Jewish (Philosophy & Thought) Liberalism


Modern Jewish thought and philosophy seems constitutionally liberal –from Moses Mendelssohn and Abraham Geiger to Hermann Cohen, including Martin Buber and “late” Franz Rosenzweig as well as Abraham Joshua Heschel and of course Mordecai Kaplan, and also Eugen Borowitz, Judith Plaskow, and Rachel Adler.

Unlike more radical postures invested in the destruction of old systems, Jewish thought, like liberalism, tends to re-form constitutional systems, and to do so from within. They do so by expanding paramaters out into a larger and more cosmopolitan world-views. Not always, but as a general rule. In synch with middle-of-the-road democratic socialism, these forms of liberalism have historically tended away from laissez faire conceptions of liberal order towards more social and intersubjective orientations.

Based on “sympathy,” solidarity, and relationality, this more social form of liberalism has much to do with the corporate nature of Jewish society and culture and the conceptions that take shape from that. Historically and politically, it may have something as well to do with the minority status of the Jewish people, and with what Hannah Arendt identified as the interest that the Jews took in the protections offered by a strong integrationist-interventionist state, be it autocratic-absolutist, in the 18th century, or liberal democratic, in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Exceptions to the rule –Leo Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Jacob Taubes, all of whom had some direct relationship with ultra-conservative, Nazi Carl Schmitt, and all of whom have only recently been entered after 9/11 into the canon of modern Jewish thought and philosophy. They represent an anti-liberal Jewish philosophical canon. Perhaps they are the exceptions, historical oddities, that prove the old liberal rule. Or perhaps they represent the new normal in Jewish philosophical thinking. That remains to be seen. Intellectual history is fine and good, but if Jewish philosophers want, in their own constructive projects, to pick up the mantle of anti-liberalism, and to take these ideas seriously, well, they should do this with a little care. Because maybe certain “decisions” need to be drawn between liberalism and anti-liberalism, and this requires that one be  clear as to what one means and does not mean by either term.

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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2 Responses to Jewish (Philosophy & Thought) Liberalism

  1. evanstonjew says:

    I have a question. What exactly was conservative in Taubes? He did discuss with Schmitt a Pauline epistle, and maybe he valued certain universalist Christian ideals, but that in and of itself does not make him a conservative philosopher. Boyarin is also part of the renewed Jewish interest in Paul and he is a left radical in his politics.

    • zjb says:

      no, i did not mean to call Taubes conservative. i meant to call him anti-liberal, i.e. left anti-liberal, also like Boyarin, but more prone to violent and apocalyptic theoretical gestures. Boyarin, in contrast to Taubes, is an irenic anti-liberal.

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