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modern Jewish thought (the tradition of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig) is clearly dated, maybe outdated.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
 both skeptical regarding dogmatic assertions of religious faith and traditional claims to religious authority, and  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  slipping out from under the necessary and final control of rabbinic authority,  turning Torah and mitzvoth into folkways for those repelled by or indifferent to religion, but not to Jewishness,  turning Jewish belief and religious practice into spirituality for the spiritual seekers, and  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?
 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).
 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.