Zohar & American Judaism (Symbols & Modernist Sculptural Models in Mid-Century Jewish Thought)  


[Henry Moore with plaster for Reclining Figure: External Form 1953-54]

I thought teaching a Zohar seminar and an American Judaism seminar was going to be a strange combination, a bit of a stretch, and it is, but it’s not, or not exactly. Right now I’m reading Scholem and Will Herberg. The first question would have to do with the integration of Kabbalah on the liberal American Jewish scene at some point starting in the late 1960s. But there are other kinds of affinities that begin with the secondary literature pioneered by Scholem. While Zohar and American Judaism are worlds and worlds apart from each other, Scholem and American Jewish thinkers like Herberg are not. They belong to the same world and work according to the same basic intellectual construct. That construct would be a binary that sets apart and seeks to correlate an inner core and an external shell. The design model is classic modernism.

In Scholem, we see the model at work in Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik (1960), translated as On The Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (1965) by Schocken Press. The structure basic to Scholem’s analysis here, and also in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism is based on the distinction between a core mystical experience and their symbolic expression. The inside core of experience is presented as molten, formless, shapeless. The symbol is thus drawn into paradox as it is meant to express the expressionless, as it transposes or translates that shapeless core by means of tangible sensory figures (pp 15-16, 22). Instead of transpose or translate, I  would put it this way. The symbolic form is shaped or sculpted itself around an empty core.

About Herberg I’ve posted below, but it bears repeating. Dressed up as prophecy, his lament about what he regards to be the sorry state of postwar American religion builds on the same model. In Protestant-Catholic-Jew the reader is given to understand that the uptick in American religion after World War II represents a shell, an empty social form with no authentic relation to tradition, to the core traditional religious values presented by Herberg as awe, ambiguity, and judgment.

The difference between he and Scholem should not be lost. For Herberg, the core center is rich in content, whereas for Scholem, that content has been reduced to the status of what he called, in another context, a zero-sum revelation. But for all that difference, the key distinction between core and case is common to both Herberg and Scholem as mid-century thinkers. It just means that Scholem was the better modernist, more avant-garde in his basic grasp.

If I identify this sculptural model of an inside core and external shell or case as a modernist one, I do so on the authority of Rosalind Krauss. In Passages in Modern Sculpture, Krauss describes the modern sculpture like this. “In looking at the analytic objects of Boccioni and Gabo, one sees the important function of the ‘core’ of the sculptures –the static, ideal shape or principle lying at the heart of the various works…This more than anything reinforces one’s sense of them as hollow volumes, and such, without a structural and static core” (Krauss, p.127). This means to say that the core might have no shape or structure, even as the relationship between this empty core and external case is structured to the extreme.

The symbolic shell or the social cell require an animation that lies deep inside its core. About this Krauss sheds more than a little light. “[A]s twentieth-century  sculpture discarded realistic presentation as a source of major ambition and turned to far more generalized and abstracted plays of form, the possibility arose –as it had not for naturalistic sculpture –the sculpted object might be seen as nothing but inert material””  (p.253). For our purpose, let’s remember that this is precisely what people like Scholem and Herberg feared about Judaism. Yes, Judaism “is” a sculpted object, or can be looked upon as such. No longer a natural or organic shape, Herberg and Scholem both feared that modern Judaism had turned into something inert and lifeless.

About their animation, the animation of sculpture, Krauss continues, “If Henry Moore or Jean Arp made conspicuous use if eroded stone or rough-hewn wood block, it was not serve this material, untransformed, to the viewer of their work. Instead, they wished to create the illusion that at the center of this inert matter there was a source of energy which shaped it and gave it life” The work constitutes a “visual meditation on the logic of organic life itself…a meditation on the growth and development of Idea. Behind the surface of their abstract forms an interior was always indicated, and it from this interior that the life of the sculpture emanated” (p.253).

As sculptors or modern Judaism, can’t it be said that Herberg and Scholem played at the same illusion, giving to modern Judaism the illusion or appearance of an inner core energy giving animation?

In contrast, contemporary sculpture eschews the binary between inside and outside to create works that are pure surface. It reminds me of a line by Elliot Wolfson from The Open Secret which I’m paraphrasing here, that the idea or experience of perceiving God without a garment turns out to be the last garment. Viewed this way, not exactly, I think, in the way Elliot might have it, there’s no clear inside and inside, no shapeless core at the center, origin, or end to it all. There’s no core to the shape, whose energy is distributed across the surface appearance. That would be a more contemporary design construction with which to conceptualize the arrangement of surfaces that might illuminate the play of religious thought and culture, including mystical experience than the modernist model than the modernist one presupposed by Scholem.

At any rate, the more contemporary model would relieve “the American Jew” of the pretentiousness of viewing one’s social life as a “symbol,” of the need to perform awe and ambiguity as the depth dimension of lived religious life.


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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