Russian people and yet calls for their full rights. The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80) directly refers to the 1878-9 ritual murder trial in Kutaisi (a city in Georgia, part of the Russian empire at that time). Although the Jewish defendants were acquitted, when Lise Khokhlakova asks Alyosha whether Jews torture Christian children, he replies that he does not know. Some critics defend Alyosha’s agnosticism; others judge him and his creator more harshly. Scholars have used psychoanalysis, theology, and semiotics to explain Dostoevsky’s beliefs about Jews. For Leonid Grossman, Dostoevsky’s portrait of Isai Bumshtein in Notes from the House of the Dead (1860-2) is sympathetic, whereas “The Jewish Question” is anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, Grossman argues, the Hebrew Bible - especially the prophets and the Book of Job - provided a source for Dostoevsky’s philosophy. Grossman argues that Dostoevsky’s attacks against Jews should be balanced against his humanism and sense of justice, both derived from the Hebrew Bible. Dostoevsky had “profound respect for the ‘great nation’ that brought humankind the idea of universal brotherhood.” Gary Rosenshield draws a different conclusion. Dostoevsky did not merely derive his ideas from Judaism. Dostoevsky saw Judaism and Jewry as rivals of Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian people. As Rosenshield explains, there can only be one “chosen people,” and the Russian people, according to Dostoevsky, played that role. Since the Russian people were chosen, “Dostoevsky must react with outrage to the exploitation [they] suffered.” In contrast, Susan McReynolds argues that Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism stemmed from Christian theology. Dostoevsky challenged the foundation of Christianity because he rejected the “salvation economy” on which it rests. Salvation depends on Jesus’s sacrifice, which, according to McReynolds, Dostoevsky saw in heretical terms as a “child sacrifice.” Dostoevsky, like Ivan Karamazov, did not believe that the many should be redeemed by the sacrifice of a child. McReynolds explains that the author associated God the Father, who sacrifices his son, with Jews, while identifying God the self-sacrificing Son with the Russian people, who meekly accepted their role.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDostoevsky in Context
PublisherCambridge University Press
Pages122-130
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9781139236867
ISBN (Print)9781107028760
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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  • Cite this

    Murav, H. (2016). Jews, race, and biology. In Dostoevsky in Context (pp. 122-130). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139236867.015