(Effortless) Taste (Writing Religion, Theory, and Jewish Philosophy)


Glancing through the latest edition of New York Magazine, I was struck by the effortlessness and fluid charm with which the food critic reviewed new eating establishments in the city. You can read it here.  Getting jealous, I compared that effortlessness with the more “serious” forms of expression that characterize academic writing, especially in the fields dear to me: Jewish philosophy, continental theory, and religion.

Yeah, yeah, I know that “we” are supposed to deal with the complex things that matter most, epistemology and ontology and ethics, and beauty, not unimportant things like “merely” agreeable things, the visceral act of liking, let’s say, this wine over that one, acts that are  purely subjective, and without any claim to universal norms. That’s what Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment. But who’s kidding whom? Sure, I wish I could think like Kant. But I also wish I could write more like the writer of that food column in New York Magazine. This all brings brings me back to the article by Zadie Smith about which I commented briefly a couple of days ago regarding the sudden and gradual acts of re-orientation that has everything to do with that all important thing called taste regarding non-normative things like Joni Mitchell or, in Kant’s case, canary-wine.

I wish we academics, especially those of us in Jewish philosophy and continental theory, could do things with less effort and more charm. Nietzsche did it almost always, and even Kant and Hegel could do it, usually when they wrote about art and aesthetics. But what about the rest of us? One should be able to write about religion, or Judaism, or philosophy with a lighter hand and softer touch.


Consider in the same issue of New York Magazine the article about the double consciousness of black orthodox Jews, consisting of very short snippets of interview accompanying the photographs shot by Wayne Lawrence, a Brooklyn-based documentary photographer whose website  is definitely worth a look. Or the article about Beck with a very casual, almost natural nod to the Scientology with which he has been involved.

I like the something glancing about the way the photographs complement the more “simple” re-presentations of religious devotion. About Scientology, Beck comments how it was just something that he was always around growing up, how it offers a way “to [get] you through.” For Zehava Bracha Arky, a convert to Judaism, Shabbat and synagogue struck her as “so interesting and deep,” and for Joseph David Savoy, Judaism offered structure, and focus, and order, and peace.

So no, this isn’t Kierkegaard, and yes, academics are trained to suspect first person accounts provided by non-academics. But these admissions are straightforward and easy. And while I don’t think these kinds of accounts or the way they get presented in a popular magazine are the end of the story, it could just be that more simple formats represent the beginning of wisdom about these kinds of things.

New York Magazine presents religion to its readers. The style in these pages is mid-brow and idiosyncratic. Then you can find a place to eat, which should, of course, matter more to most readers of this particular magazine then, let’s say, religion. What I find interesting is how, in these pages, religion, music, photography, eating, and urban life are brought into a kind of loose relations that might often elude a lot, not all, but a lot of academic writing and criticism about religion, secularism, and Judaism –especially in more philosophical, theoretical, and critical forms.

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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