Laura Levitt & Judith Butler (Jewish Studies — Cultural Politics)

Or was Leopold Zunz just wasting his time and ours when he established the academic study of Judaism two hundred years ago in Germany? Sometimes I’m not sure. Who actually cares about Leopold Zunz? Does Jewish Studies even matter? It would sometimes seem not very much. Why invest the time when you can just make stuff up? Zunz (?) famously stated that it was the job of academic Jewish Studies to give Judaism a decent burial. Maybe it’s time to do the same to Jewish Studies.

I remember back in the early 1990s at the height of the AIDS crisis there was a big conference at Berkeley about the “discourse” of AIDS, or something like that. There were a bunch of heavy hitter high-theorists invited to speak. I was a graduate student at Stanford at the time. So too was my brother. He and his friends in ACT UP and Queer Nation were incredibly pissed off, went to the conference, and got into people’s face. They were not polite. They were not circumspect. And they paid a price. The reason for the upset had a lot to do with the fact that none of the super-stars invited to pronounce knew anything and had nothing really insightful to say about AIDS and queer politics, homophobia outside and inside (!!!) the university. No activists from the community, people who actually knew something about these matters, were invited to participate, because, of course, what they had to think or say didn’t matter, because they didn’t matter. This happens a lot to theorists, especially left-leaning ones, who come to a subject from the outside. It’s the privilege of a superstar to pronounce, and to do so with authority.

This event is reminding me of the appearance of Judith Butlter on the scene to pronounce about Judaism and Zionism. A lot of my colleague friends have weighed in on FB with and against my posts about Judith Butler’s intervention into the polemical field that is Israel-Zionism-Palestine-Judaism.

It’s not that I don’t see what I’m doing here. I don’t want to play the game of the angry gate-keeper, the scold, the enforcer, the cop whose job it is to silence heresy and dissent. But I do find myself wishing to see an intervention into the discourses of Judaism and Zionism that pays more carefully textured attention to these discourses.

It’s with this in mind that I’m posting below comments by my friend and colleague Laura Levitt of Temple University regarding my recent posts about Butler. Laura’s pushback with and perhaps against me has been most judicious.

On one hand, Laura shares many of the critical concerns about and against Zionism, shared by Butler, but expressed here by Laura with much more deft critical acumen, if only for the simple reason that Laura has spent more time with and has a lot more to say about Jews and Judaism that is actually interesting and to the point.

On the other hand, Laura is also concerned about the nature of Butler’s intervention into a group of fields, including Jewish Studies, about which she seems to have bothered little. There’s every reason to welcome a timely, critical intervention. But these things need to be finessed, and I’m not the only one who thinks this. What I see in Butler about Zionism and Judaism are moral and political pronouncements based upon jargon and concepts, nothing at all that might resemble a face. It’s one thing to reject Zionism, but it would seem to me that a critical approach to the subject would include some recognition as to the realities and judgments about reality reflected therein. For that, a little more Jewish Studies and Israel Studies would have gone a long way to establish Butler’s competence in these matters.

But look, I’m beginning to feel like Saul, out persecuting the Christians. I’m going to stop what I fear has become a rant, and let Laura have the last word, because I think she comes to this with more circumspection than I.

Regarding Laura’s remarks, my only criticism here is that I also see but am not as much bothered by the materialization of metaphor as is she. It seems rather late in the game to give up on material culture, and Zionism is nothing if not the materialization of Jewish “discourse.” That to me is the power of place, which has always been the attraction of Israel to me, both growing up and in my own theoretical forays into Jewish philosophy. At issue is making sure that the forms that the materializations assume felicitous shape, and being open to moral and political ambiguity. On this I think all of us can agree.  

Laura gets the last word:

A pleasure, especially after the not so helpful review of Butler’s book in the Forward… As I read your words here, I kept thinking of Sidra Ezrahi writing about the dangers of the rematerialization of metaphors, your reading of Rosenzweig speak to the power and allure of the materiality, the physicality of precisely that place. I want to write about the tension and have it both ways but worry as you do about what it means now and suspect that this is why I am so drawn to Ezrahi’s Booking Passage. Thank you! I also just want others to read your really great first installation, your fuller review of the book! Shana Tova! LL

I simply want to go back to the allure of the material and the dangers and for me there is something about the materialization of sedimented metaphors of Zion and the land that are dangerous. I think this is part of the power and beauty of what Sidra Ezrahi does in imagining the broken replica, the not real mishkan and how she wants to hold on to that instead some “real” or, dare I say, really real because the rematerialization, it seems to me is at the heart of some of the most insidious aspects of the horrible present. And here, I think that Butler, at her very best, is attempting to interview out of a sense of urgency, the ways that a singular Zionist vision of Jewish has become ubiquitous and her efforts are to undo that contemporary formation and here she goes to sources she finds useful in various ways… I am still reading and I am also thinking a lot about the Hegelian problem, the Jew and the non Jew… thank you all!

A part of this discussion is precisely about ‘public discourse’ and the degree to which any smart, nuanced, thoughtful engagement happens outside of small circles of academics in Jewish Studies. That is the other problem, even in the academy discourse around Jews, Jewishness, Judaism and, perhaps most especially zionism, are not in conversation with those in Jewish Studies. Ok that makes JS sound more interesting than perhaps it often is, but there is something going on both in relation to Jewish and, of course, religion that is certain a problem in the humanities and this is, in part why I am often eager to try and engage with any and all who open up conversation in this way. My own adventures have been around gender and Jewish and mostly with those in literary theory and they don’t often want those conversations

The challenge even in comparison is a reduction to sameness or common ground. For me the issue is about proximity or touching, allowing different positions to engage with each other without already knowing the conclusions. This was part of what I wrote about different losses touching each other and illuminating each other through the interaction. In part, I guess my naive and perhaps frustrated feeling in reading Butler is there are so many people, thoughtful people in Jewish Studies like both of you and Shaul among others who are not addressed, whose work is invisible despite the stakes in these arguments and efforts to make connections with her (Here I think of what I am told was an amazing AJS panel where Martin brilliantly responded to Butler’s work.) I did leave MJT to explore questions that I did not feel able to address in those terms but seeking out alternate conversation partners did not, in the end, mean that scholars from outside of JS were that keen to engage with me around issues that were very much about Jewishness, Judaism, and Jews. So the openness needs to move in both directions. And given Butler’s powerful presence I both appreciate the gesture in this direction but am also aware of how selective her engagement is. I wish she could have been more overtly in conversation with some of you in tackling these issues. And, I wonder about that tension around the universal that is so profoundly bound to the local and the particular, it is the humility of those more partial and perhaps also corrigible locations like JS that remind me that these kinds of connections and comparisons are possible.

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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2 Responses to Laura Levitt & Judith Butler (Jewish Studies — Cultural Politics)

  1. evanstonjew says:

    At its core modern JS is the study of Torah . Just as Quine says the philosophy of science, ontology & epistemology is science, so too research into the Bible, Talmud and Jewish philosophy, kabbalah and chassidus are all part of an ongoing project to study/ learn/understand Torah in all its fullness and depth. Close to a half million Jews study core Torah, and there are hundreds of thousands interested in issues of the role of gender, Zionism, Judaism and Jewishness, aka Yiddishkeit, in their lives. Why engage in modern Talmudic Studies, (e.g. Elman, Halivni, new translations)? No reason at all other than you are already engaged in learning the Talmud and the new critical methods have something interesting to contribute. And the same answer suitable adjusted applies to the rest of the field.
    Your question does travel upwards, why study Torah other than giving it a decent burial? There are many answers, but the short American pragmatic answer is we study Torah because it is interesting and fun, and it helps us deepen our understanding by providing a home base for our travels through the many disciplines and life experiences. BTW it wasn’t Zunz but Steinschneider who was supposed to have quipped about giving the remains of Judaism a decent burial.. For a full discussion of Steinschneider’s actual views see here: http://hsf.bgu.ac.il/cjt/files/Knowledge/Manekin.pdf .Even if you think of JS as a branch of French philosophy or identity studies there is no reason for the weariness and pessimism. The world of Continental criticism and speculation has not disappeared with the death of Derrida and Levinas any more than with the passing of the Buber-Rosenzweig generation. Queer studies is alive and well as is gender studies. The ongoing intellectual secular high culture brings up another reason for JS…in thinking about the interplay of contemporary advanced thought and Torah we stay young and awake, and generate new possibilities for the development of some face of Torah.

  2. Zunz (?) famously stated that it was the job of academic Jewish Studies to give Judaism a decent burial–That was Moritz Steinschneider, one of the most eminent bibliographers of Jewish literature.

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