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  • Recovering Judaism from Religion and Modernity
  • Jeffrey A. Bernstein
Leora Batnitzky. How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. x 211.
Sharon Portnoff. Reason and Revelation before Historicism: Strauss and Fackenheim. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. Pp. ix 395.

The reason why it makes sense to review such seemingly disparate books together (one is a historical overview developed from an undergraduate course, the other is a concentrated study on two figures) is that they stand in interesting perpendicular relationship to one another. Batnitzky's expansive book supplies the horizontal historical context that allows for the heights (or depths, depending on one's metaphor) explored in Portnoff's detailed study of Strauss and Fackenheim. Simply put, Batnitzky's provocative and compelling overall claim that "the idea that Judaism is a religion was invented in the modern period" (Batnitzky, p. 1) provides an interesting lens through which to view the intellectual careers of Strauss and Fackenheim.1 Both thinkers grew up in Weimar Germany; both thinkers were inundated with the debates between neoOrthodoxy and liberal Judaism occurring at the time; both thinkers had to leave Germany and eventually took up residence (in Strauss's case [End Page 125] permanent) in North America. Most important for our purposes: both thinkers can be understood as responding to the fact that modern Judaism "did not refer mainly to ritual practice or performance but instead to personal belief or faith. From the eighteenth century onward, modern Jewish thinkers have been concerned with the question of whether or not Judaism can fit into a modern, Protestant category of religion" (Batnitzky, p. 1). It is this "Protestantization" of Judaism and Jewish thought which Strauss and Fackenheim both critique and against which they both carry out their respective recoveries of premodern forms of thought and experience (Strauss's concerns the distinction between Jerusalem and Athens, and Fackenheim's concerns the pedagogical resources of the "midrashic framework" [Portnoff, p. 120]).

The above statement needs qualification; neither Strauss nor Fackenheim thinks that a naïve, unproblematic return to premodernity is possible. The question for both is, which aspect of premodern thought and experience is recoverable?—and, in light of that, is its recoverability desirable? Their respective answers allow readers to see the differing status they accord "history." One might state that, whereas Strauss views history as propaedeutic (but not essentially related) to philosophy, Fackenheim views philosophy as fundamentally historical. In philosophical terms, this can be illustrated by saying that Strauss opts for Plato, while Fackenheim opts for Hegel (Portnoff, p. 28). From a religious standpoint, this distinction can be drawn by juxtaposing their particular approaches to the Hebrew Bible—Fackenheim: "having most recently inquired whether, in reading the Jewish Bible in the light of new realities—the Holocaust and the State of Israel—Jews of today must not shift the book's center from Exodus to Esther, I now ask the more radical question by focusing on Ecclesiastes."2 Strauss: "'In the beginning God created heaven and earth.' Who says this? We are not told; hence we do not know. Does it make no difference who says it? This would be a philosopher's reason; is it also the biblical reason? We are not told; hence we do not know."3 One can admire Fackenheim's boldness with respect to the place of scriptural interpretation in equal measure to Strauss's sternness with respect to the limitations of said interpretation. What is clear is the difference that marks their ultimate proximity. [End Page 126]

That proximity is not simply constructed by Portnoff and Batnitzky; Strauss and Fackenheim knew each other personally and expressed appreciation for each other's work. On Fackenheim's account, it was his encounter with Strauss's Philosophy and Law that prompted him to undertake a dissertation in medieval Islamic philosophy (Portnoff, p. 4). His inability to remain compelled by medieval thought (despite an early article titled, "The Possibility of the Universe in Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Maimonides"4) was acknowledged and explicated, on its own terms, by Strauss in his recommendation (March 3, 1973) to Erwin A. Gilkes (publisher of Basic Books): "Maimonides...


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