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Critique without Transcendence? On Immanence and Changing the World

Mon, December 17, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cambridge 1


Although Jewish thought has, at different junctures, placed greater emphasis on either transcendence or immanence, Judaism hardly demands an either/or. One need look no further than Maimonides to formulate a relationship between divine transcendence and divine immanence. Several critical discourses, however, figure Judaism as the guardian of transcendence and a bastion of resistance against the homogenizing and totalizing forces of modernity. Critical thought including feminist theology, critical theory, and postmodernism make recourse to transcendence of a certain sort for critical leverage against the political idolatry of the status quo. Without perpetual critical reminders of transcendence, the story goes, a particular, decidedly unjust set of political arrangements is divinized and rendered unalterable. Transcendence aims to holds the door open for the possibility of radical political change. Of course, appeals to divine transcendence and critiques of political idolatry are never the exclusive province of radical egalitarian politics. Such appeals are just as frequently, if not more so, issued in service of reactionary and authoritarian theological-political regimes. This paper explores how critical political thought might interface with the interconnection of transcendence and immanence out of the sources of Judaism. First, this paper will briefly look at three examples from feminist theology, critical theory, and postmodern thought of appeals to transcendence for critical leverage. After describing what political work transcendence is enlisted to do in these three examples, I turn to several Jewish sources to interrogate the critical power of immanence and test out its compatibility (or incompatibility) with the critical political promise of transcendence. This paper stages the question of what, if anything, might immanence—reconstructed through its specifically Jewish genealogy—offer to feminist and radical democratic political struggle.


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