Fact & Freud (The Totemic Father & Origin of Religion)


Something I realized last semester working through Totem and Taboo with graduate students runs counter to the usual argument that Freud had no evidence with which to posit totemism as the first form of religion, and to speculate that the origin of totemism lies in the murder of an archaic father by his sons. According to that well trodden story, they killed him because he was an all-powerful power hoarding all the women in the group, that after the parricide they felt guilt for killing the father whom they both hated and loved and hated, and they then recreated him as a god, placing the totem and the eating of totemic animal at the center of the psychic life of the group.

The usual line of argument against Freud’s theory is that it is what Evans-Pritchard in his book on “primitive religion” called a just-so-story. There is no supporting anthropological or archaeological evidence to buttress the theory, or so it is argued. Assuming that leaves one free to assess Freud’s in-credible story one way or the other on the merits of its status as a powerful work of fiction, a work of the imagination, a reflection of its author social position and mental constitution in fin de siècle Vienna.

But consider this alternative interpretation. Freud’s theory is not based upon the imagination as such. Rather, it is based upon knowing, or what the author believed he could know, which is good enough, and the most that any of us have to go on. Relying in Totem and Taboo on the best and most up to date “science” of his day, Freud had very good reason to come to these speculative conclusions about totemism and the origin of religion.

Follow the chain of reference, paying particular attention to two bits of what would have been understood at the time to constitute the empirical science propelling the psychoanalytic leap. The first piece of knowledge is from Darwin, from whom Freud knows about the existence of a primal horde at the starting point of human origins. The existence of the horde enjoys for Freud the status of firmly established knowledge. The second piece of evidence is William Robertson Smith’s Lectures on the Religion of the Semites from which Freud knows that totemism is the first and original religious form, and that eating the totemic meal is the first religious act.

So Freud believes that he knows for a fact that there was a primal horde and that totemism is the origin of religion. From the one “empirical” fact to the other “empirical” fact, it takes only rudimentary effort to come to the realization, which is the revelation of psychoanalysis. The totem is the symbol of the Father; the totem has be the symbol of the Father and can be nothing else, according to the findings of psychoanalysis, and that “eating” the ritual totemic meal is a violent act of symbolic remembrance to that original act of violence against the Father. Motive is established once one assumes that biological life and sex are irreducible, one to the other.

It takes what for us today is a little antiquarian digging to see how compelling the logic must have seemed. There is no other possible conclusion other than Freud’s once one knows premise “x” and premise “y” while assuming “z.” While from our perspective today it appears otherwise, Freud was not making this up out of whole cloth; he had no reason to think that that was what he was doing. Without that scientific and scholarly apparatus, the whole theory falls apart.

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Philip Roth (Ecce Homo)


Maybe it’s not much of an interview, but I’m still carrying around this bit with Philip Roth here in the New York Times Book Review. What I carry away is a form of expression entirely devoid of illusion regarding race, gender, and politics in America today, but also framed by life and death as viewed from the perspective of an eighty-five year old man. By “illusion” I mean the Freudian sense of wishes and wanting things to be okay, or better than the really are. Reading up on history, in particular on race in America and the Jewish experience in eastern Europe, there’s interesting shout outs to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People and Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, as well as to Steven Zipperstein’s forthcoming book on the Kishinev pogrom. Roth expresses himself here without that kind of illusion, but also with a simple pleasure about what it means, at his age, to go to sleep at night and wake up the next morning, alive. Is this Stoicism? For Jewish philosophy, there are lessons to be learned about writing with such simple moral clarity.


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New Materialism and the Study of Religion (Manuel Vásquez)


Manuel Vásquez’s More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion has pride of place in the fairly recent materialist turn in Religion Studies. The three keyterms are embodiment, emplacement, and practice (p.325). The force of the title is to take the focus off “belief” and to look at quotidian life, structures of feeling, everyday resistance, the production and circulation of religious goods, networks, media, and so on. I am unsure of the author’s claim to being agnostic about the supernatural (pp.1-3). Of note too is the criticism of social construction of reality theory and the linguistic turn (represented alternatively here by Geertz and Butler). The chief debt is to materialist feminists who have sought to use body, neurology, embeddeness, and nature as feminist figures of thought.

The book is a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, students of Judaism and I would imagine Islam and Hinduism, these being traditions in which beliefs sit alongside law and other ritual and other social and political structures, might find nothing particularly new in More than Belief. On the other hand, it could be argued that Religious Studies has historically placed a primacy on the figure of belief about the gods as the privileged key to understanding the phenomenon of religion. This may or may not be a Christian problem or a Protestant problem, although Vásquez takes pains to complicate that picture. Rather than Christianity per se, the actual stumbling block to a materialist conception of religion remains, after all these years, Descartes. The royal road of the new materialism in Religion Studies is paved by Spinoza, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Foucault as it drives through classics old and new in the theory of Religion (Durkheim, Weber, Eliade, Geertz, W.C. Smith, J.Z. Smith, Tweed, McCutcheon, Orsi). In working through the literature on Religion, readers will want to consult this volume for new orientations.

Against McCutcheon, Vásquez keeps to the term “religion” as distinct, though not entirely separable “thing,” not just because the terms is ubiquitous, but for what it adds to creation and analysis of culture, and to “ecologies of life” (pp.327-8). Against the Cartesian-Kantian-Hegelian vein, the now quite common notion in (post) critical theory circles is that matter is no longer viewed as dumb-mute material to be worked over by mind; it now is said to enjoy its own vital life and agency (p.324). As represented by Vásquez, matter is posed against otherworldly transcendence and this worldly immanence. Proffered instead towards the end of the book as a bit of speculation is the idea of a “pneumatic materialism” conceived as a “malleable ‘spirit-matter’ nexus’ that bridges the seen and unseen.”

It’s barely an irony that the analysis of religion in Beyond Belief rests on belief (about matter, the world, the seen and the unseen). That this speculation comes at the end of the book is a welcome tonic to theories of religion that start with a belief presented as privileged and apriori, even as one assumes that the belief that is allowed to “emerge” was there implicit in some part at the very start of the project.

The more serious question marks about the book is the lack of any definition given to religion. This is handled not well. On the one hand, the “data” of religion is clearly represented by discourse, practice, and institution. On the other hand, there is nothing to mark those particular types of discourse, practice, and institution. That is a fine conclusion for McCutcheon and his group, but not if one wants to maintain a more robust conception of religion. The argument that Vásquez wants to avoid “foundationalism” feels like a form of special pleading in the absence of a more clearly defined set of particular beliefs presumed by these discourses, practices, and institutions (cf. pp.9-10). To put the stress on practice is one thing. But a main part of the problem is a recurring one in contemporary Religion Studies, which is the now common polemic, itself unquestioned doxa in the scholarly literature, that belief “is” somehow “private” and “self-contained,” i.e. liberal and bourgeois. This is itself an intra-Christian and Eurocentric polemic tilted around a Cartesian strawperson. If the study of religion has taught us anything since Durkheim it is that beliefs, i.e. religious representations, are not nearly so subjective, not private possessions of the individuals who hold to them, but always shared, distributed, “collective,” bound up with myth, ritual, and tradition.

If students of religions that are not Christian need this book it would be to confirm what they already know about embodiment, emplacement, and practice in religion and to raise that knowledge up to a higher theoretical and more contemporary pitch.

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How Not to Dialogue About Israel and Palestine (In the Land of Pomegranates)


The few American reviews that I found online seem frustrated without understanding just why Hava Kohav Beller’s documentary In the Land of Pomegranates is such a hopeless reflection upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The documentary follows a group of young Israeli Jews and Palestinians who have been brought to a small town in Germany to dialogue under the auspices of a group called “Vacation from War.” The exchanges in Germany are intercut with footage from the Second Intifada and the 2014 war in Gaza. Also featured are interviews with an Israeli mother living in a moshav in the south of Israel near the border with Gaza, a survivor from a suicide bus bomb attack, and one of the Palestinian organizers of the dialogue program. Another layer is documents a young Palestinian mother from Gaza taking her child to an Israeli hospital where he is receiving care for a critical cardiac condition.

In Beller’s film, the pretend that they are good and the weak pretend that they are powerful. The Israeli Jews who signed up for this kind of program are patriotic Israeli liberals who are open to compromise, hearing the other, coming to terms. They come across as well intentioned, privileged, uncomprehending, dumbfounded, and feckless. Perhaps more interesting is the position of the young Palestinians, which anchors the documentary. To a person, they express maximalist nationalist positions about the history of the conflict, say truly horrible things about the Holocaust, and dream about the future of Palestine without Jews. It is their land, all of it. Motivated by the myth of autochthony, they espouse the right of an occupied people to resist their oppressors by any means necessary, even at the expense of taking civilian life, which they view as collateral damage. There is no recognition of a Jewish right, any claim, any place in any part of the land. Caught between moral scorn and political exhaustion, they are not interested in “dialogue” and express little curiosity about “the other.”

The movie is heavily weighted to the Israeli experience from a liberal perspective. There is some, but only very little extreme religious rightwing expression from the Israeli side that might have complicated the liberal narrative. The young Israelis do not represent the government for which they are nonetheless responsible. More critically, the movie is stacked against the Palestinian participants, who are in a sense cornered and put in front of a camera. The whole exchange is organized in Germany, of all places, with Holocaust memory placed front and center. As oppressed people, could any one of the Palestinian participants even budge off an extreme nationalist narrative, show the slightest hint of a lack of national resolve in front of the camera? Is there any good to or sense in putting these kinds of exchanges in such public view?

Late in the film, one of the Israeli participants concludes that she and her compatriots have no right to demand recognition or forgiveness from the Palestinians, that it is too much to ask. She may or may not be correct. Another one of the Israeli participants concludes that there is nothing to talk about. This may or may not be true. What the movie highlights is the exclusive and tribal character of the conflict, the physical and psychological trauma, and a political dead end.

This well-intentioned movie is introduced with an epigraph attributed to the playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. “This inhuman world has to become more humane. But how?”  But perhaps the problem with the “Vacation from War” program and Beller’s documentary is that they are both organized around the question of “rights” and “recognition.” The problem is that this is a moral question (concerning the human right of the one party versus the other party to an asymmetrical conflict in which the other side has lost everything), when the moral and human question is actually the wrong question to ask. Mired in the morality of recognition, what seems for now an impossible discussion, the political horizon gets washed away.

It is hard to know what kind of conclusion to draw from such small sampling of reflection except that there is no post-national solution to this conflict. It could very well be that these sentiments reflect the views of this particular group of participants at this particular historical juncture when the possibility of peace would seem to be impossible. It could be that people are more free to talk across these kind of lines away from the gaze of the camera. Or maybe the correct conclusion is that this is not how to talk about Israel and Palestine, and that the best option is to separate the political question from the moral question and to figure it all out behind closed doors, away from the public eye. Can one narrow the frame to ending the 1967 Occupation and securing Palestinian independence instead of trying to re-litigate 1948 and the entire history of the conflict, the Holocaust included? Can Israeli and Palestinians escape the iron fate of narrative? Or is the conflict and the future of the two people stuck intractably in history? Perhaps not insignificantly, the child from Gaza with his mother barely says a word.

Watching a film like this, what is one to make of a one-state solution, the brutal version of the religious apartheid reality towards which the current rightwing government in Israel is leading the country, or the utopianism of leftwing critics who dream about a binational state or single democratic country, with or without Jews? In her book Parting Ways, Judith Butler modeled the future of Palestine upon the idea of cohabitation. The very idea is stressed by the extreme trauma shown by everyone in the film, a trauma that stems from a long, asymmetrical conflict and its intensification during and in the wake of the Second Intifada, and the sense of hopelessness that marks the present moment.

Is the situation as hopeless as all that? Maybe not, I’m sure others will opine. Indeed, maybe this was the wrong group to film, or, again, maybe the problem is the camera. Or maybe the intensive face-to-face dialogue format is the wrong model upon which to figure out the future. Be that as it may. In this film, the young Palestinians and Israelis look everything like a battered married couple in desperate need of separation but unable to agree to the terms of the divorce. That is how they appear before the camera, in the film. This is not Beller’s fault as a filmmaker. This was the dialogue on hand that she caught and which she then worked in such a way to reconstruct the conflict between two national identities from a liberal-left Israeli perspective. In a way, the camera necessitates this dismal appearance, and it could be that the actual human dimension is more complex and indirect than any camera can capture or convey.


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(Burning Excrement) צוֹאָה רוֹתֵחַת (Trump & Bannon)

trump excrement

There is a place in Hell and levels there called Boiling Excrement, where there is filth of souls —those who are cleansed of all the filth of this world. They are cleansed and ascend, and that filth remains there; and those evil rungs called Boiling Excrement are appointed over that filth; and the fire of Hell controls that remaining filth.

And there are those wicked  who soil themselves by their sins constantly and are never cleansed and die without teshuvah –those who have sinned and incited others to sin and have always been stiff-necked, never broken before their Lord in this world. These are punished there in that filth, in that boiling excrement, never leaving there. 

Zohar 2:150b (Daniel Matt translation)

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Downtown Sacramento Simulation


A built lived space always mimics an idea. The photographer Thomas Demand takes an ordinary photograph of a very neutral interior space; he then constructs a cardboard model, which he then shoots. Downtown Sacramento looks a lot like that –small scale, flat, prefabricated, anonymous, neutral.

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(z”l) Remembering Neil Gillman (Bill Plevan)


In Conservative Judaism, will his legacy be forgotten? A working Jewish philosopher-theologian and rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Neil Gillman (z’l) was a genuine liberal who embraced relativity and tension in religion as a source of creativity and vitality. At the 2005 convention of the United Synagogue he argued that Conservative Judaism should no longer consider itself to be a halakhic movement, that its commitment to halakhah is a “broken myth,” and that the claim itself, qualified by a thousand conditions, turns out to be “unfalsifiable.” The address was expanded as “A New Aggadah for the Conservative Movement” and published in Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah, and Israel in Modern Judaism (2008), which you can read here.  Instead of upper case Halakhah, viewed as something of an ideological talisman of authentic Jewish identity created by rabbis for rabbis, what remains is ordinary custom, the minhag of the movement in relation to tradition, mitzvah, and ritual. During shiva, Bill Plevan posted at Facebook these memories and remarks about him which he has given me kind permission to put up here. All of what appears below is Bill.

Nov. 26

Now that we are in the period of shiva for Neil Gillman, a great teacher for many of us, I want to share one memory or teaching each day until Friday. First, I want to recall one of early encounters with him and Elliot Dorff at a CAJE conference in the summer of ’95. I had been taking Neil’s summer course at JTS they content of his teaching was not new. But I was enthralled to be witness a theological between these two great teachers (insert East Coast/West Coast joke here) in front of an audience of Jews hungry for serious theological ideas. Basically, the debate centered around the role of evidence in theology, with Elliot placing great significance and Neil emphasizing existential faith with no recourse to evidence. The debate turned to some extent on their interpretation of John Wisdom’s classic essay “Gods.” I still marvel at the fact that these two teachers could take complex epistemological issues in the philosophy of religion and make them accessible to Jewish adults with no formal philosophical background. To this day, I seek to emulate their teaching.

Nov. 27

Neil Gillman was known for teaching that our religious beliefs should be understood as myths, not in the sense that they are not true, but that they are “the connective tissues that knit together the data of experience.” I remember, that when he taught this in class, he would use two examples of how we commonly used single words to describe dynamic entities: “the market,” meaning the financial markets, and “the Knicks’ passing game.” We can talk about the passing game, in a sense we see it, but it is not a static being, rather it is a dynamic reality. Unfortunately, the Knicks’ passing game has rarely been proof for the existence of God, but I think about this image, and the image of him teaching it, once and while watching basketball.

Nov. 28

Someone either at the funeral or later quoted Neil Gillman’s discussion of resurrection where he says that for God to truly be God, God must be able to conquer death. It made me realized that I had used the first part of this phrasing to explain Jewish theological debates in my class in Modern Jewish Thought at JTS (a course Neil would have been teaching, maybe even should have been teaching). Jewish theological claims often take this form: if God is truly God, then God must…” Neil’s work on resurrection was a much more profound methodological reflection on what we do when we do Jewish theology (in a post-Kantian key) than I think I realized at the time. But the philosophical issues underlying this teaching perfectly summarizes the philosophical issues that concerned me, that he and I shared, and that drew me to him as a teacher: what does it even mean to make a claim about God?

Nov. 29

An important part of Neil Gillman’s work was his role in interfaith dialogue efforts in New York. He was involved in the journal CrossCurrents, an important forum for interfaith dialogue. He also advised a group of JTS students through the Finkelstein Institute at JTS who engaged in dialogue with five other seminaries in the New York area. These dialogue programs were such an important part of my education and it would not have been so rewarding without Neil’s guidance and leadership (also thanks to Naomi Kalish for her leadership then). I also remember one evening when we were driving in a van together returning from one Seminary visit in Westchester, he remarked on the beautiful view of the George Washington Bridge coming down the Henry Hudson Parkway, another example for him of radical amazement. Sara and I usually think of him when we see this spectacular sight, even to this day.

Dec. 1

I missed posting something about Neil Gillman yesterday, so I will post again after Shabbat, to round out the week of Shiva. Neil regularly taught the passage from the book of Exodus 14:30-31 where it says that the Israelites saw the work of God, revered God and had faith in God. The challenge of a modern, or postmodern theology, is to recover this immediate sense of seeing God, that God’s reality in the world would become, once again, part of our way of seeing. His use of Ricouer’s conception of second naivete was directed to address this precise challenge. As always, the great teachers give us great questions as much as compelling answers.

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