(Modern Jewish Thought & Religion) and (Religion & Jewish Studies)

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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.

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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9 Responses to (Modern Jewish Thought & Religion) and (Religion & Jewish Studies)

  1. dmf says:

    I think that broadly speaking attempts (often led in significant ways by the SU program) to expand religious studies/themes into something like Tillichian ultimate concerns or aesthetics or say Mark C. Taylor’s work on faith/markets/valuing haven’t really found much of a market (except in a kind of Krista Tippett NPR style niche) in the public or among tuition paying students, without waxing theological I’m not sure that Religion is really more than what religious people do and that of course begs the question of who counts as religious, I think we never really swallowed the bitter pill of post-structuralism as relates to a lot of reification in higher ed and especially departments and “fields” of study, why not return non-theologians back to the depts that their own educations are based in (anthro,sociology,etc)?

    • zjb says:

      because the other departments don’t “get” religion

      • dmf says:

        don’t get or don’t value? I think the academic prejudice of the 60s that we are heading towards a europeanish secularization process has begun to wane and I think that there may well be some pushback/poaching from depts like pol-sci and journalism, be interested in what yer colleagues across the way in anthro think of the idea that they don’t get religion.

    • zjb says:

      i’d also add that the study of religion at SU is more grounded today than back in the day

      • dmf says:

        interesting, more grounded how?

      • zjb says:

        More focused on area and traditions, and not just among the ethnographers. Also, more serious and intensive grounding in the history of continental philosophy and in theories of religion. Also, less amorphous conceptualizing of religion, some of which has to do with more ongoing commitments to politics and communities

      • dmf says:

        gotcha it certainly was a hodgepodge before left mostly to students to try and connect the dots, guess the increased political identity (identity politics?) was inevitable given the lefty sociological bent of “theory” as it developed after post-structuralism can’t say I’m so taken with the prescriptive (vs more existential/descriptive) aspects but so it goes I suppose with new generations.

      • zjb says:

        i don’t think it’s ID politics so much, but there is, of course, some of that. It has more to do with community, including political community, but not exclusively. We’re trying to develop specialization in Area (early Christianity, Judaism, India, Chinese Budhism, and esp. American Religion)

      • dmf says:

        i see, but is there a move from trying to say what is the case to what should be the case? the shift to thinking about communities is interesting but if one moves away from a more philosophical approach via concepts i don’t see what makes religious communities any different from others in terms of studying them.

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