The book has four short chapters and I will be going through them. The book has an oral quality of a memorized speech, telling what is about to be said, saying it, and them giving a summary. In a single chapter, there are several points where ideas are enumerated as three or four points the way one does in an oral presentation. Some readers that I have spoken with think the book should be shortened for written presentation, but I think it needs to be lengthened to explain the oblique references.
1] Theology is personal and about self concern – bringing the conscious and unconscious together, seeking a living truth. The goal is to bring canonical sources forward for our own lives. Maimonides grasped the totality of Being – he saw the abyss of God between the Bible and Aristotelian thought. He sought to be a philosopher but also a theologian by rereading scripture to overcome abyss in his own life. He created a bridge of interpretation through exegesis, as was done by every generation. Kabbalah works the same way to overcome the abyss through exegesis. (Fishbane’s history of generations is not Hegel, Dilthy or Foucault- but a very personal reading of Gadamer. Further, he has not absorbed any of the critiques of the rhetoric of temporality from the linguistic turn.)
2] Why is this needed now? And why in this manner? Three points– There is no one single coherent Jewish worldview and to answer the needs of human life we need theology. The danger is that without theology people will seek meaning in ideology. (what’s hiding in this phrase “ideology”) We have many fundamental texts; no one text supersedes the others. We need grounding in scripture to be Jewish.
Is theology possible? We need the theological manner of seeking mystery. He cites the Romantics that we must begin with the natural attributes, those earthly things closest to us. Those parts of life that are “the given” the “something more” of “reality disrupted” they are evasive. But for this to be more than human- we need to grasp the “transcendental giving.” The natural brings us to the aesthetic and from there to the theological. (I hear echoes of Gadamer’s aesthetic to the existential to Being). He does not have the sense of death and anxiety of Franz Rosenzweig, Heidegger, or Scholem. His abyss is not evil but the unexamined life.
3] There are three domains of human being. The first is the natural world It is our primary reality and language brings the world to expression. We live in a primary world of sound and senses and from that we build a worldview. Myth and ritual is grounded in human forms of sound and sense. Successful articulation creates meaning, then we return to the temporal reality. We return to forgetfulness of habit and routine. (Note that unlike Heschel or Art Green, we are not connected in Fishbane’s thought to God in the natural order. While Soloveitchik thinks only halakhah can give us articulation).
The second realm is the “care of the self” where we go beyond the senses to a sense of who we are and personal depth. Many event in our life – Caesural event- like births, death, marriage. Here there is a joining of elemental and the human. It creates a space for contemplation. (This is a point where he seems to be drifting away from the ideas found in prior Jewish texts and developing an aesthetic of Judiasm.)
The third realm is the aesthetic. Music, painting and poetry help give expression. The world is not ready made and we create it. Fishbane cites Goethe, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Picasso, Beethoven. Artists prefigure theology as the meeting of the elemental and culture.. Theology is a creative act.
4] Theology is about the person, it transforms perspective with an all encompassing way of life. It is theology because it is toward God, a Jacob’s ladder. Turning to the kabbalist rabbi Azriel of Gerona, Fishbane cites a passage about Eyn the Infinite- the knowledge and the lack of knowledge. The infinite Being offers both a ground of Being and a nought. (Echoes here of the way Heidegarians read Meister Eckhart). But here the nicht is not absolute nothing, rather it is the absence of an articulated theology for our lives. We have mystic language here of God in our life. We read these texts for a sense of how past ages deal with the tension of the elemental, the cultural, and transcendental
Fishbane acknowledges that we do not share Rabbi Azriel’s world view, his metaphysics, or his religion. But we can use him as a source for our lives- to fill the gap of the human, Caesural, and the aesthetic. (In this he is similar to Mark Macintosh and Deny Turner and the other U of Chicago thinkers about mystical texts who formulate a reading of mystical text after the linguistic turn, away from experience and psychology, towards texts as offering us glimpses of the expression of presence.
5] The goal is to move from the general to the Jewish. Theology is not doctrine but the point of experience and the text meeting. (He has moved beyond the earlier existential thinkers where experience was the only thing that counted, but he has not moved into he post-liberal realm of only text.- echoes of Buber as exegete). . The world is mute and it needs to be redeemed through our theology. There is a correlation of man and God ( there are echoes here of Herman Cohen and Soloveitchik but without as solid a correlation; at least in this first chapter it seems more human than correlation.). We need to reawaken people to grasp the fragments; their soul are at stake.
6] Four things make the theology Jewish. (1) It is a particular cultural form using Jewish texts(2)It uses Jewish conceptions of God- hence it works within the Jewish hermeneutical horizons (3) It is performance- it creates ritual practice. (4)It is transformative- giving ideals.
7] My first take – he understands emotions and human experience by his sequence of Jewish texts. But if I want to understand the depth and absence in himan existance do I turn to the halakhot of morning or to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking? If I want to understand love and relationships do I turn to the Talmud? Fishbane in later chapters will focus on the importance of Kabbalah and hasidut but I an not certain that they are better for the care of the self. If I am depressed, I am not sure that R.Azriel’s discussion of Ayin- non-being offers words of expression.
On the other hand, the book is not seriously touched by the principles of the linguistic turn, in which current thinkers see emotions and the human experience as created and constructed as parts of culture. The experience is constructed and inseparable from the expression. Here the experience seeks expression in the theology.
The book has 4 chapters- the other three will be posted in the future.