A part of my autobiography that I had to compress into two lines was my experience with Jewish thinkers. Judaism only became a serious interest for me following my very strange experience of intensive study of Nietzsche starting in 2002 and extending to around 2006. During this time under Nietzsche’s influence I excavated the assumptions at the foundation of my understanding of the world.
Nietzsche was absolutely insightful on many points, but rarely as right as his here: If you want to get at the assumptions that matter, the most important thing to dig up is the ground beneath the warning signs that say “Do not dig here.” Those signs mark the pay dirt of self-transformation — at least if you begin with morality. (I believe this qualification is another insight of equal value to the first. Questioning values you do not actually hold — values which you have not internalized, that you do not live and that are not the the stand-point and vanishing-point of your perspective — is lazy nihilism or cynicism and it will do nothing or worse.)
From the Preface of Daybreak.
At that time I undertook something not everyone may undertake: I descended into the depths, I tunneled into the foundations, I commenced an investigation and digging out of an ancient faith, one upon which we philosophers have for a couple of millennia been accustomed to build as if upon the firmest of all foundations — and have continued to do so even though every building hitherto erected on them has fallen down: I commenced to undermine our faith in morality.
Hitherto, the subject reflected on least adequately has been good and evil: it was too dangerous a subject. Conscience, reputation, Hell, sometimes even the police have permitted and continue to permit no impartiality; in the presence of morality, as in the face of any authority, one is not allowed to think, far less to express an opinion: here one has to — obey! As long as the world has existed no authority has yet been willing to let itself become the object of criticism; and to criticise morality itself, to regard morality as a problem, as problematic: what? has that not been — is that not — immoral? — But morality does not merely have at its command every kind of means of frightening off critical hands and torture-instruments: its security reposes far more in a certain art of enchantment it has at its disposal — it knows how to ‘inspire’.
But despite what so many people say about Nietzsche, his goal is not at all to live an amoral and unprincipled existence. It is to reform one’s own relationship with morality. I believe his purpose is to re-establish one’s own values on realities that are less speculative and vastly more immediate, motivating and durable.
Nietzsche did a bang-up job with the demolition and ground clearing of my worldview. But it was a chain of Jewish thinkers who help me piece my soul back together, and to reassemble it toward a reality not confined to my own mind. And that realism most of all included the belief in the sacred reality of other minds.
Somewhere I made a list of the names of the Jewish thinkers who helped me, and I plan to expound on each, but for now I will just list some of them.
- Richard J. Bernstein
- Martin Buber
- Hannah Arendt
- Walter Benjamin
- Emmanuel Levinas
- Abraham Joshua Heschel
I was especially interested in the fact that whether the thinkers were religious or secular there was a distinct commonality among them, and I felt that this commonality connected with me in a vitally important way. It might have been an inheritance from lost Jewish ancestors, or maybe it was transmitted to me via Christianity, but the total experience of reading these thinkers made me want to enter and participate in the Jewish tradition.