One last query about modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought attached to a query about Religious Studies and Jewish Studies. The first is about “religion” and the study of modern (and contemporary Jewish thought, the other about the place or non-place of religion in Jewish Studies, particularly at the Association for Jewish Studies.
Is Modern and Contemporary Jewish Philosophy and Thought too completely beholden to religion and Religious Studies? And is there any conceivable way out of that bind? This is in part an institutional question. Apart from seminaries and departments of Jewish Studies, most students of modern Jewish philosophy and thought sit in departments of Religious Studies/Religion. Also institutional is that Jewish philosophy and thought are determined by source material that we today could only call “religious.” Bible, midrash, Philo, Maimonides, Halevy, Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Cohen, Buber, Rosenzweig, Levinas, Feminism are all saturated by religious concepts, texts, and communities. Not the opposite of religion, even secularism becomes a focus of Religious Studies. Setting aside what Laura Levitt calls “the really real,” is there for modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought any way out beyond religion and can it be “robust” without some semblance of religion?
Does Jewish Studies get religion? Do “religion” and arguments about religion in the Study of Religion make their way into Jewish Studies? Maybe part of the problem is with “Judaism.” So immersed in the data, it sometimes seems that Jewish Studies scholars have no interest in religion or Religious Studies. Certainly and thankfully, there is more to Jewish Studies than the study of “Jewish religion.” It is also certainly true that the term “religion” may in fact obscure from view prominent aspects of Jewish social history and culture, finding “religion” where it does not exist, or not in the way someone might think it should exist. (The same is true of the badly abused terms “law” and “ethics.”). But what is obscured from view when we don’t use the term “religion”? What I’m beginning to suspect about two recent books by Daniel Boyarin is that we only begin to see in his work more robust conceptualizing of “religion” and “Judaism,” things relating to holy aura, at those precise moments when he wants to subvert and do away with the categories.
Who knows? Maybe it is “religion” and Religious Studies and World Religions and Global Religion that might open the study of Jewishness and Judaism out into more cosmopolitan conceptual and theoretical frameworks. This will depend upon what one means by “religion.” As opposed to Judaism and as an academic category, I am beginning to suspect that “Jewish religion” is a new, emergent theoretical object. Probably par for the course is that its emergence must work only by way of the working out of negations (i.e. negating arguments that no such “thing” like “Jewish religion” even exists; that religion is an invention of Protestantism).
I am sorry I missed the American Academy of Religion conference this year where Sarah Imhoff, Samira Mehta, and Shari Rabin were part of a panel, “Jewish Studies Gets Religion.” If anyone wants to chime in about the panel, especially the presenters, I will gladly make a separate post of it here at the blog. A separate post on Robert Erlewine’s Judaism and the West From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik, although I would mention here that, for Erlewine, the relationship between Jewish philosophy and Religious Studies is one of critical interaction and creative possibility that invoke the subversion of Liberal Protestant categories of “religion” with a capacious worldly sensibility. Following Erelewine’s lead, one would like and hope to think that students of contemporary and modern Jewish philosophy and thought will have more to contribute to these emergent discussions.