Imagination — What is Jewish Philosophy-Jewish Thought?

Jewish philosophy and Jewish thought is the work “in which human imagination and will create the very empirical situation form which the idea of God and…revelation are deduced” (Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 20:1, p,96).

Once again, Martin Kavka gets it spot right, but I’m not sure why he wants to call this “strange” (ibid.). Actually, I think I know why. Martin always asks the $64,000 question. In this case, he demands to know what is the truth value of the image work that constitutes Jewish philosophy and Jewish thought once we understand that Jewish thought is rooted as much if not more in the imagination as it in reason.

In private conversations, I’ve been hearing from him for awhile now about his two essays on “Verification” and they are finally out in print. This is exciting news. One of the essays is on Buber (in the volume of the JJTP noted above). The other is on Rosenzweig in the Wiese and Urban edited volume, German Jewish Thought between Religion and Politics, which I’m still reading and liking very much. A version of the verification essays are going to make it into Martin’s next book.

These essays demonstrate why Martin is one of the most important thinkers at work in the field of modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy. As far as I’m concerned, nobody is asking the critical questions like Martin about the relation between imagination and philosophy. He is right to complain about the work of too much of the scholarship and too many of our colleague-friends in contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought who simply ape the theoretical sounds made by Buber, Rosenzweig (and I’ll add Levinas) without realizing the root of their thought in the imagination and without any critical interrogation as to what is at work in these sounds. Do we simply trust language, as averred by Rosenzweig? Do we maintain with Buber the pure immediacy of an I-You encounter (this by the way, is not Buber’s position as I have read it, but that is how he is read). (And I’ll add, how much more can go on about “the face of the other”? )

At the same time, I also think Martin’s pushing too hard in these essays. To correct the subjectivism he finds faults in Buber and Rosenzweig, he wants to return Jewish philosophy to a position, according to which we can only commit ourselves to a proposition that sustains all the logical rigor of a logical positivist. The nod to Anthony Flew in a footnote makes this move explicit.

In my estimation, Martin swings too hard away from the canon, and that he does so for the wrong reasons. I don’t think that the images driving early twentieth century Jewish thought are as private (subjective) as Martin claims they are. (I think I may be more right about Buber here, and less right about Rosenzweig). For Martin, Jewish philosophy and thought constitute a set of propositions (re: “salvation”) that need to be “verified,” although perhaps the better word here is “tested.” Or rather, private beliefs that need to be “grounded.”

My problem with this line of interrogation is that I think religious thought and philosophy is always already “grounded.” Again, this is more true of Buber. Rosenzweig was a bit of a loon, a loner terribly self-involved in a very limited circle of close confidants. In contrast, Buber knew everybody at the fin de siècle and everyone knew him. His work reflects and is reflected in major currents of German neo-romantic letters (Rilke, Hoffmannstahl), German Expressionism (mentioned by name by Hermann Bahr and Gustav Hartlaub), and was, of course, involved in major currents of Zionist cultural politics and Jewish textual study. His work comes out of that “ground.” Buber’s was not a private language to the same degree that, let’s say, Rosenzweig’s was.

I don’t think aesthetic or religious form is every as arbitrary as Martin fears, that it’s not just “mere rhetoric” or “piffle” (JJTP,  74). The most important part of Buber’s I and Thou is the comment that comes after he admits that the God who is (in essence) eternal Thou, always becomes an IT in human history and the history of religions. But then Buber adds, and nobody ever cites this: “not arbitrarily.” I think this gets it right. For Buber these moments do in fact take shape in or predure in time or space (JTTP, 86). Buber, perhaps more than Rosenzweig, was a self-critical thinker who understood the operation of image work. Actually, I think Rosenzweig understood this too. They just weren’t critical enough, not about the limits of their own work, and not about the limits of trust. About this, Martin is very right. It is the Achilles’ heel of modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought.

Along the same line, I don’t think aesthetic or religious form is as simply “interior” as Martin suspects. My own sense is that the lines between “inside” and “outside” are not so clearly demarcated, that these lines are fungible, and that this becomes more and more true in the modern and postmodern periods. Glass construction would be emblematic of this lability. In itself, an image is neither transparent nor opaque. It’s the job of the critic to make the image transparent, to highlight the image character of the image, to bring it up to the surface. This allows one to sit inside the image and also to look through the image in order to see what’s outside the image; to walk into and out of and back into the image-place or image-construct with more pronounced circumspection.

Martin is right to call of this into question. For my part, I am less anxious about the logic undergirding these works of modern Jewish thought. Like anything else, their work will fall short. I just don’t think it’s “piffle” as does Martin does.

Regarding imagination, I would recommend to anyone Kalman Bland’s essay, “Liberating Imagination and Other Ends of Medieval Jewish Philosophy.” It appears in the same issue of the JJTP as Martin’s essay. As Kalman understands it, the work of imagination is symbiotic with the work of reason. Martin, I think, asks the harder philosophical questions. But I think Kalman gets it right insofar as his own thinking is bogged down by none of the anxiety about imagination and image work that motors Martin more skeptical approach. In contrast to Martin’s, Kalman’s thinking is much more relaxed.

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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2 Responses to Imagination — What is Jewish Philosophy-Jewish Thought?

  1. Ingrid Anderson says:

    I absolutely agree with you about Rosenzweig, including your suggestion that his work/language/imagery was and was meant to be more “subjective” and private. And isn’t it annoying when we can’t, as a field, seem to break free of these scripted ways of examining and thinking about not only the canonical thinkers, but about Jewish thought in general?

    • zjb says:

      It’s only annoying until we start breaking free of those scripted ways. Then it’s great. This is one of the things I always like about Martin’s critiques, the shock to the system. Thanks, Ingrid.

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