Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Whence Modernity?

I've always been annoyed by the concept "Modern Orthodox", where creedal formulations leave much to be desired, in good part because they are Jewish creedal formulations that take themselves seriously (I have no problem with specific dogmas in Judaism as such, but the disposition of dogma-tic doesn't seem Jewish). "Orthodox" is well-known to be a Greek word regarding belief, etc, etc. Modernism herein gets its lambasting [as usual, all emphasis mine];

“The periodization of Jewish history into ancient, medieval, modern, and post-modern deserves some definition. Not all Jewish historians agree upon, for existence [example?] the beginning of modernity. Scholem defined Jewish modernity with the rise of Shabbatai Zevi…Cooperman has located the rise of the
Italian Jewish ghetto as the onset of Jewish modernity. Dinur has defined it as
the revitalization of modern Zionism and resettlement of the land of Israel by various groups …Many Jewish historians define modernity with the expulsion of
the Jews from Spain in 1492, while others locate the rise of the modern Enlightenment and Emancipation after the French Revolution as the onset of modern principles. These definitions will also differ with secular historians. For example, musicologists often define modernity with the music of Beethoven who broke out of the classical mode of Mozart and others, which, in turn, was a break from the baroque. Mathematicians define modernity often with the formulation of Calculus with Leibniz and Newton. Still professors of literature demonstrate how artificial these categories are when they define modernism in literature as later still with writers such as Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc., which was a reaction to the Victorian period.

Philosophers often note that Descartes and Spinoza mark the onset of modern philosophy. Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” was seen as shift to the modern ego and he located the penial gland in the brain rather than the heart as the source of cognition. Modern disciplines in philosophy grew up such as aesthetics with Woolf and Baumgarten, while matters of art in antiquity were categorized as politics. Spinoza’s modern Biblical criticism set the methodology of modern bible studies markedly apart from traditional faith based approaches…The age of faith thus succeeds to the age of total domination and exploitation. It is interesting to note that Hegel defined the onset of modernity with the birth of Christianity and many Ancient Near Eastern Studies scholars locate the conquest of Alexander the Great around 300 B.C.E. as the onset of modernity.

This plurality of opinions with regards to the definition of modernity would seem to suggest that disciplines which define modernity shed more light on their own
assumptions and preexisting conceptualizations than on an absolute definition of modernity itself. It would seem that definitions of antiquity, medieval, and modern depend on the set of assumptions and criteria of the discipline which sets out to define such constructs. The question of the definition of post-modernity is especially interesting to Jewish scholars in that philosophers like Fackenheim have defined the Shoah as the break/rupture/fissure that separates modernity from post-modernity. Thus state sponsored Judeocide would seem to be the tremendum (Arthur Cohen) that launched the world into what Lyotard was later to call the postmodern condition.”

Review by David B. Levy of Time and Process in Ancient Judaism by Sacha Stern, Published by H-Judaic (March, 2005)


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