Old Series: Volume 1, Number 3 (November 1991)

Copyright (c) 1991 Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Bitnetwork
All rights reserved.

Office of Jewish Studies, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940
Bitnet: POCHS@DREW Tel: 201 408-3222


At the AAR annual meeting, we hope you will be able to
participate in three discussions concerning postmodern Jewish

* Sunday November 24, 1:00pm B-204e:
Postmodern Jewish Philosophy: A Discussion of Eugene B.
Borowitz’s Book, Renewing the Covenant: A Theology
for the Postmodern Jew.
with:Eugene Borowitz,
Thomas Ogletree
Yudit Kornberg Greenberg
Edith Wyshogrod
Chair: Peter Ochs

*Monday November 25 1:00 pm A-Lee A/B
The Hermeneutics of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig
with:Barbara Galli.
Steven Kepnes
Bernard Zelechow
Jonathan Herman
Robert Gibbs
Chair: Larry Silberstein

*Sunday November 24 9:15-10:15 pm Allis Suite 530 Postmodern
Jewish Philosophy Network Open Meeting
On the theme: What is Postmodern Jewish Philosophy?

NU? What IS it, after all? This is an opportunity for
Bitnetwork members to discuss the question face-to-face, to
reach no answer (except perhaps to declaim questions that
begin in the fashion of to on? ), to but decide anyway on how
to fashion the Bitnetwork.

The rest of this newsletter concerns the content of this
open meeting:

Our agenda will be, first, to search for the identity of
postmodern Jewish philosophy, perhaps like Socrates chasing
the Sophist. The points of departure are: the contents of the
last Bitnetwork (#2, with comments on the Question by
Samuelson, Gibbs, Meskin, Silberstein, et. al); the two
statements by Kepnes and Ochs appended below; and your
responses, initiated by Greenberg and Silberstein. Suspending
discussion after an hour, we hope to close by planning the
next issue(s) of the Bitnetwork.

To stimulate discussion, here are a passionate statement
by Kepnes on the purpose of postmodern Jewish philosophy, and
a phlegmatic statement by Ochs on its methods of inquiry.

I. Steven Kepnes, Colgate

Post-Modern Jewish Philosophy is a philosophy in search
of itself, a philosophy in search of its beginning, its
community, its text. It is Jewish thinking that is done after
the failure of modern varieties of Judaism. It is Jewish
thinking after failed experiments with Kantian and Hegelian
Jewish philosophy. It is Jewish thinking after Jewish
Existentialism and Jewish Phenomenology, after Zionist
philosophy, after Holocaust theology and after Jewish
Feminism. It is Jewish thinking after the failed modern
movements of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and
Reconstructionist Judaisms. It is thinking done after failure
and in deficit. Yet it is thinking that so easily falls into
complacency, fails back into taking up the forms of its failed
predecessors, that it must constantly be reminded its deficit
situation, of its lack and of the bankruptcy of modern

To say that modern Judaism in its communal and
philosophic expressions is bankrupt is to speak ironically.
For never before have Jews had so much material wealth. Yet in
the face of the accumulation of this material wealth we have
seen an astounding slippage in the quality of Jewish spiritual
life.While Jews have accumulated significant wealth, power and
security in America the most elementary building blocks of
Jewish life–education, family, community–have eroded at an
fantastic rate. Here statistics tell the sorry story. Six of
ten Jewish children are receiving no formal Jewish education.
The intermarriage rate is well over fifty per cent (and
children of intermarriages usually do not remain Jews). Most
Jews belong to no Jewish communal institutions ~ synagogues,
community centers, or Zionist organizations. In the last ten
years we have lost 1 million Jews from the ranks of American

As post-modern Jewish thinkers we might ask ourselves a
simple question. What does Judaism mean for the American Jews
that we will tell and teach about the results of our thinking?
The answers are not encouraging. Judaism has become either a
form of entertainment or therapy, a political idealogy or a
witch-hunt for anti-semites, a diet of bagels, lox and gefilte
fish or a trip to Auschwitz or Israel. Most Jews for whom
Judaism is the central element in their lives are the
“professional Jews”; they are Jews, like ourselves, who are
paid to be Jews. For most American Jews, Judaism competes with
professions, country clubs, sports teams, music concerts,
T.V., and hobbies and usually comes in close to last in the
amount of time, energy and spirit devoted to it.

If you ask we why I say that the variety of modern
Judaisms have failed, I do not have to give you extended
philosophical arguments; I can merely point you to your own
classrooms. How many of your Jewish students come with a
background in the most elementary aspects of Judaism, not to
mention Hebrew? The basic language, texts and terminology of
Jewish thinking is foreign to almost all of my Jewish
students. In fact, my non-Jewish students routinely do better
in my classes than my Jewish students. The starting point of
ignorance in our Jewish philosophy courses is a simple
reflection of the situation of deficit from which we begin as
post- modern Jewish thinkers.

Given this situation of deficit where do we begin in our
search for post-modern philosophy? My suggestion is that we
begin slowly and with limited objectives. Beginning with those
whom we can affect, let us begin with ourselves. For we are
also implicated in the deficit in our contemporary Jewish
situation. We are too easily tempted to retreat into
complacency and isolation and the quest for academic success.
We are too easily tempted to rehearse the already failed
philosophies of Jewish modernity. We do “the history of Jewish
philosophy” instead of venturing out on the uncharted seas of
constructive post-modern Jewish thinking. Instead of truly
speaking to one another and therefore beginning to weave a
genuine community of post-modern Jewish philosophers, we build
personal academic edifices. We hide behind our edifices, our
articles and books, and throw out volleys of academic jargon
that we use to attack one another and defend our fragilely
held academic turf.

If post-modern Jewish philosophy is to begin, it must
begin with post-modern ground rules. The greatest sin of
modern Jewish philosophy is its acceptance of the starting
point of modern philosophy, the autonomous thinking subject.
As post-modern Jews we must begin together; we must endeavor
to think together. We must struggle to talk to one another
honestly, vigorously, seriously. Our talking to one another
must not be seen as a speech about our individual work. This
is not a matter of giving and receiving criticisms that will
allow each of us to return to our computers to cut and paste
in new paragraphs which will shore up our individual edifices.
Our speaking together must be seen as our most important work.
As post-modern Jewish thinkers, even while recognizing the
limitations of Buber and Rosenzweig, we retrieve one central
principle, the principle of “dialogue,” of Sprachdenken,
“speech-thinking.” While recognizing limitations in
pre-modern Rabbinic Judaism, as post-modern Jewish thinkers,
we need to retrieve the Talmudic spirit of conversation

In the Talmud we see speech-thinking going on at a level
that we never see in our academic conferences. In the Talmud
we see the back and forth of argument, the mutual respect
between speakers, And the Talmud offers not only a model for
genuine conversation which is a way to begin post-modern
Jewish thinking; it also has another recommendation for our
work. It suggests that we begin to speak, not about just
anything, but about something specific and distinctive to us
as Jews. The Talmud suggests that we begin with a Jewish text.
As the Talmud begins with the Mishnah and allows it to
generate its conversation, we post-modern Jewish thinkers also
need to begin with a common text. We will be lead astray if we
take David Blumenthal’s suggestion to put “God at Center.”
What we need to do is to put a text a center. This is what the
rabbis did and what modern Jews forgot. Putting Reason,
putting the Land of Israel, putting the Holocaust, putting
Feminism, putting Jews, even putting God at center of Jewish
thinking does not engender vibrant Jewish education,
community, and thought. This is not to say that we can ignore
Israel, Holocaust, Feminism, or God, but that discussion of
these should come out in our group study of Jewish as diverse
as Derrida and Gadamer, is the primacy of the text. The Rabbis
called this the “love of Torah.” That was our starting point
as Jews; it is that which we lost in modernity and it is that
which we need to regain as post-modern Jews–love of Jewish

If we put texts at center in post-modern Jewish
philosophy, not only will we have a common starting point, but
we will also find that our ranks will swell. With Jewish texts
at the center, we will find that we suddenly have something in
common with “non- philosophers,” with biblicists, talmudists,
kabbalists, and Hebrew literature scholars. With the text at
center our center moves out from Jewish philosophy, narrowly
conceived, to the concerns that a far larger array of scholars
in Jewish Studies hold dear. A text focus, then, has the
advantage both of greatly expanding the number of conversation
partners for Jewish philosophers and providing a center for
the larger academic community of Jewish Studies.

How should we begin as post-modern Jewish thinkers? We
should collectively choose a Jewish text and do
speech-thinking with it. Let it be any Jewish text: Bible,
Midrash, Mishna, Gemara, Siddur. Let it even be a text from
modern Jewish thought: Jerusalem, I and Thou, The Star. Let’s
get together often and regularly and talk not through our
computers but through our voices and in each other’s presence.
The Bitnet network is a good starter and a way to keep in
touch but no substitute for face to face dialogue. We need to
find time to leave the solitude of our computers, to put our
quests for our brilliant careers to the side, and with a text
at center set out together from the fragmented base of our
situation of deficit toward a post-modern Jewish form of
thinking that can be a “Tikkun Olam” for our own too small
academic Jewish community and a contribution to the beginnings
of repair for the larger Jewish community.

2. Peter Ochs, Drew

The name “post-modern” seems to burden some of us, but
for now it ought to be just a place-marker, pointing to
whatever it is we are doing but have not yet named.
Postmodern Jewish Philosophy is informed by what has gone
under that name in literary and deconstructive philosophic
circles, but need not limited by it. Contributors to
Bitnetwork#2 share a sense that this for-now-called-postmodern
Jewish philosophy (PJP’) bears a relation to the modern
project of philosophy, but seeks to depart from modern
philosophy’s ego-logical premises; and that the Jewish
traditions of text-reading and of social concern recommend
alternative premises. As displayed in the Networks, this
PJP’ is (to repeat a comment from #2) ” a non-ontologizing,
non- foundational philosophy, stimulated by concern for
problems in our social or religious praxis and by a shared
concern that the dichotomizing, reductive models of modernity
(or also the trajectory of medieval-modern philosophy) do not
foster adequate responses to those problems. This PJP’
participates in the open-ended inquiry into human experience
fostered by modern western philosophy, but seeks to refer all
interpretations of such experience to context-specific
paradigms of interpretation. Among the preferred paradigmatic
contexts are: Revealed Text (Bible); Prototypical
Communities/Traditions of Jewish Text Interpretation
(Rabbinics); The Social-Intellectual Practices of Jewish
Communities (from social action to text-reading).

Most of the Bitnetwork participants adopt either (or
both) of two models for their work: Continental hermeneutics
as it emerges from phenomenology, or Jewish textual
interpretation as displayed in the primordial rabbinic
communities and replayed in more recent Jewish literary
theory. I’d argue for our group’s fashioning its work as a
dialogue between these two orientations. Within the second
orientation, we might then distinguish two subgroups with
respect to their differences in religious/performative
intentionality (even more than in methodological differences).
The one group offers its textual work for the sake of
religious life within as yet unspecified communities of
scholar-practitioners: call this group the “postcritical ~ or
perhaps the rabbinic ~ Jewish philosophers.” The other group
offers its literary work for the sake of refining and
expanding academic discourse on issues of textuality and
society: call this group the “literary Jewish philosophers.”
In none of these groups per se, but potentially serving any of
them, are those interested in refashioning logic in the
postmodern mode, rather than abandoning it.

I believe our discourse will do best if it emerges from
the interaction of all of these groups or orientation. I’ll
be arguing for the importance of formal analyses and
methodology, for the sake of keeping our discourses straight.
In this direction, our paradigms may move from modern
propositional logic to the grammatology of speech-thinking, of
which I think the best model is a pragmatic semiotic ( a
triadic one, unlike the dyadic one of de Saussure and, still,
Derrida). I have some doubts that the Continental models of
hermeneutics can offer such a pragmatic semiotic; while
proponents argue for community and performative-based
thinking, these models seem to bear the weight of
performatives uncomfortably ~ perhaps because they are
refashioned out of earlier, ego-logical models from which they
are not emancipated. Austin or Wittgenstein or Peirce may
offer better starting points. But, even then, these points
may owe their own non-egocentricity to certain, ancient text

Please join us!