6/22/04

Constructing Jewish culture, III

Just to refresh your memory, we're talking about the article by Alan Brill in Edah. (See the original post.) My friends are dissecting and ruminating like the humanities professors (or assistant professors) they are. Today it's the turn of Ken Moss (whom I know by his Jewish name, Binyomen), a member of the history faculty at Johns Hopkins.

Oh, and to repeat: any stiltedness is due to my translation (we correspond in Yiddish).


Well, I'm not so thrilled by the article. But:

First of all, it's a little bit like reinventing the wheel, because the very idea of creating an all-encompassing Jewish culture is the leading idea of Jewish thought in the 20th century, from Peretz (Vos felt in undzer literatur [What's Missing in Our Literature]) and Bialik (Ha-sefer ha-ivri [The Hebrew Book]) to Rosenzweig and Scholem. The modern Orthodox and the Reform are only today coming to an old idea because they both (and here I disagree with Marc) grow out of the same German milieu in which Kultur had to mean Deutschtum, Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven, and Judentum meant only "religion." But if this article can lead to your more creative ideas, I'll thank Brill too! It might also be true that we here in America need to rediscover what was already known in Eastern Europe in 1910 and in Germany in 1920, and that we need to discover it by means of "religion," however frum or fray that religion might be.

But there's a more basic objection which I should mention: the fact that Brill sees among the evangelical Protestants a model for the creation of culture outside the framework of "liberalism." His entire style, at the end of the day, with all his theories of anthropology and cultural practice, is to construct "culture" as an all-encompassing concept, in which one can fit all fields and areas of human creativity, among them the natural sciences, ethics, etc.

But in this way he's deliberately removing the division between "is" and "ought." Empirically speaking it's true, of course, that every individual and society swims, so to speak, in a sea of culture, and that there's no field of life which is beyond or over culture (in the sense of a system of discourse, or of communal meaning). But -- and here I'm demonstrating that I'm an adherent of Englightenment a la Kant -- I would say that ethically and philosophically one must make a distinction between different areas of culture which have very different demands and rules.

Ethics and science, for example, in a concrete context, are empirically speaking culturally specific. But cultural specificity should not dominate them - quite the opposite. Science must be brought under the control of rational, trasnparent, human reason, and ethics (and politics as well) must derive from general human grounds. Otherwise we have barbarism, "Deutsche Wissenschaft," "democracy isn't suited to the Chinese," etc.

To say it differently, I will teach my child that one mustn't rob or kill not because our tradition teaches this, but because humanity teaches it. We should familiarize ourselves with the Jewish ethical tradition in its various forms, but our ethics is not dominated by this or that tradition, by this or that culture. Or let's talk about politics: politically speaking, the democratic foundations of our tradition are quite poor no matter how creative you get, and even poorer with regard to non-Jews (an urgent matter in the State of Israel) -- but this is only a problem for those, like Brill, who want an all-encompassing Jewish culture.

In this sense, I'm stuck in the 19th century, but with the point that if "civilization" must belong to all humanity, culture (everything, that is, which has to do with the development of taste, esthetic, and distinction outside the framework of politics, ethics, and culture) must not be German, nor French, but a Jewish culture which is both well-established and open.

Yours,

B.

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