I have been reading historian Norman F. Cantor’s excellent book on Jewish history, “The Sacred Chain.” Cantor makes a compelling case for the failure of the decisively influential stands of thinking in the Jewish world going back to antiquity, their failure to do the one thing that, in various times of crisis (when the early Christian church was competing with Judaism before Constantine; and in the critical moments of 1096, 1492, 1648, and then the 19th and 20th centuries), might have led to different outcomes: such fewer people abandoning Judaism for Christianity, and the faith of most Jews and institutions supporting it being more relevant and useful to their needs.
The simple story is that Cantor thinks that always in the various diaspora sites, a substantial number of Jews became very successful and prominent, and what this generally did was to make them conservative. Conservative by the standards of what might have been had Jewish intellectual life been less exclusively tied to traditional sources, such that it might have involved more successful fruitful encounters with philosophical, scientific, and artistic ideas and trends in the larger culture.
Thus, not only does Cantor dismiss Cabalism as irrational (while interestingly pointing to parallels at its origin in the same place and time, 12th century Southern France, to the Christian Cathar Hersey which Denis de Rougemont has famously argued poised modern European culture by introducing morbid ideas into its understanding of romantic love, which begins with the love poetry of the Provencal Troubadours around the time of the First Crusade, which itself was influenced by the Song of Songs and medieval Arabic love poetry by Muslim and Jewish writers. The link is that both Catharism and Cabalism have roots in Gnosticism and Manichaeanism, which maintains that the world is evil in essence, and the divine forces of light are tools for its redemption from darkness). He also thinks that Judaism — if not, of course, secular Jewish thinkers, whatever it means for a work of thought to be Jewish — consistently failed at a theoretical level to produce a credible adaptation to the society of the time and the most useful and inspiring forms of thought within it. This is an almost black and white matter with regard to medieval philosophy and the Jewish participation in it, claims Cantor. Judah Halevi and others have little to offer besides poetry, and Maimonides is, philosophically, not our contemporary in the way that, along with all philosophical classics, arguably Aquinas, influenced by him, Scotus, and others are.
In the modern world, of course, assimilation meant that most Jewish minds of note were not in the rabbinate and what enchanted and excitement them was things other than the Talmud. In my field, philosophy, the difference is very striking and stark: There is a rabbinical canon of “Jewish philosophers.” Most of them are rabbis, they write inspiring 300 page homiletical sermons. Some are worth reading. But with one exception, in the last 100 years, only one deserves to be called a philosopher in a sense that the scholarly world of philosophy can recognize, and that is Emmanuel Levinas. There are other great Jewish philosophers, but no one calls them that, and no one at a rabbinical school will likely be assigned to read any of them. Most are political philosophers. (In my forthcoming – it may take a few years – book “Towards a New Jewish Philosophy,” I will argue that where Judaism most did and does differ is its politics.
The Jewish idea of God is different from characteristic Christian and Muslim ideas and the difference has to do with notions of power. The consequence is that Jewish theology at least potentially approaches social and political domination, injustice, and liberation differently. And it must. When that is recognized, other things will begin to fall into place. And we can finally say goodbye to the conservativism of the entire religious Jewish world as we know it today. The answer lies not in nationalism (though I see no reason to oppose the nation-state idea either; there is no alternative to “ours” except living in “theirs” and that will be so as long as there are not only nations but nation-states). All of the nihilist (in the Heideggerian sense) solutions of communitarianism, nationalism, familialism, or textualism (the authority of the text) must be seen as copouts and dead-ends. (A truly liberal Judaism of course values communities and families, but the -isms overstate the case in an intellectually dishonest or at least heteronymous mode of appealing to such things epistemically to legitimate belief based on some region of the way things are — the most un-Jewish idea imaginable). My argument will be philosophical, and this can allow for interpretation of texts, and of the meaning of various social forms, but the starting point cannot be them but a set of principles grounded in pure reason.
My polemic point is not that Reform and Conservative Judaism are doing so much as they are already dead, as intellectually they have nothing to offer. This is the fact: Reform Judaism sought to modernize it in ways that ultimately led nowhere (in part because no one is a Kantian anymore, at least not in Hermann Cohen’s idealizing sense).
And if I really have had too much to drink and it shows in my writing this, let me exit gracefully for now by saying that if I cannot solve this problem, maybe a bunch of us can, and certainly some good work has been done. I just find it annoying that I can go one of these nice synagogues that has nice music, a good sermon, and I like what they have done with the prayerbook. I understand that you cannot really expect to meet anyone there. I understand that most religious Jews are just interested in their careers, and families, and people like me don’t belong or are into strange fiery tomes and thinkings, and philosophy, which I study and take very seriously, is my own private enterprise, while if you probe a bit you find that these are people whose thinking is watered down Kant and Kierkegaard, via the “Jewish philosophers” who are mostly in the older German and not the more recent French and Italian traditions of Continental philosophy (to which almost all Jewish theology belongs).
Almost nowhere in Judaism today is there an interesting or relevant politics. Many liberal American Jews believe in “social activism,” but ultimately that is empty. It’s another private enterprise, and one that is encouraged.
What happened is nothing less than this: Most successful Jews today are either in business or one of the professions, or academia. The former group gets lots of opportunity for self-congratulation, and that is a major part of Cantor’s point. And the great Jewish minds have long abandoned Talmudism and the rabbinate for the universities. No one can complain about this, except that you can easily feel a disconnect if you are one of these intellectual types (if only because you find it annoying to be bored) and then you realize that you walk into a synagogue, almost any, and here people are reaping all the advantages of the Haskalah, which is why their thinking is usually at best a watered-down Kantianism, sprinkled with notions that they have gotten from the homiletical readings popular with many middle-class Jews and marketed to them, including homiletical and inspiring rather than critical forms of history, which is one of Cantor’s complains. And sprinkled with references to this or that historical factor that is homiletically pertinent. Maybe no connection needs to be made. But if you went, as I did, to a leading university and there studied in a humanities field, where some really exciting experimental thinking was going on, and then you meet your neighborhood rabbi and he or, increasingly she, is very nice and a bit helpful in some merely practical way, and suddenly you feel as in a time warp. So my question is: What would be a good way of catching up, if not to 2017, maybe to 1970? Please tell me, and don’t be embarrassed if you have to say no: Do you believe there is anything important to be learned from the 20th century or not? It seems to me that you are, like T. S. Eliot, holding out fragments from the distant past to shore against our ruins, and truth be told, you no more believe in the 20th century than the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn who have shielded themselves from it.
I think that philosophy as a discipline sets the standards and forms of thinking clearly about anything at all. Debates about religion or politics or anything else of consequence should be formulated with reference to philosophical positions and arguments. When rabbis are not well-trained in philosophy, they must fall back, for example in any pastoral counseling context, but also in their sermons, upon argument by authority with citation of proof-texts.
And the question of assimilation is never whether or not, nor more or less; it is how, meaning to what. To which elements of the larger (not definitively Jewish) environment? And by what means (confronting these of “those” texts with which of “ours,” and in what way?
American Jews are not too assimilated; they are mostly assimilated in the wrong way. The reason is that an environment is both social and culture. Assimilation to a society is adoption of its mores and folkways and/or those of a professional career. Assimilation to a culture is understanding and using works of art and ideas that are in substantial measure a critique of the society that they are part of. And these are very different. The one, motivated by the desire for success and comfort, is intrinsically conservative. This is not bad, just limiting. The other will tend, as it has for many Jews in academia, towards the left. It will tend towards the experimental and the avant-garde.
Certainly, the idea of chosen-ness partly means being or being part of an avant-garde. The only thing that has changed there is that outside certain practices particular to us that we may (or may not) wish to maintain, and which are separative, like kosher, shabbat, circumcision, and the ban on intermarriage, with regard to most things that are normally found on either side of a social boundary, the borders are fluid. And this is true of all identities in the contemporary world, and for this reason. (It is true of gender except when it comes to meaningful differences that are anatomical).
I do not wish to suggest that synagogues should become little universities employing a hundred or more scholars and encompassing every interesting idea many of us can relate to. What I suggest is the more limited consideration that Judaism and its rabbis are today largely excluded, by the design of their profession and places of worship, from almost all of what is happening in the world today in the world of ideas, in the “spiritual” world (in the European sense: that of the world of ideas and thinking), that truly matters. And that, while I have no proposal on how to remedy this exactly, apart from suggesting that rabbinical seminaries teach or require prior study in philosophy and that this have the same degree of rigor traditionally accorded Talmudism. For look what Reform and Conservativism have done: By carefully cultivating a territory that is almost entirely irrelevant to the modern world they were both so eager to join and truly be part of, they have condemned much of American Jewish culture to disappear, if they continue on the same course, in perhaps a couple of generations. And all of the efforts that rabbis and Jewish community leaders worried about this have been undertaking are doomed because they assume that the solution to the problem is to repackage the ancient and medieval Jewish thinking that is still what is known as Judaism today.
Cantor hints that one reason for the conservatism of American Judaism today is the influence of the Jewish billionaires. I do suspect that much of the unquestioning American “Zionism” is partly a displacement and distraction. Israel is not under any immanent threat and has not been since 1973. Of course it needs to exist. But our politics should not be exclusively defined by the Israel/Palestinian issue nor by philanthropy and pleasant-sounding appeals about milquetoast social concerns that can be aired from the pulpit. For generations now, most Jews who are doing much that is interesting are not religious and could not want to be. Why is that? The rabbis want to sell them in more attractive packages what these people are smart enough to already know that they don’t want, certainly not if that’s all there is. The conservative faction has defined being Jewish in terms of Judaism and defined Judaism too narrowly. And yet, most of the things they want to cling to are fine, they just are not enough. And so the destiny will be that soon most Jews will either be non-religious in principle, or very minimally so indeed, and indeed, that is already the case. Either way, the religion is becoming irrelevant. At the very moment when, in the last couple of generations, philosophical theology has become interesting again, and in exciting new ways. But to study philosophy rightly you have to risk yourself, not cling to the shore.
Tentatively, my book will discuss a number of secular philosophers, Jewish and non-Jewish, mention some of the religious ones in passing only (as deserved), and will among other things attempt to “redeem” a political philosophy based on various sources including several 20th century Jewish philosophers who are not religious. I realize I could easily wind up writing a book that has only the most tenuous claim to a connection to Judaism, and tomorrow that may or may not matter to me; I have been reading some things that make it seem relevant. But then I will return to my starting point: A Jewish philosophy worthy of our time will be a political philosophy and vice-versa. Talmudism, Cabalism, New Ageism, and also Zionism are all in my view not really political. We don’t have a coherent politics, and that is because we don’t have a philosophy, or set of philosophies.
The question of the possible role of philosophy in Judaism has been raised since Philo in the first century. It is a vexed problem, and no less than Levinas and Leo Strauss have both claimed that “philosophy is Greek,” and Judaism can dance with it but only at arms length and not marry it. Maimonides thought differently, but he really is a hermeneutical commentator and not philosophically rigorous. Levinas is the sole figure I can think of who really does belong solidly in both camps. Spinozism is a live option today and as with Heideggerianism (and perhaps Kantianism and Hegelianism), it is by no means clear that it is a position that it places any adherent (for philosophy has adherents! It is an object of belief, of course; philosophy always claims to present what is “true,” though it asks for an allegiance that is essentially cognitive and cannot be demanded or commanded) must abandon the “faith.” Faith in what? Well, I will of course have to define what I take to be the proper Jewish idea of God, and some other things. Including, if not starting, with what he all too often is in Christianity and to my thinking cannot be: An omnipotent will who guarantees the good. The reason this is wrong is only secondarily because of “the problem of evil.” It has to do with the problems of injustice and that form of justice that is liberation. The contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben quotes in one of his books an Islamic Sura which presents the question where God was before the creation of the world. The answer is that he is with the oppressed.
God is all too easily identified with the state of things and the state authorities who represent it. Solving this problem is no easy matter, since notions such as “the people” (or, indeed, “we (or they), the oppressed”), perhaps precisely in being posited inevitable as authoritative principles on which effective action might be legitimated, they are also forms of “God.” God is his own worst enemy, and ours, because justice is as easily domination and liberation, and maybe intrinisically both. God had to be reminded by the first person who knew him well, Abraham, that it might be unjust to destroy the unjust if there might be just ones among them. Just try and sort this out in contexts where it is not easily sorted out by grouping persons. (That is, what if some are not wholly good or bad?)
The question of the role of Judaism in a philosophy is a form of the question of philosophy’s relationship to artistic (or textual) and historical “conditions.” Jewishness is always defined or understood with respect to the religion or to Jewish history. The essential features of Jewish history that make it distinctive are all already presented in the Torah and Bible. But philosophy is not hermeneutical exegesis. Rather, it always treats textual and historical exemplars as having “a vote but not a veto” (Kaplan), as at best presenting possibilities that are suggestive for a philosophical thinking that starts and ends with propositional truth claims that are grounded entirely in other such claims. Philosophy can have no non-philosophical presuppositions. Philosophy’s relationship to non-philosophy is that the latter gives it things to talk about. But any hermeneutic elucidation of an idea found in the text has only possible, perhaps even probable, validity, and that is how philosophy must treat it. A philosophical elucidation of a canonical text has not succeeded if it shows us what the text means but does not persuade us that this claim is true (or false), and in some way that we must care about.
Judaism’s idea of God was unique in not being essentially identified with authority, legitimacy, and domination, as in much of Christian theology and still much thought of God in Judaism. The Jewish God is a fullness and perfection in idea who rules without controlling Being (Nature and History) conceived as Lacking. This idea proved stronger than religion itself, because the Jews were always a minority, at least outside their proper territory in the diaspora where most of them have lived and still prefer to, and were always subjected to injustice, or liable to be, so that they could never long forget this, even if they abandoned received or traditional ways of thinking about and coping with this condition. The most fundamental ideological claim is simply that the way things are is the way they ought to be, and religious and non-religious Jews generally have intuitively refused this equation, if only because so much in their history and condition makes it difficult not to. And so, to begin with, the theological problem of God is the problem of injustice: As Abraham put it, must not the God of justice be just? Abraham presents a case that God has apparently not considered, though it is plain enough. God has made a judgment that is correct enough on its own terms, but what about “this”? There is something he seems to have overlooked. The Christians and Muslims have a tendency to say: But of course, God is just; he is what he is. This is the empty tautology of A=A, the way things are is the way they must be because it is the way things are, and what else is there? That is, possibility depends on necessity. But God’s famous enigmatic “I am what I am” which he says to Moses conjoins, in the Hebrew, two tenseless statements of the verb. (Doris Day’s song in Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” makes this “Que Sera, Sera,” whatever will be, will be, meaning that destiny is at most a fate unknowable in advance). In traditional theologies, His knowledge and wisdom are superior to ours, so we should defer and have faith and submit to his will; for “everything is the best in the best of all possible worlds,” and idea that Voltaire in the 18th century already could see, as is obvious today, is an obscenity. Judaism says instead: God must be just, for he is what he will be; that is, his promise, which requires our participation, ties what is possible or morally necessary now to our (possible) understanding of what must be and so can. Historical time is being’s lack of its own perfection. (And this is not, as in the Manichaean theme so often taken up in Christian and Muslim thinking, and recently by governments in the Cold War and beyond, a struggle of good and against evil that is thus a contest of wills, where each will is a knowledge in full possession of its objects.) The Jewish God is temporal (Bergson; and, perhaps, with Whitehead, processual), while the more common theological positions in the other religions and sometimes in ours are spatial and so static, conservative, and reflective of a desire for power more than love and freedom. They counsel a contentment that seems to us inadequate, and that is because Christianity at its origins, which was an accommodation to empire, was depoliticizing and psychologizing, solipsistic in its confident soteriology, which is why it had to oppose love to justice. And this is one reason why we must struggle with God in struggling with the world and its people, including ourselves, wresting a future rather than waiting for it, as if all we needed were reverential wonder, grace, miracles, and receptivity to the given and gifted character (as in the Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion) of a Being that is not just essentially good but wholly so (and maybe requiring only the right perspective).
And yet, maybe this is not the problem, either. Maybe the problem is class, even more than the influence of the billionaires. Most American Jews are satisfied with their lives and think this country has treated them well. Typically, they divide only on the issues of Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians, with this problem being the touchstone of all Jewish politics, in Israel and America. Yet this country has horrible problems, and most Jews don’t care very much about them. Their religious institutions are horribly and, from my perspective, stiflingly conservative. The old socialist movements died out and nothing has taken their place. The happy period of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s is history.
Now we have arbitrary punishments, including practices like solitary confinement that warrant comparison with the Nazi death camps. (Precisely: while they do not produce physical death, they destroy the mind by destroying the brain, the degradation is drawn out in time and extremely painful, and in destroying the mind they destroy the soul and produce something like “the Musselman” figure in the camps, as described by Primo Levi and theorized by Giorgio Agamben in “Remnants of Auschwitz”). We have a health care system that is exploitative, and mental health care that mixes profitable neglect and punishment. Our educational system does not teach to people to think but only to conform and obey, at best with comfortable and betimes even greatly productive creativity, and perhaps retain a set of facts in their personal archive. We have no shared literary culture, that 19th century promise, which accompanied the birth of modern secular universal education, having been abandon in a society that has move far towards replacing the citizen with the more subject.
The universities that provided opportunities to so many young Jews and others who were intellectually inclined no longer do, and most trained scholars are unable to research or write as they have full teaching loads at starvation wages. Our popular arts of music and film are mostly just forms of advertising. The news media is entirely corporate-controlled and often overtly propagandistic. Politicians are beholden to investors in politics and lobbyists, and so their profession is essentially corrupt. Authoritarian governance is sustained by a mixture of the phony libertarianism and the medieval moralistic Biblical fundamentalism of the business and religious right-wings. Continuing racial segregation and unequal financing of schools through property taxes make overt racism, including frequent police and prison abuses, a constant likelihood. Automation is throwing people into the precariat instead of liberating them for more interesting lives. Our government continues to engage in constant overseas military operations, which often backfire, and its answer to the real terrorist threat is more domestic militarized policing and the effective elimination of civil liberties. We have a government that will rape you and then make you pay them for it. And the “liberal” rabbis want to defend this society (and the privileges of most of their congregants) and endlessly issue cautionary notes about those who want change. The shibboleths that Jews benefit from a free market economy and that socialism is dead are rather shopworn. Because God is also on the side of the oppressed. Pope Francis knows this, and many Muslims know this and get it wrong, perhaps because their Manichaeanism gets in the way. We must not oppose the rich because they are rich any more than the poor because they are poor: God is not only on the side of the oppressed, but he certainly is. But we are going to help build a better society or, I fear, go down sinking with it.
These are particularities of the present historical situation. A left politics worthy of the name today would surely be compatible with a plurality of positions in philosophical theology, or none at all. I think that Judaism and a left politics go very well together, and so do the current configurations of Reform and Conservative Judaism with a conservativism that cares not a whit for all the kinds of problems I have just summarized.
American Judaism today is almost universally quietist and apolitical. Rabbis and their congregants will have political opinions, but they are mostly uninteresting, irrelevant, or both. And this is related to the same intellectual poverty that may be the principle reason for their decline. Most synagogues today are no more relevant to any politics than most churches. Maybe God doesn’t need a politics. I say he does. What Reform did was to minimize the religious tradition and add a clause that you can fill it out with any set of supplements you like. This is part of the board nihilism of thought and “spirituality” in the modern world. Judaism, or a thinking that is true to it, is not the cause of this problem, but it might provide part of the solution. Tendencies in that direction lie almost entirely outside the realm of religion proper as it exists today, and I think the resources are in contemporary (the last hundred years) European philosophy. What this should and likely will mean for the future of Jewish difference I am not sure, though it seems to me clear that in teams of large-scale social peace, the importance of this difference will diminish as it will grow in contrary conditions. I worry more about what plants I cultivate in my garden than about how similar to mine is my neighbor’s.
Next, I will comment on what is wrong with the current official Platform of Reform Judaism, and the progressively more conservative character of each of the succeeding platforms since the first in the 19th century.