This is the fifteenth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Gilah Kletenik, who is currently a doctoral student, studying Jewish Philosophy, in the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department at New York University. Her specific area is modern Jewish Philosophy and her research interests focus on phenomenology, philosophy of language, aesthetics and political theology.
Could you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?
You ask about my “religious” upbringing and affiliation. This word, “religious,” while ubiquitous and obviously familiar, actually reverberates within my Jewish ears as somewhat alien. I will begin by elaborating on this further, so as to contextualize the ensuing response to your line of inquiry and our broader conversation.
Judaism, ab initio, and throughout its diverse history, has never solely been a “religion.” The ancient Israelites, the people of the Hebrew Bible, were neither Jews – this moniker develops later and is anachronistic to this period in antiquity – nor were they religionists. They were an ancient people and the texts that they produced attest to the range of their being in this world; we learn of their laws, politics, rites, culture, values and perhaps even beliefs. And I say this latter term, “beliefs,” with a bit of hesitation as what we might mean by beliefs – fixed dogmas concerning god, the supernatural and so on – are not systematically laid forth in Hebrew Scripture. Certainly, the worship of Yahweh, to the exclusion of other deities, as well as the proscription on worshipping representations of Yahweh, is central to Hebrew Scripture, particularly its exilic and post-exilic strata. After all, it is this so-called “monotheism,” which distinguishes the way of ancient Israel from its circumambient cultures. However, in most, if not all of the Hebrew Bible, this is a law concerning how one is to worship god but not what one is to believe about god. What might be gleaned from Hebrew Scripture about Yahweh, centers upon Yahweh’s behavior in this world, specifically the deity’s interactions with the Israelites. In any case, someone seeking a set of religious beliefs will be disappointed if they turn to Hebrew Scripture for guidance. Such a person will likewise have meager success if they pivot towards rabbinic texts from late antiquity. The rabbinic corpus also offers little on the register of systematic dogma. Instead, its focus is on ritual, law, biblical hermeneutics, exegetical interpretation, ethics and values. Being a Jew, to the Rabbis, meant being part of a people, a community, and embracing its practices, shared narratives and texts. Belief was seldom a preoccupation of the Rabbis.
An intriguing application of this phenomenon, the de-emphasis on belief, is realized in laws concerning what makes a person a Jew. In rabbinic law, being born to a Jewish mother is what makes a person Jewish, that is all. There is no expectation to practice, let alone believe anything in order to be a Jew. In Talmudic deliberations concerning conversion to Judaism, there is paltry discussion of embracing a system of doctrine. Instead, it concerns commitment to law, practice and community. The upshot of all of this is that in Hebrew Scripture and Rabbinic literature, Judaism is not so much a religion, as it is an expression, in varying degrees, of peoplehood, nationhood, ethnos, community and culture. Being Jewish is more about a way of life, than it is about a system of belief. Some of this changes in the medieval period when Jewish philosophers, chief among Maimonides, develop a systematic articulation and classification of fundamental tenets in Judaism. Nevertheless, throughout the centuries, Judaism has predominantly championed deed over creed. I think part of this is because Judaism is not exclusively a religion. After all, “religion” is primarily a modern construct. In any case, what we might mean when we say “religious” or “religious beliefs,” are but particular aspects of Judaism and Jewishness.
I am a Jew; such is my “affiliation.” I was raised in an observant Jewish home – my father is a rabbi and my mother is a Jewish educator and scholar. Judaism was the defining characteristic of my family’s way of being. We adhered to a strict interpretation and practice of Jewish law and the rhythm of Jewish time was the scaffolding of our lives. The rigorous study of Jewish text – Scripture, Midrash, Talmud, Responsa Literature and Law Codes, were the pillars of our education inside the home and in the Jewish schools that we attended. But our Jewishness transcended these narrow realms of practice and traditional study. It also encompassed singing Yiddish songs, relishing potato kugel, reading S. Y. Agnon, watching Seinfeld and appreciating Chagall. Modern Hebrew and Zionism were also substantial elements of my Jewishness growing-up, as was a concern with justice and the burden of tikkun olam. As the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, the Jewish past was impossibly palpable in our lives and grappling with it was a major component of our consciousness and emerging identities. In our home, being Jewish meant not merely being part of a religion, but a culture, a civilization. This Jewishness with which I was raised was robust, both in depth and breadth.
It is due to this upbringing that when I think of my Jewishness, I think less about “religious” matters or beliefs, and more about text, practice, values and culture. This posturing has been essential to my own service within the Jewish community as an educator, clergywoman and leader. In these capacities I have engaged in practicing and perpetuating a Judaism that is built upon the exacting and nuanced study of the diversity of Jewish text and the nurturing of its culture, a Judaism that is ethical, life-affirming, empowering and meaningful. Tradition – praxis, study and spirituality – has been constitutive of my Judaism, but religious belief, in its metaphysical sense, has largely been tangential to it.
To lend a more conceptual frame to these reflections, part of my posturing might be formulated as a Nietzschean “sounding out of idols,” as a movement beyond “religion,” towards a religion without religion. As indicated in the foregoing comments, “religion” is, in many ways, foreign to essential aspects of Judaism, so this kind of a-theological gesture is aptly enacted specifically within Judaism and Jewish thought. This is not to deny the role that metaphysical experiences and even metaphysical “truths,” have occupied within certain Jewish texts and practices throughout its history. Rather, this perspective serves to give voice to an enduring iconoclastic impulse that I consider indigenous to a certain mode of Jewish thinking and way of being Jewish.
Could you say something about your service within the Jewish community as an educator, clergywoman and leader?
I served, for several years, as one of a few clergy at a large synagogue, where my responsibilities were similar to those of any rabbi. My duties included delivering sermons on Sabbaths and holidays from the pulpit, offering regular high-level lectures and seminars in Hebrew Bible, Talmud, Jewish law and philosophy, officiating at life-cycle events, such as Bat Mitzvahs and shivahs, facilitating certain prayer services and rituals, offering pastoral care to congregants, fielding questions concerning Jewish law and Judaism, working with conversion candidates, initiating and facilitating new programs and serving as a resource to congregants, of all ages. For part of these same years, I also taught advanced Talmud and Jewish law at a Jewish high school. In addition, I lectured and taught within the broader Jewish community at institutions of higher learning, conferences and the like.
In these various capacities I was committed to embodying and modeling a Jewishness that was intellectually honest, which meant unabashedly teaching biblical criticism and academic Talmud study, methodologies and proclivities not generally embraced within the context of a synagogue or Jewish school. It was similarly important for me to capitalize on the ethical impulses within Judaism – the value of human dignity, justice and equality – this compelled me to speak publicly in favor of gay marriage and advocate for increased gender equality, among other pressing matters. Particularly in teaching my high school students, I focused on engendering a classroom that was open, which encouraged critical thinking and unending questioning in our engagement with traditional text, in a way that sought to nurture personal autonomy and cultivated individual agency. Aesthetics – poetry, visual arts and music – were also fundamental to my teaching and the Judaism that I undertook to promote. Dignifying human corporeality and the complex of pleasures tendered by our being in the world, of it, and not apart from it, was likewise of primary concern to me. On the whole, my service within the Jewish community was propelled and energized by a more expansive appreciation of Judaism, beyond merely the “religious.” It was committed to the critical engagement with text, human responsibility towards the other and a life-affirming way of being.
Philosophy maintained an operating presence within my Jewish communal service. Most blatantly, I regularly incorporated philosophy into my speaking and teaching. So, Wittgenstein’s private language argument, Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, Nietzsche’s Becoming, Heidegger’s Dasein and Arendt’s insights on authority, to name but a few salient instances, have all been central to my way of thinking and being, and thus also to my Judaism, and consequently to my teaching and leadership within that community. Certainly, much of my teaching drew from the more obvious philosophical suspects – Maimonides, Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Rosenzweig and Levinas. But it is specifically the uncustomary assimilation of this diverse range of philosophers into my Sabbath sermons, Talmud seminars and community lectures that actually felt natural, even necessary.
On a latent stratum, there was more stimulating this enterprise; an intentional iconoclasm, a crossing and shattering of boundaries. A disruption of what is meant by “Judaism,” or “Jewishness,” a resistance to the conveniences and contrivances of maintaining an “inside” and an “outside,” a subtle altering of our tendencies to other and be othered. Here, I am speaking in reference to my theoretical conception and practical realization of Judaism as more than merely a “religion,” as a particular, and by no means exclusive way of being in, and of, the world. But, in saying this, I speak also on the register of philosophy as well as, to what people mean when they might say “Jewish Philosophy.” At least since Plato’s expulsion of poets from the Republic, philosophy has erected borders, which it has policed, aggressively. Determining who may enter and who may exit, with whom one may dialogue and in which ways one may do so, has been essential to the philosophical tradition. By taking philosophy outside of the academy and into the synagogue, away from what is mistakenly called the “secular,” towards the even more imprecisely labeled “religious,” I was making a simultaneous claim and corrective to what we mean both when we speak of philosophy, and Judaism, and surely, of “Jewish Philosophy.”
Iconoclasm, an idée fixe of the Jewish tradition and Jewish thought, is for me an instructive means of considering and negotiating this reality. The enduring task of adjusting and readjusting, furbishing and refurbishing, sounding and resounding out the idols, is a profoundly Jewish and philosophical undertaking, in my eyes. As Wittgenstein reminds us: “All that philosophy can do is destroy idols.” In this context, I am specifically referring to the idols of the Other and the Same, of singularity and heterogeneity, at least in the sense that Deleuze might have it. The possibilities, potentialities and promises of this movement, this effort to make the idolatrous border delineating Other and Same more porous, seems to return, at least to me, to a certain modality of Jewishness and, inevitably, to “Jewish Philosophy.”
So, by consciously making philosophy a part of my service within the Jewish community and doing so both for what it might mean for Judaism and what it might mean for philosophy, I was in some sense, responding to, embodying, or even capitalizing upon Derrida’s observation: “The Jew is also the other, me and the other; I am Jewish in saying: the Jew is the other who has no essence, who has nothing of his own or whose own essence is to have none.”
How do you bring philosophy into the synagogue, and how does the community react to this? The philosophers and concepts you mention are complex (e.g., you mention Wittgenstein’s private language argument, Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations)?
It really all depends on the time and place – surely a cursory engagement with a particular concept in a sermon during services with several hundred people will be qualitatively distinct from closely reading a philosophical text in a seminar with a dozen people. In classes that I have been teaching for several years, with the same students, there are obviously more opportunities for deeper and extended engagements with specific philosophers, philosophical ideas and even philosophical texts. This has certainly been the case with many of my regular seminars and students, with whom we at times return to certain ideas – say, phenomenology’s interest in embodied consciousness or Levinas’ conception of the Other. But no matter the context, I have found that there are opportunities and possibilities for explicitly engaging with philosophy. Surely presenting the requisite background is necessary and at times challenging. However, the inability to engage with a particular idea in its most robust depth and thoroughness, need not prevent a surface engagement with it, that can be meaningful, enriching and even inspiring.
On the whole, such efforts of mine have been well received and I have received positive feedback about my exposing broader audiences to certain philosophers and their thought.
The philosophical material that I referenced in the foregoing is no doubt highly complex. However, I try – and I cannot say that I always succeed – to incorporate this material in a manner that does not degrade it, but dignifies it, while also enabling it to be accessible and relevant to the particular audience.
As for the particulars, I will offer but two specific instances where I have found philosophy to be invaluable to my teaching within the synagogue. In the past, I have turned to Wittgenstein in seminars focused on bible, particularly while studying the Book of Genesis. This is a book that commences with divinely generated words that effectuate the universe and concludes with deeply personal words of blessing conveyed by the patriarch Jacob to his children. In between it tells the tales of words unspoken, of what transpires in the absence of dialogue – Cain slays Abel, Jacob exploits Esau and the brothers sell Joseph, to name but a few salient examples. The impossibility of a private language – that if someone were to conceive of a language all her own, it would be no language at all – gestures towards not only a social aspect of language, but an ethical angle as well. Language needs not merely a mouth to speak but also an ear to listen. Drawing Wittgenstein into the conversation enables a heightened appreciation of language, its context and complexities in a manner that may otherwise be lost. At least in my own experience, this has aided in appreciating an enduring theme in the bible and the simplest of human truths: to be human is to be burdened by the possibilities and responsibilities of the word.
Much of Nietzsche’s thought has found its way into my teaching, no doubt because of the apt critiques that he levels against religion. His Heraclitan philosophy of becoming over being, and his notions of the world as an aesthetic phenomenon have been extraordinarily influential upon my investment in the possibilities of a more life-affirming Judaism. To offer but one demonstration of this, I have in previous speeches and classes engaged his doctrine of Eternal Return and the critique of religious time implied therein. The conception of time as linear has maintained hegemony across certain religions, specifically, Christianity and in some regards, Judaism as well. According to this linear approach to time, life marches towards a final judgment before god. This engenders an inexorable reality wherein humans are burdened by their past sins and are calcified into irredeemable sinners. However, Nietzsche’s Eternal Return problematizes this perspective and encourages a conception of time that is unencumbered by the past but instead views it as malleable, generative and evolving. This more cyclical conception of time enables a becoming wherein past, present and future are inextricably and irredeemably intertwined. Far from being beholden to a past of sin, this posturing enables one to constantly relive and recreate the past and future through the present. In my own experience, this approach has been particularly empowering for people as they grapple with the Jewish notion of teshuvah – a Hebrew word that is often mistranslated as “repentance,” but really suggests more of a return, back to oneself.
We’ve discussed in a previous question how you bring philosophy into the synagogue, for the final question, could you tell me how your religious practices influence your (doctoral) research?
Frankly, I do not find that my “religious practices” influence my research, at all. However, my Jewishness absolutely does. Not the least because my area of research is “Jewish Philosophy”. Surely, the perspectives and concerns that I bring to my work are informed by my experience, my intellectual and cultural backgrounds and so on, and these are all very Jewish, albeit it not necessarily “religious,” in the sense that you might mean.
While I am hesitant to embrace the label of “Jewish Philosophy,” which as is the case with all labels, tends to exclude and include, and in this particular instance, truly ghettoize. Nevertheless, I am comfortable in owning the significant role that Jewish philosophical concerns, for example, as noted earlier, that of iconoclasm, occupy in my work. My posturing and the questions that I pose are informed by my ongoing engagement with the diversity of Jewish text and tradition. The work that I do engages a bevy of thinkers, who have been classified, perhaps appropriately or inappropriately, in varying degrees, as “Jewish philosophers”: Spinoza, Marx, Mendelssohn, Wittgenstein, Husserl, Arendt, Benjamin, Adorno, Levinas and Derrida. At the same time, however, the concerns, foci and philosophers with which I engage, far transcend this particular and palpably problematic label. In some ways, I hope to problematize precisely what it is that is meant by “Jewish Philosophy,” and thus what is also meant by “Philosophy,” more expansively.