Interim Judaism: Jewish Thought in a Century of Crisis, by Michael L. Morgan

Article excerpt

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. 146 pp. $15.95.

Interim Judaism: Jewish Thought in a Century of Crisis is an ambitious and provocative, if flawed because overly ambitious and oddly designed, attempt by Michael Morgan, a philosophy professor at Indiana University, to define the current state of Jewish thought and belief in America as "interim." By "interim" Morgan means to say that as a contemporary Jewish intellectual he is unconvinced by the grand narratives of messianism or revelation developed in Europe around World War One, and yet he remains hopeful of a future in which such a belief system might be on the horizon. Asking how the tradition of modernist Jewish philosophy in Europe might be appropriated today, his question revolves around the issue of how might contemporary Jews, who he argues tend to be disinterested in metaphysics, connect to the rather abstract systems of thought proposed by prominent Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosensweig, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem. How to make relevant for post-modern American skeptics and pragmatists the European modernist interest in absolute truth as theological justification for political and social action?

The first and longest part of the book includes several informative chapters in which Morgan situates a group of Jewish intellectuals who developed their theories during the Weimar Republic within the wider European crises that led to World War One, "a period of almost permanent disorientation" (p. 1). Stepping outside of a reading of Jewish authors in the strict context of Jewish thought, Morgan reveals that the emphasis figures such as Buber and Benjamin placed on grounding human action and reading history in objectivism, messianism, revelation, and redemption, was a Jewish variety of a general cultural project that other, non-Jewish (and, ironically, often anti-semitic) European artists and writers were developing concurrently. Whether described in terms of mysticism and transcendence in Martin Buber, or the quasi-Marxist interests in social redemption found in Benjamin, or the desire to find meanings hidden in religious texts in Scholem's magisterial study on Kabbalah, the intent to orient the self and to refashion society was made in these disparate but related cases by deciphering a myth or constructing a grand narrative. This was certainly the project of modernity, of T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, for example, who, like other troubled artists and intellectuals, sought what Morgan calls "objective grounds for meaning and orientation and at the same time powerful reasons for doubting that the search could ever be fulfilled" (p. 4).

Within the Jewish context that Morgan is especially interested in recalling and, potentially, connecting to Jewish belief in contemporary America, the desire on the part of figures as diverse as Buber and Benjamin to find "objective ground" to justify social actions seems to fall into two categories. One is an immediate, experiential type of mysticism, or access to divinity as a form of revelation, as found in Buber. The other is a text-centered approach that understands criticism and interpretation of scripture as well as of secular history as the methods toward divine understanding, or at least toward redeeming the way the oppressor has told history, the task of Scholem and Benjamin. Whether Buberian or Benjaminian, ecstatic or interpretive, indebted to Romanticism and the irrational or to the Enlightenment and the logic of exegesis, immediate or text-based, the main lesson that Morgan draws is that however much the work was invested in transcendence, the goal was the pursuit of justice through an emphasis on social action: "objectivity needed to give direction to human life, life in the world" (p. 14). Ideas and mystical experiences were formational for these thinkers, the subjects of their pain-staking debates and the topic of research, but the direction was pragmatic, the making of a difference in real lives in a world that was characterized by alienation and global conflict. …