Patient Political Gesture: Law Liberalism and Talmud (Braiterman)


Here’s the introduction to the bit I wrote against political theology for Randi and Martin’s Judaism, Liberalism, and Political Theology. The diagrams are from the Talmud Shas, tractate Shabbat. You can find the whole essay in ms. form here as well as at my page at

Veering overtly into religion after 9/11, recent critical theory steers further and further from “Judaism.” The fact that this discourse and its contributors have made almost no impact upon Jewish thought before this publication stands in stark contrast to the saturation by Jewish categories of postmodern theory in the 1970s and 1980s, which in turn inundated Jewish thought. The postmodernism of “the jews,” “shibboleth,” “midrash,” “textuality,” and “ethics” gives way in more radical works by Agamben, Badiou, and Žižek to the alleged universalism of St. Paul and to the cautionary case of Carl Schmitt, an ultra-conservative German political thinker who made his mark in the 1920s, and who, despairing of the chaos threatening the liberal Weimar Republic, then sought to curry favor with the Nazis. Tracking the movement of theological concepts and religious energies into secular politics, the interest in political theology in critical theory explores a transposition first opened up by German philosophers writing before and after World War II. Paul’s faith in Christ is shown to limit or even break the force of law; while for Schmitt and those who turn to him from the ideological left, the state’s power to make political decisions and distinctions, and to except itself from the law, bears the power and authority once ascribed in Christian theology to God and miracle.

The general resistance to political theology in this essay and the alternative I pose to the radical political gesture exemplified in Žižek’s thought in particular signal what I believe to be a stubborn political and religious liberalism basic to most forms of modern and contemporary Judaism. Even as it rhetorically rejects what it purports to be abstract Enlightenment universalism and atomistic liberal individualism, modern and contemporary Jewish thought (from Mendelssohn to Buber to Borowitz and Plaskow) has always remained bourgeois to the extent it seeks out home or a semblance of home in the type of form-making nomoi, the patterns and prisms that more radical critical theorists seek to shatter. “Out of the sources of Judaism,” the core, under-theorized liberalism I want to articulate in this paper consists of three features. These are [1] commitment to law and structure, [2] refusal to cede absolute authority to any single center, figure or source, and [3] realization that dynamic political and religious nomoi are open, corrigible, and fragile.

In part, the confrontation with radical critical theory in this essay is meant to reposition Jewish thought out of Germany and away from theoretical contexts specific to the Weimar period. I hope to do this by suspending those theoretical points shared in common by early and mid-twentieth century Jewish thought and contemporary critical thought –a lingering modernist cum prophetic conception of revelation as overwhelming force that breaks through the hard shell of human subjectivity and social reification; a revelation whose only content is revelation, the revelation of its happening; and, more recently, fidelity to an event, the undeconstructible, messianicity without messianism, traumatic realism, the impossible, etc., etc.. The thought of Buber and Žižek will be paradigmatic. I will claim that in his argument against state power in the political theology of Schmitt, Buber fell prey to the trap of absolutism he himself wanted to reject. By granting absolute sovereignty to God, Buber was rendered powerless to undo, theoretically, the inevitable slippage from divine violence into the political violence exercised by a human sovereign. In contrast, the enthusiastic affirmation of political violence embraced by Žižek presumes a naïve belief in the power of a militant gesture to transform human society and culture.

Instead of prophetic religion and the absolute, I will set up “rabbinic parsing” as a formal prototype for a type of transcendental gesture essential to liberal politics and religion. The rabbis avoid the traps set by competing images of absolute power, divine or human, insofar as they understand the hedging of sovereign power, both human and divine. Two sets of texts from the Babylonian Talmud will be used to make this point. The first is a group of texts underscoring the limits of power, the power of God vis-à-vis the rabbis and the limits of the power of the rabbis vis-à-vis Jewish secular power. All forms of sovereign power, human and divine are hedged within competing lines of force. The second text is an odd “legal” text concerning the prismatic structuring and restructuring of a vegetable garden in which the law regarding “diverse seeds” as defined in the book of Leviticus is redefined in the rabbinic imagination. The rabbinic text indicates what is theoretically possible inside the four ells of law when the limits of law are recognized as fungible –just as much as it is recognized elsewhere what might not be practicable or possible outside the limit of the divine law of a self-enclosed paideic community.  

Between radicalism and conservatism, I will have made the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud cohabit with liberalism. The cohabitation is a virtual one, not a real one. A theoretical alternative to this or that “militant gesture” and the absolute in recent critical theory, the gesture marked out in these reflections represents a logic of the penultimate. It enlists what I would call a more “patient gesture” than the one marked out by Schmitt and those theoretical critics who have enlisted him from the left in order to tar liberalism with the brush of totalitarianism. I do not intend to draw any political consequences as to the politics of the Bavli. The Babylonian Talmud is not a workable political blueprint. The focus on space construction is instead interpreted as metapolitcal, marked by an expansive sense of structural possibility. In this formal gesture, modern liberal theorists might see a possible model for the design of a more inclusive political place than the ones envisioned in the Bavli itself.

In terms of strict political contents, next to nothing connects Talmud and liberalism. Just a cursory look at the deliberations whose ostensible contents are political and legal, especially those which touch upon relations between men and women, Jews and non-Jews, rabbis and common people (`amei ha’aretz), normativity and heresy will provide next to zero resource for theorists seeking to ground a coupling individual rights and cultural pluralism. Despite this or that ethical dictum claimed by liberal readers (“these and these are the words of the living God”), the only genuine equality in the Babylonian Talmud is internal to an elite circle of scholars. To bring the rabbis into conversation with modern liberalism would require tugging Talmud away from legal positivism towards a meta-halakhic conception that pays more attention to the foundational gestures at work in the arrangement of theoretical systems and virtual worlds. As indicated below, the more genuinely liberal gesture in Talmud is meta-political, observed in the intensive freedom ascribed to the formal unfolding internal to a Talmudic discussion. Attention goes not to any halakhic “end product,” but to dialectic as pure process. The limiting of human desire through divine law is its more conservative thrust, the making room for desire in law its more liberal impulse.

(Zachary Braiterman, “The Patient Political Gesture: Law Liberalism and Talmud” in Randi Rashkover and Martin Kavka (eds.), Judaism, Liberalism, and Political Theology, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014) , pp.241-3.


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 Patient Political Gesture: Law Liberalism and Talmud (Braiterman)

  1. dmfant says:

    “pays more attention to the foundational gestures at work in the arrangement of theoretical systems and virtual worlds.” how does one decide which are the foundational gestures?
    also at risk of repeating myself I’m not opposed to something like arts criticism when it comes to responding to theoretical/virtual projects/products but think that before one than leaps to insisting that such works have any substantial role in how broader social/political affairs unfold there is a lot of empirical sorts of work to be done to substantiate such claims that I am still waiting for someone to take on. Outside of something like biblical theology we need to stop confusing the history of Ideas with the lived histories of Peoples…

    • zjb says:

      yes, yes!! it was never my intention to raise the model as making a substantive role in Jewish politics. for me, all these kinds of theoretical modelling are simulacral in character.

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