29 September 2009

CONF: Association for Jewish Studies 2009 annual conference

41st Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles, California, USA,
20-22 December 2009

This year's annual conference of the AJS features a multi-panel session on "Modern Jewish Thought and Theology" with a particular interest in political theology.

Scheduled panels include, firstly, "Jacob Taubes's Political Theology in Light of His Relationship to Carl Schmitt" (21 December, 2-4 pm, Room 3):

Abstract: The panel is devoted to Jacob Taubes, the Jewish thinker, historian of religion, gnosticism, and apocalyptic strains in Judaism and Christianity, who influenced generations of scholars during his academic career at the Hebrew University, Harvard, Columbia, the Free University at Berlin, and the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris, but whose work has elicited much wider attention of late. This is due, in part, to a general, renewed interest in the problem of political theology, due, as well, to the engagement with his work on the part of Giorgio Agamben and others, but chiefly to the recent translation of his powerful late lectures on "The Political Theology of Paul". Taubes's articles are about to be collected for the first time in an English-language edition, and more is to follow. Taubes was a prodigious letter writer, and the first correspondence to be published is the one between Taubes and the political theorist Carl Schmitt, 35 years his senior, with whose work Taubes was deeply engaged since the immediate postwar period while keeping a measured distance until the late 1970s, when the two men exchanged a series of letters and Taubes visited Schmitt in his remote refuge in Plettenberg.

The panel is led by Martin Treml's presentation on the letters exchanged between Taubes and Schmitt. Treml is currently finishing his edition of the Taubes-Schmitt correspondence at the Center for Literary and Cultural Research Berlin, which houses Taubes's literary estate. Nitzan Lebovic (Sussex) and Arnd Wedemeyer (Princeton), who both have conducted research at the Taubes Archive, will discuss the context of the correspondence and its implications for Taubes's conception of political theology. Lebovic will reconstruct Taubes's unique mobilization of apocalypticism for his antinomian conception of the law, devised, Lebovic argues, not only as an answer to Schmitt's theopolitical antiliberalism, but also to Martin Buber's own reaction against Schmitt. Wedemeyer will focus on one particular problem of Pauline theology, the so-called "curse of the law", in the context both of Taubes's relation to Schmitt, as well as to previous Jewish interpreters of Paul.

Second panel: "Political Theology and Judaism in Spinoza, Mendelssohn and Fackenheim" (22 December, 8.30-10.30 am, Room 9):

Abstract: If "political theology" means a politics guided by theological considerations and/or a theology guided by political considerations, then if these considerations are in tension or incompatible, which should take priority? Our panel examines this question in three key modern Jewish thinkers. For each, "politics" means liberal democracy (or, for Mendelssohn, constitutional monarchy), and "theology" means biblical theology (or, for Spinoza and Mendelssohn, some "rationalist" equivalent).

Joshua Parens (Dallas) explores what Spinoza's "Ethics" indicates about his political theology in "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus" (TTP). What does the congeniality between TTP and the "rationalist" theology of "Ethics", its introduction, teach about Spinoza's political theology: if the "Ethics" provides deeper insight into Spinoza's modified version of biblical theology in TTP than does TTP by itself, is the ground for that theology biblical or utilitarian, as TTP leads us to suspect?

Martin D. Yaffe (North Texas) asks how well Mendelssohn's rationalist theology serves to underwrite his practical-political argument for Christian-Jewish tolerance. Yaffe compares Mendelssohn's theologically-grounded argument with Lessing's, which Mendelssohn professes not to understand. Lessing's argument, Yaffe finds, is more "political" than "theological" – being designed not just to rubber-stamp its readers' Christian theology, but to expand that theology towards increased appreciation and tolerance for Judaism. Mendelssohn's rationalist political theology fails to come to grips with Lessing's politically (and philosophically) motivated irony.

Sharon Portnoff (Connecticut College) suggests that Fackenheim's political theology is located in his "quasi-historicism". She suggests that Fackenheim was well aware of the dangers of incorporating historicism into Jewish theology and explores the way in which Fackenheim navigated these dangers. She finds that Fackenheim's quasi-historicism both serves to defend Jews and Judaism politically and also, paradoxically, remains open to the political possibility that it evolve into its own obsolescence.

Kenneth Green (Toronto) considers the phrase "demonic evil" in Fackenheim's mature thought. He asks how much Fackenheim's related subterranean emphasis on the devil is a significant even if largely unrecognized factor in his theological response to the Holocaust and radical evil. Green raises a question with regard to Fackenheim's political theology: because rejection of the devil issues in concerted political action, is it as a direct consequence that he disallow as immoral any political neutrality on such political action?

Further panels of particular interest to political theology include "Monotheism and Its Discontents" (21 December, 8.30-10.30 am, Room 12); "Religion, Politics, Ethics" – including a paper "Determined to be Free: Spinoza's Political Theology of Freedom" by Steven H. Frankel (Xavier University) – (22 December, 10.45 am-12.45 pm, Room 9); and "Rosenzweig and Arendt" – including a paper "'The Light of the Public Obscures Everything': Arendt and the Public Threat of Political Theology" by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft (Berkeley) – (20 December, 2-4 pm, Room 11).

The detailed conference programme can be browsed and searched here:

General conference information (including a link to the registration page) is to be found at:


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