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The contributors in this volume have set out to present the current state of affairs in an intellectual discipline, that of modern Jewish philosophy, and to offer programmatic lines for future inquiry on the part of its practitioners. Like its companion The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy, Volume 1: From Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century, this volume is organized thematically. The guiding thread that connects the chapters in this volume is the recognition that the field of modern Jewish philosophy is a dynamic territory built up around concepts, not around a history of “great thinkers” arranged chronologically. To navigate a philosophical territory is not to master a history, in the sense of knowing what a chain of figures have stated about these or those philosophical/theological topoi. Rather, it is about tracing, critically assessing, and justifying theoretical and practical instances of concept-use across diverse bodies of thought in the modern period and in our contemporary age. The authoritative role played by primary figures is secondary to this other kind of mastery, premised on the consciousness of the field's analytical dynamism.
It is perhaps easier to describe modern Jewish philosophy along these lines than premodern Jewish philosophy because the field, both as an active practice and as a scholarly discipline, of modern Jewish philosophy is a young and emergent one; it is also because, frankly, its nature and purpose have been unclear and contested.
One might suspect that to discuss Jewish thinkers' appropriation of the ideas, method, and vocabulary of phenomenology is to catalogue yet another dimension of Jews' intellectual acculturation into the broader European world of letters. In other words, if Edmund Husserl revolutionized European philosophy in 1899 by introducing phenomenology in his Logical Investigations, then it would only be expected that there would be a group of authors who would take phenomenology out of the surrounding air and give it a Jewish inflection. However, phenomenology was more than just an instrumental good for Jewish intellectuals. It was an intrinsic good; it allowed Jewish thinkers to defend the validity of taking traditional texts as divine revelation. For example, Abraham Joshua Heschel's revised doctoral dissertation, Die Prophetie (published in 1936, a briefer and more technical version of the material that would be published in 1962 in English as The Prophets), opens with a critique of the dominant view in Old Testament scholarship at Heschel's time, typified by Gustav Hölscher, which saw the prophets as mantic figures who come to supernatural knowledge through an ecstatic union with God. Prophecy for such scholars was thus about an altered state of consciousness.
The second volume of The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy provides a comprehensive overview of Jewish philosophy from the seventeenth century to the present day. Written by a distinguished group of experts in the field, its essays examine how Jewish thinking was modified in its encounter with modern Europe and America and challenge longstanding assumptions about the nature and purpose of modern Jewish philosophy. The volume also treats modern Jewish philosophy's continuities with premodern texts and thinkers, the relationship between philosophy and theology, the ritual and political life of the people of Israel and the ways in which classic modern philosophical categories help or hinder Jewish self-articulation. These essays offer readers a multi-faceted understanding of the Jewish philosophical enterprise in the modern period.
In times of geopolitical conflict, attempts to translate religion are often attempts to heal. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Muslims in Western nations, as well as U.S. President George W. Bush and other non-Muslim Westerners, engaged strenuously in an effort to translate: “Islam is peace,” or “Islam means peace.” This was not the first attempt to defuse crisis through religious translation. The rise of religious studies as a discipline is intertwined with the belief that this discipline itself could bring about peace through its acts of translation. But this is a myth scholars of religious studies ought to protest strenuously.
The notion that religious studies can avert or relieve social and cultural crises goes back to the early days of the organization of the field in the United States. In his 1949 lecture on “The History of Religion in the Universities,” for example, George F. Thomas, chair of Princeton's Department of Religion at the time, noted that religious studies is a difficult discipline to organize pedagogically, for “our students are now being moved to take our courses in religion not only by intellectual curiosity but also by religious need.” In the context of the Cold War, “the religious and moral confusion of our time and the threat of secularism to our civilization have made it necessary for us to find our way back to the wellsprings of faith that have given meanings to the lives of our fathers.”
Near the close of the sixth book of Plato's Republic (508d–509c), Socrates declares that the idea of the good is the cause of all truth and explicates this statement by drawing an analogy between the good and the sun. As the sun provides for the “coming to be, growth, and nourishment” of visible objects but is not itself any of these processes of becoming, so the good is the source of both existence and being without being either of these. Indeed, the good is defined as beyond being (epekeina tēs ousias, 509b). By stating that the good is superior to being, Plato leaves the Republic open to an interpretation that holds that discussions of the good – ethics – are superior to epistemological or metaphysical discussions. This view that “ethics is first philosophy” is perhaps the most common distillation of Levinas's thought. It appears throughout Levinas's writings, with specific reference to this section of the Republic. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes that “the Place of the Good above every essence is the most profound teaching – the definitive teaching – not of theology, but of philosophy” (TI 76/103). In the précis of the argument of Otherwise than Being, Levinas continues along these lines by asserting that the humanist reduction of the person to the historical fact is a forgetting of “what is better than being, that is, the Good” (AE 23/19).
Now it is clear that Levinas is not a thoroughgoing Platonist.