Showing posts with label Isaiah Berlin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Isaiah Berlin. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: What is Jewish (If Anything) in Isaiah Berlin’s Philosophy?

Dikla Sher – Isaiah Berlin vs. Hannah Arendt: Their Political Ideas through the Prism of their Jewish Identities

Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt were very different thinkers. Berlin was quite open in his contempt for her. Much of their differences can be seen in their different experiences with totalitarianism and their criticism of Enlightenment. Berlin opposed the over-rationalism of the Enlightenment. The claim that human’s are the same everywhere and should have one reason. This comes from the Platonic ideal of one universal that applies everywhere. Such monism inevitably leads to totalitarianism. Arendt, coming from her personal experience with Nazi Germany, saw the failure of human rights as something beyond any government. Her criticism is political and not philosophical. For Arendt the most important right is to have rights. Such rights are based on societies and not, as Berlin argued, with individuals.
Berlin divided liberty into positive and negative liberty; he preferred negative liberty. True liberty requires examination, active decisions; to be free is to make an unforced choice. The attraction of totalitarianism is that it allows man to avoid action. Arendt distinguished freedom from liberty. True political freedom cannot be ownership but is part of man’s essence. To be free is to act. This action must take place in a shared public space.

Berlin acknowledged a value to nationalism in that it served the need for a common culture. Arendt’s community is not national; she opposed the nation state. In its place she supported a republican alternative. This is not the classic model of republicanism; Arendt went against Rousseau in that there, for her, is no giving up of individuality to the republican state. Instead one takes on an additional identity; thus making the individual life richer.

Neither Berlin nor Arendt believed that one had to be religious. They do not use Jewish sources. Their Jewish identities, though, were dominant. Berlin celebrated Jewish holidays as a way to identity with his community and heritage, which he wanted to continue. Arendt, writing to Scholem, said that she never felt that she had to identify herself as a Jew; being a Jew was a fact of life. Berlin was a strong supporter for Zionism from the beginning. Arendt saw the power of Zionism in terms of taking responsibility for Jewish problems. She turned against Zionism, though, when she found out that it would be a Jewish national state without cooperation with the Arabs. It was a forced solution after the social one had failed.

Joshua Laurence Cherniss – Judaism, Jewishness, and Liberalism in Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought

There is a difference between Judaism and Jewishness. Judaism here can be taken to refer to a set of given beliefs. Jewishness is to be defined in terms of a culture that one is in dialogue with. In terms of Judaism there is not much there in Berlin. He did not use Jewish texts in his writing. Conditioned by his own views of Judaism as an intellectual position, he viewed Judaism as a series of claims that were outside of reason or ethics. A pivotal example of this is God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son. Similar to Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Berlin saw this as a move against the ethical. For Berlin, to respect Judaism was to reject it.

Berlin was engaged in the situation of Jews in a post emancipation world. For Berlin this emancipation was a failure. This larger course of Jewish history comes from his experience with the Russian situation. There was more persecution, but Jewish life enjoyed a greater coherence and integrity. It was not surprising to Berlin that Zionism was more successful in Russia than in the West. Jews had a model in the Russian intelligentsia to imitate, which Berlin greatly admired this. Berlin also had his experience with British Jewry. They lacked persecution but suffered from a class conscious society. They were caught trying to fit into society that was not made for them, wearing clothes that did not fit. For Berlin liberty was a matter of choice. To be deprived of choice is to be denied the fundamental dignity of a human being. The tragedy of the Jew was that choices were not open to them.

(During the question and answer section there was some discussion of A. N. Wilson’s attack on Berlin as the “dictaphone don” in the Times Literary Supplement, which depicts Berlin in ways that were quite contrary to that of the panelists.)