Avoiding him for years, I knew that reading Steven Schwarzschild’s Pursuit of the Ideal was going to be for me an unpleasant professional chore. He wrote an important article about “Jewish aesthetics” that appears in the volume. But that was all I was going to read, and really it too is a strange intellectual exercise. That essay occupied some three paragraphs in the preface to The Shape of Revelation, where it left an unfavorable impression. I highlighted there the confluence of Judaism and high modernism presented by Schwarzschild against postmodernism, Andy Warhol, and pop-art. That was years ago already. This spring, reading the entire volume ended up being one of the very last things I needed to do in the process of completing draft-chapters on ethics and messianism for new research, in which he will occupy at most a footnote or two. Not without an interest of their own, the essays collected in Pursuit of the Ideal only confirm what I already thought. There is something badly awry and instructive in this body of work. A radical thinker and a moral radical, Schwarzschild did not grasp very well the tension between the ideal and the real, which he posed in stark binary terms. For him, it was one or the other, with no in-between. As post-Holocaust Jewish thought, it is oddly obtuse to the problem of human suffering.
Schwarzschild invoked messianism years before it was brought into vogue in critical theory, and for that alone his work is worth a look. But to what purpose did he stick his hands into that fire? For someone writing well into the 1980s against political and religious Zionism, maybe Schwarzschild should have known better than to play the messianism card. To be sure, he was utterly prescient in his radical critique of the State of Israel, in particular Jewish racism in Israel, but for the wrong reasons. His critique of Israel conformed to a larger pattern of thought privileging idealism and ethical idealism, transformed into an uncompromising form of moral radicalism that he positioned over against “reality.” Compare him in contrast to post-Holocaust thinkers like Richard Rubenstein, Eliezer Berkovits, and Emil Fackenheim. Politically, they were, of course, conservative to the extreme about Israel. Writing so soon after 1945, Israel was for them a precious icon of life against death. And yet, for all that, the post-Holocaust thinkers understood the State of Israel more or less realistically, more or less historically. In the end, they did not look upon Israel through an idealist-eschatological lens. As they imagined it, Israel was for them a real place meant to meet real human problems in the here and now. From deep within “the religious,” they understood that God was a problem, not an ethical foundation of faith, as per Schwarzschild. They shared none of his austere theological confidence. For them the only important datum was the Jewish people, Israel after Auschwitz.
Associated with ethical socialism, messianism was for Schwarzschild the end all and be all of Judaism. Looking to the future and only to the future, messianism stood for ethical perfection. Ethics and messianism are radical and uncompromising figures of thought strictly opposed to reality (understood to be imperfect, compromised, and cruel). Itself always in pursuit of the ideal, Judaism was marshalled to teach that the world as it is is never what God wants it to be (pp.209-11). This is the essential teaching of “pure monotheism,” presented as the truth of Judaism, as a “clear cut norm,” “authoritative tradition,” with “no doubt,” “in fact,” as “historic fact” (cf. 3, 129,130, 209, 235, 244, 247). Hyperbolic to the extreme, the essence of Judaism is no longer “ethical monotheism,” that moderate bourgeois inheritance from nineteenth century liberal Judaism. Much more stringent Schwarzschild distilled the essence of Judaism into “moral radicalism,” which he posed against ethical eudaemonism and the Aristotelean mean (chapter 8).
As an aesthetic figure, moral radicalism may have been marked by an austere and alien grandeur, but, conceptually, it was mangled at the root. Let’s start with how Schwarzschild consistently confused moral radicalism (i.e. absolute and uncompromising commitments to justice, mercy, and the virtue of humility) with religious radicalism (loving God to the point of excess, the desire to imitate God, to see God, to confront God without any mediating intermediary). Reading Deuteronomy 6:5 in order to lampoon liberal religion, is it possible, he demanded to know, to love God with “a moderate part of one’s heart”? Schwarzschild has just pulled a bait and switch. If we are to assume that ethics speaks to right human action or to individual virtue and social relations, then the commandment in Deuteronomy to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might is not ethical per se (p.139). Unethical to the extreme, a “foolish pietism,” to turn all one’s attention to God is to turn one’s eye away from human beings.
Schwarzschild makes the same elision between ethics and religion when writing about Maimonides. Noting the ethical dictum at the end of the Guide that to know God is to practice grace, justice, and righteousness in this world, Schwarzschild fails to comment that this highpoint in the text is the precise moment at which the soul separates from the body, and allowing the perfected intellect to unite with the Active Intellect. We see this too in Schwarzschild’s reading of The Eight Chapters, also by Maimonides, his commentary to the ethical tractate Pirkei Avot. Here again what Schwarzschild himself calls the religious “extremism” in the effort to “see” God certainly outstrips Aristotelean moderation. About this, he was right about Maimonides. But this might be better understood to constitute the limits of Maimonidean ethics, or at best their consummation at the limit. Schwarzschild doesn’t seem to grasp that this extreme comportment is no longer ethical. Poltics and ethics are a condition for intellectual perfection, not its telos. Transcending interhuman and character ethics, the relation is religious-prophetic (pp.142-3).
What about the individual, which, according to Maimonides, Torah must always accommodate? While one can appreciate the religious intensity of the spiritual stretch of the vision, it would be a category mistake to call it ethical as conventionally understood, even as “infinite task.” In Schwarzschild an intense disregard if not for human life as such, then for the value of individual human life as a particular actuality. The contempt shown for “the vulgus” and hoi polio is consistent and withering. Viewed from an eschatological point of view, for Schwarzschild the value of a single human individual life, a suffering human life, pales before “the ideal.” As a general statement, does this hold true. Moral radicalism tout court is unsympathetic as such to human weakness, even to the human suffering that one might have thought, would have propelled it in the first place.
Under the surface, the strong pathos that inflects this transformation of ethical idealism into moral radicalism betrays a unique form of affective volatility undoubtedly pressured by the Holocaust. A mix of heart and heartlessness, the fever pitch of Schwarzschild’s moral radicalism explains why his discussion of the dispute between R. Akiva and ben Petura seems to go off the rails. In this well-known debate in tractate Bava Metzia of the Babylonian Talmud, there are two men in the desert, one in possession of just enough water for the one person to live, but only at the expense of the other. Ben Petura would have them share the water, meaning that both men will die in the desert. The opposing view is Akiva’s. In the Bavli, it is clear that either one person or no person will survive this zero-sum ordeal. Typically regarded in Jewish tradition as winning the argument, Akiva’s ruling is that, in order to survive this state of emergency, the owner of the water should keep the water and preserve his own life, even at the expense of the other.
Raising the stakes to that higher pitch of moral radicalism, Schwarzschild brings a post-Holocaust swerve to this classical conundrum. In his re-reading, the “model situation” under consideration is “actually” one in which it is unclear if either man in the discussion will survive the passage through the desert. Bending the text in light of “cool analysis” and the “history of Jewish martyrdom” leads Schwarzschild to conclude that both men will die in the desert, either as martyrs or as “frustrated survivors.” Bringing the conversation to bear on our own contemporary condition, Schwarzschild now complains, almost suddenly, that no one today wants to talk about “the possibility of future martyrdom.” He is distressed by the thought that in “our times,” “no one seems to have any idea anymore about having to draw the line somewhere, beyond which, as a limit, one may not go without losing one’s humanity, though, perhaps saving one’s life –not to speak of lesser sacrifices” (pp. 132-3). This is the view that we have no choice but to die sometime, and that one should always prefer one’s own death rather than to cause the death of another person. Schwarzschild conflates this with killing, which he insists “Judaism” forbids absolutely.” Having further conflated killing and murder, the appeal of martyrdom is unique to Schwarzschild. “May my soul die the death of the righteous and my end be like theirs.” Against post-Holocaust theology, Schwarzschild calls “psychopathic” its will to survive at every cost after Auschwitz. Instead he embraces the example of the poet, Yehudah Halevy, as the willingness to suffer and to die (p.134-5). The martyr dies not for the sake of one’s fellow human being; the martyr dies for the sake of God’s name.
Guiding the moral radicalism undergirding this idiosyncratic appeal to martyrdom is the firm and unshakeable trust in the God of Israel. Schwarzschild trusts that God, even if we are to call God cruel, saw to the survival of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and will always see to the survival of the Jewish people (cf. pp 86, 89, 94-8 in chapter 4, “On the Theology of Jewish Survival”). This is the confidence that God will extricate humanity out of the inextricable muck of material existence (p.223). Sorting through old arguments about the soteriological effect of human action versus divine grace, Schwarzschild rejects apocalyptic modes of religious thought (the notion that redemption comes only by way of sudden catastrophic rupture) and also utopianism (defined as the false belief that the world can be made perfect). Against Scholem, Schwarzschild thinks one can separate both concepts from pure messianism (i.e. the notion that there is “some organic relationship between human history and its end” allowing us to grasp that ethical action is a necessary but insufficient condition for ethical perfection).
After the Holocaust, the confidence is fragile. Undercutting his own thesis, Schwarzschild could only say that to pin one’s hope for salvation upon some sudden, apocalyptic divine act of grace and only grace would depend upon an experience so “horrifying,” “morally atrocious” and “experientially painful” that one would never want the messiah to come in the first place (pp.225-6, “On Jewish Eschatology”). But surely, he must have understood that the Holocaust was exactly that — horrifying, morally atrocious, and experientially painful to the extreme. As much as he wants to subvert Scholem’s famous thesis that messianism is a theory of catastrophe, in writing these lines, Schwarzschild only highlights the degree to which the difference between messianism and apocalypticism is a too fine if not altogether non-existent line. For Schwarzschild, the pursuit of the ideal bears up over the weight of brute human reality. In this, it might be more to the point to concede that ethical perfection and moral radicalism are not worth the radically unbearable price of radical suffering.
Furthermore, when framed as radical ethical idealism, messianism is an eminently falsifiable belief. On the one hand, we have already suggested that Schwarzschild is critical of political and religious Zionism. On the other hand, he insists that “statements about life in the Messianic era or in the world to come are not logically self-contradictory or morally counterproductive and, in addition, produce this-worldly ethical injunctions which can both function empirically and be approved of morally” (p.222). With an eye on rightwing religious radicalism in the State of Israel today, it is hard to follow this logic. As Schwarzschild himself knew well enough, statements about messianism can be ethically counterproductive, even morally atrocious. The so-called difference between messianism and false messianism is another thin line.
Another muddle: the pursuit of the ideal depends upon a view of the world according to which “reality” is too irredeemably rotten to function as a platform for the very ethical action it demands in relation to standards of messianism, perfectionism, and moral radicalism. Instead of determining ethical action in this world, these essays give way to an extreme form of religious love for the sake of the God of Israel. Unto death, the thinking here is no longer ethical if by ethics we mean the morally ambiguous terrain of human virtues and interpersonal relationships. None of this reflects “cool analysis.” It is all rather hot to the touch. The more coherent counterclaim would be that moral universe in this world is not given to the Platonic, mathematical precision that Schwarzschild wants for ethical action. Ours is an experience of the world too often overwhelmed by “horrifying experience” and moral atrocity. To work one’s way around in this world requires the kind of accommodation that Schwarzschild associates with Aristotelean ethics, even as the refusal to accommodate to the reality of this world lies at the heart of this post-Holocaust brand of ethical idealism and moral radicalism.
If Schwarzschild’s thinking is muddled, it because it bangs up against ontological muddles, not just conceptual ones. This is to say that he further confuses the relation between things that perhaps are already mingled at the root. They include muddled relations between what’s real and ideal, between is and ought, between what is permitted and forbidden, between messianism and apocalypticism, between religion and ethics through which there is no way out except perhaps through death. Does this explain the appeal of martyrdom? About the confused or confusing understanding of the relation between the ideal and real, this is what I wrote about Schwarzschild’s essay on Jewish art and modernism in the preface to The Shape of Revelation:
Writing at mid-century after the triumph of modernism…Steven Schwarzschild allows plastic art into Judaism; although once again, word trumps image in order to contrive a uniquely Jewish approach to visual art. Schwarzschild cites the Shulkhan ‘Arukh, to explain that Jewish law permits nonmimetic plastic expression. According to a gloss by Moses Isserles (1520–72), “There are those who hold that images of man or a dragon are not prohibited unless they are complete with all their limbs, but the shape of a head by itself or a body without a head is in no wise forbidden.” Schwarzschild relates this opinion back to the rationalism of Moses Maimonides, who rejected any attempt to stand for the human soul, God’s very image. As Schwarzschild puts it, “To represent physical appearance as the whole person is, therefore, a misrepresentation. The converse is also true: a ‘misrepresentation’ will in fact be a true depiction. . . . To represent the empirical as tout court is, therefore, also to misrepresent God.”
Deference to the authority of Jewish law notwithstanding, this stilted approach to art trips up on German philosophical idealism. Schwarzschild continues to patrol the anxious boundary separating art from reality, the ideal from the empirical. He wants to avoid that instance in which two objects, the original and its artistic reproduction, appear exactly identical. According to Schwarzschild, art is no longer art when the artwork neither adds to nor detracts from the real world. “What in truth is the difference between a pop art duplicate . . . of a soup can and the original on a display shelf? Hegel was surely right when he held that whenever and wherever the idea is believed to have become identical with the real, the ‘death of art’ has occurred.” Couched in the idealist critique of empirical reality and in a modernism already at war with postmodernism, Schwarzschild’s discussion of the Shulkhan ‘Arukh proudly concludes, “We have thus deduced two of the chief principles of twentieth-century modern art—abstraction and distortion.” Leaving copy realism far behind, abstract art nihilates physical semblance, whereas distortion detracts from and adds to it.
Modern art and Judaism are thereby forced to confirm each other on the basis of philosophical constructs regarding the fixed difference between appearance, representation, and reality. Mostly, the entire exercise remains fundamentally arbitrary, as seen by Schwarzschild’s embrace of Rembrandt, El Greco, and Modigliani, while excluding classical Greek art, its Renaissance revival, French pointillism, and American pop art. The author seems to think that the shadows and light casting human figures in Rembrandt’s paintings obviate their realistic character, while Warhol’s soup cans violate the fragile boundary between real and ideal. Spurious at best, such judgment reflects a rearguard modernism, not halakhic principle. Kandinsky is far less dogmatic. “Approaching it in one way, he writes, “I see no essential difference between a line one calls ‘abstract’ and a fish. But an essential likeness.’ Line and fish are “living beings,” each with latent capacities. A “miracle,” these capacities are made manifest and radiant by the environment of their composition. And this despite the equally essential difference that a fish “can swim, eat, and be eaten.”
For all that he turned to modernist abstract art, the philosopher was unable, as the artist was able, to negotiate the difference between the abstract or ideal versus the real, between a picture of a can of soup and an actual can of soup. In this, Schwarzschild refused to distinguish between spiritual and physical need. Unable to tolerate the distortions of ethical life, the pursuit of the ideal is unable to accommodate itself sympathetically to human weakness. The best one could say is that the thinking at work in these essays is hyperbolic, unreal like abstract art. But even Kandinsky’s art touched in some way upon the world. Perhaps it is the case that Schwarzschild’s thought was also touched by the world, or rather burnt by the real. By his own admission, the form of thought does not belong to this world. The pursuit can only end falling in on itself, instantiating the problem with moral radicalism in the first place.