(Animism) Primitive Jewish Culture (E.B. Tylor)

Jewish culture and Judaism spot E.B. Tylor’s monumental Primitive Culture.

There is no special theory of Jewish culture or Judaism in Primitive Culture.

Judaism is nothing special, just one more dataset in the ethnographic record.

Primitive Judaism is folklore

Primitive Judism is not monotheism, not ethics.

Primitive Judaism is animism

Monotheism is animism.

These are the Jewish data in Primitive Culture:

Here in Vol. I

1, p.86, chad gadya

1, p.189 hallel

1, p.295, death and pestilence take the personal form of destroying angel

1, p.431 soul and blood

1, p.433, nefesh, ruach, neshama

1, p. 435

1, p.441; kabbalah and Vedanta

1, p.446 Samuel’s ghost

Here in Vol. 2

2, p.14 kabbalah transmigration of souls

2, p.68, 81-2 sheol, gehenna, Babylonia,

2, p.71, 78 paradise, firmament

2, p.73 heaven, bright vague thought

2, p.81 Sheol

2, p.166; stone pillars

2, p.196; jews and mulim believe that dogs howl at angel of death

2, p.330 yetzer, Persian influence

2, p.355, supreme god, jews today and nationality among monothests

2, p.386, sacrifice in ancient Israel

2, p.440, lustration, water, Levitcus

Leviticus gets the last word, just like it got the first word in the traditional heder.

Readers of Hasidism might take special note in relation to the term chiyut (life-force)

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Online Anti-Semitism & Jewish Life in Europe During Covid

Posting here the EU Report on anti-Semitism online after Covid. In addition to its status as a record, it highlights the conjunction between online platforms, the expression and organization of hate, and pandemic-culture in the digital West. Related is here: EU Strategy on Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life (2021-2030).

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Animism, Affect, Spiritual Beings (E.B. Tylor)

In late mid-career, I finally got around to E.B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture and more of these musty nineteenth century contributions to the science of Religion. I am now including in my graduate seminar on Theories and Methods Max Müller’s Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of India, as well Tylor. You can find public access to volumes I and II of Primitive Culture here and here.  

Having read about without ever having actually read it, I assumed simply that Tylor’s project was swamped in nineteenth century racial theory and colonial practice that is the hard and definitive division of humanity according to racial typologies, between “high” and “low” culture, “primitive” and “civilized.” Following received opinion in contemporary theories of religion, I assumed also that the definition of religion as “belief” in “spiritual beings” was looked at as a Protestant prism that is cognitive-intellectualist and private and that does zero justice to the lived character of material culture.

About Tylor I would make two notes. First, the colonial discourse is the obscene legacy of cosmopolitan universalism and the European idea of progress, prejudices that are complicated in the text by the way that Tylor understands the lived connection across cultures. Second, the notion that Tylor’s orientation is Protestant turns out to be a useless caricature of a more sophisticated project about “religion” as spiritual orientation vis-à-vis the natural world. He understood religion in tight relation to [1] culture, [2] nature, and [3] objects. Reading Tylor is to find vitalism and proto-formations of new materialism, animal studies, and affect theory. 

By culture, Tylor means something broad “in its wide ethnographic sense…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (vol. I, p.1). I’m noting here the much forgotten subtitle of the magnum opus: PRIMITIVE CULTURE: RESEARCHES INTO THE DEVELOPMENT OF MYTHOLOGY, PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, LANGUAGE, ART, AND CUSTOM. More than belief, religion is a part of culture.

About culture, Tylor assumes basic binaries between progress/evolution, high/low, civilized/primitive that make him almost impossible to read out-loud today, while he argues at the same time that human mind is uniform and that there are no innate differences between cultures. The criteria with which Tylor will distinguish so-called primitive and so-called civilized cultures are technological and knowledge-based; they have to do with the types of social and political organization that promote human “goodness,” “power,” and “happiness” (vol. I, pp.26-7). Tylor rejects the idea of biological race having anything to do with any of this (vol. I: pp.7, 158-9). “Primitive” includes people of his own time, place, and country. In other words, the prejudices are liberal.

Tylor knows that what he calls progress is mixed and uneven. This is because he thinks that so-called primitive and so-called civilized cultures are connected as higher and lower stages of one single human formation (vol. I, pp.1, 28-9, 37). I do not understand critical readings of Tylor that assert that he looked down on “lower cultures.” What we will see in later chapters is the vitality of the myth and religion of so-called primitive cultures carries over into so-called higher cultures, the latter being just as much a part of nature as the former (vol. I, p.2). According to Tylor, it is only when one does not see lines of connection across cultures that one sees only arbitrariness and stupidity in “primitive culture” (vol. I, pp.19, 23).

Key to Tylor’s understanding of culture is the idea of cultural “survivals.” These survivals are “processes, customs, opinions, and so forth, which have carried on by force of habit into a new state of society.” They stand as “proofs and “examples” of “an older condition of culture out which a newer one has been evolved.” Examples include everyday things like old technologies and styles and other aesthetic forms, popular sayings, games of chance, divination, etc.. They include also and especially things like myth and religion. Not restricted to superstitions, survivals reflect in new-world forms” “the serious business of ancient society” and matters of “serious belief” (vol. I, p.16). Tylor’s understanding of culture is one that takes note of the “modes of connexion” that “bind together the complex network of civilization” (vol. I, p.17).

Tylor tries to correct for European bias even as he carries it forward. In this, his thinking about culture represents a liberal and broadminded form of anti-racist racism or racist anti-racism. The human race, on the one hand, constitutes a homogenous and undifferentiated whole placed, on the other hand, at different grades of civilization. Tylor will continually encourage his readers to adopt a “broad” view of culture, and, with it, a broad view of religion. A sympathetic scholar, Tylor pulls together missionary accounts of so-called contemporary “savage tribes” while rejecting with open contempt the “unappreciating hated and ridicule” lavished in “narrow hostile zeal” against systems such as Brahminism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, which are “consistent and logical” to a “high degree” (vol. I, p.22). Tylor is limited to to the view that culture “develops” and gets better over time. At the same time, he could recognize that “the white invader and colonist,” whose culture Tylor assumed to be “morally superior” to the culture of the peoples he “improves or destroys,” represents his own culture very poorly. In the same critical vein, Tylor understood that modern slavery is incomparably more brutal, that the relations between the sexes are less free as is modern governance than is the case among so-called “savages” (vol. I, p.29).

A critic of modernity, Tylor completely rejects European and Christian models of religion. He rejects, in particular, the basic notion made by narrowminded Christians that “savage” peoples have “no religion.” He notes that the very Christian missionaries who claimed that “primitive people” have no religion are the very ones who then go on to observe the many “definite traditions concerning spiritual beings,” the “minds saturated with the most vivid belief in souls, demons, and deities” (vol. I, 417-9). He writes against the so-called Christian “religious world” that is “so occupied in hating and despising the beliefs of the heathen whose vast regions of the globe are painted black on the missionary maps” that they do so without a shred of understanding (vol. I, 420). Part of a theory of culture and against narrow Christian and European prejudice is the notion that all religions, like all cultures, are connected. No “religion of mankind” lies in utter isolation from the rest” (vol. I, p.421). That would include Christian religion as well as so-called primitive religion. Neither is separate, not one from the other nor the other from the one.

To make that point stick, Tylor needs a broad-enough concept that cuts the definition of religion narrowly down to a basic “minimum.” For Tylor, there is more to religion than belief in a supreme deity or belief in judgement after death; there is also more to religion than the adoration of idols or sacrifice. These definitions of religion are at once too narrow and maximal. Assuming too much by way of content about the constitution of religion excludes too many peoples of the world. These kind of definitions have the fault of identifying religion with particular developments rather than with the deeper, undergirding motives that connect all human cultures into a single formation. That is why Tylor thought, “It seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim, as a minimum definition of Religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings” (vol. I, p.424).

About this origin point in the modern study of religion, I would note two things.

[1] Critics today have rushed to align Tylor with Protestant Christianity, i.e. the very form he rejected as determinative of religion. If they have even read him at all, what so many critics seem to fail to see is that “belief in spiritual beings” is based upon “animism,” and not just animism, but vitalism. (Tylor cites Georg Ernst Stahl and a scholarly work by Lemoine, Le Vitalisme et l’Anisme de Stahl. Paris, 1864). As part of a theory of cultural continuity and survival, it is animism that establishes the unbroken relation between “tribes very low” in the “scale of humanity” and “high modern culture.” By “animism,” Tylor means “the animation of all nature.” The notion was introduced earlier in a chapter on myth. There, Tylor wrote about how myth speaks to the belief “that inert things” are alive and conscious,” that there is a vitality “giving consistent individual life to phenomena,” “pervading life and will in nature (vol. I, p.285).

[2] For Tylor, “belief” is not a matter of disembodied, immaterial, private, cognitive, propositional in the Cartesian, ideational sense of the word (e.g. I think therefore I am; I believe in God, I believe in the idea of God; I carry this notion around in my head, separate from and detached from the world of physical extension). What Tylor means by “belief” has more to do with mental states, qualities imagined about the world and about beings in the world. Spiritual beings like spirits, ghosts, gods, God, and the like are sensed in the world; they are fancied, lived, and sensed, i.e. felt, seen, touched, heard. Religious actors sense or believe they sense the presence of spiritual beings animating the physical world. These spiritual beings are not immaterial, not metaphysical. Not objects of dry propositional belief, spiritual beings are living and animate; they possess the physical world with their own “vaporous materiality” (vol. I, p.457).

Spiritual beings are sensed in nature: animals, plants and vegatble souls, rivers, trees, sky, rain, thunder, wind, water, sea, fire, sun, human institutions like war and agriculture. Tylor rejects the modern distinction between “man and beast” (vol. I, p.469). Tylor entertains a full-on sense that spiritual beings are embodied beings, devoting almost thirtypages in the second volume of Primitive Culture on the so-called “fetish.” He does not dismiss so-called fetish worship as confusion, false consciousness, or neurosis. For Tylor, the material “fetish” is part of a larger discusion of bodies and embodied spirit possession that defines religion tout court. As he sees it, animism is the general “doctrine,” so-called fetishism the narrow notion of spirits embedded in particular objects. Thecomments appear as part of a general interest in what we today would call material religion (vol II: pp.143-67). What matters is that these beliefs about stocks and stones are not “symbolic.” Citing Berkeley and Leibniz, Tylor discerns affinities in modern science relating to matter as receptacles of force and refined quintessences, to heat, electricity, visible fluids “passing in and out of solid bodies” (vol. II, p.160; in relation to idols-images, cf. pp.169, 177, 181). Animism passes into Phyics, Chemistry, and Biology (vol. II, p.183).

“Primitive culture” is big capacious religion. Readers of Tylor are introduced to Buddhism, Islam, Chrisitainty, Judaism, Greek myth, Zarathustrism, Brahamnism, African trads, Indigenous American tradtions. These are drawn from virtuall all the peoples of the earth: English, Scandanician, Papuans, West Africans, Afghans, Greeks, Algonquin, Mohawk, Chinese, ancient Egyptian, Siberians, Italians, Indians, Irish, Japanese, Turks, Mexiccan, Haitians, Indigenous Australians, Javanese, Borneoans, North Americans, Peruvians, Estonians, Pacific Northwestern, Pacific Islanders, New Zealanders.

In the explosion of comparative data, monotheism is another form of animism, the belief in one big “spiritual being.” Monotheism carries animism to it “upmost limit,” etc., etc. (vol. II, pp.331-61. 449-53). Tylor did not particularly like monotheism. “Entering these regions of transcendental theology, we are not to wonder that the comparative distinctness belonging to conceptions of lower spiritual beings here fades away.” They fade away into “[a]n unshaped divine entity looming vast, shadowy, and calm beyond and over the material world, too benevolent or too exalted to need human worship, too huge, too remote, too indifferent, too supine, too merely existent, to concern himself with the petty race of men, — this is a mystic form of formlessness in which religion has not seldom pictured the Supreme” (vol. II, pp.335-6). Unlike Müller, Tylor was not drawn to “the Infinite.”

Tylor was a melancholic modern, but not simply that. He saw the fading away of spirits in modern world where there is no indwelling deities, no guardian angles, no deities in the boiling pot, no spirits presiding in the volcano, no howling demons shrieks from the mouth of the lunatic. Once upon a time, the whole world seemed actuated by spiritual life.” Force now replaces life, law replaces will (vol.II, p.183). He writes about the dying of myth today in relation to science, weighed down by weights and measures, proportions and specimens, and the anatomizing work of students(vol. I, p.317). But Tylor can still speculate, about myth today, about time, in the present. “The broken and stiffened traditions which our fathers fancied relics of ancient history, are, as has been truly said, records of a past which was never present; but the simple nature-myth, as we find it in its actual growth, or reconstruct it from its legendary remnants, may be rather called the record of a present which is never past” (vol. I, p.326).

With the relation between past and present no longer so simple, no longer distinct, now seen to be interconnected, Tylor allows himself to imagine “the battle of the storm against the forest and the ocean” still being “waged before our eyes.” “We still look,” he writes, “upon the victory of man over the creatures of the land and sea; the food-plants still hide in their mother earth, and the fish and reptiles find shelter in the ocean and the thicket; but mighty forest-trees stand with their roots firm planted in the ground, while with their branches they push up and up against the sky. And if we have learnt the secret of man’s thought in the childhood of his race, we may still realize with the savage the personal being of the ancestral Heaven and Earth (vol. I, p.326).

Myth is still now, in his words, a past that was never present and the record of a present which is never past. Tylor is writing here in a spirit of reverie that inevitably returns to melancholy. “The evidence and interpretation here brought forward, imperfect as they are, seem to countenance a strong opinion as to the historical development of legends which describe in personal shape the life of nature. The state of mind to which such imaginative fictions belong is found in full vigour in the savage condition of mankind, its growth and inheritance continue into the higher culture of barbarous or half-civilized nations, and at last in the civilized world its effects pass more and more from realized belief into fanciful, affected, and even artificial poetry” (vol. I, p.367).

Against artificial poetry and “symbols,” Tylor is a defender of myth and animism. He rejects the notion that these are irrational beliefs, arguing instead that they are based in sense evidence, and that we can still see their effects today. “Everyone who has seen visions while light- headed in fever, everyone who has ever dreamt a dream, has seen the phantoms of objects as well as of persons. How then can we charge the savage with far-fetched absurdity for taking into his philosophy and religion an opinion which rests on the very evidence of his senses? The notion is implicitly recognized in his accounts of ghosts, which do not come naked, but clothed, and even armed; of course there must be spirits of garments and weapons, seeing that the spirits of men come bearing them. It will indeed place savage philosophy in no unfavourable light, if we compare this extreme animistic development of it with the popular opinion still surviving in civilized countries, as to ghosts and the nature of the human soul as connected with them” (vol. I, p.478). Tylor belonged to an age when intellectuals took ghosts and the paranormal seriously; they did so unapologetically.

More than a scholarly interest, the fascination with spiritual beings and his own belief or confidence in the power of imagination explain why Tylor rejected “interpretation” in the study of religion.

The interpretation of myth, he argues, only creates more myth. “Any of us may practise this simple art, each according to his own fancy. If, for instance, political economy happens for the moment to lie uppermost in our mind, we may with due gravity expound the story of Perseus as an allegory of trade: Perseus himself is Labour, and he finds Andromeda, who is Profit, chained and ready ‘to be devoured by the monster Capital; he rescues her and carries her off in triumph. To know anything of poetry or of mysticism is to know this reproductive growth of fancy as an admitted and admired intellectual process. But when it comes to sober investigation of the processes of mythology, the attempt to penetrate to the foundation of an old fancy will scarcely be helped by burying it yet deeper underneath a new one” (vol. I, p.277-8). With our own eye on Marx, Müller, Durkheim, and Freud, it would seem how scientific interpretation in religion constitutes its own “fancy.” Instead of looking at what lies behind the rite or representation, Tylor commits ostensibly to a deep dive into the available data. His own writing is affecting, the “belief in spiritual beings” standing on its own against interpretation, against the suppression in interpretation that turns the marvelous into something commonplace. “[T]he mythologists arranged systematic methods of reducing legend to history, and thereby contrived at once to stultify the mythology they professed to explain, and to ruin the history they professed to develop.” (vol. I, p.278)

Tylor is, in this respect a better theorist than the social theorists who came after him writing about religion. Apart from the incredibly crude language about primitive and savage people, there is little in Primitive Culture about animism and material religion that is necessarily contradicted in works in the study of religion by Diana Eck, Charles Long, J. Lorand Matory, David Freedberg, or Bruno Latour. Tylor is a sympathetic thinker drawn to the imagination, to the sense of lived reality. There is very little by way of dried-out stuff like “symbols” and “discourse.” Tylor does not explain away or write off religion and the religions of other people. At this ecological moment, it could very well be that physics, chemistry, and biology will lead back to material religion and the religion of animism, not necessarily away from them.

But there is a destructive method that comes into full view in the conclusion of the second volume of Primitive Culture. At this point in the text, he is back “at home,” as it were, back in Great Britain, trying to referee debates between religious traditonalists and radical rationalists. He refers to the scientific study of religion as a new, emergent field of study now siding with evolutionary theory and comparative method. At question for Tylor has been the survival of cultural survivals in the modern world, if earlier forms of primitive culture once found out in more advanced cultures maintain their rightful place as a “proper representative of more advanced views.” About his own time and place in the world, he now takes on a clinical attitude. It is “a harsher, and at times even painful, office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction.” Yet this work that is the work of destruction, “if less genial, is not less urgently needful for the good of mankind.” Taking sides, “the science of culture is essentially a reformer’s science” (vol. II, p.453).

What we today call cultural and physical genocide hangs over the entire modern comparative project. I cited above Tylor’s critical from very early in the first volume of Primitive Culture the critical take on the colonial destruction of colonized peoples. Genocide comes up again, right after he has defined religion as “belief in spiritual beings.” He immediately notes there that he cannot prove that this belief pervades every culture on earth or in human history. “It cannot be positively asserted that every existing tribe recognizes the belief in spiritual beings, for the native condition of a considerable number is obscure in this respect, and from the rapid change or extinction they are undergoing, may ever remain so” (vol. I, p,424). I note in passing the end of his own ethnographic study Anahuac; or, Mexico and the Mexicans Ancient and Modern. Steeped in racial thinking, he writes wistfully about old colonial Mexico in all its violent colors, including the violence of racism and slavery in the West Indies. He believes that the culture is about to disappear in the face of what he thought, in 1861, was going to be a full-scale U.S. occupation of the country. In all these varied ways, about animism and human extinction, Tylor more than makes the point made by Benjamin that human civilization is the history of “barbarism.”

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Religion = Spiritual Beings

Teaching Theories and Methods again, the classics.. “Belief” is not quite the right word and not what he actually meant. I’ve lost all patience with beating around the bush as to what people mean by “religion” and “religious.” In social-historical-political context, religion is orientation around “spiritual beings.”

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Tablet Magazine Response to Coronavirus (Make Brooklyn Great Again)

It is not just the this or that one-off, but the gamut of Covod related content that suggests that Tablet Magazine is a MAGA Jewish outfit. I’m offering below titles, subtitles, and links to what I think is a representative sample of what’s on view there.

From multiple authors, the content is permeated by skepiicism about scientific expertise, sniping at NYS and NYC pols, a need-to-get-back-to-normal-now point of view, and a full-throated defense of Haredi communities, their norms and their values….because Haredi Jews are being scapegoated by liberals…because they represent authentic Yiddishkeyt.

Most of what I found is from 2020.

In a nutshell, what drives the coverage at Tablet is [1] an anti-Semitism schrei in reaction to government response to Haredi response to the pandemic, [2] universal contempt for all things liberal, and [3] special nostalgia for all things Haredi.

None of this should surprise anyone. I will be very happy to take down or modify this post if anyone out there finds Covid content, more than a one-off, at the site that forms part of a different and consistent point of view. for now, I’m going to double down: people who “like” Tablet mainstream Tablet.

America’s Smug Elite Is Harming Our Kids

The push to decouple skepticism from science turns schoolchildren into victims

Williamsburg’s Jewish Liberated Zone Declares War on Clown Mayor de Blasio

Woke nonsense, bigoted targeting of their community, can’t keep children out of their playgrounds

Religion, Science, and the Religion of Science

New York’s scapegoated Haredi communities appear to be the last Americans capable of maintaining a sane balance between science and faith

The Herd Immunity Taboo

Purity and danger: Why some are strangely comforted by lockdowns, fearful of herd immunity, and quick to punish anyone who questions the stark choice between them

To Balance Public Health and Religious Freedom, We Need Something Better Than Bill de Blasio’s Dumb Tweets

How the mayor put New York City in legal jeopardy while endangering public health

The Blood on de Blasio’s Hands

He bungled his COVID-19 response, plunging the city into a charnel. Now he is blaming the Jews.

The Coronavirus Is Killing Off American Jewish Institutional Life

With emptying coffers and no end in sight, many Jewish institutions no longer see COVID-19 as a crisis to weather, but rather as a new reality

The COVID Class War Heats Up

It isn’t only about the virus, and will continue even after the lockdowns are lifted

Science Says

Becoming worshippers at the altar of ‘Science.’ Bad for our health, bad for science, bad for society.

Cuomo, de Blasio Scapegoat Exasperated Jewish Communities in Brooklyn for Coronavirus Spike

Grandstanding politicians and densely packed devout communities do a dance of mutual incomprehension, Sukkot festivities and schools are shut down

What Hasidic Communities Can Teach Us About Fighting the Coronavirus

For Hasidic residents of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, having a doctor who understands their culture can be a matter of life and death—especially in the age of COVID-19

COVID-19, Haredi Jewry, and ‘Magical’ Thinking

During quarantine, we judge the ultra-Orthodox for practicing what other Jews preach

Our Bodies, Our Shuls

Any congregation that takes any measure that bars any Jew from praying in communion on the Days of Awe is divesting itself from the very core of Jewish life


“Our Bodies, Our Shuls” elicited a firestorm of critical response, especially from liberal rabbis, community people, and Jewish Studies. To provide cover, the editors at Tablet quickly (within days) agreed to publish the item that follows. This item is a full-on, direct rebuke of “Our Bodies, Our Shuls.” I will only note that it is the only pro-vaccination item I’ve seen at Tablet, which makes it a one-off. Critical readers will also note that it does so by way of a model of Haredi normativity; that too is par for course at Tablet and an essential part of its overall pattern of snide anti-liberal messaging.

No Shots, No Service

Bar the unvaccinated from my synagogue? As a rabbi, I have no choice.

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Last U.S. Soldier to Leave Afghanistan

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Creative Evolution Supra Consciousness (Henri Bergson)

Bergson’s philosophical method in Creative Evolution is primarily contemplative and visual: recognize reality as a flux of matter and mind, and dissolve back into it by following the course of its creative evolution (pp.191-2). The world picture is art nouveau: lush life, vegetal growth, organic, protozoa, molluscs, nebula, medullary bulbs, paleozoic forms, nervous systems, arthropods, zoophores, algae, yellow-winged sphex, worms, microbial nuclei, insects underneath an assemblage of solar systems, radiating; one world bonds with other worlds in perpetual, mutating flux in the storing and the sudden discharging of energy. Creative evolution is anti-entropic, the “inverse of materiality,” an “effort” in life “to re-mount the incline that matter declines” (pp.245; cf. 240-5, 253, 369). Philosophy for Bergson is always on the border of the occult sciences; a supra-consciousness figures into the open mesh of this hyper-creative design.

What follows are reading notes with emphasis on the metaphysical (occult) turn and on the evolution of consciousness as one emergent line.

Introduction: An opening argument that the concepts that intellect seeks to impose on life are inadequate; they need to be transcended. Intellect and instinct are behind this attempt to reconstruct the main lines of the evolution of life. For all the emphasis placed upon instinct or intuition, the epistemology in Creative Evolution is not anti-intellectual. Rather, Bergson wants to bring intellect “back to its generating cause.” Already announced in the introduction, it will turn out later (in chapter 3) that this origin is a supra-consciousness, or maybe, arguably, supra-consciousness itself (p.xiv). That is why Bergson says that theory of knowledge and theory of life are inseparable (p.xiii; emphases in original). Intellect is a “luminous nucleus” around which hangs a “vague nebulosity” wherein “reside certain powers” that complement the understanding (pp.xii-xiii).

Chapter 1: Bergson posits a common originary impetus (élan vital) as the driving force of this creative universe in order to account for the evolution of common biological structures across very different evolutionary lines (primitive and advanced biological forms) (plants and animal) (pp.54, 87). Life is the very opposite of association and the addition of elements. Life is splitting lines of dissociation and division (pp.26, 53, 89). That is why mechanism and teleology cannot account for what is unforeseen and radically new (which Bergson says we accept, being artists) (p.45). What matters to Bergson is duration, growth, change, the enduringness of living, organized bodies, and the inscription of time in relation to those bodies (pp.14-16). Anti-materialist is the notion that life is not reducible to physical and chemical phenomena. “Vitality” is “tangent” to these forces, the real whole of life being an indivisible continuity, the individual being or individual line “united with the totality of living being by invisible bonds.” This vitality is full of “gaps and incoherences,” but configures, nonetheless, as “a single whole” (pp.31, 43; cf.35 on the irreducibility of elementary life forms with physical and chemical forces). What makes Bergson a monist is the claim that life follows one impetus through all divergent evolutionary paths “spread over thousands of ages” (p.53)?

Chapter 2: Bergson traces lines, i.e. the original impetus and divergent series and evolutionary lines. The original life-impetus (élan vital) splits into 2 tendencies (plant: animal:: fixed: mobile :: insensate: sensate). Animal life splits into 2 tendencies (instinct and intellect). This chapter is especially lush in its botanical-biological detail.

Chapter 3: Bergson gets metaphysical, even loopy: physics turns out to be psychic (pp.202, cf.257). Representing to distinct but not inseparable lines, the evolution of organic life is bound up with the evolution of consciousness (p.27). Consciousness, which attends motion, pervades the creative universe. There is sleeping expression of vegetable consciousness; but plants are “not so sound asleep that they cannot awaken when circumstances permit or demand it (pp.111-12, 113, 119). And there is the super-human consciousness that was anticipated in the introduction: the line of evolution ending in “man” is not the only one; there are other divergent ones, other forms of consciousness. These other forms of consciousness divergent from the human would, when amalgamated with intelligence, result in a consciousness “as wide as life itself.” Such a consciousness would be a super consciousness, “turning around suddenly against the push of life which it feels behind would have a vision of life complete,” no matter how fleeting (p.xii). How do we know this? Bergson assumes that around intelligence there is a “vague nebulosity” in which reside “certain powers.” Separate from fluid reality of flux, it is also true that the nucleus of intellect is not radically different than that “fluid” that surrounds it (p.192-3). In this world picture, the initial impetus of life accumulates energy into a reservoir and gushes out (pp.241, 246-7, 251). This flow is pushed by a supra consciousness at the origin of life whose fragments fall back as matter, “passing through the fragments and lighting them up into organisms.” But clearly there is, as Bergson understands it, that supra consciousness at the origin of life (p. 261). Consciousness does not stem from the animal brain, but is coextensive with choice and possible (virtual?) action that surrounds real action (pp.251, 261-71). At the highest intensity of creative evolution, only supra consciousness can explain the constant creation of new life against the second law of thermodynamics, against death (pp.242, 271, cf. p.246-7n.1). Bergson never quite says that this supra consciousness is divine or God, understood not as a being, but in terms of unceasing life, action, freedom, or perhaps force (p. 248). Like something out of Debussy, this high pitch of life is the flow of time against death, like the sound of the sea, marking the crescendo of creative evolution, the crescendo of Bergson’s text.

Chapter 4 is a philosophical diminuendo, some of it very interesting, first against the notion of nothingness, the idea of which Bergson cannot seem to stand. Nothingness is a mental illusion triggered by the transition from and to or substitution of one thing or state for another. In the conclusion, Bergson returns to epistemology. Surveyed is the difference between ancient Greek physics-metaphysics and modern science, in order to address the coupling of modern science and metaphysics. Bergson wants to see in time not the ready-made world of the Greek cosmos, but “a progressive growth of the absolute” in “continual invention of forms ever new,” (pp.342-4), “the concrete in phenomena,” i.e. “the qualities perceived, the perceptions themselves (p.349). With Kant, of all people, Bergson comes back to the problem of supra human intelligence. Intelligence for Kant, Bergson says, is impersonal. Intelligence does not lie “exactly” within the human person; the human person lies with intelligence, in “an atmosphere of intellectuality” which individual human consciousness “breathes.” In Kant, this is a “formal God,” not a “substantial God, not yet fully divine for Kant as it will become for Fichte (p.357). What Kant did not consider is that science becomes less objective and more symbolic, moving in two directions between the physical and the psychic in its passage through the vital. For Bergson, sensuous intuition is more than a phantom of the thing-itself, is in “continuity” with supra-intellectual intuition (pp.359-60). Matter is weighted; it descends, whereas the couple of life and consciousness ascend. It is in this metaphysical respect that philosophy goes further than science (p.369).

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Anthropomorphism (Arthur Marmorstein & The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God)

Reading up about God and rabbinic theology, I found this reference by Yair Lorberbaum in to the Hungarian born and forgotten Arthur Marmorstein (1882–1946), author of the two volume The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God. I: The Names and Attributes of God, (London: Oxford University Press, 1927) and The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God. II: Essays in Anthropomorphism, (London: Oxford University Press 1937). I have since noticed reference to him by Elliot Wolfson, but I’m forgetting where.

Marmorstein was that old style scholar who knew every single text in the corpus. Against the scholarly grain of the time, he argued that the main stream of Jewish thinking about God was anthropomorphic, that attempts to read these texts as allegorical-symbolic was widespread among Greek speaking Jews and were a minority point of view in the rabbinic sources.

Very much a part of the time, he opposed assimilation among German Jews, engaged in deep theological apologetics about the nature of God in Judaism, and worried about the dangerous state of western culture at the time. He identified that social danger with the sorry state of religion. Reading through both volumes of The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God is both a remarkable and even lively tour de force and a slow slog of a march.

What makes Marmorstein interesting is how he saw the old doctrine of God as immanent and close, not far off and transcendent. God is not “nameless” and the positive attributes are key to understanding God and the place of God in the world. And God is visible, at least according to some. Because God is near, this the key point. This is to say that anthropomorphism reflects the phenomenologically intentional sense of the nearness of God to the human person and, more important still, the nearness and even likeness of the human person to God. In a comment posted below on the Shiur Komah is a reference to human limbs that suggest something with the notion of a body schema.

These are all remarkable things to have said in 1927 and 1937 and explains the attraction to scholars like Lorberbaum and Wolfson.

With my own headers, I’m posting below material from both volumes that speak in particular ideas about the nearness to God and human-becoming like God. The majority of material posted below refer to the near and nearness. All italics are mine and intended to highlight that motif.

The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God. I: The Names and Attributes of God

Origins: “The teachers of Judaism may have adopted foreign ideas, they may have assimilated pagan philosophical thoughts, they may have even adapted Babylonian or Egyptian, Greek or Barbarian myths and legends, but the teaching derived from them sounds quite new and original. For one thing is perfectly certain, there is no class of men in the world to whom the idea of God was so near, whose longing for God so ardent, whose zeal to do Gods will so keen, whose ideal of piety, love, goodness, justice, purity, and holiness so supreme in all their actions and thoughts, deeds and meditations, as in the much-despised and unjustly judged Scribes” (p.10).

Names of God. “This led us to investigate the various Names applied by the Scribes to God. Here a wealthy sanctuary of the most treasured religious ideas and doctrines is opened to us, which invites entrance to all who want to come nearer to God (p.13). According to Marmorstein, the first step in “recognizing” God starts in old rabbinic thought” with the names of God (p.16).

Nature. “The God of Heavens and Earth is known to all readers of the Bible. In our period the name was used exclusively in a ritual and legal sense. The Nazirite, who relates his story to Simon the Just, offers a good example. He defeated his evil inclination by sanctifying his beautiful hair to heaven. This lad was an ordinary shepherd from the South. He did not believe in a transcendental God, who is far away removed in Heaven. He felt His presence near in the meadow, near the well, where his senses tempted him to commit a sin” (p.105).

Holiness of God.  After an exhaustive study of the names and then the positive attributes of God, Marmorstein concludes the fist volume with the holiness of God. For Marmorstein, holiness is the most important attribute of God. Holiness is no mysterium tremendum. Holiness expresses what Jews “feel” and what one could say sense or imagine when discharging religious duties like Sabbath and festivals. What matters is the nearness between human beings and God. “If religion has a purpose in life and the world, it must bring God near to man, and man must become like unto God (p.217). These are among the final words of volume one. God may not be like “man,” but “man” must be like God.

The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God. II: Essays in Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism. “The Jewish religion is classed with anthropomorphic religions. Such a designation is by no means of a degrading character and quality. The name anthropomorphic religion is free from any mark of inferiority. No system of religious thought, or form of religious life, can be separated from anthropomorphic or anthropopathic conceptions. Only by such an equipment can religion proclaim the existence of an active and living God, and only thus can it adhere to a real, personal divinity. Deprived of it nothing remains but shallow theism. As long as people will crave after a personal deity they cannot do otherwise than, some with more, some with less skill, ascribe to God certain human attributes and speak of His qualities and functions in human ways and manners. Man cannot worship or show reverence to an impersonal power, nameless and impotent, without attributes of goodness or justice, not visible by deeds and unrecognizable by passions. Higher religions cannot exercise any influence, and rule the hearts of multitudes, if they are divested or robbed of their anthropomorphic and anthropopathic wealth inherent in their sacred narratives and teachings. Anthropomorphic and anthropopathic elements in a religion are thus not to be looked upon as disadvantages. On the contrary, they endowed men with spiritual strength and opened higher ways of thought leading to religious enlightenment. At many stages of cultural development religious values and doctrines cannot be brought home to mankind unless the meaning of God’s existence and creative work is presented in forms of these two terms (p.1).

Greek-speaking Jews: “To Greek philosophers it meant much more than to Jewish Bible-readers. The Greeks could see their Gods in statues and images, which conveyed to the onlookers the idea not only of a personal, but of a physical god appearing in a form made by man from earthly material. However great the art employed and the beauty conveyed may have been the limbs and the features of the gods presented by art and genius manifested an obstacle to the spiritual conception and identity of the divine being. Such an anthropomorphic menace was held far away from Jewish religion ; yet it was a danger in Greek religion, which ultimately aroused the unbounded antagonism of philosophy against the religion of the Greeks, and finally brought about the downfall of the whole shaken fabric of Greek and Roman civilization, resting as it did on such an unstable basis” (p.2).

The Jews of the Diaspora, in the same manner as the German-speaking Jews, were most anxious to gain the good opinion of their neighbours and most zealous to adjust their religion to the standard of the general culture of their surroundings. The Jews of Alexandria dreamt of full emancipation and strove for full equality. In order to gain these they were prepared to go very far in sacrificing much of the religion of their ancestors, and losing some precious legacies of their religious and national inheritance” (p.3).

Shiur Komah: “These mystics, who were far removed in their religious life and thought from any rationalism, were so near to and one with their Maker that they could think of Him as invested with human figure and limbs. The very fact that such a piece of literature survived for centuries in Hebrew is strong evidence for the immense influence that this non-rational theology exercised in the course of Jewish history. …It satisfied the craving of man after nearness to and oneness with God, which rationalism and pure wisdom cannot supply and offer [52]

Visuality of God. Marmorstein called the visuality of God “a very strange teaching” before going on to show its ubiquity in the literature (p.94).

“The term שכינה  פני קבלת consequently, covered a wide range of nearness to and intimacy with God. Yet those who were estranged from Him by moral defaults and shortcomings, could not come near Him. To see God, to receive the countenance of the Shekinah meant, therefore, to the ancient teachers nothing less than to be near to God, to dwell in His vicinity, to be protected by His hand, and to tarry in His sight” (p.100).

“Properly understood, all these terms conveyed the idea that the righteous—but also wicked people who have charitable works to their credit, or Gentiles of a similar disposition—will see God, or be received by Him. In other words, this seeing of God means that certain merits enable man to attain a nearness to God, which to most of these theologians was equivalent to seeing God. Yet there were some, as was shown in the course of this chapter, who were so steeped in their mysticism that they spoke of and believed in a real visibility of God. This sight of God, in one form or another, meant to some teachers of Judaism a manifestation of God’s immense love to His creatures generally, and to His near ones particularly. This subject, which can here be merely touched upon, belongs to another chapter of the Rabbinic doctrine of God, namely the relation of God the Creator of man to His creatures, which will find its place in the treatise on Rabbinic anthropology (p.106)

Yair Lorberbaum, In God’s Image: Myth, Theology, and Law in Classical Judaism, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

 “To the best of my knowledge, Arthur Marmorstein, whose studies I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, was the only scholar who conducted a comprehensive and detailed study of the issue of anthropomorphism in rabbinic literature. He was tireless in his quest for relevant materials, and his contribution to our understanding of the topic is of great importance, even if deficient in conceptual analysis and even if some of his suggestions are inadequately substantiated. The immense range of anthropomorphic expressions in rabbinic literature and the consistency with which they are employed ledMarmorstein to suggest that they be read more literally. Consequently, his conclusions regarding the rabbinic conception of God differed considerably from the conclusions that prevailed in Jewish scholarship preceding him. However, Marmorstein’s studies left no impression on the scholarly world, which generally tended to ignore them. Along with reservations regarding his tendency toward an overly literal reading of the sources, scholarly criticism was directed at his proposal to distinguish between the schools of R. Akiva and of R. Ishmael. Marmorstein characterized R. Akiva’s school as espousing an anthropomorphic conception of God, and R. Ishmael’s school as endorsing an abstract conception of divinity and an allegorical reading of anthropomorphic passages in the Bible. I am not aware of any studies that have seriously responded to the challenge posited by Marmorstein’s study of a vast array of anthropomorphic expressions (published in 1927!), which defy many of the basic assumptions underlying the studies described above” (p.40).

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(Star of Redemption) Spaceship

Into life? Franz Rosenzweig was a futurist. Consciousness steps into a spaceship that spins around the axis of its own blood and time, lifts of from the historical time of planet earth singing Psalm 115, and flies straight into the sun.

Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake.

Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?

But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.

They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:

They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:

They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.

They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.

O Israel, trust thou in the Lord: he is their help and their shield.

10 O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord: he is their help and their shield.

11 Ye that fear the Lord, trust in the Lord: he is their help and their shield.

12 The Lord hath been mindful of us: he will bless us; he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron.

13 He will bless them that fear the Lord, both small and great.

14 The Lord shall increase you more and more, you and your children.

15 Ye are blessed of the Lord which made heaven and earth.

16 The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.

17 The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.

18 But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for evermore. Praise the Lord.

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Spinoza Death Mask (Archive)

This spectacular image was recently discovered in a box in an archive in a library at Columbia University, about which you can read here in this write-up by Marianna Najman-Franks (Barnard ’22). She found the death mask while working through the Oko Collection, donated by Adolph S. Oko about which and whom you can read here.

I am not entirely sure what to do with this image of an important and well-known philosopher, a major presence in the history and practice of Jewish philosophy and thought, biblical exegesis and politics, religion and metaphysics. Maybe stare at it, but then what? A first thought concerns the shock of recognition. A second thought is that this plastic, indexical impression speaks to the passage of time and our attention to it. There is also an object-character and the technological dimension that allows us to see this “thing.”

But what about that first recognition? What “clearly” identifies the mask as “belonging” to Spinoza is its location in this particular archive, the Oko Collection. When I said on FB that this doesn’t look anything “like” the Spinoza that we know from the portraits, Fred MacDowell faceapped it to make it look, as he said, “a bit more like Spinoza.” He blended the digital photograph of the death mask with a digital copy of a well known portrait of Spinoza. I’m including the digitally enhanced photo here below, but please note that the digital photograph below is NOT the original image, but an image of the image of the death mask.

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