Judaism and the West

From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

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Robert Erlewine
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    University of Indiana Press
    , August
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Judaism and the West is a rarity: it fulfils more promises than it makes. Its stated goal is to demonstrate the distance between 20th century Jewish thought and us—to resist easy appropriation of modern Jewish thought by foregrounding the gap between its context and our own. Robert Erlewine argues that rather than viewing Jewish philosophy as an apologetic “internal affair” that seeks to square “traditional beliefs” or a “timeless essence” with contemporary sensibilities, it is better seen as a particular confrontation between Jewish thinkers and a Western, largely German, academy. The relationship between Jewish thinkers and this hostile academic context is presented as “a—or possibly the—central dimension of modern Jewish philosophy” (2). This claim is demonstrated by a series of case studies: five exemplary Jewish thinkers’ engagements with comparative religion. Comparative religion was one of the German academy’s means for “de-Judaizing” Christianity, and thereby ridding German culture of Jews (see Susannah Heschel’s book, Aryan Christ [Princeton University Press, 2011]). By viewing modern Jewish thought as a lengthy conflict with comparative religion, Erlewine places Jewish thought in its proper, unfamiliar context, while demonstrating its (still ongoing) relationship with religious studies.

If I could characterise the book’s general project, it is this: much that has been read as apologetic is better read as polemic. Once we cease confusing polemic with apologetic, we have a clearer view of Jewish thought, and a powerful tool to engage religious studies methodology.

Seen as polemic, the limits of Jewish thought are more apparent. Its most unsavory elements (parochialism, ethnocentrism, and orientalism) are explained, but not excused, as attempts to push back against comparative religion’s antisemitism. There is a contemporary constructive benefit, as well: Jewish philosophy’s polemic against religious studies is not exhausted, even if comparativism is passé. Ironically, it is critics who dispatched comparativism who stand in greatest need of this book. Several standard contemporary critical moves—identifying the term “religion” as a Western, Christian imposition to be corrected by social theory or genealogy— ignores non-Christian employments of the term. Those who “police” methodology often end up obscuring the “structural and political” differences between thinkers like Otto and Buber (6).

Hermann Cohen is the book’s first, and central, figure. Erlewine’s book is, I believe, the most thorough English language exploration of Cohen’s influence on Jewish thought. The book begins with Cohen’s most problematic publication: Deutchtum und Judentum, a text normally dismissed for its naïve belief in a “German-Jewish synthesis,” brutally discredited by the Holocaust. However, read as a polemic against comparative religions, rather than an apology for Judaism, the text is more aspirational than descriptive: a model for a potential relationship between two “particulars” (Judaism and Germanism). Cohen’s goal is not to “rationalize” Judaism, or gain its entry into polite German society, but develop a relationship between two forces, where each helps the other to unlock its potential. Comparative religion is an obstacle to this relationship, and the text’s naivete, militarism, and derogatory comments are more explicable when read as intentionally belligerent, rather than the descriptive musings of an out of touch professor. Cohen’s reliance on an overly philosophical method is similarly intelligible: philosophy possessed the legitimacy necessary to repudiate comparative religion’s antisemitism (47).

Chapter 3 tackles Franz Rosenzweig without romanticizing him. Erlewine does not sweep the primary difficulty under the rug: for Rosenzweig, Islam, Chinese religions, and Indian religions are harmful, because they “stifle” our ability to encounter or manifest eternity (53). Rather than apologize for this position, Erlewine explains it: Rosenzweig’s bigotry is an unfortunate side effect of his polemic against comparative religion’s attempt to displace Judaism. This helps explain the bizarre role Islam plays in the Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig’s account of Islam, which is unhindered by fact, and is isometric to his account of liberalism (76). In attacking Islam, he is also attacking the liberal forces he felt were hostile to Jewish expression.

Chapter 4 moves to Martin Buber’s attempt to counteract the influence of Adolf von Harnack, a contemporary theologian whose “spiritual” reading of religion meant that Christianity had no need for, and indeed should rid itself of, Jewish ‘irrationalism” and Jewish bodies (81). To this end, Buber does not attack, but rather recasts, comparative religion, using phenomenology to deemphasize abstract, “spiritual” values, and emphasize bodies and their concrete relations. Comparative religion is welcomed, but only after being colonized and made carnal. Judaism is thus returned to the fold, and even regains its exemplariness through Buber’s (admittedly foolish) claim that Judaism represents the highest instance of a concrete relationship to God (103). Abraham Joshua Heschel continues Buber’s project of “colonizing” (rather than limiting) comparative religion in chapter 5. Both fought against comparative religion’s tendency to emphasize “superficial similarities”—an error perpetuated even by its critics, who see religion as a generic set of discursive moves for generating social power (107). But, arguably, it is only by engaging religion’s normative contents, as Heschel does, that these “superficial similarities” can be resisted. Erlewine convincingly demonstrates that Heschel, even more than Buber, employs phenomenology to “denude” comparative religions discourse of abstract metaphysical structures which obscure religious difference (123).

The book ends with a treatment of Joseph Soloveitchik. Implicitly positioned as Cohen’s final European inheritor, Soloveitchik, with his radical emphasis on interior difference, brings this project to its completion: Jewish particularity is emphasized to the extent that Judaism is completely metaphysically distinct from Christianity (132. Rather than limiting comparative religions discourse (as Cohen and Rosenzweig do) or colonizing it (as Buber and Heschel do), Soloveitchik refutes it (129). Any rapprochement or relation between Judaism and the West is consigned to the realm of politics: comparative religion has nothing to say here.

Judaism in the West is an excellent book, which reaches further than its unassuming tone would have one assume. It is essential reading for scholars of Jewish thought, and valuable for anyone interested in religious studies methodology, and the relationship between Jewish and religious studies. Finally, despite Erlewine’s persistent adherence to descriptive and critical methods, it has the potential to inspire constructive and speculative work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dustin Atlas is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Erlewine is associate professor of religion at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is author of Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason (IUP, 2009).


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