Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

Synopsis

Grappling with the place of Jewish philosophy at the margin of religious studies, Robert Erlewine examines the work of five Jewish philosophers--Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Joseph Soloveitchik--to bring them into dialogue within the discipline. Emphasizing the tenuous place of Jews in European, and particularly German, culture, Erlewine unapologetically contextualizes Jewish philosophy as part of the West. He teases out the antagonistic and overlapping attempts of Jewish thinkers to elucidate the philosophical and cultural meaning of Judaism when others sought to deny and even expel Jewish influences. By reading the canon of Jewish philosophy in this new light, Erlewine offers insight into how Jewish thinkers used religion to assert their individuality and modernity.

Excerpt

Difference and Continuity in Modern Jewish Philosophy

Modern jewish philosophy is a subject that is often misunderstood—even by those whose job it is to study it. Scholars of modern Jewish philosophy scrutinize the works of philosophers in the canon because we see these thinkers as ultimately sharing the same set of problems and concerns as ourselves, even if we inhabit significantly different worlds. We view these thinkers as engaged in an activity similar to the one with which we grapple—usually something like the struggle to harmonize visions of traditional Jewish teachings and beliefs with modern sensibilities. By studying these philosophers, we believe we can draw lessons for today; with enough tinkering we can refine their arguments about Judaism or the good, the true, and the beautiful into something that is tenable today. They are the sources with and through which we think and articulate our stances regarding Judaism and modernity.

By and large, contemporary approaches to the field of modern Jewish philosophy fail to attend to the distance and difference that separate current sensibilities from the major figures and works comprising its canon, and as a result they obscure something vital. the works of this canon demonstrate a ferocity and bellicosity toward Christianity that is all too often concealed or minimized by the philosophers who study them. Rather than the clichés of futile, apologetic pleading for acceptance—or, in a more charitable assessment, the attempt to maintain dignity in the face of contempt—what we actually find in these works are active attempts to position Judaism as the beating heart of Western civilization at the expense of Christianity.

Perhaps it is because the canon looms so large in our own thinking that our discipline so rarely meditates on its distance or strangeness from us. To be sure, it is generally recognized that whereas today Jewish philosophy and Jewish Studies are accepted fields within the academy, our forebears philosophized about Judaism from a defensive position, working to counter the charges raised against it by its cultured despisers. and yet, the impact of this aspect of the canon is ignored or downplayed again and again because we assume that we share with these central thinkers the same fundamental understanding of the nature of modern Jewish philosophy. By this I do not mean we necessarily assume that we share their metaphysical sensibilities or even share an understanding of how best to characterize Judaism. Rather, I mean that we assume that we share an understanding of . . .

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