An interview with Prof Zachary J. Braiterman

Blogs can reconnect a person with people whom they have not spoken to in years. I recently received a note from Prof Zachary Braiterman that he enjoys the blog and he agreed to an interview. We come from opposite directions and this makes for an interesting meeting point. In this interview, there is a good sense of how a secularist perceives of revelation and religion. Maybe if you ask good questions, he might show up to answer queries.

Prof Braiterman teaches modern Jewish philosophy at Syracuse University- specializing in German Jewish Thought. He is the author of (God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought which deals with Rubenstein and Berkovits. He is also the author of The Shape of Revelation: Aesthetics and Modern Jewish Thought “In his new book, [Braiterman] brilliantly traces the parallels between modern Jewish religious thought as epitomized by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, and contemporaneous trends in visual art as exemplified by Kandinsky, Klee, and Franz Marc.” He also has a superb article on Rav Soloveitchik “Joseph Soloveitchik and Immanuel Kant’s Mitzvah-Aesthetic,” AJS Review (25:1, 2000-2001).

1]As a specialist in modern German Jewish thought, what value do the German Jewish thinkers have for non-academics?

The German Jewish tradition that dominated modern Jewish thought (the tradition of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig) is clearly dated, maybe outdated. It is modern and modernist, not postmodern. In my estimation, its pseudo-prophetic focus on transcendence and immediacy seems overstated and melodramatic. It does not really focus on ordinary life, democratic politics, technology, mediated culture, and science. The whole style, the tone and affect, are no longer ours at the start of a new century. Talmud has more to say to me now than Bible, although a colleague of mind has put her finger on the biblical wisdom tradition as a resource for contemporary Jewish thought. This would get us back to another German Jew –the liberal and gregarious Moses Mendelssohn.

But these Germans still grab the attention of my students and make sense to them, and to me.

I think it’s because of the “art” and artfulness they bring to Judaism and Jewish culture. The German Jews –all of them, including S.R. Hirsch– were committed to “Bildung,” the formation of character and culture through the arts (poetry, theater, music, painting). And by the way, I would also remind you that Soloveitchik and Heschel were also “German,” having trained there in philosophy. In contrast, contemporary American Jewish thought looks dull and shapeless, without the verve which the Germans enjoyed. Even when we Americans try to get arty, it doesn’t work, because our taste in art is not up-to-date. (Michael Wyschogrod, another “German,” makes this point in The Body of Faith)

2] Your book is called The Shape of Revelation and it explores the overlap between revelation and aesthetic form from the perspective of Judaism. What is the relationship of aesthetics and revelation for Buber-Rosenzweig? What is the aesthetic revelation of Buber-Rosenzweig?

First of all, there’s no such thing as “aesthetic revelation.” And yet revelation is aesthetic insofar as it is organized by and/or to the senses. By “aesthetic,” I mean more than the beautiful and the sublime, not that I would preclude them entirely. But more important is what one early theorist identified as “the science of perception.”

Revelation refers to that event or those events that take shape between God, the human person, and human persons, and uncovered through the senses. In the history of religions, accounts of revelation are shaped in vision, as visual experience, but to this one should add hearing and one could add touch, smell, and taste. In Judaism too.

In more traditional pictures, revelation is marked by thick and often ornate (legal, doctrinal) contents. For Buber and Rosenzweig, the encounter with God was shaped along the contours, primarily of German Expressionism. Think of the expressionist woodcut, painting, or poem –the wild-eyed prophets, the unnatural color, the strong erotic tonalities, the drive towards death and redemption; and most interestingly by “the spiritual in art” as practiced by Kandinsky, Klee, and Franz Marc, especially by abstract art. For Buber and Rosenzweig, the content of revelation is reduced to the event of revelation itself, the appearance of the presence of God, and to the claims that this makes on the human person and persons.

About revelation, all they can say is “something happens to the human person” that forms a part of but does not fully belong to the time-space continuum, and which fundamentally re-orients human subjectivity in its light.

3] Why call it revelation if it is not the traditional meaning of revelation? Who would it speak to?
I guess I’d call it revelation because I don’t know what else to call it. Revelation is revelation. It’s not “just” aesthetic –or psychological, or sociological. Buber-Rosenzweig spoke to God’s reality in the world. For some this might not provide enough content.

Lots of people don’t take to abstract art, or might like abstract art without wanting it in religion. But, the minimum of truth claims speaks to people like me who are
[1] both skeptical regarding dogmatic assertions of religious faith and traditional claims to religious authority, and [2] also open to religion and to spirituality.

There is a simplicity, grandeur, and coherence in this type of picture that intensifies consciousness, like blinding light or a painting by Mark Rothko. Is it Jewish? As I read him, Buber never rejected form per se, just dead form. Jewish thought, speech, and acts were the garbs through which he and Rosenzweig saw this light.

4] As one of secular Jewish background, what do you think of the future of Jewish secularism? Do you like projects such as David Biale’s attempt at theology of Jewish secularism?

As an ideological, anti-religious platform, Jewish secular-ism is a dead dog. But as a worldly
life-habit, I think most Jews today remain secular. Indeed, it probably means that almost all Jews, religious or not, live under conditions of secularity. This means [1] slipping out from under the necessary and final control of rabbinic authority, [2] turning Torah and mitzvoth into folkways for those repelled by or indifferent to religion, but not to Jewishness, [3] turning Jewish belief and religious practice into spirituality for the spiritual seekers, and [4] interest in the arts and pop culture.

In all this, I follow Charles Taylor. According to Taylor, secularity does not ipso facto reject religion. In “a secular age,” religion may not constitute a privileged social default-setting. It does, however, represent one live option, among other, non-religious ones. Or as per Rawls, religion represents one type of “comprehensive community” that participates in the larger project of “political liberalism,” alongside other types of comprehensive communities. Or as per Jakobsen and Pellegrini, rather than exclude religion tout court, secularism actually makes new forms of religious life possible.

Taylor’s point, by the way, is very much in line with Biale’s thinking, for whom religion is a formative part of Jewish culture.

5] Why do you like Eliezer Berkovits as a thinker?

In my estimation, Berkovits made all sorts of claims about “authentic Judaism,” which on the surface I find quite obnoxious. But what he regarded as “authentic Judaism” was really quite stunning for me as a liberal Jew. He was genuinely open to doubt and anger about God and providence. More than anything, it seems to me that Berkovits thought was based first and foremost on deep commitments to ahavat and klal Yisrael. As an empiricist (his dissertation was on Hume), Berkovits was sensitive to lived-life, not simply concepts and constructs.

6] Do you feel closed out of Orthodox or Rabbinic discourse? Does that affect your view of Jewish studies?

In my scholarship and university teaching, Orthodoxy represents one possible subject-position regarding religion and culture in the modern period. Some of its manifestations strike me as coherent, others less so. This is also true of liberalism.

Ideologically, what concerns me is the tendency towards trying to own Judaism coupled with the tendency towards sectarian enclavism. From this I feel completely shut out. In Israel, as I see it, the problem is particularly problematic. In the U.S. it matters less. I would also like to think that, like any system, orthodoxy is open and multivalent.

Personally and intellectually, I’ve always felt welcome in those orthodox circles that have been open to me. I admire the warm facility and easy fluidity with Jewish things. I’d point to formative encounters growing up in Baltimore, as well as interactions with colleagues and students in the U.S. and in Israel.

As for rabbinic discourse, it depends what you mean. I’m most familiar with midrash which now interests me less than the Bavli, which interests me a lot. I’m drawn to a formal approach to Torah which is this-worldly, framed around very plastic, theoretical notions of space and objects, and spatial relations; less driven by necessity, and open to pushing out the limits of theoretical possibility.
Kabbalah gives me the willies.

7] What are you working on now? why?

Two projects, one on aesthetics of classical German Jewish liberalism. I’ll start with Mendelssohn in the 18th century, and move on through Geiger and maybe Graetz to Hermann Cohen at the start of the 20th.

For all its faults, liberalism still seems to me to be the most coherent way to conceive and organize modern Jewish culture and religion. As I see it, liberal Judaism was best able to articulate a place for religion in the new secular order of things. (If only it could make that place more robust. There’s the rub, yes? and my attraction to orthodoxy.)

Clearly, my conception of liberalism is idiosyncratic. For me liberalism is more than comprehensive secularism, atomistic individualism, and cold reason. What draws me to classical German Jewish liberalism is the combination of ideas, sentiment, imagination, and style. I am particularly interested in the bourgeois articulation and interaction between three (not two!) kinds of space: public space, domestic space, and the civic space of synagogue life, which is an in-between kind of place mediating between the public and private.

The other project is on postmodern Jewish religion in which I will look to the determination of religious thought and practice by images and the imagination, simulacra and virtuality. Instead of approaching the image as a “symbol” referring to some unknowable external reality, I want with this project to explore the “truth,” force, or place of religion and holiness within the image itself. I’m basing it on the Bavli and Baudrillard.

8] What sort of philosophic preparation would you recommend for someone interested in Jewish thought?

[1] Deep, ongoing engagement in Jewish thought and texts (with the Schottenstein Talmud and Matt’s Zohar translation, liberal Jews no longer have an excuse to claim ignorance).
[2] Getting lost in thinkers and theoretical fields outside Judaism. Start with the history of continental thought, but get into the current moment (aesthetics, critical theory, ecology, gender, media, political theory, pragmatism, Wittgenstein).

9] Do you see yourself as a follower of Buber or a post-modern? why?
I’m still with Buber, whom I like better than Rosenzweig. He’s less pretentious, more fluid and genuine. I like him because he’s modern.
I guess I’m also postmodern, although in general I prefer the term “contemporary.” I don’t care much for Levinas, Marion, or religious Derrida. Their concepts strike me as weirdly static (the other, gift, the impossible, messianicity without messinainism). I loved the Derrida of deconstruction, and Deleuze for the animating volatility they bring to concepts and structures.

6 responses to “An interview with Prof Zachary J. Braiterman

  1. I’ve noticed that theorists often try to talk about aesthetics more broadly, but once talk of art enters the discussion it dominates and drowns out everyday aesthetic experience. But when everything becomes aesthetic and it is no longer an interesting category. I’m not sure exactly how this relates to Braiterman’s work, but his claim to explore aesthetics as “the science of perception” to me is in tension with a sustained engagement with high art, so I wonder if he could clarify what he is doing.

  2. I have a question about Berkovits on revelation for one of the few people who specialize in both Buber and Berkovits. In the passage below from Berkovits, where do you see this the same as Buber/Rosenzweig? And where do you see Berkovits going off in his dialectic theology or Orthodox perspective?

    “The Paradox of the Encounter” in God, Man, and History (1965):
    God’s presence seems to be threatening; it imperils the life of the person to whom it wishes to communicate itself… Standing at the mountain of Sinai, the children of Israel trembled with fear at the voice of God, which yet was conferring on them their greatest distinction… The peril that emanates from “contact” with the Divine Presence, has nothing to do either with the sinfulness of man or with the judgment of the Almighty. It is something quite “natural”, almost “physical”, if one may say so. A man wilts in the heat of the midday sun, or dies of exhaustion if he is exposed too long to cold weather. Often mere lightning and thunder or the tempest of the elements frighten him. How, then, dare he hope to stand in the presence of the ultimate source of all energy and all power in the cosmos; how dare he approach it and survive!… Thus we are faced with a strange paradox. The God of religion, we have found must be a living one. And a living God is one who stands in relationship to the world, i.e., a God who not only is but is also for man, as it were, who is concerned about man… Now we find that the encounter threatens the very existence of man.., there can be no religion without some active relationship between man and God; in the relationship, however, man cannot survive.

    The paradox is resolved by God, when He “shows” Himself to man. God, who reveals His “unbearable” Presence to the helpless creature, also sustains man in the act of revelation… Man is threatened and affirmed at the same time. Through the peril that confronts him, he is bound to recognize his nothingness before God; yet, in the divine affirmation, the highest conceivable dignity is bestowed upon him: he is allowed into fellowship with God… The dual nature of man, which emerges in the basic religious experience, found its classical formulation in the words of the Psalmist, when he explained: “What is man, that thou are mindful of him? And the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him? Yet Thou hast made him but lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.” Man, who is “dust and ashes” and is yet “crowned with glory and honor’ is the corollary to God, whose throne is the heaven and footstool is the earth and who yet looks on him who is “poor and of a contrite spirit”… Through the encounter Judaism first learned of God, who is almighty and yet cares for man, Supreme Lord and yet a friend.

  3. There is a well know tradition of overthrowing the Gods in the name of not just liberty and autonomy but as part of becoming an individual and developing/creating one’s own vision or voice. This view in essence was promoted by Shelly, Emerson, Whitman, Wilde, Nietzsche and many others , each saying over this thesis in a slightly different way. How does this idea relate to the Buber/Rosenzweig understanding of redemption and revelation? Is the latter more of a one time being touched by an angel experience which in turn leads to a deeper acceptance of God either as a presence or as source of mitzvot? And how do you see religious Jewish life in the context of a liberal society that includes many ends? Do you value having an active religious life against the background of a larger humane and liberal culture because you feel such a culture would be progressive and of aesthetic value, or is such a culture a prolegomena of sorts to other deeper religious values?

    Since asking such questions is a rare treat, I’ll ask one more question, mostly out of curiosity. Why do you thing Buber Rosenzweig is the primary legacy of German Jewry, and not the Lukacs, Benjamin, Frankfort School of secular criticism?

  4. I’ll try to provide something of an answer to the probing questions by AS, Alan Brill, and ej. I’m hope I can do them justice. . My responses are introduced by my intitials “ZJB.”

    1) AS | April 14, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Reply
    ZJB: I think AS is right, but this is going to get complicated. [1] I would submit that a lot of high art, seeks to find its place in the everyday world (Cubism, Dada, American straight photography, Bauhaus, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, etc.). So high art tries to take its stance in the real world of objects and social relations. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In general, there is always the danger that high art will tend to drown out more everyday aesthetic experience. Avant-garde art always seeks to break down the line separating high art and everyday life, always by means of…more art. This is why I find myself un-persuaded by avant-gardist criticism (Peter Burger, Hal Foster, Slavoy Zizek). I prefer and find much less pretentious the old art-for-art’s sake notion of art, because it proponents understood that art is something in particular and that not everything is art.

    AS is therefore also right to say that [2] the concepts tend to get dull when everything is reduced to “aesthetics.” (I’d say the same thing about ethics.) This is where the Venn diagram comes in handy. There are vast areas of overlap between aesthetics, art, and religion, without them actually constituting each other. But having recognized that in theory, we run the danger that in practice we will have done precisely just that. I run this risk in my own thinking. About this I can only trust my judgment, understanding that legal, political, and ethical phenomena do not easily lend themselves to reductionist aesthetic analysis. The mundane realia of political life and law and the experience of catastrophic suffering are two good examples. As a general rule, theorists of whatever stripe (law, ethics, art) always need to rely on the criticism of others to call them out as to their own overreaching. This should not be too complicated. Take for example my own work. If a critic like AS reads it and finds it interesting, then perhaps I have done my job responsibly.

    2) Alan Brill | April 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Reply
    ZJB: To be honest, I never understood God, Man, and History in the sense that I was never able to get a critical handle on it. I think the passage cited by Alan is both overwritten and underwhelming. Buber made the same point much more succinctly in I and Thou (something along the lines of “I am nothing/everything depends on me”). Much of it sounds like Buber-Rosenzweig. In With God in Hell, Berkovits even mentions the God-human relation as an I-Thou. So there is definitely an influence. But it seems all too vaguely “sublime” in the technical sense intended by Kant. First the moment which shatters the human person and human understanding, and then the second moment in which human subjectivity is recouped. It’s also, perhaps not “interesting” in the sense intended by AS in his critique above. Is there anything specifically orthodox here? Probably not. So maybe that’s the interesting point. An orthodox conception of revelation that is, in the end, not too terribly orthodox.

    3) ej | April 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Reply

    ZJB: I don’t think the Buber-Rosenzweig project was as individualistic as the romantic-Emersonian-Nietzschean one. While I think both Buber and Rosenzweig were both egotists of the highest order, they actually wrote very little about cultivating their own sense of personhood. This is a modernist sensibility perhaps, this anti-subjectivist impulse. The subject that Buber-Rosenzeweig wanted to cultivate and deepen was “Judaism,” which they viewed in the light of revelation, not as a one-time event, but as God’s ongoing presence in the world. Rosenzweig was drawn to mitzvot, Buber to other types of living Jewish form.

    As for religious life in a secular society with many different ends and with AS’s comment in mind, I’d only say that religious ends remain religious ends. There is at least one end in religion that I think is unique to western religion: closeness to God, cleaving to God, being with God. While this end is correlate to other ends (political, ethical, aesthetic), they are not substitutable with these other ends. That’s why I think the Buber-Rosenzweig legacy is the supreme legacy of German Judaism…for understanding Judaism and for religion, not for understanding political theory. If Lukacs, Benjamin, and Adorno help us think about religion, they do so from the side. In an ideal world, all these different ends (political, religious, aesthetic) would sustain and deepen each other; and maybe they sometimes do, even in our own imperfect world.

  5. ZJB- I think that EJ is onto something with his Benjamin-Adorno comment.
    As I watch my enclave prepare for the holiday, I get a sense that it would be perfect for a Walter Benjamin Archives Project. Much of Orthodoxy makes itself know in the desires of the market, the political, the interpellation, and the culture of production. I go into the take out store on Friday and the owner frames passover in terms of Israeli politics, I go to other stores and see the selling of mass produced reproductions- even a “Jerusalem stone” store. Orthodoxy may have more to do with culture in the Benjamin sense than religious experience in the Buber-Rosenzweig sense. To be part of orthodox relgion is to buy into a set of desires and attitudes and thereby commercial products.

    • zachary braiterman

      Without wanting to turn this into a private conversation, let me say that I agree almost 100% with Alan against the Buber-Rosenzweig conception of religious revelation.

      A not so quick caveat: the Buber-Rosenzweig conception of revelation would include as well Benjamin’s conception of revolution –the way in which new art (for Benjamin, this was surrealism and film) serves to shock consciousness out of received encrusted habits and into new revolutionary directions. It would also include Adorno’s conception of abstract art as a kind of otherworldy form of sensation that doubles back to secure criticism of the established social order.

      But yes, Alan is right. Instead of revelation ala Buber-Rosenzweig and Rudolf Otto, Alan’s desciption of Passover preparations in his neighborhood has a Geertzian feel of a “thick description.” It is one that resonates with Marx and Gramsci on ideology, hegemony, and fetishism. This to me sounds more correct in terms of getting at lived quotidian forms of religious experience.

      Somewhere, though, I would still want to argue that the Buber-Rosenzweig-Benjaminian notion of revelation and revolution as profound, demanding spiritual realization and reorientation still counts for something and makes sense for some people at some moment in their lives. I can only speak for myself.

      Look, maybe I’m old fashioned. I really don’t know. I’m just about to turn 48. I grew up in Habonim in the mid to late 1970s, still under the star that old modernist paradigm filtered through the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and all that; not to mention Spinoza, Nietzsche, and I.B. Singer. So no, I don’t fully trust myself and neither should anyone else. I am what I am.

      I just wonder how these things play out for younger people whose experience of things (be they secular or frum) is more seamless and integrated; or for even younger people who may soon be entering into a much less settled, less secure, and more disjointed social environment.

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