Dialogue between Judaism and Christianity in George Steiner (Christophe Herzog)


George Steiner  is «a secular Jew […] on reading terms with the major Christian theologian and writers […]. As a Jew he combines knowledge of things Jewish with an unusual sensitivity to things Christian.»[1]


George Steiner’s work can be considered a long soliloquy, sometimes criticized for its excessive assertiveness, obsessivity and rhetoricity. In it, style arguably compensates for argumentative lack. However, the overwhelming amount of critical response to it unambiguously expresses its dialogical potential beyond mere ephemeral polemics. Therefore, nowadays no sound approach to his thinking can omit the relevance of a dialogical principle[2] at work in his writings. Such a principle involves three different layers (religious, cultural and literary) which are always invoked by Steiner, and whose interaction he always strongly avows for.

First of all, religion is a constant concern throughout Steiner’s career. Directly or implicitly, he continuously interrogates himself and Western civilization about the possibility of any ethic or aesthetic proposal of meaningful existence and experience (including therefore both life and art) after the Shoah. In his theory or redefinition of culture, a particular idea is obsessively repeated:


It will not, I believe, be possible for European culture to regain its inward energies, its self-respect, so long as Christendom is not made answerable to its own seminal role in the preparation of the Shoah (the Holocaust); so long as it does not hold itself to account for its cant and impotence when European history stood at midnight. In one perspective, such questions are of another dimension than those which pertain to literacy. In another, they are inseparable.[3]


Such a declaration needs not be read as an accusation, but rather as an injunction or a cry for the necessity of dialogue, as the choice of the word «answerable» instead of responsible suggests.

I therefore intend to interpret Steiner’s redefinition of culture as the expression of a want of dialogue and to observe how he himself tries to face the challenge he sets on European culture in his conception of literary language. To him, words and texts are inhabited and manifest “presences”. Yet he insists on denying any of the interpretative theories we can associate with the linguistic turn of the XXth  century the ability to account for those inherent presences. Only a consideration of underlying religious forms of textuality within our approach to the text can provide us with the tools to detect those presences. Particularly, within the Western world, Steiner posits that our interpretative methods are still determined by Jewish and Christian exegetical practices.[4] While differing in their premises and subsequent approach to the notion of presence, both traditions are now, especially since the Shoah, faced with the hermeneutic dilemma.[5]

According to Steiner, when apprehending literary meaning, during the process of reading, both the Judaic presumption of presence in which a living dialogue can take place and a Christian predisposition towards an encounter with a real presence cohabit.[6] The dialogical principle therefore becomes action and practice. Steiner’s own works of literary criticism display a practical translation of this theoretical principle. In Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, e.g., the subtitle voices the revindication of a particular genre and method (“An Essay in the Old Criticism”) while a “dialogue in the living presence” of the author is announced by the title. This can be interpreted, within Steiner’s terminology, as a Judaic rooted approach. Nevertheless, throughout most of the text of his first major works, Steiner’s focus is set more on the relationship between the author and his characters than on the author himself. Moreover, it is through this relationship that the author’s presence emerges and is eventually communicated. On the other hand, in Antigones Steiner’s perspective shifts towards the mythical character to whom Steiner attributes a real presence in an analogically Christian sacramental sense, beyond the unending and unachieved series of rewritings and reinterpretations it keeps giving birth to. Yet, once again, it is not the character in herself which constitutes the object of the book, but its reinvention or recreation through the work of authors, philosophers, translators and critics. Thus, within the interpersonal process by which a mythical figure comes to exist as a semantic relationship, we glimpse something like a synthesis of Judaic and Catholic textualities at work.

My assumption is that such dialogue is possible because Steiner’s perspective is profoundly personalist. One could nevertheless asks why he somehow needs or feels compelled to turn to Christian concepts at a certain stage of his career. He justifies it himself by his sense of a “blind zone” or limit, deriving from the iconoclasm and legalist rationalism that characterize the work of Jewish scholars in the XXth century[7]. As he indicates, all the protagonists of the Sprachkrise (Kraus, Chomsky, Wittgenstein, Jakobson, Derrida) «have been Jews or of Jewish origins.» Together with Freud, Marx and Lévi-Strauss, «modern Judaism has mutinied against its patriarchal-paternalistic legacy of textual prepotence» and thus denied its identity as People of the Book. Once the existence of God, of beginnings and the equations between name and substance are put in question, any text loses its potential to be a “dialogue in the living presence” and does not carry any intentionality. The very process of meaning, namely that by which meaning generates meaning, is undermined. Precisely in order to restore meaning to meaning Steiner summons Christianity through the borrowing of the real presence concept.

As readers we thus face two Steiners: a theoretician of culture who insists on pointing at an apparently unsolvable problem at the roots of our contemporary “post-culture” (a problem that excludes all “final” solutions but constantly confesses its need to be unfolded in constructive dialogue) whereas, on the other hand, his practice of literary criticism faces it directly to the extent of integrating it into his method. The encounter with meaning thus necessarily implies an encounter with the other, since it is through the Christian interface of the real presence that the verb “to be” can be re-attributed some sort of content. Literary reception and experience are thus granted back characteristics such as an apprehension of presence, a living in the presence as dialogical existence, which properly belong to the field of religion and, originally, to Biblical Judaism (the historical common trunk of both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism).

Steiner’s transdisciplinary prose enacts a deep interreligious dialogue of which his persona becomes the stage. A stage that metonymically represents our culture, within which a religious polyphony takes place. Instead of deconstruction, what we hear at work in his apparently monological prose is a dramatic and agonic attempt at reconstruction of what should properly be called a Judeo-Christian approach to meaning. No doubt that read in this way, Steiner’s work constitutes a precious contribution to the dialogical and transdisciplinary humanistic vision of culture avowed by Pope Francis in Veritatis Gaudium. So be it, for the «love for truth» (Evangelii Gaudium, 250).




[1] R. P. Carroll: «Toward a Grammar of Creation: On Steiner the Theologian» in Scott, Nathan Jr. and R. A. Sharp (eds.), Reading George Steiner, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1994, pp. 267-269.

[2] .See T. Todorov, Mikahïl Bakhtine. Le principe dialogique. Paris: Seuil, 1981.

[3] See the 1996 preface to No Passion Spent Essays 1978-1996. London: Faber and Faber, 1996

[4] G. Steiner. Real Presences. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 41-44: «In Judaism, unending commentary and commentary upon commentary are elemental. Talmudic exegesis exfoliates into uninterrupted study of and commentary on the Talmud. […] Hermeneutic unendingness and survival in exile are, I believe, kindred. […]This reading without end represents the foremost guarantee of Jewish identity. […] The rabbinic answer to the dilemma of the unending commentary is one of moral action and enlightened conduct. […] Note the radical difference between Catholic and Judaic textuality. There is no temporal singularity, no enigma of historicity […] in the Judaic sense of the Creation and of the Mosaic reception and transmission of the Law. There is a strict, utterly mysterious temporality in the coming and ministry of Christ. […] To achieve finalities of meaning one must punctuate (the very term is that of the ‘full stop’).»

[5] G. Steiner: «The Long Life of Metaphor» EncounterFebruary 1987, pp. 55-61: «In Christian theology, the question as to whether there is a mode of human language in which to speak adequately of God is a classical and perennial motif. […] In Judaism, this problem of linguistic epistemology or hermeneutic theology, has not been prominent. Indeed, the very notion of “theology”, in the post-Pauline, post Johannine, and post Augustinian sense, has no real counterpart in Jewish religious feeling. The most authentic and lasting strength in Jewish sensibility is not a reflection or metaphysical discourse on the nature and attributes of God, but rather a “living in His presence”. From Abraham onward, there has been a covenant of dialogue between the believing Jew and God. In this dialogue, the problem of language does not really obtrude. As, perhaps, in no other faith, the God of Abraham and Moses, and those whom He has chosen to speak to, individually and as a community, share the same language. We can almost define the language-world of Judaism in relation to God as one of idiomatic affinity. One of the consequences of the Shoah (the Holocaust) is to have transported (violently, irreparably) into Judaism, both religious and secular, the hermeneutic dilemma.»

[6] G. Steiner. Real Presences, op. cit., pp. 214-215: «This essay argues a wager on transcendence. It argues that there is in the art-act and its reception, that there is in the experience of meaningful form, a presumption of presence. […] These convictions are, as current linguistic philosophy puts it […] “verification transcendent”. […] There is a sense in which no human discourse, however analytic, can make final sense of sense itself. But my wager must be made more specific. I am wagering, both in a Cartesian and a Pascalian vein, on the informing pressure of a real presence in the semantic markers which generate Oedipus the King or Madame Bovary.»

[7] See G. Steiner, «A Responsion», in Scott, Nathan Jr. and R. A. Sharp, op. cit., pp. 280-281: «the legacy of iconoclasm, of juridical rationalism in Judaism inhibits an idiom that endeavours to come nearer the transcendent possibility, the otherness of informing unreason in the arts. In trying to hammer out some perception, however rudimentary, into the paradoxes of real presence as we meet with them in the aesthetic, I found myself resorting to the pulse of metaphor, to the analytics of mystery in the Augustinian, Thomist, and Pascalian semantics and aura.»


Christophe Herzog is a PhD Student in Contemporary Humanism at Lumsa University (curriculum Literature). Paper presented at the Conference “Dialogo a tutto campo” organised by the Catholic Forum Roma.