A Response to Zachary Braiterman’s “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics (Kenneth Seeskin)”


I look forward to reading Zachary Braiterman’s posts every week on his blog Jewish Philosophy Place and I admire and respect the work he has published on Jewish Philosophy, aesthetics, and theodicy.  I have learned a lot from his work.

I was especially interested in the blog entry he posted entitled “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics” since his entry bears mention of the work I have been doing on the schlemiel.  With respect to this blog entry, Braiterman is interested in the work I have written on the schlemiel and the Messianic Idea.  In this entry, he has drawn on it to offer an insightful critique of Kenneth Seeskin’s recent book Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair.

What I find most interesting about Braiterman’s reading is his approach to the Messianic Idea as a schlemiel aesthetic that really has nothing to do with the tasks of rational Jewish philosophy.   This is an interesting wedge since it challenges the use of the Messianic idea in Jewish philosophy (or in contemporary Continental philosophy) by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Ernst Bloch, and Giorgio Agamben.

To be sure, Braiterman and Seeskin are both drawn to a Maimonidean approach to Jewish philosophy.  And this approach is suspicious of the Messianic Idea and prophetic flights of the imagination.  The Guide to the Perplexed, parts of the Mishna Torah, and the “Letter to Yemen” clearly demonstrate that Maimonides was very careful to avoid the dangers that would come by taking the Apocalyptic aspects of the Messianic idea seriously.

What Braiterman wonders about is why Seeskin would still take to the Messianic idea since, for Braiterman, it seems to be derived more from the imagination and the Midrash than from reason.  As Braiterman notes: “Messianism is rooted in the imaginary of biblical, midrashic, and liturgical source material, whereas the introduction of Kantian conceptual-moral frames struck me as off point.”

Braiterman argues that Seeskin misreads the “wilderness generation after the exodus from Egypt” and their “crying and rebellion in the desert for water.”  For Seeskin (and one could imagine, for Herman Cohen – I will return to this), they are giving up hope and are rebelling against “the belief in God and the Messianic idea.”    On this note, Braiterman sides with Emil Fackenheim who, he argues, would see their crying and despair as providing them with a “critical insight into history and the human predicament.”

In the second part of this blog entry, Braiterman addresses the question of why Seeskin would even try to reconcile Kantian ethics with the Messianic idea:

Its not clear why one might need this messiah business if all messianism constitutes is the notion that redemption depends upon human will and act, constitutional democracy, and perpetual peace.  Why do we need such an inflationary and theological word for such a flat and deflationary thing?

This is a very good question.  It’s the same question one could pose to the Jewish-German Philosopher Hermann Cohen.  After all, Cohen insisted that the Messianic Idea was a specifically Jewish contribution.  He associates it with hope.  In contrast to the Greeks, who despised hope, Cohen tells us that the Jewish tradition introduced the Messianic idea of hope:

To the earliest Greeks, hope meant no more than idle speculation.  And it is only after the Persian wars that this emotion is looked on as more than the opposite of fear, or as one of Pandora’s evils…..Nowhere in paganism does the concept of hope suggest a general enhancement of all human existence.  The widening-out into the non-personal, ethical realm, this spiritualization of a basically materialistic-personalistic emotion is the effect and indeed one of the surest marks of the idea of God’s unity or –what amounts to the same thing – of His pure spirituality.

Seeskin inherits the legacy of hope that Cohen espouses in such passages as, on the one hand, uniquely Jewish, and, on the other hand, consistent with Kantian ideas.   Nonetheless, Cohen, like Seeskin and Maimonides, has a problem which Braiterman is acutely aware: the aesthetic aspect of the Messianic idea.

As Braiterman notes “when all is said and done, the messianic idea is “just” an image, and a philosophically foolish one at that. It’s the image that rivets the eye in the prophetic literature, especially as it appears liturgically in the closed off space of the synagogue, on a Saturday night in a candle-lit Havdalah ceremony, or packed tight at the end of the Passover seder, at which point it becomes a figure sung by drunk people.”

The last words of this description of the Messianic aesthetic remind me of Walter Benjamin’s call to “win over the forces of intoxication for revolution.”  Indeed, for Braiterman, the aesthetic qualities of the messianic idea overshadow the philosophical, ethical, or political dimensions of the idea.  They are intoxicating; just like a fascinating object.  Braiterman notes the Messianic idea is “almost like a photograph, you can pick it up and consider it, and use it to this effect and to that.”

Braiterman notes that Seeskin clearly knows that the Messianic idea has “no philosophical use value, at least not in terms of determinate propositional truth contents.”  So, why, he wonders, would Seeskin even try to use it for philosophical purposes?

Musing on this, Braiterman evokes the schlemiel and my schlemiel theory blog (and book) project:

Maybe the messianic idea represents the schlemiel figure par excellence in the history of Jewish thought…How else to explain Seeskin’s book, a serious book about a serious topic written by a serious man ends with a joke.

The point of the joke, says Braiterman, is to show that, in the end, we will all realize that when “all enchantment has been removed from the world…and there is quick judgment, and arrogance are now rare,” we will no longer be enchanted by the Messianic idea.  At that point, anyone who wants to be the messiah can be.

Nonetheless, for Seeskin, it is still necessary to cast hope in the Messianic.

Braiterman avers: “Who gets to be Messiah? Any schlemiel who wants it.  That’s the punchline.”

Following this, Braiterman says that he would resist Seeskin’s claim that the “rational religion” is messianic and “reflects moral teleology.”  Moreover, Braiterman reiterates that he doesn’t accept the notion that our age is an “age of despair.”  Instead of looking toward the future, what is to come, to hope, Braiterman takes the side of the present.  In doing so, it seems that Braiterman is parting with Herman Cohen and Maimonides (who does, in fact, purport a restorative and political reading of the Messianic idea at the end of the Mishna Torah).

Braiterman finishes his piece with a basic rejection of the messianic idea as a schlemiel aesthetic: “Because maybe with this much hindsight in the history of an idea, maybe it’s easier to understand that messianism is an aesthetic, and maybe, after all is said and done, a schlemiel aesthetic at that.”

In many ways Braiterman is correct; the messianic is a schlemiel aesthetic.  To be sure, what makes it so is the fact that the schlemiel is a messianic character who is not oriented toward the present.  Rather, the schlemiel is a character which is oriented toward the future. It mixes dreams and reality and, in its simplicity, it draws its life on our hope.  Sometimes this can have negative consequences, as I have shown in blogs on the schlemiel, the Apocalyptic, and Messianic Activism.  Nonetheless, the best schlemiels, do not simply mix dreams and reality; as Ruth Wisse would say, they juxtapose hope and skepticism.

To be sure, I would argue that the Messianic idea is brought down to reality by way of Braiterman’s skepticism.  Even though he wishes to be rid of an aesthetic idea – which has nothing to do with Jewish philosophy and the concern with the present – he shows how hard it is to just let it go.   In other words, the Messianic idea, like the schlemiel, is, as Braiterman says, “infectious.”  We can’t let go of it.  And this, for Braiterman, is the irony.

Strangely enough, Hermann Cohen argues that irony has nothing to do with hope.  Greek “tragedy is predicated on fear and compassion, its comedy on the very opposite of hope, namely irony.”

Cohen finds nothing ironic about the Messianic idea, but we do.  And this irony goes hand-in-hand with the schlemiel.  The schlemiel discloses the irony of the Messianic idea by way of the juxtaposition of hope and skepticism.   In other words, a rationalist like Cohen would be befuddled by the Schlemiel.  To be sure, this character is meant to disclose a historical tension Jews have with the present and the future.

Regarding this, I wonder: if we were to reject the Messianic idea, would we also have to reject the schlemiel?

At the end of her opus, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse says something very insightful regarding this issue.  For Wisse, in a world that is wholly skeptical or wholly optimistic, the schlemiel cannot exist.  Pertaining to Zachary Breiterman’s review of Seeskin’s book, I would say the same thing.  In a world that is wholly skeptical or optimistic the Messianic idea cannot exist.  In many ways, it seems that the schlemiel and the Messianic idea go hand-in-hand.

However, what I find most interesting about Wisse’s claim about the schlemiel is that, for her, after the founding of Israel, it no longer becomes a character of interest.  She shares this claim with a few other Zionist thinkers.   However, this is another issue which I cannot address here .

Needless to say, I think Wisse and Braiterman would like to exchange the aesthetic for the political and the future for the present.   Nonetheless, I think Wisse’s previous claim remains and that simply having a state does not mean that one is wholly optimistic or wholly skeptical.  To be sure, we still waver between hope and skepticism.  And as long as our skepticism or optimism is tainted, there will be schlemiels and Messianic ideas.

Perhaps, on the other hand, what hooks us up to the Messianic idea or the schlemiel is not hope or skepticism so much as time.  As Levinas or Derrida may argue, as long as there is a future-to-come, there will always be a Messianic idea and, as i would argue, there will always be a schlemiel.

Or perhaps, as Braiterman suggests, as long as we love aesthetics we will be intrigued by Messianic ideas and schlemiels of all stripes and colors.

Perhaps, like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, we love utopia and the messianic idea like we love the circus….

But regardless of how we view the Messianic idea we can all agree that the greatest danger the Messianic idea poses is with Messianic Schlemiels (or what I call Messianic activists) who mix their utopian-slash-Apocalyptic dreams with reality.  Perhaps the greatest of all Messianic Schlemiels was named Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah.  Maimonides, Seeskin, and Braiterman would all agree that what happened with Shabbatai Zevi shows us the greatest danger of the Messianic Idea.  They would all, rightly, note that when a dream or an aesthetic becomes immanent in a utopian political gesture, we have crossed the line; and, as Gershom Scholem suggested with respect to Shabbatai Zevi, this kind of foolishness verges on nihilism and not perpetual peace.

2 thoughts on “A Response to Zachary Braiterman’s “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics (Kenneth Seeskin)”

  1. Shabbetai Zevi and the transformation of Jewry today into a gedolim centered catholicism share the same failure as messiahs by attempting to imbue redemption with a false certainty. The Weimar (and traditional source) messiah would be a perpetual outsider, only a shlemiel with a foot on a banana peel could redeem the hopes of those cast adrift by history, the rational “certain” messiah is the one that fails (ben yosef, a born unwavering righteous leader like yosef was), it is the red haired outsider with a list of personal failings that inspires the Messiah of Kafka and Benjamin, cf the second essay on this page “On Hope” ) http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2011/08/23/vaethanan-prayer-failure-and-the-desert-on-hope/

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