Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularism and Universalism

In my experience, Jewish philosophy and Jewish theology play no role in the lives of 99.9% of Jews (equivalent to the role of jurisprudence in the lives of Americans). It is rare that I recall real Jews (as opposed to professional Jews) discussing what Jews must believe.

A friend says: “A lot of activities that are quite different from each other are classified under the heading “philosophy.” I suppose that systematizing ideas about values and rules–and attempting to justify them–would normally be considered a kind of philosophy. Though if the philosopher’s premises supposedly come from divine revelation, maybe it’s better to call it theology. A lot of contemporary analytic philosophy, especially in ethics, is apologetics for liberalism. I’d just call it bad philosophy.”

Here are some highlights from this 2014 book by Aaron W. Hughes:

* Like many others in my field, I have spent most of my life reading Jewish philosophers as shining exemplars of the universalizing tendencies within Judaism. Juxtaposed against the forces of obscurantism, so the master narrative of Jewish philosophy goes, these individuals articulated a Judaism that was as rational and inclusive as it was open to the cosmopolitan trends of the civilizations in which Jews historically found themselves. This narrative has performed a great deal of intellectual work as Jewish thinkers in the modern period have used it—and indeed continue to use it—in order to show that Judaism, as a religion not unlike others, can be integrated within and respond to the demands of the modern nation-state.

Jewish philosophy, in other words, has been used to normalize Judaism, to demonstrate the tradition at its most rational. Jewish philosophy— in its many guises and forms—has been perceived to have taken the particular elements of Judaism and subsequently translated and constructed them into universal terms in ways that show potential filiations between a Judaism deemed authentic and an external standard imagined as universally binding. Yet the potential counterpoints between the particular and the universal risk masking the instability of both. Each requires the other for its determinacy, just as each is simultaneously undermined by the indeterminacy of its opposite.

* How can philosophy be philosophy if it is particular and apologetic? Jewish philosophy may well prove to be a category error in which a property is ascribed to something that could not possibly have that property.

[LF: Jewish medical ethics, I assume, is a subsection of ethics, which is a subsection of philosophy. So Jewish medical ethics looks at medical ethical issues through the framework of the Jewish tradition. So perhaps Jewish philosophy looks at the traditional questions of philosophy through the framework of the Jewish tradition? If there is Jewish literature and Jewish movies and Jewish history, why would there not be Jewish philosophy? I assume there is Jewish jurisprudence?]

* Appeals to the universal risk the effacement of the particular, just as appeals to the particular risk the reification of the idiosyncratic. The result is that Jewish philosophy has proved largely inflexible and rigid in its ability to negotiate these pitfalls. It is inherently conservative and apologetic. Despite the best intentions—offered by the likes of Maimonides, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas—configuring Jewish philosophy becomes an imaginary act by which the universal is necessarily envisioned through the semblance of the particular.

* [Jewish philosophy is] a form of rhetoric in the service of manufacturing truth claims.

* [What] is the goal of Jewish philosophy: Is it to think Jewishly about philosophy? Or is it to think philosophically about Judaism? Is it to address concerns for living Jews? Or is it to show how Jewish philosophy can speak to philosophy, whether
faith based or not?

* Judaism—like philosophy—cannot become the privileged cultural resource or position, because once this happens, the result is violence, whether physical or metaphysical.

[LF: Is Judaism more than anything else that is privileged likely to lead to violence?]

* My hope, in other words, is to rethink Jewish philosophy using a language that avoids stability, hegemony, and occupation.

[LF: No hegemony and no occupation and there is no nationalism and no strong in-group identity. Is not monogamous marriage a type of stability, hegemony and occupation? Everybody thinks their in-group is the best and should rule a domain.]

* Unless done so in a pejorative sense, we tend not to speak of Jewish mathematics, Jewish physics, or Jewish sociology. All the nouns in these compounds imply a discipline that, for the most part, is agreed upon by all who engage in it; yet, when the particularist adjective “Jewish” is added, the result is nonsense… Even if a particular mathematician happened to be ethnically or religiously Jewish, he or she would ostensibly engage in the same activity as his or her non-Jewish colleague.

If we are not comfortable with coupling particularist adjectives and universally recognized disciplines, why do we insist on thinking that it is okay to refer to something as “Jewish philosophy”? Can one philosophize from a Jewish perspective? Does Judaism provide some sort of insight into philosophy that those who are not Jewish lack?

* Jewish philosophy, it is assumed, takes place in history and largely examines dead thinkers. It involves sifting through their ideas, contextualizing them, and showing their contribution to (non-Jewish) philosophy. This, however, is not really what we are accustomed—at least non-Jewishly—to think of as philosophy, but, as I just argued, is something that borders on historicism at best and necrophilia at worst.

* One of the tasks of Jewish philosophy is to mediate between these temporal coordinates by creating a retrievable, pristine past that can be upheld as the criteria by which to mark authentic Jewish existence and thinking.

* What we are accustomed to calling “Jewish philosophy” is, in many ways, an oxymoron since it does not engage in truth independent of religious claims.

* If philosophy is about what is, …then theology is about what ought to be.

* it might well be better to label Jewish philosophy as “Jewish theology” since it is unwilling to undo the major claims of Judaism (e.g., covenant, chosenness, revelation), even if it may occasionally and creatively redefine such claims.16 So, although medieval Jewish thinkers may well gravitate toward the systematic thought of Aristotle and his Arab interpreters, and although modern Jewish thinkers may be attracted to the thought of Kant and Heidegger, the ideas of such non-Jewish thinkers are always applied to Jewish ideas and values. Hermeneutics thus becomes the primary activity that seeks to smooth over the tensions or impossibilities when the so-called Jewish and the so-called non-Jewish intersect.

* Indeed, it is perhaps possible to argue, following Jacques Derrida, that Judaism functions as a disruption that causes a tear in the tradition of Western philosophy. Juxtaposed against Novak’s confidence in the possibility of philosophical reflection, Derrida sees an impossibility, a reminder of the inherent homelessness and indeterminacy of the human condition.

* Whether in its medieval or modern guise, Jewish philosophy upholds the stated and received truths of Judaism, albeit often in new and original ways. Although Jewish philosophy may well use non-Jewish ideas to articulate its claims, it never produces a vision that ends in the wholesale abandonment of Judaism.

* Even though critics of Jewish philosophy might argue that philosophy introduces “foreign” wisdom into the heart of Judaism, those scholars we are in the habit of calling Jewish philosophers do not perceive themselves to be tainting Judaism, but rather to be perfecting it or teasing out its originary meaning.25 Nevertheless, the fact remains that Jewish philosophy seems not to be engaged in the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake, but in the quest for an authentic Judaism that exists nowhere other than in a past and a set of texts that are deemed to be authentic and authoritative.

* Philosophy, with its emphasis on reason and universalism, would seem to signify the opposite of “Jewish” (i.e., Judaism), which, at least in theory, is defined by revelation and the particular.

* [Franz] Rosenzweig argued that Jewish thought is by nature apologetic because it takes place on the “border” [die Grenze] of Judaism and what lies beyond it.

* Since organic Jewish thought, using Rosenzweig’s language, which takes place within Judaism, tends to be legal and systematic, it becomes apologetic only when it approaches the border of Judaism and non-Judaism. This border is responsible for making Jewish philosophy apologetic, because it is largely responsive to “external” voices. Apologetics, on this reading, potentially lacks the self-consciousness necessary for introspection.

* Jewish thinkers, from Saadya Gaon to Emmanuel Levinas, have held on to the belief that they have uncovered Judaism in its pristine, timeless, or originary form. The approach taken in this study, on the contrary, is that Jewish philosophy should not be about asking what truth says Judaism should be or what Judaism says truth should be. Rather, we ought to ask how truth is imagined and manufactured, what role an activity named “philosophy” plays in that act of truth making, and how, in the process, it creates Judaism.

* Whether in the teachings of Maimonides or in the construction of Rosenzweig or others, Jewish philosophy has a nationalist and a totalitarian aspect to it—one that is grounded in the commitment to an organic community in which the individuals that compose it, both past and present, are perceived to be united together through ethnic, cultural, and religious ancestry.

* philosophy has been a tool with which certain Jews have imagined Judaism to be compatible with the larger cultures in which Jews have lived.

* “The Jewish people did not begin to philosophize because of an irresistible urge to do so. They received philosophy from outside sources, and the history of Jewish philosophy is a history of the successive absorptions of foreign ideas which were then transformed and adapted according to specific Jewish points of view.”

* the goal of Jewish philosophy is to articulate Judaism, to make it into something that can be defended against the attacks of non-Jews and to rationalize to Jews what it is that they do… Philosophy comes from the outside and is subsequently forced inside.

* This means that there is always something apologetic about Jewish philosophy as it seeks to smooth over the tensions inherent to the cohabitation of its two constituent parts. And thus there is always an intrinsic apologetic desire to create an aesthetically or intellectually pleasing form of the tradition—one that is attractive to Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals

* the study of medieval Jewish philosophy in North America is all but moribund. Perhaps this is the way it must be now that a new generation of Jewish studies scholars, one that no longer feels the desire for inclusion within the non-Jewish scholarly world,9 can gravitate to more particularistic topics, such as Jews and film, or Jews and food, to name but a few topics currently in vogue. In Israel the study of Jewish philosophy still limps along, but largely on specialized philological ground that is primarily involved in the production of critical editions of texts. In the study of modern Jewish philosophy, the field tends to follow its Central European ancestors by arguing that the West needs Judaism in order to reach its aims and evade dogmatist dangers.

* It remains at stake today when bioethics commissions and councils in the United States or Canada need Jewish “representation” in order to determine the right course of action with respect to hot-button cultural issues (e.g., stem-cell research).

* philosophy represents and upholds the will of the status quo, that which seeks to divest, often violently, the particular of its particularity. Because it is just as embroiled in rhetoric and in the will to power as any other ideology, philosophy is problematic whether one puts the adjective “Jewish” in front of it or not.

Judaism, then, does not compromise philosophy. Philosophy is quite able to do this for itself. From its emergence in antiquity, philosophy has always possessed a totalitarian dimension that is threatened by diversity. In Plato’s Republic, for example, there is the assumption that individuals reap their own maximal good only when the city is most unified (e.g., 462a–b), and anything that compromises the city’s unity is not to be tolerated by the rulers. Such notions, however, leave little or no room for those,
like Jews, whose very existence impinges upon the religio-ethnic status quo. The particularism of Judaism, still left undefined, threatens philosophy because of the former’s unwillingness or inability to be absorbed into the universal concerns or pretenses of the latter.

* If Plato’s ideal republic was threatened by diversity, Kant’s Prussia was even less hospitable to the particular, now fully embodied as Judaism. German idealism, for example, is heavily indebted to the language of Christianity and recycles many of the latter’s supersessionist assumptions about the nature of Judaism…

* If the case can be made that Judaism is bad for philosophy, the opposite claim can also be made: philosophy is bad for Judaism. Philosophy affords no space for revelation in general and revealed morality in particular. If Judaism prides itself on its chosen status based on the observance of a set of divine laws, it can make no room for a universal and universalizing system that, in theory, not only minimizes but actively subverts concepts such as chosenness. Jewish philosophers from the time of Philo onward have always been accused, thus, of misreading their own tradition, forcing it artificially into the terms and categories supplied by an “alien” system that makes a mockery of that which it seeks to describe.

* A corollary of Jewish philosophy’s universalizing tendency is its largescale engagement in the project of manufacturing “good religion.” As a result, the study of Jewish philosophy has played a formative role in the North American academy.23 When Jewish topics were first being introduced into the university curriculum, it enabled scholars to demonstrate that Judaism could be normalized.

* Many of the earliest scholars of Jewish philosophy in North America—for example, Nahum Glatzer and Emil Fackenheim—used their university positions to solve problems they considered to be plaguing Jewish communities in the West.

* What are its goals? Are they—as nineteenth-century German-Jewish scholars claimed—to demonstrate the towering heights to which Jews could rise if they were politically and legally emancipated? Or is the goal of the study of Jewish philosophy—as the earliest practitioners of the field in America claimed—to solve problems facing contemporary Jews and Jewish life? If the latter is overtly theological, then the former is decidedly apologetic. In both cases, we return to the notion that Jewish philosophy may indeed be little more than theological articulations of a threatened minority in the guise of universalism.

* Does “philosophy” sound better because it lacks the christocentric overtones of the term “theology”?27 Rather than inquire into how truth claims are constructed and disseminated, Jewish philosophers— like any subset of theologians—tend to take them for granted.

* The great majority of Jewish philosophical works, both in the past and in the present, essentially amount to an apology for (a particular form of) Judaism. Strauss is not far off the mark when, for example, he refers to Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed as a Jewish book and not a philosophical one:

“One begins to understand the Guide once one sees that it is not a philosophic book—a book written by a philosopher for philosophers—but a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews. Its first premise is the old Jewish premise that being a Jew and being a philosopher are two incompatible things. Philosophers are men who try to give an account of the whole by starting from what is always accessible to man as man; Maimonides starts from the acceptance of the Torah. A Jew may make use of philosophy and Maimonides makes the most ample use of it; but as a Jew he gives his assent where as a philosopher he would suspend his assent.”

* Philosophy, which is grounded in the autonomy of independent reason, would seem to be diametrically opposed to a discipline—theology—that involves commitment to the authority of a particular religious tradition.

* While Rosenzweig certainly uses philosophical principles and methods to arrive at an unphilosophical or indeed anti-philosophical position, his claims are apologetic in the extreme.

* Jewish philosophy risks becoming little more than state philosophy that upholds, but never criticizes, the ideology of the status quo.

* There can be no uniform or authentic Jewish voice (or authentic voice of any other kind, for that matter), precisely because authenticity is ideological as opposed to historical, and invented as opposed to natural.

* The problem with suggesting that Jewishness has not been handed down to us through the ages in a pristine and immutable form, however, is that it is not what people want to hear. In times of crisis or rapid change, there is a desire to hold onto something permanent. Students and adults alike are accustomed to think of themselves as passively ascribing to a set of religious, cultural, and ethnic characteristics that are eternal and, because of this, never undergo transformation.

* Topoi such as Jews introducing ethical monotheism to the world, functioning as a holy nation of priests, being a light unto the nations (or ha-goyim), or providing a particular model of universal ethics are, ultimately, little more than rhetorical devices that function apologetically.

* Jewish philosophy manufactures truth claims for Judaism, articulating what is “good” Judaism and how it differs from “bad” Judaism.

* Can the particular claims of Judaism be rationalized using the universalist categories of non-Judaism?

* “How may we account for the possibility of philosophy, of universalism in thinking, without denying that all thinking is also idiomatic and particular?”

* Since the universal seeks to impose its will on others, to flatten or level the idiosyncrasies of the particular, it both promotes and justifies violence over that which it occupies.

* Using nonphilosophy as a metonym for the particular, we might claim that philosophy, as a universalizing and totalitarian discourse, has situated itself in violent opposition to numerous species of minority constructions, all of which threaten or impinge upon its hegemony.

* Jewish philosophy risks becoming too universal for the particular voices within Judaism and too particularist for the universal ones external to it. Pulled in radically and often diametrically different directions, Jewish philosophy exists in a fragile and a dislocated space where it risks being co-opted, as we shall see in the following chapter, for various ideological

* Whereas Maimonides emphasized the unaided human intellect as the best path toward God, Halevi located this path in the biological and religious superiority of the Jewish people.

* Mendelssohn’s construction of Judaism is no less fanciful and wistful than Rosenzweig’s. Both imagine a pristine Judaism that exists somewhere in Judaism’s ancient history and that functions as an antidote to contemporaneous problems. For Mendelssohn, the original, ancient (and by extension, authentic) faith confirmed nothing other than rational truths. This pristine faith was subsequently sullied—and here Mendelssohn follows in the footsteps of Maimonides by numerous historical and sociological forces that impeded this original monotheism, which is something that must be returned to in the present.

* [Hermann] Cohen, [Abraham] Geiger, and many other reformers were involved in the task of redefining Judaism along rationalist lines. Many of their constructions involved recalibrating Judaism not only as a religion, but as a religion of ethical monotheism that would lead to political emancipation for Jews in Europe by showing the universal significance of the tradition. This is certainly a new interpretation of Judaism, one that—to paraphrase the preceding quotation from Cohen—finds very little precedent in the traditional sources.

* non-Jewish philosophy tends to take little or no notice of Jewish philosophy. A non- Jewish philosopher, for example, would find the claim that Judaism reminds the rest of the world of its mission, whether ethical or otherwise, as nonsensical.

* …claims of Judaism’s superiority, its election, its chosenness, or whatever we want to call it, are ultimately grounded in apologetics, in the need of the particular to both justify and legitimate its particularity in universalizing language. The so-called universal, the rest of the world, does not need the particular to remind it of its task, but the particular needs an imagined universal to define itself, to articulate simultaneously both what it is and what it is not.

* For all the individuals discussed in this chapter, Jewish particularity becomes necessary for the world’s existence and redemption. Yet, as I have tried to demonstrate, the many attempts to justify this position create as many problems as they attempt to solve. Is it truly the case that what we possess is a particular community pointing beyond itself, invoking the universal as an illusory idea, but all the while invoking it in its own idiom? This is the true paradox of Jewish philosophy, that which sustains it and that which, ultimately, limits it.

* The invention of Jewish philosophy as both an object of study and as an academic discipline began, for all intents and purposes, in the nineteenth century and was largely associated with the movement known as Wissenschaft des Judentums (the Science of Judaism).3 From its beginnings, the academic study of Judaism has largely been bound up with the apologetic desire to show that Jews and Judaism possess normalizing tendencies. At the epicenter of this imagining was the perceived rationalist agenda of what has now come to be called “Jewish philosophy” or the “Jewish philosophical tradition.” What better way to show filiations between a monolithic Europe and a monolithic Judaism than in articulating their mutual investment in the Enlightenment project? From its inception in the nineteenth century until today, the study of Jewish philosophy has been heavily invested in the existential, the apologetic, and the political…

* The overwhelming majority of scholarship in these formative years of the academic study of Judaism was concerned with improving the lot of Jews. If Jews could be made to be more “European” in the sense that they, too, were seen to possess an essence and a history, it followed for these scholars that Jews could be emancipated.

* Despite the cloak of scientific objectivity, giving Jews and Judaism a history was largely motivated by both the necessity and the urgency of political emancipation.6 Although it would certainly be mistaken to assume that the ever-expanding circle of Wissenschaft scholars represented a monolithic school or program of research, the overwhelming majority did share the belief that the secular study of religious texts—making critical editions of them, translating them, contextualizing them—could facilitate
such emancipation. Their use of history and other scholarly methods was both chronistic in the sense that they desired to produce a past, and anachronistic in that they sought to uncover a latent present—the seeds for future renewal—in that past.

The academic study of Judaism thus had its origins in a highly charged political environment and consequently emerged as an apologetic enterprise. Scholarship was used to discover and unlock, or alternatively to unlock and discover, an essence of Judaism that fitted well with the larger European context in which these scholars found themselves. Since the essence of Judaism was located in the historical record, not in a timeless and authoritative set of religious texts, it was the job of the historian or philosopher to manipulate the disciplines of history and philology in order to bring this essence to light. Once unlocked, this essence could be used to articulate a path toward future renewal. This idea of a Jewish “essence” played a crucial role in some of the earliest attempts to write something that came to be referred to as “Jewish history.”

* The great orientalist and father of the modern academic study of Judaism, Moritz Steinschneider, was once reported to have remarked that “the task of Jewish studies is to provide the remnants of Judaism with a decent burial.”

* There was, paradoxically, very little difference between [Gershom] Scholem and his predecessors: both used the tools of philology and history to produce Judaisms crafted in their own image. The result is that the two major competing visions of secular Jewish scholarship to emerge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—that of Wissenschaft des Judentums and that of Scholem—were both grounded in the regeneration of Jewish peoplehood. Both Scholem and the earlier generation of Wissenschaft scholars created Judaisms—rival Judaisms—that fitted their vision of the tradition’s place within the modern world. For the latter, it was a liberal Judaism that would lead to emancipation in Europe; for Scholem, it was a sound historical, philological, and taxonomical reading of Kabbalah that would sow the seeds for contemporary renewal in the land of Israel.

* Whether we like it or not, we all live with the ghosts of Wissenschaft’s creation. Their categories, their taxonomies, and their canons, for the most part remain ours. Rather than take them for what they are—various constructions produced in the workshops of ideology—we continue to assume that they exist naturally in the world. Rather than interrogate them, we have largely taken them over en masse. A quick perusal of any given program for the Annual Meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), for example, bears this out. There we witness all the taxonomic divisions developed in the second half of the nineteenth century: Kabbalah, medieval Jewish philosophy, medieval Jewish history, medieval literature, modern Jewish philosophy, and so on. These divisions have been and continue to be responsible for slicing up Jewish intellectual life into distinct, often hermetically sealed, categories that are taken for granted as opposed to queried. Our intellectual capital, in other words, is largely derived from the problematic bequest of our predecessors.

* Wissenschaft des Judentums was obsessed with history and the historicization of Judaism.34 It arose in the period of empire when German and French historians fed the fuel of nationalist causes by both creating and contributing to romantic notions of peoplehood.35 If other nations possessed a national history, so the claim went, then Jews must also do so. In this respect, Jews were no different than other Europeans: a magnificent past was imagined and subsequently constructed. It was a past from which all infelicities were neatly excised and one that would in turn provide the seeds for contemporary renewal and the creation of a future nationalist redemption. This led to the creation of the modern university and the programmatic creation of all the modern sciences to make the past accessible.36 Jewish fascination with the tools of creating national histories was certainly connected to an emancipatory need: the desire to show Germans and other Europeans that the Jews, like them, possessed a rich history and thus qualified for equality. The creation of something now referred to as Jewish history could also show others the important
role Judaism played in history, functioning, for example, as the midwife that produced Christianity and Islam.

* Jewish thinkers are made to occupy a set of historical and historicized philosophical “schools,” from Neoplatonic to Aristotelian to Kantian, in which they function as tokens of perceived universal applicability. A chapter in a history of philosophy textbook dealing with medieval Aristotelianism, for example, might cite near its end the work of the Jew Maimonides (and the Muslim Averroes) in order to show that this “school” was not simply the product of Euro- Christianity. Having a Jew in the mix shows that these philosophical schools are of universal significance and that their categories can be used to articulate particularist cases.

* Just as every Jewish philosopher— from Saadya Gaon to Emmanuel Levinas—has been guilty of constructing a pristine Judaism using the rhetoric of authenticity, the scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums did something similar: they established an unbroken line of premodern and modern thinkers reflecting their own understanding of what proper Judaism should be.

* I prefer to see reason as an ideological construct and to see the rational understanding of Judaism as an authoritarian impulse to force Jews to submit to reason, often using the threat that if they refuse, they will have “no place in the world to come.” Or, to quote from Maimonides’s Thirteen Articles of Faith found in his commentary to the Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin:

“If a man gives up one of these foundational principles, he has removed himself from the Jewish community. He is an atheist,
a heretic, an unbeliever who “cuts among the plantings.” We are commanded to hate him and destroy him. Of him it is said: Shall
I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?”

* Although they claimed that rationalism was their standard of legitimacy, the medieval Jewish philosophers ultimately produced a totalitarian version of Judaism that was predicated on what they considered to be an authentic and uncontaminated past. Certain aspects of their vision would appeal to a generation of rationalists in the nineteenth century who likewise upheld rationality as the authentic and true form of Judaism. For them, as for the canon of medieval Jewish philosophers that they largely created in their own images, anything that did not fit their reading of Judaism could be written off as legal, obscurantist, or mystical.

* “It would be futile to attempt a presentation of Judaism as a philosophical system, or to speak of Jewish philosophy in the same sense as one speaks of American, English, French, or German philosophy. Judaism is a religion, and the truths it teaches are religious truths. They spring from the source of religious experience, not from pure reason.”

* Maimonides warns all those who are inclined to matters philosophical to avoid the ignoramuses—the majority of Jews within the tradition. He writes that whoever does not engage in the pursuit of philosophy “is not a man, but an animal having the shape and configuration of man [al-ṣura al-insaniyya]. Such a being, however, has a faculty to cause various kinds of harm and to produce evils that are not possessed by other animals. For he applies the capacities for thought and perception, which were to prepare him to achieve a perfection that he has not achieved, to all kinds of machinations, entailing evils and occasioning and engendering all kinds of harm. Accordingly, he is, as it were, a thing resembling man or imitating him. In this passage, Maimonides states that those who do not engage in philosophical activities are mere shadows of humans, creatures that occupy a lower rung on the great chain of being than animals. … Most individuals, on Maimonides’s account, are quite simply incapable of engaging the higher states of thinking that are required for theoretical or philosophical analysis. This is especially the case when it comes to women, who according to Maimonides, “are prone to anger, [are] easily affected, and have weak souls.”

* Although the medieval Jewish philosophers have been celebrated for their reliance on non-Jews in order to develop and articulate their perceived universalism, it is worth pointing out that many of the these philosophers did not see themselves as “relying” on anyone. On the contrary, they believed that philosophy was not a Greek invention at all, but rather a Jewish birthright that was subsequently plagiarized by the Greek tradition.22 This trope of “Greek theft” is problematic. Do we pass over it as a Straussian fiction, something that Jewish philosophers mentioned in order to protect their endeavors but did not really believe?23 Or, do we assume that Jewish philosophers actually believed it in some act of religious or ethnic pride?
If the latter is the case, then the so-called universalism of the medieval Jewish philosophers was in many ways a fiction, because these thinkers saw themselves not as borrowing “universal” principles from the Greeks or the Arabs, but as re-particularizing that which had been stolen from them and subsequently corrupted.

* For him, the overwhelming majority of his fellows Jews worship God incorrectly, and he is quick to label them as polytheists.

* Maimonides actually implies that all those who do not abide by the tenets of the philosophers—here symbolized by the “seven nations” that threatened ancient Israel—should be exterminated. …All who deviate from the way of truth, according to Maimonides, deserve to be put to death because they have the potential to lead others astray.

* Whereas Maimonides sought to keep the majority of noneducated Jews away from philosophy, post-Maimonideans see it as their duty to introduce such Jews to philosophy. Ibn Tibbon and other such thinkers are so convinced of the truths of philosophy
and the ease with which they might be found within the pages of scripture, that they insist there is only one authentic reading of scripture: that supplied by rationalism imported from the Greeks and Arabs.

* To establish the superiority of Judaism is to set up a highly problematic (and faulty) comparison that is powered by a dubious juxtaposition between an essentialized “eternal people” (das ewige Volk) and an equally essentialized “peoples of the world” (die Völker der Welt). An early twentieth century philosophical system that is grounded in racial and religious superiority, and that seeks rejuvenation based on an acknowledgment of shared ancestry, culture, and blood should immediately alert us to its implicit and explicit fascism.

* All that is bad or worrisome in Rosenzweig’s world—Zionism, Reform, assimilation—arise when Jews look to the outside world for political solutions to their problems. Political solutions cannot eradicate these problems, according to Rosenzweig, because they ignore the core of Jewishness and overlook the fact that Jews are essentially—in the very core of their beings—not like others. The Jewish people, whom he frequently refers to as “the eternal people,” are distinct from all others, and they must maintain this distinction at all costs, for their existence is ultimately predicated on it. Despite his criticism of one form of political nationalism, then, Rosenzweig was very much a religious nationalist—an ardent and zealous one—albeit of a different stripe. This type of nationalism, to use the words of Ernst Geller writing in a different context, “is not the awakening of nation to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.”

* Rosenzweig’s desire to articulate a pristine and authentic community that exists outside the bonds of history in the ahistorical domains of eternal chosenness reminded Scholem…of “fanaticism.”

* In book 2, part 3, of the Star, Rosenzweig provides a portrait of the Jewish people that is grounded in religious nationalism. He defines the Jews as the only people that possess “a connection to eternal life” (Zusammenhang ewigen Lebens).30 What makes this connection possible is that the same blood “runs warmly through [the eternal people’s] veins” (warm durch die Adern rollen).31 This blood, the defining element of the Jewish people, is what makes them eternal and thus removes them from history’s shackles. Jews, on Rosenzweig’s reading, are ontologically different than all other peoples: “Whereas every other community [ jede andre Gemeinschaft] that lays claim to eternity must make arrangement in order to pass the torch of the present on to the future, only the community of the same blood [Blutsgemeinschaft; literally, “blood community”] does not have need of making such arrangements for the tradition; it does not need to trouble its mind; in the natural propagation of the body it has the guarantee of its eternity [die Gewähr ihrer Ewigkeit].”

* Whereas Christianity comes together spiritually in the future hope of redemption, Jews share the same genetic relationship with one another, which makes redemption always potentially present in the here and now, the eternal present. In making this claim, however, Rosenzweig dangerously transfers Romantic notions of modern, secular nations onto a religious register. His argument for the eternity of the Jewish people would seem to differ little from contemporaneous German nationalism, itself grounded in racial theory and “blood” purity.

* Non-Jews again become a straw man against which Rosenzweig can foreground imagined categories of blood and religion that are subsequently reified as natural categories. Jews become constructed as unique in ways that exaggerate not only their eternality but also the quotidian dimension of non-Jews. Read on one level, this is racialism in the guise of philosophy.

* Rosenzweig’s conception of “blood community” derives from the German Romantic tradition responsible for the creation of a reified and pure-of-blood German people. In like manner, his philosophical methodology that seeks to locate this Jewish blood community in a distant past draws on the archaic modernizing trend of his non-Jewish contemporaries.51 Rosenzweig’s attempt to articulate a notion of Jewish superiority, it should perhaps not surprise us, is powered by non-Jewish categories.52 In this, he is no different than Maimonides. This similarity, however, neither excuses nor defangs the exclusionary nature of Rosenzweig’s thought. He uses an idiosyncratic and racially-charged definition of Judaism to occupy philosophy. His system, especially that involving the artificial construction of Jewish peoplehood, is grounded in ideology, is highly exclusionary, and potentially leads to dangerous consequences. It is a position that in certain modern hands—most directly, in the hands of certain religious Zionists—easily lends itself to its own set of racist and xenophobic attitudes toward non-Jews in the modern State of Israel.

* Rosenzweig, as we have just seen, spends a considerable amount of time creating a highly stylized and essentialized category, “the Jews,” alternatively referred to as the “eternal people” or the “holy people,” and then differentiating it from an equally artificially constructed category, “the nations of the earth” (die Völker der Welt). Whereas the latter is transitory, the former is eternal; whereas the latter is focused on temporal greatness, the former lives beyond time and is thus protected from historical decay. The Jewish “body and blood” (Leib und Blut) is what secures this eternal permanence, for “this rooting in ourselves and only in ourselves guarantees our eternity for us.”

* From a historical or even a sociological perspective, Rosenzweig’s argument is very difficult to maintain. It is impossible to ascertain what he means by these “other peoples,” because he never provides us with any concrete examples. His comments would seem to imply a set of godless and irreligious peoples who desire nothing other than their own greatness. Do these “other peoples” have religions? Are they really so tied to plowing their own land that they lack the tools for a self-perceived eternal renewal? Are their religions tied simply to various national and nationalist aspirations?

Rosenzweig overlooks that fact that many peoples have languages that are reserved solely for liturgical purposes. Catholicism has Latin; Islam has Koranic Arabic. Many religions, moreover, imagine lands that they construct as holy, but in which they do not dwell. Malaysian Muslims, for example, think of and include in their prayers the holy cities of Arabia and Jerusalem. Because Rosenzweig seeks to flee from history, he also flees from the nuance it can supply, and he instead presents us with a highly essentialist set of readings based on what we would today refer to as identity politics. The Jewish people anticipate the ultimate redemption of the world within the closed, communal life they forge out of their intimate experience of relation with the divine. This communal life is both racially and religiously constructed by Rosenzweig to be at odds with the modern nation-state, its non-Jewish inhabitants, and even world history.

* Rosenzweig locates Islam, as we have already witnessed, in opposition to both Christianity and Judaism. Whereas the latter two religions are predicated on love, Rosenzweig argues that Islam is predicated on war…

* [B]oth thinkers [Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Heidegger] betray a fascist impulse in their systems that is grounded in
their respective commitments to an organic national community.

* Rosenzweig’s thought…look[s] longingly to the ancient past to find arguments for the racial and religious superiority of the Jewish people as an antidote to the ills of modern degeneration. He seeks the rejuvenation of this people based on a common and deep-rooted connection of ancestry, culture, and blood. Any ideas, peoples, systems, and so on that threaten the purity of this people must be removed, because they permit decadence and degeneration to exist in their midst… Rosenzweig’s is a Judaism that has little use for the pluralism of the modern age, preferring the heavily romanticized era of an organic and holistic community that remains closed to outside forces.

* For Maimonides, philosophy controls the meaning of Jewishness; whereas, for Rosenzweig, Jewishness controls the meaning of philosophy.

* Even Levinas, the great ethical philosopher of the other, remarks that one of the greatest threats to Jewish thought today is “non-Judaism” or, as he prefers to call it, “non-Judaic-Christian”: “the arrival on the historical scene of those underdeveloped Afro-Asiatic masses who are strangers to the Sacred History that forms the heart of the Judaic-Christian World.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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