The World

I like these two images because of their everyday character. There’s the quotidian task of tending for the dead at the cremation ghats at the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges. And there’s the view from my brother’s window of iconic Mt. Fuji in the distance foregrounded by urban apartment blocs.

In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment savant Moses Mendelssohn looked out to India and to the South Sea Islands to make what to him was a basic point about capacity for human happiness, the epistemological dignity of the imagination, and the universality of reason.

In the nineteenth century, Jewish historians and scholars such as Heinrich Graetz, Abraham Geiger, and Michael Sachs “travelled” to medieval Moorish Spain. Being Germans, they did so most likely for the poetry.

In the early twentieth century, Martin Buber wrote a German language adaptation of the Chinese Taoist classic, the Chuang Tzu. He collected widely from the world religions in Ecstatic Confessions. And in one of the famous early addresses to the Prague Bar Kochba Society, he argued that Judaism belonged to “the spirit of the orient.” Long since ridiculed, the thesis might be worth re-stating upon a more firm basis.

For good and for bad, modernity and modernism were always global. This is not to ignore the difference between then and our own postmodern world. The difference is one of intensity. The world and exposure to it once required much greater effort. Today they are woven almost seamlessly into our everyday lives thanks to technology, tourism, and migration.

My atheist mother who swears that she has no inner life is now travelling in India for the second time. She went with a Harvard alumni group led by the distinguished scholar of religion Diana Eck. My mother is particularly looking forward to the trip to Varanasi, where the devout go cleanse themselves in the Ganges River; and to cremate the dead. And then it’s temples, temples, temples and other holy sites, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim.

My atheist brother lives full time in Tokyo with his husband. His husband was born and grew up there and wanted to go home after spending many years in the United States. I don’t think they are ever coming back to San Francisco. Having grown up in what both he and I remember to have been the stultifying milieu of 1970s Baltimore (one that he suffered more than I ), my brother wants nothing to do with Judaism. I’m not sure he wants anything to do with the United States either. Shinto and Japan he enjoys, finding it pleasant and user friendly.

What I want to understand from all this is that largeness of world is no longer so exotic. It underscores the ordinary cultural contexts and familial contexts shaping contemporary Judaism.

Has the world made even a mark on contemporary Jewish philosophy?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to The World

  1. esque says:

    Why should one assume that Baltimore, or the Occident, is equivalent to Judaism? To want “the world” to make a mark is not to do anything ordinary; it is to lionize the extraordinary by assuming that only the antipode to one’s current form of life is Real and can give inner life. It occludes (say, for example, the cultural diversity of the American South, or the differing Jewish cultures of Alsace and southern France) as much as it unveils.

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