Doom Prophets V: People I Miss and Seeing God, A History Boy, 24/02/2016

Continued from last post . . . The last two names on Antonio Negri’s list of the visionaries of modernity’s self-destruction are the two I don’t know as well. There’s Max Weber and Franz Rosensweig.

From what I know of their work, I can give a hypothesis of what role they’ll play in Utopias’ analysis of modernity’s implosion. They both try to redeem Western humanity, given that Western humanity’s major cultural project and theme – modernity, the industrial revolution, the nation-state and nationalism, colonial conquest of Earth – turned into an undeniable disaster of bloodshed, destruction, and horror.

Not only do my ideas apparently resemble
Max Weber, but I even have similar hair
when I cut it short. And that's a seriously
awesome beard.
So . . . yeah. That’s a bit of an issue for those of us who consider Western culture part of our heritage (whether we like it or not). Grappling with that heritage in many weird ways – that’s what Utopias will do.

Weber is an interesting figure to me. My gaps regarding his philosophy is pretty ironic, as my old friend The Yalie has said that my own perspective, especially in some of the early philosophy-related posts on Adam Writes Everything, reminded him very much of Weber.

So why didn’t I ever read his work until recently, when a copy of The Vocation Lectures has been sitting on my bookshelf for about two years now? Because I haven’t taken a sociology course since I was 18 years old, and disciplinary boundaries severely affected what I was exposed to and what I could spare time to devote to, for much of my time in the academy.

That’s why I’m looking forward to diving into Weber, and his apparently optimistic vision (a rarity among Negri’s list of doom prophets). 

But the thinker on that list that I’m most looking forward to diving into is Rosenzweig. I only have a little knowledge of his work, most of what came from my old rebbe Arnold. 

Arnold wasn’t a real rabbi – he wasn’t accredited, and I’m actually not sure how much yeshiva he attended over the years. Most of his career he spent as a documentary filmmaker. I’ve seen his award shelf at his old house in Manuels. He was a soft,* thoughtful, sardonic, and wise man.

* And seriously overweight, which was a likely contributor to his death at 70 back in 2011, which I consider premature, given modern medical science and preventative care.

I sometimes wish I could still talk to Arnold, as someone else who’s gone through some difficult economic times as a young man and still lived a fulfilling creative life. In my more stressful times, I really could have used one more friend like him, an intellectual who succeeded in life by living it largely on his own terms. 

Arnold knew Talmud better than the one rabbi at the one synagogue in St. John’s, and he’d sometimes school the official head of that city’s Jewish community in the more esoteric, less doctrinaire elements of the Jewish intellectual tradition.

Rosenzweig died of ALS just before
his 43rd birthday. In his last years,
he was able to communicate only by
blinking his eye yes or no as his wife
read the alphabet for him, one
painstaking letter at a time.
He introduced me to Rosenzweig and Martin Buber through the Jockey Club meetings that I used to organize at Memorial University’s Philosophy Department. I only read a few chapters by these inspiring thinkers, copied and sent around for our discussions. 

Arnold helped me understand the concepts in millennia of Jewish thought as Rosenzweig gave them voice. And there was more there than Negri’s cursory mention of a failed redemption suggest. 

In The Star of Redemption and the guiding philosophy of Rosenzweig and Buber’s phenomenological translation of the Torah into German, that compelled me – a committed atheist – to understand a deeper kind of atheism that could understand how the divine rises from existence, from life, and from thought. 

“There is no God in Judaism,” I remember Arnold saying, to provoke scorn as much as to provoke thought. “The divine is the ethics.”

Those papers that Arnold gave me, excerpts from Rosenzweig’s work and articles about him, are gone now. Lost in my move from Hamilton to Toronto just over a year ago. 

But the memory remains. And the Amazon Cart that still has The Star of Redemption in it, just waiting until I can find room in the budget again. It’s moved up closer and closer to the top of my list. Living in a Jewish household now has helped. 

That vision of God in my friend Arnold’s Judaism – the knowledge of an amateur Talmudic scholar whose intelligence was so deft, he could school the rabbi himself – is the only God that I could ever accept. 

I don’t think I’ll ever fully convert to Judaism – I’d be too argumentative with the Orthodox rabbis, and I’d eventually take things too far – they’d either kick me out of class, give me a job, or send me to a kibbutz. But those ideas in Rosenzweig’s work and my conversations with Arnold made the only route by which I’ve ever experienced God. 

And God will be in Utopias. As well as in our utopias.

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