Memory, Nuance, and Aesthetics in Jewish Theology: On Michael Fishbane’s “Sacred Attunement” – Part I


When I was an undergraduate, I remember reading James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and wondering whether art could be reconciled with religion. In my studies, I came across several arguments that insisted on separating the two. Soren Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, puts aesthetics in a battle with faith and religious philosophers like Maimonides often warn against the excesses of the imagination. Moreover, Cynthia Ozick has claimed that to do art one risks the greatest sin of all: idolatry. Is there any way to reconcile the two?

In the work of Walter Benjamin, there are great efforts to do this. His notion of “profane illumination” suggests that we pay close attention to everyday phenomenon for it may be the case that this or that combination of things may create a kind of shock – which unravels everyday experience – that is, though secular, revelatory. He also found something sacred in the close attention one gives to the work of a great writer such as Franz Kafka. In his essay on Kafka, Benjamin notes that “attention is the silent prayer of the soul.” And, nearly three decades after his untimely death, we see this quote in a celebrated prose piece (talk) by Paul Celan entitled “The Meridian.” To be sure, both Celan and Benjamin both saw something special in close reading and attention. And they expected this from their readers since, as anyone who reads them knows, there are esoteric threads throughout their work.

What I learned from Benjamin and Celan – and later learned from thinkers like Ernst Bloch and A.J. Heschel – is that there is no contradiction between art and religion. (Bloch saw the desire for happiness found in folklore and popular culture as a messianic kind of index of utopia.) But what was missing in a lot of what I was looking in to was a well worked out reflection on the relationship of aesthetics and religion. Many of the above-mentioned thinkers – with the exception of Heschel – were not religious. And although some may argue that, for this reason, what they do doesn’t speak to theology, Michael Fishbane’s book Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology demonstrates the contrary. I’d like to briefly touch on a few points here which I hope to deepen in more blog entries.

A.J. Heschel in his book Between God and Man points out that Judaism has a radically different reading of Wonder from Aristotle. While Aristotle thinks wonder should be eliminated by knowledge, Judaism calls for more wonder since it evokes praise. Heschel bears evidence for this by taking note of prayers and several psalms and passages from the prophets that demonstrate Judaism’s celebration of wonder.

Like Heschel, Fishbane also turns to wonder. Fishbane argues that we need to draw our attention to what he calls “breakthrough experiences.” They interrupt our habitual life and remind us of something deeper sense of how experience may be related to the sacred.   These experiences can “awaken” us and offer us a possibility. However, there are not “inherently theological.”

But the fissures happen in any case, and in unexpected ways; and then the human being is awakened, if only for the time being, to vaster dimensions of experience and the contingencies of existence. These breakthroughs of consciousness may even transform one’s life; but they are not inherently theological. (x)

Their power, argues Fishbane, is to “remind the self that the ‘merely other’ of everydayness is grounded in an Other of more exceeding depths and heights.” This reminded is the beginning. It may lead to theological reflection but it may also lead to philosophy. Wonder, after all, is an experience. The question is what to do with this experience which Fishbane, like Heschel, argues is at the base of religion and philosophy.

What art can do, according to Fishbane, is to “reformulate the sounds and sights of existence, and thereby create new openings in one’s ordinary perceptions.”

Aesthetic experience gives us these moments of reborn mindfulness on occasion.

But theology, argues Fishbane, does something more than art:

Theology does something more: it receives these perceptions of transcendence and tries to sustain (and even revive) them in the normal course of time. It does so not solely in terms of the experiences per se, but especially in terms of the duties these perceptions impose. (x)

This “more” that Fishbane suggests is associated with something ethical, “in terms of duties.” Citing Jean Wahl, Fishbane argues that “the special sense of le transcendance immanente…thus sets the standards of spiritual truth and value.” This special sense comes through “the worldly forms of immanence” and they “gather nowhere and everywhere. Theology calls this unsayable ground God.” Art may direct us to otherness and transcendence, but theology, he argues, guides us toward the “transcendence of transcendence.”

Both art and theology “save” us from something but the salvation differs fundamentally. Art “saves” phenomenon and grounds them in “something ‘More’ (than mere human perceptions), the second saves God (both the word and the reality) from being delimited by human language and consciousness”(xi).

Regardless of this difference, Fishbane’s book is structured in such a way that one must move through art before they can do theology. In doing this, Fishbane suggests that, in approaching God we must, in some way, have a sensibility which is keen to nuance in nature, relations to others, and aesthetics. But this is prompted, always, by a breakthrough. His first chapter entitled “Toward Theology” moves in this direction.

Fishbane returns to the notion of breakthrough. Calling it a “caesural moment,” Fishbane argues that these give us an experience that prompts us to “remember” or “do” something:

When the precipitating moment is an elemental event of nature, such as an earthquake or flood, or the cycles of birth or death, and even when the occasion is a historical fact, such as some monstrous evil of deed or neglect, the charged moment palpably calls to our elemental nature and conscience, directing us to: Remember, Do Something, or Have Sympathy. (22)

When life becomes other and we are “called” to “Remember, Do Something, or Have Sympathy,” we need to “take notice” of what he calls a “double dimension.” If we don’t take notice, “we are all but dead in the midst of life.” In other words, life depends on attention. This, argues Fishbane, is what “constitutes fundamental care of self.” And this is what he calls a “first prefiguration of theology.”   The preface to theology is attention. “The care of self” is all about attending to nuance and doing something to change one’s world in the face of it. But this imperative to respond and acting on it are not deemed an end in itself by theology; it is preliminary.

….to be continued….

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