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  • Is Critique Jewish?
  • Martin Kavka
Jeffrey A. Bernstein. Leo Strauss on the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History. SUNY Series in the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015. Pp. xxx + 228.
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft. Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt. Intellectual History of the Modern Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. viii + 304.

What does modern Jewish thought do? I forget. Perhaps I never knew.

Oh, I remember what it once did (and still occasionally does). It argued about the rules for the proper use of concepts from the Jewish tradition, which is to say that it did philosophical theology. Or it argued that secularized Christian society needed Jews and Judaism, which is also to say that it did philosophical theology.

But what can modern Jewish thought do at a time when theology does not provide meaning, either because God is understood to transcend human concepts, or because the number of people for whom God is a vivid idea is on the decline? What strategies can those who work in the canon of modern Jewish thought use to make this canon relevant? Three possible answers present themselves. One answer is that those figures who had been seen as representative of philosophical theology are now moved to the front of the canon, but not as theologians. An example of this would be the thought of Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95), for whom (at least in his second magnum opus, Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence [1974]) the religious relation with transcendence could never be reduced to theological terms, leaving any account of [End Page 253] divinity comfortably vague.1 Another answer might simply be to dump the canon, admit that the thinkers in the canon of modern Jewish thought simply have no pull anymore, and say instead that the exemplars of Jewish thinking today who deserve power and authority in Jewish studies (and among its audiences) should come from critical theory, in part because of the refusal of metaphysics that is typical of those in the circle around Adorno and Horkheimer.2 A third answer might be that our postdogmatic age should value the difficulty of arriving at the truth; in that case, the thinker who should be privileged in this canon is Leo Strauss, on account of what some scholars take to be his inability to decide once and for all between Athens and Jerusalem as the proper city for human life.

In all of these attempts to mend the canon for our secularized age, critique and skepticism—of theology, of metaphysics, of any inquiry reaching its telos—become the Jewish arts. This is not to say that in a time of increased secularity, critique becomes prevalent because critique is somehow secular.3 None of the thinkers explicitly or implicitly named above are secularists. But it is to begin to point out one problem with this strategy, namely that the prevalence of skepticism is a double-edged sword for members of minority communities. On the one hand, it is the most powerful cultural weapon against those members of majorities who take the correctness of their norms (and the identities that own those norms) for granted. On the other hand, there is nothing preventing that weapon from being turned on oneself, from emptying one’s own identity so that the very difference between oneself and the majority community disappears. After critique, one is no longer identifiable as a member of a minority community; one is no longer identifiable as anything except a critic, perpetually marginal.

It is the strangeness of critique’s power that I want to highlight in discussing Bernstein’s and Wurgaft’s recent books on major figures in twentieth-century Jewish thought, Strauss, Levinas, and Hannah Arendt. The argument of Bernstein’s book is encapsulated in its title. Past scholars trying to figure out just what Strauss stood for (if anything) had [End Page 254] made one of three arguments: Strauss chose the philosophical life (the position represented as the city of Athens, in which right authority is rational authority) over the life committed to the need to obey divine law (the position represented as the city of...


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