Modern (Medieval) Jewish Philosophy

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.

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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3 Responses to Modern (Medieval) Jewish Philosophy

  1. AS says:

    I have noticed the same thing but I attributed it in part to the fact that the Medievalists seem to come out of the more analytic streams and the moderns tend to be understandably more continental. As a result, I actually would posit the reverse about historical distance. It is easier , coming from a quasi-ahistorical analytic mode to read the Medieval philosophers as addressing perennial issues in Jewish philosophy such that one is always on some level pondering their contemporary relevance. Whereas the moderns who are usually writing in the continental/phenomenological mode are in dialogue with modern systematic phenomenology, which can be somewhat hermetic.

  2. Gail says:

    This is purely beside your point, but I sure wish more of the men I know (the author of this blog excluded, of course) would follow Maimonides’ dictate on Shahn’s lovely, quirky painting.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    i think that there are distances and there are distances. it is far easier to step outside of maimonides, for example, and do to him rather that speak from him because his world-view is so radically foreign to us that if we are to take him seriously as thinkers and not as historians of thought, it is necessary to abstract, perhaps sympathetically, but nonetheless abstracted. for buber, rosenzweig, levinas etc, while it is true that they are, in fact at a distance from us (a far greater distance, especially with levinas, than many would like to admit), actual empathy of perspective is still possible in many respects. in a certain sense, i think that a lack of empathy is needed to do what you are suggesting. i am not saying it is impossible, but, it is certainly more difficult.

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