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Aesthetics as Jewish Modernity: Poetics and Music in Haskalah Thought

Tue, December 18, 2:30 to 4:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 2 Complex

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


Current studies of European Enlightenment's instants of self-criticism suggest that the historical import of Enlightenment thought is, after all, less Eurocentric, secularist, or progressive than previously believed. Post-colonial, romantic, and culturally-particularistic readings of Jewish Enlightenment pay attention to what is irreducibly Jewish - rather than flagrantly Whiggish - about the Haskalah. Stressing critiques of philosophical rationalism, undermining the triumphal narrative of cultural secularism, revealing interconnections between Haskalah and Hasidism, or suggesting the political theology of the Haskalah are only short-hand examples of how current readers of Jewish Enlightenment challenge the ways in which Haskalah has been interpreted by previous scholars. Without necessarily agreeing to all its facets, this ongoing revisionist turn serves as the point of departure for our attempt to discuss Haskalah aesthetic and literary theory, and more specifically, its role in re-assessing various rigid ideological doctrines attached to Jewish Enlightenment as a matter of course. While full-fledged literary or aesthetic theory has not been written by practitioners of Jewish Enlightenment, crucial theoretical insights are scattered throughout the maskilim's biblical exegesis, in their consideration of Rabbinical Midrash, their work on rhetorical, poetic, and musical theory, and their views on literature's role in the transformations of the public sphere. Regnant research about the role played by aesthetic and literary matters tends to tie Haskalah literary thought to classicalist literary criticism or rationalist aesthetics. The papers in our proposed panel push back against this notion as they call for a more emphatic understanding of the constitutive role played by the literary, linguistic, or experiential media of Haskalah. Thus, rather than tying the historical definition directly to the ideology of modernity, our focus on Haskalah aesthetics and literary theory will allow a more nuanced look into the way by which some maskilim's defense of Jewish traditional textuality could amounts to an attempt to resist, or at least attenuate, forces of modernity. The speakers will address these issues through the poetic theory and exegetical writings of Naphtali Herz Wessely, Joel Bril Loewe, Shlomo Levison, Nahman Krochmal, as well as Moses Mendelssohn.

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