Old Series: Volume 2, Number 2 (February 1993)

Copyright (c) 1993 Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Bitnetwork.

All rights reserved.

Office of Jewish Studies, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940
Peter Ochs, Editor
Paula Massa, System Manager
Bitnet Address: POCHS@DREW; Telephone: (201) 408-3222


RELBT551@EMORYU1.CC.EMORY.EDU, Timothy Beal, Emory University
BRIDGES@APOLLO.MONTCLAIR.EDU, Tom Bridges, Montclair State College
MSMARCO@PLUTO.CC.HUJI.AC, Marc Bregman, Hebrew Union College
BRESDAN@UKANVAX.BITNET, Daniel Breslauer, Univ. of Kansas
BOYARIN@CSSC.NEWSCHOOL.EDU, Jonathan Boyarin, The New School
CHARME@ELBERETH.RUTGERS.EDU, Stuart Charme, Rutgers Univ.
75320.2253@COMPUSERV.COM, Phil Cohen, Brandeis
BDICKEY@UA1VM.BITNET., Richard Cohen, University of Alabama
ESKENAZI@USCVM.BITNET, Tamara Eskenazi, Hebrew Union College (Los
FRASTED@YALEVM.BITNET, Steven Fraade, Yale Univ.
MGARBER@DHVX20.CSUDH.EDU, Marilyn Garber, Cal. State
ALEVINE1@CC.SWARTHMORE.EDU, Jay Geller, Rutgers University
RBGIBBS@PUCC.BITNET, Robert Gibbs, Princeton University
YGREEN@ROLLINS.BITNET, Yudit Greenberg, Rollins College
HAASXXPJ@VUCTRVAX.BITNET, Peter Haas, Vanderbilt University
SUSAN_A_HANDELMAN@UMAIL.UMD.EDU, Susan Handelman, Univ. of Maryland
FSH4R@FARADAY.CLAS.VIRGINIA.EDU, Scott Hennesy, Univ. of Virginia
JAFFEE@UWASHINGTON.EDU, Martin Jaffee, Univer. of Washington
KAGAN@LEMOYNE.BITNET, Michael A. Kagan, Le Moyne College
SKEPNES@COLGATEU.BITNET, Steve Kepnes, Colgate University
RHH1902@HAIFAUBVM.BITNET, Ze’ey Levy, University of Haifa
DLUSTHAU@ABACUS.BATES.EDU, Dan Lusthaus, Bates College
HYUMP@HUJIVM1.BITNET, Paul Mendes-Flohr, Hebrew University
POCHS@DREW.DREW, Peter Ochs, Drew University
MP10@CUNIXF.CC.COLUMBIA.EDU, Michael Paley, Columbia University
V5118E@TEMPLEVM.BITNET, Norbert Samuelson, Temple University
MMSBC@CUNYVM.BITNET, Mel Scult, Brooklyn College
LJS2@LEHIGH.EDU, Larry Silberstein, Lehigh Univ
JSMNTMPL@TEMPLEVM.BITNET, Julius Simon, Temple University
MICHAEL.A.SIGNER.1@ND.EDU, Michael Signer, Notre Dame
MSRAJEK1@CC.SWARTHMORE.EDU, Martin Srajeck, Swarthmore College
“PERICLES@TEMPLEVM.BITNET, Dan Tompkins, Temple University
GURFEL@UMBC, Alan Udoff, Baltimore Hebrew University


Annette Aronowicz, Franklin and Marshall College
John Boyarin, New School
Almut Bruckstein, Temple/Hebrew University
Tom Dean, Temple University Japan
Arnold M. Eisen, Stanford University
Jose Faur, Brooklyn
Michael Fishbane, University of Chicago
Barbara Galli, McGill University
Neil Gilman, Jewish Theological Seminary
Barry J. Hammer,
Susan Handelman, University of Maryland
Hanan Hever, Tel Aviv University
Steven Jacobs,
Rabbi Peter Knobel, Beth Emet The Free Synagogue
Sandra Lubarsky, Northern Arizona University
Aaron Mackler, Jewish Theological Seminary
Jacob Meskin, Williams College
David Novak, UVA
Adi Ophir, Tel Aviv University
Michael Oppenheim, Concordia University
Judith Plaskow, Manhattan College
Michael Rosenak, Hebrew University
Richard Sarason, HUC/JIR Cincinatti
Avraham Shapira, Tel Aviv University
Susan Shapiro, Hebrew University
Kenneth Seeskin, Northwestern University
Elliot Wolfson, New York University
Michael and Edith Wyschogrod, Rice University
Martin Yaffee, Univ. of North Texas
Bernard Zelechow, York University


Welcome back, folks. It has been a long break since Vol 2.1 in
August ’92, but we are back in force, with enough to say for two
volumes. Splitting up our sayables in two, this means we will
return rather shortly with Vol 2.3.

You could begin Vol 2.2 immediately by skipping down a page;
otherwise, this Forward will greet you with a little theme: the
force of sayables. According to Sextus, the Stoic philosophers
said that thoughts refer to things only by way of certain
“sayables” (lekta), which are the things as signified or
as said. As displayed in BITNETWORK discussions, postmodern Jewish
philosophers join the Stoa in noting that signification has at
least three elements and not just two: that is, that we can’t
reflect on things without reflecting on what we say about things
and how we say it. It is not apparent, however, that the Stoa went
as far as their Second Temple contemporaries in noting (albeit
non-philosophically and non-diagrammatically) the performative
force of sayables: that is, that divine speech (dibbur) creates and
that, in its image, human saying is also a form of doing (a “faith
that works” is one of Edith Wyschogrod’s phrases).

As evidenced in their activities of the past months, BITNETWORK
folks do not only say that sayables are doables (speaking
philosophies of performative discourse); they also do things in the
saying and about the saying.

One thing they’ve been doing is coming together to talk about
postmodern Jewish philosophy. At the 1992 American Academy of
Religion annual meeting in San Francisco, for example, they offered
sessions on “Derrida and Judaism” (Bill Martin, Jere Surber, Eric
Maass, Martin Srajek with Mark C. Taylor and Jay Geller); and on
“Hermeneutics and Critical Theory in Postmodern Jewish
Philosophy” (Steven Kepnes and Larry Silberstein, with Adriaan
Peperzak, Tomoko Masuzawa, David Tracy and Richard Cohen). The
BITNETWORK held its own late evening meeting at the AAR,
with reflections by Silberstein and Novak on Adi Ophir’s political
philosophy (Norbert Samuelson presiding). The 1992 Association of
Jewish Studies annual meeting included papers on “Judaism and
Postmodernism” (Kepnes, Srajek and Alan Udoff, with Greenberg).
Also: Robert Gibbs, Greenberg, Kepnes, Ochs and Jacob Meskin ( who
may one day return from Israel to join us!) received a
Collaborative Research Grant from the AAR, to meet together a bunch
of times and prepare a set of essays describing Postmodern Jewish

NETWORK members have also come together for a number of writing
projects. Last year’s discussions of Eugene Borowitz’ Renewing The
Covenant, A Theology for the Postmodern Jew have elicited reviews
by Wyschogrod and Greenberg with a response from Borowitz (for the
JAAR), by Novak (for SH’MA), by Samuelson (for ZYGON); and a still
emergent synthesis of all these (by Ochs and Borowitz, with
others). A forthcoming issue of SOUNDINGS (Sp ’93) will include a
section on Postmodern Jewish Philosophy, with essays by Wyschogrod,
Ochs, Jose Faur, Gibbs and Meskin.

Along with various journal essays, individual NETWORK members have
also published several books in postmodern Jewish philosophy, noted
in the review section of this volume. And members have
continued their electronic dialogues, by way of the BITDIALOGUE,
managed by Norbert Samuelson. The last discussion was on Srajek’s
view of Derrida and Judaism. Newcomers are invited to join in
(care of Samuelson, “V5118E@TempleVM.”)

We trust that the significance of all this doing is not just that
NETWORK folks can do what members of any other academic guild do,
but that postmodern Jewish philosophy urges a kind of doing, and
not just for the sake of fulfilling professional needs. In this
issue, NETWORK members have some things to say about this urging.
For example, we hear about Jonathan Boyarin’s messianic and
politically redemptive ethnography; Kepnes speaks about the
dialogic character of text reading and text interpretation, and
Michael Oppenheim describes the dialogic movement of Jewish
philosophy as a form of letter-writing; the notion of messianic
action returns again in Srajek’s discussion of Derrida’s
politically embodied philosophy; and we return again to a
discussion of Adi Ophir’s politically charged political philosophy.
Naaseh v’nidaber!

This issue features the following sections:


The Text as Thou; Jonathan Boyarin, Storm From Paradise; and
Michael Oppenheim, Mutual Upholding; with an afterward “On The
Implications of Letter Writing For Postmodern Jewish Philosophy.”

DERRIDA,” by Martin Srajek.

Novak and Jonathan Boyarin.

Copyright notice: Individual authors whose words appear in the
Description, Response, or Essay sections of this Bitnetwork retain
all rights for hard copy redistribution or electronic
retransmission of their words outside the Network. For words not
authored by individual contributors, rights are retained by the
editor of this Bitnetwork.

Subscription: The BITNETWORK is sent free of charge to electronic
mail addrresses. For present or back issues, send requests to:
pochs@drew.drew.edu. Harcopies cost $5/issue; $12 per volume (3
issues). Send requests and payment to Jewish Studies Program/BIT
c/o Peter Ochs, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940.

Submissions: Electronic mail to: pochs@drew.drew.edu. Disks (Mac
or IBM) to: Peter Ochs, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940.

New Members Introductions:

Timothy K. Beal (Emory): “I am currently a graduate student in
Biblical Studies at Emory University (with minor areas in women’s
studies and critical theory). I am only just beginning to publish:
an article on intertexuality and ideological criticism, and the
glossary for Reading Between Texts (W/JK Press); plus a few seminar
papers, the most recent a reading of Lev. 1:1-5 in relation to
Derrida’s “Cinders.” My dissertation will be on Esther. I am
particularly interested, lately, in the concept of
“trace” in Jewish philosophers and theorists such as Levinas,
Derrida, Adorno and Horkheimer. If anyone has suggestions, I would
love to hear of them.

Marc Bregman (HUC-JIR, Jerusalem): “I have returned to ‘Rabbinic
Thinking,’ though a year ago, you never would have been able to
convince me that ANYTHING could be more exciting than
discovering yet another Geniza Fragment of my beloved
Tanhuma-Yelammedenu Literature, on with the bulk of my research has
centered over the last few years. Anyway, this new turn in my
career has set me to thinking about some of the methodological
problems, especially the pedagogical ones of how to present
Rabbinic Thinking to undergraduates in an honest and engaging
way… Reading through the past BITNETWORKS helped me conceptualize
a new course I am giving in ‘Intro to Rabbinic Thought’ at Beer
Sheva’s Jewish Thought Program….” I also teach for the Overseas
Program at the Hebrew University. Next Fall (’93), I’ll be at Yale
– and available for lectures, etc. as well as for seeing you all at
the AAR/SBL!”

Tamara Eskenazi (HUC-JIR, Los Angeles): “I am a biblical scholar
working on 2nd Temple literature, with an emphasis on texts. My
writing has focussed on Ezra-Nehemiah, a literature where the
relation between text and world takes on special and influential
configurations. My interests tend therefore to ancient and modern
literary and philosophical issues [adopting narrative approaches to
what has been previously handled through primarily
historico-critical methods]. I have been influenced deeply by
Buber, Rosenzweig, Catherine Keller, Martha Nussbaum, Julia
Kristeva and the work of several members of the postmodern Jewish
philosophy group.”

Marilyn Garber (Cal State): “I am a professor of History at
California State University, Dominguez Hills, one of the smaller in
the nineteen campus system. The campus has a majority of minority
students and is a fascinating urban campus. I am also an attorney
practicing in Los Angeles, formerly specializing in labor law, now
in general practice.”

Frank Scott Hennessy (U Virginia): “I am a graduate student at the
University of Virginia working with Robert Scharlemann and David
Novak. I am proposing as my dissertation topic Levinas’
philosophy as a response to The Shoah and how a Christology could
be developed from his work that would stress responsibility for the
other; e.g. The Good Samaritan. While much has been written
about Holocaust theology, there has been little work on
reformulating Christology in response to this event. I will
probably use Bonhoeffer as an example of a Christology that
practices the teachings of Jesus rather than the triumphalism of
the tradition.”

Michael Signer (U Notre Dame): “My own work is in Jewish bible
exegesis in the eleventh and twelfth century. However, I do have
a strong interest in applying literary theory to those texts, and
that leads me to think about my own place in all of this. It would
be lovely to be in touch with others who are engaged in the process
of theological thinking in a more direct way….

As for my work on post-modern Jewish Thought: I have written about
the poetics of liturgy. Out of that essay I have been ruminating
on a book about narrative aspects of the liturgical rubrics. My
second area of post-modern Jewish thought focuses on
Jewish-Christian relations: in this realm I try to focus on Jews
and Christians as mirrors of one another. By observing “other,” we
see ourselves differently and put ourselves at disease. Currently,
I am re-writing an essay on the subject, “If Christians come to
reconcile, will there be any Jews who would listen?” The third area
of my work is on medieval biblical exegesis, Jewish and Christian.
Most of my writing about biblical interpretation has been
historical, but in a couple of essays I have tried to tease out the
implications for post-modern theology. I have a healthy interest
in spirituality, having written an introduction for a
twelve-step meditation book on the weekly parasha. At the moment,
I am reading Thomas Merton and have become fascinated by his love
of humanity but a somewhat less than loving attitude about
Jews and Judaism.”


In this section, we’ll introduce, abstract, review or discuss new
books on BITNETWORK themes, which may often mean by BITNETWORK
members. All members are invited to submit reviews or comments.
You’ll see here too much review material by the editor: offered to
get this section going and soon, God willing, to be replaced by
your reviews and notes. Please feel free, by the way, to try
out with us reviews you plan to publish elsewhere: our copyright
protects you as author, but it does not bind you; you can print
your own material to your hearts delight and never acknowledge
us…… unless you are soo moved.

Among additional, new books that someone ought to review for our
next issue are: Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History, Jews and
Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity (Albany: SUNY, 1992); Robert
Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Princeton: Princeton
U,. 1992); Norbert Samuelson, The First Seven Days, A Philosophical
Commentary on the Creation of Genesis (Atlanta: Scholars
Press for USF, 1992). Going back just a year, we’d also welcome
words on Susan Handelman, Fragments of Redemption, Jewish Thought
and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem and Levinas
(Bloomington, Indiana, 1991); Paul Mendes-Flohr, Divided Passions,
Jewish Intellectuals and the Experience of Modernity (Detroit:
Wayne State, 1991); and Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley,
eds, Re-Reading Levinas (Bloomington: Indiana, 1991). Of
additional note this year, David Ray Griffin, Peter Ochs, et.al.
put out a book that has a pertinent section on Charles Peirce as
postmodern philosopher: Founders of Constructive Postmodern
Philosophy (Albany: SUNY, 1993). And Dan Cohn-Sherbok, ed., Torah
and Revelation (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1992) includes a few
essays pertinent to postmodern and “postcritical” Jewish theology.

* Steven Kepnes, The Text as Thou: Martin Buber’s Dialogical
Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1992).

Comments by the author:

In this book I aim to present Buber’s dialogical theory of textual
interpretation and narrative method of exploring Jewish Philosophy
and Theology. A careful reading of Buber’s aesthetics as we find it
in I and Thou [1923] reveals that texts can be approached with the
same attitude of “I-Thou” as persons and nature. The result is that
the dialogic “I-Thou” relationship becomes a paradigm for the
hermeneutic process of interpreting a text. Part 1 of the book
reviews how Buber applies his hermeneutic method to the sacred
texts of Hasidism and the Bible and shows how this method could
be applied to “secular texts” as well. In developing a “dialogic
hermeneutic,” Buber joins a group of contemporary theorists,
including Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Bakhtin, that trace their roots to
the German Verstehen tradition of Dilthey.

Part 2 of the book presents the view that narrative provides
privileged access to Buber’s philosophy of I-Thou and to his
theology. Hasidic tales, biblical stories, autobiographical
anendotes: in retelling and interpreting these narratives Buber
brings his philosophy and theology to his readers with
powerful immediacy and concreteness. When we look at the entirety
of Buber’s narrative writings, we find a body of literature that
represents a daring attempt to formulate a modern narrative Jewish
theology. Buber’s hermeneutics and narrative theology represents
the beginnings of what is now being called the postmodern revival
of the Jewish “midrashic imagination.”

Next year I will be on sabbatical in Jerusalem working on a book on
the dialogical self in the life and thought of Buber and
Rosenzweig. I will use postmodern theory to argue that the
autonomous rational self of modernity is a false self and that both
Buber and Rosenzweig recognized this. Each offers a model of a self
that finds itself only in and through dialogue with another, the
Other. I will use Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogic novel to suggest
that the Jewish self is properly conceived on the model of the
novel as a set of characters in dialogue with other Jews and with
God. The novelistic quality of the postmodern Jewish self gives us
the fluidity to adopt different “I” positions. Indeed, the
multiplicity of I positions allows one Jewish person to be both a
Jew and an American, both religious and secular, both an
evolutionary biologist and an Orthodox Jew, without being driven
crazy by the implicit contradictions.

Additional Review Notes by Peter Ochs:

Here is an appreciative description of Kepnes’ book, with most of
the exclamations of appreciation removed to leave you alone.

Each chapter of Kepnes’ book emerges as a mutually enriching
dialogue between Buber’s work and one of eight different but
interconnected foci of contemporary inquiry in literary,
philosophic and theological hermeneutics. We are shown how Buber’s
early writings on Hasidism displayed the influence of
Schliermacher’s and Dilthey’s Romantic hermeneutics. Through a
study of Buber’s later, dialogic hermeneutics, we see how Buber
anticipated Gadamer’s post-romantic interpretations.
Through Buber’s biblical studies, we enter into dialogue with the
hermeneutics of Ricoeur and Bakhtin. Broader reflections on the
theories of narrative and time embedded in Buber’s mature work
lead us to an encounter with Kermode. Then we’re offered some
surprising reflections on autobiographic narrative as it is
reformulated in Buber’s practice. We are reintroduced to Buber’s
biblical studies as theological responses to the Holocaust. And we
are left with parting thoughts about Buber’s narrative theology in
dialogue with the narrative theologies of Frei, Lindbeck, Tracy
and other students of this broad movement in recent hermeneutics.

I describe these chapters in a passive voice to suggest the
attentive rather than assertive quality of Kepnes’ presentation.
Kepnes listens to Buber’s interpretations, and hears them converse
with the family of contemporary interpreters with whose work Kepnes
is also intimately engaged. Kepnes therefore teaches in the
Buberian mode, although his words come to us more clearly than
Buber’s, since they address our own contemporary contexts of

Here are abstracts of the chapters (for no special reason, I’ve
read the earlier chapters with more energy):

CH 1: A fine introduction to the influence of Romantic
hermeneutics on Buber’s early work. Kepnes shows how Buber’s early
renderings of Hasidic Tales displayed his attachment to
Schliermacher’s and, in particular, Dilthey’s conception of
Understanding ( verstehen as Hineinversetzen ) as a means of
uncovering an author’s or a text’s original meaning (“to know the
author better than he knew himself”). Supplementing the work of
earlier scholars, such as Mendes-Flohr, Schaeder and Friedman,
Kepnes adds new insights into Buber’s receptivity to the
hermeneutics of his teacher, Dilthey. The greatest contribuitions
of the chapter are Kepnes’ illustrations of precisely how Buber
extended Nahman’s tales (including Kepnes’ own fine translations,
referring to Hebrew and Yiddish originals), and Kepnes’ masterful
teaching job: showing the reader with great clarity and care just
how Buber performed his romantic hermeneutic.

CH 2: How Buber’s dialogic hermeneutic method brought him out of
the subjectivism of his earlier romantic hermeneutic. A fine job
of clarifying the difference in hermeneutic method between the
early and dialogic period. Comparing translations from the two
periods, Kepnes does a clear job of teaching Gadamer’s hemeneutic
and of showing how Buber anticipated Gadamer’s central claims.
Why didn’t Gadamer acknowledge Buber? Kepnes shows how “important
it is to recognize the hermeneutic principle which Buber supports
in trying to articulate a contemporary meaning for Hasidism,”
illustrating Gadamer’s claim that “the text … if it is to be
understood properly … must be understood at every moment … in
a new and different way.” Kepnes explains, moreover, that Buber’s
conception of language is broader than Gadamer’s, including “supra
or sub-linguistic expression such as gesture, facial expression…”

It seems that Buber also anticipated semiotic, rather than merely
linguistic, hermeneutics, at the same time that, according to
Kepnes, he maintained a romantic notion of the pre-linguistic
source of esthetic insight. Interpreting the Scholem-Buber debate,
Kepnes shows that the debate is not about true or false
representations of Hasidism, but about two different sets
of questions scholars may want to ask about Hasidism: questions
posed by objectivistic scientists of history are no more privileged
than those posed by interpretive scholars who want to display the
performative power of an antecedent text by asking what difference
it might make for contemporary practice. Introducing Ricoeur’s
more balanced hermeneutic, Kepnes indicates how Jewish
hermeneuts, like the later Buber himself, can make use of both
historical-critical and interpretive scholarship.

CH 3: Here is an appreciation of Buber’s biblical studies as the
most successful expression of his mature hermeneutic. For Kepnes,
Buber’s biblical hermeneutics fulfills Ricoeur’s vision of
integrating historical-critical and hermeneutical approaches to the
text. Kepnes notes that Buber also pays more complete attention
here to the linguistic dimension of the interpretive process. We
see here as well the cooperative activity between Buber and
Rosenzweig which generated what Kepnes calls their post-romantic
hermeneutic. Once again, the chapter is enriched by illustrations
of Buber’s text interpretations, with Kepnes’ translations.

Ch 4. Guided by his reading of Bakhtin, Kepnes constructs a general
Buberian theory of dialogic hermeneutics. We hear now from the
older Buber who, reflecting on the successful hermeneutic of
his biblical studies, offers a more general theory of language and
interpretation þ in Kepnes’ terms, a satisfactorily post-romantic
theory. And we hear from Kepnes who, in conversation with an array
of contemporary dialogic hermeneuts, offers us a four stage
procedure for reading a text: receiving it as a Thou, being
awakened through the text’s otherness to the presuppositions one
brings to the text, achieving a critical sense of the text itself,
and, finally, addressing the author of the text, in relation to
whom one comes to apply the text to ones contemporary life.

PART II (The hermeneutical theory now presented, Kepnes focusses on
Buber’s narrativity: his narrative texts, his philosophy of
narrative and his theology of narrative.)

Ch 5: Here, connections are made between the narrative theories of
Kermode and Ricoeur and Buber’s dialogic hermeneutic. There is a
somewhat long excursus into theories of temporality and
narrativity, which are then applied to an analysis of the narrative
theory embedded in Buber’s Dialogues. The movement from hermeutical
to narrative theory is compelling, although we need to
be reminded of how the former applies to the latter.

CH 6: Kepnes displays a wide range of hermeneutic interests in this
study of Buber’s autobiography and of the autobiographic form in
general in its relation to modern conceptions of selfhood. Here
are fresh conceptions of the autobiographic form and of postmodern
conceptions of selfhood and temporality. (It would have been good
to offer us more textual illustrations here from Buber’s work).

Ch7: A closing appreciation of Buber’s theological response to the
eclipse of God in the Jewish experience of the Shoah. Here we see
Buber’s narrative theology enacted in the way he interpreted
the Bible in response to the burdens of his epoch: reinvoking
Judaism’s common memory and applying theology as therapy for the
sufferer. A sensitive affirmation of Buber’s affirmation of faith
after the Holocaust.

CH8: A concluding classification of Buber’s type of narrative
theology and a reminder that Buber’s narrative theology began with
a particular text tradition but opened itself to dialogue with all
the traditions of humanity.

(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Reviewed by Peter Ochs (forthcoming in MODERN THEOLOGY, this is a
regular review type review, exclamations embedded)

In a post-modern idiom of commentary, autobiography and criticism,
STORM FROM PARADISE presents a far-reaching, fragmented, fertile
and appropriately nettlesome deconstruction of imperialistic
anthropology in favor of a critical ethnography. This is
ethnography about and by members of once colonized or at least
marginalized groups. The ethnography would enable its
“subjects” (authors as well as informants) to retrieve their
corporate memories and political self-respect, at the same time
that, by example, it helps transform the activity of social inquiry
itself: from an instrument of cultural oppression into a medium of
intra-ethnic liberation and inter-ethnic dialogue. In this case,
the colonized group is the Jews, marginalized first by the early
Church, for whom they served as archetypal “other,” then by the
imperalistic sciences and nation-states of modern Europe, and now
by the dominant schools of postmodern “cultural studies”
themselves. For these schools, the Jews somehow retain their
alterity, either as the group whose identity lies only in its
otherness, or, to the contrary, as a group that is denied its
differential identity among the cultures of the oppressed. As
managers of their own new state, Boyarin is quick to point out,
Jews are as prone to the sins of colonialization as are
participants in other nation states on the European model. As
ethnographic subjects, the Jews re-emerge in Boyarin’s study as
people of the book, that is, as a people whose space is defined
more by its textualities than by its geographies, and whose
literary forms of collective and distributive memory contribute to
the resources of ethnographic method in general.

There now, I’ve given a whirlwind tour of this book in a few
sentences, but, in doing so, I have reduced its dense form of
symbolization to an unrepresentatively linear depiction — to a
mere “allegory,” in Northrup Frye’s terms. Boyarin does not, in
fact, argue straight-on, but only elliptically. Part of his
presentation is autobiography: comments on the history
of his efforts to reform ethnographic method and to recover his own
“Jewish memory.” Part of it is commentary: social-literary
criticism of works of anthropology, history and literature, guided
throughout by the model of Walter Benjamin. Part of it is simply
in-between the old genres, drawing parts of this and that into
dramatic confrontation, leaving areas open to multiple
interpretation. Here he reads once again his own
ethnographic work among yiddish-speaking Parisian Jews, at once
recuperating his work and interrograting it. I do, however, detect
at least one linear trajectory within the book itself, and I’ve
offered my own allegorical reading in relation to that. This
trajectory concerns the political force of Boyarin’s reflections on
the politics of memory: that is, the way in which STORM FROM
PARADISE delivers both his evaluation of the sources of one kind of
political oppression and his active response to that evaluation.

Both evaluation and response are already intimated in Boyarin’s
telling Introduction. He cites Bell Hooks, “I have relied on
fragments, bits and pieces of information found here and there….
Memories of old conversations coming back again and again, memories
like reused fabric in a crazy quilt, contained and kept for the
right moment.” For Boyarin, Hook’s fragments are signs of both
colonial oppression, which fragments its victims’ temporal memory
as well as spatial belonging, and of her redemptive response, which
weaves fragments into patchworks that are stronger and truer to
their human subjects than are modernity’s monolithic philosophies
and bureacracies. As Boyarin remembers, suburban life separated
him, too, from his ethnic memories and left him seeking “to
construct [him]self through contact with [his] own destroyed
‘ancestors,’ the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe.” The
problem is how to construct himself.

He thought that ethnography would provide construction tools, but
he discovered that, as he received it, ethnography remained an
agent of the western monolith: a tool for objectifying and thereby
leveling folk worlds, rather than for redeeming them. He decided
he had to reform the practice of ethnography before it could help
him re-form his own lost past. His guide to this reform was Walter
Benjamin, re-read as a reconstructed, or post-modern, Jewish
ethnographer. Such an ethnographer is more like a journalist than
a modern social scientist: a “flaneur þ the idle observer… ;” a
collector of gossip, who receives from conversations heard “a
profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological inspiration”
(from Benjamin’s “Surrealism”). For Benjamin, this inspiration was
like waking from the dream of 19th century capitalism into the
dream of a marxist messianism. For Boyarin, it means waking again
from the unfulfilled dream of marxism into a 20th century dream
whose messianic shape is no longer to be filled-in a priori. This
dream dreams the future by way of an ethno-historical anamnesis
whose shape remains vague, a multivalent symbol that waits to
define itself only by way of what it elicits in the dreamers: how
they rediscover themselves in their shared memory and how they then
act on behalf of that memory. As I read Boyarin, this movement
from shared recollection to action traces a politics of memory.
The action mobilizes what were victims of various sorts of
colonialization þ fragmented souls þ to rename themselves fragments
of new wholes, Hooks’ crazy-quilts “contained and kept” for this
present moment.

Boyarin does not offer some totalizing political ideology for them
to adopt in this moment, but leaves them, as it were, to their
various futures. In the image he draws from Benjamin’s
Illuminations , their faces are turned toward the past like Klee’s
“Angelus Novus,” while a storm blows from Paradise, propelling them
irresistably into the future to which their backs are turned.
Perhaps I misread Boyarin, and he means to apply this image only to
those who have not yet allowed their pasts to be rewoven into
patchworks, while post-moderns have turned at least half-way
forward, arms open to both past and future. Or, perhaps
I read him all right, and he resists repressing the sadness of the
present day too quickly.

Ethnography, he says, can be made redemptive, but slowly and even
then, there are so many fragments to patch. Or, perhaps some
dream-like vagueness adheres to his presentation, leaving us
as readers to define it variously, according to the various modes
of action we may adopt as reader-writers.

As the kind of Jewish reader I am, I am left gazing back at one
part of Boyarin’s dream in particular. It is an image of Jews as
prototypes of the new ethnographers. These Jews, like Boyarin’s
Parisian subjects, are victims of a variety of colonialism, but
tempted now, on the one side, by a counter-image of themselves as
re-territorialized victors and tempered, on the other side, by
Boyarin’s counter-counter-image of them as re-temporalized readers.
In this latter image within an image, these are people for whom
reading the past is at the same time writing the future, readers
who are writers and, thus, ethnographers who are ethnic actors.
Their saving power is not their being þ that is, being
in some place at some time in some way þ but their method of
becoming again, of translating having-been into what-will-be. This
image brings back to my mind an image of those yiddish-speaking
Jewish people two hundred, one hundred years ago, who brought
rabbinic learning with them into modernity, inhabitants of an
old-new land whose god “is becoming what it is becoming” (eyeh
asher eyeh), who moved as much as or more than they stayed, whose
reading/writing often was their mode of acting. I find this a
sadly hopeful image, touched by an eschatological realism, offering
just a quiet promise that what has been broken can at least be
patched together; that our modern sciences may be turned into
redemptive tools and that that things will be ok, but how and when
we do not know.

* Michael Oppenheim, Mutual Upholding: Fashioning Jewish Philosophy
Through Letters (New York, etc: Peter Lang, 1992).

An abstract by the author:

Mutual Upholding consists of six letters of chapter length, along
with six brief responses. The letters are true letters, without
extensive quotations or footnotes, but with, I hope, some of the
vitality and freedom that is possible through this forum. Each
letter is addressed to one of my colleagues and friends, and it
reflects in style, tone, and themes the relationship and particular
issues discussed by us over the years. The responses provide a
good indication of the personality and training of each
friend, as well as demonstrating some of the unique benefits of
pursuing philosophy through letters.

The six letters investigate a variety of themes and exhibit
differences in tone. The first letter discusses the relationship
between philosophy and religion and takes as its point of departure
the social nature of human life and the particularity of each
existence. The tone reflects a disagreement between the author and
respondent about the universality of modern Western philosophy’s
issues and solutions. The second letter explores the most
important contributions of Franz Rosenzweig and
Martin Buber to modern philosophy and modern Jewish thought. The
third letter exhibits a somewhat combative tone, because it
reflects a disagreement about the significance of liturgy in
changing a community’s distorted view of the place of women. The
fourth letter presupposes a harmony of views between writer and
reader, and it presents a programmatic statement about the
meaning of anthropomorphic metaphors for God in religious life.
The fifth letter seeks to examine some of the conclusions that two
friends arrived at in terms of the revealing character of speech.
The last letter tackles the challenges that the Holocaust, Jewish
feminism, and religious pluralism pose for understanding God as

There is an intimate tie between the genre and the ideas discussed
in the work as a whole. The letters argue for and exemplify some
central views. First, significant growth and transformation come
only through relationships to others, and the unique person that
each of us becomes reflects our specific others. Second, Jewish
philosophy, as well as all philosophy, must recognize in both form
and content this dialogic nature of human life and thought. Third,
the language of God as person is significant primarily because it
affirms a fundamental correspondence between the ways that we
understand our relationships to other persons and our relationship
to God. Additionally, interwoven throughout the letters is the
recognition that Jewish life and thought must deepen its
appreciation for the contributions and experience of Jewish

On The Implications of Letter Writing for Postmodern Jewish
Philosophy Michael Oppenheim, the editor wrote, can you tell us
more about the philosophic implications of letter writing?

Dear Peter,
…. I do not directly address the question of using letters
to fashion Jewish philosophy in the book, because the book consists
of letters and not the reflection upon or analysis of letters. I
hoped that the book would illustrate (as performative philosophy)
some of the powers that are available in writing in this way, but
I am happy to begin to spell out some of the reasons that I had in
mind. However, whether any of these ideas really came through in
the book is not something that I can decide. I do not want to
ignore Rosenzweig’s caution (in the beginning of “The New
Thinking”) about authors who cackle after laid eggs, in writing
about their own books.

While Maimonides and Samson Raphael Hirsch are at least two Jewish
philosophers who wrote philosophical letters, it is primarily
Rosenzweig’s work that oriented me in this direction. For a long
time I have been obsessed by his statement in a letter to his
fiancee Edith Hahn in 1920 that; “You see, I can no longer write a
‘book,’ everything now turns into a letter, since I need to see the
‘other,'”(Glatzer:90). A few years ago, in rereading some of
Rosenzweig’s letters and being amazed at how powerful they were, I
began to think out the possibility of doing something similar.
However, the decision to write letters and the ideas to write to
friends with whom I had had conversations about issues that I
wanted to address and to include responses, developed out of many
conversations. As I spoke to friends and listened to their
encouragement and excitement, I found myself promising them
that I would try it.

I believe that writing letters illustrates and underscores some
fundamental features about ourselves as human, the nature of
thought and directions that are being taken by modern philosophy
and Jewish philosophy in our time. These themes are some of the
major foci of the book, and thus there is a strong correspondence
between the ideas and the form of writing.

Letters are the concrete expression of the understanding that to be
human is to live with other persons. This understanding of the
human was stated, as we all know, quite clearly in the beginning
of Buber’s I and Thou when he wrote that there is no I as such,
only the I in relation to the world and to others. The nature of
the human cannot be found by abstracting the individual out of
community, out of the world with other persons. Letters are
important because they help to reveal one’s community.

Humans are multi-faceted, for we live with and for different
others. Our voices vary according to the specific people to whom
we are speaking. Each person brings or draws out different
dimensions of ourselves. The letters, I hope, reflect this; when
the same issue is addressed in two different letters,
the point of departure, the language/tone and the aspects of the
issue that are meaningful to the two persons in relationship should
be different. I felt that I could say some things–both in terms of
content and form–to one friend that I would not say to another, as
is often the case in conversations with different friends. In
particular, the fact that one of the correspondents was a close
female friend of mine powerfully influenced what and how I wrote.
I believe that some philosophers who discuss “ideal” speech and
dialogue do not recognize the importance of the specificity of the
persons in conversation, including their past experience,
life-stage, gender, etc. These particularities are not
limits on dialogue, but the bases for its special power.

Many thinkers have emphasized the point that it is through
interaction with others that we become human. We develop and
mature by saying “Thou” to another and also through ourselves being
called. In a lecture Rosenstock-Huessy once said: “When a child
hears its name, it is irresistibly forced to move. I can’t hear my
name without being moved one way or another….Children, the
overflow of their parent’s love, move in their first appointed
groves because the name by which they are called
creates their conduct, their movements, their walk through life.”
Letters often express these dimensions of our interaction. In them
we ask/call to others, and in response we are sometimes given
new directions. Further, I found that the tone of the letter, or
the voice I spoke, arose naturally, because I was writing to
someone with whom I had often spoken. In writing to a friend, I
knew who I was–as the writer– and who the other person was to
whom I was writing.

Rosenzweig once wrote that part of the power of Kierkegaard is seen
in the fact that behind each of his ideas lay biographical absurda.
He wished to underscore the importance of the tie between
life and thought. I believe that letters can demonstrate this link.
They allow the writer to show the way that ideas originated or
developed out of particular experiences or conversations. In
assessing ideas, at least in areas such as philosophy and religion,
these biographical events are not unimportant.

Another major theme of Rosenzweig’s philosophy, the way that
thought is embedded in time, is also brought to the surface through
letters. We know that ideas take place in time. They have
origins, they develop, they often change. We hear from someone or
read something new and it changes what we thought. One problem
with the usual philosophical books is that they give a sense that
one’s thought is finalized, that thought itself is unchanging or
eternal. Letters, on the other hand, are dated. They always end,
implicitly, “that’s it, for now.” I found a real freedom in
writing letters, because of this implicit understanding that my
ideas were not finalized. Again, there is that sense in
letters that “this is how I see the matter now, although it is
possible that at another time I may see it differently.” I don’t
think that this makes the writer irresponsible, it just makes
explicit the real limits we experience in having and expressing
ideas. It also reminds the reader, something that
Kierkegaard insisted upon, that she or he must judge for themselves
and not just accept what is written on authority.

In using letters, through the exchange of letters, another insight
comes to the fore. This is the understanding that no single
perspective gives truth, that there is always a need to see other
views. The new, as well as truth, comes from others and arises out
of conversation. Levinas discusses some features of this insight
under the term “teaching.” The deeper truths come from
interactions of persons who develop their ideas as fully and
forcefully as possible and then listen to others who do
the same. Letters, especially to friends, allowed me to express
myself forcefully, and others to add, supplement, oppose. Letters
also end, “waiting to hear from you,” “I need your voice-ideas.”
Specifically, one of my respondents wrote that I did not give
enough weight to communal religious experience, and another said
that I had ignored the sacred quality of silence in ritual life.
To write letters, to write to/for another reminds us of the
responsibility that we have for our words. In writing
a letter to someone we frequently use the word “I.” While there
are many uses of this word, including the “I” of authority, in
writing to friends, I hope that the “I” of responsibility is used.
In writing letters persons acknowledge that they are accountable
for their words. The writer of a letter has to stand behind what
is said, because, among other reasons, it is said to a concrete
person. The responsibility we have for words cannot be forgotten
when the audience has a real face.

Writing letters can be seen as part of the experiment with
philosophic genre that pervades modern philosophy for most of its
history. This point has been made by many commentators. The
experiments of such philosophers as Hume, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein,
and especially Kierkegaard, Buber and Rosenzweig are well known.
The importance of Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms, of
indirect communication, is a staple of recent scholarship on him.
Buber’s Daniel and the dialogic quality of I and Thou demonstrate
the experiments that he undertook. Rosenzweig, in my view, was
the boldest of all. This is especially seen in the concrete
expression of his “new thinking,” that is, in his translation and
notes to the poems of Judah Halevi. A colleague of mine, Barbara
Galli, has done some fascinating work on this piece of writing,
that is, the use of notes on poems to fashion philosophy.

I believe that the use of letters reflects some post-modern
insights about the nature of the human as well as the post-modern
quest for more authentic ways of doing philosophy. As we are all
aware, contemporary philosophers have spoken of the end of modern
notions of the self, notions that began to crystallize with
Descartes. For many modern philosophers, the self was seen as a
single, unified, conscious unit of thinking and deciding. Among
many things, some post-modern thinkers insist that we need to take
account of: the many different facets of ourselves, our
relationships with others, our changes over time, the emotions,
unconscious intrusion into consciousness, etc. Letters, in ways
that I have indicated, express some of these insights or concerns.
I thought that in writing letters I would be best able to express
the insights that have been central to at least one stream of
modern Jewish philosophy, which might be described as
existentialist. These Jewish thinkers seem to differ from
many–but not all–non-Jewish existentialists in that they refuse
to believe that other persons are either obstacles to development
or insignificant in terms of our struggle for authentic lives.
These Jewish philosophers have focused on the relationship between
human interaction and religious experience and also on the
importance of language and speech.

Finally, I thought it was important to write modern Jewish
philosophy through letters to friends, because I suspect that
Jewish friendships are a very important area in the development of
Judaism, especially in North America. Sociologists have understood
that the one overwhelming feature of Jewish life is that Jews have
Jewish friends. Yet, often these commentators also speak of the
decline of Jewish content in the lives of those in North America.
I thought that in writing letters to my Jewish friends–not all the
letters are to Jews, which is also important–that reflect our
long-term relationships and conversations, that the question of
what happens in such friendships might be raised
as an important area for future study. ….

Sincerely, Michael


Messianism: Connections between Cohen, Benjamin, and Derrida
by Martin Srajek

Delivered at the AJS Annual Meeting, December, 1992
[abbreviated and adapted for this volume by the editor]

One of the thirteen aspects that Hermann Cohen considers in order
to understand “Humanity and the Idea of the Messiah,” is the need
for a development from the mythological golden age to the
messianic future. Whereas the former signifies an ideal situation
in which humanity has not yet erred from the commandment of God,
the latter raises the commandment of God to an ideal status. The
messianic future is an age that can be brought about by human
action and obedience. Such development makes the difference
between the two eons inerasable. Although the creation narrative
still seems to allude to the paradise as the golden age, Cohen
argues that the sequence of events as it unfolds makes the return
to the innocence of this golden age impossible. Innocence is
replaced by knowledge (Erkenntnis) and thus makes room for the
proliferation of culture. Culture, however, develops with an eye
not to the past golden age but to the messianic future. Time,
thus, only is time with respect to the ideal which it strives
towards. All history turns into messianic history…. For
Cohen, furthermore, messianism, in its move from the mythological
to the religious, overcomes death, expanding human understanding
beyond the boundaries of the material world towards an infinite
moral ideal.

For Cohen, monotheistic messianism functions within the
differential relationship between the possibility of the world’s
down-fall (Weltuntergang) and its renewal (Welterneuerung), both of
which are contingent upon God’s final judgement and thus not
pre-determined. The move toward either down-fall or renewal is not
arbitrary but marked by increasing attention to the ethico-moral
quality of God’s judgment….. The differential allows, in other
words, for … a concept of the good as well as for the development
of … a history that precisely inscribes humanity’s steps toward
the achievement of the ideal. Cohen holds that the messianic
element signifies to a certain degree the notion of the
down-fall of the world…. It implies, in other words, that humans
have largely shed their mythic embeddedness in the world and are
now able to question “the significance(Sinn) and value (Wert)
of human existence (Dasein).” (p. 285) … For Cohen, part of this
distancing from the world facilitates the world’s objectification
also from the viewpoint of good and evil: the notions of good and
evil as well as of time lead both to a conception of punishment as
the down-fall of the world and to the possibility of a [moral]
renewal of the world….

According to Zwi Werblowsky, messianism is also characterized by a
“negative evaluation of the present.” This negation, however, went
hand in hand with a negation of the world to come as the
only goal towards which to strive. This world had to be saved
first. The advent of the messiah could not and should not be
hastened (cf. Rosenzweig on the “Schwarmer”).

In part the messianic structure of Jewish messianism “retained its
national, social, and historical basis whatever the universal,
cosmic, or inner spiritual meanings accompanying it. We can see,
in other words, the negation of a present as a “not yet” coinciding
with the negation of a future as a “too much, too early.”
Accordingly, Werblowsky can say that messianization can somtimes go
through a certain demessianization which emphasizes the
detachedness of the messianic event from the world as it is at

Within Judaism, both concepts, of down-fall and of renewal, make
sense only if they are taken as being monotheistically juxtaposed
with the “Strafgericht Gottes.” The punishing presence of God,
however, also produces a purification that in itself makes room for
God’s guiding and educating the world. (p. 286) It is here that
some of the parallels between Cohen and Walter Benjamin become
clearer. For Benjamin, the difference between secular law and
divine law is the difference between law as instituted by human
beings and by God. Whereas the former always reaches back to its
mythological origins and thus emphasizes a certain crude mythic
violence, the latter is of divine origin and the only violence it
knows is, thus, divine. A “Kritik der Gewalt” (A Critique of
Violence) is, therefore, always a critique of secular versus divine
law. In his essay “Zur Kritik der Gewalt,” Benjamin determines
that the root of all violence is the universalizing character of
myth, which understands violence as the tool that, according to the
law of nature, is rightfully used for good purposes, e.g. the
achievement of power. He opposes this mythic violence to the
violence of God, whose principle is not power but justice. For
Benjamin, therefore, one can say that mythic violence
only increases humanity’s need for redemption. Divine, messianic
force, on the other hand, participates in history [by] reorienting,
rather than simply replicating it.

Benjamin … believed that the way to the messianic realm is ..
[the way of] translation. As the task of the translator, redemption
[accumulates meaning, rather than merely transforming it. The
messianic age will have been reached… once meaning is captured in
its fullness…[In this way,] Benjamin furnished a critique of the
concept of mythos that resembles Cohen’s…. For Cohen, myth is the
potential antagonist to all messianic thought because, rather than
emphasizing the [ethical] future, … it reiterates the idea of a
golden age, [encouraging] regress rather than development. Myth
favors, furthermore, the concept of a universal humanity, rather
than a thought that is simultaneously focused on the individual and
on humankind.

… The following three areas of Derrida’s thought bring into focus
the relationship between messianism and his project of
deconstruction: 1) deconstruction as a strategic/adventurous
enterprise; 2) deconstruction conceived as negative theology; 3)
deconstruction as the apocalypse. Before I can
go into more detail, however, allow me a few remarks about
deconstruction itself.

Deconstruction is a process that takes place within the sphere of
the world. The undermining and subverting of certain surface-texts
in favor of sub-surface texts that have, so far, been marginalized
is a completely this-worldly phenomenon and, as such, is as close
to realism as it could possibly be.

… Deconstruction is not, however, a systemless process (as it has
been interpreted in various academic circles). It is, rather, a
concerted effort to bring out the complexity of the ethical project
as it shows itself to the person who is serious about any kind of
ethical implementation. For such a person, ethical complexity can
easily appear as an overwhelming flood of data, facts, and
hypotheses that stand in opposition to each other….. [But, firmly
rooted in the phenomenological tradition,] Derrida’s project is
[from the perspective of ethics,] … to [illuminate] and lay open
the complex processes that take place between the world and a
subject …

Differance as Strategic and Adventurous

In his article “Differance,” Derrida explains that … differance
itself is… strategic and adventurous. The meaning of this
statement is the following. Differance serves, in Derrida’s
thought, as both infinitely removed origin and infinitely removed
telos: the suspension that exists between two definite
points which, however, are infinitely far away and thus cause
differance itself to be infinite. The two terms “strategic” and
“adventurous” enhance each other [as follows]. The strategist is
the person who knows speculatively both the beginning and end of a
certain project…. The strategem, however, experiences a
suspension of its own predictability because differance is, at the
same time, also an adventurous enterprise. This means that
differance undergoes a teleological as well as an
archeological suspension both reflected in the word “adventurous.”
The adventurous aspect of differance questions both the foundation
and horizon of the deconstructive project and reminds us
of the speculative aspect of any strategy. Yet, the adventure
hides something else. Quite literally the Latin root of the word
translates as “to come.” It is precisely the adventurous aspect
that reminds us of a future coming already announced in the
differential suspension of the strategy. The
strategic/adventurous terminology appears to give to differance
simultaneously the character of a closed and an open system.

Deconstruction as Negative Theology

… Negative theology [for example, in Maimonides and Cohen]
expresses the ineffability of God by negating what God is not.
Deconstruction also operates within a space that is defined through
a twofold negation. It understands the concepts of origin and
telos as privations of an other that can never be captured within
the archeological/teleological framework that is constituted by
origin and telos. As privations, Derrida negates them and [in so
doing] … iterates an affirmative side of an other
that would otherwise disappear. In his words, differance will
always be expressed as “differance is” and “differance is not.”
The purpose of such a paradoxical way of putting it lies in the
problematic essentialism that even a negation cannot avoid. To say
that God is not is still to say that God is… not, i.e., that God
belongs to the order of beings and thus is no different from other
objects or persons that surround us. The second part of the
slightly paradoxical expression “is/is not” is not a
negation but a something, the negation of a privation. The negated
“is” is not just understood as fullness in Parmenides’ sense but
already as the lack of something else. Derrida can, thus, lodge
significance and meaning right in the invisible dividing line that
separates negative from positive essence. This line, however, is
nothing and it is into this nothing that differance can now create
the somethings that constitute the world.

Through the comprehensive usage of negative and affirmative
expressions for the concept of differance, we come to understand
that differance is not only the simultaneously closed and open
bracket, but also the productive backdrop for the world as such.
The complexity, inchoateness and unordered character of the world
are themselves effects of differance or, more precisely, of the
peculiar status of differance’s teleological and archeological
limits as both existent and non-existent.

… For Cohen and Benjamin, … [the discussion of] messianism
raises the issues of time and history. This is also the case for
Derrida, who … talks about a time that simultaneously recoils
into itself infinitely, because it is without origin or telos, and
moves toward a telos that is itself infinite. Derrida
is attempting to weld together good and bad infinities. He does so
[by adopting] Benjamin’s project. For Benjamin, bad infinity
[marks humanity’s] course towards perfection…. Messianism, on the
other hand, consists precisely in overcoming the badly infinite
world in order to make way for the good infinity of [the end of
days]. In this way, Benjamin gives power to the present moment
while simultaneously suspending that present with respect to day of
the messiah.

For Derrida the “is/is not” structure also entails a negative
evaluation of the present that is not only epistemological. It is
furnished in two different ways: first, in a critique of Husserl
and others, Derrida shows that the idea of the present is itself a
metaphysical prejudice that can be easily unmasked within Husserls’
own methodological frame-work. Second, in an ethical critique of
the political and social crisis of the post-modern age, Derrida
argues that …the present is nothing but the reality of a
conservative, marginalizing violence that becomes especially
visible in the university. There, discourses and disciplines are
canonized and catalogued in order to prevent the new sciences
from breaking in and … undermining the old.

Differance as Systematicity and Stratification

Differance also provides systematicity and stratification. This is
in part due to the apocalyptic nature of the differential
discourse. Derrida plays on the double meaning that the
apocalyptic imposes on us: on the one hand, it refers to a process
of unveiling … the truth; on the other hand, it signifies
the endless exile from truth into which we are thrust as searchers
for truth. Every step in the process of unveiling reaffirms the
exile in which we find ourselves….

Derrida holds that the discourse of modern philosophy, [grounded]
… in the fundamental nature of the subject and its relationship
to the world, is dead or, at least dying. In “The Ends of Man,” he
says that in Hegel’s phenomenological thought “the thinking of the
ends of man, therefore, is always already prescribed in
metaphysics, in the thinking of the truth of man” (121). Announced
in it is “the end of the finitude of man, the unity of the finite
and the infinite. . .” “The releve or relevance of man is his
telos or eschaton” (121). In this position the end of man has two
different significations: the end of man as a factual
anthropological limit and as a determinate opening or the infinity
of a telos “(123). “The name of man has always been inscribed in
metaphysics between these two ends. It has meaning only in this
eschato-teleological situation” (123). It is our task to determine
what Derrida means by this “eschato-teleological situation.”

Although he never picks up on notions like the “Strafgericht
Gottes” or just that of “Bestrafung” itself,” Derrida
nevertheless… questions the ethical quality of the world with
respect to its renewal. In a fairly recent essay,… he … [argues
that] “law is not justice. Law is the element of calculation,
and it is just that there be law, but justice is incalculable, it
requires us to calculate with the incalculable.” The experience of
justice as the incalculable, however, is the experience of “the
improbable” (947). Deconstruction takes place precisely in the
space that is opened up by the deconstructibility of law and the
undeconstructibility of justice. “Justice becomes the possibility
of deconstruction….” (945). For Derrida, justice is thus both
arche and eschaton of a process within which the law is
implemented, revised, dismissed and newly implemented. This
process itself is infinite, a bad infinity. Through the
juxtaposition with justice, however, it… points beyond itself
toward a horizon of redemption and absolute justice….

So far, our observations allow for a certain confusion concerning
the difference between the merely teleological/ eschatological and
the clearly messianic element in Derrida’s thought. … [To remove
this confusion, we] have to look at Hermann Cohen’s work. Cohen …
distinguishes messianism from eschatology. Only messianism warrants
the infinite development of the human soul. Whereas eschatology
can only talk about the last things, … messianism “remains within
the climate of human existence (Dasein).” (357) Messianism
therefore … brings to the fore the development of the
individual human soul. While paying attention to human existence
(Dasein), it also brings into focus the development of humanity as
a whole. “The dignity of the human being is not only founded in
the individual but also in the idea of humankind” (57). In this
complex connection between the individual human being and the idea
of humankind, Cohen emphasizes the [power] of messianism to
create a “truly political reality” (338) which will degrade all
profane reality of the present (Gegenwartsrealit_t), [but only by
way of the present.]… [The end of a human development from
out of the present,] the messianic is, thus, worked out on earth.

Walter Benjamin takes up this idea of messianism in his essay “Uber
den Begriff der Geschichte.”… He argues that the development of
humankind consists in part in the weak messianic force that we
have been given to redeem the past. … He thus resists a notion
of pure progress that would ultimately result in nothing but
ethical emptiness and suggests instead the conception of a
“Jetztzeit” which would interpret the concept of the present not as
transition but as the time filled with potential for the redemption
of the past.

Derrida’s … [notion of] messianism is more difficult to assess.
[He appears to share] the material-political thrust that both Cohen
and Benjamin convey to their reader…. Deconstruction is
meant to thrust humanity back into the world and oblige them to
work for justice toward justice. … His interest in the future of
philosophy as an academic discipline and his involvement with
political causes such as apartheid or the unification of Europe all
speak this same attitude. In all of them, however, Derrida does
not just argue along the lines of a simple political
utilitarianism, but relates his political thoughts and motivations
to the differential that exists between origin and ideal. Within
this differential space of justice a new kind of present is
established. It is a present that never stays, but that “is” only
with respect to a future that it has clearly not reached yet….
Benjamin never says [that such a] presence should last. He
speaks, very carefully, of the weak messianic power that
humankind has been endowed with. This power, it seems, is the same
that Derrida talks about when he conceives of deconstruction as
justice, viz. as the relentless questioning of the law with respect
to justice as its ideal.

Like Cohen and Benjamin, Derrida embraces an anti-mythic attitude
that demonstrates not only the ethical weakness of a regress to the
golden age but also shows the logical impossibility of such an
enterprise. In some of his more recent essays, Derrida expresses
this concern with the future by laying open the venient structure
of the apocalypse. From beyond the apocalyptic structures
themselves, humankind is invested with a voice that invites it to
come. It is the “come” that encourages humans to embark on the
infinite trail of an exiled unveiling of the truth. It is the
“come” that announces a good infinity behind behind the bad
infinity that is implicit in the exile/unveiling
structure itself. It is, finally, the “come” that suggests
deconstruction’s investment with messianic thinking, that thrusts
it back into the material realm of the world in order to redeem it
and make it ready for truth.


In our last issue, we excerpted Parts I and 2 of Adi Ophir’s
“Beyond Good: Evil — An Outline for a Political Theory of Evils.”
Excerpts from Parts 3-6 will appear in the next issue. Meanwhile,
here are two responses to Parts 1-2 from BITNETWORK members.

* Response of David Novak (University of Virginia):
[Here is a transcription and, at times, paraphrase, of remarks
Novak delivered orally at a gathering of the Postmodern Jewish
Philosophy BITNETWORK, at the AAR 1992 annual meeting,
November 22, 1992. -ed.]

… I think that it is important to establish the Sitz-im-leben of
Ophir’s remarks in the context of current Israeli moral discourse,
which extends of course to the entire Jewish world. Ophir wants
to eliminate the tendency to reduce all moral questions to the
instance of the Holocaust. He by no means minimizes the enormity
of the crime that was committed against the Jewish people and
indeed against others by the Nazi’s and their cohorts. But he
thinks that the Israeli moral discourse has been greatly
impoverished by the tendency to reduce everything to the Holocaust.
His argument is very understandable, especially against the use of
the Holocaust as a icon by the Israeli right to deflect from itself
any criticism of government policy. The use of the Holocaust,
not as an example but as a criterion according to which Jews can do
no wrong has had a pernicious effect on moral discourse on Israel
and indeed on the entire Jewish world. And with that point I can
greatly sympathize. I think that it does the understanding of the
Holocaust no good understanding it as an enormous part of our past
and does discourse in the present equally no good. By that kind of
reduction I was reminded by the remark of Leo Strauss at the
beginning of “Natural Right in History” when he raises the whole
question of natural right and natural law in post-holocaust moral
discourse ( he was writing in 1953 which is even closer to it than
our time). Strauss warns against what he refers to as a reductio ad
Hitlerum and I think that in that sense Ophir is quiet correct …

Israelis (secularists or even religionists of a less autocratic
bent) who do not adhere to the strongly anti-democratic sympathies
of the religious establishment are very interested in a greater
separation of church and state. Along those lines, Ophir expresses
a sympathy for the view of public moral discourse that was
enunciated most influentially by John Rawls in his 1971 book A
Theory of Justice. Ophir agrees with Rawls’ point that we can only
discuss rights and not goods in public, political discourse, since
there simply is not enough of a consensus in our culture for us
to identify the unequivocal goods that society should be aiming
towards. According to Rawls, any good proposed would necessarily be
sectarian and therefore would be in effect the imposition of
one point of view about the ultimate ends of human life by one
group upon everyone else. So, Rawls’ famous point, which is a
point that goes back to social contract theory and is indeed
developed in a explicitly Kantian way, is that all we can discuss
are rightsþ and, thus, minimal conditions rather than the maximal
ends. The minimal conditions are those which enable each of
us to pursue our private good as long as that doesn’t infringe upon
the right of others to pursue their private goods…. Now, at
least initially, Ophir seems to be endorsing this Rawlsian position
as a solution to the Kulturkampf taking place in Israel between
religionists and secularists, each proposing conflicting visions of
what is the common good…. I can sympathize with what Ophir is
saying in the context of current Israeli life, but I also have
several problems with the broader implications of the Rawlsian
position…. [Here, I am attending to criticisms of Rawls from the
right, rather than from the left’s– for example Nozick’s —
arguments on behalf of even greater individual rights than Rawls
allows.] By the right, I mean criticism by communitarians,
especially Michael Sandel and also more implicit criticisms by
Allistair MacIntyre. From this perspective, the problem with a
Rawlsian position is that it is minimalist, and the question is, is
the minimalist position sufficient? To use Clifford Geertz’s notion
of thick and thin cultures, is it thick enough to be sufficient as
a theory for the way society is to be run? I think of the whole
notion of a naked public square as raised by my friend Richard John
Neuhaus. The notion is that, if society is left that culturally
empty, then it will eventually be filled by just anything that
simply fills the void: and that’s always dangerous. The cultural
and political conservatives have always argued that the openness
and the thinness of the Weimar type of minimal political culture
paved the way or at least created the conditions for the entrance
of the thicker claims of something like Nazism.

What inevitably happens when rights are advocated and not goods
–and I think that the American experience should be helpful to
Ophir — is that what are advocated as rights becomes the goods.
In other words, what we really end up with is the creation of a new
tradition, which can be called secularism. What has been delegated
to the realm of the private is then actually relegated to the
realm of the insignificant, and the minimal claims of society
become the maximal claims of those who are sympathetic to this
whole point of view. Therefore, this absolute distinction between
rights and goods is something I think in the long run one really
cannot maintain….

[ Prof. Novak notes the appeal this minimalist type of discourse
must have had to social contract theoreticians and Kantians who
sought an alternative to the wars of religion between protestants
and catholics. They saw in it a kind of a minimal universalism
that might eliminate sectarian disorder and bloodshed. He notes,
however, the strength of MacIntyre’s arguments, in After
Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, that this apparently
minimalistic position was itself tradition-bound, but
unself-consciously so. Without appeal to a tradition, advocates
justified this minimalism by way of foundationalist arguments.
Novak concludes that discourse on the matter in Israel would not be
served by a return to foundationalisms, but, rather, by attention
to the social context of moral argumentation. ]

Now Ophir does argue there has to be a positing of some sort of
minimal good — not just a minimal right, but a minimal good, about
which there can be agreement. [This minimal good is the avoidance
of causing pain.] … Ophir explains the inadequacy of the Platonic
notion of evil as privation….. Evil is more substantial, more
real, and there can be a consensus about what kind of evil we agree
ought to be eliminated: namely, causing pain. Of course, the modern
world [knows well ] horrorible cases in which inflicting pain upon
large numbers of people in unspeakable ways has been justified as
part of some greater social or historical good…. I therefore
can sympathize with Ophir’s adopting the elimination of causing
pain as a good. In this case, however, the causing of pain can
only really refer to physical pain, that is, the sensation of pain;
[and the notion of good] could really only lead to practical norms
that would prohibit such things as physical assaults. [But, should
we include pains that are not physical, but also psychological, or
pains that are disruptive of one’s character, including ones
interpersonal relations, then we get into a number of problems, to
which Ophir’s argument does not yet respond.] Consider, for
example, the current discussions of the crime of rape. It used to
be thought that rape was a sexual act and that rapists were persons
who basically needed sexual gratification and were willing to take
it with whomever they could lay their hands on. What many
studies now have indicated is that rape is really not a sexual act
at all, but a physical assault, the pleasure of which is not sexual
pleasure as we would understand it, as physical sensation, but
rather the pleasure of inflicting physical pain on somebody else.
In a lot of discourse, therefore, rape has really been turned into
a kind of tort…. [As another example, consider] the case of the
sexual seduction of children. Granted there can be physical pain
involved, and we know this is the case, but some of those who have
advocated that incest cannot be absolutely prohibited have
argued that it is not physically painful to a child. Unless we
have a notion of psychological pain or actually of an assault on
character or the innocence of children then very clearly Ophir’s
model of pain itself is certainly necessary but hardly sufficient
for contributing to a moral discourse concerning the elimination of

Getting back to the question of Ophir’s criticism of the (Platonic)
philosophic tradition that identifies pain as the privation of
good. I was sorry that he did not connect more with the Biblical
rabbinic tradition, in which evil is not just simply the privation
of good but, rather, rebellion against God: … idolatry, the
attempt to substitute something, especially one’s own self, for the
creator of heaven and earth…. This evil is a very real
construction… and, in this case, the difference beyween evil and
good is a battle between two affirmations, not between something
and its negation. …. I would think that, in the Biblical rabbinic
tradition, as opposed to the philosophic, good and evil are to be
understood, more adverbially, as qualifying acts rather than
states of being. In this view, interpersonal relations, either
between humans and God or humans and humans are therefore modified
either by acts which are considered to be good or acts which
are considered to be evil. The latter are considered
counter-productive, and ultimately idolatrous, against the most
productive and truest relations…. I therefore think that Ophir
ought to examine more carefully the Judaic thought of the Bible and
the rabbis, which is not merely the province of the religious
establishment, but the heritage of the entire Jewish people. [The
Judaic understanding of evil would seem to extend his own
position.] It would enable him to appropriate the most
communitarian aspects of the Jewish tradition and not rely
on the earlier theory of John Rawls, which, as I said, creates
philosophical problems for everyone, and in particular theological
problems for Jews.

* Response from Jonathan Boyarin (The New School)

As is my wont, I won’t attempt a synthetic answer, but tag my
points to particular passages in the draft I have been shown. Since
I’m working from hard copy, I refer to page numbers and locations
as they appear in that hard copy of the newsletter Vol.2, #1.

I like the initial move (21 top) of positing a positive notion of
evil. I like this mostly because it is somewhat analogous to a
similar move I make about forgetting as not being simply the
absence of memory, but rather a produced, contingent and
consequential social phenomenon (in my chapter, “The Lower East
Side: A Place of Forgetting,” in Storm from Paradise: The Politics
of Jewish Memory. ) After reading the rest of the Ophir excerpt,
I’m still quite fuzzy, however, as to where he’s going with it.

Ophir claims that there is more evil than “happiness, pleasure, or
freedom.” Frederik Jameson makes virtually the same claim in The
Political Unconscious, e.g., “History is what hurts.” How
could you know this, how could you quantify it? More on this
further down.

Ophir very quickly speaks of “categorical imperatives.” May I
suggest that such Kantian appeals will only appeal to Kantians?
Without some indication that the author is aware that he is writing
within a very culturally, socially and historically specific
traditioin of argumentation, I find the value of this exercise
seriously compromised.

“Too frequently this comparison imposes distorted analogies upon
political and historical debates, analogies with which the Israeli
public discourse is saturated to exhaustion-point.” Agreed, and
it’s an important comment. It might be productive to think about
such saturation — the confusion, discouragement and alienation
which result from such a polluted cloud of painful associations —
as part of the continuing presence (or perhaps continuing effect)
of genocide as what some German thinkers might call an “effective

P. 22 middle, an academic point as far as I’m concerned: there’s a
leap from the critique of the Christian tradition in which “the
perfect Good… is always beyond and outside [the world],” to the
claim that “Thus, paradoxically, the Good… is always absent…”
I doubt whether it’s a universal of Western/Greco/Christian
philosophy always to dismiss any partial good, and if I’m correct
then Ophir’s second statement does not follow from the first.

P. 23, I’m encouraged by the reference to Montaigne, and I would
refer people to Stephen Toulmin’s book (new in paper from Chicago)
Cosmopolis, another critique of modernity in which Toulmin (who
obviously likes Montaigne) basically asks what the world would look
like if the tenor of European modernity had been set more by the
sixteenth-century humanists such as Montaigne and less by the
seventeenth-century proto-technocrats like Descartes. On the other
hand, as I suppose Ophir recognizes but he doesn’t make explicit,
Montaigne’s criteria for adducing evil are obviously inadequate.
It wouldn’t tell us, for instance (to take a hot contemporay
example) whether circumcision of an infant is justifiable. I don’t
find, so far, that any light has really been shed on the difference
between one man’s ceiling and another man’s floor.

P. 24, middle, the adjudicating task of a critical theory of
justice. Good luck! It seems to me (the argument keeps getting
had over and over again, to some extent it’s a predictable one
between good anthropologists and good philosophers, I suppose) that
this pretense — even setting the goal is a pretense of a kind —
at a stance outside any particular situation or interest which
could serve as the ground for a superlative adjudicating
articulation is, not to put too fine a point on it,
“imperial.” Which leads me (again this feels vaguely unfair, but
this is the value of an intermediate medium of discourse like
Bitnet) to the choice of Walzer as an authoritative theorist.
Since Ophir’s stated destination is the situation of Israelis and
Palestinians, it doesn’t seem extraneous to consider Walzer’s
Exodus and Revolution as part of the “picture of the social world.”
Is Ophir in general agreement with that book as well? (For my own
critique see “Reading Exodus Into History,” New Literary Criticism
Summer 1992) Or does he see it as detached from Walzer’s
general descriptive theory? In either case, what does that say
about an earlier attempt than Ophir’s to draw specific links
between generalized political theory and the Israeli-Palestinian

I’m not convinced by Walzer’s notion of “spheres,” as summarized by
Ophir. It sounds to me like “sphere” has become a fetishistic
buzz-word. To take only one example, why is it that “a free
pluralistic society is one in which success or failure in one
sphere does not entail advantage or inferiority in other spheres,
and where it is impossible to easily translate capital and position
in one sphere into capital and position in other spheres?” Ophir
grants that this is not a just society, but in what way is it free?
Look at what’s happening here (and elsewhere in Walzer’s work): on
the one hand there’s a claim to a generalized theory and
description of society; on the other hand all questions of value
and identity are referred back to an indeterminate but finite
number of social “spheres,” all of which seem uniquely to contain
a fixed and non-overlapping number of individuals. An inadequate
description to say the least: just because I’m Jewish doesn’t mean
I’m not also, e.g., queer, a resident of the Lower East Side, et
cetera. The point is basically that I find these ideal types worse
than useless, because they insidiously maintain the pretense at an
ungrounded, synthetic justification. I would likewise never want
to claim that it is possible “to map out the entire social world,”
let alone desirable or imperative …. There is considerable
recent work on the history and politics of cartography, especially
since the European age of colonialism, and I mean quite seriously
that this work is relevant to the notion of mapping used here.

P. 27, as promised, back to the primordial reality of pain. Well,
I’m simply not convinced that a stubbed toe, for instance, is any
more real (or more common or characteristic, for that matter)
than an orgasm. (Why not take orgasm as our model of immediate and
transparent (hence “objective”) personal experience?) I’m not
prepared to dismiss the argument that the expression of pain often
has a certain compelling authenticity about it, but this is not
always the case; people fake stomach aches as frequently as they
fake orgasms. (It strikes me that “pain as authentic
experience” may have a lot to do with explaining the fascination
with pain — both receiving and causing it — in the “West.”)
Again , work like Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain or David
Morris’s The Culture of Pain needs to be engaged, and perhaps
cogently rejected; the bald assertions here are simply inadequate.

Bottom of p. 27, this theme is continued: Ophir certainly hasn’t
yet resolved the question of how there could be a map of spheres of
evil, when the ideas of map and sphere are both highly
problematic, and when there are so many different notions of evil
among and within different people’s minds. Presumably this is the
subject matter of the rest of the paper which we haven’t seen yet.

* Editorial Note:
While awaiting Ophir’s responses, as well as our excerpting more of
his argument, here’s an initial response to the responses. Are
these responses impatient with Ophir’s persistent modernism, that
is, his limiting himself to the Rawlsian and therefore Kantian
point of departure? If so, how should a postmodern Jewish
philosophy depart from modernity? If the departure is a
compassionate one (that is, regards modernity as a suffering and
not merely an error), then the postmodern thinker would have to
kneel down to embrace the modern before helping him or her up to
some other place. To kneel down would be to adopt the terms of
modern debate before drawing them elsewhere. Is Ophir’s Rawlsian
point of departure a persistent modernism or is it his way of
kneeling down? Is his speaking of evils rather than of goods a
new, simply radical, modernist formulation, or is it his way of
drawing the discussion elsewhere? …. If drawing it elsewhere
entails a theory of pain and suffering, is there some way to retain
this theory and respect both respondents’ concerns about its
potential for reductionism? Here’s one thought: modify the
definition of evil as “anything that causes a person suffering,
pain, etc…” simply to “anything that would cause suffering,
etc…” For semioticians in the American tradition, the would-be
refers to some general tendency or process that is irreducible to
discrete cases. The pain is physical, but a would-be is more than
physical, the way a concrete universal or a principle or a law is
more than the sum of its parts. (P. Ochs)


Folks, Volume 2.3 is scheduled to come out early May. If you have
material to send in — essays, reviews, responses, complaints,
prayers — send them now, and certainly before April 25. Shalom!