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The Postmodern Moment inJewish Ethics 1 mE POSTMODERN MOMENT IN JEWISH ETHICS: DE-SIGNING A POSTMODERN JEWISH MORALI1Y1 by S. Daniel Breslauer S. Daniel Breslauer is Professor of Religious' Studies at the University ofKansas. He is the author of several books, the most recent being The Thought of Mordecai Kaplan in a Postmodern Age. He has also edited The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth, forthcoming from SUNY Press. Professor Breslauer served as President of the Midwest' Jewish Studies Association during 1991-92 and has served on its Executive Committee since 1993. Over half a century ago Johan Huizinga dubbed humanity Homo Ludens, the playing species.2 He emphasized the inevitable element of play found in every human endeavor. Not only children, he suggested, but aU people learn through their incessant playing. Huizinga built on the tradition established by Erasmus' In Praise ofFolly and the seventeenthcentury metaphor of the world as theater. This perspective claims that human existence consists of role playing, gaming, competition, and the motive of fun. Certainly this tradition had its advocates among the contemporaries of Kant, Hegel, and later thinkers. Huizinga, however, claims that the dominant mood of the world-view produced since the nineteenth century has been somber and antithetical to play. Modernity, lA version of this paper, under the title "The Postmodern Moment in Jewish Ethics," was presented as a Presidential Address at the annual meeting of the Midwest Jewish Studies Association of 1995. I thank those who heard it for their comments. I also thank my daughter, Tamar Breslauer, whose cogent criticisms have improved every aspect ofthis essay. All flaws in both the argument and the presentation are, of course, my own. 2Johan HuiZinga, Homo LuderlS: A Study a/the Play-Ele11'Umt iT! Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950). 2 SHOFAR Summer 1996 Vol. 14, No.4 he claims, produced a world-view "inimical to the play-factor in social life. . .. Experimental and analytical science, philosophy, reformism, Church and State, economics were all pursued in deadly earnest in the 19th century."3 "Deadly earnest," indeed! For Huizinga, a human society without play lacks life and spirit. Homo Ludens addresses the danger that occurs when, as in the nineteenth century, human culture underestimates the importance of play. Huizinga regards such underestimations with great trepidation. He fears for the life of a culture which denigrates playfulness. This fear has particular relevance for the field of religion. Abraham Joshua Heschel understood how religion suffers without a spark of joy and playfulness. Religion declined, he argued, not because it was refuted by philosophy, but because it became "irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid."4 Religion, for Heschel, proclaims the strange truth that joy and not only suffering provides a way to God. Although Heschel knows that the Jewish tradition contends that God's commandments were not given for the sake of pleasure, he counters with the idea of "the joy in doing a mitzvah." One goal ofJewish education, Heschel avers, is that of teaching "how to sense the ineffable delight" in the tradition. To be sure, one should not confuse joy and pleasure, Heschel remarks. Yet a tradition that neglects joy has forfeited its spark of life.5 The task of modern religious thinkers is to revive religious vitality. The postmodern moment in Jewish ethics begins when theologians take up this challenge of restoring life to the quest for a Judaic morality. These theologians can find guidance in their search through a contemporary philosophical movement that also sees itself as a response to a deadening seriousness. The eclectic trend in thought called "postmodernism " distinguishes itself from modernity by an openness to play, a willingness to have fun. One type of such play is particularly relevant to a religious tradition such as Judaism which bases itself on a literary heritage. This version of postmodernism focuses on the play occurring between written texts, their authors, and their readers. Modern interpreters , in complete seriousness, sought to understand authors better than they understood themselves. They pursued absolute objectivity which 'Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 192. 4Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity ofFreedom (New York: Schocken, 1972), pp. 3-4; compare Heschel, God In Search ofMan: A Philosophy ofJudaism (New York: Harper and Row, 1955), p. 3. 'Heschel...


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