One face about to swallow itself up in rage, the other enveloped in fear
One face about to swallow itself up in rage, the other enveloped in fear
The discussions with representatives from the Phyllis Backer Foundation about funding a new position in modern Jewish Studies were substantive and to the point about the future of Jewish Studies as a broad area of study and the specific academic strengths, configurations, and needs at Syracuse University. At no point were politics raised. While “Jewish identity” was raised, very little was said about it. The only definite point raised and accepted without question on that score was that “Jewishness” is an object of study whose interest is universal, not a criterion for filling the position.
We will almost definitely be looking for a young tenure-track colleague in American Judaism, whose home will be in the Department of Religion. With the job market in the Humanities being what it is, this is itself news. I’ll post the job announcement when it comes out in the late summer or fall of 2018, but I’m putting up this article now. It originally appeared here., I’m sharing now, one, to get the word out, but also because the article is an interesting little document in its own right. The article announcing the position put out by SU indicates the right kind of language that goes into a University statement such as this.
On a personal note, I deeply enjoyed the synergy of conversations with and between foundation representatives, administration people at the College, and Jewish Studies and Religion faculty. I am proud of and grateful for the support from Karin Ruhlandt, our dean of the College, and the generous support from Len Elman and the Phyllis Backer Foundation for the no-strings-attached gift to the Jewish Studies Program reflecting unambiguous commitment to innovative work in the Humanities.
A major gift from The Phyllis Backer Foundation will enhance the depth and breadth of modern Jewish studies at Syracuse University.
The Foundation has made a $1.5 million gift to establish The Phyllis Backer Professor of Jewish Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). A national search will be launched for a teacher-scholar fluent in topics relating to Jews and Judaism, including history, religion, literature, philosophy, languages and politics.
“The Phyllis Backer Professorship brings vitality, innovation and cohesiveness to our scholarly community,” says Karin Ruhlandt, dean of A&S and a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. “This professorship supports our signature focus on the study and teaching of the Jewish experience in modern times, as well as Jewish culture and ideas. Such work takes place against a broad, cross-disciplinary background.”
One of more than two-dozen interdisciplinary programs in A&S, Jewish Studies offers a bachelor’s degree in Modern Jewish Studies and a Jewish Studies minor. The program’s internationally renowned faculty, directed by Zachary Braiterman, professor of religion, hails from various units within A&S and across campus, including the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Collaborative work has been the hallmark of Jewish Studies, since its inception in 1980. Today, the program is one of the nation’s finest, a purveyor of modern Judaic thought and culture.
Leonard S. Elman ’52, who chairs the Foundation, has been a longtime supporter of Syracuse University and its programs. The Foundation was established by the late Phyllis Backer, a lifelong resident of Queens, New York. Upon her death in March 2016, at age 90, Ms. Backer left her estate to the Foundation, whose charitable mission is to support organizations involved in medical research and education, with an emphasis on Jewish-related causes.
“The establishment of the Phyllis Backer Professorship will perpetuate the memory of the late Phyllis Backer, who established the Phyllis Backer Foundation to support Jewish philanthropy and education,” says Elman. “By making this gift, the Foundation’s board has implemented the Foundation’s purposes by furthering and encouraging Jewish studies at Syracuse University.”
“At the same time, it is supporting the social sciences and humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, a longtime interest of mine,” Elman says.
Ruhlandt, for one, appreciates the long-range impact of the Foundation’s generosity—not only in A&S, but also across campus.
“This gift ensures Syracuse’s place at the forefront of Jewish teaching, research and scholarship,” she adds. “The Phyllis Backer Professorship provides a platform for new approaches to modern Jewish history. It also helps us answer universal questions about identity, namely ethnicity, language, religion and gender. Such transformational philanthropy elevates our reputation and broadens our aspirations.”
In putting together the syllabus for my graduate seminar, I decided to add the almost but never quite long forgotten Max Müller to his rightful place in the canon of classical theories and methods in the study of Religion. I did so because I find him interesting, undoubtedly in spite of himself, and also for colleagues and students in the department working on the religions of India; and for one senior colleague who adores him. We read Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religions of India (1878), which you can find here in its entirety. I chose this one because of its focus on Vedic sources and then Vedantic philosophy as the foundation upon which to build a theory of Religion. The title and project, although not the method, reminded me of Hermann Cohen’s Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism.
Class discussion included, but got bogged down on colonialism and liberal humanism. This was bound to happen, and we needed to get that leg of the larger conversation out on the table. In the book’s concluding “Retrospect,” inelegantly lumped on at the end of the last substantive chapter, Müller describes himself going into the crypt, devoting himself to ancient wisdom and world religions, crowned rhetorically by Christianity. It suggests very much the critique leveled against the obsession with origins that one finds in Müller him and other founding theorists of religion leveled by Tomaoko Masuzawa in In Search of Dreamtime. Reflecting and orienting the self-consciously anxious subject-position of the modern western subject, the study of religions is viewed by Müller as creating a place of refuge in the busy, noisy, contentious modern world.
Müller’s is a Protestant theory of religion out of the Vedic Sources, in which religion is defined in relation to the human apprehension of “The Infinite.” Representing a late gesture in the German Idealist tradition, this centrality of the infinite is hardly the most interesting part of the theory. The more abiding point of interest is the attention given by Müller, the first translator into English of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the ordinary, sensual root of that apprehension in relation to ideas and language.
Müller designed a theological interpretation of religion that has been rejected out of hand by our caustic friends over at the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NASSR). These are the critics in the field rejecting out of hand any and all claims that religion represents a uniquely privileged phenomenon distinct and set apart (sanctified) from historical, social, and political contexts. In his defense, I would start by noting that Müller refuses all appeals to special revelation or to a special mental faculty or receptivity to the signals of religious phenomena. For Müller, the starting point of religion is ordinary perception in relation to Nature, a point of view rejected by Durkheim as “naturism.” While there is much that might be right and wrong about the theory, at the very least it does not treat religion as sui generis.
Lost in the classroom discussion was the way objects figure in Müller’s theory of religion. Against Positivists who argue that human experience is limited to finite experience, he located the apprehension of the infinite in the ordinary experience with tangible, semi-tangible, and intangible objects. This classification is the heart of the book. The semi-tangible would be that object that one cannot pick up in the hand or view in a single intuition. In contrast, tangible objects (which Müller most likely identified with so-called “fetishism”) are those one can pick up, grasp, and handle in the round. Müller claims that the Vedas are unconcerned with tangible objects. The significant point is to say that religion happens in the breakdown of perception, the incipient and emergent awareness of the Infinite as brought out in the struggle for language, and analytic ascriptions of agency and difference around those points at which perception reaches its limit, beginning to shimmer and lighten. Reading the Sanskrit sources, light is identified as the religious object or what we might call index par excellence.
As a social thinker, Müller is basically useless, although even as I say this somewhat off the cuff, I would be open to being proven wrong. To think of Müller in social terms would be to have to expand his theory to includes theorists for whom habits of perception, categories, and language itself are profoundly shared in and shaped by society. This would be an easy enough of a correction, for which one could turn already to Durkheim for help. What one can take from Müller, especially in relation to Marx, is a more sensual and more aesthetic form of “material religion,” more given to the formative powers of the imagination and language (concepts and naming).
Trying to assess the larger Müller corpus gets mixed up and screwy, and I’m not sure I’d recommend to anyone the four volumes of Gifford Lectures. These are  Natural Religion,  Physical Religion,  Anthropological Religion,  Theosophy or Psychological Religion. At least I would not recommend these to anyone whose interests does not lie in the history of the study of religion as simply antiquarian. There’s a musty quality to such theological speculation positioning Protestant Christianity at the apex in the history of religion, offered up to Christian readers as the most recondite meeting point or unity between “these two infinities” of God and soul.
Leaving aside the history of comparative religion that anchored his project, I would tease out the abiding theoretical interest in Müller’s orientation as a contribution to the study of the sense of religious phenomena in relation to ecology (nature), object theory (objects in nature), and affect theory (as to sensations that begin to break out at the sub-threshold of consciousness. Indeed, nature was the aspect of Müller’s work that caught Durkheim’s negative attention in his own attempt to uncover elementary, original forms of religious life.
For a theory of Judaism, one must always get past that automatic reflex to reduce material culture to “idolatry.” Reading Müller reminded me of all the tangible objects drawn from the Hebrew Bible that the great art critic Harold Rosenberg, tongue in cheek and inspired by surrealism, says that he would have wanted to place in a Museum of Jewish Art. (About Rosenberg I wrote here.) These would be more tangible, talismanic objects like Joseph’s coat, Balaam’s ass, the burning bush, Aaron’s rod, a slingshot, the jawbone of an ass, and other found-art objects and events that when chanced upon may, as per Rosenberg, “start to glisten with meaning and become memorable.”
Working through the “Basic Sociological Terms” in Max Weber’s masterpiece, Economy and Society is this little point of interest regarding the difference between Communal and Associative Relationships with a special reference to Zionists and Jews.
As defined by Weber, the ideal type of the communal social relationship is built upon the subjective feeling of the parties, whether affectual or traditional, that they belong to each other.” This does not have to reflect an objective reality as much as a subjective interpretation or “meaning.” (For Weber, meanings are always a matter of subjective interpretation) (p.4) In contrast, the associative social relationship rests on “‘rationally motivated adjustments of interest.” (vol.1, pp.40-1). Communal relationships are understood by Weber in terms of largely “emotional values” (p.41).
But there is more to communal relationships than common qualities, feelings, or situations. “We” usually think without hesitation that the Jews constitute a community. Counter-intuitively, Weber observes that Jews “often repudiate the existence of a Jewish ‘community.'” Most likely this contention reflects the views of assimilated German Jews at the time. This is also of interest. Posed by him as the exception to this rule repudiating the existence of a Jewish community were “Zionist circles” and “the action of certain associations promoting specifically Jewish interests” (p.42).
There is much food for thought here for contemporary American Jews, Zionists, anti-Zionists, non-Zionists, and post-Zionists alike. Central is the fundamental question concerning the very existence or non-existence of this thing called “the Jewish community.” “Do we belong to each other?” Or is what generally goes under the name Jewish community something more like an association, i.e. a “compromise of opposed by complementary interests,” purely “voluntary associations of individuals motivated by an adeherence to a set of common absolute values,” as in the case of “a rational sect” “insofar as it does not cultivate emotional and affective interests, but seeks only to serve a ’cause'”(p.41)?
(note, pun intended, the painting, meant here to provoke and tease a little, is by the American Jewish artist, also named Max Weber)
Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
College of Liberal Arts
The College of Liberal Arts invites applications for a tenure-track, 10-month Assistant Professor position in Modern and Contemporary Jewish Thought, beginning August 2018.
PhD required in Religious Studies, Philosophy, or an otherwise named PhD program clearly emphasizing Jewish Thought. Possess a strong commitment to excellence in teaching, the promise of scholarly productivity, and a willingness to participate actively in the department, the College of Liberal Arts, and Towson University. The successful candidate will also be a member of the faculty for the Master’s program in Jewish Studies.
Teaching schedule will be three courses each semester in the first year and 4/3 thereafter.
Courses will include undergraduate offerings in the Core Curriculum of the university, graduate seminars, and upper division undergraduate courses; opportunities are available to participate in the Towson first-year seminar program and the Honors College.
Towson University (www.towson.edu), founded in 1866, recognized by U. S. News and World Reports as one of the top public universities in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, is Baltimore’s largest university, and is the largest public, comprehensive institution in the University of Maryland System. TU enrolls almost 19,000 undergraduates and over 3,000 graduate students across six academic colleges (business, education, fine arts, health professions, liberal arts, science & mathematics), has over 865 full-time faculty, and offers more than 65 bachelor’s, 45 master’s, and 5 doctoral programs. Our centrally located campus sits on 330 rolling green acres and is 10 miles north of Baltimore, 45 miles north of Washington D.C., and 95 miles south of Philadelphia.
Review of applications begins on December 8, 2017 and continues until position is filled. For full consideration, submit a letter discussing your teaching experience and research projects and a CV including the names and contact information of three references to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please describe as well, in the letter or separately, at least two courses you would propose for the graduate level and two for the undergraduate level. The committee may request additional materials from selected applicants in the process of the search. Questions regarding the position may also be sent to email@example.com.
A Criminal Background Investigation is required for the hired candidate and the results may impact employment.
Please be sure to visit http://www.towson.edu/inclusionequity/employment/data.html to
complete a voluntary on-line applicant data form. The information you provide will inform the university’s affirmative action plan and is for statistical-related purposes only. The information will not be used for any other purpose. Please note that the search number for which you have applied is: CLA-N-3121. Towson University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and has a strong institutional commitment to diversity. Women, minorities, persons with disabilities, and veterans are encouraged to apply.
(Shots from the summer for this week’s parsha)
Neo Nazis on campus? The lines get kind of blurry the more clearly they get drawn. In an interesting article Noah Feldman parses out the difference between academic freedom and free speech with an eye on the First Amendment (which may or may not apply in certain or all cases), the distinction between public and private institutions of higher education, different zones on campus, recognized by law, that relate to the regulation of free speech, and the intellectual and moral norms that are supposed to define the academy. The whole article is here. My digest of what to me were the most important parts of the article are below, Feldman’s words under rubrics of my own design.
Private Colleges and Universities
Although some private institutions may have internal rules that commit them to treating different viewpoints fairly, nothing in the First Amendment requires them to be neutral. To the contrary, a private institution has a First Amendment right to promote any viewpoint it wants and to discriminate against any viewpoint it would prefer to exclude. That’s why when private universities cancel speaker invitations, the speakers’ only recourse is criticism.
But on closer examination, academic freedom and constitutional free speech are actually pretty different. In private universities, the act of creating a campus where academic freedom exists requires the creation of a community that shares certain scholarly norms. If students and teachers could shout each other down, free exchange of ideas on campus would quickly become impossible.
And in truth, public universities aren’t much different. To function as universities, they need to create an environment of communal commitment to exploring the truth. That includes, in my view, great latitude for expressing almost any imaginable viewpoint. But it does not include threats or harassment. And it does not allow for gross violations of civility. Consequently, public universities may regulate, for example, threatening racist or sexist speech, much in the way that private corporations do (and are required to do by federal law).
Free Speech and Academic Freedom
I have no doubt as a First Amendment matter that such white supremacist speech, hateful as it is, must be permitted on public streets provided the marchers have a permit and proceed peacefully.
But on a campus that is trying to shape a respectful environment for intellectual community, such a march by people unconnected to the university is wholly inappropriate. It bespeaks potential intimidation and an invitation to raucousness that is unsuitable to what we might unironically call the groves of academe.
In short, the university is not the public square. Where the First Amendment requires it to be treated as such, it’s crucial for public university administrators to follow the law. But wherever possible, we should use all lawful means to distinguish the free-for-all of public argument from the structured, reasoned debate to which the university as an institution is supposed to be dedicated.