Special Universals

 §  1 
 §  2 
 §  3 

Special Universals

Page 3

A final remarkable phenomenon is shared by the four personalities that we have evoked, one that seems to be linked to this particular type of personality, namely an interest in throwing light, from their special perspective, on questions of religion and myth. We see this in Marx (and Engels after him), in the dissertations on Feuerbach and in those writings in which they widen their teachings from ideologies that are founded on materialism and economics. Freud wrote ‘Totem and Taboo’ and we have numerous other writings by him and his school on myth and religion, especially on primitive religions. Durkheim and his collaborator, Levy-Bruhl, wrote penetrating investigations on the religion and the mind of primitive people. Husserl’s school, with its principal representative, Scheler, also wrote reflections on religious philosophy.
All of which indicates an unusual inclination for a theme that then becomes a feature of the life’s work of the four scholars and their schools.

Whence this strange interest in religion? Did the tendency to universalise intend to separate from the legitimate claimants to universality, philosophy and religion? Both of these have a part in the universalisms that we have described. Religion, with its all-embracing character, is even an historical claimant. It seems that our four cultural phenomena and the four personalities that incarnate them originate from a type, from a people where religion was the coining power.

Picture to yourself, if you will, these personalities who, withal their very different aims and ideals, their highly individual minds and characters, yet display a certain uniformity. Consider the common features, the typical aspect of the portraits. We are tempted to say that they represent the best examples of features that are recognisably national. We are then bound to ask whether such a type also existed in earlier periods of Jewish cultural history. Surely, there will come to mind the names of personalities found throughout the centuries, the familiar type of the zealous religious scholar, eminent, wise, severe, the unyielding champion and scientific student of Torah, the great Talmudic scholars, - a figure such as, perhaps, Elia ben Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon (1720-97).

The claim of religion, to embrace all fields of life and thought, is unchallenged; no explanation is needed for the fact that all the great theologians take this for granted. Such a perspective comes more naturally to thinkers in the field of religion than to scientists, since religion is alien to the scientist’s kind of specification. Add to this the driving strength of the religious and the rational thinker and the portrait will become even more recognisable as that of many Talmudic figures. The example we gave, the Gaon of Vilna, is no exception. It is well known that he rejected mysticism and fought against contemporary Chassidism in a spirit that we might compare to the scientists’ dislike for enthusiastic metaphysics.

If we wish to rediscover the cultural role and significance of earlier Rabbinic authority, we must not look only to the field of religion or the person of the modern-day Rabbi. We need to consider the cultural significance of people such as Freud, Marx, Durkheim and Husserl. However, anyone who simply infers from all this the trivial fact that theology is being replaced by science has failed to grasp the core meaning of our remarks. The tendency to universalism, characteristic of a very Jewish way of thinking, not a tendency usually of great import in science or modern philosophy, has here not only persisted, but has penetrated into the area that does not normally relate to it, the sphere of specialised research and has created the very phenomenon that we have described, a ‘universalism of the particular’.

The all-embracing spiritual power of religious thinking of former times has also been affected. Knowledge was able to emancipate itself from religion and, as in some of the cases discussed, even oppose it, challenging its special status. Science, as we currently know it, has not replaced religion; it is not the legitimate sovereign of life and thought. Interestingly, some recent developments in Jewish thought, for instance the work of Oskar Goldberg, point us to an identity of science and religion, an identity that alone would be able to create a true modern universalism. That universalism reveals as fake the claims to universalism made by a number of contemporary ‘schools’ of thought.