Jewish Philosophy Today

Article excerpt

What is Jewish philosophy?1 Why is it philosophy? And if there is such a thing as Jewish philosophy, who counts as a Jewish philosopher? These questions guide any number of essays devoted to the topic of Jewish philosophy; some specifically address the meta-question of what constitutes Jewish philosophy and what thinkers are included in this category. As we see in the history of philosophy and in current trends in contemporary philosophy, defining those who are allowed in a particular category and those who are not is not an easy task; nor does it usually have a logic other than a political movement of the time. I would be remiss if I did not recognize that the question of Jewish philosophy still remains, for some, a question: what is it and why is it philosophy? A brief tour of some of the most prominent and recognizable names in the Jewish philosophical canon whose "identity" has caused a bit of a stir will help us to orient ourselves in this field called Jewish philosophy.

Beginning with Spinoza, who is generally accepted as part of the Western philosophical canon, we can ask, as Emil Fackenheim does, if his acceptance is the result of his opting out of Judaism and/or because the Jewish community of Amsterdam excluded him, making him and his thought seem less Jewish and therefore less parochial. The Moses Mendelssohn (a philosophical contemporary and friend of Kant's) who appears in histories of early modern philosophy-the one who debates with Jacobi over Lessing's Spinozism-is not the Moses Mendelssohn who appears in accounts of modern Jewish philosophy. The central text for this latter Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, addresses concerns regarding state and religious power: what is the relationship, if any, between the two and what limits on each should be imposed?2 His interest lies in persuading his readership that there is no inconsistency in being a German citizen and remaining Jewish. His exploration into the relationship between national citizenship and religious identity is still relevant today.

In the late modern period, Hermann Cohen, a brilliant neo-Kantian and the teacher of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, is also largely ignored, though Cohen's work is infused with Kantian philosophy. As Fackenheim points out, insofar as Cohen is a neo-Kantian, he cannot be completely ignored, but little heed, if any, is paid to the way in which Cohen takes up Kantian philosophy into a Jewish framework. Rosenzweig, who wrote his dissertation on Hegel, is rarely, if ever taught, in existentialism courses and we can lament the lack of attention given by philosophers to his The Star of Redemption. Certainly, The Star is a daunting book, and it is no easy task to read it; however, other difficult books (e.g., Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit) are not only central to the canon of modern philosophy, but they are celebrated in part because of their level of difficulty. In any event, Rosenzweig often inspires his own set of debates precisely over the issue of whether he was a Jewish thinker or a German philosopher. Was The Star a work of philosophy or, as he feared, simply a "Jewish book"? Buber's / and Thou (like Tillich's The Courage to Be and Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling) frequently appears in introductory philosophy courses or in courses on existentialism, usually when dealing with questions of religious experience or the role of the human in religious experience. This frequency, however, might be more of an indication that Buber's sophisticated philosophical ideas appear simplistic and/or that the mystical religious tradition that informs his thought is either unknown or viewed as irrelevant.3

When we move to the more contemporary thinkers and explore the debate surrounding Levinas's Judaism and the role that Judaism plays in informing his philosophical thought, it is difficult not to speculate about why such debates become so heated. What is at stake in proclaiming Levinas to be a Jewish philosopher? …