Charisma is ordinary: Weber, Rieff and the charismatic faith of biblical Israel

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This article examines critical assessments of Max Weber's influential writings on Judaism. It focuses primarily on criticisms of Weber articulated by American Jewish sociologist Philip Rieff (1922-2006) and his one-time teacher Edward Shils (1910-1995). In a posthumously published 2007 work entitled Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us, Rieff takes aim at Weber's concept of charisma. In doing so, he argues for a novel yet traditional understanding of the contribution of Judaism to Western culture. This article explores challenges to Weber from Rieff and Shils under three headings: the distinctiveness of the Jewish people; the nature of charisma; and covenant and prophets. It reviews Weber's writings on these subjects and argues that Rieff correctly identifies ways in which Weber's concept of charisma remains beholden to Protestant thought and a mode of inquiry that obscures and opposes key aspects of Jewish self-understanding.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)155-178
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Jewish Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Religious studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory

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