(Whitehead) Social consciousness World Consciousnss (Judaism)


Maybe it’s the case that Judaism is defined by what Whitehead called “social consciousness,” not “world consciousness.” (Religion in the Making, pp.37-43). Or might it be possible today to plot out a form of Jewish world consciousness?

By social consciousness, Whitehead means a social form that “concerns people whom you know and love individually. Hence, rightness is mixed up with the notion of preservation” (p.39). By way of contrast, world consciousness is presented as a more dispassionate thinking beyond the tribe. World consciousness is vested in the “age of travel,” the disengaging of the individual from “immediate social routine,” and the meeting strangers “on terms of kindness” (pp.39, 38).

I would like to use these terms in order to re-visit hoary argument in modern Jewish philosophy between particularism and universalism. What I like about Whitehead’s usage is the spatial framing brought to these positionings in terms of narrow social sphere and wider world-cosmopolitanism.

As the small religion of a small ethnos, Judaism never had the kind of “hold on the world” exercised by Christianity and Buddhism, as per Whitehead, or, we might add, the one exercised by Islam and Hinduism. The worlds it occupied, the worlds it managed to hold as its own were textual ones, virtual ones, like in Talmud or Zohar.

In contrast, modern Jewish philosophy and religious thought sought and seeks to find a hold or place in the world. That was and remains the promise of emancipation. Articulated in all the modern religious movements in Judaism as well as in Zionism, in works by Mendelssohn through Cohen, Buber, and Rosenzweig, there’s a mania first for placing Jews and Judaism in historical time, in place and space. But the forms of Jewish thought and philosophy that emerged in Germany never got much past the form of “social consciousness.” There remains something intimate and closed in about the project of modern Judaism and modern Jewish philosophy that reflects the inability of the Jews and Judaism to integrate into a larger world-environment. That failure reflects first and foremost the refusal of Europe to find a secure place in its ambit for them in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I think the best place today to looks for forms of world consciousness would be in the United States. America would be a place in which and from which Jews and Judaism might wander, mentally and spiritually as well as physically and politically through and across larger social circles in ways more or less but mostly friendly. I would point to the strong sense of a world, a kind of world consciousness and world-solidarity in Heschel’s thought. More obvious are the types of cosmic consciousness implicit in Kaplan’s notion of ethical nationalism, in Jewish Renewal and eco-kashrut, in the post-ethnic Jewishness theorized by Shaul Magid, or in Judith Butler’s Parting Ways. One might hope to see a larger world-consciousness one day in Israel, when “the Jewish state” is at peace with its neighbors, integrated along the Mediterranean and across the Levant, a kind of settlement that makes for a different set of wanderings.

But let’s not forget for a moment that world-consciousness and what Whitehead called “rational religion” are phenomena of Empire, that the kind of felicitous wandering and travel and the alignments that Whitehead wants to make between Christianity and Buddhism belong very much to the age and to the spirit of English colonialism. One suspects that the felicitous plotting out of any form of Jewish world-consciousness in the United States, like any form of intellectual culture in this country, will depend very much upon the integration into the entrails of state power and market capitalism, with its genius for generating niche places and pockets. About this, one should be honest that universalism is a kind of imperialism.

Lastly, Whitehead’s metaphor presents another way to pose the question of assimilation. A small religion, will Judaism get lost in the world? My guess is that there is no world consciousness, no larger network without the little nodal forms and social structures embedded, instantiated along its pathways.

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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3 Responses to (Whitehead) Social consciousness World Consciousnss (Judaism)

  1. Mel Scult says:

    Have we forgotten about the seventy nations and succot?

  2. dmf says:

    “My guess is that there is no world consciousness, no larger network without the little nodal forms and social structures embedded, instantiated along its pathways”, I’ve long argued that no one actually has a worldview (not that people don’t write/teach about such things) in terms of how they make their ways in the world, we are much more patch-worked/kluged together and improvisations/situational for that, part of why I like works/thinkers that talk instead of assemblages and such.

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