Matthew Kritz, Princeton University
A few friends voiced their surprise. “Isn’t that a Jewish journal? What’s a Western thought section doing there?”
I wasn’t bothered by the question; in fact, I asked it myself. That a forum for undergraduate thought directed primarily towards Jewish thought, history, culture, and politics would devote an entire section to Western thought caught me off guard. At first I thought I misunderstood: the section would specifically address the relationship between Jewish and Western thought. But that was not to be so. The decision was reached that space would be made for students to grapple with the thinkers and thoughts of the Western intellectual tradition as it is; conversation with Jewish sources would take place elsewhere. As such, the thinking underlying that decision ought to be brought to the fore. Why might a Jew, or the Jews, be interested in the Western canon to begin with? Why is it worthwhile for this publication to create such a forum?
In theory, we should begin with a more basic question that a handful of fancy idioms allowed me to sidestep thus far: What is “Western thought?” “Anything that anyone ever thought (i.e. both wrote down and could afford to publish) in the West (where’s that?)” seems frustratingly broad and markedly meaningless; that would be a section for everything under the sun (or at least to its left). But constructing a list of texts to include in the canon doesn’t seem fair either. Rather, we’ll look at some of the broader areas of study that the Western intellectual tradition engaged and engages with, and we will in turn consider why a Jew today might be interested in joining in this endeavor.
Western philosophical thought has directed its attention to ethics, government, law, knowledge, being, reality, and the divine, just to list some of the big names. Which of these are, or would be (or should be), of interest to contemporary Jews? Moral thought, particularly in the realm of economics, certainly plays its part in the Jewish tradition’s ongoing symphony. We have a vast literature dealing with ethics, from the technicalities of tort law to the theoretical underpinnings gratitude to tales of abounding kindness. Similarly, the Jewish tradition has certainly spilled ink over theology, with issues of omniscience, sanctity, and the basis for belief discussed at length. But some areas have not fared as well.
Politics? Honestly, we’re a little behind on this one. Biblical and early rabbinic texts mention governmental structures rarely at best, and often unfavorably. The development of political thought hadn’t really caught on by the fall of the Second Commonwealth, and since then political thought hasn’t been a pressing matter for Jews, who generally lacked political autonomy (though a handful of exceptions in present-day Poland and Turkey ought not be forgotten). In turn, pre-Zionist political inquiry doesn’t go far beyond a few extended reflections on the role of the king (particularly that of Abarbanel).
But we should be interested. Since the beginning of the Zionist project, when the notion of a return to Jewish political autonomy (re)surfaced, the questions of proper political structures have presented themselves, waiting to be answered. Even with over a century since Zionism’s birth and sixty years since the establishment of the State of Israel behind us, there is a sense of newness to these questions that pervades the discourse even today. And with a dearth of Jewish sources on the matter, a study of Western political philosophy is likely a good place to start (especially as Israel, now and then, attempts to identify with the rest of the West). That’s not to say the Jews have nothing to contribute to the conversation; we have got quite a lot to say about interpersonal ethics, which Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, and friends all see as the starting point of political discourse. But to figure out how to magnify ethics from the person to the state, the West seems to have a thing or two to say.
Similarly, there are other areas the Jewish tradition has mostly dealt with tangentially, yet would benefit from considering in greater detail. Aesthetics, what is harmony to Plato and a symbol of being for Hegel, certainly plays its part in Jewish tradition; beauty is central to the Temple rites, and expresses itself in other rituals as well, even as the prohibition of idolatry has slowed the development of Jewish art. But what art and beauty mean, what they are meant to accomplish, is a question for further Jewish consideration.
Have the Jews contributed at all to the Western intellectual conversation itself? History dictated that we make a late entry. Certainly for many centuries Jews were precluded, both internally and externally, from engaging intellectually with the surrounding culture. That said, in more recent centuries, the Jews have made their way into the conversation. Spinoza, if we may call him Jewish, might be deemed the first, and Rosensweig, Buber, Levinas, and others later followed, adding their voices to continental philosophy generally, and existentialist thought specifically (though the “Jewishness” of their works remains contested). These scholars, though, can most clearly be associated with the tradition of continental philosophy. Missing, as Dr. Samuel Lebens of Rutgers University and the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism points out, is Jewish contribution to analytic philosophy. While the term doesn’t lend itself to clear definition, Lebens suggests that analytic philosophy is marked by a certain carefully formulated, rigorous, precise language and development, unlike the freeform style found in continental philosophy. Particularly in light of the strong Jewish legal tradition, marked by careful formulation and manipulation of propositions and ideas, applying those same tools to Jewish philosophy, particularly in the fields of metaphysics and epistemology, seems fitting, even enticing. What’s more, any religious tradition needs to work out its views of truth and its relation to authority, proof, and knowledge; all the more so for Judaism, whose heavy legal bent both offers and requires a unique perspective on these questions, which seem to have populated Jewish discourse in recent decades, ranging from R’ Soloveitchik to R’ Shagar at either pole, with much in between.
Where does all this leave us? Contemporary Judaism has major questions to contend with, some of which have gotten minimal attention in our intellectual and cultural history. Some are human questions, some religious, and some distinctly Jewish. But before we can formulate Jewish views, especially on issues for which we have little material to work with, we may benefit from studying traditions that have been on the playing field longer than we have. Western thought, for all its amorphousness and contradictions, has a lot to offer as the Jews ask and re-ask pressing questions. The West is not a binding authority, but a library, a framework for renewed and ongoing Jewish thought. And maybe we have something to add to the conversation.