Martin Kavka’s essay, “Can Jews be Radical Theologians” and responses to him by myself, Richard Rubenstein, and Marc Ellis just came out in Soundings (95:1, 2012) http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/soundings/toc/sij.95.1.html.
With his usual acumen, Martin sought in this philosophical query a turn (via Levinas and Hegel) to a free form of law in order to ground a radical form of Jewish theology/thought. As the divine empties out into the material form of law, the distinction between heaven and earth is subverted.
For my part, I expressed critical reservations about radical thought and theology. Once upon a time, I may have been almost attracted to radical thought. But I never really had the stomach for it. Nor do most modern and contemporary Jewish thinkers. In my view of things, the commitments in Jewish thought and philosophy to ethnos, “law,” and ethos preclude radical thought.
My critical remarks to Martin’s excellent essay run like this:
I would see constitutive in all forms of radical thought, including radical theology, a twofold relation to conventional forms of thought and representation. The first moment of radical thought is an intentional and fundamental negation or uprooting of the order of things, especially systems of representation, which are seen, tout court, as binding and untrue. The second moment in radical thought, what makes radical thought genuinely radical, constitutes a foundational affirmation of the destructive force that propels the vision of a world without structure or distinction.
As I look at it, radical thought is “monstrous,” essentially “obscene,” “cruel,” and “violent.” I find there is something “inhuman” in radical thought, predisposed as it is to fundamental destruction and open to violence. This includes the radical theology of Altizer or the radical political theology of Taubes. Maybe that’s one lesson of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. The only way to obliterate the division between heaven and earth is through acts of violence that I don’t think Martin is willing to risk. I can’t believe that Martin really believes that “all human action expresses divine power” (emphasis in the original). In his reply, the divine mercy drops out.
The reason I did not understand Martin’s turn to law as a foundation for radical theology looks something like this. If radical thought is a monster, it is because it eats its other, be it a subject or object. In contrast, law creates its object by inhibiting or accommodating a subject. That is why law can never be radical, no matter how free we might be able to determine it. At best law is pragmatic, even in Martin’s essay. But it can’t ever be “radical” since it is constituted out of the assertion of the very types of formal distinction that Martin wants to subvert. Unless he wants to turn divine law itself into a monster reflecting divine power.
I suppose I am hopeless. As an alternative to radical thought and its fascination with power, I’m more interested in kindness. This thought first came to me last summer while reading Vassily Grossman’s great novel Life and Fate, set primarily around Moscow and Stalingrad during World War II. In Life and Fate, small acts of kindness are counterpoised to the cruel grinding structures of totalitarian order, theoretical physics, genocide, and modern warfare.
About kindness, the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud had this to say in tractate Sotah. One of the cruelest tractates of the rabbinic corpus of law, it deals with the rabbinic interpretation of the law that submit the suspected adulteress to a test of bitter waters. What interests me here about this text is the exposition by R. Simlai. “The Torah,” he claims, “its beginning is kindness [gemilut hasidim] and its end is kindness. Its beginning is the performance of kindness, as it is written, ‘And God made for Adam and his wife skin garments, and He clothed them.’ And its end is kindness, as it is written, ‘He buried [Moses] in the depression’” (14a).
I read in this passage the nub of the difference between Martin and me. In his reply, Martin insisted that “the ethos” which he takes to be “sine qua non of classical Jewish discourse about the nature of right authority is about something more than mere kindness” (emphasis added). Is it always necessary or even ever possible to “justify” everything to everybody? My respect for Martin is boundless, but this to me is a very depressing thought. Deep anxieties about “right authority” are what animate conservative religious thought, not radical religious thought, or “Judaism.” But let’s say that’s not true. Even still, I think gemilut hasidim (kindness) is a fundamental principle, not a “merely” decorative tschotske. I believe I get this from the rabbis.
It’s not that I think law is kind. My late father was a lawyer of a very grubby kind. To me, then, kindness only underscores the difference between “divine law” and “human law.” (Most egregious of all, is the human law which pretends to be divine law.) Not for the sake of obedience, divine law is a pattern of human action whose telos is the love of God. By “divine law,” of course, I mean something more akin to Spinoza and maybe Maimonides than to Strauss, with whose example I’d like to have almost nothing to do.
It’s not that I don’t understand Martin’s concern with right authority, or appreciate the enormous critical energies animated by that concern of his in his own philosophical explorations. This I’m sure is what might make Martin a better, more critical philosopher than I could ever be. In relation to Judaism, though, I just don’t share the concerns that animate him, philosophically. For me, the proof of Judaism, its rituals and texts, is always in the pudding. Martin makes fun of me all the time, and for good reason, most of the time. Martin believe in philosophy more than I do, whereas I’m more invested intellectually in the “sense” of these kinds of things rather than in their meanings. That means that my own thinking has always been more aesthetic than critical.