The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on August 29, 2013
Reform Jews, Moderate Muslims, and Scholarly Swedes

Readers of this blog will by now have become familiar with my cognitive preference for free association. I read something about Brazil, which reminds me about something in China, the two items together have an implication for a theory of mine. If the currently fashionable brain science is right, this predilection of mine may be due to some malfunction in my cerebral electrical circuits. This hypothesis does not worry me too much.

The German publishers Mohr Siebeck sent me a book of theirs just out in its English original, on the history of the Society for the Promotion of the Science of Judaism (Gesellschaft zur Foerderung der Wissenschaft des Judentums, the name is the title of the book, with the added phrase “in is historical context”). The author is Henry Soussan, who has a doctorate from the University of Sussex, received rabbinical ordination in Jerusalem, and is currently a rabbi and instructor at the US Military Academy in West Point (must be an interesting job). Nineteenth-century German Judaism is hardly a specialty of mine, I started to read the book because I have had dealings with the publishers (I don’t know the author), but I became increasingly intrigued by the story and its relevance to developments in the Muslim world today.

The idea of a “science of Judaism” emerged a few years after, under the influence of Napoleon’s campaign to establish civil equality irrespective of religion, the Prussian edict of 1812 granted this status to all legally resident Jews. Comparable developments took place in other European countries, beginning the era of Jewish emancipation. The ideological accompaniment of the emancipation was haskalah, the Jewish adaptation of the Enlightenment. The idea of a “science of Judaism” was very much a part of this movement, which also launched the beginnings of Reform Judaism ( so effectively transplanted to America). The Society with which Soussan’s book deals was founded in 1902, quite some decades after the “science of Judaism” had become a very lively part of the Jewish scene, and it lasted until its suppression by the Nazis in 1938. In a very sensitive passage in his introduction, Soussan observes that “any research on the history of European Jewry is written in the shadow of the Holocaust”, but one must try to understand objectively what was the context of any particular development in its time (when of course nobody knew what would happen a century in the future); only then can one appreciate a particular intellectual contribution – in this case a significant one.

The “science of Judaism” had an intellectual and a political agenda. Intellectually, it was a Jewish replication of what was at the time a gigantic engagement of Protestant (mainly German) thought with modernity. The even larger context of this was the application of modern historical scholarship not only to the Christian Scriptures (Hebrew Bible and New Testament), but to all other major religious traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on. As in the Protestant theological community, the modern historical approach was fiercely resisted by traditional Jewish scholars. The resistance was even stronger in Judaism, where a fairly literal understanding of Torah (less so of course of Talmud) found “critical” interpretations profoundly offensive; among Protestant theologians, Lutherans had a much more flexible view of Biblical revelation and were consequently less upset by the application of the modern historian’s analytical scalpel (there was little parallel to the “inerrancy” notion of American Evangelicals – Catholics had other problems). The scholars of the “science of Judaism” made a distinction between the core of the tradition and the more marginal elements that could be negotiated away in the bargain with modernity (as in dealing with the more bloodthirsty episodes in the history of ancient Israel and the more brutal penalties of Jewish law). The putative core would then survive the relativizations of modernity. A key thinker in the “science of Judaism”  and the broader Reform movement was Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), who tellingly was interested in interfaith dialogue.

There was also a political agenda: Making Judaism a respected participant in “high” German and European culture, and thereby defeating anti-Semitic attacks. An important part of this agenda was to push for the establishment of faculties of the “science of Judaism” in Germany universities. This effort failed. Time and again, pertinent proposals were turned down by individual universities and by the ministries of culture (Kultusministerien) of different German states (until our own time, these ministries are in charge of all universities).  Instead, the movement created a network of rabbinical schools, Jewish institutes and associations, and scholarly publications; a high point was the 1873 founding of an independent (that is, not state-supported) University (Hochschule) for the Science of Judaism in Berlin. At the insistence of the Prussian ministry, the name was changed to “Teaching Institute” (Lehranstalt), to make clear that it was not a state-recognized university. I cannot say whether this resistance was due to anti-Semitic prejudice or to turf interests of existing theological and philosophical faculties.

It seems to me that Soussan is right that the story of the “science of Judaism” has lessons for Judaism today. The intellectual issue of reconciling modernity and Judaism persists, including the question of the limits of aggiornamento; the role of modern historical scholarship is inevitably involved in this (as applicable to Torah, Talmud and different schools of traditional Jewish law). There is also the question of the non-negotiable core of the religion, as against less centrally important elements. The political agenda is obviously different in the diaspora and in Israel. The hot question in the latter, a contentious one, is just what it means that Israel is a Jewish state.

The relevance of all this to the debates among Muslims today is, I think, very intriguing – although, except for very small groups of moderate intellectuals, there is no parallel to the broad movement of nineteenth-century Reform Judaism. There are of course gradations, but most Muslims are quite traditional in their faith, and so are most religious scholars. Among those who can reasonably be called moderate, there are also intellectual and political agendas. Once again, there is the intellectual challenge of modern historical scholarship (though that has a very hard time in Muslim communities). A key question: How is one to deal with the differences between the chapters in the Quran dating from the earlier and the later periods in the life of Muhammad. All the chapters with which modern individuals can be comfortable (such as those that state the unity of mankind and that prohibit coercion in matters of religion) date from the early period, the uncomfortable ones from the latter period (those that rail against the Jews and impose horrific penalties in criminal law – incidentally, quite similar to those declared in the Hebrew Bible). Traditional Islamic scholars were aware of this chronology, and some of them found ways to moderate or qualify the latter ones (as did traditional Jewish scholars with some of the sharper statements in their scriptures). In the earlier period Muhammad was an isolated and endangered prophet in Mecca; after the move to Medina, he was head of a state and its commander-in-chief. Modern historical scholarship can/could draw out the implications of this difference, but that is made difficult if the Quran as a whole, from beginning to end, is considered a seamless divine revelation (in the Arabic language to boot). I leave out the not so minor difficulty that in many Muslim-majority countries a scholar applying modern scholarship to the Quran or even the hadith (authenticated traditions concerning the life of the Prophet) will have a rather short life expectancy (be it due to a trial for “blasphemy”, or to the action of an enraged mob). Even moderate Muslims, who want to make some sort of bargain with modernity, confront the question of the limits of such aggiornamento.

The political agenda here is also intriguingly similar to the one in the State of Israel:  What is the respective status of secular law and religious law, halacha or sharia, in a state that defines itself as adhering to one religion? In that case, what space is there for religious minorities, and also for distinctively secular discourses (for example, in the economy or any institution based on modern technology? Take  the hot debate about the place of sharia in the constitution of a Muslim-majority country. A majority of Muslims say that they want “a sharia state” (though they mean different things by that). Most constitutions for Muslim-majority countries mention Islam. Some constitutional drafts say that legislation should be based “on the judgments (fatwas) of Islamic courts” (comparable to so-called responsa of rabbinical courts), others that they should be based on “Islamic principles”. A vast difference between the two: Comparable to the difference between the “integral Catholicism” established by the Franco regime in Spain, and the largely Catholic-inspired “Christian democracy” in Western Europe after World War II. The politics is obviously different in countries where Muslims are in the minority. All the efforts of the “science of Judaism” movement to establish chairs for their discipline in German universities failed. In recent years German universities fell over each other to set up chairs for “Islamic studies” – understood not so much (if at all) as the modern study of Islam,  but rather what, say, the renowned medieval thinker al-Ghazali meant by the “divine sciences”. The political interest of Muslims in Germany today is very similar of that of Jews in nineteenth-century Germany – to get respect and recognition for their faith, and to combat discrimination and “Islamophobia”.  The political motive of the German state is to integrate Muslim immigrants and their religion into German society – as one politician put it, “Islam belongs in Germany”.

As I have argued for many years, the major challenge of modernity to religion is not secularism, but pluralism – the co-existence between different worldviews and value systems in the same society. For social and psychological reasons that are not at all mysterious, this does not mean that religious faith is no longer possible, but that it is no longer taken for granted. And certain aspects of faith indeed become questionable, notably those that are deemed to be directly contradicted by scientifically established facts. There then ensues a sort of bargaining process between modernity and faith, in the minds of individual believers and in the theological reflection in religious institutions. Different religious traditions differ in the construction of such bargains. Many Evangelicals in America have difficulties with biological evolution, and refuse to budge in their adherence to a literal understanding of the Book of Genesis (some of them, in the great phrase used for stubborn defenders of apartheid in South Africa, are “bitter-enders” in their war with Darwin). Other Christians will continue to affirm that the world is God’s creation, but the Biblical account of this is not (as some Evangelicals hold) “inerrant” – and therefore is negotiable. This has a very interesting consequence, very clearly illustrated by the proponents of the “science of Judaism”: Believers who are not “bitter-enders” are pushed to differentiate between a non-negotiable core of their faith, and other aspects of it (accretions for whatever historical reasons) that can be, as it were, negotiated away.

In thinking about this, I remembered a school of religious scholarship that arose in Sweden in the middle of the twentieth century – so-called “motif research”. I cannot read Swedish, but I read two prominent members of this school in English translation – Anders Nygren, author of Eros and Agape, in which he compared Greek and Christian ideals of love – and Gustav Aulen, who in Christus Victor compared different doctrines of the Atonement. The method here was to look for central trends/”motifs” in a tradition (say, Greek philosophy, or Eastern Christian theology). This is not what postmodernists like to call “essentialism” – the notion that some “essence” of a tradition is passed, unaltered and unalterable, from generation to generation – a notion that is rather obviously false. But rather the much more plausible notion that there are some core ideas or values that have a tendency to persist or to resurface despite often significant changes in a tradition. I have found this to be a useful concept for the understanding of religious history.

  • johngbarker

    I hope you will write about Buber and Rosenzweig; are they not the greatest thinkers of the period?

  • Gary Novak

    When I enable my Bergerian brain circuitry, I notice a similarity between Swedish motif research and Berger’s characterization of reality (in “The Social Construction of Reality”) as that
    which cannot be thought away. Sex differences resurface despite feminist efforts to think them away, and core values resurface in a religious tradition despite changing historical
    circumstances. If we identify reality (or essences) with the forms in which they are received, interpreted, and articulated, then the postmodernist disparagement of “essentialism” seems quite reasonable. As Berger says, those forms are clearly not unaltered and unalterable across generations.

    But postmodernism insists that there is no mind-independent reality: everything can be thought away! That would make even mellow motif research bad-faith essentialism. Paul Tillich begins his “Systematic Theology” by defining the task of theology as continually reinterpreting the eternal kerygma (message) in terms appropriate to changing historical situations. Fundamentalists are offended by the idea that any reinterpretation is necessary, but postmodernists are equally offended by the idea that any recurrence of motifs could be explained by a reality (kerygma)
    behind the scenes trying to push its way into the lifeworld.

    So it seems that the distinction between motif research and essentialism only serves to distinguish between inductive essentialism and deductive essentialism. Yes, inductivists (motif researchers) can also be essentialists: the project of separating wheat and chaff presupposes the essential reality of wheat. If, through faith, one can overcome the fear of negotiating away the core, the activity of separating what abides from what does not can generate enthusiasm for life. One might even say it amounts to a search for God and is the purpose of life.
    Nygren’s “Eros and Agape” sounds interesting. Amazon here I come.

  • DavidT

    “But postmodernism insists that there is no mind-independent reality: everything can be thought away!”

    I am not sure where you encountered this impression of postmodernism, but it is a strange one. Lyotard’s simple definition — “incredulity towards metanarratives” — is the best, and applies equally to architecture (where it was first used) and English Lit. You may be confusing the postmodernist’s “incredulity” in the face of truth statements with an attitude toward reality, which is quite different. To point out that statements about reality are made from a position, and that the positionality of such statements always needs to be taken into account, is not the same as saying that there is no reality that is independent of minds.

    • Gary Novak

      In “Reason, Truth and History” (1981), Hilary Putnam distinguishes two philosophical perspectives: metaphysical realism and internalism. According to the former, “the world consists of some totality of mind-independent objects. There is exactly one true and complete
      description of ’the way the world is.’ . . .
      I shall call this perspective the externalist perspective, because its favorite point of view is a God’s Eye point of view” (p. 49). Internalists like Putnam hold that the
      question “what objects does the world consist of?” is a question that it “only
      makes sense to ask within a theory or description.” They hold that “there is no God’s Eye point of view that we can know or usefully imagine . . .” (50). There is nothing remarkable in holding that
      we cannot know reality from a God’s Eye point of view. But in saying that it is useless—indeed, nonsensical—to try to imagine a God’s Eye view (or what philosopher Thomas Nagel—dismissed as an essentialist by postmodernist Richard Rorty– calls “the view from nowhere”), Putnam is rejecting the concept of mind-independent reality.

      The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy defines metaphysical realism as, among other things, the view there are real objects which “have properties and enter into relations independently of the concepts with which we understand them or the language with which we describe them.” It describes postmodernism as, among other things, a rejection of metaphysical realism.

      One can distrust metanarratives for
      a number of reasons—they may be self-serving or dishonest ideologies. But practicing what Berger—way back in “Invitation to Sociology”—called the art of mistrust does not make one a postmodernist– who believes that metanarratives are necessarily false because they claim to describe non-existent mind-independent realities. Postmodernists do not believe that anything goes; they think it is important to change the way we think and talk about the world (often coercively, since correspondence with the way things really are can no longer be a guide), but they are contemptuous of the idea that we could “get it right.” Their criteria are pragmatic:
      what helps us foster social justice as we understand it? It’s all about linguistic turns, language games, discourses, regimes, traditions, social practices. It’s all about the socio-linguistic construction of reality WITHOUT any recognition of the legitimacy of questions about the adequacy of our constructions in the light of what our dear Berger had the simplicity to call, fifty years ago, ultimate reality.

      • DavidT

        Sorry — I cannot imagine what any of this has to do with the concept of postmodernism. In the final section of your post you do not describe postmodernism at all; you describe what is usually known as poststructuralism. Again, your characterization of postmodernism is simply wrong.

        • Gary Novak

          In your first post you wrote: “To point out that statements about reality are made from a position, and that the positionality of such statements always needs to be taken into account, is not the same as saying that there is no reality independent of minds.” Would you agree that Hilary Putnam IS rejecting the view that ”the world consists of some totality of mind-independent objects.” Are you insisting that he should not count as a postmodernist? But the late Richard Rorty, who described himself as a “postmodern bourgeois liberal,” makes the
          same point. I mentioned that Rorty dismisses Thomas Nagel’s “view from nowhere.” He writes, “Nagel thinks that to
          deprive ourselves of such notions as ‘representation’ and ‘correspondence’
          would be to stop ‘trying to climb outside of our own minds, an effort some
          would regard as insane and that I regard as philosophically fundamental’” (“Objectivity,
          Relativism, and Truth,” p.7). Nagel is not claiming that we can achieve the view from nowhere (Putnam’s “Gods-eye
          view”). But for Nagel it is
          philosophically fundamental to retain the concept of mind-independent
          reality. Rorty, Putnam, Nelson Goodman
          (“Ways of Worldmaking”), and others are not reiterating Karl Mannheim’s
          century-old “relational” sociology of knowledge (we see reality from a
          perspective which must be taken into account lest we “talk past each other”); they are rejecting the idea of a “ready-made world.”

          You may think the philosophers I have mentioned have nothing to do with postmodernism, but listen to a (trickle-down) postmodern English literature professor who invokes the authority of
          post-empiricist philosophers of science on “theory-laden facts” before
          launching into a politically correct “reading” of racist, sexist, homophobic
          literature. I cited The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, which begins its entry on POSTMODERN with “of or
          relating to a complex set of reactions to modern philosophy and its
          presuppositions, rather than to any agreement on substantive doctrines or
          philosophical questions.” You seem to have a more determinate idea of
          the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a postmodernist than the Cambridge Dictionary, which is more inclined to include folks based on
          Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances.” I
          notice you did not respond to my point that Lyotard’s “incredulity towards
          metanarratives”—while a necessary condition for being a postmodernist—is
          clearly not sufficient. It would make Berger a postmodernist when he endorses the sociological art of mistrust and warns that reality is not what it seems. (Incidentally, how does Lyotard’s definition
          apply to architecture?)

          But let me return to the passage that originally caught your eye:
          postmodernism insists there is no mind-independent reality: everything can be thought away! (By the way, Berger
          says “wished away,” not “thought away”—perhaps “wishful thinking” bridges the gap. My books were all in boxes during my recent move.) Setting aside our
          disagreements about the differences between postmodernism, poststructuralism,
          post-positivism, etc., is there something in contemporary thought that is not only incredulous toward metanarratives but toward the whole idea of truth-finding, as opposed to truth-making? Are there
          influential people (whatever you want to call them) who think the idea of motif research is stupid because it takes seriously the superstition, ignorance, and metaphysical realism of our benighted past? Instead of listening for
          signals of transcendence in the historical record as well as in our own lives,
          shouldn’t we just roll up our sleeves like the President in his photo-ops and remake the world as we want it to be? Shouldn’t
          we drop the idea of a ready-made world and improve our exclusively immanent world without windows? That seems to be Rorty’s goal. If I may close with a lengthy quote:

          “The human need which is gratified by the attempt . . . to stand outside all human needs—the need for what Nagel calls transcendence’—is one which antirepresentationalists
          [like Rorty] think it culturally undesirable to exacerbate. They think this need eliminable by means of a suitable moral education—one which raises people up from the ‘humility’ which Nagel recommends. Such an education tries to sublimate the desire to stand in suitably humble relations to nonhuman
          realities into a desire for free and open encounters between human beings,
          encounters culminating either in intersubjective agreement or in reciprocal

  • Praelium

    Another brilliant synthesis from Sir Berger is here and it is a joy to read. Every doctrine of religion includes “inerrant” and “negotiable” parts that are sifted by “modernity”. Catholics wonder if Latin is necessary for the Eucharist, Evangelicals wonder if evolution is necessary for the Creator, Hindus wonder if free-markets will destroy the caste system, Zen roshis wonder if neuroscience will answer all their koans, and Jews wonder if rejecting Jesus as the Messiah is necessary for staying in God’s favor. Modernity has a full line-up for Muslims. Can we draw pictures of religious leaders? And are women, bells, and just war theories good? The best way to welcome modernity is to be humble and to pray for guidance.

    • Grigalem

      “Jews wonder if rejecting Jesus as the Messiah is necessary for staying in God’s favor.”

      No they don’t.

      That’s just silly as well as bone-headed.