(Doubts) Ashkenaz & Philosophy

remain in light

Continuing to go out on a limb and meant to pick up a challenge posed by colleague-friends about the need for Modern Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy and Thought to take into account the life and thought world of Eastern European Jewry, my posts on Ashkenaz are based on some reading and no small amount of (semi) educated second-guessing. They also enter into something of a personal and professional void as they relate to the philosophy of Jewish religion. As much as I am interested in intellectual history, my primary interests are theoretical. What are the ideas and what are the ideas in their social context? To be honest, I am not yet sure with or without what kind of hot or cold polemical malice I will approach these blogposts. Tentative and reflecting the medium, they are meant intentionally to provoke.

If we are genuinely supposed to pick up this challenge to look at Ashkenaz, what might a student of Jewish philosophy expect to discover? What peculiar, if not utterly strange notional contours particular to this social and intellectual milieu might an outsider find, trained as they are in the canons of western philosophy and in modern Jewish philosophy as heretofore established? What weird pictures might they create in the process of meeting this challenge? It might be that, in the end, the confrontation with this iteration of Kabbalah represented by Ashkenaz forces one to reconfirm commitments to a kind of reason informed by the senses and by the imagination, the form of reason represented by Moses Mendelssohn. Having said that, then this. Having secured tenure a long time ago and not afraid of making mistakes, if I am forced to abandon my own tentative starting points, my own orienting points of view, and my philosophical and cultural presumptions and prejudices in the face of friendly and unfriendly critical pushback, I will gladly do so.

It’s probably not a great start to have to begin with a caveat of these sorts, but  I have to say that to explore in a deep way the thought-world of Ashkenaz will be beyond this author’s capacity. To place it properly would be to see it in larger historical and geographical contexts affecting territories stretching from Prague, up to Lithuania, across Poland and into the Ukraine. I suspect that one can trace some of this context back to the meeting points between Renaissance Humanism and Kabbalah in Central Europe. Hesitant to the point of not wanting to draw direct lines of contact, Gershon Hundert mentions German Pietists, Catholic Quietists, Old Believes in Russia, and other Russian Orthodox schismatics as part of a contemporary zeitgeist (Jews in Poland-Lithuania, pp.176-9). Any advice on secondary literature treating these intellectual movements would be greatly appreciated.

Having made those caveats, I will hazard a rough taxonomic sketch, the details of which will be needed to fill out on a case-by-case study of individual texts, authors, and groups of texts and authors. Again, I present this sketch hoping to encourage critical pushback.

To try to grasp Ashkenaz as a whole would be to position it in counter-distinction to the canon of Jewish philosophy and thought as heretofore established. What I’m calling Sepharad is in fact a Greco-Islamic-German philosophical hybrid rooted in the interplay between reason and the imagination, which is the interplay between reason and revelation, with varying commitments to one end of the pole or the other. The original canon includes Saadya, Halevy, Maimonides, Bachya ib Pakuda, Gersonides. The German and American canon includes the usual subject, starting with Spinoza and Mendelssohn. In my humble estimation and if I may dare, its last great figures are Michael Wyschogrod and Elliot Wolfson. The Jewish philosophical tradition is unthinkable without Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, Lessing, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Levinas. Epistemological and phenomenological, its starting point is an embodied human mind whose thinking is not so much “pure” as much as it is determined by combinations of sense, imagination, and reason. In a general way, the picture of the philosophical subject is that of a thinking member of the community of Israel, reading Torah, reflecting upon mitzvoth, disciplining the body, perfecting the imagination, apprehending God.

In contrast, Ashkenaz is not anthropocentric as much as it is anthroposophical, which I will try to describe below. To the extent that it is rooted in Christian and Humanist Renaissance and Kabbalah in Central and East Europe, I cannot say. While saturated by Kabbalah and impossible to understand without it, I am hazarding the guess that Ashkenaz starts not with Zohar, Cordovero, and Luria, but with Isaiah Horowitz who scholars such as Miles Krassen and others inform us introduced classical Kabbalah into the thought world of Eastern Europe. In addition to Horowitz, the canon includes the Maharal, Luzzatto, the Tanya, the Vilna Gaon, Chayim of Volozhin, and the Tzemach Tzedek; to this list one could add any variety of other Hasidic luminaries and Musar. Shaul Magid reminds me that Sabbateanism figures prominently on this intellectual landscape, whose last great figures, the last ones to leave imposing written monuments, were Abraham Isaac Kook and the Esh Kodesh.

Unlike the medieval rationalist tradition, the general philosophical frame of Ashkenaz is cosmological, metaphysical, and ontological. Unlike classical Kabbalah, Ashkenaz is anthroposophical. While God is omnipresent, not too much is said about God by way of the inner life of the Godhead, the internal dynamics between Tiferet, Yesod, Shechinah, or between Hesed and Din, or between Binah and Shechina, and so on and so on. In Ashkenaz, the primary object of attention is the human creature and the holiness of Israel as an embodied spiritual nodal point in a large cosmic scheme. The theological picture is situated between pantheism and panentheism. In nature, over nature, and ultimately acosmic, the animating and nihilating light of Ein Sof light fills and surrounds worlds. In gradated forms of emanation, that light is garbed, confined, contained. The human creature and community of Israel in the performance of mitzvoth stand out as the embodied spiritual forms at the crystalline center of this enchanted world. Not so much a thinking subject, the human is an inflection point structured by three types of soul: plant-animal nefesh, human ruach, spiritual neshama. The human purpose is to strip off materiality and cleave to its all-permeating divine source. For some, messianism and the idea of Eretz Yisrael figure in.

Because of its metaphysical and ontological constitution, the thought-world of Ashkenaz, is more likely to strain critical philosophical credulity. On one hand, this kind of mystical thinking, when considered in the abstract, will appeal to many modern and contemporary readers. The understanding of matter in relation to light might be the most salient philosophical point of interest. On the other hand, one suspects that the appeal of Ashkenaz would be limited to a more narrow community of orthodox readers. For some this might have to do with the pronounced ethnocentrism of the material; and it might turn out that the thought-world of Ashkenaz will be limited by the narrow cultural, political, and social confines of the original communities in East Europe whose values it reflects. If it is the case that the original appeal of Sepharad to German Jewish writers and readers was the shared cosmopolitanism and the idea of an integrated social milieu, in contrast to which the thought-world of Ashkenaz represents more circumscribed and insular social and intellectual settings.

Further philosophical complications: how Ashkenaz, including East European Kabbalah, Hasidut, and other traditionalist intellectual movements would contribute to a contemporary political philosophy is not clear at all, even beyond the problems having to do with elitism, egalitarianism, and the status of others, primarily gentiles, women, ordinary Jews, and heretics, i.e. Jews who reject rabbinic authority. While there is more to Ashkenaz then mysticism, the two seem inseparable when viewed in the round. Assuming that Kabbalah was worked into the warp and woof of Jewish life in East Europe, there are then serious questions to pose about mystical thinking. These have to do with metaphysics and monism, an acosmic approach to physical existence, and even more severe problems having to do with the problem of evil. Critical problems with reason do not preclude the critique of mystical thinking, which is the critique of reason that defines the limits between what we can and cannot know or pretend to know about God, the world, and the human soul.

What I don’t understand is how Talmud fits into this picture. Extending back to Rashi and Tosafot, Ashkenaz would seem to be coterminous with the study of Talmud. But when scholars talk about East European Jewish thought, Talmud never figures into the conversation, only Kabbalah. At least that is how it appears to an outsider.

About Talmud and contemporary Jewish philosophy, i.e. Talmud as a resource for Jewish philosophical thinking, I would like to offer these concluding thoughts. In contrast to Kabbalah and to the Kabbalah of Ashkenaz, Talmud might lend itself to contemporary Jewish philosophy because it avoids the kinds of pitfalls that characterize the kind of thinking represented by Kabbalah or that draws from it. The orientation of Talmud is worldly, realistic, and accommodating; its theology is playful; relatively few hard claims are made about revelation and redemption, and certainly not about the inner life of the godhead and divine emanations into the world; human suffering is rejected almost always out of hand, or frequently enough to suggest that the rabbis were neither religious sadists nor masochists; empowered and empowering, the relation to the Torah that Talmud masters is loose, not God-smacked. The Babylonian rabbis do not pretend to live in light or redeem concealed holy sparks. Most of all, the world in which they live is a now, or a virtual now, viewed through a dim, dark glass.

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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