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How Judaism Became a Religion

Leora Batnitzky was appointed director of the Program in Judaic Studies at Princeton University in 2020.  She joined the Princeton faculty in 1997. Her teaching and research interests include philosophy of religion, modern Jewish thought, hermeneutics, and contemporary legal and political theory.Among other outstanding speakers this semester, the William and Mary Judaic Studies Department had the unique pleasure of welcoming Leora Batnitzky, Ph.D., and Director of The Ronald O. Perelman Department of Jewish Studies at Princeton. Much like in her book, How Judaism Became a Religion, Dr. Batnitzky centered her lecture on Judaism’s shift towards a more modern notion of religion. Building her ideas on the relationship between Kant’s Religion (1793), Schliermacher’s Speeches (1799), and Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem(1783).

Beginning with Schliermacher’s first speech, and highlighting its defense of religion in response to Kant six years prior, Batnitsky details Kant’s approach to practical reason. Emphasizing the importance of treating people as “ends within themselves” she explained the dichotomy between Kant and Schliermacher’s respective works. Kant’s whole rejection of religion within reason, alongside Schliermacher’s belief that everybody is religious at their core Dr. Batnitsky elucidated the point that because these two philosophers, and by extension rationalists and existentialists as a whole, are radically different they cannot coexist.

With this base of Kantian rationalism she shifted her focus to the relationship between Schliermacher and Kant’s definitions of religion, demonstrating how they both construct the category of religion as an inherent fundamental - though they approach it in distinctly different ways. She uses Schliermacher’s first speech as an example, demonstrating how he argues that this “religious feeling” is passive, happening to you without your control - a convenient catch-all assertation to support his existential view on religion. Contrary to Schliermacher, Kant reduces religion to an explanation for morality and a method to discern moral truth. Diverging from the traditional Pauline assumption that faith saves from Sin, Kant alleges that reason alone can save from immorality. Though they radically disagree on many fundamentals, both Schliermacher and Kant ultimately assert that religion;s purpose is to focus on the internal state of the individual - discounting external forms of religion (read: The Law). Ultimately this diminishes the importance of Judaism in their eyes as they view it being only concerned with the letter of law - without any of the spiritual benefit.

With this in mind, Dr. Batnitsky shifted her focus to Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, particularly, his argument for Jewish independence and the necessary separation of church and state, which he further elaborates by stating that “Judaism has no relationship to any earthly (read: governmental) power. This comports with what we know of the political context Mendelssohn found himself in when he wrote Jerusalem.As a Jew in 18th century Germany, Mendelssohn was partially forced to engage in religious apologetics to justify his religious stance. He does this elegantly by first defining his 3 types of truth: Eternal (i.e. mathematics, something that can be understood with little prior experience), Contingent (where experience or direct observation is necessary), and Historical (an experience had by a collective). Within the context of these truth definitions he created, he goes on to rebut what he calls the “dogmatic nature” of Christianity, critiquing it against “rational Judaism.” Mendelssohn links practicing the Jewish Law with his idea of historical truth in that it becomes a collective experience, this, he uses to refute Pauline separation of Spirit and Law - underscoring it as a primary feature of the Jewish faith.

Furthermore, Dr. Batnitsky offered excellent insight into Mendelssohn’s opinions on the modern definition of religion, and demonstrates how his engagement in religious apologetics paved the way for the Pittsburgh Platform. In attempting to show issues in contemporary definitions of religion, Mendelssohn comes up against the Lockean idea of the separation of church and state while still trying to engage with Jewish law in its inherently political spirit. Dr. Batnitsky explained, he qualifies Judaism as a religion, because to classify it otherwise brought concern that it would conflict with state law - establishing the idea of a nation within a nation. Additionally, he combats the Pauline idea found in Corinthians, “...the letter [of the law] kills”, going on to define Jewish ceremonial law as a “living script”, where interpretation is a spiritual activity - with constant reinterpretation serving as a force to protect against idolatry. It was truly a joy to welcome Dr. Batnitzky to our campus, and we hope to have her back in the near future to teach us more.