Observations on Jewish Philosophy and Feminist Thought

Article excerpt

In a recent volume, Jewish philosophers and Jewish Philosophy, Michael L. Morgan has brought together essays of Emil Fackenheim spanning five decades that are devoted to assessing the history, the present practice, and the future of Jewish philosophy.(1) In his insightful introduction, Morgan points out that Emil Fackenheim redefines the encounter between philosophy and Judaism as not one between "the abstract" and "the specific," "the theoretical" and "the practical," "the eternal" and "the historical."(2) Instead, Judaism and philosophy are both historically situated as is their encounter; neither is unchanging and both have transcendent as well as empirical dimensions.(3) Morgan characterizes Fackenheim's understanding of Jewish philosophy as that discourse which "involves both the Jewish heritage and the philosophical tradition in dialectical, reciprocal exposures to each other and to the historical situation in which they occur."(4) Thus the encounter between Judaism and philosophy is three-pronged, not two-pronged - namely among history, Judaism, and philosophy - and it admits not only of a large number of permutations but of mutual incursions insofar as history is not a category exclusively external to either philosophy or Judaism, to which they must respond, but rather, historical development is internal to each of them as well. Neither Judaism nor philosophy is static but rather each is itself historically situated and articulated. At the same time, events proceed on the stage of history at least in part independently of both Judaism and philosophy. Thus, it is a different philosophy that meets both a different Judaism and also a different external historical situation in each era of their encounter.

In several of the essays in this volume, Emil Fackenheim identifies "problems that are [both] genuinely philosophical," and, at the same time, "distinctively Jewish." The existence of such problems he argues is the sine qua non for establishing a contemporary practice of Jewish philosophy as a bona fide subdiscipline within philosophy? He sets out to demonstrate that such problems do in fact exist and that they are not only extant but also of general importance, posing urgent challenges not only for Jews but for philosophy as a whole. Thus recent Jewish history poses challenges not only to traditional Jewish self-understandings nor even only to Jewish philosophical self-understandings in the light of modern philosophy, but these historical events directly affecting the Jews as a people pose important philosophical problems of general concern. The Holocaust, the paradigmatic example, poses a general challenge to philosophy, to the philosophical assessment of humanity, and to the standard accounts of the nature of evil, as well. As a Jewish problem it raises the question: How ought we as Jews to respond in our self-conception and in our conception of Judaism to the reality of radical evil, and to a radical evil that was directed at us? As a philosophical problem (raised by us but for us and everyone else) it raises the issue: How can we come to terms with the evil embodied in the Holocaust in its effects on our concepts of humanity and of the nature of evil? Emil Fackenheim was the first to speak at the American Philosophical Association on December 30, 1985 on the philosophical implications of the Holocaust and now, years after his introduction of it, a vibrant contemporary discourse on it continues both in the APA and in North American universities. "To avoid self-immersion in the Holocaust would be to lapse into escapism - to be unphilosophical," he writes. "It would be unphilosophical for Jewish and general philosophy alike." Michael Morgan devotes Part II of the volume exclusively to essays of Fackenheim on "The Holocaust and Philosophy."

The other recent historical event of unprecedented Jewish significance, the return of the Jews to an autonomous political life in their ancient homeland after nearly two millennia of being" a people cut off from it by the power of enemies,"(6) also poses philosophical problems, Fackenheim holds. …