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Archive for May, 2009

Jacob Neusner and the Supercession of Revelation by Intellectual History

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 19, 2009

Our Essential (Though Mistaken) Jacob Neusner

Hurd Baruch recently brought attention to the relevance of the work of Jacob Neusner to Christian apologetics in the traditionalist Catholic ezine New Oxford Review.   Baruch extablishes his importance (from a Catholic viewpoint) by the simple expedient of showing that the present pope, when he was still Joseph Ratzinger, took Neusner’s positions as the plumbline of Jewish theology which it was necessary to come to terms with when presenting the Gospel.  While all this is very interesting, it is not clear that Hurd Baruch has quite understood Neusner’s position, which would have been of importance even if it had never come to Ratzinger’s notice.  In the New Oxford Review article Baruch introduces Neusner as a scholarly orthodox rabbi and professor.  As shall be explained, the use of the miniscule in “orthodox” conveys more information than the typical reader of the magazine in question is likely to notice.  Neusner is in fact a Conservative (as in Conservative vs. Orthodox) scholar of Jewish religious literature.  From the point of view of Orthodoxy this makes him no more a “rabbi” than a Baptist preacher is a “priest” albeit that Neusner might be far more scholarly than most rabbis…or for that matter Christian priests.  Still, the question of truth always centers on whether you’ve gotten your answers right, not how smart you are.  My thesis is that, as far as human reasoning goes Jacob Neusner gets God and Man and Law (to borrow an old refrain from Bob Dylan) almost, but not quite, right.  This in itself makes Neusners philosophy important, being that penultimate rationalism which, if the Gospel did not exist, we would have to embrace to make the most of life in an imperfect world.

The shock line which Baruch quotes from Neusner is that “the conception of a Judeo-Christian tradition that Judaism and Christianity share is simply a myth in the bad old sense: a lie” (from Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition, 2003).  One has to love Neusner for departing from the pieties of American civil religion and the false gospel of political correctness.  But in truth this statment (as Neusner himself would agree) doesn’t go far enough.  The conception of Judeo-Christianity suffers not so much from incoherence as from neologism.  Neither Judaism or Christianity stand for any coherent tradition either, as anyone can see from the divided nature of the church, but equipped with a bit more scholarship we can speak confidently of multiple  “Judaisms” as well.

Now it is by no means clear that Neusner can speak for all of these Judaisms, but the particular Judaism for which he does speak for, what might be called rational-historical Judaism, occupies an important place in the system of possible human ideologies.  One might call its place “essential” in the same way that Mattew Arnold called the thought previous to his own period, “our essential 18th century.”  Of course Arnold was a Victorian Christian Humanist, and as such in a relation of polarity to the salon culture of the Enclyopedists and Enlighteners, but it was precisely the polarity which made the relationship essential.

Likewise Neusner’s rational-historical Judaism not only provides the most plausible and humane alternative to the Gospel today, but a valuable foil for Christian self-understanding.  This is because Neusner’s Hebraic rationalism is  much more stable (or to use Merleu-Pointy’s term, much more “major”) than standard Greco-Western rationalism, or for that matter, rationalism without adjectives.  After all, it shouldn’t be necessary to explain, after Kant, that such rationalisms, incapable of providing their own premises, invariably self-destruct, or as in the case of Nietzsche, turn into their own dialectical opposites.  This is so well known that we could almost speak of standard Greco-Western rationalism as “hysterical rationalism” or “latent irrationalism” or “rationalism-romanticism”…the latter phrase, or something close to it, having actually been used by the celbrated Ayn Rand!

Now Neusner, like most unprejudiced persons of sound mind, understands that this hysterical rationalism won’t do at all for the purposes of establishing a prudent and virtuous human community.  What follows is my surmise as to his basic thinking out of a solution, the solution based on rational-historical Judaism.  My surmise is that Neusner knows that most, although not all, human insanity is based on carnal drives, or what Judaism likes to call the “bad impulse”…this is sufficient in itself to overthrow any battlements that Greco-Western rationalism is likely to put in its path.  So one must put in an admixture of religion, but not just any religion.  Paganism won’t work, for the gods of paganism turn out to be no more than archetypal human drives, so one is fighting fire with fire.  One must resort to the oracles of the Source of Being contained in the Torah.  But Neusner senses (again I am surmising, perhaps at the man’s expense) a  second, even more dangerous, source of human irrationalty…the whirlwind of contact with objective divinity.  Again, Neusner is not the sort of scholar who speaks a great deal about this sort of thing, it is simply an unstated premise hovering on the periphery of his work…but minds of a different turn call this kind of contact “numenosity.”

In short, I surmise that Neusner’s whole project hinges on adding a trace amount, a homeopathic dose, of numinosity from the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob to the matrix of rationality.  At any rate, the results are rather satisfactory.  One can imagine not just individuals, but entire communities, living their lives out within the framework of historical-rational Judaism.  Unfortunately there have never been any such communities, there have only been Orthodox Jews living under Talmudic law, or Jews (including Neusner) who, like the rest of us, live under secular law in secular communities.  Mysteriously enough, this dosn’t have much to do with the nature of the law, but with metaphysics.

The difference between Neusner on the one side, and both Orthodox Jews and most Christians on the other, is that the latter take metaphysics seriously and the former does not.  Again, I am speaking of the man’s scholarship, not of his private life, of which I know nothing.  For people accustomed to thinking in New Testement terms, Neusner is a kind of para-Sadducee.  This may seem terribly unfair, for Neusner has spent his entire life laboring to make Jewish tradition available to the modern public, while the Sadducees were the classical rejectors of tradition in favor of what Christains would call “sola scriptura.”  However the Sadducees were also rationalists, or at least metaphysical minimalists…rejecting spirituality as a distraction on the way to the just society.

Of course Neusner has a vast amount of material to deal with, all of which was produced by the successors of the Pharasees, not the Saducees.  His over 900 scholarly works are just the tip on an iceberg spaning the depths of rabbinical history from the end of the Second Temple to the closing of the Babylonian Talmud around 500AD.  But like any scholar’s work, the significant of Neusner’s  accomplishment isn’t the bulk of his resume…it is the simple idea at its core.  Neusner’s idea is the displacement of revelation by intellectual history.  As indicated above, this can never be a complete displacement…for a complete displacement would entale the collapse of the entire structure.  But what does result is a a series of paradigm shifts, based on rabinical insights, which reinterpret the basic matter of the Torah on which each of the hermenutic structures rest.  This Torah matter is reduced to the role of a passive media out of which a series of Judaisms are constructed.  The prime agent therefore becomes the collective mind of the Rabbinical community…and not whatever revealed itself in the whirlwind.  One might say that Neusner has done for Jewish theology what Hegel did for philosophy…he has made it march forward in time in the service of increasing rationality and justice.

The irony of the situation is that the remaining communities which abide by the Talmud on a day to day basis will have nothing to do with Neusner, and in fact consider him a secularist.  It isn’t that they are reading a Talmud which is any different from Neusners, it is that they, unlike Neusner, take metaphysics…or the whirlwind if you will, seriously.  Judaism didn’t stop where Neusner leaves off in 500AD, it continued with the redaction of the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts which made spirituality, not leglism, the center of Jewish life.  Now it would be easy to think, in the hindsight of Scholem and other scholars of Kabbalah, that these Kabbalistic Orthodox Jews, like good progressives of the 20th or 21st centuries, thought that their spirituality was better than the moral insights of the Talmud because it was newer and more modern.  But of course this would be anachronistic.  The Kabbalistic texts were written in the form of midrash, that is to say as commentaries on the Torah.  They were true not because they were newer than the Talmud, but because they were more ancient than the Talmud.

But the most salient point of all is that not only Kabbalistic Jews and Christians, but Talmudic scholars throughout most of history made their claims not on the basis of novelty but antiquity.  The idea of moral evolution through which Neusner exposits Jewish religious literature is quite attractive, but it falls down on two essential points.  First of all it conflates the idea of revelation and intellectual history, a conflation which didn’t really become popular until the time of Hegel, and would have shocked most traditional communities of the past, certainly most Jewish ones.   Secondly it abandons the sphere of religion entirely because it sweeps the primal nature of numinosity  under the carpet…where all sensible secular people think it belongs.

In short, Jacob Neusner is an essential dialogue partner for Christianity, both in the sense of apologetics and Christian self-understanding.  But he does not represent dialogue between Christianity and Judaism so much as Christianity and Modernism…albeit Modernism in what is perhaps its most prudent, just, and sustainable form.  After all, even a trace amount of what Abraham received leavens quite a bit!

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Sleeping with Maggy and Ayn, Two of my Platonic Loves…and why I ditched them both!

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 5, 2009

Up from Cuturalism to Individualism…and Beyond

So far I havn’t gotten to the point where I think that anyone will be highly entertained by details of  my past erotic shipwreaks.  Those who arn’t satisfied with their own can have recourse to the National Inquirerer.  But in the case of my intellectual biography I think it is high time that I confess a few errors of my steamy (at least cognitively speaking) past.  Having been born at the mid point of the Twentieth century there are few intellectual errors of the last half of that century which I havn’t at least sampled, but there are only two which, in Goethe’s phrase I have “swilled with large goblets.”  Again, one can do other things with goblets, but even less than sex, these are hard to enjoy on line.  The two opiates to which I was mostly addicted were Culturalism and Objectivism, both excellent ideologies as ideologies go, and each presided over by a latter day embodyment of the Pallas Athena archetype, Margaret Mead and Ayn Rand respectively.

Margaret Mead I was actually able to meet personally, however briefly, while I was young and she was…to put it unchivalrously, entering into advanced decay.   Yet antique though she might have been, I got the definite impression that she was attracted to me, however on the occasion I was uncharateristically disinclined to act the jigolo, thus depriving myself of any deeper knowlege, Biblical or archeological, which might have ensued.  But even to glipse her from afar was a kind of epiphany, in her robes her beads and her forked staff…she was less a scientist than a shammaness.

That last point has been the entire point of anti-Mead criticism during the last few decades.  At the time I met her I was still an innocent (not sexually) and could hardly have guessed that Derek Freeman was rigorously at work in Samoa undoing Mead’s life work.  It would not have mattered much even had I known, since the criticisms of Freeman (and fellow New Zealander Roger Sandall) in a sense upstaged the criticisms of Culturalism which I felt to be salient.  Freeman discovered that Mead’s work was a hoax, although who was the hoaxer, Mead or her informants, remains a legitimate subject of debate.  However the attraction of Culturalism was never its scientific rigor.  At least in its Ruth Bennedict/Margaret Mead form it was tactily understood by its devotees as a kind of sociological poetry somewhat along the lines of, and ultimately inspired by, the poeticized philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The question in my mind was not so much whether Culturalism was scientific…but rather, was it good or bad poetry?  Granted that it was all a conspiracy, and that Mead was using the Samoans as a ventriloquist would use a dummy, to articulate the values that she would like to see acendent in a future world society…were the values themselves coherent or catastrophic?  I eventually decided that I couldn’t “stay with the program”…if only because the premises and the conclusions of the Culturalist program contradicted themselves.  The premise (for the benefit of anyone who happened to miss the XXth century runup to the multiculturalism of the XXIst century) was that all cultures developed in isolation and could not be judged by any common standard, but that when these cultures were inductively surveyed a posteriori, their very  incommesurability gave support to that atavism which is loosely termed “liberalism” in emergent world culture.  In the specific variation which Mead espoused, this meant that pan-eroticism gained an important butress distinct from previously existing naturalism (eg. Rousseau) in that post tribal Western Bohemians could (while still honoring the tribal, and perhaps thinking of themselves as tribal) choose pan-eroticism on inductive grounds, thus avoiding the appearance of being coerced by nature.  Thus culturalism provided the best of all possible worlds (at least for Western Bohemians) by conflating the ecstasy of instict with the autonomy of the free will.

At the time I certainly had no quarrel with the so-called “sexual revolution.”  What troubled me was the deeper logical contradiction implied by the program.  The classical notion of the “consensus gentium” was to be supplanted by a purely statistical/comparative study of cultures.  Yet when, as was inevitable, this comparason was used to support the default policies of progressivism and liberalism…ie. as pure potential unrestrained by the shackles of narrow tradition or an illusory “human nature”…then at precisely that point the chorus of the “consensus gentium” shouted out in a unanimity too loud to be ignored.  Against the background of the poly-form, pan-erotic global culture, or at least its Bohemian advanced guard, the traditional cultures started to look remarkably similar, with systems of sanctions and authority which all bore a striking family resemblance.

In short, the culturalists had argued for moral relativism (and hence “liberalism” as the default option) in bad faith.  I considered this far worse than any hoaxing or novelization of the ethnographic data.  At least the hoaxing could be justified on esthetic (not to say erotic!) grounds.  But the disjunct between the tribal base and the Bohemian concusions of culturalism involved trickyer matters of contradictory logic and values.  Something had to go, either the mystical group-mind of the tribes, or the rebellious individualism of the Bohemians.

Anthropology turned left (to the tribes) but I turned right…all the way right to Ayn Rand.  It struck me that Western liberalism had gone a bridge too far in the 1960s, when the classical bases of the Whig/progressive historical tradition were thrown overboard in favor of a world view based on existentialism and cultural anthropology.  As much as I was alarmed by the eroticism and anti-intellectualism of the Bohemians, I far prefered any defense of the individual against the prospect of a return to the tribe…which was the logical conclusion evisioned by the emergent ecological and counter-cultural movements.  (Nota bene: the earlier Bohemian denizens of the American academy were anarchic individualists, like Benedict and Mead.  As time went on and culturalism became the  ideological foundation of revolt, Bohemians became tribal…as in “counterculture” and the switch from self identification as “beatniks” to “hippies.”  For what it is worth, I was a kind of post-hippy.)

Against a sophisticated dialectical non-synthesis of Bohemianism and tribalism in Mead’s culturalism, the multiculturalism of the American XXth century tended more and more towards a fundamentalist culturalism.  This wasn’t, counter Sandall, primarily manifested in “designer tribalism.”  There were never that many hippies, and they died out pretty quickly.  But the forced analogy between a functioning tribal society and modern state tended to wedge itself into the sociological imagination, and turned “liberalism” which originally designated the rights of the individual, into a tag for  its polar opposite, social democracy.  In desperation I turned to “fundamentalist individualism”…which at the time people were calling libertarianism.

In those days libertarianism meant Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism.  Unlike Mead, I never actually met Rand in person, and indeed by the late 1970s when I started getting interested in the movement, the party was pretty much over.  Rand and her lover, Nathaniel Brandon, had split up in 1968, and the salad days of people prancing around in capes and sporting jewel-encrusted cigarette holders was pretty much (fortunately) over.  I did meet Brandon, who was by now married for the third time and synthesizing a new philosophy based around something called “biocentrism.”  Biocentrism sounded to me like naturalism, and I was still wedded strongly to the superorganicism which I had come by via the tuition of the culturalists.  If I had met Rand a few years earlier I would probably have wound up as a cult follower, since the pure conceptual quality of Objectivism appealed greatly to me, but the more Rand and Brandon (now at dagger points) claimed to be the first worthy successors to Aristotle in 25 centuries, the more I suspected that they were just “padding their resume.”  I also had the great pleasure of making first hand aquaintance with the philosophers of German Idealism at the time, and while I would be loath to defend Hegel, Schelling et al today, I got enough out of them to realize that the screeds Rand had written against him (lifted in turn from Popper) were written out of ignorance.

In short, I fell out of love with Rand even more quickly than I did with Margaret Mead, a process confirmed when I made aquaintance with the Austrian economists and learned that there was far more to libertarianism than Objectivism.  Many a year has elapsed from then to now, but at this moment, as I set down these words I can see connections which at the time escaped me between my two (now rejected) loves.  First of all, both Culturalism and Objectivism are poetry.  Second, I stand by the statement that there could be ideologies (perhaps saying “philosophies” is a bit much) which are legitimately poetic.  Moreover, not only could thought which is poetic be sociologically valid, but thought which is erotic (in the sense of Plato’s Symposium) could also be sociologically valid.  Not only Socrates, but Max Scheler who spoke of an “order of loves” in the human heart, would agree with me here.

The question which must be posed is not “can thinking about human society be poetic” but rather “is this particular thinking good or bad poetry”?  I found that ultimately both Mead and Rand were bad poets, however technically brilliant they might have been as novelists and thinkers.  To be sure, I would rather inhabit a dream-world ruled by the shamaness Mead or the romantic philosopher Rand than a world (as indeed our world increasingly becomes) ruled by cold technocrats.  But neither Mead’s tribal world or Rand’s heroic world represents that apex of the “order of loves” which all hearts strive for.  Furthermore, I have a hunch as to why this is, one that I should have figured out long ago…but that a slovenly combination of indecision and pride barred my way.

You see, Mead and Rand, who are seldom mentioned in the same breath anywhere in literature or cyberspace, these two women are progeny of a deeper, and darker thinker.  Yes, these two titanic women, who have probably had more influence on American (and hence world) popular culture than any two other individuals, are the obverse/reverse sides of  the same philosophical-philosophical coin, one originally struck by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche.  Both Mead and Rand covered their tracks somewhat, for the former wanted desperately to be the expositor of her beloved Samoans, as the latter wished to be the continuator of Aristotle.  But these were just masks for an unacnowledged oracle, one which pronounced the philosophy of moral inversion.

And that is why I call both Mead and Rand bad poets.  Not completely bad mind you, in fact both charming in their own way, as was Nietzsche himself.  It is a tribute to the great heartedness and then innocence of Americans in the XXth century that they couldn’t drink in their Nietzsche with frothing goblets, that, horn-rimmed academicians aside, they had to be spoon fed by two female social philosophers representing, as it appeared at the time, the diametrically opposite ideologies of tribal naturalism and romantic rationalism.  These were, of course, both transvaluations of Western Culture as it had existed up until that time…as it had been been informed (i.e., in the Platonic-Augustinian sense of “formed into”) by Christianity.

Which brings us to the ultimate question, what is “good poetry” in social philosophy, or in life generally.  If we are to follow the argument in Plato’s Symposium, then it is poetry which leads us from eroticism in the vulgar sense to some higher, and ungessed at, love.  This is precisely what the hot primitivism of Mead and the frenzy of heroism in Rand cannot do, indeed are not intended to do.  Love for Mead, however promiscuous, can at most lead to horizontle  bonding of the tribe in a participation mystique, one where the individual mind is effaced in the collective.  From there, events are allowed to take their course, perhaps in an orgy of passion, or perhaps (a la Rene Girard) in a climactic homicide.  Rand’s love is, in contrast, a jealously exclusive kind of love, the love of a hero…which is to say a man who is almost, but not quite, God.  Yet, if not God, such a man may at least succeed in becoming a type of god.  In Rand’s fiction a single act of love, or a single successful creative accomplishement, is enough to stand against all eternity.  Its the sort of stuff that we Americans just can’t get enough of, that is the heroism, not the eternity.  Nietzsche at least had the integrity to call this kind of heroism tragic.  Rand would have disowned any attempt at calling her fiction tragic…and it is probable that she wouldn’t have liked the term “comic” any better.  Perhaps, in spite of her vaunted “rationality” there were many things which she simply didn’t think out to their logical conclusions.

For all of that, I still have a warm feeling for both these fictive daughters of Nietzsche (as opposed to his very real and very evil sister).  All I question is whether the philosophy of love got very far in the secular world of the last century.  We must look elsewhere to find a poetry of eros which takes us from the world of vulgar passions to the sublimity of a love founded on truth.   Our souls testify to the impossiblity of a Jacob’s ladder which leads halfway up to heaven and then stops.  Yet all our attempts to break through into the emprean by violence have, in the last and all other centuries, come to what King Soloman rightly called “vanity.”  No, rather we must wait patiently at the bottom of the ladder and wait for our Lover to descend and take us into His embrace.  Then we shall say, with the Shulamite,

I was sleeping, but my heart kept vigil;

I heard my lover knocking:

“Open to me, my sister, my beloved,

my dove, my perfect one!”  (Song of Songs 5:2)

Then we shall find that Love that Plato could only dream of…a Love of which nobody shall tire!

Posted in Anthropology, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Theology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »