From the Academy: Volume I

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Welcome to the first installment of “From the Academy,” in which I (will hopefully) check in with Jewish Studies professors to find out about their current/recent research.

My first subject is Dr. Howard Wettstein, a professor of philosophy at University of California-Riverside. I asked Dr. Wettstein if he’d share what he’s working on and if any books in particular have inspired his project. Here’s his response:

I’m early in the writing of a book on Jewish philosophy. I’ve completed a couple of chapters and have some of the rest mapped out. But, as I say, it’s still early. The project is both very personal and philosophical. It’s aim is to make sense of my own personal religious commitment.

HowardKWettstein.jpg I was an undergraduate at Yeshiva University in the early 60s. Coming from a largely secular background, I found myself powerfully attracted to traditional Jewish religious life and learning. I gave a great deal of attention to Jewish learning, especially Talmud, and after 5 years entered the S’micha (ordination) program. But a crisis of faith set in, and eventually I left Yeshiva and indeed left religious life for some 25 years.

My return to the life and the learning is one that has proved enormously rewarding, but as one can imagine, things look very different now than they did to a 20 year old. I find myself entirely committed to the religious life, but in various ways not committed to the understanding of that life provided by the medieval theological philosophers.

One of the central themes — discussed extensively early in the book — is what I see as a paradigm shift in theological thinking from the Rabbis to medieval philosophical theology. In the hands, or heads, of the philosophers, Jewish religious ways were transformed into a system of thought, a theory of the world. As I see it, and experience it, our own religious lives are a bit disjointed: in our religious living we are with the Rabbis. But we have learned to think with the philosophers.

A case in point concerns anthropomorphism. The thrust of the philosophers’ approach is very negative about anthropomorphism: God cannot be truly characterized in such “human” terms, for example as loving, angry, disappointed in us, etc. But try to imagine religious life without thinking of God in anthropomorphic terms. The Rabbinic treatment of God, in Midrash for example, is replete with anthropomorphic characterization.

What intrigues me about the project is perhaps evident from what I’ve said. It’s an attempt to better understand my own commitments, to bring to bear my work in philosophy on this matter that seems so important to me.

As for works that have had great influence, the story is a bit complicated. On one hand, I need to be in touch with the work of the great medievals — most of all, but not exclusively, Maimonides.

On the other hand, their direction is not in the end my own. The works of some 20th century Jewish thinkers have been very helpful, like Heschel and Max Kadushin. And Wittgenstein’s later work — not only his brief comments about religion but his work more generally — has helped to form the way I think about philosophy and so much more.

Posted on January 23, 2008

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