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Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein

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Distinguished philosopher Hilary Putnam, who is also a practicing Jew, questions the thought of three major Jewish philosophers of the 20th century—Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas—to help him reconcile the philosophical and religious sides of his life. An additional presence in the book is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, although not a practicing Jew, thought about religion in ways that Putnam juxtaposes to the views of Rosenzweig, Buber, and Levinas. Putnam explains the leading ideas of each of these great thinkers, bringing out what, in his opinion, constitutes the decisive intellectual and spiritual contributions of each of them. Although the religion discussed is Judaism, the depth and originality of these philosophers, as incisively interpreted by Putnam, make their thought nothing less than a guide to life.

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1 Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein

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In 1997 a long-lost notebook of Wittgenstein’s was published under the title Denkbewegungen (Thought-movements).1 Wittgenstein had recorded this notebook in Cambridge in the years 1930–1932 and then again at Skjolden in Norway in 1936–1937.

The first remark in the notebook (in my translation) reads: “Without some courage, one cannot write a sensible remark about oneself.” The second remark consists of just three words: “I believe sometimes” [Ich glaube manchmal] (19).

Ludwig Wittgenstein is not a “Jewish philosopher,” despite his Jewish ancestry.2 He came, after all, from a family that had been Christian for two generations, and whose own religious reflections, although certainly relevant to those who think about the philosophy of religion, were rarely3 on the Jewish religion, about which there is no reason to suppose he had any substantial knowledge. Nonetheless, I am going to discuss a certain similarity I find in Wittgenstein’s attitudes toward philosophy and those of Franz Rosenzweig, one of the best-known Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century.4

 

2 Rosenzweig on Revelation and Romance

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In “The New Thinking,” the essay from which I quoted in chapter 1, Rosenzweig provides valuable information about the structure and purposes of The Star of Redemption (published four years earlier).1 Rosenzweig is well aware that the Star is a difficult book. But he thinks the difficulties the reader faces are in part common to all significant philosophical works. As he explains in this essay:2

The first pages of philosophical books are met by the reader with special reverence. He believes that they are to be the basis for all that follows. Therefore he also thinks that it would suffice to refute them, in order to have refuted the whole. Hence the enormous interest in Kant’s doctrine of space and time in the form in which he developed it in the beginning of the Critique; hence the comical attempts to “refute” Hegel with respect to the first triple-step of his Logic, and Spinoza with respect to his definitions.3 And hence the helplessness of the “general reader” [Rosenzweig uses the English words here] before philosophical books. He thinks they must be “especially logical,” by which he means the dependence of each subsequent sentence on each preceding one, such that when the famous one stone is pulled out “the whole comes tumbling down.” In truth, this is nowhere less the case than in philosophical books. Here a sentence does not follow from its predecessor, but, much more likely, from its successor. It will be of little help to whomever has not understood a sentence or paragraph if, in his conscientious belief that he may leave nothing behind uncomprehended, he reads it over and over again, or even starts once more from the beginning. Philosophical books defy the ancien regime strategy that thinks it may not leave any unconquered fortresses in the rear; they want to be conquered in a Napoleonic manner, in a bold advance on the enemy’s main force, after whose defeat the small border fortresses will fall on their own. (112–113)

 

3 What I and Thou Is Really Saying

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In Israelis and the Jewish Tradition, David Hartman speaks of the disastrous psychological burden of what he calls “event-grounded theology”:

The Six-Day War taught me that a deep part of me agreed with certain features of [Yehudah] Halevi’s1 understanding of Judaism. Nevertheless, I also vividly recall the extreme emotional change from the elation over the victory to the despair and anxiety that gripped the country during and after the Yom Kippur war. Although I still acknowledged the power of events, I now recognize the manic-depressive consequences possible in an event-grounded theology. I am drawn to the sobriety of Maimonides and the Talmudic tradition as ways of moderating the event-driven passions of traumatic historical events.2

If one has ever read the major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and then the twelve so-called “minor prophets” through in succession, one knows just how intensely the problem Hartman is wrestling with was felt by all of them. For biblical Judaism—Judaism before the sages of the Talmud (let alone the philosophers)—bad things were supposed to happen to bad people (or peoples—there is considerable wavering in the Jewish Bible between the idea that an angry God will punish a whole people and the thought that he will spare righteous individuals), and the oscillation between optimism and despair produced by the experiences of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities is palpable in the prophetic writings. Perhaps the most moving lines in that most tragic of books, Eikha (Lamentations) are these: “We have transgressed and rebelled; you have not pardoned. You have covered yourself with anger and pursued us; you have slain us without pity. You have covered yourself with a cloud so that prayer should not pass through.” (Lam. 3:42–44)

 

4 Levinas on What Is Demanded of Us

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Levinas survived the Second World War under difficult and humiliating circumstances,1 while his family, with the exception of his wife and daughter, perished. These experiences may well have shaped Levinas’s sense that what is demanded of us is an “infinite” willingness to be available to and for the other’s suffering. “The Other’s hunger—be it of the flesh, or of bread—is sacred; only the hunger of the third party limits its rights,” Levinas states in the preface to Difficult Freedom. To understand fully what Levinas means here would be to understand his whole philosophy. I want to attempt a beginning at such an understanding.

Levinas’s audience is typically a gentile audience; he celebrates Jewish particularity in essays addressed to Christians and to modern people generally. Levinas is fully aware of this. Thus he writes (in “A Religion for Adults,” 13), “Lest the union between men of goodwill which I desire to see be brought about only in a vague and abstract mode, I wish to insist here on the particular routes open to Jewish monotheism.” A few pages later, he writes:

 

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