Back to the book(s)

I'm usually reading a number of books at once (my attention span is solitary, poor, etc.), and there are some I've been in the middle of for ages -- who knows if I'll ever make it through Proust? On occasion, though, I am moved to have another try at a tome that's been intimidating me from across the room.

A recent article in the new issue of Conservative Judaism got me to pick up an old unfinishable standby.* (The "new" issue that came in the mail is dated summer, 2003. A delay like that doesn't make it any newer, but it does lend an air of nonchalant, old-world charm, like the Yiddish journals I get in the mail dated many months ago.)

There are several essays of note. Eugene Borowitz, in "The Pivotal Issue in a Century's Jewish Thought," remarks on the contemporary force of the ethical model of Judaism even after the crumbling of its philosophical (read: Kantian) foundations: "the continuing power of the ethical vision even without a sustaining contemporary intellectual theory of ethics." In his concluding section, the author (himself a Jewish philosopher) well-nigh throws up his hands and leaves the field:

As one devoted to thinking and to the unity of God, I hope that one day our Jewish religious commitment to the ethical will come to a Jewish religious intellectual paradigm as widely accepted among us as was the modern one for much of the past century. But for the moment, it seems far more likely that we shall have many theologies expressing the diverse religious intuitions in our community, a situation not unlike the experience of most centuries in our long history.

Yes, well, we can always hide our face in the skirts of history: someone, somewhere, during some century of the interminable Exile, has done something comparable to what we are doing now. But that's cold comfort, especially when you have a good, long think about the "diverse religious intuitions" in our community. I might be an elitist, but I can't help but think that these intuitions, often poorly expressed and completely contradictory, are a mightly slim reed on which to build a theological infrastructure.

Not being a philosopher (nor even playing one on TV), I can't presume to offer the alternative, unifying religious-intellectual paradigm which Borowitz seeks. I am puzzled, however, that he doesn't mention the interesting developments in Christian philosophical theology. I am thinking of the well-received and widely-read (well, comparatively widely-read, at any rate) work of Alvin Plantinga, who's written some very interesting philosophy on belief in God -- how can such belief be warranted, given the obvious and manifold difficulties?

But about the book I was moved to pick up again: Borowitz refers to Franz Rosenzweig as a possible saving philosophical grace for Jewish thought in the coming century. This made me wonder if anyone (who's not writing their doctoral thesis on the book) has ever read The Star of Redemption all the way through. Then I realized that the book had been sitting on my desk for the better part of a year, a bookmark stuck somewhat forlornly near the end of the first Gate (if I'm remembering rightly what he calls the larger divisions).

Last night, while being the only person of two in the house not watching The Practice, I gave old Franz another try. Suffice it to say that I find it no easier going than the first time, but now I have a different approach. I think it might be the perfect book for the intelligent layperson: the Jew interested in theology not so much as a universe of philosophically defensible assertions, but as a rich, funky, literary raw material open for the soul's browsing. In other words, just the sort of various intuition which Borowitz is talking about.

There are some books, I think, which can only be read in this way, because trying to pin down the twists and turns of the argument might not be worth it, and even inimical to the spirit of the work. I think of Rosenzweig and (for example) Kook more as poets than rigorous philosophers, perhaps because I myself am more a poet than a rigorous philosopher. Their books should be not so much closely read as surfed, riding lightly on the waves of fever-pitch prose without paying so much attention to every questionable lemma.

*You'll note that the Web site hasn't been updated for a few years. Par for the course as far as the Conservative movement's Web presence goes, I'm afraid -- lots of muticolored gimcracks but a paucity of solid material.

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