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Giving Beyond the Gift

Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania

Elliot R. Wolfson

Publication Year: 2014

This book explores the co-dependency of monotheism and idolatry by examining the thought of several prominent twentieth-century Jewish philosophers Cohen, Buber, Rosenzweig, and Levinas. While all of these thinkers were keenly aware of the pitfalls of scriptural theism, to differing degrees they each succumbed to the temptation to personify transcendence, even as they tried either to circumvent or to restrain it by apophatically purging kataphatic descriptions of the deity. Derrida and Wyschogrod, by contrast, carried the project of denegation one step further, embarking on a path that culminated in the aporetic suspension of belief and the consequent removal of all images from God, a move that seriously compromises the viability of devotional piety. The inquiry into apophasis, transcendence, and immanence in these Jewish thinkers is symptomatic of a larger question. Recent attempts to harness the apophatic tradition to construct a viable postmodern negative theology, a religion without religion, are not radical enough. Not only are these philosophies of transcendence guilty of a turn to theology that defies the phenomenological presupposition of an immanent phenomenality, but they fall short on their own terms, inasmuch as they persist in employing metaphorical language that personalizes transcendence and thereby runs the risk of undermining the irreducible alterity and invisibility attributed to the transcendent other. The logic of apophasis, if permitted to run its course fully, would exceed the need to posit some form of transcendence that is not ultimately a facet of immanence. Apophatic theologies, accordingly, must be supplanted by a more far-reaching apophasis that surpasses the theolatrous impulse lying coiled at the crux of theism, an apophasis of apophasis, based on accepting an absolute nothingness to be distinguished from the nothingness of an absolute that does not signify the unknowable One but rather the manifold that is the pleromatic abyss at being's core. Hence, the much-celebrated metaphor of the gift must give way to the more neutral and less theologically charged notion of an unconditional givenness in which the distinction between giver and given collapses. To think givenness in its most elemental, phenomenological sense is to allow the apparent to appear as given without presuming a causal agency that would turn that given into a gift.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xxviii

In this book, I offer a philosophical examination of the themes of apophasis, transcendence, and immanence in a number of twentieth-century Jewish thinkers. The implications, however, go well beyond the specificity of this cultural formation. Consistent with all my work, in this study I delve deeply into one tradition out of the conviction that the particular is indexical of what we are still compelled to call the universal...

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Introduction: Imagination and the Prism of the Inapparent

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pp. 1-13

In Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental, John Sallis observed that “philosophy was always compelled also to exclude imagination, to set it at a distance, and even to reserve a refuge in which finally there would be protection from the threat of imagination. The dynamics of the relation of philosophy to imagination remained one of ambivalence and, though a semblance of reconciliation, even appropriation, was repeatedly...

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Chapter 1. Via Negativa and the Imaginal Configuring of God

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pp. 14-33

We can speak of a salient feature of modern Jewish thought as the dialogical imagination, an act of theopoiesis centered on the figural iconization of an allegedly invisible deity in anthropomorphic and anthropopathic terms.1 The emphasis on the dialogical, which proceeds philosophically from the logical notion of correlation enunciated by Cohen— what he calls in one place “a scientific elemental form of thought”...

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Chapter 2. Apophatic Vision and Overcoming the Dialogical

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pp. 34-89

It is commonly maintained, and not without good reason, that Rosenzweig’s sprachdenken rests upon the supposition that there are three unsublatable elements—God, human, and world—that emerge from the shattering of the all-encompassing totality presumed by German idealists to be the ultimate reality. In the 1925 essay “Das neue Denken,” which was Rosenzweig’s attempt to offer a guide to reading his magnum...

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Chapter 3. Echo of the Otherwise and the Lure of Theolatry

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pp. 90-153

In the introduction to Crossover Queries: Dwelling with Negatives, Embodying Philosophy’s Others, Edith Wyschogrod remarks that the challenge of the essays included in her collection was to promote “further inquiry into theological, ethical, and aesthetic interpretations of negatives.”1 Philosophical accounts of the negative are seen as a complex of crossings, and thus her own essays sway between efforts to overcome...

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Chapter 4. Secrecy of the Gift and the Gift of Secrecy

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pp. 154-200

In this chapter I will discuss the nexus of secrecy, the gift, and the apophatic in the thought of Derrida. Many scholars have weighed in on these themes, but I will reexamine them from the particular vantage point of the relation to Jewish mysticism that one may cull from the Derridean corpus. While my focal point is Derrida’s understanding of kabbalah as an expression of polysemy and atheism, the ramifications of...

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Chapter 5. Immanent Atheology and the Trace of Transcendence

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pp. 201-226

In this chapter, I will continue the investigation of the apophatic by turning to the role of immanence and transcendence in the thought of Edith Wyschogrod. It will take some time before the full measure of Wyschogrod’s contributions to the disciplines of philosophy and religious studies is appreciated. Needless to say, there have already been some major works of scholarship that have critically engaged various aspects...

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Chapter 6. Undoing (K)not of Apophaticism: A Heideggerian Afterthought

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pp. 227-260

The inquiry of apophasis, transcendence, and immanence in the Jewish thinkers discussed in the previous chapters is idiomatic of a much larger question that has hovered over the whole of this monograph. In my judgment, recent attempts to harness the apophatic tradition of Western Neoplatonism together with Derridean deconstruction in order to construct a viable postmodern negative...


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pp. 261-452


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pp. 453-524


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pp. 525-548

E-ISBN-13: 9780823255740
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823255702
Print-ISBN-10: 0823255700

Page Count: 576
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: Cloth