Jewish Philosophy and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

Aaron W. Hughes writes in 2014:

* Having grown up non-Jewishly in a home completely devoid of Judaism, let alone any religion, my path to the tradition, both intellectual and spiritual, for all intents and purposes only began in graduate school, where I went to pursue further academic and linguistic training necessary for work in Jewish-Muslim thought in the Middle Ages. Whereas, prior to this, I had been, since an undergraduate, attracted to Judaism intellectually, it was only as a graduate student—especially in Oxford as a senior PhD student—that I began to learn and appreciate the liturgical, ritualistic, and social dimension of the tradition. Keeping shomer shabbes and attending a daily minyan, I began to appreciate the rhythm of Jewish life and time. Although unable to maintain
such a level of observance, I nevertheless remain, as I trust will become clear in what follows, simultaneously close to and aloof from the tradition.

I believed at the time that the best disciplinary setting to undertake work in Jewish-Muslim relations was in religious studies, one of the few fields that did not patrol disciplinary boundaries and was instead open to a variety of theoretical and methodological frameworks. Luckily, I entered a graduate program at Indiana University that was very sophisticated when it came to thinking not only about how religions interact but about whether the category “religion” was even a valid category of intellectual analysis. I was trained in Jewish intellectual history by my coeditor to this volume, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, in addition to Islamic philosophy with John Walbridge and theory and method in the study of religion with, among others, J. Samuel Preus, Robert Orsi, and Robert F. Campany. My work since has largely involved all three areas, and I primarily use the discourses associated with the academic study of religion to mine the datasets provided by Jewish and Islamic philosophy. While good for my intellectual development, in subsequent years, it has not proved conducive to my religious journey! I, thus, came to see “religion” as a social formation, one that is invented, maintained, and patrolled by a host of ideologically charged discourses that have been sublimated as either divine or as existing naturally in the world.

This skepticism defines me and, for the most part, informs as my primary intellectual orientation. It translates into the fact that I am always uncomfortable with both the status quo (something that reinforces my self-perception as a self-defined outsider) and of accepting received opinion simply because this is what tradition demands of us… I remain a seeker, one who never feels at “home” in organized religious life because of its rigidity and desire for certainty. The academy has become for me, as it has for many others, a place of respite from the dystopia of religious community.

* I, thus, find it impossible—again, reflecting my skeptical approach—to say that there exists a uniquely Jewish contribution to world civilization, any more than we can isolate a uniquely Greek, German, or Scottish one. Even monotheism, what some consider the great gift of the Jews, was little more than a political invention under the Deuteronomic reforms in the First Temple Period. To claim the ancient Israelites were ethical monotheists implies that Israel formed in a vacuum and that Israel’s neighbors were somehow “unethical.” This is a highly apologetical claim grounded more in contemporary politics than historical fact.

* In 1983, Benedict Anderson published the influential book Imagined Communities, in which he argued that communities—he had in mind nations, but we can just as easily say religions—are socially constructed or imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group (Anderson 2006 [1983], 1–6.). Because all the members of a nation or a religion lack face-to-face interaction, they must hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity. Through shared symbols and texts, groups are able to imagine themselves as belonging to a community that is much larger than they would otherwise realize. This belonging, in turn, is predicated on perceived borders that distinguish each community from other communities—often constructed as other nations or religions. At around the same time, Pierre Bourdieu argued that how groups imagine themselves is based on a set of criteria that people within these groups internalize at a young age. Taste, he claims, is not—as we would think—an innate disposition but something constructed by one’s social group (Bourdieu 1984). People from different classes, for example, are habituated to like certain foods and not others. This social construction of taste and related judgments (what smells good or bad, concepts of beauty) further aids the construction of social identity and group belonging.

* The objection could certainly be raised that my claim of construction is contradicted by biology; for example, the fact that certain diseases (for example, Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis) are found more frequently among Jewish (especially Ashkenazic) populations than in non-Jewish populations and that this is proof of Jewish “genes” or whatever else we want to call them. This I do not doubt, nor is it my concern. That there is a biological reality of Jewishness in no way abnegates how Jewish identity is constructed and understood in different times and places. (By way of comparison, death is a biological necessity, but this does not negate the fact that various groups and cultures understand, construct, and commemorate death in different ways.)

* Jew and Arab are not locked in some eternal conflict, if for no other reason that what constitutes “Jew’” and “Arab” is in constant flux.

* Unfortunately, the story of Jewish philosophy in the twentieth century, much like that in the premodern period, has been about adumbrating others, whether internal (that is, Jews who do not share a particular vision) or external (that is, Arabs), at the expense of understanding or trying to understand them. This is because, in order to create a discourse of itself, Jewish philosophy—as any discourse—needs a discourse of the other. Self and other, as we have seen, subsequently become essentialized as natural properties as opposed to be seen for what they are: taxonomic indicators.

About Luke Ford

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