How to Measure a World?

A Philosophy of Judaism

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Martin Shuster
  • Bloomington: 
    Indiana University Press
    , April
     2021.
     258 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780253054548.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In How to Measure a World? A Philosophy of Judaism, Martin Shuster takes seriously the assertion by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas that Judaism ought to be understood as a sort of anachronism. Levinas’ claim is not immediately clear, so Shuster intervenes by reading the remark as a philosophical––more specifically, phenomenological––assertion. Phenomenology is a philosophical tradition primarily developed in the 19th century by Edmond Husserl, and the phenomenological approach animates the whole of this text. The basic point of the book is that a conception of Judaism as anachronism requires a conception of the “world” as something that takes either an orientation of awe or one of outrage, but both perspectives require a prior assessment of the world (21).

Before delving into the structure of the book, it is important to note exactly what Shuster means when he invokes the “world” for this is, perhaps surprisingly, hardly a settled philosophical concept. There have been many historical attempts at defining the world from biblical writings to the present. For Shuster, the first important move to make is signaling the importance of the ontological––understood as the possibility of there being anything at all––category of world (29). “World” in this sense is not understood as the cataloguing of any number of objects, but rather the exploration of how any object appears in the first place (30). After establishing this ontological point, Shuster then seeks to offer his phenomenological response.

The crux of How to Measure a World? is found in the first half of the book where Shuster sketches out the two primary postures one can take toward the world: wonder or outrage. Using a novel reading of the 12th-century Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, Shuster explains the importance of “worldhood” for Maimonides to show how he approaches the world in a state of wonder. What is novel about this approach is that Shuster argues that Maimonides relies on a phenomenological method that leads to a dialectical relationship between phenomenological questions and conceptions of ultimate reality (30). Because it is rare to read Maimonides this way, Shuster devotes significant time to justifying his approach by engaging interwoven readings of Aristotle, al-Ghazâlî, and Martin Heidegger. Through this reading, Maimonides is used as the primary figure to show how one should approach the world as a spiritual undertaking with a sense of wonder.

If Maimonides represents a posture of awe towards the world, Shuster uses the 20th-century German-Jewish theorist Theodor Adorno to sketch a mood entirely opposite to Maimonides in its pathos: moral indignation. For a book so anchored in phenomenology, using Adorno, who is quite explicitly antagonistic towards phenomenology, might initially strike the reader as an odd methodological choice, but Shuster justifies his use. Writing explicitly in the wake of the Nazi genocide, Adorno provides the basic observation that there is so much useless suffering in the world, and registering that suffering demands an ethical response (76). Auschwitz was not a temporary relapse into barbarism for Adorno, but rather it was a complete breakdown of culture itself that now demands we first consider the world and be outraged. This approach is rooted in Adorno’s unique version of materialism and his very technical framework of a negative dialectic, and Shuster does an excellent job of introducing this in an accessible way.

The only salient point of potential contention to note about How to Measure a World? is the role that Judaism plays throughout the text. While the subtitle claims that the book offers a philosophy of Judaism, it is not a stretch, and perhaps is even more precise, to state that Shuster here is offering a philosophy of monotheism. Shuster acknowledges this dilemma also, recognizing that to understand Judaism philosophically necessarily leads to a blurring of what counts as a philosophical problem versus a Jewish one. He answers this early in the book with the claim by Levinas that “everyone is a little bit Jewish” and therefore the formula for the thesis could be termed “Judaism or anachronism or monotheism” (5, italics original). This answer may be technically satisfactory, though Levinas scholars will likely want to probe the formula further.

Overall, this book is a valuable contribution to not only modern Jewish studies, but also the broader field of continental philosophy of religion. With a clear mastery of his sources, Shuster carefully weaves his thesis through deeply complicated figures in a way that is both artful and textually sound. While those interested in modern Jewish thought will find the book compelling, How to Measure a World? is perhaps more targeted towards those unaware of how to approach a world that is full of both so much beauty and so much suffering. Shuster’s intervention in this conversation is well worth considering.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Josiah Solis is a doctoral student in religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martin Shuster is associate professor of philosophy and holds the Professorship of Judaic Studies and Justice at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, where he previously directed the Judaic studies program and where he currently directs the Center for Geographies of Justice.

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