THE POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY NETWORK
VOLUME 4, NUMBER 1
Copyright (c) 1995 Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network.
All rights reserved.
Office of Jewish Studies, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940
Peter Ochs, Editor
Roger A. Badham, Assistant Editor
Patricia Glucksman, System Manager
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Who are we in this Postmodern Jewish Philosophy NETWORK? How do we
read texts? In response to this question from Nina Cardin, editor of
SH'MA, a few of us put together an issue of SH'MA on "How To Read a
Text: Approaches in Postmodern Jewish Philosophy" (SH'MA 25/488, Feb. 17
1995; copies can be ordered from CLAL, 99 Park Eve., Suite S-300, New
York, NY 10016: 212 867-888). The issue offers excerpts from our
NETWORK's discussions of BT Gittin (Aryeh Cohen, Ed Feld, David Weiss
Halivni, Jacob Meskin, Robert Gibbs, and Peter Ochs) and also brief
excerpts from our culminating, face-to-face discussion at the American
Academy of Religion last November, 1994. The issue has also attracted
many new members to our Network. To welcome them here, I would like to
extend the SH'MA issue a bit by offering a theo-philosophical homily
about who we are in this Network and how we read. Later, we will also
print out the full versions of four responses to ther AAR session.
We don't read alone. You might consider this a rallying cry of at
least a significant sub-group of the Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network.
We read with. "Ehyeh imach," says God to Moses out of the Burning Bush,
"I will be with you"; and being-with is a postmodern theme, in three
We don't read alone. This means, first, that the text we read is not
a naked text whose meaning displays itself to anyone who would see it. It
is a text that speaks in certain ways to certain groups of people. We read
with-others as part of some group. That is a rabbinic rule of reading that
is being repossessed by postmodern scholars. A second meaning is that, even
when reading individually, we read-with. As shown by late modern analysts
of interpretation theory, we read with presuppositions. A text doesn't
simply mean something, but means something with respect to the beliefs and
pre-understandings we bring to the text. Postmodern reading may be
distinguished from modern reading, however, by its assumption that there
is an ultimate presupposition without which reading is not the reading we
have in mind: namely, that we are reading with-God (even if Jewish readers
are not accustomed to encunciating this partnership so explicitly.) This
third meaning, we might say, is the biblical assumption recovered by
postmodern readers. We read with others, we read with our assumptions, and
we read with God's presence.
By postmodern reading, we mean simply whatever reading comes after
modern reading (and we expect there will be many more kinds yet to come!).
By modern reading, we mean a reading that witholds assent to inherited
traditions of reading until certain questions about them can be answered
satisfactorily to suspend commitment to inherited forms of reading for
fear that those readings may carry with them some germ of error or illusion
or imperialism and, striking out on its own says, "we have ourselves,
alone, to rely on. Let us make use of whatever faculties we have of
ourselves alone our reason and our feelings to erect for ourselves some
criterion against which to judge the validity of our ancient texts." To
say we are "postmodern readers," then, means that we are disillusioned with
this modern stance, having found that it breeds irreconcilable
oppositions between merely rationalist and merely emotivist rules of
reading. We fancy ourselves, at least, to inhabit a third stance. This
is not a climactic one, to be sure; ours is too sad a posture to claim for
itself any triumphalism. Seeking to resume some of the reading that
modernity interrupted, we attempt to listen once again to inherited
traditions, while also acknowledging our own modernity and, with it, the
gap of uncertainty and ignorance that now separates us from these
As for who we are, specifically, within this NETWORK. Speaking for
at least one sub-group of NETWORK members (and others will speak for
themselves on these pages!), I'd conclude that, as gathered here, we are
scholars trained in a variety of modern discourses: historical-critical,
literary, social-scientific, philosophic. At once proficient in these
discourses and suspicious of their inadequacies, we bring them to the
classical texts of our traditions to read texts in ways we have not done
before. The texts of primary interest to us are biblical and rabbinic
(talmudic, midrashic) as well as kabbalistic, medieval-philosophic, and,
of more recent vintage, Jewish-American, -European and Israeli literatures.
In this early stage of the group's practice, study of Talmudic texts
serves as a prototypical introduction to the three modes of reading-with
I mentioned earlier. Unlike traditional and modern readers, we do not
presume to recognize before the fact of reading the behavioral authority
of the specific texts we read nor the optimal method for uncovering what
the texts have to offer us. We come with various, strong hypotheses about
what this authority and this method may be, but the matter is to be
resolved only through our interactive dialogues with the texts and with
each other. This open-endedness might be daunting were it not for our faith
in the guiding power of the corpus of texts to be addressed and of our
emergent community itself.
This issue features the following sections:
TALMUD AND POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY:
Responses to our November 1994 Study Session
a. Michael Signer
b. Gail Labovitz
c. Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman
d. Steven Kepnes
RESPONSES TO ROBERT GIBBS' CORRELATIONS IN ROSENZWEIG AND LEVINAS
a. Almut Sh. Bruckstein
b. Martin Srajek
c. Michael Zank
MEMBERS: We want you to identify your dialogue partners, but the list is
too long now to place at the beginning of the issue.
Copyright notice: Individual authors whose words appear in the Description,
Response, or Essay sections of this Network retain all rights for hard copy
redistribution or electronic retransmission of their words outside the
Network. For words not authored by individual contributors, rights are
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TALMUD AND POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY:
Responses to our November 1994 Study Session
After our 1994 AAR session in Chicago where we studied Gittin
34b-35a with Aryeh Cohen several NETWORK members offered informal
reflections about what they experienced. Here are some illustrations.
A New Beis-Midrash?
Michael A. Signer, The University of Notre Dame
. . . Entering the room, I was immediately surprised by the variety
of people who had gathered for study: both men and women, with and without
kippot. We were encouraged to join in the festive atmosphere by partaking of
wine and food. . . . As we engaged [initially] in good-natured banter
about our session, my suspicions were aroused. Was the session going to
be what Sam Heilman called "Lernen," where the text studied became for the
formal basis for social activity? "Lernen" in traditional synagogue life
is an important ritual of community formation; . . . however, it rarely
produces new . . . insights into the text. While suspicion still raced
through my mind, Aryeh [Cohen] read one sentence from the Gemara text. He
asked for volunteers to translate and interpret. Several people offered
contesting translations and interpretations. Instead of playing the role
of omniscient narrator, Aryeh acted as moderator for these interpretations,
allowing them to play off one another. Philology and . . . questions of
dating the scholars in the Gemara did not dominate the discussion. . . .
What a difference from my own Talmudic studies at Hebrew Union College,
where all questions about a sugya could be resolved either by presenting
the best text, the best etymology, or by proving that the text before us
was derivative from yet another place in Talmud where is appeared in
'clearer form.' As the evening continued, any idea of hierarchy within
the group disappeared. Aryeh may have been our guide into the text, but
his role as guide turned into companion--Talmud chaver. All of us brought
academic backgrounds toward explaining the sugya in Gittin : historians,
feminists, linguists, and philosophers. Each approach brought to light new
questions which enriched our understanding of the few lines under
One of the highlights of the evening occurred when we discussed a
hypothetical argument in the Gemara that began with the technical Aramaic
term hava amena ("I might have thought"). I had understood that, when this
term appeared, the Gemara wanted to put forward an argument which would
then be rejected in favor of another opinion. [Speaking in the
vernaculars, first, of a Hebrew-Aramaic-Yiddish, then of the American
university,] Aryeh explained that, within the Talmudic method of the
Brisker Yeshivot, this term provided an opportunity to open up a broader
discussion. Someone else aded that, according to his experience with the
later responsa, these hava amena arguments often provided the basis for
legal decisions which differed from the generally accepted halakha. [Such
comments] introduced me to a culture that transcended the Talmudic text,
yet was an essential part of its afterlife.
In those hours at the AAR/SBL, I felt that I had experienced the best
of what postmodernity offers. No single person determined the meaning of
the text. The session incorporated elements of performance. Our
interaction with each other was mimetic of the Gemara we studied: people
offered opinions, raised questions, and provided explanations. The
atmosphere was serious, but it also took into account the '"play" in the
text itself. This is the play between speakers in the text and the
generations of commentaries in writing, and ultimately the transformation
of the written Torah into the oral Torah of the classroom. As a group
studying, we had constituted a beit midrash, a house of seeking.
According to the Talmudic dictum, divrei torah kadorbanot: the words
of Torah are like thorns. In Robert Alter's paraphrase, divrei torah kadur
banot: the words of Torah are like a children's ball game. In the hours
of our study, I felt enriched by both learning and play. . . . Both my
intellect and spirit were refreshed, just as the siddur indicates, torat
hashem temimah, meshivat nafesh: God's Torah is whole; it revives the
Postmodernism and the Feminist Construct
Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, Children's Hospital in Oakland
If the traditional concerns of modernity are the dominance of
facticity over nature, the dominance of scientific method over religiosity,
and the autonomy of the newly constructed self in opposition to its
context, then postmodern thought seeks to reclaim the importance of context,
culture, and community in the study of text. In our postmodern
Jewish philosophy group at the AAR, the text we study is Talmud, in
context, and again in our context.
What is striking in the traditional study of our sugya in Gittin (and
hence notable in this brief feminist reconsideration of the text) is the
absence of attention to the essential horror of the ma'aseh (of the women
and the dinar). But a feminist, postmodern reading allows the narrative of
the ma'aseh to bring us to an abrupt stop. Here we have a woman who is
surrounded by death, a widow whose loss is worn on her by virtue of the
name she bears, named only by her loss. It is her ruptured life that stands
at the heart of the feminist problem, rather than the challenge of the
woman's voice to . . . an authority that stands silent before the
fragility of life and the seeming randomness of death. Death frames the
sugya. The women is bereft and obliged to her children (and perhaps the
children of her husband?) and yet she remains in the usual order of the
world, doing the mandatory daily tasks of breadmaking. . . She is accused
of something, the threat is unclear, and she resists the accusation. Again
death: the inexplicable death of childhood made explicable, named and
caused by the actions of the mother. Another ma'aseh repeats the theme: the
woman who is named death-of-her-husband raises her voice to resist and
inexplicable illness falls onto her male antagonist.
The discussion moves on to themes of the construction of the law, and
I am still left with the woman and her dying child, left in the silence of
the text to her blame in the midst of her virtuousness . . . . Does this
story make sense? In what sense can you really make a loaf of bread and
miss a dinar as you kneaded it? The stories of the disruption of the
household order in ways that are absurd from a woman's gaze frame the
frailty of the explanatory order: keep a woman from her certainty, a stand
so authoritative that she could swear by it, and perhaps the sudden death
of children can be avoided.
Such a discussion is mirrored in other familiar texts that name the
explanatory cause for the frequent, inexplicable tragedy, death in
childbirth as rooted in a woman's omission of the mitzvah of hallah
(mishnah shabbat 2:6). Such a reading (such a tragedy for such an ordinary
error) uncovers other potent "meanings." It may be that the text is about
the ma'aseh, rather than the ma'aseh being explanatory to the text. In
other words, the halachah is an effort to make meaning of the loss of sons
and husbands in the apparently virtuous and ordinary life, and of the grief
and anger than might be directed at religious authority at such a moment.
Hearing the voice of the subject in this way pulls out the undertone from
beneath the reading, reminds us that the cultural context might have
allowed for such a robust complexity, and invites us as readers into the
clamorous community of the Talmudic world.
On Close Reading, Women, and Postmodern Jewish Philosophy
Gail Labovitz, The Jewish Theological Seminary
Close reading, it might be argued, has always been a hallmark of
Talmudic study: Rashi was a close reader, as were Tosafot and the many
other commentators known to us. What makes a post-modern reading different
is the choice not to seek only a "holistic" reading, harmonizing the sugya
within itself and with other sugyot, but to look at how the pieces that
make up the sugya contribute to (or sometimes undermine) the argument being
made, to try to find how a given text constructs meaning. A postmodern
reading seeks the opposite of harmonization, searching out the points of
conflict: gaps in the text, what Derrida called aporia.
. . . What, however, are we to do with a sugya that constructs such
a negative image of women? This is, of course, not a question limited to
this sugya or this piece of scholarship. What are women who remain
committed to Jewish texts and tradition, but to also their own equality and
full humanity, to do with the misogyny that is to be found in those texts
and traditions? Granted, postmodernist readings sometimes help answer
these questions as well as raise them; other readings of Aryeh's, as well
as those of Daniel Boyarin, Charlotte Fonrobert, Rachel Adler, David
Kraemer and some of my own work, sometimes points out the ways in which
seemingly sexist texts undermine themselves, or suppress, but do not erase,
retrievable counter-voices more positive towards women. Postmodernism's
emphasis on the multiplicity of possible readings opens up space for
challenging interpretations that make the most misogynistic interpretations
of a text normative. The postmodernist understanding that meaning and
reality are "constructions" allows for deconstructions" or, hopefully,
"reconstructions". But the questions remain. How much can we deconstruct
and reconstruct and still be sure that what remains will feel authentically
Jewish to us? Even if I completely accept Aryeh's methodology and the
resultant reading, his paper remains a profound challenge to me.
The Meaning of Postmodern Jewish Philosophy
Steven Kepnes, Colgate University and The Shalom Hartman Institute
Postmodern Jewish philosophy turns to the Talmud for alternatives to
the objective, scientific scholarship performed by the solitary scholars
of modernity: this means to the Talmud as a text that demands to be read
aloud and studied in the community of others not as an object of mere
scholarship but as a source of personal and intellectual renewal. . . .
Our attitude in approaching talmudic texts is thus "generous" from the
beginning: we read in the spirit of Willard Quine's "principle of charity,"
or Paul Ricoeur's "second naivete" a post-critical hope that the text has
the capacity to be enlightening, even redemptive.
We realize that what we are after cannot be won without the
scholarship of our modern forebears. We know that, in order to reap the
philosophic benefits of this study, we must learn the requisite languages,
know of variant manuscripts, have a basic knowledge of the text's
historical contexts. But while we learn from this scholarship, we also
bring to it our own "postmodern" questions and agenda.
Our study session of Gittin at the AAR was a case in point.
Postmodern philosophers arranged the session, established its parameters
and invited its participants a mixture of philosophers, talmudists, men,
women, young and not so young. The friendly but serious atmosphere allowed
both for technical questions of clarification and more general questions
of meaning. The talmudic text and not the leader became central and around
this text a communitarian inquiry ensued. Aided by beer, food, and the
quiet gurgling of a nursing infant, something of what I have called the
hermeneutics of I-Thou could be seen at work. But the high point of the
session occurred as our feeling of community gave us the freedom to
consider not just the aesthetics of the talmudic text become thou, but also
the specific content of the sugya in Gittin. Asking . . . what this text
said about the status of women in that society, we all heard one of our
female colleages utter a cry of protest and pain: Do you realize what the
text is actually saying about women? What does this mean for women today?
What does this mean for me? . . . [In other words,] the Talmudic text
confronts us with immediate demands: [not just to study for its own sake,
but also] to ask the question: What does this mean for me? And the answer
to women reading [our text] seems to be [that . . .] men do not deem you
trustworthy; they find you to be dangerous, problematic, both powerful and
What, then, does all this mean for postmodern, Jewish philosophic
study of the Talmud. It means that, beyond the structure, form and
aesthetics of the texts, we also need to pay attention to the actual
content and to the relation of that content to lives actually lived and
living. In this way, in their hopes for repair of the fragmentation . . .
brought about by the modern condition, postmodern Jewish philosophers
should continue to look to talmudic texts for intimations of tiqqun
ha-olam. The jurisprudence is so rich, the aggadot so theologically
gripping that they cannot fail to be rewarded. But they will also have to
consider anew . . . to what extent the redemption they seek can be won
in conformity to the prescribed laws [ of the Talmud] . . . . Here again
we will face the very modern problem of observant modern Jews: how to
remain faithful both to rabbinic Judaism and to such modern ideals as the
individual's autonomous moral responsibility, women's equality, and social
justice . . . .
CORRELATIONS IN ROSENZWEIG AND LEVINAS:
RESPONSES TO ROBERT GIBBS
As previewed in NETWORK 3.4, The Academy of Jewish Philosophy held a
symposium last December on Robert Gibbs' dialogic study of correlations in
and between Rosenzweig and Levinas. It was a remarkable session, whose
far-ranging studies of Jewish thought merits a replay on these pages.
Gibbs' own response to the responses will come in our next issue. (For an
introduction to the book, see Martin Srajek's overview in 3.4)
Questions to the Author
Almut Sh. Bruckstein, The Hebrew University
Although it says in the "Mishnah" in "Pesachim", "machtil begnut
beshavakh," "begin with criticism, and conclude with praise," I shall first
want to give you an account of why I am so impressed with your
"Correlations" before asking you to respond to some of the questions and
comments that materialized out of my reading. Reading "Correlations" has
been an experience of true learning. For me as a student, teacher, author,
and lover of Jewish thinking, your commentary became an instructive and
engaging guide through the texts again. I am impressed by the way you
employ both structure and content in support of your own position; I am
thinking, for example, of the way in which you arrange all your chapters
in a double cycle of introductions, logic, ethics, and social theory,
thereby taking up the rhythm of the great recurrent themes in the "Star of
Redemption" itself, and how effortless this formal structure then
corroborates your own claim of Levinas' adapting Rosenzweig. Your situating
the chapters on Levinas within the Rosenzweigian sequence of topics seems
to bear out your claim. Furthermore, I am taken with your idea of leaving
room within your own text for the explicit role of the "authorial I," who
acts as a subjective guide through the ascending order of chapters,
inviting us to enter, locating us on the map of the whole and leaving us
with a directive hint at the end of each chapter. This "authorial I"
creates in itself the sort of "distention" in time, which you discuss with
reference to Rosenzweig's Sprachdenken another example of how structure
turns into content, and content into structure. Would you agree to
defining that as a "turning inside out?"
I am impressed by the way you introduce historical influences on R and
L without engaging in "intellectual history;" how you have the figures
enter the scene and swiftly leave it again, strictly tied to your sovereign
analysis of some carefully defined subject: for example, Rosenstock-Huessy
tied to "grammar," Woelfflin to "theory of art, "Shushani to talmud;" and
how -- with just a few words -- you manage to insinuate these figures at
key points of R's and L's philosophical development. In this way, your
conceptual analysis of Schelling, Cohen, and Rosenstock-Huessy echoes, or
even re-enacts R's own reading at the eastern front of World War I, and
your discussion of L's search for "Greek" within the "Hebrew" is
illuminated by the agenda of topics discussed at the "French Colloquia"
from 1957 to 1989.
One more word of admiration, about your "Rashi" chapter on
"substitution, " . . . in which you -- by means of your commentary -- become
that substitution yourself, substituting for the reader who is
engaged in reading a text by Marcel on "substitution." I found this an
ingenious hermeneutical move, playing with content and structure, turning
content "inside out." The Rashi layout allows for a subtlety and depth of
interpretation which would be difficult to attain otherwise. Personally,
I am grateful to see you creating another post-modern precedent of this
talmudic model, by which you are paving the way for future commentary.
Let me then move from this short-shrift of admiration to a more
explicit critical reading: in terms of your magnificent and innovative
analysis of R's grammar, we herewith move from the cohortative to the
I. Question: On "Philosophy and its Others."
My first question relates to the very first lines of your
book,"philosophy and its others." What or who are these others? You, of
course, treat that question at length, pointing to the paradox of any
conceptual search for philosophy's non-conceptual other. You claim to have
found the key to a specifically Jewish other to philosophy in a radical
ethics of concrete responsibility, hinging upon the radical transcendence
of God. This Jewish other to philosophy you then simply term "Judaism."
. . . . Philosophy is "Greek," ethics is "Hebrew." For the reader who
views your text through the lens of the Plato-Maimonides-Kant-Cohen-
Schwarzschild tradition, your juxtaposition of
philosophy and ethics, or philosophy and Judaism, is puzzling. It is
puzzling, since you align yourself from the very outset with the
Heideggerian/Levinasian equation of Western philosophy and ontology,
ignoring Plato's claim that something beyond rational hypothesis lies at
the core of rational, ethical discourse: an "an-hypotheton," which really
is a "no-thing" or limit to rational knowledge, and which translates into
the idea of the god. Needless to say, the entire rationalist tradition is
based on this Platonic idea of a "non-hypothetical" good; in other words,
ever since Plato, "transcendental" or "critical idealism," in the name of
philosophy, rejects the Levinasian equation of philosophy and ontology, and
ever since Plato the opposite claim, namely that philosophy equals ethics
and that rational thinking is itself based on the idea of radical
transcendence, is put forward in the very name of "Greek" philosophy
From this perspective, your a priori definition (deconstruction) of
ethics and radical transcendence as "Jewish others" to philosophy seems
self-contradictoy. I may even borrow your own thesis "that R should be read
as a post-modern philosopher,"(10) in order to prove the point just made,
namely that ethics and radical transcendence underlie philosophy insofar
as she gives an account of herself. (Taking your disqualification of modern
philosophy with respect to ethics seriously, I shall come in a minute to
the question of whether at least Cohen's Platonic logic should not rather
qualify as post-modern philosophy.) Your entire chapter on Cohen's
principle of origin, in which you read Cohen's logic as the "proto-cosmos"
for Rosenzweig's ethics, seems to emphasize this criticism of your
philosophy/ontology equation and of your subsequent philosophy/ethics
correlation, even if the connection between R's logic and his ethics is
itself a non-linear one.
II. Question: On your use of the term "Judaism"
My next question is related to the first. In what sense do you employ
the term "Judaism," which you use as a variable for the "other"in your
assumed correlation of "philosophy and its others?" You maintain that the
meaning of the term"correlation" refers to the relationship between
philosophy and this one other, Judaism.(4) Do you arrive at the term
"Judaism" by means of deduction or induction? In other words, do you mean
by Judaism "Hebrew thinking," with its emphasis on ethics and the radical
transcendence of God? -- in which case its correlation to philosophy would be
meaningless, since the term"Judaism" itself would have turned into a
philosophical construct, as Cohen impressively argues in his introduction
to "The Religion of Reason." Or do you mean by "Judaism" the body of
Jewish sources, written and oral tradition, and so forth? In this case you
would have a problem defining what is to be considered a "Jewish source,"
since you placed "Jewish" on the opposite side of philosophy, and have
therewith ruled out its function as a conceptual guide. Only if you were
to admit that "Jewish" itself is a conceptual construction, then the term
"correlation" between philosophy and these two Jewish sources would seem
sensible. However, you would then be reverting to "correlation" in the
sense of Cohen's title "Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism,"
in which you have a correlation between Judaism -- which you then would
have to recognize somehow as a "religion of reason" -- on the one hand, and
its sources, on the other. But in either case, no matter how you use the
term "Judaism" -- whether in the deductive sense of an a priori
philosophical concept or in the inductive sense of a body of texts -- you
will run into a contradiction with your idea of a correlation between
philosophy and Judaism, since in both cases you would need Judaism on the
conceptual side in order to make sense of "correlation."
III. Question: On "Origin"
Your tracing of Cohen's concept of origin in Rosenzweig's Star is
fascinating innovative and instructive. Your application of Cohen's logic,
which is a "detour via nothingness," in your discussion of ethics is truly
illuminating. You indicate that the priority of the other in her relation
to me, as well as her uniqueness, is logically implied in Cohen's
infinitesimal integration of dx and x. But do you then take Cohen's "detour
via nothingness," his idea of integrating limits through nothing, to its
most far-reaching conclusion? In order to elaborate on this question, I
shall recall Cohen's logic of origin in its most archaic form. Cohen takes
the most simple of all logical propositions, "A is not-B," and gives it a
twist of infinity whose implications for post-modern philosophy, I think,
may carry us even farther than your reading allows us to realize. Let me
quickly tranlate our simple proposition "A is not-B" as the integration of
any subject "A" with its limit "B," where the integrative factor is the
infinitesimal nothing expressed in the privative term: "non-B." You then
argue that this relative nothing is a mere technical means to originate
something.(49) You therefore term it a "path of affirmation" -- which does
account for R's primordial "yes," as an infinite affirmation of
knowability, but which cannot account for R's primordial "no," indicating
the radical freedom implied in the statement of "thus and not otherwise."
I should like to disagree with you on the latter conclusion. We both
agree that Cohen's entire proposition of origin turns on the concept of the
infinitesimal nothing. I agree with you that this infinitesimal nothing
guarantees and produces continuity. It does this due to its definition as
a limit; but since this limit is defined as nothingness -- and we do not
compromise on that just because we call it an infinitesimal nothing, as if
it were to then become something -- it accounts for discontinuity and
difference precisely up to the point of the limit of reason. Your claim
that R constructs what lies beyond the limit of knowledge with critical
epistemology (50) seems to ignore the power of negation in Cohen's
limit-definition; only in terms of Hegel's dialectic, which operates within
a geometrical model, would it make sense to talk about a "beyond" of the
limit. In Cohen's differential logic, that which you call "beyond the
limit of knowledge" is the limit of reason. It is the "necnon" in Cohen's
definition of "Deus necnonnaturata," and it accounts for the uniqueness of
the other in Cohen's construction of "You and I."
Let us concentrate then on the negative function of limit. In any
integration of dx and x, dx denotes the infinitesimal and x the limit. In
the epistemological context, the infinitesimal nothing points to an
infinite abyss of not-knowing; it is this not-knowing which separates us
from the limit of reason. In the ethical context, it denotes an infinite
abyss of not-knowing the other, since this other is herslef conceived of
as the limit of the integration. One does not add to the alterity of the
other by claiming her to be beyond my limits of knowledge. It is enough to
say that the Other constitutes that limit to my knowledge. Cohen's
equation of limit and origin leads then to the ethical conclusion that it
is the Other who originates the Self. Cohen even dares to say that the Self
does not exist, and turns it into a task produced by the other.
This very same limit-idea exists in Plato's idea of the good as
something which lies beyond rational deduction, an "an-hypotheton,"
something beyond hypothesis and being, constituting a transcendental origin
of both knowing and not-knowing. Levinas develops the ethical primacy of
the Other without taking advantage of the Platonic idea of the
"an-hypotheton," which acknowledges a non-rational ground and limit of
human knowledge. His argument against this interpretation of the Platonic
idea might simply be that the neo-Kantian concepts of limit, nothingness,
and origin are themselves conditioned upon the principle of identity and
therewith bury the other in a "logic of the same." If so, the question
becomes whether Cohen's "detour via nothingness" has indeed the potential
to become the logical foundation for postmodern discourse on alterity. If
it does, Cohen is the first post-modern thinker. If it does not, how to
avoid reverting to dogma?
Did Rosenzweig Reject Hegel?
The Challenge of the System for Postmodern Thinking
Martin Srajek, Illinois Wesleyan University
Robert Gibbs' recently published book, "Correlations in Rosenzweig and
Levinas", is one of the best of its kind in the last two decades. It
constitutes a major step on the way towards a comprehensive understanding
of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of modern Jewish
thought. Gibbs shows how modern Jewish thought, culminating in the work
of Rosenzweig and Levinas, has begun to rethink itself as genuine Jewish
philosophy. His book reveals a double emphasis: on ethics, displayed
through his analysis of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas; and on the
question of Judaism's relationship to the rest of the non-Jewish world,
displayed through his analysis of Rosenzweig. The connection between
ethics and the All with respect to Judaism is what places Gibbs' study
squarely in the most recent postmodern discussions about the questions of
God, identity, ethics, and dynamics. One gets the impression from reading
Gibbs' book that Judaism indeed is postmodernism, a thesis with which I
highly agree. While Habermas has shown that Jewish philosophical thought
is intricately woven in with the philosophical discourse of modernity,
Gibbs shows especially in the seven rubrics that conclude his book that
Judaism's true locus is in the area of ethical postmodernism. This marks
the achievement of a major task and it opens new avenues for philosophical
Despite this achievement, however, the book is not without problems.
In particular, its alignment with postmodern philosophy will have to be
challenged. One of postmodernism's salient characteristics is its
reappropriation of Hegelian dialectics without, however, succumbing to what
many consider to be Hegel's most severe problem: totality. Yet, Gibbs
claims that Rosenzweig must be seen as a philosopher who attempts to sever
his ties from Hegel for ethical reasons. We therefore have to ask the
following questions: on what basis does Gibbs claim Rosenzweig's
anti-Hegelianism? and in what way can it be said that Rosenzweig's and
Hegel's approaches parallel each other? We will see that Rosenzweig not only
fails to severe ties with Hegel but also, in his own way, creates a
system of thought which is superimposed on the world and totalizes it. By
totalizing the world through systematic thought, Rosenzweig identifies
himself as a modern rather than a postmodern thinker. Rosenzweig may,
indeed, have attempted to divorce his own thinking from that of Hegel, but
his approach remains thoroughly Hegelian in nature. The main reason is
that Rosenzweig uncritically appropriated system-building as a means to
express the truth of Judaism. In light of a study of Hegel's ethics,
moreover, I believe we must reexamine Gibbs' claims about the ethical
nature of Rosenzweig's thought.
On what basis does Gibbs claim Rosenzweig's anti-Hegelianism?
I assume throughout this piece that Gibbs' view ultimately coincides
with that of Rosenzweig rather than with Hegel. Gibbs recognizes
Rosenzweig's dependence on the thought of the idealists and on Hegel in
particular: as he points out, their vocabulary finds its way back into the
thought of Rosenzweig (p. 7). However, Gibbs indicates that Rosenzweig
appropriates this vocabulary negatively, as something that he has to
overcome and "struggle through" (7). For Gibbs this struggle is indicative
of the continual overcoming of the philosophy of Hegel. However, he
concedes that the term "struggle" not only points away from Hegel but also
brings to mind the thetic-antithetic-synthetic structure of the Hegelian
argument itself. Nonetheless, Gibbs is convinced that in the end-result,
Rosenzweig's struggle "produce[s] new philosophies: philosophy of the
existing self, philosophy of writing, philosophy of the will(3). Based on
this assumption of the production of new philosophy/ies Gibbs then claims
that this new philosophy
is not Hegel's, but is rather one which has become
significantly other through the process. . .
Philosophy is replaced with altered philosophies
and thus cannot reign as the self-consciousness
that assimilates everything else into its program,
system, or project. (3)
Gibbs is making three points: first, he argues for recognizing the quality
of otherness that attaches to these new philosophies; second, these new
philosophies do not just attach to the old one, but they indeed replace
it; and, third, there is a modus difference, whereas Hegel's was
philosophy, this is the era of philosophies. These, then, are the
qualities which must also serve as Gibbs' criteria for understanding how
far Rosenzweig has moved away from Hegel.
The quality of otherness, Gibbs acknowledges, is not really a
sufficient category for understanding how Hegel's absolute idealism has
been overcome. Rather, as for example in the case of the existentialists,
otherness indicates "contemporary philosophy's entanglement with
speculative idealism" (34f). While Rosenzweig's is one of these entangled
philosophies a powerful assertion of "our epistemological humility, for
knowing we do not know" (34f) Gibbs credits Rosenzweig with more than
just acknowledging final philosophical ignorance. To him, Rosenzweig's
philosophy rejects the "unceasing movement of the dialectic of negation,
as well as [the] reconstruction of the coordinates of opposites. . . of the
limit and the infinite, committing himself to protecting the unknowable
from the tentacles of speculation" (34f). . . . Humility, in other words,
is an attitude not just of conscious ignorance but really the rejection of
a relentless rebellion against that ignorance in favor of a resignation
In Gibbs' reading, "epistemological humility" becomes a state rather
than a dynamic. But I fail to see the humility in this change. The state
that replaces the dynamic of Hegel's philosophy is sanctioned by asserting
an ineffable which, precisely because the unceasing movement of the
negative is rejected, now grows to mythological proportions. If the
movement is rejected, we have reached a position or state of philosophical
complacency equalling the one with which Hegel has been charged. It is not
"knowing that we don't know" but "not knowing that we don't know, then
finding out that we don't know, and then forgetting it again, only to find
out once more" that would accurately assess that what is going on is a
process of remembering and forgetting. I, however, cannot refer to my own
humility, for that is vanity. If humility can be known , it is through a
judging third person.
Gibbs' argument for humility indicates his search (and perhaps
Rosenzweig's as well) for a position of knowing. Gibbs is aware of this
tension, and claims that "it may be that to know that we do not know we
must make use of philosophy's pure, rigorous logic, for only with such
logic can we prevent philosophy from assimilating the discontinuity of
actuality to the sphere of reason's dominion" (55). In other words, we
need to use thought in order to find out that thought cannot do the job.
This is the essentially Cohennian point: We know that the unique God cannot
and must not be comprehended or apprehended, but there is a logical way of
approaching such understanding without violating either the "cannot" or the
The problem in this argument is its connecting an implied choice of
method (the use of logic) with the air of humility that accompanies this
choice . Do we really have choice when it comes to the categories of
thinking? Gibbs implies something to that effect when he connects the
imperative task of using the logical categories of thinking with the task
of prevention. The dilemma is, and at this point I prefer the term
"dilemma" over the term "humility," that we cannot but use those
categories. The choice of reason is no choice. Once this is realized, it
is only a short step to seeing that what is needed is not humility but
rebellion. Rebellion, however, is negation, endless negation. Yet, for
Rosenzweig rebellion and fanaticism are exactly what should be avoided when
it comes to getting closer to God, in particular, when it is through the
unending dialectic of negation. For rebellion would be negation both of
the reason that opposes it and the reason that attempts to integrate it.
Rebellion also is the theme of what Rosenzweig (and Gibbs) rejects as
"view-point philosophy" (39). Such view-point philosophy would no longer
be able to refer to a backdrop of philosophic justification, it would be
limited to itself only. View-point philosophy exists in the momentous but
relentless defiance of reason as anything larger than itself. Rosenzweig
believes that philosophy and view-point philosophies are irreconcilable
opposites. That is, he replicates the Hegelian conviction that philosophy
is the universal and not the particular. Thus in Rosenzweig's and Hegel's
view the development from philosophy to view-point philosophy (as in
Nietzsche and Kierkegaard) amounts to the loss of philosophy altogether.
Can we rebel while staying within the system of reason, without
abandoning it? This is a daunting question with possibly explosive
potential. My preliminary answer is that we cannot. Does this mean that
rebellion is impossible from the outset? Rebellion that outlines itself
as staying within the system amounts to nothing but the failure to rebel.
Rebellion, however, that is as fanatic as was Nietzsche's is true
rebellion: one that forgets itself and its purpose at the moment of
rebellion and only later realizes that, even then, it did not escape the
logic of reason. Only this type of rebellion is likely to change reason
By defending the conscious use of the categories of reason, or of the
state as a way towards justice, Gibbs, along with Rosenzweig, undermines
any view of justice as a rebellious, chaotic, and ever-changing force
(257).2 Rosenzweig, it is clear, is aware of this ever-changing character
of the force of justice, but he is unwilling to let this awareness
translate into a rejection of the state. Instead he sublimates the urge
to rebel and lets it reemerge through art as the "human production of
passions" (257). This type of productive art is nothing but another flight
from reality, here the reality of the oppressive state. It divests the
world of politics and the state of passion or suffering and instead
claims that these are produced in art. However, if it is art that
produces these passions, why should anyone, unless she is a masochist, want
to be an artist? And even if such a person existed, why would she want to
return to society? Why not stay in the realm of art and experience
passion? Furthermore, what would such a person do, if she did return to
society? If art produces passion, then society, not being able to relate
to it, will fail to understand it. From the perspective of the the
non-masochist the question is what else should motivate the return to
society but the wish to forget passion? What would be the connecting link?
In both cases, for the masochist and the anti-masochist, the realm of art
and passion seems closed off to that of the state. Justice will, then,
never emerge from the production of or reflection on art.
The escape into art is nothing short of Hegel's escape into thinking.
It is a change in reference-points, to be sure, as thinking for Hegel
expresses what the world seems to reject most oneness; while art, for
Rosenzweig, expresses what the world rejects most suffering. In both we
encounter a problematic dualism between the world and another realm.
Gibbs' program mediately given through his assessment of Rosenzweig's
critique of Hegel seems overly enthusiastic: first, in its alleged distance
from Hegel, and, second, in the claim to being an ethical philosophy. Like
Hegel, Rosenzweig wants to retain control through the act of knowing, he
wants to use reason as a tool to get closer to the irrational, he rejects
view-point philosophy (and therefore the irrational!) for fear it might
turn into fanaticism, he understands the state as a vehicle for fulfilling
justice, and like Hegel he believes that truth does not lie in this world
but somehow outside of it. The rejection of view-point philosophy combined
with the false humility of ignorance amounts to a rejection of rebellion
and constitutes, therefore, the dismissal of any genuinely ethical moment.
Rosenzweig and the Problem of Ethics
Rosenzweig did not really have ethics in mind when he wrote the Star.
His goal was to write a book that would allow him and his readers to recast
Judaism in such a way that it would become clear even to the non-Jewish
reader that Judaism is not only an accidental positive religion, but that
it has conceptual aspects which are devoid of all historical contingency
and therefore unfold by necessity. Rosenzweig, in other words, substitutes
Judaism for Hegel's system. Or, to make it clearer, Rosenzweig gives us
Judaism as a system instead of philosophy as a system. The system consists
of three parts: logic, language, and community and all three parts are
designed to show adequately how from a Jewish perspective the world must
relate to its beginnings, to its being in the world, and to its ultimate
condition. He has not succeeded in breaking the spell of what makes the
figure of Hegel so towering and unbearable precisely also in postmodern
thought, that is, he has failed to break the spell of the system itself.
His system, like that of Hegel, has the flaws of all systems: it is
over-generalizing, abandoning historic detail for the sake of the argument,
it understands certain particular things as representative of the whole,
etc. Like any system it is a lie. But as system it is a beautiful lie,
like that of Hegel.
The ethical problem of the 20th century, however, is precisely the
system. (Gibbs' introductory remarks about Hegel's legacy show that he is
aware of this as well.) This century, more so than any other, has taught
us that the lie on which the aesthetically appealing system is built can become
a practical compulsion. It is the voracious appetite of ideology
that does not shy away from devouring everything other than itself. It is
the desire to equalize and unify where there is still obstinate and
stubborn difference. Not even a generation away from the Holocaust,
Rosenzweig overlooks this problem. Systems of thought were the rage even
at that time. Heidegger, Gadamer and Husserl still wrote out of the desire
to create systematic thought. The voices from the Frankfurt School that
attempted critiques of systems social and philosophical were hardly heard
at that time.
Hermann Cohen, whose work also belongs into the circle of those who
wanted to create systems of thought, at least understood that philosophy
and theology must finally be measured against the very severe measuring
stick of social justice. Rosenzweig, on the other hand, does not even
bring up this problematic. Ethics for him is really about the question
that Hegel had already asked, about the relationship between the particular
and the universal: ethics as "Lebensanschauung" and ethics as
"Weltanschauung" (Star 11). It is about the question of the position of
ethics with respect to questions about the world and God (Star 16, 21).
Rosenzweig criticizes traditional ethics for being unable to provide the
individual with a stronger sense of the whole, the All in which, qua
ethical being, he or she participates. That is, he points out that
traditional systems have put too much emphasis on the individual and have
ultimately succeeded only in defining ethics as that which I am and do
rather than as that which I am as a member of a community (Star 61,90).
What it means for Rosenzweig to be part of such a community is to
understand the commandment to love one's neighbor. Rosenzweig points out,
however, that my neighbor is really only a variable ("Platzhalter") for the
All ("den Inbegriff Aller") (Star 243). Rosenzweig, in other words,
de-emphasizes the individual other as my neighbor and he turns her into a
variable for the sake of the whole community.. . . One must therefore ask
whether it is the case that, as Gibbs claims, Rosenzweig has in mind an
ethics that frees the individual, or is his ethics not rather one that
submits the individual to a different absolute? Has Rosenzweig not just
shifted the emphasis from the logic of the part and the whole to the logic
of the single individual with respect to the whole community? What do we
gain from Rosenzweig's considerations?
The suspicion that Rosenzweig is not really interested in ethics is
strengthened by the fact that terms like "the ethical", "ethics," or "the
other" rarely come up in his text (they do in Levinas' text, however) and
I feel compelled to ask Gibbs if there are other terms that indicate
Rosenzweig's interest in ethics, terms, perhaps, that belong to the context
of the third decade of this century and therefore have to be decoded before
they can be understood as ethical. Rosenzweig, it is true, attempted to
rethink the notion of relation, and if anything is important to ethics it
is the issue of how to relate to my neighbor, to God and to the world in
general. But Hegel was concerned with relations as well. The dialectic
of the spirit is, above all, a reflection on how things physical and
metaphysical relate to each other. I would be content to hear that
Rosenzweig thought it his own calling to fill the relational concepts of
Hegel's philosophy with the material givenness of Judaism (similar to how
Cohen uses Kantian philosophy as a framework for Judaism as the religion
of reason). But if this is the case then one can hardly claim that
Rosenzweig really overcame or rejected Hegelian philosophy. What he ends
up doing appears to be nothing short of an affirmation of an All that
initially he thought untenable and, I gather, un-ethical.
Gibbs concludes with a reflection on the scope and direction that
Jewish philosophy should take in order to lead the way to a new era of social,
political, and theological thought. Although these categories
reflect the potential that is inherent in Jewish thought as a whole,
neither Rosenzweig nor Levinas can be counted on as unproblematic
candidates for such an approach. The criticism that follows is, therefore,
not directed towards these categories themselves, but rather towards
Rosenzweig and Levinas as their appropriate representatives.
Let me begin with rubric 2. Gibbs here urges us to understand the
primacy of ethics not as "the cognition of truth" but as "the
transformation of praxis." Neither Rosenzweig nor Levinas are good
candidates with whom to begin this process. Neither engage in praxis nor
do they transform it. Their transformation is one of epistemological
categories. This is itself an important prerequisite of praxis, but it is
not praxis per se.
Rubric 3: Rosenzweig's philosophy emphasizes sociality but the cost
is the loss of individuality. Levinas deals with the individual, he
understands it as the central problem of ethics, whereas Rosenzweig avoids
it. Sociality cannot be had as the opposite of individuality but as the
differential product of the one and the All.
Based on this, I think, Gibbs is right in rubric 4 to point to the
prophetic quality of all speech. The very form of speech understood as the
address of the other is already the matrix from which social action can
emerge. But, against Rosenzweig, I would submit that speech is what eludes
the system. It cannot be said, especially not through grammar. His
attempt to map out speech and dialogue underscored by Gibbs' meta-discourse
on it pull speech back into the realm of theory and systematic thought.
With respect to rubric 5, neither Rosenzweig nor Levinas are able to
bring the material needs of the community into the focus of their works.
Both are too concerned with transcendence to be able to stay within the
realm of the material.
The call for the suspension of the state in rubric 6 is a very
powerful symbol of what it will take to implement any ethics at all. For
the suspension of the state really stands in for the suspension of the
system. If we can live socially and communally without being in need of
enforcing a system as the artificial backbone of our unity then the state
will have become superfluous.
Rubric 7: Jewish philosophy, possibly Rosenzweig's less so than
Cassirer's, Soloveitchik's, Schwarzschild's, and Cohen's, is one that aims
at social practice, as halakhic practice. If this orientation could become
part of the ways we do philosophy, then philosophy as a system would make
way to philosophy as a differentially produced narrative. It would be a
philosophy that truly orients itself between act and thought rather than
just towards thought.
Here also is the space for rubric 1. The universality of
accessibility is the goal of every philosophy, every philosophical system
in particular. That in part is the reason why systems are invented in the
first place. I would suggest that this universalism should not be phrased
in terms of what we will do some day, but in the agreement that nothing we
do or institute can not be put in question again. It is the agreement that
ethics is an infinite task and that the only universal available to
everyone is participation in that infinite task. Messianism understood as
an infinite task is the only way to keep the otherwise all-encompassing,
and all-devouring system in check.
1 For the connection between rebellion and negation cp. Albert Camus,
"L'homme rvolt", Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1951.
2 Compare on this point Jacques Derrida, "Force of Law," Cardozo Law
Review, 1993. In this article Derrida equates deconstruction with justice.
Since deconstruction's most salient feature is the demonstration of the
lack of solid conceptual bases for laws, principles, doctrines, etc., it
has a thoroughly uprooting effect. To say that deconstruction is justice,
is to say that justice is always deferred and that in its stead we have the
striving for justice which is which both makes and unmakes laws. It is, in
any event, a situation in which we can never quite disconnect ourselves
from the chaotic matrix of lawlessness.
"Correlations" in the Profession of Modern Jewish Philosophy
Michael Zank, Boston University
Among the disciplines of Judaic Studies, modern Jewish thought is
often regarded as a distant cousin who is much admired for her acquaintance
with the ways of the world but who, for the very same reason, is often
looked at askance. Compared to the more generally recognized branches of
Judaic Studies,(1) Jewish philosophy or thought is "so young that it is
only now beginning to develop consciousness of self."(2) When it comes to
the modern period, some deny the very existence of such a discipline(3)
which, in our simile, amounts to an outright denial of one's relatives.
Given this precarious status of the discipline, the need is evident for
intellectually stimulating and well reasoned introductions to the complex
problems that have concerned modern Jewish thinkers. If such introductions
are to satisfy a philosophical rather than merely historical interest, they
must provide more than the individual profiles of thinkers whose ideas were
shaped in different circumstances of intellectual history. While we are in
need of expository writing, the ideal introduction must go beyond a
description of the thought of diverse individuals. The thinkers in question
not only built one on the thought of the other but they shared a
fundamental awareness of the need to make sense of Judaism in the context
of modernity as well as of modernity in the context of Judaism. If this
shared awareness is admitted as the common intellectual basis of modern
Jewish thinkers, one will expect that an introductory essay on modern
Jewish thought address the question of a common agenda of Jewish philosophy
in the modern era. The reader is interested in an account of the
convictions that compelled modern Jewish thinkers to challenge universal
morality and culture from within the symbolic system of Judaism. If such
an underlying agenda or a set of common convictions can be identified, such
result may ultimately serve as a toe hold for an agenda of future Jewish
An alternative to this method suggests itself when one suspects the
historical and intellectual relations between the thinkers in question to
be less evident than necessary for such a straightforward derivation of a
systematic agenda from their historical expositions. In this case, one may
be tempted to substitute one's own agenda for future Jewish thought, or an
account of the basic correlation between particular Jewish thinkers that
one finds particularly in agreement with one's own agenda.
Robert Gibbs has given us a specimen of the latter kind of
introduction to modern Jewish thought. Based on thorough textual studies,
"Correlations" is an elaborate exposition of the thought of Franz Rosenzweig
(1888-1929) and Emmanuel Levinas (born 1906). Not satisfied with mere
historico-exegetical expositions, this study aims to highlight
"correlations" between the thought of these 20th-century thinkers. More
than mere historical correspondences or dependencies of the later on the
earlier thinker, these correlations are understood as pointers in the
direction of an agenda for postmodern Jewish philosophy. But Gibbs goes
even further. The agenda that emerges from reading Rosenzweig and Levinas
is characterized by a common interest in making Judaism a plausible "other"
of philosophy, of spelling out the inherent challenge of Judaism to
contemporary secular thought.(4)
Gibbs' focus on Rosenzweig and Levinas is openly arbitrary.
Postmodernism is distinguished by a certain eclecticism, and the
justification for grouping other modern Jewish thinkers around these two
is suggested by the gradual emergence in the book of "family resemblances":
similarities of emphasis and effort in the thought of a larger group of
individuals (including Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Gabriel Marcel).
Gibbs shows that the underlying intention of postmodern Jewish thought that
makes for this family resemblance is a "radicalization of ethics." The
name Gabriel Marcel alone suggests that this pivotal philosophical
intention of "radicalizing ethics" is not an exclusively Jewish theme.
Ethics and morality as such are neither exclusively Jewish concerns nor are
they products of modernity or postmodernity. Social justice and lawful
conduct have been major elements of premodern Jewish thought, originating,
as it does, in classic Israelite prophecy with its social criticism and
continuing throughout the sources of Judaism from wisdom literature to
Mishna, Talmud and Midrash, and from the "Duties of the Heart" to the works
of the Mussar movement. As a topic of philosophical reflection, ethics, or
practical philosophy, was bequeathed to and impressed upon the West through
the works of Plato and Aristotle and has remained a pillar of every
standard work of philosophy eversince the Middle Ages. Furthermore, Judaism
exerted a direct influence on the Western philosophical tradition through
Christianity. All this complicates the task of differentiating between
"Hebrew" and "Greek" contributions to the development of Western ethical
theory. Given these multiple and complex influences on the allegedly
post-Christian and postmodern philosophical mind, it does not come as a
surprise that a definition of the proprium of Jewish philosophy ("the
radicalization of ethics") is accompanied by a disclaimer of exclusivity.
Gibbs presents his agenda for postmodern Jewish thought in a set of
"rubrics" for Jewish philosophy. These rubrics boast agreement with Bible
and Talmud, albeit not in their "plain sense." He explains neither how one
arrives at such"plain sense" nor how the non-literal sense that he agrees
with is methodologically distinguished from "eisegesis" of the sort that
is commonly found in the works of philosophers and other creative
homilists. The agenda for Jewish thought that is thus unsupportedly
asserted as "consonant with Jewish sources, particularly Midrash and
Talmud" is nevertheless to be regarded as non-exclusive. This
non-exclusivity is based on its inherent universality which is, of course,
an ethical universality. The first rubric states that while postmodern
Jewish philosophy might take the form of a meditation on a Talmudic text,
it nevertheless speaks of universal experiences such as "speaking or eating
with another person." Since we are dealing not with these experiences
themselves but with philosophical reflections on their constitutive meaning
for "sociality," the "universality of access" is limited to "poets,
artists, writers, philosophers, theologians, scientists, social critics,
etc." While this group does not have to be Jewish (hence the universality)
it must be professional, i.e. qualified to follow the argument presented
in works of Jewish philosophy.
Whatever weaknesses one may find in "Correlations", the work is a
paradigmatic introduction to 20th-century Jewish philosophy. It focuses on
a selection of modern or postmodern Jewish philosophers but it does so with
a view to disseminating the thought of Rosenzweig and Levinas beyond the
small circle of students of modern Jewish thought. Gibbs wants to reach out
and engage philosophers and philosophically minded Jews and non-Jews
outside the community of specialists by presenting them with what he sees
as an inherent challenge of postmodern Jewish philosophy to postmodern
philosophy. "Correlations" is ultimately about the inherent and vital
correlation between philosophy and Judaism sought by Jewish philosophers,
a correlation that, according to Gibbs, should be sought also by
"philosophy in general" or by "neutral" thought. I assume that by the
latter he means a type of discourse that is not determined by
denominational interests -- a discourse among professionals and educated
people who (and who does not uphold this fiction?) are used to putting
reason and understanding before the irrational biases of religious
In order to reach a wider audience, Gibbs decided to do with few
references to other supporting or alternative interpretations of the
thinkers he presents. He hopes that his expositions are self-sustaining
even when they are unusual. The author notes that there is a whole
archeology of Judaism as the "other" of Western thought, an archeology
worthy of extensive elaboration. . . . I find many of Gibbs' expositions
brilliant, lucid, helpful, and to the point. Whoever has tried to read the
Star of Redemption from beginning to end and to put down in writing what
it means will appreciate the amount of energy and discipline required to
produce such concise expositions. What I miss is a more complete
recognition of the work of others. While Gibbs notes the names and works
of some authors on Rosenzweig, he fails to mention more recent monographs
that present complete expositions of Rosenzweig's main philosophical work
and that, like Correlations, treat Rosenzweig as a philosopher.(5) In this
sense, Gibbs' claim of presenting an innovative reading of Rosenzweig by
treating him as a philosopher rather than a religious thinker seems
slightly exaggerated. One gets the impression that previous writers merely
perpetuated the image of Rosenzweig as a baal t'shuva and saintly martyr
and that none had thought of making the attempt of decoding the elaborate
structure and symbolism of the Star in order to represent its underlying
philosophical argument. My own experience with reading Rosenzweig began in
1983 and the relevant authors have all been dispassionate fellow-readers
and teachers, most of whom were not even Jewish. What is true of the study
of Hermann Cohen is also true of the study of Franz Rosenzweig: until
recently there has been little communication between US and European
scholars. American philosophers outside the narrow ranks of students of
Jewish philosophy had little interest in post-idealist Continental thought
unless it dealt with Heidegger or wa swritten in French; Jewish Studies in
general have only recently become a popular field and have turned into a
source of marketable items. In Germany, on the other hand, interest in
neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, and speech-thinking has been sustained for
several decades and has increased in the wake of the reassessment of the
interruption of the German intellectualt radition. To claim Rosenzweig for
general philosophy makes much more sense in the context of German academic
philosophy, where idealism and post-idealism still dominate the lecture
halls and where philosophical and theological authors, both Catholic and
Protestant, have been continuously and increasingly interested in
reintegrating the Jewish voice that was once part of a German philosophical
Since people in this country don't like to learn foreign languages,
they need translations. One form of translation is provided by Gibbs --
a translation of one tradition of thought into the language of another. The
other form, which is not made superfluous by Gibbs' book, would be an
English edition of the works of Rosenzweig. In such an edition one would
want to include not only a new translation of the Star (Gibbs correctly
laments the quality of the existing one) but also a translation of his
letters, diaries, and minor writings. In my opinion, the letters and
diaries provide a much better commentary on the Star than the essay on the
"New Thinking" in which Rosenzweig talks to an anonymous audience.(7)
There are a few historical and biographical points in "Correlations"
that could be slightly improved. For example, in the admittedly preliminary
sketch of Rosenzweig's life ("Two Lives" p.5), he is characterized as the
"child of an assimilated German family" whose intellectual path led him
from medicine to history to philosophy. While these characterizations are
not entirely wrong, they are not entirely right either. His family, despite its
assimilation, included Rosenzweig's uncle Adam, a devoutly religious
Jew of tremendous personal influence on young Franz who, as the only one
among his assimilated but still Jewish peers, asked for Hebrew lessons as
his 13th-birthday present. According to the recollections of Victor von
Weizscker and Theodor Heuss, Rosenzweig was proudly Jewish even before his
so-called t'shuva. Finally, Rosenzweig's study of medicine was an aspect
of his Studiengang, a Brotstudium to satisfy his father rather than an
aspect of his intellectual history (his Bildungsgang). Also, Eugen
Rosenstock did not "persuade Rosenzweig to convert." While Rosenzweig,
following his nightly conversation with Rosenstock and Rudolf Ehrenberg,
was in a state of inner turmoil and considered conversion, Rosenstock did
not know what his statements of faith had caused in his student and
interlocutor until 1916 when, in the course of their correspondence, Franz
Rosenzweig first disclosed the chain of events that had taken place in the
The central intention of the book is to demonstrate a potential of
modern Jewish philosophy (in its a greement with "Talmudic" Judaism) to
function as a significant "other" for contemporary academic philosophy. In
keeping with the "ideal introduction" that we sketched above, rather than
giving a mere exposition of the thought of some of the major modern Jewish
thinkers, Gibbs aims to present a tentative but original synthesis of
modern Jewish philosophy as a coherent and correlated movement of thought
that is of significance to universal thought. Although Gibbs modestly
defers to Rosenzweig and Levinas on whom he merely seems to comment his
agenda is original and it is this agenda more than anything that deserves
ourattention. (An aside: the complicated situation of authorship thus
created is indicated in formulations such as this: "This ideal agenda is
not simply a summary of the two thinkers who caused this book, but neither
is it a priori.") On the other hand, the agenda does not develop out of
nothing but emerges from an attentive reading of Rosenzweig and Levinas.
The commentary form adopted by Gibbs is in itself an application of the
philosophical principle that seems to guide the development of postmodern
Jewish thought, except that instead of the classical sources of Judaism,
the modern Jewish philosophies themselves become the classics that are the
text on which we comment without merely reiterating their meaning. The
ambiguity between exposition and original synthesis is thus intentional and
in keeping with the message, which is this: while I speak I primarily
respond to what has first been spoken to me, the author as the truthful
broker of the word that first came to him and made him, first a
listener/reader, then an author.
Once this premise of the literary situation is made clear, the
justification of Gibbs' choice of authors and of what he sees as the
inherent challenge of modern Jewish thought to philosophy becomes
plausible. Objectively speaking, the picture of modern Jewish thought (as
of . . . any other thought for that matter) is far more complex and
contradictory than suggested in this work. But Gibbs is not speaking
objectively. He speaks as someone inspired by Rosenzweig and Levinas and,
in a certain unmistakable way, by Cohen. Hence one cannot complain, for
example, when Gibbs makes no effort to reconcile the "Suspension of the
State" that he postulates as an element ofJewish thought (see rubrics 6 and
7) with Zionism and the Jewish state. Nor can one complain that this
postmodern eclecticism regards the Holocaust as a non-event or at best as
an event devoid of decisive intellectual content.
. . . . Let me turn, then, to the question of what significance Gibbs
assigns the Holocaust in the context of modern Jewish thought. From the
way in which Gibbs deals with this question I infer (for no where in the
book is this conclusion spelled out explicitly) that he does not regard the
Nazi attempt to eliminate the Jewish "race" as a philosophically
significant event. Thus, when the Holocaust is mentioned in connection with
Levinas, it is immediately integrated with the "millennia of abandonment."
It is quite evident that God was just as silent during atrocities committed
against Jews before this century, just as God has been conspicuously silent
when others than the Jews were the victims of "ethnic cleansing." It would
seem justified, therefore, to answer the question of a philosophical impact
of the Holocaust on our understanding of Judaism, philosophy, and ethics
in thenegative. Instead we are made to realize that the content of these
questions ("Where is God?" etc.) may be less significant than their form:
"Our theology today seems to consist in large measure of questions." The
Holocaust is, thus, assigned the role of boosting a particular aspect of
the grammar of speech-thinking, namely the new mood of the interrogative.
This is not a trivial aspect of Gibbs' exposition of speech-thinking,
either, since it is the only innovation he suggests in the context of
Rosenzweig's characterization of the moods of language. But this limited
philosophical significance of the Holocaust in the context of Jewish
thought is achieved through a reification of this event that contradicts
its alleged linguistic significance. The possibility of claiming the
Holocaust as the true origin of the new mood of the interrogative, a mood
supposed to inform and enrich our common theological language, depends on
perceiving the Holocaust as an objectively unprecedented event. Only if
conceived of as historically unique can the Holocaust be presumed to
generate an unprecedented quality of speech. Gibbs has, however, ruled out
the uniqueness of the Holocaust. If, on the other hand, the Holocaust were
an atrocity that differs only quantitatively from other attempted
genocides, then its "uniqueness" concerns only the particular victims for
whom it is naturally unique, not however us who are not among them and for
whom the Holocaust is "history." In this case, the newness of the mood of
the interrogative can also only concern the particular victim salone. Only
they had and continue to have the right to consider themselves beyond the
realm of ordinary speech. For us who have not been victimized in this way
(and who feel that one must not want to be victimized in this way in order
to be fully human and capable of the full gamut of human speech), such
victimization is simply beyond imagination and must remain so. Or, if there
is only a quantitative difference between the degree of victimization
experienced in the death camps and "ordinary" forms of suffering, it is
misleading to invoke the Holocaust in the context of discussing the
interrogative other than by way of illustration. Gibbs' discussion of this
whole complex of questions is not satisfactory and it should, perhaps, have
been left alone altogether. There are two additional reasons why Gibbs'
discussion of the Holocaust remains ambiguous. First, in a work that sets
itself the task of spelling out universal implications of Jewish ethics,
the particularity of Jewish suffering and of concrete Jewish history in
general (including Zionism) have no place. In this way, however, the work
loses an element of Jewish authenticity that is necessary if Jewish thought
is to function as a genuine "other" of philosophy. Secondly, the category
that applies to the language of the victim is the category of accusation.
Since the days of Prometheus and Job, the victim of God's silence in the
face of meaningless violence has been accusation, not interrogation. Even
if the two are collapsed, it is the victim alone, more precisely the victim
who still addresses God alone ("my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"), who
can claim the right to charge God. To claim the interrogative as a genuine
mood of language is to mistake pious contemplation of the suffering of
others with a form of authentic language. While Gibbs almost manages to
save his thesis by associating the interrogative with the often invoked
experience of insufficiency, this association should be considered in the
context of prayer, a context that is conspicuously reduced from a form of
speech to a mere body of theological contents.
All this is not to detract from the evident merits of the work. Gibbs
represents Rosenzweig's philosophical intentions correctly. Although I am
relatively unfamiliar with Levinas, the little I have read confirms that
Gibbs' exposition of his thought is equally competent.(9) Common to
Rosenzweig's and Levinas's Jewish philosophical impulse is the theme of
"radicalization of ethics." While a more systematic and less exegetical
exposition might have made it easier to follow the argument, the point is
well taken. . . . . Within this larger context, the continued emphasis on
sociality, social justice and the ethical situation of human beings seems
to be a specifically Jewish contribution. At least it can be said that from
Marx to Bloch, and from Cohen to the Frankfurt school, Jews worshipped
socialism as if it were the essence of the Ten Commandments.
At the end of the 20th century, then, we are told that this is indeed
the underlying theme of modern and postmodern Jewish philosophy and its
imperative for the next millennium: a reminder that justice on earth is the
goal and the task for Jews and non-Jews alike. On the other hand, we are
told that this imperative is not to be confused with a rehashing of the
19th-century claim that the Jews have a genius for ethics. It is not clear
to me how such confusion can be avoided. The ethical imperative has not
changed just because the current philosophical paradigm is post-neo-Kantian
rather than Kantian. But here we should not take the assertion of a
difference lightly. While the Kantian and neo-Kantian Jewish and other
ethics culminated in a correlation between autonomous individuals and a
constitutional state, the post-modern formulation aims at an open but
communally structured society, i.e., a society that constitutes itself in
an infinity of responsibility of each for others beyond the divisions of
class, race, gender, and religion; an"open" society aiming at constant
social criticism. In other words, the agenda for postmodern Jewish
philosophy is to read the Talmud with a political agenda similar to
contemporary communitarianism and to boost this agenda with appropriate
readings of the Talmud. Whoever agrees with this agenda will find Professor
Gibbs' Correlations an important theologico-political event. Whoever doubts
that Jewish philosophy is served by such alignments with the Zeitgeist will
still find Gibbs' expositions of Rosenzweig and Levinas brilliant and
thoughtful bridges to the thought of two of the most significant thinkers
of the 20th century.
1 Cf. Friedrich W. Niewoehner (1980), "Vorueberlegungen zu einem
Stichwort: 'Philosophie, Juedische'" in: Archiv fuer Begriffsgeschichte
2 Marvin Fox, "Graduate Education in Jewish Philosophy," in: New
Humanities and Academic Disciplines, The Case of Jewish Studies, (ed. Jacob
Neusner), The University of Wisconsin Press (off-print, s.a.), p.121
3 Cf. Fox ibid.
4 A similar agenda is evident in Kenneth Seeskin, Jewish Philosophy in a
Secular Age, Albany: Suny Press, 1990
5 See Anna Elisabeth Bauer, Rosenzweig's Sprachdenken im "Stern der
Erloesung" und in seiner Korrespondenz mit Martin Buber zur Verdeutschung
der Schrift" Frankfurt/Main etc.: Verlag Peter Lang, 1992 (=Europaeische
Hochschulschriften, Reihe XXIII Theologie Vol. 466); Paola Ricci Sindoni,
Prigioneri di Dio, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), Edizioni Studium,Roma 1989
(=La Cultura 37); Adriano Fabris, Linguaggio della revelazione, Filosofia
e teologia nel pensiero di Franz Rosenzweig, Genova 1990 (=Ricerche Studi
e Strumenti - Filosofia 15); Hans Martin Dober, Die Zeit ernstnehmen.
Studien zu Franz Rosenzweigs "Der Stern der Erloesung", Wuerzburg
1990(=Epistemata, Wuerzburger Wissenschaftliche Schriften, Reihe
Philosophie, Band84); Wolfdietrich Schmied-Kowarzik, Franz Rosenzweig,
Existentielles Denkenund gelebte Bewaehrung, Freiburg/Muenchen, 1991 (=
Alber Reihe Philosophie)
6 Note the curious fact that an earlier version of this review was
originally read at a panel in which all reviewers were natives of Germany,
one a converted Jew, the other a non-Jew, and the third neither a non-Jew
nor a non-Christian.
7 The more recent edition of Rosenzweig's letters and diaries is sadly
far from complete but is still a splendid resource of which most American
students are deprived. See Franz Rosenzweig, Gesammelte Schriften,
published by Martinus Nijhoff, I (The Hague, 1979) and III
(Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster, 1984). For a critique of this edition see
Michael Zank, Christlich - juedisches Gespraech im 1. Weltkrieg. Eine
Analyse des Briefwechsels von Eugen Rosenstock und Franz Rosenzweig aus dem
Jahre 1916 (unpublished M.T.S. thesis, HeidelbergUniversity, 1986) p. 52
n.41 and p. 54f. n. 44
8 I have described the exchange between Rosenzweig and Rosenstock further
in"Christlich-juedisches Gespraech" (see previous note). Speaking of
Rosenstock. Perhaps the strongest emphasis in Gibbs' exposition of the
philosophical doctrines of the Star is on the third part, with its
sociological constitution of communities through a common structuring of
temporality. The sociological thinking that Rosenzweig develops in this
context under the heading of "in tyrannos" owes a great deal to Eugen
Rosenstock's construction of concrete sociality out of a common calendar
which Rosenstock first presented to Rosenzweig in a letter of July 19, 1916
[Eng translation in Judaism Despite Christianity (ed. Eugen Rosenstock),
Alabama: University of Alabama Press,1969, pp.89ff and Rosenzweig's answer
from Sept. 5, 1916 ibid. pp. 91-94. Cf. Helmut Jenner, "Die Auffindung des
Kreuzes derWirklichkeit" in: Mitteilungen der Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
Gesellschaft,16. Folge, February 1972, pp. 1-7.]. Rosenstock later
developed this into a full fledged sociology. [Cf. Eugen
Rosenstock-Huessey, Soziologie, vol. 1: Die Uebermacht der Raeume, 2.
edition,Stuttgart, Berlin, Koeln, Mainz: Kohlhammer, 1956 and vol. 2: Die
Vollzahl der Zeiten, first edition 1958.] For Rosenstock the correspondence
with Rosenzweig was important not because it concerned the affirmation of
"Judaismdespite Christianity" but because it was in this private exchange
that took place in the middle of the war that Rosenstock first disclosed
his own sociological ideas for a "new thinking." Cf. Rosenstock-Huessy, Ja
und Nein. Autobiographische Fragmente, Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1968,
pp. 45f, 70ff, 103f.
9 A characterization of Levinas' Jewish thought similar to that of Gibbs
can be found in Joelle Hansel, "'After You' - The Concept of Sanctification
in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas" (Hebrew) in: Daat. A Journal of
Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah, nr. 30, Winter 1993, pp. 5-12. This whole
issue of Daatis dedicated to the philosophy of Levinas.
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