Nov 15, 2011

Roadblocks Lead Me to ... Existentialism!

Roadblocks come! Roadblocks go. The most recent roadblock? Being let go after a month of work for Jewster. Huge bummer, but mostly to my bank account. Luckily, as every door closes, another opens, and I'm hoping to turn my current gig working for CAJE and Stepping Stones (and their under-orgs, Hebrew High, Israel Study Tour, and Melton Mini-School) into a fuller gig, moving from simple Social Media management into web site management and design. I shall make Wordpress my, well, you know. Wish me luck!

In other news, a local barista has turned me on to existentialism. Now, before you get your undergarments in a twist, I'm exploring, reading, examining, figuring out what, if anything, the philosophy has to offer me. In an introduction to Basic Writings of Existentialism, Gordon Marino says, in regards to the impact of Soren Kierkegaard's work, that Kierkegaard
flung open the window and convinced me that at least the existential movement resonated with the ancient view of philosophy as a way of life, as a guide for the perplexed.
That was a mere few pages in to the book, before I even got to the actual literature, and I was sold. You'll recognize A Guide for the Perplexed as one of the seminal works of Maimonides.

I avoided philosophy and psychology in college for many reasons, largely because I never bought into the "phooey" and loftiness of it all. And after listening to this fellow talk about existentialism and philosophy, I realize that I'm seriously wasting the massive collection of The Great Books that are still sitting in boxes in my apartment. The only thing I've honestly read out of that collection was Voltaire's Candide, which I loved.

And, perhaps, I know more about existentialism and don't realize it. After all, the Book of Job often is cited as having existentialist themes. And many of the greatest existentialist thinkers have been Jews. But what I'm hoping to find is whether existentialism can offer me something that I seem to be struggling to find.

From Wikipedia (I know, I know):
The traditional existentialist Fredrich Nietzsche’s (b. 1844 – d. 1900) concept of the √úbermensch (lit. ‘Super-Man’) can be juxtaposed with Soloveitchik’s concept of Halakhic Man. Both Nietzsche (in classically existentialist form) and Soloveitchik deny the validity of escape from this-worldliness; but each offers a different approach to dealing with man’s essential human (as opposed to divine) nature. Soloveitchik suggests that man subsume himself to God and God’s Law, Nietzsche suggests that man act as if he were like God in order to assume power and agency in the world.
Again, just shooting the wind here, but I think there must be a middle ground between Soloveitchik and Nietzshe. So I need to read Martin Buber and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and all of the regulars like Kierkegaard and Sartre. 

The problem? As a copy editor and writer, I like to read things in their simplest terms. I'm a huge believer in simplistic form for writing, which then leads to more in-depth and detailed ideas and theses. I'm already finding Kierkegaard hard to read, but every now and again something he says stands out to me. 

You're probably wondering where all of this is coming from, right? Well, maybe it's the Denver air or the recent perpetual fluctuations in my life, but I'm questioning everything I know about myself, what I do and why I do it, who I am, and where I'm going, more so than I ever have before. You, my readers, know that I'm a questioner -- it's one of my favorite things about being Jewish. But I'm in a deeper place of questioning than ever before, I think. I question neither my belief in one G-d, HaShem, nor in the chosenness of the Jewish people to be a light until the world through moral and ethical example. But everything else? It's fair game. 

Wish me luck, and feel free to let me know your thoughts on existentialism and Jewish thought. Or just one. Or just the other. I'm all ears at this point. 

Ultimately, what I seek was best put into words by Kierkegaard himself.
The thing is to understand myself, to see what G-d really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. 


Originally From Brooklyn said...

It makes sense to see why Existentialism has appeal to you.

Traditional Judaism begins from authority from above demanding that a Jew keep the commandments. If you asked the reason for something the simple answer is that God said so.

Existentialism turns everything around. Instead of being commanded to do something Existentialism is about choosing to do it out of your own free will, essentially saying "I command myself to listen to what I believe is God's commandments." A very strong emphasis is placed on the person doing the choosing.

As someone who is a Jew by choice it makes sense that the idea of existentialism holds appeal. You accepted the commandments on yourself in the truest extent.

The problem with existentialism and Judaism combined is that much of Judaism is communal experience whereas existentialism, at least how I understand it, is a personal experience.

Along with Buber you should check out Franz Rosenzweig. He was a Jew living in Germany prior to WW2. He was almost going to become a Christian on the basis of Hegelian Universalism when the story goes that he walked into shul on Yom Kippur and decided to truly become a Jew. He was a Jewish existentialist in the truest sense.

Good luck in your quest!

TMC said...

Best wishes, Chaviva! ♥

Stella said...

I'm sorry to hear about the job, but I LOVE this post.

Might I recommend Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus"?

I find it quite inspirational, and endlessly thought-provoking.

Avraham said...

I think that it is not philosophically coherent.

Avraham said...

As an Existentialist, you could not impose any timeless moral judgments, let alone Torah judgments, on history.
This would perhaps be fully in accord with orthodox rabbis that want to impose their judgments. But the Torah has the idea of objective moral judgments that are true outside of the observer.

Anonymous said...

Good luck, Chaviva.

Anonymous said...

I took philosophy in college (it was required and I worked my butt off to get an A!) but I didn't enjoy it. Now that I'm older, I really wish I'd paid more attention to those sorts of things. That being said, I love that last quote. It's so important to really examine ourselves and what we give to and get from life.

VickiB said...


Sorry to hear about your job. Let me know if I can help with updating your resume...I've done 5 of them in the past 2 months, most of those people got hired :)

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Comment from a reader that couldn't get it posted:

We had a visiting scholar at our synagogue this weekend, who spoke about Jewish existentialism. He particularly had us read Franz Rosenweig (well, had us casually skim). Apparently the Barbara Galli translation is the best, although in all languages he's pretty heavy going.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@WOACare Thank you for the comment. You seem to get where I'm coming from and perhaps why this has such great appeal to me! I'll check out Rosenzweig.

@TMC Thanks!

@Stella Someone else told me I should read that, actually! I'll track it down.

@Adam Interesting ...

@Sheldan Thank you!

@GirlSeeksPlace That last quote really sings to me. It seems like absolute truth can be sought. It gives me hope.

@Vicki OOOO!

@Commenter I will track that down! Thanks.

Avraham said...

Existentialism was trendy some time ago. If it would have some logical coherence I would not say a word. But if you want a little meaning I recommend Rebbi Nachman's books. Existentialism had the Jewish ear for along time because Hegel was the biggest name in German thought for the entire 19th century and Existentialism just borrowed a lot of his pseudo sophistication (along with his denial of the excluded middle).
So sure Buber and Rosenzweig were Existentialists but that was because it the modern progressive seemly intellectual thing. Nowadays In the humanities departments in universities they need Existentialism to provide something to booster their Marxism. So they add Freud and existentialism to make the it seem weighter. Existentialism is a waste of time.
The best Jewish book to come out of this lunacy is The Star of Redemption but before you read it read Hegel first and you will see that he just takes Hegel and puts him in Jewish context along with Kierkegaard.(To Rosenzweig, Sinai being the Hegelian moment in time)

Avraham said...

Existentialism reduced ethics to meaningless statements or to absolute creations of free will in which, in the very words used by Dennett, "everything's permitted."
You can be a halachic Jew if you choose to and that gives authentic meaning-Joseph B. Soloveitchik). You really want this?

Karen Zampa Katz said...

you must check out Franz Rosenzweig's
the star of redemption...this is Jewish Existentialism at its best!


Avraham said...

Yes, by all means learn Star of Redemption--but read Hegel first and then you will see the system Rosenzweig was building on. and if you are not horrified then I don't know what to say..

Rebecca Einstein Schorr said...

Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

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