Saturday, December 25, 2010

David N. Myers on history vs theology in German-Jewish thought

David N. Myers, The Problem of History in German-Jewish Thought: Observations on a Neglected Tradition (Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Breuer). The Samuel Braun Lecture in the History of the Jews of Prussia. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press. 2001.

While I'm finding Myers' work on the history of alternative Jewish nationalisms (with a focus on cultural Zionism) interesting, I'm finding myself irritated with this essay from the beginning. Myers ponders the opposition between self-authorizing, self-insulating theology and an historicism which undermines it.  Myers aims to show that this tension is not limited to Christianity or to Islam but has a substantial history in Jewish thought. Several instances are cited, for instance Baruch Kurzweil's war on the "Jerusalem School" for its unforgivable tendency "to lower Judaism from its absolute validity to a state of relativism." Moreover,
If the perverse fascination with mysticism went hand in hand with historicism, there was another partner in what Kurzweil considered the unholy trinity of secular modernity: nationalism. Where mysticism sought to subvert the normative tradition, nationalism aimed to "normalize" Judaism by removing its veil of uniqueness. In this regard, it was an ideal partner for historicism. Kurzweil was well aware that, in Europe, nationalism and historicism were close and mutually affirming allies from the early 19th century on. More often than not, historical scholarship had been called upon to tell the story of the nation. Nationalism, for its part, provided not only intellectual inspiration, but also an institutional home for historicism in the form of universities, learned societies, and large collaborative projects.
Myers finds this fascinating.
Making sense of Baruch Kurzweil's contentious battle with Jewish historicism is a fascinating challenge. One can readily point to a number of intersecting explanatory layers: his iconoclastic personality; his personal animosity and inferiority complex toward the Hebrew University (where he sought and failed to gain a professorial appointment); his ambivalence toward Zionism, and
particularly Zionist claims to intellectual or spiritual rejuvenation; his attention to the moral caesura occasioned by the Holocaust; and his uncommonly keen awareness, especially for a non-historian, that historicism was in the throes of crisis in postwar European intellectual culture.
While I too am drawn to solve historical-ideological puzzles, I am far from fascinated at the starting gate. Let's see where Myers takes us. He puts Kurzweil in abeyance while he takes us on a historical journey beginning in the 12th century. Judah Ha-Levi and Maimonides disdained history. But 18th century Enlightenment paved the way for 19th century historicism, which involves a new conception of mundane causality and context. This was bound to cause conflict between Jewish thinkers imbued with historicist prerogatives and traditional transcendentalists. But Myers is not so much interested in the fussy traditionalists as in "Jewish figures who, regardless of their adherence to traditional ritual, were deeply and unapologetically immersed in a secular intellectual world, had absorbed the impact of historicism, and sought to protest against it—from within." One example is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's opposition to Heinrich Graetz. Nietzsche, too, railed against historicism, and he was an influence on Jewish thinkers. Debate raged in Christian theological circles as well. And then there is the neo-Kantian movement. Hermann Cohen found historicism suspect, opposed Zionism, and argued against Emst Troeltsch.

The discussion of various figures continues until we come to a sustained discussion of Franz Rosenzweig, who was convinced he found an escape route from relativism, ultimately taking refuge in religious faith, with a great affinity to Christian theologians. He also chafed against Zionism, fearing the descent into time.
In this [1919] lecture on "The Spirit and Epochs of Jewish History," Rosenzweig declared that the Jewish people refused to succumb to time, indeed, refused to be reduced to a scheme of periodization. On the contrary, the "Jewish spirit breaks the shackles of (historical) epochs" and "walks undisturbed through history."
Myers moves on to Isaac Breuer, who sought to "overcome the emptiness of bourgeois life", but on an entirely different basis than, say, the Frankfurt School. To say the least: "Breuer's premise led him to conclude that the Jews, unlike other peoples, were not subordinate to the normal forces of nature or human will." Yet he believed in teaching history.

How Myers could sustain interest in this drivel is beyond me. Well, there's one obvious basis of interest:
Breuer was a steadfast believer in the existence of a Jewish nation and a fierce opponent of the idea of a secular Jewish state. Throughout his life he waged battle against Zionism, whose impious disregard for Torah rendered it "the most terrible enemy that has ever risen against the Jewish nation."
This does not mean that Breuer wanted to stay out of Palestine.

In his summation, Myers evinces a sense of regret and in some way sympathizes with the impetus to "resist the powerful pull of historicism" even while being irrevocably drawn toward it. But so what? None of this metaphysical folderol yields the slightest understanding of one's historical situation. Whatever Myers thinks is historicism is not historical materialism, which is excluded from consideration, and the resistance to secular historical consciousness is a denial of reality utterly opposed to any scientific, that is intellectually honest and non-delusional, comprehension of history and society. Ultimately, there is going to be a draw-down between Jewish thinkers who do not function within the confines of "Jewish thought", i.e. all the intellectual innovators who really matter, and a retreat into a specifically Jewish metaphysics, however permeated with the influence of Christianity and German philosophy. Myers is lost; he wants to say something, but he really has nothing to express other than regret over where he finds himself deposited in history.

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