Virtue Ethics & Aesthetic Subordination (Jonathan Schofer)(Avot de Rabbi Natan)



Jonathan Schofer is without doubt among the most insightful and sensitive theorists writing about Jewish ethics mixing perspectives drawn from rabbinic source material and contemporary philosophy. His starting point is character or virtue ethics. The Making of A Sage: A Study in Rabbinic Ethics was Schofer’s first book. (You can get it cheap at Amazon here)  Written very much under the influence of Lee Yearley and Alasdair MacIntyre, the making of a sage as an ideal ethical type bridges comparative ethics and narrative ethics. To this, Schofer brings in Foucault and Butler in order to focus the study of human ethical subjectivity around [1] knowledge and knowledge systems, [2] power relations and social networks, and [3] the ethics of self and subordination.

Unwilling to concede the moments of decision and choice, namely the decision to enter willingly into the straits of what Robert Cover would call a paideic community, the person stands out as both “self” and “subject.” Through “orientation to greater powers, the rabbinic self extends itself “beyond an original capacity, attaining fundamental expansion of itself.” The subordination to God and Torah works to evade subjection to the political power of Roman colonialism (p.19). Subordination and internalization of values and norms are viewed as the critical and necessary component to this expansion of self. (see pp.15-17) (The three axes of Foucauldian subject formation –knowledge systems, networks of power relations, and ethics– begin to appear on p.18, (see especially 188n54-6).).

About the peculiarities of rabbinic thinking, Schofer has this to say that brings the philosophy and philosophical ethics into a tight proximity with aesthetics.  The rabbinic tradition, he tells us, is “to a large degree generated through intellectual processes that are much more associative and imaginative than philosophical” (p.118).  A few pages later, he notes that rabbinic theology is built on “concrete images” of divine attributes such mercy, justice, power, etc. (p.121). The sense is that this aesthetic feel for the material is what makes Schofer such a strong reader of Jewish ethics. In this vein, it is important to highlight just how particularly bleak a world “picture” is “painted” in Avot de Rabbi Natan. It’s a dark composition of life after the catastrophe of the Temple’s destruction, one of disaster and oppression in which the “bright and strong” presence of the rabbis as a stabilizing authority “shows all the more intensely” (p.171).

But to that end, one has to ask about the image set selected for Schofer’s project. Why Avot de Rabbai Natan? As an authoritative source, the selection of Avot de Rabbi Natan to support a virtue ethics of aesthetic subordination reflects a deliberate choice on Schofer’s part. Lending it a Jewish look, the text provides the warrant to construct this particular construction. But Avot de Rabbi Natan remains somewhat of an outlier text in the Jewish textual tradition. Unable to contest Schofer’s scholarship, I would only suggest that a theory of Jewish ethics might have looked very different, less about subjectification as subordination, had its material been sourced from the Babylonian Talmud.

Schofer notes that the theology of Avot de Rabbi Natan is centered on divine justice, reward and punishment (p.122). [About some of these texts I wrote in (God) After Auschwitz] in the chapter on rabbinic theodicy]. An ethical theory modelled on those texts might have a looked more free in relation to God. In this, I am assuming that, unlike the rabbis in Avot de Rabbi Natan, the Babylonian sages are more like to refer to God under the appellation of “The Merciful,” particularly in relation to law (as observed by Solomon Schechter). But more to the point, they tend not to to subjugate themselves to God as much as they subjugate God to Torah, namely their own practice of it, their hermeneutical dexterity with it, their own sense of self vis-a-vis it. This is not to say that the Bavli is impious, just only sometimes and at key critical moments as a more playful and skeptical complement to conventional piety.

Stepping back from the text and its affect, what I take from The Making of A Sage is its close attention to human vulnerability and bleak world picture, the way images shape religious thought, and how the most profound philosophical and ethical ideas (i.e. the ones that “matter”) are always invested in imagination and art.

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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1 Response to Virtue Ethics & Aesthetic Subordination (Jonathan Schofer)(Avot de Rabbi Natan)

  1. efmooney says:

    “. . . the person stands out as both “self” and “subject.” Through “orientation to greater powers, the rabbinic self extends itself “beyond an original capacity, attaining fundamental expansion of itself.”” This is a natural place to contrast self and soul. Self has become associated, through the Enlightenment, with self-assertion, individuation, and autonomy. Soul, in contrast, is an openness to value and imaginative renderings of it that bypasses the greedy, self-important, entitled powers of self. It is not ‘subject’ to “greater powers” in the sense of subordination or subjugation to them, but is responsive to them and their overarching radiance — not unlike a conductor-and-orchestra’s imaginative and interpretative responsiveness to the radiant presence of a score. Little room for “self-assertion, individuation, and autonomy” in that sort of responsiveness. The Rabbi or sage, as I see it, is entrusted with care of the soul.

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