Jews and Europeans as Attributes of Substance

Yoel Regev and Uri Gershovich discuss Jewish philosophy and Spinoza

Left: Paired Torah pointers (kulmus and yad). Dagestan, 1976
Right: A set for blessing over the wine for Pesach. Central Asia, second half of the 19th century

Museum of Jewish History in Russia

Researcher of Jewish thought Uri Gershovich and philosopher Yoel Regev discuss the phenomenon of Jewish philosophy, its intrinsic paradoxes, and the tug of war between different traditions that has largely determined the development of European civilization. This is the fourth publication from the series Tacit Knowledges—an educational program developed by CCA that looks at different ways of understanding and engaging with philosophy. Through a series of conversations, the project brings to light non-Western episodes of philosophical history as well as gives voice to epistemologies that have been dismissed as irrational or non-systematic.

Yoel Regev:Let’s begin with a rather traditional question: Jewish philosophy is actually a strange sort of thing. One would think that there is philosophy such as Aristotle, Plato, Kant. Both Aristotle and Plato are not “Greek philosophy,” but simply philosophy. Spinoza also belongs to this big category of philosophy, so his thought is also not taken to be “Jewish philosophy.” Jewish philosophy, it turns out, is something local and not very interesting for an ordinary philosopher. Had we not had our own specific reasons, such as being Jewish or interested in monotheism, we wouldn’t have studied it. It turns out that it is a provincial philosophy.

Uri Gershovich:It is not only provincial, but indeed, as you have correctly noted, a kind of oxymoron. What does “Jewish philosophy” mean? We do not speak of Jewish physics, Jewish mathematics, or Jewish medicine . . . Philosophy is, in principle, a universal body of science about the world. Thus, it’s a very big question—asking what Jewish philosophy is. Generally, there are different answers to this question. I must say that this very question arose as an attempt to define a certain discipline which ostensibly had already emerged. There were even conferences in the 70s dedicated to the question of what Jewish philosophy is. And there were various answers given to this question. Some would say that it was a philosophy of Judaism. That is to say, we can speak of a philosophy of science, a philosophy of culture, or a philosophy of mathematics. What does that mean? It means a philosophical conceptualization of one sphere or another, one domain or another. In the same vein we could speak about a philosophy of Judaism. But this doesn’t work because those whom we would intuitively want to include within Jewish philosophy do not fit this definition. And, no matter how we look at it, there is always some kind of problem. Some thinkers wrote in Arabic, some in German, some in Hebrew or in English. Also, we could not discern a unified school and claim that in a certain period of time, from century A to century B, there was a school of Jewish philosophy, like we could do with German idealism. But we understand what Jewish philosophy is. And one definition that could perhaps fit the bill of a working definition the most (methodologically) consists of determining Jewish philosophy as an attempt to somehow interpret classical Jewish texts with the help of one philosophical tradition or another. Or, conversely, as an attempt to translate one or another philosophical tradition into the language of classical Jewish sources. But even in this case it turns out that Jewish philosophy is not philosophy, but rather hermeneutics.

YR:And theology. Вasically, it’s theological hermeneutics. 

UG:Well, yes. And this is really the most satisfactory definition of Jewish philosophy from the point of view of academic structures.

YR:Actually, there is another problem: it is not very clear what “Jewish” means.

UG:Yes, but if we are talking about an attempt to single out an academic discipline, it could be easier, at least if we have in mind the period until the end of the 19th century. It is relatively easy to determine the authors that could potentially belong to the framework of this discipline. Starting from the 20th century, this becomes more and more difficult.

Left: Matzo napkin. Moldova, early XX century
Right: Torah ark (Aron Kodesh). Moldova or Romania, 1866

Museum of Jewish History in Russia

YR:But why is this interesting? We were just now talking about how, in principle, Jewish philosophy is arousing a kind of mass interest, and you yourself began studying it at one point.

UG:Well, what I already mentioned was what interested me. But my interest rather stemmed from a general philosophical interest. It turns out that Jewish philosophy is a kind of large hermeneutic laboratory. Texts that are in principle incommensurable, belonging to various traditions and various methods of sense-making, enter a kind of interaction. And I am interested precisely in how bridges are built between different corpuses of texts, different traditions of thought. At the time when I decided to enter this field, I was already researching philosophical hermeneutics. Along with a whole series of coincidental circumstances, I was also pushed towards Jewish philosophy because of the idea that man is an interpreting being, constantly interpreting something from one language to another, such that what is interpreted is usually untranslatable and in circumstances where translation is impossible.

YR:But doesn’t it turn out that in some sense it is a secondary domain after all? There are those who develop original ontological approaches—the philosophers. There are also the prophets, those that prophesy and create holy texts. Jews have been traditionally accused of being unable to create anything of their own, of always being mediators or implementers— those accusations have been most often heard from antisemites in the 19th century. 

Jewish philosophy is a kind of large hermeneutic laboratory

UG:To some extent this is truly the case if we, for example, speak of the emergence of Jewish philosophy, but something similar could be said also about Chrstian philosophy—in essence, about all Western philosophy in general. It seems that initially it is a kind of back-and-forth move from one intellectual tradition to another, but in the very moment when it is already completed, when the move has been made, something arises, a certain hybrid, which becomes independent. We can take theology to be such a hybrid. It is a kind of hybrid mixture, on one hand, of certain unreflected maxims that tell you how you must live and, on the other hand, of some reflections concerning how the world is structured. And if I carry the question of how the world is structured onto the message about how one must live, I get theology. It turns into a kind of independent discipline and, as we know, takes the highest rank in the Middle Ages, rising above all other disciplines and trying to turn philosophy into its maidservant. And this eternal struggle—like the struggle between Sarah and HagarSarah and HagarAccording to the Bible and Talmud, Sarah was the wife of Abraham and one of the progenitors of the Jewish people. Hagar was their Egyptian servant; when Sarah couldn't conceive, she became Abraham's concubine and gave birth to his son, Ishmael. about who is a servant and who is the true wife—in some sense continues to this day. 

Actually, if we consider the history of thought, and not philosophy, it always turns out that a certain method of constructing is replaced by another—but it itself is an intellectual construction, one that replaces what came before it. For instance, let’s suppose that there was a medieval construction and the very same Spinoza has tried to modify it. But is Spinoza a philosopher or did he maybe take himself to be a prophet? Honestly, this question remains open for me.

YR:I think Spinoza is definitely a philosopher. Deleuze calls him the prince of philosophers, and I agree because philosophy tends to have a certain ambition towards the absolute, towards absolute knowledge. Spinoza’s entire Ethics is a description of a path that could lead to this absolute knowledge, without any references to external heteronomous sources at that. This is perhaps the main distinction. Theology always presupposes that we have a certain source or text that binds us. Well, maybe not a text, but some authority external to us. Actually, there is a kind of problem for the modern man here, for the man of Enlightenment, driven by the postulate to “dare to know” formulated by Kant. Kant defines the Enlightenment as the transition from a state of childhood to a state of adulthood, while a position in which we rely on certain external heteronomous authorities presupposes certain childlike qualities, and this raises questions. But we could say that the entire paradigm of the Enlightenment is not relevant anymore and that we can study and practice Jewish philosophy within the framework of the postmodern destruction of canons. Or is this not the case?

UG:Well, this is, naturally, a question! It is not very clear why Spinoza calls his main text Ethics. Prophets are precisely the teachers of ethics. Then it turns out that he is also a prophet, just of a different kind, one who comes to us bearing a new religion, in some sense. It may be a religion for adults, without any anchor in some kind of external source, as you say. Although, in some sense, this external source is still there. It is substance, which one has to understand and intellectually love. This very terminology—“love” and so on, is language that bears a hint of theological character. So I think that at a certain stage most philosophers arrived as such a prophesying mode, whether consciously or not, when they began to teach truth, as prophets generally do. “I am the spokesman of truth, I am the spokesman of something, and I am to teach the masses which lack understanding.” 

Spinoza wrote an entire book called Ethics to prove that ethics does not really exist

YR:Spinoza and his Ethics are an incredible story anyway. Spinoza wrote an entire book called Ethics to prove that ethics does not really exist. At least, it does not exist as a separate domain. This is because ethics as a separate domain presupposes a system of coordinates that exists between the poles of good and bad, good and evil. It is precisely in this sense that he speaks of prophets as teachers of morality. Spinoza himself, on the other hand, wants to claim that there is no separate system of coordinates. The only system of coordinates is the system of truth and falsehood, and thus true ethics is acting truthfully. Yes, this is ethics, because it answers the questions of what to do and how to live, but it is also a destruction of ethics as a separate field, one that has existed at least since Plato.

But generally, what do you think could explain the contemporary interest in Jewish philosophy? At some point there was an interest towards Hindu philosophy, Buddhist philosophy. Are those similar phenomena?

UG:I think these are comparable things, and interest towards them is similarly comparable. It is rather rooted in the amorphousness of the very concept of philosophy. In antiquity, philosophy encompassed the entire system of the sciences. Music, astronomy, mathematics—they all belonged to philosophy. Gradually, all these disciplines abandoned poor philosophy, and it, in some sense, was left with nothing, although, strangely enough, in common understanding it remains the queen of sciences, while no longer understanding what she herself is.

And so, when people hear “Jewish philosophy” or “Indian philosophy,” it sounds to them like a kind of exotic wisdom which truly harbours and hides something, because European wisdom has discredited itself in many respects. And if it has not discredited itself, then it is so complex that one could not just approach it—as is the case, for instance, with quantum theory or relativity; they are not as popular, although they are also kinds of wisdom. And this desire to partake of a kind of wisdom, as you have correctly pointed out, which is ancient and so on, and which in some sense is an alternative to European philosophy—it, I suppose, is what makes people interested in those currents. But, upon closer examination, Jewish philosophy, unlike Indian philosophy, is not an alternative to European philosophy. It is rather an appendix or a growth, parasitizing on the body of European philosophy.

It is curious that when talking about Jewish philosophy we began to speak of Spinoza. He came up as our main hero, and he is indeed perhaps the protagonist of this problematic. Within the framework of Jewish philosophy as a discipline, he is still studied, because without studying Spinoza it is impossible to understand what we would like to call modern Jewish philosophy. The entirety of modern Jewish philosophy is nothing but a polemic with Spinoza. That said, what you were talking about concerning ethics and the coordinates of good and evil, truth and falsehood—this is an idea put forward by Maimonides; he ranks the distinction “truth-falsehood” much higher than the ethical categories of good and evil in his understanding of the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. According to Maimonides, man has been expelled from the Garden of Eden because he had let go of his purely intellectual existence, of the distinction between truth and falsehood, while he distinction between good and evil is what muddles up the distinction between truth and falsehood and takes away the possibility of distinguishing them. Almost like in Spinoza.

Left: Hanukkiah. Ukraine, late 19th century
Right: Vessel for ritual washing of one's hands after a meal (mayim achronim). Ukraine, early 20th century

Museum of Jewish History in Russia

YR:Yes, Spinoza mentions him when he says that some Jews have approached this understanding, albeit somewhat hazily. As far as I know, it is thought that this statement is indeed a reference to Maimonides.

An interesting theme comes up here as well. On the one hand, there is the European antisemitic accuation claiming that Jews are secondary, while there is a parallel Jewish claim or accusation—the “idea of the stolen wisdom,” beginning with Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and his “Kuzari.” Interestingly, this idea still survives in a more secularist guise. According to this idea, you take some contemporary European philosophical doctrine and claim that whatever is meant to be achieved in it has existed for a long time in our Jewish tradition, in our Jewish thought, and in a purer, perfect form at that.

UG:That began a very long time ago. Aristobulus in II century B.C.E. was already saying that philosophy has a Jewish origin. Maimonides wrote explicitly that Moses was the first true philosopher, and that philosophy in general was something first inherent in the Jewish tradition. Then, due to some historical circumstance, Jews lost this wisdom and knowledge of the world, while Greeks picked it up without knowing and copied it.

YR:Well yes, there are also all these stories about Plato meeting prophet Ezekiel. I think this theme is interesting, not to mention the comic character of mutual and, to some extent, mirrored grievances. One group says: “You stole it all from us!” The other says: “First of all, we didn’t steal anything, second of all, it is ours anyway and you stole it from us even earlier and right now, even if we did steal, we steal only to get it back.” But there is a moment here that other philosophical traditions, for instance, the Indian one, lack. Indian philosophy, as far as I am aware of it, does not claim to be just like European philosophy, but somehow more true. But this is the case with Jewish and European philosophy all the time. It is also interesting that in European post-Heideggerian philosophy of the second half of the 20th century, Jews appear as a certain figure of the radical Other. But it turns out that the Jews are not “other”—they rather, most probably, aspire to be the very same.

European philosophy tries to take the Jew as the Other, while the Jew is bent on trying to become just like everyone else

UG:There is, of course, a serious paradox here. On the one hand, the contemporary philosophy of the 20th century paints a picture of a metaphysical Jew: it is a post-Holocaust idea about a metaphysical Jew who is, in some sense, the trigger for the development of European civilization in general. On the other hand, the Jews themselves, instead of being this Other, persistently proclaim their likeness to Europeans. And they realize this likeness in serious projects. The Jews don’t say: “I want to be like a European,” but they build the state of Israel which must be like all the other states. It is the great dream of being just like everyone else. And surprisingly, this wish turns out to be realized on a global scale. European philosophy tries to take the Jew as the Other, while the Jew is bent on trying to become just like everyone else, on a geopolitical scale among others.

But I think that all these movements that we have now demarcated, including the paradoxical character of this mutual exchange, as well as the reflection which is not a reflection or something along these lines—all this to a large extent determines the current vehemence concerning what is happening to Jews in Israel or to Jews in general. And perhaps this vehemence stokes the fires and stirs the very same interest you talked about—interest towards Jewish philosophy. Why is this topic so hot? Are there no other wars or conflicts? But for some reason, everything that unfolds around the Jews gets a special angle for European civilization, acquires special meaning and special fervour.

YR:I think the moment with Jews wanting to be the same as Europeans is very characteristic here. That said, this desire to be the same—this everydayness they desire, this “ordinary” character, also bears a certain strange mark. Paradigmatic for me here is the story which Gershom Scholem tells in his memoirs From Berlin to Jerusalem. His father was a fully assimilated Berlin bourgeois who led a perfectly secular European life. So, when Saturday would begin, the father would light the candles, then light up a cigar using the candles and utter the non-existing blessing: “Blessed art Thou who created the fruit of the tobacco”; so he performed a categorically forbidden action: he lit a cigar and smoked it on Saturday. But interestingly, the action itself is completely ordinary. It belongs to the everyday life of a well-off member of the middle classes to smoke a cigar after dinner. But precisely because in this case this action is performed by Scholem’s father or a Jew in general, it turns into a certain manifestation of antinomism. That said, this antinomism is borne by something commonplace; the father does not partake in orgies and does not chop heads, as Bataille and his comrades wanted to do somewhat later. It all turns out to be unnecessary for transgressing, and transgression itself turns out to be unnecessary in general. I think there is a very deep theological meaning to this, because Hasidic scholars called transgression a state where “the material itself becomes divine.” But the material or the absolute is not somewhere beyond; it is there in utterly quotidian actions. And this becomes clear thanks to these strange interrelations between Jews and Europeans.

And yes, I think that Spinoza is perhaps the very point in which philosophy happens. In some sense, precisely because Spinoza as a Jew speaks about substance and attributes—the common notions of Aristotelian philosophy—they become something like the cigar that is lit up and smoked by Scholem’s father.

Left: Torah mantel. Tskhinvali, Georgia / Jerusalem, 1881
Right: Torah mantel. Bukhara, Uzbekistan, second half of the 19th century

Museum of Jewish History in Russia

UG:In any case, it was perceived this way. We do not know how Spinoza himself performed it. He actually was a controversial figure not only for the Jewish tradition, but for the Christian as well. A question raises itself: what did he do that makes him so different from Descartes? Descartes had two substances, while he had one. But no one perceives Descartes as the Antichrist or a demonstrative atheist, while that is precisely how Spinoza is perceived. Maybe that is really because he is a Jew—a Jew who never got baptized. Had he gotten baptized, everything could have perhaps been settled with one of the sides. But he did not get baptized and remained a controversial figure, so that every theological or philosophical thought is in constant dialogue with him. For instance, Levinas writes an essay called “The Case of Spinoza,” trying to spell out all the problems pertaining to Spinozism. One really wonders why this is still relevant.

YR:What do you think, is there something interesting going on in the sphere of Jewish philosophy—not when it comes to scholarship, but when it comes to actually creating it? 

UG:I don’t know, I don’t think so. Today, the figure of Levinas is quite popular: it is of course possible to read his philosophy, as he himself says, as an attempt to once again connect the Jewish tradition with the Greek. Derrida and Badiou wanted to show that Levinas had not achieved any synthesis, but only once again tried to replace philosophy with theology. I don’t know of any project similar to that carried out by Levinas. But I don’t study this question, I primarily focus on the history of philosophy, which is purely academic studies—articles on Maimonides, different aspects and influences. It is a historical discipline rather than a philosophical one.

YR:But of course it actually is an interesting question. First of all, it is true, it seems that Jews themselves have not done anything special at least since Levinas. All the while, the figure of the Jew, as you have mentioned, does not leave the European stage. Setting aside what unfolded in post-Heideggerian philosophy in the 80s, for Žižek now—at least throughout the 00s—the figure of Jew was one of the central figures; he even claimed at some point that all contemporary philosophers can be divided into Zionists and anti-Zionists. That was after Badiou wrote that bookthat bookAlain Badiou, Circonstances 3: Portées du mot «juif»; Cécile Winter, Signifiant-Maître Des Nouveaux Aryens, 2005. of his . . .

UG:Badiou was responding to the popularity of this figure; he apparently tried to stop this process of inflating the figure of the Jew, which is why Žižek reacted to it the way he did.

We live within the theological, while the theological, within itself, is set up in such a way that it contains a kind of unclarity, a kind of fermentation

YR:I think he did not merely react to the inflation. Žižek and Badiou are rather preoccupied with the question of the possibility of radical secularization—the “materialistic appropriation of the core of theology,” as Žižek calls it. It consists of taking from theology that element which keeps granting it some sort of life, but which is actually too constrained by theology, and somehow actualizing it, materialistically and immanently. And so, strangely enough, it turns out that in order to accomplish this goal they have to deal with a Jew, to take this “something” away from Jews and actualize it. I think that their interest towards the figure of the Jew is related to his point. Jews are also doing it, in turn. They constantly try to take something away from Europeans and actualize it. And I see Jewish philosophy in general as a certain fragment in the history of these attempts at tug of war. 

UG:It’s not quite a tug of war. Otherwise it would be nonsense.

YR:I don’t think that it’s nonsense and I am not calling for some kind of peace. Because ultimately a kind of space, situated in between, opens up in this tug of war. And the main question for me is: how do we remain in this space? But had there been no tug of war, this space also wouldn’t have been at all. And because this tug of war takes place, we understand that there is something in between. And we can ask the question: “how could one be there, without falling into the one or the other side?” At the end of the day, this is reminiscent of the Spinozist idea of two attributes. I think that, at the end of the day, Jews and Europeans are the true attributes of substance, not thought and extension. Thought and extension already belong to a kind of classification.

UG:Now you yourself gave the Jews a certain special character. You say that everything that happens is two substances—Europeans and Jews. Why Jews specifically?

YR:I just think that Christianity on the one hand and Judaism on the other are two systems that produce the absolute as a certain givenness of the non-given or a possibility of the impossible. That said, the field of the theological was constructed specifically with the help of combining these two machines that mirror one another. And I think that we, the entire world, still exists with this theological field.

UG:Do you mean the European civilization? 

YR:The European civilization, yes. But the European civilization now—as capitalism and as imperialism—has actually spread to the entire world. We continue to live in a global world, which remains, as to its a certain deep element within it, I would say, not even European, but specifically theological, which is more important here. I agree with this project of Badiou and Žižek, the project of extracting the materialist core. But I don’t think they are going about it correctly. We live within the theological; the entire world lives within the theological, while the theological, within itself, is set up in such a way that it contains a kind of unclarity, a kind of fermentation. Something is wrong with it. What does it mean, that we must materialistically expropriate the core of the theological? It is too constrictive for itself. And this unclarity actually relates to the relationship between the Jewish and the Christian machines for the production of God, for the production of the theological. This is a historically formed situation, but there is a certain necessary contingency to it.

Translated by Diana Khamis

Uri Gershovich
PhD, Associate Professor at the Department of Jewish Culture at the Institute of Philosophy, St. Petersburg State University, researcher at the Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization in Russian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Yoel Regev
Philosopher, PhD at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, associate Professor at the «Stasis» Center for Practical Philosophy of the European University at Saint Petersburg.