Bible, A-Politics, Aesthetics (Michael Walzer)

(Cervera Bible 1300)

Let’s assume that Michael Walzer in In God’s Shadow is right about the apolitical politics of the Hebrew Bible. So if the Bible is not “political,” well then you want to ask what it “is.” You can call it theological, and that would be correct, but it doesn’t go too far. It’s a tautological statement: a book, or collection of writings that presents itself as a book or collection of religious revelation is a book or collection of religious revelation. To clarify further what something “is,” you want also to align it with the thing-that-it’s-not to which it is most proximate. In other words, you want to align it with a thing that it’s most like even though it’s not that thing, not exactly or actually.

So what “is” the Bible if it’s not political? As I posted below, for Walzer this means that most of the biblical authors are not interested in politics as the arena of mundane constitutional arrangements, or more dramatically, with Hannah Arendt, as the arena of inter-human agon. So if the Bible is not political, then perhaps it “is” aesthetic.  The Bible is aesthetic. Not exactly, not actually, but aesthetics is what the Bible is most close to being not.

Walzer comes only close to seeing this, perhaps because the scope of his book is limited to what the Bible is definitely not, namely politics, politics being the thing he knows best. As for the Bible being aesthetic, Walzer drops an indication to this effect here and there in In God’s Shadow. If the Bible isn’t “political,” its force or authority would rest only in the eloquence of its rhetoric and images. Walzer cites Robert Alter to call the book of Esther “a kind of fairy tale.” He remarks that the people are saved by the protagonist’s “beauty and courage” (pp.116, 117). And he will have said about the prophets that they are dependent, that they can only prove that their words are divine on the basis of the eloquence of their words (p.78). The prophetic writings are more poetic than political.

This is not to say that there is no poetry in the rough and tumble of politics. But political poetics, the eloquence of a politician, is of a different sort, a more or less different sort, than religious poetics, the poetics of a prophet, because the poltician’s work and poetic, as per Walzer, is more invested in aspects of human agency and inter-human life than are the prophet and messianist, who would seem to take almost no practicable interest in “mere” politics, their imagination and their poetics being cast in the shadow of God. The prophetic writings, for instance, are hot, radiant little things, compacted into the pages of the Bible, compacted into Jewish liturgy. I’m not sure you want to set these things out loose into the public sphere.

The risk of catastrophe is one more reason not to politicize the Bible, not to politicize Judaism, not to politicize religion, at least not too much or not “more than is necessary” (That’s an old Jewish [?] joke, that defines anti-Semitism as hating Jews more than is necessary). Because when prophets and psuedo prophets take over, bad things tend to happen. Walter Benjamin was half right in the essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” when he observed that fascists aestheticize politics. If religion is aesthetic, then you want to keep it away from politicians and ideologues who might use the aesthetic radiance of religion to push politics. Conversely, you don’t want to politicize aesthetics either, because that too is the work of what they used to call “totalitarianism” in the 20th century. (This, Benjamin did not see.) Of course, maybe you don’t want to aestheticize religion either, at least no more than is necessary, but the problem is that religion is almost always aesthetic, no matter where you look at it.

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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7 Responses to Bible, A-Politics, Aesthetics (Michael Walzer)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    or, maybe, in a broader sense, what you are banishing is aesthetics itself. if aesthetics is dangerous when mixed and dangerous when unmixed then aesthetics is just plain dangerous. and if one is out to evade danger, well…. then one knows what to avoid. I suppose i would ask if there is a difference between the construction of the beautiful and the construction of the fetish. I think that the “dangers” here lie much more in a sort of fetishization of blood, or purity, or what-have-you…. but i am not convinced that this is the same thing as the contemplation of the beautiful in itself. that is not to say that it is altogether distinct either…. perhaps a species of it, or its bastard child. but being able to make the distinction – if there is one – would go a long way towards carving out a place for the aesthetic and for religion.

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    maybe that isn’t the distinction at all. i remember in mendelssohn’s aesthetic writings he talks about the comic as an ambivalent reaction to something…. the feeling of both disgust and enjoyment. perhaps if we interpret disgust less viscerally as apprehension or something of that sort, it is possible to say that one “safe” mode of relation to the beautiful is via the comic insofar as it entails a relation to the beautiful which defers total immersion?

  3. Gail says:

    Maybe the bible is a text that exemplifies how every attempt to reduce ethics to politics fails. It shows us that the canopy of ethics–the urgent press of *questions* of a normative character–always supersedes any particular instantiation of that canopy or set(s) of practical answers to those questions. [This fact is, by the by, why Peirce argued so persistently and stridently that general concepts are real, but that’s another, um, thread.] So I would say–in language that mirrors Peirce’s tortuous neologisms–that the bible exhibits politicality without politics (akin to Kant’s purposiveness without purpose). Clearly the writings of the bible are concerned with human life *together*, with the values, virtues, challenges, corruptions, and concerns that arise when we try to live together. The text even comments rather specifically on particular vulnerabilities of enduring groups of persons (widows, orphans, children, the aged, the socially marginalized [aliens, or colonial minorities]. It differs from any ethical text whatsoever by taking for granted that this capacious problematic can only really (or rightly, or fully) be engaged in so far as human communities orient themselves–subordinate themselves–to Yahweh, to Torah.

  4. Jim Watts says:

    What if rather than trying to figure out what the Bible is or isn’t, we just observe how the Bible functions, that is, what people do with it. Then, of course, we notice that they use the Bible to do politics, and art, and ethics, and many, many other things … including religion.

  5. nitzan says:

    A wonderful short essay. I have to say that to me Walzer’s distinction is very old- fashioned and expresses itself a pretty political (even if latent and unadmitted) liberal take on where aesthetics and politics should be divided.

  6. efmooney says:

    One of the things people ‘do’ with the Bible is argue about what it is and what to do with it. And in the course of their many-faceted conversations and debates they learn more about themselves and their worlds, and the selves and worlds of others. In that case, the book is a provocation, an instigator — not just to bare thought but to imaginative variation and elaboration. One writes Moby Dick as a way to rewrite the Bible (or, say, to rewrite The Book of Job). Kierkegaard rewrites the binding of Isaac from so many angles that the story beautifully implodes and makes a mockery of usual attempts to distinguish ethics / religion, or ethics / aesthetics, or aesthetics / politics. Here the great service of the great Book is the generation of further great books (and poems, and polemics, and . . . sadly, further great wars and killings). But if the Book is worth it’s salt, it doesn’t baldly say “These are the essential Rules” or “Always obey God” or “Never make (aesthetic) images of Me” — It is always richer than its commentaries, which is how it lasts for further use. It asks questions in many ways, but one is by juxtaposing situations in tension and refusing a resolution, raising the issues of “what’s right” or ”where do politics or ethics or aesthetics stop, or go, or dance together or fight” without giving simple answers or resolutions. Sometimes it just sings our brute pain and misery, and our misery at having no answers. It tolerates and exemplifies the mishmash of life we try so valiantly to bring into order. It’s as if the book has a rage for a disorder we just can’t help trying — and failing — to clean up. It is a rebuke to hopelessness, but also a rebuke schemes of domestication. Kafka and Dickinson and Tony Morrison and Yehuda Amichai know this.

    • efmooney says:

      Continued . . . First, Zak’s piece is tremendously illuminating. Several hours after a first reading, and response, it’s still simmering. Maybe partly because I walk in Yafo, without Arabic or Hebrew, in sections without English. [ –No. . . I’d be thinking at this pitch if I were on Westcott St. ]

      I like the way Zak homes in on a vivid examples to explore the matter of — well, let’s just say, legitimate murder and Zealotry. He reads the ur-text carefully, and then brings us to commentaries most of us non-specialists are probably unfamiliar with, and develops his readings of both in a voice we can trust. Having said that (and on that ground I can only learn) I find that stepping back I’m interested in the debate, but also in the general methodological question that Zak raises: how do we get clear about “religion” or “aesthetics” or “zealotry” or “justification” (for starters)?

      Zak suggests we compare cases in a continuum — “What is phenomenon A ‘next to’? What is its near relative?” Comparing cases is where it’s at, a good method that sits along with looking at functions, linguistic or social functions, say. There’s something of a potential trap, here, however. The method proposed assumes we know the “near-relative”, the ‘contrast case,’ unproblematically. But what if the neighbor case is slippery, too — as slippery (once we ponder it) as the case that we started out being puzzled about?
      If I’m going to pull religion and aesthetic together or apart (for instance), I have to have a firm grip on at least one of this contrastive pair. Do I ? If not, do I become caught in an infinite regress of doubts? (Not a good outcome.)

      I’m not a skeptic because I believe we learn from such attempted comparisons, even those that lead into ever-deeper questions (rather than into the clarity of definitive answers). Sometimes asking the question leads us finally to question that question as an obviously helpful on. Thus it might seem a perfectly good question to ask whether the Brahms German Requiem is an aesthetic object, a political-aesthetic object, an aesthetic-political-religious object — or what? (Or switch “object” to “event,” or “functions as” if you want — perhaps express the question adverbially: am I moved aesthetically or religiously, etc? )

      What I learn from this exercise is to make my distinctions more fine grained, and to trust the deliverance of considered judgment — of course, in the case at hand (the Brahms) it’s all three at once, and you’d pry one from the other only for special purposes (You shift the question to, Who paid Brahms? Was his musical inclination skewed because he wanted to please his financial sponsor? So you’d reject the original question, “Is religion aesthetics” because it doesn’t lead anywhere helpful. You’ve advanced beyond skepticism, and hopefully learned something about the regions in dispute through consideration of cases. abjuring ‘theory’ and ‘hard definitions.’

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