Ben Shahn, Maimonides (1954)
Why is so much creative work in modern Jewish philosophy being done by scholars who cut their first intellectual teeth in medieval Jewish philosophy?
In alphabetical order, they would include:
–Kalman Bland (art, animals)
–Aaron Hughes (imagination, translation)
–David Novak (political philosophy)
–Norbert Samuelson (science)
–Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (affect [happiness], ecology, gender, science)
–Elliot Wolfson (visual imagination, bodies, dreams)
These are all scholar-thinkers who demonstrate broad intellectual vistas –textual and philosophical study twinned around biological and political bodies, the imagination, and reason.
Couldn’t we say the same about those of us at work in modern Jewish philosophy? Maybe, maybe not.
I would only point to the sense of history and historical consciousness as the main difference between contemporary philosophers who first cut their teeth in medieval as opposed to modern source material.
It often seems to me that contemporary Jewish philosophers who work with modern source material have not sufficiently absorbed the reality of historical distance. We still tend to look at Buber, Rosenzweig, and Levinas unironically as contemporary, even “postmodern.” We channel their voice as if the thoughts are still current in the same way that they once were.
It’s not that I don’t think that the moderns no longer have anything to contribute to contemporary thought. Let’s just not forget that the great works by Buber and Rosenzweig (the early addresses, I and Thou and The Star of Redemption) are philosophical time pieces from the period of early German modernism, circa 1909-1925. Indeed, the distance between us and them is already the same one hundred year gap separating them from German Romanticism circa 1800.
Once we see the historical distance, perhaps we can look at Buber, Rosenzweig, and Levinas more like objects. Then maybe we can do more interesting things with them and to them, just like Ben Shahn did to Maimonides in 1954.