Negative Theology as Jewish Modernity

Negative Theology as Jewish Modernity

Negative Theology as Jewish Modernity

Negative Theology as Jewish Modernity

Synopsis

Negative theology is the attempt to describe God by speaking in terms of what God is not. Historical affinities between Jewish modernity and negative theology indicate new directions for thematizing the modern Jewish experience. Questions such as, What are the limits of Jewish modernity in terms of negativity? Has this creative tradition exhausted itself? and How might Jewish thought go forward? anchor these original essays. Taken together they explore the roots and legacies of negative theology in Jewish thought, examine the viability and limits of theorizing the modern Jewish experience as negative theology, and offer a fresh perspective from which to approach Jewish intellectual history.

Excerpt

The idea that God has essential attributes or predicates—such as existence, life, knowledge, power, goodness, or mercy—is implied throughout the Bible, embraced by the Talmudic rabbis, and problematized in medieval Jewish thought. in the modern period, denial of essential divine attributes increases dramatically among Jewish thinkers, especially throughout the twentieth century, when it spreads from theology to secular forms and contexts such as philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, literature, politics, and history. the marked increase in prominence, rigor, and intensity of Jewish negative theology in recent decades has modified the very topography of Jewish thought, reshaping its theological contours and enabling it to grow on secular, even atheist ground. Influential theologians such as Rav Kook, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and Franz Rosenzweig made very different versions of Jewish negative theology central to their views. But so too the Jewishness of the work of secular and even atheist writers, artists, critics, and philosophers has been frequently associated—by the individuals themselves or by others—with a conception of Judaism as a via negativa.

The modern association of Judaism with a via negativa regards the distinctively Jewish features of a thought or work as involving the negation, denial, or refusal of its own ultimate grounds and thereby the discovery of mysterious ruptures constitutive of its own legitimacy, authority, and even “identity.” To the extent that Jewishness and Judaism play a significant role in their respective work, a conception of Judaism as negative theology is often detected in major writers such as Kafka, Celan, and Jabes; abstract expressionists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko; philosophers such as Cohen, Adorno, and Levinas; and literary critics such as Bloom and Benjamin. the purpose of this volume is to investigate how the perception and self-understanding of Jewish thought in recent times has been determined by this alliance with negative theology. What historical and conceptual reasons gave rise to radicalized and sometimes secularized forms of negative theology as a distinctive marker of modern Jewish intellectual history? Do radical forms of negation still allow for compelling articulations of Jewish thought? Or has the modern pairing of Judaism and negativity reached a point of exhaustion? and if so, what comes after Jewish negative theology?

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