Stretched Flesh-Space: Temple, Talmud, and Merleau-Ponty

Article excerpt

When philosophers take an interest in nonphilosophy (religion, art, politics), it is presupposed that philosophy does not stand apart from and to the side of that which is other to it, that philosophical problems are best approached from points both inside and outside their own formal parameters. Once subjected to an extra-philosophical competence, philosophical judgment is as good as the most current scholarship guiding it. The claim in this essay-that rabbinic Judaism provides a platform from which to explore spatial motility, religious iconicity, and non-realist, plastic expression-is itself only a recent scholarly possibility with which to stretch philosophy. Our attention goes in particular to holy space, though not for any religious reason per se. God will make no appearance, nor will any of God's surrogates in recent postmodern theology (event, gift, the face of the Other). Without recourse to any point of absolute transcendence, holiness will be understood as the phenomenal space opened out by special rules negotiating the difference between inside/outside, pure/ impure. These rules define a Temple-system, which after the destruction of its physical site by the Romans in 70 CE retains its status as a pseudo-place in rabbinic memory and imagination. Talmud brings to philosophical phenomenology and to the phenomenology of religion an "architecture" based on bent space and movement, an embodied presence in a world that is no longer present at hand.

The cliché regarding Judaism in contemporary theoretical circles (from Adorno through Lyotard and Derrida to Zizek and Badiou) assumes that "the law" is hostile to plastic representation and to all representation tout court. The Judaism upon which this cliché rests is not without Jewish support, just as Kant construed his anti-Judaism on the good authority of Spinoza and Mendelssohn. As observed by Kalman Bland in The Artless Jew, the notion that Judaism is aniconic was a conceit, embraced warmly by Jewish thinkers imbued with the intellectual élan of German Idealism. One finds it expressed by the eminent historian Heinrich Graetz in the nineteenth century and by the Marburg neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen at the start of the twentieth. The counter-image of Judaic law that I will offer in this essay belongs more to plastic art and to late twentieth century scholar-theorists at work in pre-modern Jewish source material.1 It draws on Leviticus and ritual more than prophecy and revelation. Fixed upon bodies that are at once concrete and imaginai, this analysis runs alongside Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of perception. My aim is to pull Jewish philosophy and the philosophy of religion away from Levinasian Judaism and the new apophatic theology, to tug them back into the platonic cave, what Baudrillard called "the seductions of space."2

The difference between Jewish and Christian iconicity lie in form as well as in content. Christian icons are luminous, self-centered shapes. For Jean-Luc Marion, they comprise a physical presence "saturated" by an infinite meaning that is surplus to it. Viewed more prosaically, the Christian icon is a physical copy of a copy of a copy. Icons of Jesus, Mary, and the saints proliferate. There is no one single original image, apart from the Son, i.e., the image of the Father. In contrast, Judaism suggests a model of iconicity without icons. By this I mean the organization of being around a specialized, spatial configuration with no visible image, object, or person position at its center. Pre-ceding the figure of Jesus Christ, the Tabernacle and the first and second Temple (first qua physical site, then qua image) constitute this configuration in classical Judaism. Not the figure of God, not the image of God, not God as an "object of worship," it is rather the architectural frame, a three-dimensional "place of worship," that constitutes the icon which first draws the eye.3 The Order of Holy Things in Mishna and Talmud provides one such example. …


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