(A Question for Modern Jewish Thought) Does Contemporary Jewish Thought Exist?

Hesse Accretion_Begleiter

[Eva Hesse Accretion (1968]

It used to bother me in the 1990s when I’d see colleagues refer to modern Jewish philosophers like Buber and Rosenzweig as “postmodern.” The logic seemed to have been that since they allegedly they broke with Hegel and totality, which were echt modern, they had to be post-modern by default. Modern Jewish philosophy and thought took its cue from Levinas, retrospecting backwards and leaving it at that. That lasted for about twenty years and then Levinas and “postmodernism” ran out of gas.

How could Buber and Rosenzweig be postmodern, writing as they did in the first decades of the twentieth century? No, they were first neo-romantics, not romantics, and then modernists, expressionists actually, not “existentialists.” Modern Jewish thought looks like something, or like a box set. It looks like stylized, art-nouveau figures from the Song of Songs, the fists of the proletariat, expressionist prophets with long beards and angry eyes, canvases by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. As for modern Jewish women in modern Jewish thought, in the frission of revelation and redemption, clearly they barely registered if they ever “existed” at all. They occupy there the very silence that inaugurated the opening gambit made by Judith Plaskow in Standing Again At Sinai.

Modern Jewish Philosophy and Thought are about one hundred years old today. Time does its thing on matter. It creates critical distance as much as it mummifies. Alas, modernism is not a term recognized much in modern Jewish philosophy, but that is the precise term that separates the 19th century from the 20th century, while contemporary (having long since replaced “postmodern”) is what separates western thought and culture at some point around the 1960s from that which came before it. Students of architecture, art, and literature all know this.

This then is what I want to ask:

Where does the recognition of temporal passage leave Jewish Philosophy and Thought today? What is the difference between modern Jewish philosophy and thought and contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought? Could one date it in the late 1960s? Is there even such a “thing” as Contemporary Jewish Philosophy and Thought? Does it even exist? Where would one go to find it? How would one go about creating it?  With what kind of material? What would contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought look like? What visual cues would signal it? What, in fact, do we mean by “contemporary”? Does it refer to content  and/or to conceptual and theoretical frames by which to render content into something that makes sense and rings true now under new sets of social and cultural conditions peculiar to the moment?

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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6 Responses to (A Question for Modern Jewish Thought) Does Contemporary Jewish Thought Exist?

  1. mghamner says:

    (Maybe it’s not feminist to put female exclusion in a parenthesis and leave it there.) 😉

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Gail. The irony intended by the parenthesis obviously fell flat, only to aggravate the problem. I’ve now tried to fix the original misstep

  2. dmf says:

    all good questions what would you make of a case like Judith Butler?

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