(Inflection Point) Teaching Modern Jewish Philosophy & Thought


I think I figured out how to get away with it. It involves a graphic trick and a conceptual model based on a lively interaction between (theoretical) form and (Jewish) content.

Last semester was a fiasco. I wanted to teach the modern German Liberal Jewish thought canon under the rubric “Modern Jewish Thought” at the 400 level as a seminar. It’s Spinoza through Cohen. It didn’t work out well. Enrollments were too low and the course was cancelled. I’m offering it this semester at the 300 level for some 20 students. Here’s the trick. First, students are afraid of the 400 level, not of the 300 level. More important. Instead of “Modern Jewish Thought,” it’s under the title RELIGION & POLITICS IN MODERN JUDAISM. On the university registration site, this has been abbreviated to “Religion & Politics/Modern Judaism.” This pulled all kinds of students from  Poli Sci and International Relations to Philosophy, and Media/Telecommunications (this is Syracuse, right?).  Some students were interested in religion and in Judaism. There seem to be lots of non-Jewish students.

At the start of class, I confessed that they were here under false pretexts, that the source material would not be political science or cultural history, but rather philosophical and Jewish philosophical. A Poli-Sci student, already an active classroom presence, confessed early in the conversation (she was the first to speak up) that she did not know what she was going to make of all the “Judaism” stuff. Maybe she thought we’d be talking about “beliefs” and “rituals,” or has a stilted view of what those things actually entail.

Obviously what drew this student and, I presume, other into the class was the conjunction  “Religion and Politics” offered up at the front of the course description. That is to say, the “Modern Judaism” was effectively hidden from view behind the bureaucratic backslash. By the end of class she and, I hope, others felt comfortable that the material would be very much relevant, touching as it does upon state and society, formal political rights and social prejudice, public spheres versus private spheres, public and private hybrids, exclusion and inclusion, hegemony and minority difference, ethics, authority and law, history and modernity, tradition and change, and the place of religion in all of that. I am going to have to add Marx “On the Jewish Question” into the syllabus. Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” is already there along with Mendelssohn’s answer to the same. By the end of the semester, I will have teased them into religion as aesthetic culture and performance.

The upshot: hide Judaism and Jewish philosophy thought at the end of the course title, and proceed from there, from the general conception to the Jewish, which can be theorized as an “inflection point.”

This actually makes sense. There’s no obvious reason why Jewish contents should be of any immediate interest to anyone not interested for whatever reason in Jewish content. The importance of the material has to be demonstrated as part of an implicit argument that Jewish content adds new and critical inflection points into matters of large and shared (universal) concern.

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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2 Responses to (Inflection Point) Teaching Modern Jewish Philosophy & Thought

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    Love the phrase “bureaucratic backslash”, as a glyphic guide it brings to mind Dante’s Virgule, but you are showing a forward slash here.

  2. dmf says:

    sales appeal aside for a moment I think that one might teach the related history of ideas, the history of the uses of these ideas (below Tracy Strong mentions Kissinger employing Kant), or these ideas as sorts of catalysts/frames for discussing other phenomena (like poli-sci matters) in a sort of experimental assemblage to see what one can make with such elements/

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