Jewish Philosophy & Political Theology (Liberal-All-Too-Liberal)

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Stepping back from Judaism, Liberalism & Political Theology, edited by Randi Rashkover and Martin Kavka has me convinced that, yes, after all, Jewish philosophy is liberal-all-too-liberal. Randi and Martin have put together a remarkable volume, representing  a first and overdue intervention by “Jewish philosophy” into the theoretical debates surrounding political theology, in this book, principally represented by Schmitt, Badiou, and Zizek. It would be an understatement to say that Judaism and Jewish philosophy have been underrepresented and mal-represented in this discourse, having to do with the militant antinomianism, anti-Jewish supersessionism, and the strong smell of totalitarianism that mark much of it. And maybe, as I argue in my contribution to this volume,  there is something basic and stubbornly liberal about modern Jewish thought and philosophy, especially in light of commitments to law as a philosophical concept or figure.

In a beautifully constructed critique of Walter Benjamin, Martin insists that the decision between the pessimism of political theology represented  by Benjamin and Taubes and the liberal optimism of Hermann Cohen “cannot be decided by an argument” (p.122). I’m not sure that’s true. At any rate, for the overall majority of contributors, it’s a certain kind of liberalism couple with a pronounced skepticism regarding political theology that ultimately gets decided for the form of Jewish philosophy to which this volume is given. Somewhat surprisingly, Levinas has a relatively limited presence in this volume. Is this a sign of things to come? The key philosophical resources are provided by Arendt, Buber, Cohen, and Spinoza, an interesting political constellation indeed.

To look at the book as synthetic whole, the argument assembled here is a challenge to political theology constructed out of Judaism, Jewish textual sources, and modern Jewish philosophy. It includes these main lines of argument, the sense or critique that [1] political theology is a violent philosophical formation that nihilates history (Kavka), [2] that political theology collapses the political and theological instead of seeing them as labile forms, separate forms that fold into each other (Gregory Kaplan), [3] that radical gestures and decisions marked out by political theology are undercut by more patient types of political gesture (Braiterman), [4] that the universalism advanced by political theology is more divisive, again more destructive, than the Jewish particularism it would oppose, and that these things, universalism and particularism are not separate but imbricated (Sarah Hammerschlag), [5] that it’s more case that theology reflects and follows upon political ideas and structures than it is the case that political ideas and structures (e.g. absolute authority) follows upon and reflects theology (e.g. omnipotence) (Bruce Rosenstock, Braiterman).

If there is  choice to be made between political theology, it would depend upon what one means by liberalism. If by liberalism one means the way it has been pegged by its critics as neutral and atomistic, and subsumed by “rights” then Jewish philosophy is not liberal. This is the way the editors present liberalism in the introduction to the volume, where the argument is made that the link between Judaism and liberalism is an arbitrary and unraveling one. But there’s no reason to think that Jewish philosophy is not liberal and indebted to the liberal state if one assumes by “liberalism” a more socially minded political formation based upon a productive tension between freedom and community.  I don’t see how to understand not just Spinoza, Mendelssohn, and Cohen, nor even Buber and Rosenzweig apart from this more nuanced model.

As always, I go back to Ernst Cassirer for a more capacious conception of liberalism, one that has less to do with laissez faire British capitalism, and more to do with twinned commitments to rights and obligations, to individual rights and social welfare. My friends the editors seem to be embarrassed by liberalism, as are many academics today. But I have trouble seeing beyond the bourgeois social roots and conceptual thinking of Jewish philosophy and the debt that Jews owe to the liberal state. One might go on to add what the Jews suffered when the liberal state collapsed in Europe in the twentieth century, and what I would argue is the threat posed to Judaism and to the Jews by those who would attack liberalism from both the right and the left. It’s not just a “stereotype” that American Jews track liberal and liberal-left in their political affiliations. This too is part of a tradition” that goes back to at least the New Deal and before. Make of it what you want. I think it’s a statistical “fact” for which there are arguments based on reasons that relate both to political self-interest and ethical principle.

Almost lastly, I hate the cover of the book. I’m told the options were worse, but with its rigid and ugly blocky forms, without any windows or any open portal to let in air, the architecture looks like a frozen piece of neo-classicism, taken from the past with no real presence. Is it supposed to represent law, tradition, and firm moral foundations? I don’t know. It looks crushing and conservative to me, as if the book was published by the Witherspoon Institute or some other super-conservative think tank. In contrast, the essays in this volume stand out, almost to a one, as advancing more loose, more liberal, and more giving types of philosophical and political form, assuming of course that what I mean by liberalism is not the same thing as laid out in the book’s introduction.

Judaism, Liberalism & Political Theology is a great polemical book, more polemical than maybe most of the individual contributors might have on their own either imagined or intended, and more on the side of liberalism than the book’s editors might have predicted. I’m not sure. There would seem to be a deep camaraderie of interest and purposed, and a single-minded and argumentative toughness, meant to make an intervention into what seems universally perceived by “Jewish philosophy” to be the hostile philosophical and political territorial terrain of political theology. No doubt I am overstating things, claiming this book for a kind of socially robust liberalism that may be the mere imagining of my own making. But I’m pretty sure that there is not very much in this book to align it against liberalism and for political theology.

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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3 Responses to Jewish Philosophy & Political Theology (Liberal-All-Too-Liberal)

  1. Gail says:

    Congratulations! What a great review, too.

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Gail. it’s a very interesting document, i think. the only thing like it is Vincent’s edited “Race and Political Theology.”

  2. efmooney says:

    What ever happened to the idea of liberalism as liberation from autocratic states, powerful priesthoods, and contempt for wide-ranging thinking? Spinoza was liberal in his defense of Dutch proto-democratic political institutions (a good bit better than the repressive Dutch regimes that followed and the inquisitions that had forced him and other Jews out of Spain in the first place). No reason not to call him a ‘great liberal Jewish thinker. The first to disparage ‘liberals ‘ were post-war post-Great Society conservatives (William Buckley, etc.), followed quickly by ‘more left than thou’ revolutionaries who branded King a weak-kneed sell out, or bought guns and cheered on the kidnap of Patty Hurst. There is a wide-tent liberalism, nearly extinct, that has nothing to do with neo-capitalism or old-style capitalism or with what is really a libertarian (rather than liberal) exclusive focus on rights and individualism (to the neglect of sympathy and community). It gets buried by louder rhetoric. You’re doing right to give it a chance, Zak.

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