Judaic Studies (~Spiritual)

(Madame Blavatsky)

I wanted to share remarks shared with me by Craig Martin in response to a suggestion made to me by another friend and colleague on FB that one thing we do in Judaic Studies, as an academic discipline, is prepare students for “moral, emotional, spiritual challenges.” Craig is an SU Religion grad now teaching Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Craig is in deep with a group of colleagues who argue that academic Religious Studies is already and always too theological, too steeped in the theological commitments suggested by my friend who wants us to take up these moral, emotional, challenges.

Craig wrote the following, which I cite with his permission:

However, regarding those students interested in preparation for moral, emotional, and spiritual challenges: I hope they go somewhere else than my class. The idea that “religious studies” prepares students for those challenges reinforces the idea that religious studies isn’t really academic, that it’s some sort of existentialist counseling service—and I’m not a counselor. As a professor, I am no more interested in existential naval-gazing than my colleagues in history, sociology, or economics—the “meaning of life” falls outside the scope of my expertise.

In addition, by suggesting that religious studies prepares students for thinking about such things, we do a disservice to those in the field—like myself—who want religious studies to be taken more seriously by scholars in other disciplines who already think we’re all theologians. At my college I keep getting told that we could get more religion majors if we teamed up with the campus ministries program. I need less, not more of that sort of thing. But it won’t change if we continue to send the message that religious studies concerns preparing for spiritual challenges.

It is a rare pleasure when I get to agree with Craig, and to say so in public. It doesn’t happen often, but I’m with him on this one. The pitch I want to make for Judaic Studies, as an academic disciple, has to be cool and pragmatic. In fact, I’m not as closed as Craig is to this squishy spiritual stuff, and understand that, yes, it drives a lot of the work done by scholars of religion. But this stuff can get toxic fast, and it needs to be pursued with genuine critical rigor.

I don’t mind crypto theology and other kinds of existential musing creeping into the discipline, as long as they remain  crypto. In response to the comment posted here by my colleague Ed Mooney, who does not shy at all away from the existential question in Religious Studies: I find that the best approach to these matters, the kinds of theological and existential questions and claims that matter in and to the texts and writers we read,  is the oblique, unstated, and, at most, understated approach; and a critical approach which means standing at a critical remove. Unlike Craig, though, I’m a committed liberal, a firm believer in the power of a box, and the making of artificial, not hard and fast, but fungible lines of separation between one thing and another.

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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8 Responses to Judaic Studies (~Spiritual)

  1. efmooney says:

    Well, we have some familiar but questionable assumptions at work here. Of course there’s no question of religious studies doing ‘existential counseling’. But reading Sartre or Camus on the evasion of responsibility in theism and the necessity for committed political action and aesthetic production are existential responses that should be of great interest to at least some academic practitioners of religious studies. And looking at the way Heidegger or Kierkegaard figure anxiety and the looming of death is neither navel gazing nor un-academic nor theology nor an issue in social science (history, economics, sociology). Of course ‘the meaning of life’ may sound broad, but it’s as full (and empty) as “critique of religion” or “the academic study of religion.’ Religious studies is in a chronic identity crisis. It’s rush to the social sciences as a model is no more justified that a Shakespeare scholar rushing there. True, economics and politics can throw light on Hamlet, but we can get at the sensibility of doubt and despair and the echt existentialist self-and-other inquiry and exposure at work there quite apart from physics or cognitive science or the latest ‘critical theory.’ It’s not ‘existentialist counseling,’ it’s widening a sense of the human, of what human sensibility can be (in a narrow or capacious sense of the term), and it is sensibilities responsive to existential conditions of affliction, celebratory welcome of the future day, of grave injustice, or meaningless death and dismemberment, etc etc that are the ‘lived experiences’ to which music, poetry, theater, the novel, philosophy, art, architecture, etc etc respond. (Of course all these respond to other vectors of experience and exposure and immersion, too — the economic ones Marx was aware of, for instance.)

    The aesthetics of religious sensibility and expression is fair game for academic inquiry and exploration. Why not add religious sensibility as it is expressed in music, poetry, and philosophy and art to the list of objects of concern in religious studies? Music in an academic setting might have to worry about crypto entertainers taking over, or figuring out how the read the poetry at the end of the Book of Job might invite crypto theologians, and modulating our awareness off the depths and breadths of Hamlet’s consciousness might invite crypto recruiters for a suicide cult, or reading the nature mysticism of St Francis might invite crypto eco-terrorists to take over.

    It used to be that a commie was under every bed, making academia a corrupt place as soon as it moved into economic or social or political reality. Now it’s a theologian under every bed as soon as it moves into religious poetry or the aesthetics (and existential meanings) of grave yards or the practice of hiring mourners at funerals or the dangers of fanaticism or the wonders and terrors of religious painting. Religious studies should be moving out to embrace the humanities rather than hiding behind the protective walls of the social sciences; it can live there and do great work there; but there’s a vaster landscape to explore outside the walls that ought not to be maligned or suppressed or merely forgotten.

    • zjb says:

      It’s not that I disagree with you, Ed. But I don’t disagree with Craig either! There’s the rub. I think it’s always a question about an “oblique” approach to these kind of “squishy” existential concerns.

      • efmooney says:

        Yea, you know, Zak, the humanities as a whole are degraded because they don’t look ‘serious’ next to specialists in hard and soft sciences who develop the jargon of expertise and make quantitative advances in a subject matter. I could teach Hamlet to first-year, fourth-year, or grads — I wouldn’t teach ‘methods of accounting’ at all those levels because for the latter there’s a method and technique to master, and either you get or you don’t, and we can test to find out. With reading poetry or viewing painting you can never quite “get it” or always be willing to throw yourself back in for another dose, and that’s the way it should be. [I can read the Republic every year, but not my algebra text. So from the angle of disciplines that build up knowledge and technique stepwise, that makes it seem that in the humanities we’re not serious, not ‘accumulating knowledge and new methods for wide distribution.’ We’re passing on love of certain things, which is never done once for all, and must be reestablished day by day, year by year.

  2. Gail says:

    I coined the phrase “pedagogy of the oblique” years ago–the last time SU asked me to speak at a something (Tolley? Women’s Studies? I forget). I prefer the oblique, just as I prefer student papers that wrestle with the analytical problematic of the questions at stake, rather than their personal, existential answers (they can explore those after graduation, thank you). Semantics is rather important here: “preparing” students for certain kinds of challenges is not the same thing as teaching about or to those challenges.
    The weird thing about so many religion departments vs the rest of the humanities, though, is that religion can shy away from the political as much as the spiritual. English, Anthropology, certain forms of History, even Sociology in no way shy away from the political stakes of their bibliographies. Why should we? We’re not analytical philosophers paving the road to True untrammeled truth, and we’re not political activists with an axe to grind; but to raise political stakes OR spiritual stakes as part of mapping the problematic of inquiry is not the same thing as advocating a specific position or method. And I do think these ‘stakes’ are what keep the Humanities vital and central to the project of higher education.

  3. efmooney says:

    You know Zak, and Craig, and Gail, I mourn for the loss of the sense that we seek something rich and redeeming and energizing and illuminating in religious texts and artifact as they enter our classes in religious studies. As the term ends, I wonder if I’ve done what I have felt called to do, that something that goes beyond holding things at arms length for impersonal critique and takes things to heart. Then I remembered a dear colleague from The university of Chicago who is here reflecting on her aims in teaching religious texts:

    CAITLIN LOWE: I cared about their literacy, but I came to care more about their sense of what a religious attitude might be. We talked about ends and means, what it would mean for an activity to be its own fulfillment (for example running, dancing, playing, praying). What is a caress? I would ask. How does it differ from other ways of touching? And now look at how you bend over your book, giving yourself to each word in succession, patiently allowing it to impress its meaning on you, meaning you didn’t author. See how each word is set down as a memorial, and how you take your leave of it, possibly transformed. See how the text works like a revelation? See how it commands obedience (from obey: to hear)? With what authority does it command you? And with what joy and thanksgiving do you respond to its call? We talked about awe, and we talked about shame, and together we wondered why it hurts (so good) to look at something or someone very, very beautiful. — It seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that perhaps the greatest gift any of us give one another is the provocative invitation to take up one’s own life as an object worthy of faithful attention, to encourage one another to bend over that book, to submit oneself to its rigors.

    I find these reflections eloquent and tender and not a but untoward academically, and not a bit navel-gazing or therapeutic counseling.

    • zjb says:

      Ed: It’s not that I disagree with you, and I’m pretty sure that Gail agrees with me, although Craig would not. I’m certainly open to this kind of haptic reading of religious texts. But for me, as I think also for Gail, the main thing is how to do all this in an oblique way, as that preserves the element of criticism alongside the element of sympathy. Does that make sense?

      • efmooney says:

        I guess I would feel disattended to if someone approached me obliquely. I want as direct an encounter as possible. Is there a metaphysical-epistemological claim that encounter is always oblique? I guess I think even irony is direct rather than oblique. Is tact oblique? I find it hard to capture what’s in a good piece or art or a good passage from a text, and I try from this angle and that. Maybe “oblique” just means “Don’t package things in formulas.” So the knowledge is tactile, haptic, and also born of tenderness and love. If I don’t love what I read, I don’t bother. Love is a generous interpreter, not a cagey, sideways, deflationary, knives-out endeavor, full of ‘gotcha,’ and favoring one’s dialectical skills over the gift of the text. .

  4. efmooney says:

    Afterthought (related to today’s [Sunday’s] post): I am reading Peter Beinart’s Crisis of Zionism — he has a LOT about the American Jewish community, first generation, second generation post-holocaust reactions to Israel’s presence and politics.

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