- Jewish Philosophy and Western Culture: A Modern Introduction
Ever since the early Christian apologist Tertullian posed the question, "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?," theologians and academics have used these two cities to represent the opposing views that see truth as discerned through either reason or revelation. Victor J. Seidler, in Jewish Philosophy and Western Culture: A Modern Introduction, is a recent scholar to use this metaphor. However, it is not the intellectual distance between Athens and Jerusalem that he wants to emphasize, but their closeness.
Seidler wants to provide what he sees as a much-needed corrective—the denial of "a particular narrative that views Athens as the singular 'birthplace' of what we have learned to think of as 'Western Culture'" (p. 1). Surprisingly, this particular narrative's view of Athens does not exclude Christianity. Rather, as Seidler illustrates, Christianity gradually became synonymous with Athens during the Middle Ages as it ignored its Jewish beginnings and began to appropriate Greco-Roman culture (p. 7). For example, Christianity's depiction of the human body and, particularly, sexuality as sinful echoes Plato's division of the soul and body and the necessity of controlling our animal nature. Seidler cites Leo Baeck, who puts this relationship best, "the church conquered Hellenism, and Hellenism the church" (p. 64). Or, in keeping with the geographic metaphor, Athens and Rome had become one. Seidler, therefore, endeavors to put Jerusalem, or Judaism, back on the intellectual map.
Clearly, this relationship between Athens and Jerusalem is a complex one, one that Seidler sees mirrored in his own life. As the son of a Holocaust survivor in post-war Britain, his Jewish identity often conflicted with the dominant secularized Protestant tradition. Noticing this tension even in childhood, Seidler seeks to resolve it in his book. By bringing Jewish thought to bear on Western thought, he hopes to create a more nuanced understanding of both. To achieve this, he puts Jewish philosophers into dialogue with those of the mainstream Western intellectual tradition. His focus on Athens/Jerusalem determines which thinkers he includes. For instance, Philo, the epitome of a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, is given more attention than Maimonides, who admittedly had a larger and more lasting influence on Jewish tradition. For this reason it is surprising that Spinoza is barely mentioned among the many other Jewish philosophers (e.g. Buber, Baeck, Mendelssohn, Heschel, Rosenzweig, and Levinas). Perhaps Spinoza's abandonment of Judaism in favor of scientific rationalism puts him too far outside of Jerusalem?
Although not explicitly stated, Seidler also appears to have chosen his Western philosophers with the same focus in mind. For example, he devotes a [End Page 161] lot of attention to Wittgenstein, who was baptized a Catholic, but eventually recognized his Jewish ancestry and characterized his later work as Hebraic. Thus, much like Seidler himself, the highlighted philosophers often reflect the connection between Athens and Jerusalem in their own lives and work.
Given this framework, the book is thematically, not chronologically arranged. Based on the frequency of the theme of ethics, which appears in four different chapter titles, it is clear that Seidler's main philosophical concern is how we treat one another. In reading his largely autobiographical introduction, it is clear that this focus originates in Seidler's experience of growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust. For him, the "tensions between Athens and Jerusalem resonated differently for us after Auschwitz" (p. xiii), so much so that one cannot even read pre-Holocaust Jewish texts without the Holocaust coloring that reading. It is unclear how Seidler makes such a universal assertion. Surely, it is not impossible to understand Philo and his Alexandrian context without the effect of the Holocaust impeding? Or, alternatively, when we do read with bias, how can he know it is the Holocaust and not a multitude of other historical events or factors that come to bear on our interpretations?
His continual focus on ethics and the Holocaust, however, clearly indicate what is the underlying objective of this book: to effect actual change...