On the Schlemiel, Max Weber’s Notion of the Ethical Effect of Religion, and the Charisma of Goodness


Goodness is an important aspect of the schlemiel’s character. In The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse argues that the schlemiel is a simpleton who clings to goodness and humility; and in the incarnation of the schlemiel we find in secular writers, such as I.B. Singer, Wisse tells us that the trace of the religious schlemiel can be found in the fact that the schlemiel, like I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, acts “as if” the good exists.     The root of the schlemiel’s secular goodness is religious since it was, according to Wisse, first found in the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. They provided the first literary treatment of the schlemiel. And according to Ruth Wisse and David Roskies, this influenced the Yiddish writers.

The religious aspect of goodness is something that was of great interest to Max Weber. In a chapter entitled “The Different Roads to Salvation,” from his book The Sociology of Religion, Max Weber argues that, in religion, the “occasional devotion induced by ritual” can be “escalated into a continuing piety.” The “effort is made, “ by the religious subject, to “incorporate this piety into everyday living.” And when it does, it “readily takes on a mystical character”(152).   But the “disposition to mysticism” is unique since it is an “individual charisma.”   What interests Weber most is how this kind of piety, which results in a “disposition to mysticism,” “ultimately leads away from rational activity”(152). We find this in “mystery cults.” We also find this, argues Weber, in Christianity.

The only religion to pursue goodness without totally fleeing from rational activity is Judaism.   The “ritual activity” of Judaism has a different “ethical effect” because it requires that “participants be specially schooled.”

The fulfillment of ritual commandments required of the laity some active ritual behavior….became so systematized into a comprehensive body of law that adequate understanding of it required special schooling….Even in antiquity, pious Jews had been led to equate persons unschooled in the law with the godless. (154)

The “social achievement” of “the works of salvation,” here learning, are “primarily social achievements” since they prompted the average Jew to be educated if he or she was to be observant.

For Weber, goodness needs to be demonstrated. Weber, turning to Judaism and Christianity, argues that a “charisma of goodness” occurs when a person’s actions of “love for one’s fellow man” is “demonstrated.” This demonstration is not possible without “ethical systemization.”   He associates the demonstration of such goodness with “a religious total personality.” It may be regarded as a “divine gift.” But it can also “be acquired through training in goodness.” And this is informed by a “rationalized, methodical direction of the their pattern of life, not an accumulation of single, unrelated actions.”

All charismatic goodness is based on a ritualistic system. Weber argues that the monotheistic system is based on the “transcendence of particular desires and emotions of raw human nature which had not hitherto been controlled by religion.” The task of the sociologist of religion is to “determine for each particular religion whether it regarded cowardice, brutality, selfishness, sensuality, or some natural drive as the one most prone to divert the individual from his charismatic character”(163).

This is what Weber calls the “ethic of the virtuosi.”   And “like magical charisma, it also needs demonstration by the virtuosi.” It is not “demonstrated” by the majority of the observant. After listing several different kinds of virtuosi – ranging from those found in the monks of Christianity, Buddhism, or in Islam – he writes the greatest novelty of demonstration: “this holds true of the legalism of the Pharasaic Jew and the aconomistic goodness of such persons as St. Frances.”

The “certainty of sanctification” is supported by the “upholding of religious and ethical standards.” And “salvation may be viewed as a distinctive gift of active ethical behavior performed in the awareness that god directs his behavior, i.e. the actor is an instrument of god”(164).

What is fascinating about this charisma of goodness, for Weber, is that it would not exist were it not for the fact that is rationalized in a ritualistic system. One wonders what he would say about the piety that is associated with the Hasidic notion of simplicity and smallness. Does the schlemiel – just like the Rebbe or righteous Jew – “demonstrate” goodness? What does it mean that the schlemiel doesn’t know if God is directing his behavior? What does it mean that, against the Pharsaic Jew that Weber talks about (who shares much in common with the Mitnagdim; meaning, “those against: the Hasidic movement,” which was thought by many Mitnagdim to be heretical in its purported rejection of halacha – Jewish law) –the Hasidic Jew does not find his primary way to god through education?

The schlemiel’s simplicity seems to go against the grain of Judaism. He would be regarded by the Mitnagdim as an “am ha’aretz” (or “idiot,” the Rabbinic figure of the unlearned person)(163). As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav well knew, the simpleton-slash- schlemiel marks a Hasidic challenge to the rationalist Rabbinic correlation of learnedness and goodness.   Nonetheless, there is still a “charisma of goodness” that attends the schlemiel. And it has a popular affect because it is so common. It also finds its way into Kafka’s fiction. As Hannah Arendt notes, there is a simplicity in his characters who are “common men” who have “good will.”   Unfortunately, the man of good will – the simpleton – cannot find a place in a world which is obsessed with functionality and the proper.

The schlemiel and its “charisma of goodness” have broken through of the boundaries set up by what Max Weber would call the “system of ritual” and “education” – which is germane to Judaism. The schlemiel has been secularized and Americanized. It has found its way into popular culture. As learning and ritual have – in large part – passed away from the daily life of the everyday Jew, we can understand how this trait of goodness, which has a Hasidic root, lives on in the secular schlemiel. Whether the schlemiel is played by Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Amy Shumer, ethical charisma lives on. However, this goodness is related more to being an American Jew than to Judaism. But, over time, the ethical goodness of the schlemiel has become more about being an American.

The only thing missing from this kind of sociological analysis is the fact that no thought is given to the possibility that goodness is not merely a sociological affect. Weber’s analysis lacks a philosophical sense of why or goodness can work – as it does with the schlemiel – despite ritual or the demonstration of a religious system. The possibility of faith or hope is made possible  for many in our socially mediated culture  by the schlemiel.  Its charisma of goodness – if that is the right word – is actually something much more comedic.

I’ll leave you with this question. Would you call Seth Rogen’s goodness charismatic? Is he inspiring people to do good? And does the trace of goodness, which we find in his work and has traveled far from its source, originate in the Hasidic schlemiel? Does it inspire something salvic? Does it prompt one to have hope? Does Seth Rogen, as Ruth Wisse might say, act “as if” good exists in a world that has become cynical?  Has Jewish comedy – by way of the schlemiel – produced what Max Weber calls a “breakthrough”(made in reference to Paul’s revision of the messianic in the name of Christianity, p259)  insofar as it has transformed  a religious kind of goodness into a secular one?  Or does a religious figure lose its charisma when it is secularized?  Either way, Rogen comes across as a somewhat endearing “bro” character whose goodness, however, is not associated with any religious system.










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