(Zombies) Animated Jewish Philosophers


I wonder if something not similarly ghostly, ghastly, machinic is at work in the tricks played in the scholarly literatures. Thanks to Dov Nelkin for doing these and to Willi Goetschel for calling them “zombies.” That very monstrosity may in fact have something to do deeply with philosophy and the relation between thinking and “life.” Maybe what it is is the blank inflection and empty repetition of a  wordless “tic.”

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(Israel) Purim Train (1949)


A train decorated with flags. A large crowd is gathered on a train station platform, including many children and youths. A sign in Hebrew reads: Purim Train. Children enter the train. The Chief Rabbi of Haifa Yehoshua Kaniel speaks. The Minister of Religious Affairs Rabbi Yehuda Leib (Fishman) Maimon speaks to pupils of the Religious Sports Union Elitzur. Children observe a view of Haifa through the train windows. Children singing on the train. The train passes through Emek Zevulun, an industrial area and fields. Children on the train wave to children running by the train tracks. Smokestacks. Elitzur pupils march with flags towards the religious youth village Hassidim. A ceremony at the youth village. Various speakers, including Maimon and Dr. Shmuel Zanvil Kahana. Distribution of Purim gifts. The ceremonial field. Raising the flag.

From the train of annihilation to the train of salvation, the Jews look like refugees in this this little clip here from the Archive of Israeli Films and the Jerusalem  Cinematheque documenting a public celebration of Purim in 1949. 


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(The Capitol Building) So Much American Civil Religion & The Problem of Evil

There before or very eyes, for most of us on television or online, was the reappearance of American Civil Religion. It was there in the wake churned at the Trump Insurrection at the Capitol, the inauguration of President Biden, and the Second Trump Impeachment Trial. Over and over on mainstream media platforms and social media networks, there were the same cluster of words, a saturated affective charge. The key term was “sacred,” the name of “God” being a secondary buttress. The Trump Insurrection was a desecration, the inauguration of President Biden at the Capitol like a rededication, while the Second Impeachment Trial of Trump raised before the public a platform for the problem of evil, the trial of God, as it were. Thrown into powerful relief were the Big Lies and fissures that undermine for all to see the structural and political incoherence of American moral community.

What American Civil Religion? What is its object? What is its material basis?

A negative revelation, the attack on the Capitol that was the MAGA Insurrection, uncovered the object-affect character that defines American Civil Religion. The object of Civil Religion would be that material site that binds or is supposed to bind up the demos under what Peter Berger called a “sacred canopy.” For democrats and republicans, what the attack on the Capitol revealed was that the object of American Civil Religion is not belief as such in amorphous beings, not belief in God and divine providence, not belief in the myth of American chosenness tracked by Robert Bellah here in his essay “Civil Religion in America”(1967), and then in The Broken Covenant (1975). Against the republic and the institutions of free elections and the peaceful transfer of power, the apotheosis of MAGA at the Trump Insurrection was an anti-democratic lynch mob. It made a mockery of “American exceptionalism,” the old saw that Americans are a “special people.” America is a “great nation,” but Americans are not and never were in any consistent sense “a good people,” as per President Biden here at his inauguration speech.

I would recommend rejecting the view by Bellah and other communitarian thinkers who draw a firm, unflattering distinction between the allegedly flimsy edifice of formal liberal constitutionalism and the allegedly more robust forms of traditional Church religion. I would reject in particular the notion that the former requires the support of the latter as contrary to the basic evidence of the historical record. Rather than support it, “robust” religion tends to weigh down the loose and generic open form of ceremonial civil religion. Indeed, what Robert Wuthnow here called conservative Civil Religion in America is the religion that would found the United States upon Christian or so-called Judeo-Christian values. The guns, cross, and noose of a lawless, super-conservative American Christendom turns out to be the Uncivil Religion of White Nationalism.

An expression of material religion, the essence of American Civil Religion is the Capitol building itself, the sacred site of secular traditions, “temple of democracy.” The affective wave that ripped open the core of American Civil Religion was not the optimistic spirit of naïve, mythic folk-belief. It was instead the experience of raw fear before the mob-face of chaos and death brought to bear upon the U.S. Capitol. More than weak pro-forma lip service, American Civil Religion is palpable; not an idea, but perceived + affectively sensed. The aesthetic form of American Civil Religion is iconic; gripping, object related. The Capitol building, now transfigured into an animal presence under the sickening pressure of a negative event.

Representing the violence of established power, the ceremoniality of American Civil Religion is the in situ expression of deep identification by “the people” with the constitutional institutions of the republic. Sacred is not a simply a notional ascription, but the sense of place wrapped in forms of affect, the poetry that these things, laws, norms and institutions matter and that this site is precious, valued in its own right and for its own sake. What Durkheim called the “negative cult” of American Civil Religion is defined by threat and taboo. The “positive cult” is a coming together, restoration, relief, renewal, joy, tears; kitschy and sentimental; Christian is the recent extraordinary feel for catharsis in the face of violence and over the dead.

It is no wonder that “theodicy” is a theological loanword that appears in the sociology of religion going back to Weber. Because the problem of evil in religion was always more than trying to justify beliefs about the existence of a powerful and benevolent God. The problem of evil that is the chaos of collective suffering affects social and political structures in a two-fold manner. On the one hand, called into question is the value of sacred norms, institutions, texts. Called into question is the meaning, value, and very existence of the moral or political communities whose members inflict pain and misery onto other people. On the other hand, the problem of evil and the problem of catastrophic suffering are stigmatic; they call into question the value of the sacred institutions and texts and community that are unable to protect themselves and their members.

Without death there is no religion, but there is religion because there is death.

Setting aside all matters of belief and founding myths, the naïve embrace of a constitutional edifice like the Capitol was never simply naïve. The priests and scribes who commit knowingly and who tend to this form do so under the leaden clouds of death and suffering hanging over every form of religion. Bellah understood that American Civil Religion exemplified by Lincoln was determined by the experience the sedition, slavery, civil war. His own analysis was self-aware, pressured by the Vietnam War and the forever scourge of American racism. Watching even an ordinary inauguration, the invocation of death, the citation of Scripture, the traditional role of military servicemen at the inauguration ceremonial, the solemn trip of the inaugurated president and vice-president travelling across the Potomac to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier buried at Arlington National Cemetery, you can see how the solemnity of death in religion has always stamped American Civil Religion.

The face of death and the problem of evil in American Civil Religion were especially marked this year. Biden’s inauguration began the night before with the light-filled ceremony at the Reflecting Pool memorializing the 400,000 dead Americans killed in a single year by Covid. The ceremony was accompanied by the broken Jewish Hallelujah of Leonard Cohen joined on cue with the Christian Amazing Grace. In the morning, the new president went to church to attend mass. There was the celebration of Black resilience and the rebuke of White Supremacy, the inauguration of Vice President Harris, the choral forms of gospel, the performance poetry of Amanda Gorman, here with her own appeals to Scripture and faith, and the benediction by Rev. Silvester Beaman, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware; all of this after a year of racial reckoning with the violence of anti-Black racism, and after a powerful Black surge at the polls and the election of Senators Warnock and Ossof engineered by Stacey Abrams. There on television were the flags fluttering on the Mall in place of a human audience, and the invocation by President Biden of the teaching by Augustine that a people is “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” All the talk at this inauguration about core public values, hallowed ground, and sacred oaths meant something “more” this year of mass death. social death, and insurrection. Trump’s minions and enablers at the Second Impeachment Trial returned to wash their hands at the Capitol, a sacred space and crime scene.

In this country, the lasting public impression of January 2021 is of the physical site of the Capitol building itself and the extraordinary menace that pooled up there against it, and also the revelation. More basic than narrative and make-believe things like American exceptionalism, Civil Religion in the United States is the commitment first and foremost to the empty, virtual form of American democracy and American constitutional government. Political is the actual question. Who controls the power of that mighty and fearsome thing, the U.S. Capitol? Who animates that site and constitutional structure in their own image? American Civil Religion underscores the brute fact of the edifice, which is that in a representative democracy the shape of the demos matters.

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Video From Mars

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Rush Limbaugh at Yeshiva Bubble


Explaining the confluence between Haredi Jewish society and Trumpism, this piece here in Mishpacha indicates that in the tightly enclosed bubble of the Haredi yeshivot and culture, with limited access to secular newspapers, at least for this author and others like him, Rush Limbaugh represented “the real world” refined by the intellectualism and strict ideality of the Haredi-halakhic system. The confluence has less to do with the content being learned (in Talmud and commentaries) than with modern-Haredi paideic nomos, the isolating form of the bubble that is 24/7 institutional study. It’s a view of this-world from the other-world. 

Friends Shaul Magid and Joshua Shanes have been on this beat, seeking to draw the lines that connect Haredi Jews to all things MAGA and now all things QAnon. For Shaul here, there is a hot apocalyptic core fusing them together. But I’m not seeing that per se, and maybe this line of analysis is too metaphysical. A secular analysis makes more sense. I am thinking that class-based resentment against liberal-secular elites, including Jewish secular elites, might be more to the point in trying to explain this Haredi slide to the hard political right. Owning the libs and Haredi world-maintenance have nothing to do messianism.

We see it in Israel and the U.S. and in London re: the Cornanavirus pandemic, the resistance of Haredi Jews and conservative Americans to public health protocols, the refusal to comply with a secular regulatory system. Metaphysical analysis and its long historical arc omit the human-all-too-human face that connects Haredi social thought and American conservativism. That face is the corrosive cynicism vis-a-vis the secular world, the spirit of contempt for secular law and for the civic norms that shape the larger good over against the super-conservativism of the enclave social form. The “real world” is dog eat dog. 

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Teaching the Holocaust (Jewish Difference)

First day teaching Shoah: Responding to the Holocaust. The last time I taught this class was in 2018. This year, a very diverse group of students., not just Jewish, not just White. The students were unclear about wanted to talk about Jewishness and modern Judaism. I tried to square [1] the dominant and very European discursive paradigms (gentile and Jewish) about Jews and Jewishness in the 19th and early 20th C. with  [2] more contemporary understandings of intra Jewish difference and pluralism across points of racial/ethnic difference (global Judaism). All of this in relation to Jews and gentiles in Europe, and Jews and Arabs before and after the Holocaust and before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. Bottom line: Jews are not a “race” but they once were (i.e. non-Jews AND Jews thought they were). That the idea and images of Jewish racial difference are a historical construct means that looks are misleading, which is not to say that there is no such thing or object as a stereotypical “Jewish look,” sort of, not “really.”

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(Un/Civil Religion) The U.S. Capitol Is An Animal Being

I’m probably imagining it, but since the January 6 insurrection when I look at still photos of the building, the material object that is the Capitol looks to me like a living creature, like some kind of animated object, an animal. The structure has a head and arms and legs, like a monster. It takes in and emits force but without a mind of its own. Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are things in the history of architecture, as per here and here and here and here. In Renaissance theory and going back to Vitruvius, it involves bodily proportion and sentience. The human body is the measure of all things, including architecture. Off the top of my head, the only example I can think of comes from the Babylonian Talmud, comparing the altar in the courtyard to a ravening wolf and the Temple to a crouching lion. Amid all the talk about the violation of the sacredness of the place, I am sure that my own sense of that ascription of that living character to the U.S. Capitol has something to do with the animating power of Religion, both Civil and Uncivil.

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(Jacob Lawrence) Black Americans & the American Revolution (Struggle)


This richly illustrated article here by Rachel Himes at Jacobin about Struggle: From the History of the American People, the 1954-1956 series of 30 panels by Jacob Lawrence illuminating the place of Black Americans in the American Revolution. The particular body of work, and others like it by Lawrence, predates and thereby adds another perspective on the contemporary discussion about America, race, slavery, and white supremacy. “Instead of handing the credit to the founding fathers, Lawrence, like socialist revolutionaries from Eugene Debs to Lenin, claimed America, and the principles of democracy and freedom, as the product of collective struggle.” That Lawrence, as Himes notes, got his start with the Workers Progress Administration during the New Deal is itself part of the history evoked by the artist. To my eye, Jacob Lawrence caught the dynamism and dissonance of the country. The complete series is linked to here. To someone who knows the visual record better than I do, I would ask if these works on the American Revolution are uniquely violent and uniquely true in capturing that violence?

[[Panel 2 (1954) from “Struggle: From the History of the American People” (1954–56), by Jacob Lawrence. Egg tempera on hardboard. (Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society, New York), via Peabody Essex Museum.]]

[[Panel 8 (1954). Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via Peabody Essex Museum.]]

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(Rich Crimson Purple) The Color of Power in the Bible (אַרְגָּמָן)

The Hebrew Bible is full of vital color, no more prominently than in the description of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle dwelling, in the book of Exodus.  Some of that color might look like these textile remains described here at Haaretz. The three thousand year old preserved remains were found at Timna, a copper mine in the southern Aravah desert of Israel.  This was a color of royal and priestly privilege. Also called Tyrean purple and common throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean, the dye was extracted from the mucus of the murex snail and exposed to the sun for a prolonged period of time during production. Wild wooly, the purple stain makes an animal impression. 

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Uncivil Religion (Haredi) (Coronavirus)


Saving life, or pikuach nefesh, has nothing to with it. “Uncivil Religion,” in contrast to Civil Religion, is religion set apart from and, under crisis, against civil society and the larger social good against which it seeks to protect itself or which it seeks to dominate. Uncivil Religion is uncivil. It works inside an intentional, artificial and semi-autonomous construction of its own design that do not comport with “the real world.” Those inside follow the rules and norms of the value system, its own ethos or way of life vis-a-vis the majority. What is holy? Who are saved? Where is God? Dependent on miracle in the face of crisis, i.e. the banging up against hard external facts, these internal systems tend to buckle. People get sick and die. The nomos and only the nomos matters. Disease, death, and social disorder mark the outer limit of Uncivil Religion in its challenge to civil society, the primary concern of which is life, or bios.

Evangelical Christianity in the United States would be one example of the larger and negative impact of a hegemonic form of Uncivil Religion on society in the “age” of late capitalism, Coronavirus, anti-Black racism, resurgent anti-Semitism and the scourge of Trump and American insurrection. But it is the stubborn and catastrophic Haredi response to Coronavirus that is the case in point concerning me here. Despite the very real mass structure and political power that communities like these leverage, the minoritarian religious posture of Haredi society exaggerates the set-apart and heterotopian features of Uncivil Religion as a realized utopia.

A granular look will reveal the variegations in Haredi response to the virus, under the leadership of this or that rabbis and sector. But the problem is structural and in the overall effect of the system. Spending seventeen hours a day steeped in the paideic aura of holiness and talmud Torah is the hallmark counter-coherence of the Uncivil Religion. In response to Coronavirus, signfican segments of Haredi society double down on the social events that create and sustain the nomos: study, prayer, weddings and funerals, all en masse and against public health regulations (as per here). This so-so article here at the NYT about Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the Litvakish Haredi spiritual leader and halakhic authority in Israel, cites Professor Kimmy Caplan. “We’re talking about a person who has been living in Bubble Wrap for quite a few years. The man is 93 years old. I’m not taking away from his wisdom, but he is in many ways detached from reality.”

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