(Who’s In & Who’s Out) How We Think (One More Question re: Jewish Philosophy & Thought)


Saving the ugliest question for last. How does the study of Modern Jewish Philosophy and Thought position in the canon Jewish thinkers like Arendt, Benjamin, Cassirer, Jonas about whom Jewishness (i.e. a Jewish social and intellectual subject position and experience) is arguably even deeply “reflected” throughout their work but for whom Jewish “things” do not “appear” at the center of that work, except incidentally and occasionally? The governing assumption is that any theoretical frame can expand how to understand Judaism and Jewishness. But do Judaism and Jewishness have sufficient gravitational pull to bring them “inside,” enough force to stamp their thought?

Examples include Robert Alter’s superlative study, Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem. Also consider Judith Butler in Parting Ways, who undoubtedly has been pulled a negative gravitational attraction of Zionism and Israel. Another example is the inclusion of Man Ray in Jewish Art: A Modern History by Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver. Indeed, the Jewish Museum in New York was famous when it first opened for showcasing the best cutting edge art around, regardless of the ethnic and religious affiliation of the artists brought into the galleries. It could be that practice and study of contemporary Jewish philosophy and modern Jewish thought need to take the lead of historian Lila Corwin Berman in her recent paper at the AJS Review (“Jewish History beyond the Jewish People,” 42:2, pp.269-292). Her argument there is that “Jewishness” is the more capacious category with which to “frame” and figure these things out and bring others in. Or it could be that about “Jewishness” it is not even necessary to ask much less theorize. Or it could be, seen from the opposite side of the coin that to make strong claims about the Jewishness of thinkers for whom Jewishness was not a central or prominent theme is a kind of abusive appropriation? I imagine these questions get determined by thematic fit.

It could be that a worthwhile category-distinction is one between thick and thin Jewishness. Each have their own genius and virtue. I’m thinking here of the distinction drawn by theorist Katherine Hayles in How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis between thick and thin thinking.

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

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[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?

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Edith & Michael Wyschogrod (Modern Jewish Philosophy)

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Martin Kavka sent me this picture of Edith and Michael Wyschogrod, which he found online. Apropos to queries about modern Jewish philosophy and thought, I am posting this lovely image as an emblem.

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Yom Sylvester Sameach (Happy Sylvester)


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Color Saturation With A Brief Comment About Objects of Religion


Went to see Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color at the Cooper Hewitt and learned a lot, in particular how to conceptualize a bit about color and color qualities. Writing in the NYT, Roberta Smith comments that about exhibitions at the Cooper Hewitt that “brim with somewhat arcane information embodied by visually dazzling objects.” Thinking about things relating to my own work concerning the imagination in religion and art, what caught my attention were things like iridescence, fluorescence, simultaneous contrast, and “after image,” and then this bit on complexity and textile conveyed in these extraordinarily intelligent thoughts below in the slideshow from this video of master weaver Richard Landis talking about his craft. The idea that God’s beauty dazzles the eye goes back to al-Farabi and Maimonides. For this reader, the structure of complexity and comfort in complexity is pure Talmud.

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(Relic) Amos Oz (Hand)

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This photograph posted on Twitter by his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, of Amos Oz’s  hand before, at, or just after the moment of his passing is both deeply touching and very odd. A frozen photographic image, it is not unlike a contemporary and digital version of a medieval relic or of a momento mori. An object of Zionist fascination, the image now made public is hagiographic. It says so many contradictory things about the physical life represented by a uniquely gifted cultural mediator and the cultural-literary and political-ethical values he represented to his people.

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Is Modern Jewish Thought German Jewish Thought?


Truth be told, I’ve got another German Jewish thought project up my sleeve, but I am wondering nonetheless. Is Modern Jewish Philosophy Thought stuck in and condemned to the German Jewish past? Can we do without it? Do the concepts still work? Can we imagine the field without it?

By way of postscript, this post opened two lines of critical pushback at FB.

One line was that “thought” and “philosophy” have collapsed into theory, which means that modern Jewish “thought” is everywhere and nowhere.

Another line was about Jewish modernity in Eastern Europe. But how many of the theorists and thinkers studies by Eli Stern in his book on Jewish Materialism recommend themselves to us philosophically. I suggested somewhere on this thread that in Eastern Europe,  it was literature that played the dominant role in mediating Jewish modernity, whereas in Germany and the United States it was philosophy, historiography and religion, which is why these places are the ones that dominate the field.

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