Jews and the Ends of Theory

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Shai Ginsburg, Martin Land, Jonathan Boyarin
  • New York, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , December
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As an edited volume comprised of eleven separate essays by a number of contemporary scholars, we may ask, to what unifying set of questions does Jews and the Ends of Theory address itself? Succinctly stated, the editors are interested in “how opposition—the critical gist of critical theory—is inflected by the figure of the ‘Jew’” (2). To these ends, some of the lines of inquiry the charted in the introduction include: [h]ow does the “Jew,” as a marginalized figure in history, inform the designation of theory as “Jewish”? Given the post-war shift from Jews as peripheral and exceptional to central and influential, does critical theory, with its interest in the figure of the “Jew” as marginal, end up inadvertently (re)marginalizing Jewishness (7)? Does the figure of the “Jew” actually abstract Jewishness from the lives of contemporary, actually-existing Jews (7-8)? What does it mean to speak of the “Jewish intellectual,” either as a “two-word substantive,” or as adjective modifier of “intellectual” (9)? What does it mean that critical discourse, as an ostensibly “secular” practice, emerges in defiance of religion, yet has come to be identified with an otherwise “religious” category—Jewishness (7)? 

To interrogate this matrix, editors Shai Ginsburg, Martin Land, and Jonathan Boyarin propose a form of “spectral reading” of ambiguously “Jewish” critical texts (4, 11), addressing how the “Jew” in critical discourse serves as a “special case for theory, a rich laboratory” in which the “precise taxonomy” of “nationality, race, ethnicity, religion” is problematized by the outstanding character, or “supernatural status” assigned to Jews in historical European-Christian theological imaginaries (9). Straddling the “mourning and the utopian” (5), with an eye toward “the relationship between theory and politics” (21), this volume unfolds as an open-ended meditation on essential issues regarding critical theory’s supposed Jewishness.

It should be said that three thinkers, the last being actually a groupof thinkers, loom large in the volume: Jacques Derrida, Carl Schmitt, and the members of the Frankfurt School. While the first features prominently in several of the volume’s essays, the Frankfurt School is recognized as the founding institution of critical theory as a discipline and, although not mentioned by name as often, forms the background of, and contributes impetus to, the volume’s considerations. This is based upon the noted Jewish identities of many of its major figures. So, too, does Nazi legal theorist Schmitt figure as, at once, adversary and political-theological interlocutor.

Jews and the Ends of Theory spans multiple disciplines, from philosophy, to sociology, to literature, to history. Several of the author’s analyses focus on linguistic and literary themes, such as Yehouda Shenhav’s moving essay on the political significance of Hebrew and Arabic for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in view of the Nakba. Also significant in this vein is Andrew Bush’s work on the role of Ladino and the Sephardic experience in Derrida’s Monolongualism (Stanford University Press, 1996)as well as Jay Geller’s evaluation of the not-quite-human characters in the works of Frank Kafka, which in his reading, appear as an effort to subvert the anti-Semitic trope of the Jew-as-animal when considered vis-à-vis the Derridean animot,and Svetlana Boym also theorizes the “off-modern” in Russian literature, thinking from the notion of the Jewish experience as one of fundamental estrangement for the world.

The role of the Jewish intellectual is also central to this volume, with Sarah Hammerschlag examining the relationship between Derrida as “the last Jewish intellectual” and his companion Emmanuel Levinas as one of “filiation” and betrayal. Martin Jay attends to the self-identity of Leo Lowenthal, highlighting the latter’s emphasis on his avowed Jewishness, in contrast to the ambivalence of other members of the Frankfurt School. So, too, does Land offer an impassioned defense of the continued relevance of Frankfurt School-style theory in a tenuous age of “pseudo-theory,” characterized by psychotic strategies of truth-avoidance. This is, perhaps, one of the most simultaneously alarming and inspiring essays in the work, a veritable call-to-arms on behalf of critical reason in an era characterized not just by half-truths, but also a patent unwillingness to think rigorously.

Explicitly religious and theological issues enter the mix near the end of the volume, with Hannan Hever noting the import of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem’s intra-Zionist political-theological dispute about the nature of a Jewish state upon their debate over Hasidic storytelling. James Porter, too, provides a reading of Erich Auerbach as an essentially Jewish thinker over-and-against Christianizing interpretations of his thought. Porter roots his understanding of Auerbach in the latter’s remarks on the Hebrew Bible as the origin of the concept of history itself and the critique of Christianity implicit in his famous essay “Figura” (Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, University of Minnesota Press, 1938).

In “Jews, in Theory,” Sergey Dolgopolski advocates “a tacit alternative” to Schmittian political theology (135). Beginning the essay with a Russian-Jewish joke about the subversiveness of blank political pamphlets in the USSR, Dolgopolski seeks to undermine the political rationalities of both Western philosophy and Christian hegemony by counterposing a Talmudic politics based upon an unceasing, yet dialogic, “refutation of refutation.” Similarly, the volume concludes with Elliot Wolfson considering the “end” of critical theory, or the “closing of the canon” through Jewish apocalypticism, and a [Martin] Heideggerian model of temporality in which both beginning and end are rendered indeterminate, a mode of being characterized by an “impossible possibility” that discloses both the circularity of time and a sense of futurity.

In the end, Jews and the Ends of Theory, is a remarkable book bringing together several scholars dedicated to scrupulously peeling back the layers of meaning implicated in the claim that critical theory is, at base, “Jewish.” It will surely serve as an indispensable resource for those intrigued by the intersection of Jewish studies and critical theory, as well as those concerned with the critical gesture itself, and the sense in which it has come to be bound up with Jewishness.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin R. Steele-Fisher is a doctoral student inn Religion at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shai Ginsburg is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University.

Martin Land is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at Hadassah College and the Open University of Israel.

Jonathan Boyarin is the Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University, where he directs the Jewish Studies Program.


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