Modern Jewish Philosophy (At the Margins)

marginsIn one more response to the piece by Aaron Hughes about the place of Jewish Studies in the academy, I want to post a little bit more. Saying that I’m prepared to defend Jewish Studies to the hilt, as for Jewish philosophy, I won’t be apologetic. Without wanting to offend colleagues and friends, I would like to say, that from its own place at the margins, the field needs work.

Too stuck to the canon, there’s been little to no place in it for gender, bodies, materialities, singularities, sense and imagination, network-technologies, science, affect, and so on and so on. In other words, you won’t find in Jewish philosophy and its study the kinds of things that are out there in the larger worlds of thought represented at SPEP or at the “Theology and Religious Reflection Section” or the “Theology and Continental Philosophy Group” at the American Academy of Religion. That these groups have been dominated by Christians, Christianity, and cryptic Christian presumptions is nothing about which we can do except to try to mix things up a bit.

Even worse, the study of Jewish thought and philosophy seems very much at the margins Jewish Studies, as practiced at the Association for Jewish Studies. The work of Jewish philosophy seems at best closed in on itself and disconnected from the work of scholars in other sections of the AJS such as art, history, literature, Talmud,  Kabbalah, and Hasidut.

There are exceptions to the rule, among which I would include work by Norbert Samuelson, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Elliot Wolfson and by Aaron himself, i.e. by scholars who cut their teeth in medieval (!) source material. For the most part, however, modern Jewish philosophy has been dominated by too much ethics, and of late, a politics of sorts. But I don’t see how the conversation in the field has moved much past Levinas, or, even worse, Leo Strauss. Jewish philosophy is a ship whose sail has yet to reach America, or France. To mis-phrase Bruno Latour, “We have never been postmodern.”

Writing to J.H. Voss in 1805, Hegel commened the translator for making Homer speak German, just as Luther had done to the Bible, and just as he, Hegel, was doing to philosophy.  “For a people remains barbarian and does not view what is excellent within the range of its acquaintance as its own true property so long as it does not come to know it in its own language.”

Commenting on this letter, philosopher John Sallis  suggests, “Though moderation might prescribe virtual silence in this regard and in any case interminable hesitation, it would not be entirely inappropriate to teach philosophy to speak English… where one might pretend, even in speaking this language, to have left Europe behind. A fanciful image, no doubt. Not to say simply parochial” (Force of Imagination, p.35)

The same goes for Jewish philosophy. Maybe it needs to learn how to speak English, and to do so well, and better than it has done heretofore. But I won’t kid myself either. The kind of Jewish philosophy with which I would most like to see is itself at the margins of Jewish philosophy as currently practiced at the margins of a margin at a margin.


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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