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- Biblical theology, political theology, and modern Jewish philosophy
After completing my work on the translation and commentary of Mendelssohn's Morgenstunden and An die Freunde Lessings in MosesMendelssohn: Last Works (2012, University of Illinois Press), I turned my attention to a little-knownGerman-Jewish philosopher, Oskar Goldberg (1885-1953). It was Gershom Scholemwho inspired me to learn more about Oskar Goldberg. Scholem makes a crypticreference to Goldberg in his earliest publication about Sabbatianism (1928), anessay on the Sabbatian theologian Abraham Cardoso, a writer who had been thefocus of some of my earlier research on conversos,crypto-Judaism, and antinomian messianism. I discovered that Goldberg hadbeen the subject of an intellectual biography by the German scholar ManfredVoigts, but this book only raised more questions in my mind. Goldberg’s magnumopus, The Reality of the Hebrews (1925),had been furiously attacked by Gershom Scholem in a letter he sent toRosenzweig and Benjamin, among others. He was attacked by Scholem aspromulgating a “magical” form of Judaism based upon the Kabbalah. Scholem tookGoldberg to be a dangerous manipulator of Jewish tradition, seducing young Jewsto dream of resuscitating the ancient Hebrew “metaphysical capacity” fordrawing down the efficacious presence of the transcendental God YHWH into thisworld. Scholem took a dim view of Goldberg’s theories, although he took themvery seriously indeed. I recognized in Goldberg a possible subject for a newcase study in philosophical politics. The provocative force of Goldberg’sauthorship had certainly been acknowledged by everyone who encountered it.Thomas Man drew inspiration for his Josephnovels from The Reality of theHebrews and the sociologist and Holocaust novelist H. G. Adler wasprofoundly influenced by Goldberg’s argument that the imagination possessed aproductive power that could transform the world. My book on Oskar Goldberg, in press with Indiana University Press in early2017 (Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination), argues that Goldberg’sphilosophy is best understood as part of the resurgent vitalism of the earlytwentieth century. My book begins with an account of the rise of vitalistmodels of explanation in biology at the turn of the twentieth century inGermany with the work of the embryologist-turned-philosopher Hans Driesch. Ithen explain Goldberg’s fusion of Driesch’s vitalism with amathematically-informed interpretation of the Kabbalah. Goldberg found in thelatest developments of Georg Cantor’s mathematics of transfinite numbersconfirmation of the Kabbalah’s fundamentally mathematical orientation towardthe structure of the Godhead. In drawing upon the latest developments inbiology and mathematics, Goldberg hoped to fashion an interpretation of thebedrock text of Judaism, the Pentateuch, that would be firmly groundedtheoretically and also capable of guiding a renewed application of itsprinciples to transform the contemporary world. It is this “applied Hebrewmetaphysics” that Scholem found so dangerous. I find it, however, to be asignal instance of a philosophical politics aimed at countering the lethalcombination of biological theory and state power articulated in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf as well as in many otherworks of the period.
I am working on book to be titled Hegeland the Holocaust. The book will treat four thinkers who have attempted torespond to the Holocaust in the terms of Hegel’s philosophy of history. Thefirst thinker is Leo Strauss who in OnTyranny (1948) engaged with the meaning of Hitler’s dictatorship through alittle-studied text of Xenophon, Hiero,or Tyrannicus. The interpretation of Xenophon’s dialogue between a tyrantand a philosopher (a “wise man”) was written while Strauss was engaged in afriendly exchange of letters about political theory with Alexandre Kojève,perhaps the most influential Hegel interpreter of that period. In 1954 a new edition of Strauss’s bookwas published (in French) which framed the discussion of Xenophon’s dialoguewith an interchange between Strauss and Kojève. The stakes of the framingdialogue were no less consequential than those of Xenophon’s: the fate ofphilosophy during a time of dictatorship. This question was framed in relationto Hegel’s philosophy of history. The Strauss-Kojève debate will situate mytreatment of the remaining three figures that the book will cover: EricVoegelin, Emil Fackenheim, and Gillian Rose. These thinkers all attempt tounderstand the Holocaust in the light of Hegel’s philosophy of history. In thefinal analysis, they all embraced a “broken” Hegel, a thinker who foresaw atotalizing “end of history” but who, in their readings at least, hoped to builda bulwark against it in the midst of the struggles of our finite lives torepair an imperfect socio-political order while avoiding all “final solutions.”Our task, they would agree, is to postpone the end of history, not hasten it.
- Ph.D. in Classics, Princeton University, 1979
- B.A. Columbia University
Distinctions / Awards
- Co-PI, “A Multimedia Digital Library of Hispanic Folk Literature,” National Science Foundation Digital Library Initiative II, $500,000, 1998-2002