Giving beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania

Giving beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania

Giving beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania

Giving beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania


This book explores the co-dependency of monotheism and idolatry by examining the thought of several prominent twentieth-century Jewish philosophers Cohen, Buber, Rosenzweig, and Levinas. While all of these thinkers were keenly aware of the pitfalls of scriptural theism, to differing degreesthey each succumbed to the temptation to personify transcendence, even as they tried either to circumvent or to restrain it by apophatically purging kataphatic descriptions of the deity. Derrida and Wyschogrod, by contrast, carried the project of denegation one step further, embarking on a path thatculminated in the aporetic suspension of belief and the consequent removal of all images from God, a move that seriously compromises the viability of devotional piety.The inquiry into apophasis, transcendence, and immanence in these Jewish thinkers is symptomatic of a larger question. Recent attempts to harness the apophatic tradition to construct a viable postmodern negative theology, a religion without religion, are not radical enough. Not only are thesephilosophies of transcendence guilty of a turn to theology that defies the phenomenological presupposition of an immanent phenomenality, but they fall short on their own terms, inasmuch as they persist in employing metaphorical language that personalizes transcendence and thereby runs the risk ofundermining the irreducible alterity and invisibility attributed to the transcendent other.The logic of apophasis, if permitted to run its course fully, would exceed the need to posit some form of transcendence that is not ultimately a facet of immanence. Apophatic theologies, accordingly, must be supplanted by a more far-reaching apophasis that surpasses the theolatrous impulse lyingcoiled at the crux of theism, an apophasis of apophasis, based on accepting an absolute nothingness to be distinguished from the nothingness of an absolute that does not signify the unknowable One but rather the manifold that is the pleromatic abyss at being's core.Hence, the much-celebrated metaphor of the gift must give way to the more neutral and less theologically charged notion of an unconditional givenness in which the distinction between giver and given collapses. To think givenness in its most elemental, phenomenological sense is to allow the apparentto appear as given without presuming a causal agency that would turn that given into a gift.


Truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense

In this book, I offer a philosophical examination of the themes of apophasis, transcendence, and immanence in a number of twentieth-century Jewish thinkers. the implications, however, go well beyond the specificity of this cultural formation. Consistent with all my work, in this study I delve deeply into one tradition out of the conviction that the particular is indexical of what we are still compelled to call the universal. Mindful of, and in some measure beholden to, the postmodern critique of foundationalism, let me be clear that there is no crypto-transcendentalism at work here, no appeal to what Lyotard called les grand récits, the “great stories” or “metanarratives,” no recourse to an essentializing or totalizing truth, no positing an infinite transcendence or metaphysical absolute. Although inviolably committed to the truth that there is no inviolable truth, I nonetheless acknowledge the inherently contradictory and subversive repercussions of the relativist position: if meaning is always to be determined from context, in line with the historicizing hermeneutic that prevails in academic discourse, then the veracity of this assertion and the methodological presumption that ensues therefrom cannot be sufficiently generalized to justify the argument for contextualization. Simply put, without the ability to step out of context, we could not cultivate the cognitive apparatus necessary to detect the parameters of any context. Every statement avowing the relativity of truth can be true only if it is false.

My upholding of the universal is certainly not meant to efface the particular; indeed, the universal I envision is one continuously shaped by the particular, the universal singularity, to borrow the language of Alain Badiou, and in that sense, the concrete is what is most abstract, the contingent the most unconditional, the exception the most inclusive. Operating with a tetralemmic logic informed by the middle way (madhyamaka) of the Mahāyāna tradition—A is A; a is not-A; a is both a and not-A; a is neither a nor not-A—the path of my thinking leads to the dialectical overcoming of the dialectical resolution of these binary oppositions, and thus I resist (à la Hegel) . . .

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