Fat Rabbis and Jewish Philosophy (Humor and Religion)

Please excuse the critical remarks, under which I would include my own work, but I wish there were more “fat” philosophers. Indeed, I can think of no “fat” Jewish ones, even though I think there is something comic about how seriously Jewish philosophy takes itself vis-à-vis the ethical, political, or theological positions we assume. “Jewish philosophy” seems constitutionally unable to distinguish between posture (without which there is no such thing as discourse) and mere posing (of which there is too much).

It’s the hiding behind hermeneutics and the utter seriousness by which we stake positions that compares so unfavorably with rabbinic practice. We have a lot more to learn from the Bavli. First thing is to set aside the Levinas. What I like so much about Boyarin’s  Socrates and the Fat Rabbis is the non-normative, post-ethical or non-ethical positioning, the close attention to “the concretely sensuous plane of images and events,” (as per Boyarin [p.278] citing Bakhtin [Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, p.134]).

One thing perhaps that both the Bavli and aesthetics might contribute to Jewish philosophy is a little irony, a little surface irregularity, a wink and nod and a tongue in cheek. Overinvested in categories and concepts, Jewish philosophers tend to hyper-moralize, or we pretend to be “political” which is why it sometimes seems that no one takes us seriously. We tend not see the art in anything. There has been absolutely no critical attention to “rhetoric” in contemporary Jewish philosophy, and very little understanding of its art.

Perhaps, perhaps, a little more Hume, a little more Nietzsche, a little more Deleuze, a little more Rorty, a little more Cavell, and lots less Kant, Hegel, and Levinas. Consider too Judith Butler’s utterly unfunny blurb to the back of Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, where she writes about the close attention [to that which] fails to conform to authoritative law.” Her devotion to subversion I find too serious. It’s a seriousness which we’d expect from a philosopher, not from a rabbi.

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to Fat Rabbis and Jewish Philosophy (Humor and Religion)

  1. Jason L. says:

    I can’t believe you posted this tonight, because we spent close to an hour talking about fat rabbis and “excess of flesh” tonight in my Sex and Saints course. Nothing like analyzing an excess of members.

    Ah, Bava Metzia.

  2. Wilson Dickinson says:

    I like this post and it is a sentiment that I would like to direct to contemporary Christian philosophy (as if there were such a thing).
    I was a little unsure what you meant by turning away from ethics at first, but it seems like part of what you object to is the formalism of what passes for ethics today. If ethics, however, was not simply about theory and codes, but if it was about ethos/character (I would want to add practices of the self), then you are talking about shifting away from a dry or overly formal character/ethos to one that was more lively, comical, and earnest. This would not mean a turn away from ethics to aesthetics, but engaging with ethics in a different way. Or am I misunderstanding you and you want to bracket character, relationship, responsibility, etc.?

    • zjb says:

      Hi Wilson! Yes, in part, it’s a shift from formal ethics. But in part, it’s a shift from ethics tout court. Part of Boyarin’s point, I’ll put it more crudely than him, is that the rabbis get nasty. Not always, but sometimes. They play more fast and loose, again to put it quickly and crudely. I wouldn’t want to make them into virtue ethicists, and I don’t think Boyarin wants to either. See my Rabbi Akiva post to get a sense of what the editors of the Bavli might be doing with the sainted martyr. All the best, –Zak

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