June 28th, 2011
Die Öffentlichkeit der Hauptwerke der alten kabbalistischen Literatur ist die wichtigste Garantie ihres Geheimnisses
The exposedness of the major works of Kabbalistic literature is the greatest guarantee of their secrecy
Gershom Scholem, “Zehn unhistorisch Sätze über Kabbala” (1958)In Franz Kafka’s renowned parable Before the Law, a man from the country comes before the gates of the law hoping to gain entry, but is refused by a bearded, Cossack-looking gatekeeper, who nevertheless, does not deny the possibility that entry will be granted at some later indefinite point. “‘It is possible,’ says the gatekeeper, ‘but not now’.” Expecting to eventually gain access to the law, since “the law should be accessible to all,” the man from the country spends his days outside the law, awaiting admission, which is never granted. The parable ends abruptly at the moment of the man’s death with the gatekeeper’s thundering exclamation, “this entry was meant only for you. I am now going to close it.” The sheer failure of this missed encounter should not be foreign to any reader of Kafka. What is most striking and paradoxical about this parable, though, is the man’s liminal position with regard to the law—the man stands before the gate of the law, which is wide open and at the same time utterly inaccessible to him. Even more puzzling, is the fundamental question of the nature of this undefined law which the man seeks access to. What is this law? Kafka does not offer his readers any key to unlock this mystery. But why should he? After all, the gate to the law is wide open. What are we to make of this irresolvable parable, which does not offer itself to any authoritative interpretation? The blaring contradiction of a law which is at once fully exposed and yet completely hidden might reflect the reader’s own relation to this text as well, which is seemingly open but ultimately hermetic. Jacques Derrida follows this line of thought in his astute reading of the contradictory nature of this esoteric text, which preserves its secrecy through its bare openness. Like the man from the country, who comes before the law believing that it should always be open to everyone, we too expect the meaning of this parable to unfold before us through our reading of it. The man’s frustrated relationship to the law, then, is replicated in the reader’s own interpretative expectations. The complementary position of the law and narrative in Derrida’s interpretation allows us to understand one in terms of the other. That is—the law of fiction, and the fiction of law. Derrida proposes the universalizing dictum of Kant’s categorical imperative as an example of the law’s fictional foundation. “Act as if the maxim of your action were by your will to turn into a universal law of nature,” says Kant. As Derrida notes, Kant’s conditional “as if” (als ob) introduces the fiction of a universal moral subject into legal thought, thereby excluding all historical and empirical contingencies (190). By imagining a universal maxim in order to categorize the law, the law itself is divested of all singularities, and ultimately of all content whatsoever. The fictional foundation of the law, then, is the belief that the law is fictionless. Its authority rests on its categorical status as an a-historical binding universal. This law has no history and no origin—hence its transparent obscurity! To bring us back to Kafka’s parable, the man from the country (possibly an unknowing Kantian) is certain of the law’s universality—he believes that the law should be accessible to all people at all times. Yet, the man does not grasp that it is precisely this law’s universality that prevents him from accessing it. The status of categorical universal renders the law completely void in relation to all singularities. For the law to encompass all, it must contain nothing. It is this paradox that leaves the man waiting indefinitely before the law, but keeps him from accessing the law itself. But is the man from the country really outside the law? In the story, the law seems to be spatially constituted through its boundaries: One can either be inside or outside of the law. However, on a closer reading, it is in fact the collapse of this division that becomes the law’s constitutive trait. Besides the gatekeeper’s verbal prohibition, there is no physical barrier that might stop the man from the country from entering into the law. Standing before the law, the man thereby already submits to its authority. He awaits admission on its threshold. His relation to the law is that of suspended expectation: “not now,” as the gatekeeper tells him. The unconsummated relationship of “not now” or “not yet” determines the law’s structural dynamic as one of indeterminate postponement, which is, in fact, its only quality. The law’s ever-suspended state, its utter negativity, renders it completely void while simultaneously rife with meaning. Absolute, yet ambiguous, it is present, but only through its absence—thus relating to the man only in its non-relation to him. Derrida describes the self-contradictory dynamic of the law thus:
The law is prohibited. But this contradictory self-prohibition allows man the freedom of self-determination, even though this freedom cancels itself through the self-prohibition of entering the law. Before the law, the man is a subject of the law in appearing before it. This is obvious, but since he is before it because he cannot enter it, he is also outside the law (an outlaw). He is neither under the law nor in the law. He is both a subject of the law and an outlaw. (205)The law, as Derrida shows, has dissolved its own defining boundaries. It is no longer clear what is internal or external to it. Consequently, what gets lost is any clear demarcation between law and lawlessness. If the law’s only apparent quality is its forbidden threshold, and if its only discernable essence is the prohibition of its own presentation, then it contains nothing but its prohibitive exteriority. Interestingly, the parable maintains a metonymic relation to the law it narrates. It is relayed to K. by a priest in the ninth chapter of The Trial, situated in a perplexing relationship to the novel in which it appears. Is the parable merely a segment of this greater work, or can it be read independently? To complicate the matter, “Before the Law” appeared in Kafka’s collection of short stories A Country Doctor, one of the few works published in his lifetime, whereas The Trial was only published posthumously and against Kafka’s wishes, a year after his death. Like the fuzziness of the law it narrates, the parable’s ambiguity precludes its instructive role, leaving it open to any number of allegorical interpretations. If the parable’s rhetorical function is to convey a moral or spiritual principle by rule of analogy, it seems that this parable fails—it does not transmit any clear illustrative principle. This uncommunicative parable transmits nothing but itself to the reader. Much like its unrepresentable law, which appears solely as prohibition to the man. In The Trial, K. hopes to find answers to his inexplicable and convoluted experiences with the court and its elaborate bureaucratic structure (as a side note, I might add that no trial ever takes place in this novel). In response to K.’s puzzlement, the priest cites this parable from “the introduction to the Law.” He then proceeds to interpret the parable for K., but repeatedly inverts each one of his interpretations with the facility of a Talmudic sophist. This rabbi-priest provides K. with an extensive exegesis of the parable’s intricacies, only to overturn every judgment he presents. The exegetical debate between K. and the priest remains inconclusive at best, because every time they progress forward in their understanding of the parable, they upend their previous interpretative assumptions. The infinitely regressive character of this debate proceeds, among other things, from the peculiar nature of the parable’s unspecified law. If the man from the country seeks a way into the law, K.’s problem is that of finding a way out of the parable (a difficulty which might also be extended to reader). This law operates, or dysfunctions under the same rule as the parable—it refers to nothing outside itself. Does the parable of the law’s indeterminate suspension impart any lesson? Might it be that of its own rhetorical failure? An illustration of its own thwarted appeal? Is it a theological metaphor for the inaccessible transcendent, as Max Brod proposed, or an allegory for the threatening obscurity of modern bureaucracies? The inexhaustible readings of this non-parable frustrate any possibility of interpretative closure, leaving us, like the man from the country, suspended indefinitely. Abraham Rubin, a second year CJL Graduate Fellow, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and a graduate teaching fellow in the English Department of City College.
 The parable can be found in in Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka. Ed. Nahum Norbert Glatzer. London, England: Vintage, 2005. For an online English translation of this text, see http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/kafka/beforethelaw.htm  Jacques Derrida. “Before the Law” in Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge, 1992. (pp. 181-220)
May 10th, 2011
The Root of injustice and uncharitableness, which abounds, is not in God, but in the free acts of His creatures--in sin. The Jewish people and their fate are the living witness for the absence of redemption. This, one could say, is the meaning of the chosen people; the Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption.
-Leo Strauss, "Why We Remain Jews"Eugene Sheppard’s erudite intellectual biography is a lucid introduction to Strauss’s itinerant career as a political philosopher writing over five decades, across both sides of the Atlantic. While Leo Strauss (1899-1973) is mainly known today as the poster-boy for American neoconservatism, and hailed guru by the likes of former deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, Sheppard moves past his image as anti-liberal, arch-conservative thinker, giving his readers a more complex understanding of the historical influences and diverse intellectual origins that shaped Strauss’s thought. This relatively short, 130-page book, ties together the various turns in Strauss’s biography and intellectual career, which began in the political tumult of Weimar Germany, and continued in exile after the rise of Nazism in 1933. Sheppard’s book gives a multi-faceted account of Strauss’s work by exploring the various transformations in his life, from Weimar conservative, to Jewish refugee, and eventual immigrant to the United States. Sheppard views Strauss as an “exilic” thinker, whose philosophical orientation was the product of the turbulent political and historical context in which he lived. Sheppard essentially proposes a un-Straussian reading of Strauss’s life and work, which emphasizes the environmental and contextual influences on his thought, instead of examining his writing through the timeless hermeneutical principles which Strauss himself employed in his reading of the medieval philosophers. The book examines exile as the central motif that unites the various strands of Strauss’s thought. His formative experience as a German-Jewish refugee, leading a precarious life in exile, informed Strauss’s own intellectual pursuits, which Sheppard describes as being guided by the recognition of “philosophy’s … precarious existence within any existing social order” (6). Sheppard explores the relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish facets of Strauss’s life, claiming that the tension between these two poles was the creative driving force that nurtured much of his thought. According to Sheppard, Strauss’s preoccupation with the viability of Jewish existence in the Diaspora, and his first hand experience as an exile, informed all his philosophical work, even when it dealt with universal questions relating to the nature of eternal truths and the dynamics of political community. According to Sheppard’s reading, Strauss converts Jewish exceptionalism, encapsulated in the precarious state of Jewish life in exile, into the paradigm for his philosophic thought. As Sheppard states: “Strauss regarded exile as the natural condition of all political societies. He recast the precarious existence of the Diasporic Jew, who lives in perpetual fear of persecution, as the normative model of the philosopher” (7). The conflicting loyalties of a lapsed-orthodox Jew, writing in a non-Jewish society, brought Strauss to examine political modernity with the skepticism of an outsider, who sought the “philosophic virtues of exile.” Strauss, who was raised in an observant Jewish family in the rural German town of Kirchhain, attempted to negotiate the particularism of Jewish existence in exile with greater universal concerns relating to the state of political crisis he witnessed across Europe and his native Germany. Strauss extended the continual state of insecurity of Jewish life in galut, or exile, to the state of political uncertainty in interwar Germany. In exploring the link between Strauss’s Jewish concerns and philosophical preoccupations, Sheppard examines the elective affinities between Strauss’s antiliberalism and that of his right-wing contemporaries, Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, who would both go on to align themselves with National Socialism. Schmitt and Heidegger’s critiques of modernity were a response to the failure of liberalism and Enlightenment values of tolerance and social equality in the German setting. Strauss shared their skepticism of modern technology and consensus politics, which he thought merely disguised the deep tensions and animosities that lay beneath the surface of the modern parliamentary system. Strauss’s negative view of Enlightenment rationalism as the basis for a political system also led him to reject any solution that sought to normalize the Jewish condition of exile. Strauss considered both Zionism and assimilation as misguided attempts to overcome the tensions that defined Jewish existence in galut. According to Strauss, galut affords “the Jewish people a maximum possibility of existence through a condition of minimum normality” (44). Sheppard returns repeatedly to this Straussian paradox, which views the “abject condition of abnormality” as the epitome of the Jewish condition. Sheppard does a wonderful job showing how Strauss’s paradoxical formulation intersects with the interwar writings of Rosenzweig, Heidegger, and Schmitt, who considered the state of existential instability as revelatory of the ontological truths of their time. Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (1927) criticizes the liberal system for obscuring the state of enmity that defines politics. According to Schmitt, it is only the prospect of violent confrontation, encapsulated in the friend-enemy distinction, which expresses the authentic state of the political. Similarly, Schmitt’s 1922 work Political Theology, explored the state of exception (ausnahmezustand), as the borderline concept (grenzsituation) that defined political sovereignty. Strauss’s thought coincides with Schmittian and Heideggerian “crisis thinking,” in his conviction that the tendency to seek a third way of reconciling German and Jewish identity entailed a “forgetting of being,” essentially abandoning the fundamentals that constitute Jewish existence: Galut. Ultimately, Strauss saw the irresolvable state of exile, persecution, and intolerance as constitutive of Jewish communal existence. Strauss reformulates the abnormality of the Jewish condition through the Schmittian dictum of true politics as the state of emergency and the Heideggerian confrontation with the nothingness of being. A later expression of Strauss’s exilic orientation, from the late 1930’s onwards, was his tendency to explicate philosophic works as multilayered texts that employ rhetorical devices to avoid their unintended audience. Strauss read the medieval philosophers, such as Avicenna and Maimonides, as intentionally oblique writers who concealed the true heterodox implications of their work in order to avoid persecution. These works revealed through concealment (yet another central Heideggerian motif), and were aimed at the intellectual elite, who could penetrate their indirect message. The dissimulative strategies Strauss attributed to these writings were an expression of his bleak view of the philosopher’s “homelessness.” According to Strauss the premodern philosopher works under the scrutiny of a regime that demands total allegiance, yet seeks to persevere in his impartial pursuit of universal truth. The philosopher inhabits a tenuous position, caught between his conflicting loyalties to the state and his impartial intellectual pursuit. Thus, Strauss universalizes the Jewish condition into the philosophic condition, as both are forced to adjust to the permanent state of political imperfection. The inherent tension with the world that the Jews experience in the diaspora is projected onto the philosopher who seeks to perpetuate his independent truth under alienated conditions. Strauss’s paradox of Jewish exile is extended to the paradox of philosophy – the conditions of exclusion and intolerance force the Jew and the philosopher to confront the radical imperfection of the world. It is this recognition of imperfectability of politics which Strauss demands of both Jew and philosopher that ultimately lies at the core of Strauss’s conservatism, which rejects the optimism of liberal-progressive thought. Abraham Rubin, a first year CJL Graduate Fellow, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and a graduate teaching fellow in the English Department of City College.
April 5th, 2011
With relation to the history of Christian Europe, marked on the one hand by the gradual formation of states, their rivalries and alliances... the Jewish people seems to have lived for twenty centuries in a kind of nonhistory or antihistory, which Rosenzweig defined as a metahistory: static temporality, structured year after year by the identical cycle of religious holidays, a lived eternity, from today, in the spaces of sacred time, and that, simply because a people testifies to it, proclaims the belligerent agitation of universal history (41).According to Rosenzweig, not only does the Jews “nonhistory” mark its religious and communal difference, it also constitutes a critique of universal history that refuses to accept violence as the inevitable course of history. The Jewish experience of time is, therefore, not so much an anti-history as an alternate history, one that construes reality as “otherwise than being”: It refuses the ontological aegis of biological survival (qua Heidegger), as well as the Logos of a total system that views all events as ineluctably headed toward a unitary manifestation of the Absolute Spirit (qua Hegel). The unique position Rosenzweig ascribes to the Jews’ place in history, places them in the world, but not of the world, thereby posing an alternative sociality that does not rely on Blut and Boden nationalism. Jewish election is thereby understood by Rosenzweig not as a mark of superiority, but as a marker of communal difference that helps formulate a political critique of European nationalism. As Moses explains: “Hence, the religious vocation of the Jewish people will be interpreted less as an absence in history than as a distance with regard to it, less as a negation of politics than as a critique of politics. Its role will not consist, as in Hegel, of putting itself in the service of universal history, but on the contrary, of subjecting each of its elements to an ethical judgment” (44). Rosenzweig’s attempt to reintroduce revelation into history is an effort to establish a critical position with regard to Hegel’s history, which conceives of the confrontation between nation-states as the catalyst for historical progress. Instead, the religious history of the Jewish people, and the liturgical time they inhabit create a distance from this dialectical evolutionary narrative that perceives war as its fundamental means of historical progress. For Rosenzweig, the Jew inhabits a symbolic order that, contrary to the history of progress, is an ongoing experience of anticipation and postponement. This suspension of time, experienced through ritual, reveals fragments of redemption within the profane order of the world. Moses notes:
Because its most distant past has always been more present to it than the most immediate present, the realization of even the most chimerical hopes has always seemed very close. This paradoxical effect is based on a thoroughly specific religious experience: that of the contraction of time. This is what provokes the absolute simultaneity of the past, present, and future (59).This tension between messianic expectation and historical time is also apparent in Scholem’s work. Scholem finds that throughout Jewish history messianism and catastrophe are inextricably entwined. As Moses explains:
For Scholem, the messianic idea is closely connected with the experience of failure. This must be understood in a double sense, referring both to the genesis of the Messianic idea and its structure. For Scholem, messianism is always born of a historical frustration, it appears, in the collective consciousness, as compensation for a loss, as a utopian promise designed to make up for current misfortune (131).The paradox of Jewish messianism is that while it anticipates the transformation of the world, it denies the possibility of redemption’s fulfillment on an immanent historical plane. As Scholem sees it, the Jew’s messianic expectation places him in limbo – simultaneously in history and outside it. The messianic yearnings express a rejection of historical immanence, a refusal of total immersion in the present, which structures time around an ever-deferred hope. Similarly, Walter Benjamin, who corresponded extensively with Scholem about tradition, history and modernity, sought to construct an experience of historical time that was grounded in its discontinuity and fragmentation. For Benjamin, the “Jetztzeit” or the moment that ruptures the temporal flow of history, thereby recreates a link to an immemorial past. If Hegel’s universal spirit is the singular outcome of all historical transformations – the conclusive unification of all historical pluralities – Benjamin’s model of historical truth is one that privileges multiplicity and fragmentation, transforming the singular into the plural. Benjamin’s critique of historicism is that its underlying conception of time is mechanistic, viewing each moment as identical to the next, and the sequence of time as homogenous duration. Moses shows how the body of Benjamin’s work, from his 1923 Habilitation dissertation (the post-doctoral dissertation required to receive an academic post in Germany), The Origin of German Tragic Drama, to his last 1940 essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, is an attempt to construct a philosophy of history which establishes a non-chronological, non-sequential relation to the past. Benjamin’s “dialectical image” is an aesthetic perception of history that does not view the past as a fixed or static point with relation to the present, but as a dynamic resource open to retrospective interpretation – a resource that contributes to the redemption of the present. But since this relationship is anachronous, the past is also open to the possibility of redemption through the present: through multiple interpretations that revive the forgotten and subdued voices of history. By rupturing the perception of historical continuity, or “the history of the victors,” as Benjamin calls it, new constellations with the past become available that revive the memory of the forgotten victims and buried traditions. Against the “homogenous empty time” of historicism, Benjamin presents the theologically informed recollection of the past mediated through tradition, which allows each moment to be redeemed by the present and stand independently on a temporal continuum. For all three thinkers, redemption is not the conclusion of a historical process, but an interruption that breaks the continuity of time. Interestingly, Moses attributes this disruptive relation to historical continuity to the Bible, where the formation of people of Israel is a matter of chance open to human freedom. In the Book of Genesis, The birthright is never determined through primogeniture but is simultaneously open to several genealogical lines, eventually determined not by predetermined historical evolution, but through individual choice. Moses succeeds in explicating the dense prose of these three thinkers in order to draw out the alternate temporalities they envision as non-chronological, non-sequential, and non-causal modes historical time. Like the Borgesian or Kafkan stories that Moses brings in his introduction, all three construct models that undercut the temporal sequence of historical narratives in order to create new experiences of time, open to continual reinterpretation, that thereby create novel ways of relating to the past, present, and future.
February 8th, 2011