Lib­er­al and Illib­er­al Arts: Essays (Most­ly Jewish)

Abra­ham Socher

  • Review
By – March 14, 2022

As the found­ing edi­tor of the Jew­ish Review of Books, Abra­ham Socher estab­lished a forum for engaged dis­cus­sion and debate in the man­i­fold fields that com­prise Jew­ish Stud­ies. In Lib­er­al and Illib­er­al Arts, Socher draws on his own var­ied inter­ests in Jew­ish cul­ture, col­lect­ing a series of essays and reflec­tions on a range of Jew­ish sub­jects and major his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. The result is a live­ly gath­er­ing of essays show­ing how an atten­tive read­er, immersed in the sources of Jew­ish reli­gion and phi­los­o­phy, can illu­mi­nate a famil­iar text. Socher’s mode of close read­ing demon­strates the inter­pre­tive pow­er that resides in deep Jew­ish learning.

A not­ed schol­ar of the Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment, Socher jour­neys beyond his intel­lec­tu­al spe­cial­ty in this rich gath­er­ing of thought. At the out­set, Socher con­fess­es to play­ing hooky” from the high-lev­el abstrac­tions asso­ci­at­ed with aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing. Instead, he seeks the small human sto­ry behind a great or favorite book.” Socher’s sub­jects include film, con­tem­po­rary fic­tion, major fig­ures of Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy and mys­ti­cism (above all the leg­endary friend­ship and cor­re­spon­dence in the 1920s and thir­ties between Wal­ter Ben­jamin and Ger­shom Scholem), Rebbe Schneer­son and the pow­er of his charis­mat­ic mode of out­reach, and, above all, the recent con­tro­ver­sy con­cern­ing Jew­ish stu­dents and a com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry of racial pol­i­tics at his own insti­tu­tion, Ober­lin College.

What dis­tin­guish­es Lib­er­al and Illib­er­al Arts is Socher’s absorb­ing per­son­al nar­ra­tive, detail­ing his jour­ney from Torah study as a young man in a Los Ange­les yeshi­va, with the mem­o­ry of his father’s ill­ness and the mov­ing sto­ry of the son’s sort­ing through his father’s well-read library of clas­si­cal phi­los­o­phy, to the depress­ing insid­er account of unleashed stu­dents” and the fate of lib­er­al edu­ca­tion in rur­al Ohio. Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, Socher’s main sub­ject in Lib­er­al and Illib­er­al Arts is what he calls the sheer grav­i­ta­tion­al force of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life.”

For Socher, as this col­lec­tion of strik­ing obser­va­tions and insights into a range of Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish texts and fig­ures attests, a poten­tial­ly deep­er Jew­ish iden­ti­ty resides in the acqui­si­tion, and then appli­ca­tion, of Jew­ish learn­ing. Socher, in effect, exem­pli­fies the con­di­tion of such an intel­lec­tu­al­ly-awak­ened mode of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Learn­ing,” after all, is real­ly an act of recall,” he observes. Whether his invi­ta­tion — in effect, chal­lenge — to recu­per­ate deep­er Jew­ish learn­ing will be heed­ed remains, as he already knows, unclear.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions