Review of Steven Kepnes, Jewish Liturgical Reasoning, (Oxford University Press, 2007). 248 pages.

Jason Byassee
Duke University Divinity School

Reading Steven Kepnes’ book is a pedagogical experience for those, like me, not as deeply familiar with Judaism as we would like to be. His Jewish Liturgical Reasoning is deeply aware that God remains beyond our words, not subject to the cords with which we humans would bind him like some idol. Yet Kepnes himself is bound, by Jewish Tefillin, which keep his arm outstretched during the prayer service, since God delivered Israel “With an outstretched arm” (Deut. 26:8, p. 175). Its straps wind around his fingers “like a wedding ring,” or like fingers interlaced with his, binding him to God as a wife to a husband. This is no abstract “philosophy,” dealing with such obsessions of that field in modernity as the nature of knowledge and the self, conducted by passing everything to be believed through the narrow strainer of a supposedly universally held logic. This is a philosophy as particular as the Jews, as intimate as the spouse, and yet as universally helpful as a Christian (me) learning from it how better to love God and neighbor and so to act more justly in the world.

So here’s my worry: the book regularly circles back around to SR, not only with complimentary passages about how much Kepnes has learned from post-liberals like George Lindbeck and from SR luminary Peter Ochs. He actually makes theological moves dependent upon SR, to a degree that worries me. But the parts of the book that shine most brightly for me are those like the paragraph above, where I learn something new I didn’t know about Judaism that make me not only love it more, but my own Christian faith more, and their mutual call to action for loving justice in the world. But what’s being practiced above is more like parallel Textual Reasoning, or TR, in which one tradition plays show and tell for the sake of another(s). One who’s knowledgeable about his own community’s practices, and who is deeply immersed in them personally and communally, breaks them open for the sake not only of mutual interreligious understanding but for deeper immersion of each into their own practice and greater work together for justice in the world. I’m not even sure what I’d say back about how Christians interpret Deuteronomy 26:8. However, when I preach it someday, I will preach it with Kepnes ringing in my ears! SR depends on none of the three traditions having a sort of first dibs on a text, even a text close to its own heart or practice. Each participant brings her own “internal library” to the conversation about how to interpret it, but without thinking such resources offer privileged access to “meaning.” Meaning-making happens in SR in the tripartite debate among Abraham’s children about the words on the page in front of them. But can that happen when only one community knows the scripture in question well enough to expound upon it? Do SR’s good, democratic inclinations to let everyone have equal access to the text (for a time—SR happens in a tent, not in a permanent religious dwelling) actually defeat its promised purpose of increased appreciation for one another across irreducible religious difference?

Kepnes’ book is good enough that it got me thinking about questions as big as this, far beyond his own range of issues. But his own range of interests is impressive enough by itself. He admits his debt to Catherine Pickstock (a friend told me “his book is like Pickstock’s for Jews, only you can understand it!”), while noting he has is more sanguine in his critique of modernity than she (he’s too charitable to note her tendency to obfuscation). His is also a Rosenzweigian project: to explore the nature of the relationship between Judaism and European modernity, and so, by implication, Christianity. He wants to crack open the beleaguered way in which liturgy is often treated in philosophy – as a hardening of an initial charism or a sort of second-order relic of the real thing (abstract ideas). And he clearly also wants to show the ways SR has deepened his thinking and even become ingredient in his theology. For “‘truth’ makes its appearance” among the participants in a session and the insights that pass between them (197).

Kepnes’ early chapters present engagements with key Jewish wrestlers with the Enlightenment Moses Mendelssohn, Hermann Cohenn, and Franz Rosenzweig. Others will have to judge whether he has these figures “right” according to their own context. But one of the points of Kepnes’ book is that writing picks up contexts as it goes along. He doesn’t read scholastically, trying to divine what was in these authors’ heads without admixture or taint from today’s concerns. He rather reads them in our context.

Mendelssohn, the first chapter (and the one with the least energy, it seems to this reviewer) was a Jew wrestling with the 18th century Enlightenment for a place for Jewish leadership within it. Note: not just participation, but leadership. Kant’s effort to distinguish an inaccessible noumenal realm from the safe playground of the phenomenal gets help from the Jewish emphasis on practice rather than abstract thought. Writing, unfortunately, can give the appearance of access to fixed knowledge – in Jewish parlance, it can pave the way for idolatry. But the ceremonial law mandates practices; the meaning of these practices is intentionally opaque. Kepnes gives the example of the Shema, with its repeated requests to write the law on various places: bodies, doorposts, gates. What does all this mean? To answer that, we are driven to a master who can provide not off-limits knowledge, but the sort of wisdom that seeps into pores and changes lives (and, naturally, changes our reasoning). As in each chapter, here Kepnes closes with a reflection on SR: to learn another tradition we have to become a neophyte again.

For Kepnes, Hermann Cohen offers help in how to envision a “liturgical self.” Here another idol of modernity — selfhood — is neither worshipped nor rejected, but rather received and pressed through categories of Jewish liturgy and given back as something new and interesting. Judaism shows that monotheist faiths allow no ultimate distinction between the self and the other. For all people descend from Noah. We can all, with Abraham, demand justice from God. Contrast this with those cultures (like ours—my note, not Kepnes’) for which the stranger is not to be trusted. In Israel the stranger, the ger, is given special status. Based on Isaiah 58:7, “When you see the naked, you cover him, and you hide not yourself from you own flesh”—Cohen argues the ger and the self are elided into one another. Kepnes sees in Cohen here that Torah has a kind of “corrective moral reasoning” within itself. While some parts of it may look a tad unkind to the stranger (say, chunks of Joshua), here in Exodus and Isaiah the stranger is essential to the self, and vice-versa. Cohen is clear this is no abstract stranger, but a real person who suffers. And this is a corrective to Kepnes’ own Judaism. For ger eventually came to denote a convert, not a stranger. Scripture, read traditionally and critically, corrects previous misreading of scripture.

For those, like me, for whom this demand is becoming a bit too, well, demanding, Kepnes has an answer: Shabbat. The Sabbath does not just make abstract commands. It initiates into a way of living that makes God’s commands possible, delightful even. For Jews are to invite strangers into their homes to celebrate Shabbat. This liturgy command initiates participants into a love of the stranger. And it does more than make its observers holy (no small thing!). It yields a new view of the self. Ezekiel’s remarkable transformation from communal to individual judgment creates a coherent view of the “I.” For Cohen, “‘The possibility of self-transformation makes the individual an I’.” No more cogito: it’s repentance that makes you human.

Kepnes’ final interlocutor, Rosenzweig, seems closest to his heart. Much of what Kepnes wishes to do is stitch back together the organic relationship between God, God’s word that creates, and the world that is filled with signs of God’s creation. Modernity is right to challenge a mindless correlation between these three, but not to sever them. Rosenzweig relates three more points: Creation, Revelation, and Redemption, as mutually intertwined “miracles.” And these six points together make up the star of David. Jews are right to remain within the fiery heart of this star with their liturgy and particular practices, but Christians are the natural extension of this star’s rays through its missionary work, art, and culture. This is, again, no abstract view of religion, uninterested in philosophical problems of the day. Here the star of redemption yields a view of what time is and how it relates to eternity: for God “has planted eternal life in our midst.” A question once asked memorably by Augustine – how do time and eternity relate? – is answered in Jewish liturgy. These “answers” come in liturgical gesture: in white robes worn for prayer which are death shrouds (and so reminders of coming judgment), prayer shawls, and representatives of the way the Torah covers all of life and makes a canopy under which to live. This kind of mystagogy is pretty standard in most religious practice. But notice the way specifically Jewish gestures say something, affecting human reasoning: the one place in Jewish liturgy in which the Jew kneels is at high holy day liturgy, not only because of awareness of the awe-inspiring presence of God, but because of the day when every knee shall bow. Liturgy is a “theater of the redeemed,” a spectacle that catches attention and then invites imitation. This theater only works if participants “really see themselves” as slaves in Egypt at the Passover Seder (142). And not in a “crass and overly simplistic” way, in which the founding of the state of Israel is the Exodus to the Shoah’s slavery. Rather Israel is still in a position of exile, celebrating “liturgies of hope,” sharing with the world not only answers to its own questions (about time, the self, the other, the modern nation-state and so on), but also answers to questions it is not even asking. Two strong final chapters deal with the epochal 20th century events of the Shoah and the founding of Israel and concluding material on the nature of theology done liturgically.

To return to my concern signaled above, this book is a masterful guide to a perplexed reader ready to learn from Judaism. It’s less an exemplar for the practice of SR. It’s a better exemplar of the practice of TR. I don’t have anything to add to Kepnes here on Judaism; I’m left simply his eager student. Additionally, he does not engage Islam within this book other than the occasional mention of how the three faiths remain obligated to redeem the world).

His occasional forays into areas of overlap between Christianity and Judaism, however, leave me with important questions. The book is full of longing for mediation. What Kepnes seeks – with Peter Ochs, Martin Buber, Cohen, Rosenzweig, and C.S. Peirce – is “logics of relation,” “the between,” “reconciliation,” “configuration,” or “thirdness,” between traditional and critical thought, here in the form of post-critical reasoning. This mediation is given in Jewish liturgy. As a Christian I can’t help but hear Jesus when I see a search for an agent of mediation. Kepnes is right to fuss at Rosenzweig for counting on Christians to mediate between Jews and the world, for Jews have had their own ways of being “worldly,” some worrisome (as in some theological descriptions of the state of Israel), some not, as in all the untapped philosophical resources in Jewish liturgy here lovingly unfolded. Yet I can’t help but notice in Rosenzweig’s description of God speaking to God’s self “as a subject, as a ‘Thou’,” a description of God the Holy Trinity (90). A God constantly in dialogical address of another sounds like a triune God, one who had no need of creation, yet saw fit to create as an appropriate reflection of the otherness God always already is. I feel naughty saying this, but isn’t the Trinity the God Kepnes looks for in Rosenzweig here, the one who both is a single first-century Jew and an eternal address of Love between Father and Son? “This transcendent, majestic, incomparable God…becomes a close and intimate one who is ‘my God’…’my living redeemer'” (178). I like this incarnational language. Should Kepnes?

In other places, I found myself wanting to object on Christian grounds. Surely the mandate given to “redeem the world,” brought out by cooperation between the Abrahamic faiths or Jews sent out from their liturgy into the world, is asking too much of us mere mortals. Does not God redeem the world, and graciously let us join in, without needing us to bring that work to completion? “In the ‘in-between’ of the fast-moving dialogue about the words of scripture…and the insights of the human participants in the SR room, I would suggest that ‘truth’ makes its appearance” (197). Not that it doesn’t elsewhere, as a whole book on the truth of Jewish liturgy makes clear. It is a “bound truth,” he’s quick to add. Yet it still seems to me to be saying too much. For Kepnes, SR inscribes a “new eschatology,” one that calls into question the triumphalist and exclusivist understandings of each tradition (199). But SR is no permanent thing. It’s a tent. One to erect for a short time as a neutral place of meeting between adherents. If it sends us back to our respective houses with greater charity for outsiders (along the lines of the ger unfolded here), it has succeeded. But if it claims a truth accessible through SR but not in each tradition singularly, it will not and should not be believed by those outside SR. SR taught me to be willing to make the sort of impolite Christianly-specific objection to Kepnes given above, one couched in appreciation for all he’s taught me up to this point about his own house. But it wouldn’t have worked unless there were specifically (exclusively?) Christian resources with which both to say “yes” and “no” to the outsider.