Jewish Theology & World Religions (Narrow Diaspora & The Visual Image)


A neat and path breaking volume edited by Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Eugene Korn, Jewish Theology and World Religions is a first of its kind attempt to bring Jewish thought and culture into conversation with trends relating to globalization. Looking with and past the more limited framework of Jewish-Christian dialogue, the positioning in this book is a more sweeping look at Judaism in relation to the larger world and to world religions represented by Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. The phenomenon is recognized to be a part of a new situation in which Jews and Judaism are enmeshed in a far more complex web of social, political, and spiritual relations, and from a standpoint marked by the condition of relative independence made possible by sovereign state power in Israel and integration in the United States.

The authors included in the volume seek to blend a theoretical-normative-theological-halakhic approach, on the one hand, with an approach that is non-normative, empirical, and personal on the other (pp.viii-ix). The overall viewpoint seems to be that new contacts with world religions, mediated by migration, technology, and tourism, create a complex that lends itself to the less clear-cut perspectives. We are given to see this already in relation to the more open approach taken by the medieval authority Menachem Me’iri  to Christianity, who actually lived with Christians, as opposed to the more caustic judgement rendered by Maimonides, who did not. Only now, especially in relation to Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s shown that the more Jews and Judaism encounter world religions, the harder it is to call another religion “idolatrous” (p.281).

Of note is the way that old concepts like “idolatry,” “election,” and “revelation” act as stumbling blocks for a more capacious view of the world, world culture, and world religion. A point not made by the authors is the changed sense of scale as Judaism and Jewishness are challenged to integrate into a much larger world picture. Goshen-Gottstein makes the interesting argument that a stress on the national-ethnic element of Jewishness in Judaism makes this an easier thing to do than a stress on the purely theological element where discussions bog down around the question of “truth” (pp.9, 27-8). Religions, it turns out, are not fixed and entity like, in ways, one suspects, its concepts tend to be (p.263). One could also add that a strict theoretical-normative approach as often as not rests on weak interpretive constructs as to what constitutes “normative tradition” or “normative doctrine.”

An interesting example is Goshen-Gottstein’s excellent essay on Hinduism, a grouping of religious traditions that would stand out as the polar opposite to the strict monotheism of Judaism and Islam. What attracts Goshen-Gottstein is the sense that God is everywhere, which he finds best expressed in the monist theological world view of vedantic philosophy, what with its stress on the ultimate unity of Being (p.289). In the process, however, Goshen-Gottstein has to ignore the use of images that characterize bhakti philosophical and popular tradition, which only serves to undercut the very exemplary openness driving his project. At any rate, pictures and sculpture are too hard a thing to sweep under the rug in India. One gets the sense that a more fertile approach would have been to take the bull by the horns, to set aside completely the concept of idolatry (the author seems to sort of want to do), and to look straight into the image and its multiple variations.

Setting to the side the ancient, medieval, and modern forms of Jewish culture, one notes that every world religion pictures itself, has a picture of itself, and that modern Judaism does this less well than most others. Despite of or perhaps because of its diaspora character, might it be the case that, historically, Judaism, as a ghetto religion with a narrow social and political frame, was never really a world religion in the strong sense of the term? Pictures might represent one important, and maybe the most important facet of these kinds of inter-religious and trans-cultural encounters for contemporary Jewish thought and religious life, especially in this “new age” marked by technological images.

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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