Don Draper the Jew

One of the dominant themes of the first season of Mad Men is Jewishness. In the very first episode, Sterling Cooper is courting the Jewish department store Menken’s, which is trying to convert to a more mainstream luxury format under the leadership of the owner’s daughter, Rachel Menken. When they seek out a Jewish employee to attend the initial meeting, Don joins in with the casual anti-Semitism of the era, declaring that they haven’t hired any Jews “under his watch.” But as the season goes on, the Jewish motifs continue — they try (and ultimately fail) to get the Israeli tourism account, Don takes up with Rachel (at one point using the Israeli tourism connection as a pretext to meet with her), and there are also little touches (such as the delicatessen served to the Lucky Strike representatives who are nervous after Roger’s heart attack, an interesting counterpoint to the shrimp cocktail served at the original Menken’s pitch).

On one level, this is a misdirection. The audience knows Don has a secret, and the writers are luring us into the trap of assuming that Don is a secret Jew — when in reality he is just a poor Southern boy, the orphaned son of a prostitute. But one of the key techniques of Mad Men is to “sublate” apparent misdirections into deeper truths. Read the rest of this entry »

Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

Lecture at Shimer College

On Monday, November 12, at 6:30, Shimer College will be hosting a lecture by Peter Temes, who will be discussing his new book The Future of the Jewish People in Five Photographs. More details are available on this poster (PDF), which is handy for e-mailing, printing, and displaying.

Posted in Chicago, Judaism, lectures, Shimer College. Comments Off

Contemporary Jewish and Islamic Writings on Job

I’m currently in the planning stages of a course for next year. Currently the title of the course is “Contemporary Religious Thinking” and so, as you can expect, the options for this are quite vast. At the moment I’m playing around with the idea of having the course focus around suffering and violence by looking at contemporary responses to the book of Job. So we would read Alter’s translation of Job together and then the Job books of Gutierrez, Jung, and Negri. This would cover some very different “religious” forms of thinking, but I want to include responses from Judaism and Islam as well. Do any of our august readers know of any contemporary (so broadly within the 20th-21st centuries) works on Job from these traditions?

Atonement and supercessionism

In all our recent discussions of supercessionism in connection with Carter’s book, a thought occurred to me: in none of the “classical” theories of the atonement (i.e., on the nature and meaning of Christ’s saving work) does it actually matter that he’s Jewish. In Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, and Abelard alike, everything would’ve gone fine if he’d belonged to any nation or none. The Christ-event is not connected to the covenant with Israel, but skips straight back to the “universal” problem of Adam’s sin or bondage.

Read the rest of this entry »

Agamben and Jewish Difference: Some scattered thoughts

I’ve been reading Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population the last few days, and it has prompted some thoughts on Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, which is a kind of response to Foucault’s work. The trigger for these thoughts came when Foucault said that the notion of the king as a shepherd is a not a classical Greek or Roman theme and was brought in from the Mesopotamian and specifically Hebrew tradition by means of Christianity.

That claim makes perfect sense, but it struck me that it’s absolutely impossible to imagine Agamben making such a claim. Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement

I picked up Sergey Dolgopolski’s What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement at the AAR and subsequently read it in one weekend. It is a fascinating study putting forth Talmud as an art alongside philosophy, sophistics, and rhetoric — an art predicated on irreducible and fundamental disagreement. Dolgopolski argues that the Western tradition has always privileged agreement as a goal and tends to dismiss disagreement either as the result of a mistake or misunderstanding or, more generously, as a necessary step along the way to ultimate agreement. Even if agreement is admittedly difficult to reach, so the story goes, it is held forth as both an ideal and as something that should be directly attainable. Dolgopolski believes that the advent of post-Heideggerian and poststructuralist philosophies and anti-philosophies has opened up a new path in this regard, but that they still maintain the basic agreement-centered schema — crucially, though, they provide a way of viewing Talmud, and specifically the understanding of Talmudic art present in the fifteenth-century rabbi Canpanton, as an alternative to Western philosophy.

To understand the notion of Talmud put forward here, it might be helpful to look at the example of Christian scholasticism, which I assume is more familiar to most readers of this blog and which also relies heavily on staged debates between different positions. Read the rest of this entry »

A hypothetical parallel

As I’ve been reading Scholem this summer and as I’ve therefore become increasingly familiar with the Sabbatian movement, a hypothetical parallel occurs to me: making Sabbatianism so central to his understanding of Jewish history is like a scholar of Christianity making Mormonism central to his or her understanding of Christian history. This is not to say that Mormonism necessarily could be made to fill a parallel role, but I’m just trying to get a feel for how daring his move is — since I get the impression that Sabbatianism, like Mormonism for most mainstream Christians, is something mainstream Jews would like to forget about. (Pelikan doesn’t even mention it in The Christian Tradition.)

NOTES:

  • Perhaps a closer parallel is the central role that Taubes grants to Joachim of Fiore in Occidental Eschatology.
  • Also, searching in the archives I found this post arguing in favor of “quasi-Mormonism.”

Paul’s Two Minds on the Law: Or, Paul’s One Mind on the Jews

In recent months, I have been advancing a fairly “strong” reading of the authentic letters of Paul, with Romans 9-11 as the guiding thread on his relationship to Judaism. As I’ve been going through the letters in Greek, though, my reading completely ran aground on Galatians. It seems clear that any attempt to get one consistent position from Paul on this issue is impossible, and that’s because Paul is always responding to events — as indeed his very mission to the Gentiles is a response to an event (the apocalyptic vision of Christ).

I’ve also been reading Gershom Scholem’s work on messianism in the last couple weeks, and based on what he says there, I’d say that Paul starts out as an “anarchist” messianist (as opposed to the kind of messianist who thinks the law will be intensified in the messianic age) — perhaps because the coming of the messiah required the ingathering of the Gentiles, Paul concludes that the law loses its force for the new messianic era. Read the rest of this entry »

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