Wednesday, January 6, 2010
The Alan Brill (Not Saadiah Gaon) Book of Doctrines and Opinions Blog
During my five years at Yeshiva University, one of my favorite teachers was Dr. Alan Brill. I took him for Philosophy of Maimonides. (So I guess he carries at least part of the blame for my bullheaded Maimonideanism.) His was the most rigorous class of my undergraduate career, with a final that was literally a two day affair. That being said he was also a remarkably generous grader. (This model of demanding course work coupled with a generosity in grading is something I seek to emulate in my teaching.) A. N. Wilson notoriously labeled the late Sir Isaiah Berlin as the "Dictaphone Don." By this Wilson meant to attack Berlin's willingness to create elaborate structures to categorize wide varieties of intellectual figures and his casual reductionist method of writing his way through intellectual history, a style of writing that brought him to the status of academic celebrity. Not to get into the justice of Wilson's claim, but this label would also suit Dr. Brill. In this I mean it in every positive sense. Dr. Brill brought to the table an overpowering command of the literature to the table, the likes that few of us undergraduates had ever seen. His class was a running meditation on everything from Greek philosophy to medieval Islamic thought (mostly consisting of thinkers that I, up to that point, had never heard of) to post-modern philosophy, presented in an intoxicating and exhilarating whirlwind. I doubt he seriously expected us to read let alone comprehend the vast amounts of material he assigned us. I suspect his motive was so that we could comprehend how much there was out there, how little we knew, and to what extent he was making a compromise in teaching non-specialists like us. Dr. Brill could engage in this method of teaching and make it work because he was also a master systemizer. There were the esoteric radicals like Averroes, Moshe Narboni and Leo Strauss. They are in conflict with divine supernaturalists like Isaac Abarbanel and Marvin Fox. Yes there was something reductionist about this style of teaching and Brill had a way of putting down and mocking various thinkers as it suited him. Particularly memorable was his "Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch is bourgeoisie Judaism." I suspect that this was done if for no other reason than to challenge a favored idol of his students. (In a Modern Orthodox school one is hard pressed to find a closer equivalent than Hirsch to patron saint.) It would not take too much of a stretch of the imagination to envision a group of self confident and self righteous undergraduates arrogantly mouthing off Brill's lines as Gospel truth and deciding that if Brill dismissed someone then one could afford to move on and not bother reading. For me Dr. Brill was just the opposite, a key into a world and a directive to go read. Yeshiva University in its great wisdom decided to not grant Dr. Brill tenure and let him go. He now teaches at Seton Hall.
Now Dr. Brill has graced us with a blog of his own so anyone with an internet connection can gain from him. I am particularly fond of his analysis of modern trends within Christian thinking and their implications for Orthodox Judaism. There is also his musings on the passing of John T. Elson and the rise of popular mysticism where he notes: "And finally we have a variety of Jewish based kitchen deities, where one prays for everyday miracles, prosperity, and that the kugel comes out OK."
Dr. Brill is still looking for a name for his blog. I am up for "Dictaphone Mystic." It would be really something if readers of Izgad could come up with a name.