Pragmatism and Picture-Thinking (A Recent Publication re: Political Theology)


(Times Square, March 2012)

In the most recent issue of the online Journal of Textual Reasoning, Hannah Hashkes wrote a thoughtful lead essay about “Autonomy, Community, and the Jewish Self.” I was asked to respond along with Daniel Maoz, Ephraim Meir, Jacob Goodson, and Akiba Lerner.

Hashkes is a fellow at the conservative Shalem Center in Jerusalem. My own liberal response to her essay begins and continues on these lines:

In her essay, Hashkes, turns to C.S. Peirce and Emmanuel Levinas to reconsider the tension between autonomy and community in modern Jewish thought. She argues the signal point that “the religious self is not more or less free from a secular self that operates within a scientific community. Both respond, as do Levinas’ I and Peirce’s Reasoner, to mental urgencies that generate a search for new laws that allow them to harmonize their experiences.”

In responding critically to what I thought is the conservative form of orthodoxy reflected in Haskhes’ essay, I did not want to underestimate the premise at work here. In a more liberal vein, Peter Ochs has more than amply shown Peirce to be an invaluable resource for Jewish philosophy. But in her argument against the liberalism of Eugene Borowitz, I doubted that Hashkes is unable to sustain the very autonomy that she herself wants to advance.

I believe this happens a lot in conservative and postliberal Jewish political thought when philosophers seek to square a medieval world picture with God at the center with modern liberal political values such as autonomy and individual rights.

The only way out of this impasse would be to give up the centric picture of religion with God and religious authority at the center of things, and to make room for more acentric pictures. As I see it, there is nothing to fear in this diffusion of religious authority. And if there is, there may not be anything to do about it.

In the modern and contemporary periods, it is no longer settled as to who controls the interpretation of Torah and who represents the Jewish people. More acentric pictures would allow thought and culture to move in a more fluid way across surfaces between the secondness of perceived divine presence and the thirdness of individual autonomy and lived life in a pluralistic society. In a liberal society, free actors set up religious thought and culture in ways that are not absolute, but rather pragmatic.

You can find the entire exchange, including Haskhes’ thoughtful and gracious response, here at:

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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