After Ethics (New Lines of Jewish Philosophy)


A lot of thought has been thought in recent years re: the future of Jewish Philosophy. It sometimes feels as if the Cohen-Buber-Rosenzweig-Levinas-Derrida angle has been tapped out. What I think this means is that Jewish Philosophy has to think itself around ethics, and to situate ethics more extensively vis-à-vis broader points of view. My own thinking is that these points of view are local and relative to space and place. Here are a few possible alternative constellations or lines of flight for the field after alterity.

–America: This line of thought reflects an attempt to create an American Jewish philosophy on what Alfred Kazin called “native grounds.” It would start with Kaplan to consider Emerson, Whitman, Thoureau, and Melville, as well as Spinoza  James, Dewey, Peirce, and maybe Deleuze. Mel Scult’s new Kaplan biography might begin to show us a way into America, not just into the America of the pragmatists, but also into the America of the Transcendatlists. When I first ran across this possibility, I was stunned. You can see my first inkling of this at JPP if you put in a wordsearch for “Kazin.”

France: This line of thought would immerse itself into the phenomenology of Husserl and move on towards Meleau-Ponty, Bachelard, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Iragaray, Elizabeth Grosz, and Spinoza-Leibniz. The clearest exponent of this line would be Elliot Wolfson, one of the only contemporary Jewish philosophers on the scene who takes the imagination and images seriously.

Germany: Messianism anyone? This would be the line drawn by the political-theological types, who take the plunge from Weimar into the apocalyptic-fascist abyss. It starts with Benjamin and Schmitt, including Scholem, Strauss, and Taubes, before moving on to Assmann, Zizek, Agamben, Badiou, Butler, and Arendt. My own sense is that, with the exception of Arendt, this line of thought is too embedded in the violence and power it wants to criticize philosophically, or worse, actively seeks to embrace it, apocalyptically. Maybe I don’t have the philosophical stomach for “states of exception” and its discourse.

–Eastern Europe. Eli Stern has begun the first real spade work attempting to redraw the field back through Eastern Europe and the Vilna Gaon. I was very dubious about this until I realized that this was going to include Leibniz, and that there has been some bit of fury about all this in Eastern European rabbinics. The problem though is that there has been no real canon formation. Most of us at work in the field don’t even know where to go, and nothings available in English. This line of thought will have to invent itself.

–South Asia, East Asia: Somewhere A.J. Heschel commented on the difference it would have made to Jewish theology had the Jews taken their exile deep into India as opposed to Europe (and the Arab-Muslim Orient?). Elliot Wolfson gives so far the best glimmer as to what such an interface might look like in his recent book on dreams. Greg Kaplan would also, I’m sure, give expert opinion. Mayahana Judaism would be an obvious place to start, but what about Jewish Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism? I think Heschel made his remark in God in Search of Man.

I’ve been thinking about a Franco-American track, mostly because of my interest in aesthetics and the aesthetics of place. I realize I’m going out on a limb with this one, but I’ll offer my own best guess that after ethics this line represents the most profitable one for both Feminist Jewish Philosophy and Israeli Jewish Philosophy as well. With the imagination, all this would mean taking seriously the body and embodiment, as well as territory, de-territorialization, and re-territorialization. As for taking Jewish Philosophy, writ large, or Israeli Jewish Philosophy, writ small, through the German political theology line, I don’t see how this doesn’t run up into a ditch, even if you want to use its concepts critically against state claims to sovereign power, and all that.

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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5 Responses to After Ethics (New Lines of Jewish Philosophy)

  1. efmooney says:

    “Witness to the Face of the River: Thinking with Levinas and Thoreau”, in the collection Faces of Nature: Levinasian Ethics and Environmental Philosophy, Duquesne, brings Levinas’ biblical ethics into the New England environs of Thoreau: locating a Jewish thinker at an unlikely site.

  2. Raymond says:

    Alain Finielkraut!

  3. Michael Marmur says:

    Can I suggest an Israeli track, indeed a number of them? There are the poets (work is being done on their theological/philosophical implications by Haim Rechnitzer, Yoki Amir etc.), the new Masorti discourse (Fadgur, Buzaglo), the Eli Schweid tradition, the ‘secularists’, the Hartman crowd (there are significant philosophical implications to be discussed in Avi Sagi, Moshe Halbertal et al), the philosophy of halakha people (Lorberbaums etc.) and many others..

  4. dmf says:

    how about Santner’s earlier work on the psychotheology of everday life and our creaturely lives, I have found this vein of work to fit nicely into my own phenomenological-neo-pragmatism.

  5. ej says:

    Don’t forget the great American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson and her many students, especially the very clever F.M. Kamm. Her contributions to normative ethics are the closest thing to Talmudic thinking that can be found in contemporary philosophy. Although Prof. Thomson is a Jew, to the best of my knowledge there are no direct Jewish sources in her thinking. And yet Talmudists cannot help but take delight in her contemporary variations on casuistry. Sometimes the deepest philosophical insights can be found in that which is open to all, Talmud and its developments in analytic philosophy and jurisprudence.

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