Remembering Michael Wyschogrod (z”l) & The Body of Faith

michael wych

Saddened by the recent passing of Michael Wyschogod. I knew him only briefly, getting to meet him during my year teaching at Rice. I saw him frequently at the local Habad. I remember the first time I read The Body of Faith. It was in the fall of 1989 and I was a first year graduate student, and found it instantly repellent for reasons I could not quite identify. It made my skin crawl. Without ever identifying as such, I think I sensed that Wyschogrod belonged to the post-Holocaust turn when Jewish bodies first began to “matter” in ways then that were still strange and unfamiliar. That this was an expression of orthodox Judaism only intensified the cognitive dissonance.

Published in 1983, The Body of Faith is a book I now love to which I turn often. About ten years ahead of his time just before “the body” became all the rage in academia, Wyschogrod’s book was the first book of Jewish philosophy-theology to look towards that topos as a fundamental datum. The phallogocentric attention to the penis and to circumcision I think I intuited as “lurid” and basically “gross” in ways that I now understand and appreciate better now then I did then. Was there something pagan to this kind of thinking? There was nothing like this in the current world of contemporary Jewish philosophy, nothing as brave and bold , certainly not since Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz.  

This obituary by David P. Goldman at Tablet is a must read. You can find it here. Goldman reviews Wyschogrod’s escape as a young child from Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht, his dissertation on Kierkegaard and Heidegger and their impact on him, his own influence on Christian theology, his turn to the Bible instead of Talmud, his relationship to the modern orthodox world, and the nexus of stubborn ideas relating the event of divine pathos  to human suffering, to flesh, incarnation, and the election of Israel.

There was nothing parve about Wyschogrod’s thinking, but was it kosher? That was my first thought, as I remember it in retrospect. Wyschogrod’s philosophical theology embraced Jewish particularism as a form of dark, unreasoning carnality, a scandal to the gentiles, a deep Jewish doxa (glory, praise, belief). To someone young and who at the time didn’t know any better, there was something “perverse” about this kind of thought, something counter-intuitive. This is Judaism?

Having stayed over time with The Body of Faith I understand these things more clearly now, especially as the intellectual climate has since shifted in ways that this book anticipated. I will never forget how in shul his voice raised to a pitch when those passages were read in which God promises “I will dwell among you,” or more literally “I will dwell inside you.” With the corporeal turn, Wyschogrod’s radicalized the absolute commitment to the Jewish people in post-Holocaust theology and the way that commitment warped in powerful and extraordinary ways the image of God and Judaism.

The missing piece in Goldman’s obituary is Edith Wyschogrod, who remains the better known figure in continental philosophy and continental philosophy of religion, particularly in its French school. While Goldman is right to tag Heidegger and Kierkegaard, it might be right to look towards Deleuze, Irigaray, and Levinas to unpack Michael Wyschogrod’s philosophical thought and to set up that form of Jewish philosophy and thought on new conceptual ground  –e.g. “planes of immanence,” “intensities,” “deterritorialization,””re-territorialization,” “sex” and “sexual difference,” the “caress,” “the face of the other.”

Others, including Elliot Wolfson, Shaul Magid, and Martin Kavka, would have much more important things to say about the Wyschogrods in relation to continental and Jewish philosophy. They knew them better and for over longer periods of time. I was privileged to get to know Michael and Edith Wyschogrod for just a brief moment. I would nevertheless recommend that, covering the same intellectual terrain from different angles, their entire combined oeuvre should be read together as a whole and complex thought about Auschwitz, ethics, the body, Judaism, bios/zoe, and memory. The Wyschogrod were quintessential Jewish Europeans. I remember them both in tandem as bright, brilliant minds and tough, gentle souls.


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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7 Responses to Remembering Michael Wyschogrod (z”l) & The Body of Faith

  1. efmooney says:

    Meir Soloveichik wrote in a 2009 essay in First Things, “A world where Jews are threatened physically by fundamentalist Islam and morally by secularism, a world where Jews and Christians ought to go their separate ways, is one where Israel—both the people and the country—will be very much alone. And, in an age when Jewish theology must reject relativism on the one hand and instinctive anti-Christianity on the other, it is, I believe, Michael Wyschogrod who has shown us the way.”

  2. dmf says:

    was fortunate to have been part of some study&conversations with Edith but didn’t know of Michael’s work will have to check him out. My sense is that there was something happening briefly with folks like Edith, Winquist, Mark C. Taylor, and all that got lost somehow, but maybe I’m just out of the loop.

    • zjb says:

      in my opinion, it all went down the toilet with 9/11 and the move into “political theology.”

      • dmf says:

        thanks I can see that, certainly some roots of that back when the English depts found “theory” in their pursuits of identity politics.

      • zjb says:

        identity poltics are tame compared to the political theology.

      • dmf says:

        hmm not sure they are so different in their thinking (at least in the academy), the sad part in the 80-90s was that they didn’t bother to learn philosophy before they adopted bits and pieces of it, the end of slow readings and all, if there ever was something like a meritocracy in the humanities it was in its death-throes in the face of I have authority because of my background/identity and godz help the poor undergrad who actually wanted to study literature not as an example of one of these canned theories but as a subject unto itself.
        part of what I appreciate about Jane Bennett (tho sadly lacking in many who use her) is that there is an element of the existential sense of living with-in the grasp of alien powers that is reminiscent of that earlier generation.

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