Rabbi Dr. Zohar Atkins (here and here) is the founder of Etz Hasadeh and a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a DPhil in Theology from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and semikha from JTS. He is the author of a philosophic work An Ethical and Theological Appropriation of Heidegger’s Critique of Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and a book of poetry Nineveh (Carcanet, 2019). He is the author of a weekly d’var Torah newsletter: tinyletter.com/etzhasadeh
His organization Etz Hasadeh is both an emergent community oriented around the existential study of Jewish texts, philosophy, and poetry, and a lab for rethinking the field of Jewish education writ large. We promote the development of personalized, psychologically inflected, existential meaning-making skills. Etz Hasadeh offers an intervention in the way Tanakah and Rabbinic literature are taught and studied, clearing the way for a poetic approach to learning that empowers students to engage ancient images and ideas as metaphors for the challenges of contemporary life.
In this response essay, Zohar Atkins has several points. First, and easiest to grasp, is that the term postmodernism is difficult to define and may ultimately be more of a mood than a theory. Second, and more substantively, Torah is about continuity, tradition, mesorah, and grounded readings, not skepticism and the limits of knowledge. Therefore, to Atkin’s ear much of the discussion of consensus, self-acceptance, and progressive revelation sound like 19th century opinions of the followers of Zechariah Frankel.
Third, postmodernism is clearly not Existentialism, and Franz Rosenzweig already rejected the early 20th century idea of living “as if” as inauthentic. Fourth, he finds problems with Feldmann-Kaye’s use of Heidegger who rejected humanism and instead sought an opening to truth, an unconcealing of Being allowing us to think.
Atkins does try to explain the use of postmodernism as a way of saying “God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile.” Yet, he concludes that: “these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are fundamentalist, mythic.” For Atkins, postmodernism has to treat every myth as an idol. Atkins defines the task of the contemporary religious philosopher to live “shuttling back and forth” with “an agon with myth for philosophy and an agon with philosophy for myth. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me, seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance.”
Finally, Atkins considers thinking “a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task” in which engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. He appreciated the “effort to amplify and beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir),” by placing “it in conversation with the wisdom and insights of other traditions,” in this case postmodernism. He is deeply committed to the horizons of our lived Torah. For him, “Torah should speak to everything we know, love, and experience.”
Concerning Postmodernism and Jewish Thought-Zohar Atkins
Postmodernism is notoriously—though perhaps appropriately—difficult to define.
Is it a school of thought? A literary style propounded by a set of thinkers, writers, artists (often French)? A worldview rooted in skepticism so radical it always becomes its own object of critique? An aesthetic that fuses avant-garde and pop, a la Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara, John Cage, and Lady Gaga? A historical epoch dating to 1968? A fancy or pretentious synonym for contemporary? A way of saying modernism mamash (really modernism)?
If postmodernism is defined as an aversion to fixed labels and determinacy, is there any purchase to the term—l’shitato—according to its own standards, or is it a self-cancelling term, like a witness who comes before a court and says, “I am an unreliable witness”? Perhaps it is impossible to write about postmodernism; “one cannot look upon its face and live.”
If I were postmodern, I cannot be said to have an identity; rather identity is something I perform. There is no self, just presentation. To be a subject is to be a prisoner of the social order; my name-dropping does not actually refer to thinkers out there in the world, but only to the act of citation itself, a gesture, a miming of authority. In this sense, the string of proper names, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, is no different than those found in, say, a song with many names in the lyrics.
One reason for the confusion is that one of postmodernism’s chief proponents, Jean Francois Lyotard, defined (paradoxically) the postmodern condition as the end of “grand narratives.” Yet in so doing, Lyotard set up his own grand narrative, in which modernism was said to be naive and postmodernism was presented as the end of history. In this way, postmodernism’s self-representation is no different than the bombastic pronouncements of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Hegel’s Absolute Spirit; I suppose the main difference is the way in which these earlier iterations still aspired at some ideal, whereas postmodernism aspired to pursue with one hand what it took away with the other.
If Derrida has become a poster child for postmodernism, then perhaps what distinguishes postmodern thought from its critical antecedents is less its content than its mood, the mood of disenchantment, levity, comedy, neurosis, anti-messianism; or as Derrida put it “messianism without messianicity.”
Postmodernism and Judaism
When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the Roman Emperor Vespasian for a yeshiva in Yavneh (Gittin 56b) he exchanged politically doomed Temple-based Judaism for a new paradigm of Jewish life. Sometimes postmodernism is presented in this way.
Yet if rabbinic Judaism saw itself as continuous with its historical past, and still, at times, looked nostalgically to the figure of the Temple in its fantasies, postmodernists emphasized and venerated rupture, as implied in their prefix “post-”. Never mind that the slogan of literary modernism was “make it new” (Ezra Pound, translating an ancient Confucian sage); never mind that montage and irony and indeterminacy and ambiguity were already important conceits before postmodernism became a cultural shibboleth. Never mind that skepticism is an ancient tradition, that subjectivism took off with Descartes, that pragmatism was a Neo-Kantian idea already popularized by William James in the 19th century, or that the so-called “linguistic turn” can be traced to Wittgenstein, a modernist, if not earlier to Herder, Schlegel, and the romantic movement?
The ubiquity and unclarity of the term postmodern means that it often does more harm than help when appended to another term such as “Jewish thought” or “Jewish theology.” Does postmodern Jewish thought mean thought that is influenced by postmodern thinkers, thought that simply occurs in a historic period known as postmodern, or thought that is treated by critics as having the worst signature features of postmodern writing, namely, convolution, sophistry, relativism, a “retreat from judgment” (Arendt), etc.? The term is so contested that it is probably better just to say what one means than make appeal to this proper name; though one thing shared by postmoderns through their debt to Quintillian, Schlegel, and Kierkegaard, is that it is impossible to say what one means; to think we can is to commit the “intentional fallacy.” “There is nothing outside the text” (Derrida).
Even here, though, postmodern analysis proves no different than its modernist antecedents; for whether the analysis is structuralist or post-structuralist, Freudian or Foucauldian, the point is that the interpreter, and not the text itself, holds the key to its interpretation. In some ways this posture is quite compatible with a certain understanding of oral Torah, whereby the meaning of the written Torah falls to the rabbis rather than, say, the karaites, historians, or philologists. At the same time, the sages of the Talmud still sought to ground their arguments in a reading of verses from the Written Torah, and subsequently, in the precedent readings of earlier sages.
I am not an expert in the thought of Tamar Ross or Rav Shagar, yet I am a great admirer of anyone who, in an effort to amplify and beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir), places it in conversation with the wisdom and insights of other traditions; Torah should speak to everything we know, love, and experience. And even if Western thought is a kind of Exile, we should take comfort in knowing that “the divine presence goes into Exile with us.” Whether Ross, Shagar, and their expositor, Miriam Feldmann Kaye, succeed or fail, we should applaud their effort at kiddush hashem, of sanctifying (the Jewish) God. They follow the example of Maimonides, who said that if Aristotle’s thought were true, the Torah would have to be read in light of Aristotelian philosophy, and whose thought was, for a time, accused of being heretical until it became a dominant school of Jewish thought.
The irony and self-contradiction of a postmodern Torah, however, is the way in which it challenges the commonsense view of truth. How can the critique of truth itself be true? What is meant by “truth”?
Reading Feldmann Kaye’s interview, my impression is that she/Ross regards postmodernism in a positive light as the doctrine that truth is decided through intersubjective agreement. To me, though, that’s not postmodernism at all, but positivism, and I don’t see how it’s much different than the historicist view established by the Conservative movement in the 19th century. Perhaps the fundamental claim that revelation is ongoing, is culturally rooted, is emergent, is not different in kind, but only in degree, from the ideas of Zechariah Frankel. Majority rules is not postmodern, its just liberal. Minhag yisrael halachah hi (the customs of Israel are legally binding)—is no different than Vox populi Vox Dei or Rousseau’s theory of the general will. We find the norm of law by consensus in the Talmud; but law is not truth; and saying there are many truths a la postmodernism is different than saying we can’t know the one truth; the former is an ontological claim, while the later is an epistemological one.
For non-specialists for whom the above sounds rather dense, let’s just put it this way, Franz Rosenzweig criticizes the view that truth is decided by human will as “as if thinking,” a form of theological hedging whereby the non-believer says that the only way to live a good life is to act as if God exists. If postmodern Jewish theology is “as if” thinking, is Pascal’s wager 2.0, I find it weak. If postmodern theology just means existentialist religiosity, it’s both hardly new, and hardly radical. Kierkegaard and Rebbe Nachman share the view that one cannot have certain knowledge of anything, yet this self-skepticism becomes a tool for motivating a leap of faith that, unsurprisingly, is outwardly quite submissive to dogma and the protocols of religious observance. The only thing that distinguishes a religious existentialist and a regular eved hashem is the existentialist’s emphasis on interiority.
Feldmann Kaye invokes non-foundationalism as a hallmark of both postmodern thought and postmodern Jewish thought, yet ends up defining it in a foundationalist way as the agreement of people on what the truth is.
For Heidegger, truth is “unconcealment,” not social reality, which he sometimes derides as “hearsay” in Being and Time, nor is truth some kind of individual experience a la the romantics. Meanwhile, for Nietzsche, truth is perspectival, yet it is the task of strong artists and thinkers to will their truth into existence by exercising a will to power; consensus is for the herd of half-dead unoriginals who are still too bound up with “slave morality,” whether they be religious fundamentalists or bourgeois secularists (or, as we now see in our day, bourgeois, religious fundamentalists). Heidegger is a non-foundationalist insofar as he rejects systematic thought based on first principles, yet the reason for this rejection is not because he is skeptic, but because he believes foundationalism is ontologically impoverished, does not enable us to properly think, and therefore, flourish.
If non-foundationalism means we keep the Torah “simply because” we are thrown into a heritage, rather than because we have good rational reasons and justifications that can withstand critical (Western) enquiry, this is a kind of honest, modest, and yet Rube-Goldbergish way of utilizing academic thinkers to basically follow in the footsteps of Rebbe Nachman’s simpleton (see the story “chacham and tam”). It’s good therapy for people who are born into a thick knowledge of and commitment to Jewish life, but it is unlikely to win any one over; perhaps this is its virtue—it’s anti-patronizing, nice, polite pc liberalism. I happen to be a slave to God and you happen not to be, but, hey, these are both just lifestyles we inherited from our families.
If you believe that God revealed everything to Moses, all the oral law, and all the principles for expounding it, it is very difficult to make sense of the story in Menachot 29b in which Moses sits, confused, in the back of R. Akiva’s classroom. If Rabbi Akiva is so great, Moses asks, why wasn’t the Torah given to him? “Be quiet. Such did it come to me.”
One might be tempted to ask, similarly, why God did not reveal postmodern thought to Moses; why did God wait for our generation to reveal postmodern philosophy? To ask such a question, though, is to go crazy, for it is the kind of question that postmodern thought forbids asking with a straight face (it is somehow less absurd to ask why God waited to reveal relativity theory to Einstein).
On the other hand, if we translate it into metaphysical terms, we can say that God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile. But these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are fundamentalist, mythic. Postmodernism is monotheistic insofar as it treats every myth as an idol, even the myths of Sinai and the myths of an unbroken mesorah. My shuttling back and forth represents not postmodern theology, but an agon with myth for philosophy and an agon with philosophy for myth. Philosophy sought to defang myth; religion is the submission to it. To be a religious philosopher is to defang and submit at once, to make a myth of defanging while defanging it. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me, seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance. If I were an amora, I would suggest that this dissonance is divinely prescribed, that philosophy corresponds to the first set of (broken) tablets and myth to the second (whole) set, both of which were kept in the ark together. And if I were an amora (playing Abaye to my own Rava) I would counter, and say the first set refers to myth while the second set refers to philosophy. Teiku.
Use of Heidegger and Derrida in the Interview
Feldmann Kaye’s invocation of Heidegger is a tease; little besides the name Heidegger is given to us that suggests what a Heideggerian approach to revelation could involve, but even if there were, it is arguable whether Heidegger can be called postmodern. He is certainly viewed that way, negatively by Allan Bloom and positively by Richard Rorty. I have no doubt that Heidegger has much to contribute to contemporary Jewish life and thought, but none of the views espoused by Feldmann Kaye in the name of Shagar and Ross fit Heidegger’s thought too well, and none reflect a deep phenomenological influence; the value of cultural particularism is not unique to Heidegger and Heidegger would have eviscerated terms like “culture” and “experience” as remaining caught in a retrograde metaphysics of “humanism.”
When you compare Derrida to Heidegger, besides the linguistic and political differences, you find a tonal difference. Heidegger’s mood is heroic, tragic, messianic; Derrida’s is playful, jestful, cerebral. Heidegger and Derrida are both gnomic writers; yet one senses with Heidegger that he has something serious to say; with Derrida, one senses that the performance is the point, that there is nothing besides the rhetoric. In Heidegger, rhetoric serves the purpose of thought. In Derrida, one feels, there is nothing besides rhetoric. Derrida scholars can disagree; Heidegger reads as a reluctant spiritual Master, as a thinker. Derrida reads as a comedian, as Aristophanes to Heidegger’s Socrates, which isn’t to say Derrida isn’t serious or that there isn’t a seriousness to his jocularity, or that he doesn’t have something to say. Still, one never feels levity reading terms like Seinsfrage, Geworfenheit, Erschlossenheit, die Frage nach dem Technik; meanwhile, Derrida’s essays seem haughtily pitched to deflate everything of its gravity, as if any form of seriousness were somehow in danger of becoming an instrument of fascism. One can certainly make the argument that Heidegger is postmodern or else presages postmodern thought, yet his aesthetic—even when playful, even when self-questioning—has a devotional quality to it. We should consider whether postmodern Jewish thought and life require us to be jesters in the Derridean mold or pietist in the Heideggerian one. In the end, the issue of postmodernism might be one of tone and aesthetics more than content (after all, postmodernism can also be framed as a privileging of form and frame over content, e.g., “the medium is the message.”)
For those of us who aspire to think, who believe it is of the utmost import, and who, as Jews, or as religious folk, believe that thinking is a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task, engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. It may be necessary even as a Jacob’s ladder we climb and then kick away. I don’t believe postmodern thought often succeeds in “thinking,” yet I believe it helps us spot the ways in which we are not yet thinking, and this humility is needed today, not just for ethical and political reasons, but also for spiritual ones. To know that one is not yet thinking, is this not the awe of heaven?
I am grateful to Miriam Feldmann Kaye for introducing the question of postmodernism into the contemporary discussion of Jewish thought and theology, not because I believe postmodernism can save Jewish life or thought (I’m not sure any doctrine, even an anti-doctrinaire one could do this), but because the question of how to live a sincere, elevated, responsible, pious Jewish life that is critical, self-critical, and open-minded, is upon us.