The Commute Resumes (This Morning)


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Jewishness Beyond Actual Jews (Response to Lila Corwin Berman)


[John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (1896). Jewish Museum, New York]

Perhaps as a new genre and for what it’s worth, I’m offering as “an unsolicited response these reflections regarding the recent article by historian Lila Corwin Berman that appeared in the most recent AJS Review under the title “Jewish History Beyond the Jewish People” (42:2, 2018, 269-292). The article belongs to the neo-Deconstructivist move in Jewish Studies to destabilize conventional and taken for granted constructs like “the Jewish People” (Noam Pianko), “Jews” (Cynthia Baker), and “Judaism” (Daniel Boyarin). These exercises tend to be something of a magician’s disappearing act, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t sleight of hand. In this case, Corwin Berman looks to the disappearance of “Jewish people.”


Not just for students of American Jewish history, the basic point is to say that scholars in Jewish Studies need to look past a narrow and exclusive focus on “actual Jews.” The study of Jewish history needs to include non-Jews who participate in ostensibly Jewish institutional frames, while being wary about assuming the actuality of a Jewish frame just because a historical actor happens to be “a Jew.” Frames are, indeed, the key term in this argument. “The creative task of the historian,” writes Corwin Berman would be to define Jewish fames, not Jewish people, as modes of thinking, exercising power, or interacting with materiality” (p.274). In this view of the social field, Jewish history, “Jewish people,” and “Jewish spaces” would “inform” but not limit critical analysis and constructive cultural discourse (p.275). In other words, what counts first is the form of the frame, not the content. How we frame our analysis determines what “matters.”


Another way to state the thesis would be to say that the object replaces the subject, in this case, “Jewishness” as a theoretical object of analysis or positional point replacing “Jews,” i.e. actual or empirical Jewish subjects. Against “biography,” Corwin Berman argues, “Jewishness may help us interpret a person, a place, an idea, an object, or a relationship without first having to meet any preexisting condition of being Jewish.” This is one part of the argument. The other part of the argument is more bold still, and is indeed a gambit, being that, “Jewishness might be approached as a formation, potentially just as vital in bodies or spaces identified as not Jewish as those identified as Jewish” (p.285). “Jewishness” then becomes the standard by which we critically assess any variety of things or actions relating to putative Jewish things (cf. the discussion of Israel and Jewish philanthropy on p.288). For Corwin Berman, Jewishness might be a general category that “obligates” and “compels” scholars outside Jewish Studies as part of an interpretative apparatus, to understand, for instance, “modes of exchange, forms of power, methods of resistance, and spaces at specific moments of time.” In this view, the “Jewish subject” or actual Jew as a subject has no “intrinsic value” (p.281).


Names and the difference between “potential” and “actual” constitute the philosophical stake in Corwin Berman’s modest proposal. These topoi appear, interestingly enough from a historian, as the first two paragraphs in a section entitled “The Ahistorical Subjects of Jewish History.” Corwin Berman complains that [we] use names like Jews, Jewish, Jewishness, Jewish people(hood) as an ahistorical ground for historical investigation. To this one might protest. What else are there other than names? And does anyone really think that names refer to “stable and empirical” realities (including the reality of the Jew and the Jews) (p.279) or do we still take these subjects for granted? Maybe we do. But it could just as well be the case that all we have to work with are names, not real subjects. Instead of nationalist identity-based claims (p.275) we have notional ones.  If not idealism, this comes close to bringing Jewsh Studies into virtual reality theory.  Jewishness becomes in this theory something like a nominal adjective, i.e. an adjective that takes on the identity of a noun.


John Singer Sargent’s painting, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children is a case in point. So is a Talmud Group like the one at Syracuse University, none of whose active subject-members but one might happen to be “a Jew.” In both instances, Jewishness is the open object of discussion. Everything is equal. This is not to say that the experience of actual Jews is not a touchstone to the analysis of Jewishness, the Jewishness of a painting of Jewish subjects by a non-Jewish painter, or the Jewishness of Talmud in a not-Jewish framework. Because Jewishness is no longer limited to the object of inquiry and controlled by a Jewish subject of inquiry. Jewishness is thus let loose across a larger field. As Corwin Berman notes, this kind of inquiry requires generosity and patience (p.291). There’s no Jew already there, and no necessary Judaism. Jewishness becomes instead an open mode of being in the world that others can chart.

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American Jewish Future (Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl)

reform judaism

About universalism and particularism in the American synagogue, in-marriage and out-marriage, open space and closed space,  technology and prayer, ethnicity and race, religion and affect, Israel and the world, you can read here this interview with Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York that appeared in Haaretz.

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(Modern Jewish Thought & Religion) and (Religion & Jewish Studies)

torqued ellipse

One last query about modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought attached to a query about Religious Studies and Jewish Studies. The first is about “religion” and the study of modern (and contemporary Jewish thought, the other about the place or non-place of religion in Jewish Studies, particularly at the Association for Jewish Studies.


Is Modern and Contemporary Jewish Philosophy and Thought too completely beholden to religion and Religious Studies? And is there any conceivable way out of that bind? This is in part an institutional question. Apart from seminaries and departments of Jewish Studies, most students of modern Jewish philosophy and thought sit in departments of Religious Studies/Religion. Also institutional is that Jewish philosophy and thought are determined by source material that we today could only call “religious.” Bible, midrash, Philo, Maimonides, Halevy, Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Cohen, Buber, Rosenzweig, Levinas, Feminism are all saturated by religious concepts, texts, and communities. Not the opposite of religion, even secularism becomes a focus of Religious Studies. Setting aside what Laura Levitt calls “the really real,” is there for modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought any way out beyond religion and can it be “robust” without some semblance of religion?


Does Jewish Studies get religion? Do “religion” and arguments about religion in the Study of Religion make their way into Jewish Studies? Maybe part of the problem is with “Judaism.” So immersed in the data, it sometimes seems that Jewish Studies scholars have no interest in religion or Religious Studies. Certainly and thankfully, there is more to Jewish Studies than the study of “Jewish religion.” It is also certainly true that the term “religion” may in fact obscure from view prominent aspects of Jewish social history and culture, finding “religion” where it does not exist, or not in the way someone might think it should exist.  (The same is true of the badly abused terms “law” and “ethics.”). But what is obscured from view when we don’t use the term “religion”? What I’m beginning to suspect about two recent books by Daniel Boyarin is that we only begin to see in his work more robust conceptualizing of “religion” and “Judaism,” things relating to holy aura, at those precise moments when he wants to subvert and do away with the categories.

Who knows? Maybe it is “religion” and Religious Studies and World Religions and Global Religion that might open the study of Jewishness and Judaism out into more cosmopolitan conceptual and theoretical frameworks. This will depend upon what one means by “religion.” As opposed to Judaism and as an academic category, I am beginning to suspect that “Jewish religion” is a new, emergent theoretical object. Probably par for the course is that its emergence must work only by way of the working out of negations (i.e. negating arguments that no such “thing” like “Jewish religion” even exists; that religion is an invention of Protestantism).

I am sorry I missed the American Academy of Religion conference this year where Sarah Imhoff, Samira Mehta, and Shari Rabin were part of a panel, “Jewish Studies Gets Religion.” If anyone wants to chime in about the panel, especially the presenters, I will gladly make a separate post of it here at the blog. A separate post on Robert Erlewine’s Judaism and the West From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik, although I would mention here that, for Erlewine, the relationship between Jewish philosophy and Religious Studies is one of critical interaction and creative possibility that invoke the subversion of Liberal Protestant categories of “religion” with a capacious worldly sensibility. Following Erelewine’s lead, one would like and hope to think that students of contemporary and modern Jewish philosophy and thought will have more to contribute to these emergent discussions.

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(A Modest Proposal) Subjects-Of or Objects-For (Jewish Philosophy & Thought)


[Richard Serra, One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969] Here’s a thought. As a historical thing, Jewish Philosophy and Thought has been the practice in which Jews and a putative Judaism are the subjects of thought and the objects of thinking. An example: Philo, Maimonides, Buber and Plaskow are clearly identifiable Jewish subjects thinking about Judaism and other things from within a Judaism. But what if we remove the subject position from Jewish philosophy and thought? Can this be done? What if we separate the object from the subject? No longer subjects-of thought, Jews and Judaism become objects for-thought. I don’t know precisely how this would work. It is an experiment in which  critical distance might let all kinds of people, things, and thinking into the force-field. The otherwise heavy one ton prop that is Jewish philosophy and thought might assume a certain a new form of plausibility.

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(Who’s In & Who’s Out) How We Think (One More Question re: Jewish Philosophy & Thought)


Saving the ugliest question for last. How does the study of Modern Jewish Philosophy and Thought position in the canon Jewish thinkers like Arendt, Benjamin, Cassirer, Jonas about whom Jewishness (i.e. a Jewish social and intellectual subject position and experience) is arguably even deeply “reflected” throughout their work but for whom Jewish “things” do not “appear” at the center of that work, except incidentally and occasionally? The governing assumption is that any theoretical frame can expand how to understand Judaism and Jewishness. But do Judaism and Jewishness have sufficient gravitational pull to bring them “inside,” enough force to stamp their thought?

Examples include Robert Alter’s superlative study, Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem. Also consider Judith Butler in Parting Ways, who undoubtedly has been pulled a negative gravitational attraction of Zionism and Israel. Another example is the inclusion of Man Ray in Jewish Art: A Modern History by Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver. Indeed, the Jewish Museum in New York was famous when it first opened for showcasing the best cutting edge art around, regardless of the ethnic and religious affiliation of the artists brought into the galleries. It could be that practice and study of contemporary Jewish philosophy and modern Jewish thought need to take the lead of historian Lila Corwin Berman in her recent paper at the AJS Review (“Jewish History beyond the Jewish People,” 42:2, pp.269-292). Her argument there is that “Jewishness” is the more capacious category with which to “frame” and figure these things out and bring others in. Or it could be that about “Jewishness” it is not even necessary to ask much less theorize. Or it could be, seen from the opposite side of the coin that to make strong claims about the Jewishness of thinkers for whom Jewishness was not a central or prominent theme is a kind of abusive appropriation? I imagine these questions get determined by thematic fit.

It could be that a worthwhile category-distinction is one between thick and thin Jewishness. Each have their own genius and virtue. I’m thinking here of the distinction drawn by theorist Katherine Hayles in How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis between thick and thin thinking.

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(A Question for Modern Jewish Thought) Does Contemporary Jewish Thought Exist?

Hesse Accretion_Begleiter

[Eva Hesse Accretion (1968]

It used to bother me in the 1990s when I’d see colleagues refer to modern Jewish philosophers like Buber and Rosenzweig as “postmodern.” The logic seemed to have been that since they allegedly they broke with Hegel and totality, which were echt modern, they had to be post-modern by default. Modern Jewish philosophy and thought took its cue from Levinas, retrospecting backwards and leaving it at that. That lasted for about twenty years and then Levinas and “postmodernism” ran out of gas.

How could Buber and Rosenzweig be postmodern, writing as they did in the first decades of the twentieth century? No, they were first neo-romantics, not romantics, and then modernists, expressionists actually, not “existentialists.” Modern Jewish thought looks like something, or like a box set. It looks like stylized, art-nouveau figures from the Song of Songs, the fists of the proletariat, expressionist prophets with long beards and angry eyes, canvases by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. As for modern Jewish women in modern Jewish thought, in the frission of revelation and redemption, clearly they barely registered if they ever “existed” at all. They occupy there the very silence that inaugurated the opening gambit made by Judith Plaskow in Standing Again At Sinai.

Modern Jewish Philosophy and Thought are about one hundred years old today. Time does its thing on matter. It creates critical distance as much as it mummifies. Alas, modernism is not a term recognized much in modern Jewish philosophy, but that is the precise term that separates the 19th century from the 20th century, while contemporary (having long since replaced “postmodern”) is what separates western thought and culture at some point around the 1960s from that which came before it. Students of architecture, art, and literature all know this.

This then is what I want to ask:

Where does the recognition of temporal passage leave Jewish Philosophy and Thought today? What is the difference between modern Jewish philosophy and thought and contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought? Could one date it in the late 1960s? Is there even such a “thing” as Contemporary Jewish Philosophy and Thought? Does it even exist? Where would one go to find it? How would one go about creating it?  With what kind of material? What would contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought look like? What visual cues would signal it? What, in fact, do we mean by “contemporary”? Does it refer to content  and/or to conceptual and theoretical frames by which to render content into something that makes sense and rings true now under new sets of social and cultural conditions peculiar to the moment?

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