Germans (Jewish Philosophy)

(Anselm Kiefer, at the Gran Palais)

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Holy deutschjudischegeistesgeschichte, Batman, those German Jews had style! I just finished reading the Christian Wiese and Martina Urban (eds.), German-Jewish Thought between Religion and Poltics and loved every page of it. The essays are far ranging and varied. Topics include liberalism, identity and difference, religion, philosophy, law, art, freedom, and politics. The volume was collected as a festschrift honoring Paul Mendes-Flohr, and it’s contributors are the best and the brightest. There’s not a dog in this collection.

All the boys are here: Mendelssohn, Lessing, Heine, Cohen, Buber, Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Schmitt, Strauss, Taubes, Jonas, and Arendt. About this, I’ll say something more caustic in a later post. But for now, it’s great to see them all here. It’s like a family reunion.

But there’s some discomfort in all this, having to do with history and the passage of time. These guys and their place in Germany has been the foundation stone for the practice of modern and contemporary Jewish thought. And yet, I think it’s important, if I haven’t noted it before, that the distance in time between us and Buber, who starts writing in the early 1900s, is the same distance separating him from the early German romantics. On top of that historical gap, a continent  separates us from them even further.

When Paul started working on Buber and Rosenzweig, the guys were pretty fresh, and the sense of their lived presence in the U.S. and in Israel was enlivened by the almost direct mediation of German scholars such as Altman, Glatzer, Scholem, and Simon. Dialogue, revelation, and redemption were still relatively fresh in the 1960s and 1970s. The memory and second impact of Buber and Rosenzweig were not so old when Paul was young. But something happens, when what was new all of sudden, on a dime, turns old. The same sudden temporal swerve happened to modernism, and it is happening to German Jewish thought and philosophy as well.  Increasingly it makes sense to me to look at them and their concepts as time-bound, place-specific, and antiquarian.

What this means is what? Do the Germans still present the lodestar for work in contemporary Jewish thought and philosophy? Or isn’t it about time we leave the boys to the intellectual historians?

And if the Germans still pivot modern Jewish philosophy and thought, it may very well be for the verve and the art which they brought to modern Judaism.  I can’t see the future of modern Jewish philosophy and thought without them, unless “we” decide at some point to shuck them and to start over. With what and with whom is still not clear to me. But right now I think a little distance and reserve might be in order.

The other day, I was driving through Manhattan flipping through the radio (yes, that old thing!) with the sunroof of the car open, and caught something I recognized. It was, I’m pretty sure a bit of Mahler from the 2nd Symphony. As for the composer, the first thing of I ever heard of Mahler’s, was Lied von der Erde. I was working on the The Shape of Revelation when I decided to start listening to classical music on my commute to Syracuse. I figured that early 20th century modern German Jewish thought needed a soundtrack, so I started listening to Mahler and Schoenberg. And the first song by Mahler in Lied von der Erde, well, it made me laugh, it was so over the top. I dug it, but it made me laugh. I like the way the song framed my thought then, that morning several years back, and I liked that framing listening to the 2nd on that sunny day in Manhattan. The sounds were as bright as the day and they moved me along down 110th Street.

Perhaps what this might mean for Jewish philosophy and thought, as opposed to modern Jewish intellectual history, is that the Germans will continue to frame the “form” of its work, without, however, letting the “contents” completely subsume more contemporary articulations in the early part of the 21st century. I still think we American Jews and American Jewish philosophers and theologians have a lot to learn from the artful panache, bigness of world, and ironic polish reflected in this lost world of German Jewish geistesgeschichte. But let’s be clear. The image that “flashes up” will increasingly flash up qua image as an image from the past. To read them constructively, and not just historically, perhaps it is time to read these frames within a new set of frames.

About a more severe form of leave-taking from German Jewish thought as it developed in the decades before and after mid-century, I’ll write maybe tomorrow, with something of the brutality with which it presents itself. But I want to keep those more belligerent comments separate from this post about a book for which I have only deep admiration, and for those German Jews, and only those, whose work I still love.

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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