Alan Mittleman

Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies and the Tikvah Institute for Jewish Thought of The Jewish Theological Seminary

Dr. Mittleman has been an active participant in interfaith dialogue throughout his career. He has spoken on the meaning of religious liberty for American Jews in the chambers of the U.S. Senate; served on the Advisory Board of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; met with Pope John Paul II and lectured at the Gregorian University in Rome; and been interviewed by Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, and USA Today, among other periodicals. In 2007, he was visiting professor of Religion at Princeton University.

Before coming to The Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Mittleman served as professor of Religion at Muhlenberg College from 1988 to 2004. Prior to his career in academia, he served on the national staff of the American Jewish Committee. From 2000 to 2004, Dr. Mittleman served as director of the major research project "Jews and the American Public Square," which was initiated by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Under his direction, the project produced two national surveys of Jewish attitudes on public affairs, four volumes comprising forty scholarly essays, and fifteen conferences around the United States. He is the recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellowship and has served as guest research professor at the University of Cologne. He has lectured widely in Germany in the course of more than fifty trips to that country. Dr. Mittleman received a Harry Starr Fellowship in Modern Jewish History from Harvard University's Center for Jewish Studies (1997), and is the author of many respected books and articles, including his most recent, Hope in a Democratic Age.

Dr. Mittleman, before we discuss your book and the new Tikvah Institute, what is the focus of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of JTS (LFI)?

The Finkelstein Institute's main purpose is to convene public events and, less frequently, academic conferences. We focus on exploring public affairs from a Jewish point of view, but also with regard to the moral implications of public policy. We've had events on such topics as school choice, same-sex marriage, first amendment issues, medical ethics, religion and politics, health care reform, and many others. The Finkelstein institute has also focused on interfaith relations. We've cosponsored two national conferences, for example, on Jewish-Evangelical relations. We also sponsor the Inter-Seminary Dialogue, which has brought seminarians from the Jewish and Christian seminaries in New York together for many decades. LFI looks as well at matters of religion and culture. This year, for example, we have a three-part series on conversations between religion and science.

We actually heard that the first part of the LFI Religion and Science series was very well received, and now the second discussion, "Religion, Science, and Wonder" [taking place on February 17], appears to be garnering a lot of attention as well. As director of the institute, you must be pleased.

Yes, it's always helpful to get encouraging feedback.

In addition to LFI and your new book, Hope in a Democratic Age, what other projects are you working on at the moment?

I'm working on a book for Wiley-Blackwell called A Short History of Jewish Ethics, which as far as I know will be the first historical study of Jewish ethics. Exactly what that means would be a long discussion; there's nothing out there that naturally bears the label "Jewish Ethics"to a large extent it's in the eye of the beholder. I'm also part of a book series project on Jewish approaches to big human questions, which Princeton University Press intends to publish, and I've been commissioned to write the series book on human nature. I also have an essay in a book on great Jewish ideas that is coming out with Oxford; my chapter is on the concept of goodness as it is expressed in the Bible. I'm also part of another anthology (this has to do with a Jewish-Christian theologian's dialogue) on the topic of messianism in which I try to critique concepts of "realistic" messianism from an economic point of view. And then there is a project I'm working on with Princeton University; we have to get all that published, and that's on the topic of holiness. I also have a chapter on Judaism coming out in the New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, and there are some additional papers coming out in various other places.

You're juggling a lot of projects. How much research is involved in putting those words on paper?

Actually, I write very slowly. I'm not one of those people who can say okay, Monday I'm going to work on my book. That never works; it takes concentrated effort. I read a lot and write a little.

What are you teaching at JTS this semester?

This is fun actually. I'm teaching a fellows course on hope—Hope in a Secular Age—for the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies of JTS, and an ethics course called Ethics in Jewish Tradition and Community.

Are you using ancient texts and traditional kinds of material?

We read some of the primary sources of Jewish and Christian thought that informed my recent book, and we read my book, Hope in a Democratic Age. I'm also using some purely philosophical sources that have nothing to do with the Jewish tradition. In the ethics course we read some traditional Jewish texts, essays by modern and contemporary writers about Jewish ethics that use traditional texts, as well as confront some contemporary problems like civility or the lack thereof in public discourse. We look at whether the Jewish tradition's extensive teachings on shmirat halashon (just, fair, humble, truth-seeking speech) have any relevance to public discourse. We read traditional Jewish sources on kinds of speech ethics; Maimonides has a whole chapter of the Mishneh Torah on what morally correct speech is, but we're also reading a book by a public intellectual, Os Guinness, called Search for Civility. I like to see to what extent traditional sources can speak to contemporary moral or policy problems, and the students like this very much.

You are now also the director of the new Tikvah Institute, which will address what are being called "life's big questions"?

That's the idea, to try to engage the great questions that the Western humanist tradition addresses through leveraging Jewish sources. So what are the great questions? Well, the human conditions of mortality, temporality, consciousness, love, war, justice, friendship, emotions, scarce resources and their just allocation, anxiety, and so on; the heartland of the Western humanist philosophical tradition. What we want to do, I think, is grope toward ever more refined ways of framing how the Jewish tradition has thought about these constitutive, significant human issues.

And Tikvah courses and seminars will be team-taught?

Yes. We'll be offering Tikvah courses over the next three years, and essentially what we've tried to do is come up with a set of topics where we will all have something to contribute. My colleague, JTS historian Dr. Benjamin Gampel, has proposed that we look at several medieval exchanges about conversion to Christianity to gain insight, at least obliquely, into an understanding of the givenness or flexibility of human nature. Putting our first course together for 2010—the working title of which is Jewish Encounters with the Human Condition—has been very stimulating. I hope it will be successful because it does provide a model of how people from different fields can work together. It will be team taught by a literature scholar, Alan Mintz; a historian, Benjamin Gampel; and me.

And that's coming up in September?

Yes. Another thing the Tikvah Institute will do is sponsor a two-semester course on contemporary Jewish philosophers and theologians (one semester on each) for a select group of students who will get an honorarium for participating. It's a one-year course and I'll have the budget to invite seven of the people whose work we study to JTS to hold a seminar for the students, as well as to speak to the JTS community. So in this way we'll be able to highlight or raise the profile of Jewish philosophy, Jewish theology, and Jewish thought.

So what about hope, which is certainly a hot topic, and your work? Is yours a scholarly book or was it intended as a popular work?

Well, it was intended to be both, which runs the risk of it lining up as neither. I wrote it with the intention of writing a book that would be well grounded in scholarly analysis but that would also be interesting and inviting and accessible and even important to others.

I was invited to give a talk at Oxford, which I did last October. It was a really nice gathering in this old library at Trinity College. They had copies of the book for sale, and a theology professor who deals with religion and politics at Macalester College was my respondent. It was just a lovely, memorable, and fun event. I was very honored to be part of it. I gave a talk on the book at a Columbia University seminar on the study of religion a while ago, and am giving a talk on it at the University of Wisconsin Law School this month and at Princeton in April. (Princeton has a series on human nature and human flourishing, so I'll talk about hope. Cornel West is supposed to be the respondent because he's also written a book on hope [Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom]). I'm also speaking about the book here at JTS on February 23 at 7:30 p.m.

It's probably fair to say that global events of the last ten years may lead people to an even bigger, deeper discussion of hope.

I think this is not an ephemeral topic. I claim that hope may be thought of as a virtue—this is preferable to thinking of it simply as an emotion—and as such ought to be cautious, sober, and rationally disciplined. I argue for hope as a civic virtue for democratic societies. I don't think you can sustain the work of a democratic society without an investment of hope in the action of citizens. I think hope is ineluctable; I think it's necessary. When people withdraw into apolitical cynicism, democracy is enfeebled and might well collapse. There's an argument here for the rehabilitation of hope as virtue rather than as emotion, and for its application from personal virtue to civic virtue as well as for its application as a criterion in the evaluation of public policy. Perhaps my most radical claim is to argue that hope can be equally about the maintenance of meaning-giving elements of the status quo as it can be about emancipation from the status quo.

So your book addresses politics as well . . .

The book starts out with a discussion of the philosophy of mind, the branch of philosophy that deals with such things as emotion and asks the fundamental question, what is hope? How should we best characterize it? I look at a number of theories both from early modern philosophy like Descartes and Spinoza and Hobbes and David Hume, and also from contemporary analytic philosophy on emotion. What is the relationship of emotion to belief, emotion to reason, of hopeful states to attitudes toward probability, contingency? Hope certainly has dimensions of emotion, feeling, and attitudes towards states of affairs, propositional attitudes, and so on, but a more compelling case could be made for hope as a virtue because, at least in our stream of culture, we sense something excellent in persons who affirm the possibility of positive change and growth, the greater flourishing of justice among us, and the achievement of public goods. There's something affirmative about hope per se, almost independent of its objects.

I study Thomas Aquinas, who has the richest discussion of the connection between emotion and virtue in the Western tradition; Thomas talks about hope as one of the virtues. I look into Joseph Albo, a medieval Jewish philosopher, who has an entire rich chapter in his Book of Principles on hope—it's the main writing that I found in the whole Jewish tradition on hope. I try to recast those medieval arguments in a modern mode on behalf of hope as a virtue in a way that leaves theism bracketed for people who aren't theists. (Obviously for Aquinas and Albo, their accounts of hope are very much tied in with God, but that's the question for a modern democratic politics—on what can robust public hope for a democratic future be based if not on theism?) Then I look at the whole philosophical tradition that rejects hope. The Greeks are very unhopeful, very critical of hope; they see hope as fantasy, delusion, and illusion. The way that the Greek tradition—from Homer through the Stoics—and the Romans too have analyzed hope is rather in terms of a deep pessimism, sometimes a fatalism, in which they see human dignity and human nobility as compromised by hope, which leaves one vulnerable. They see the human condition as irremediably tragic; nobility requires resignation to this tragedy and the renunciation of the vain aims of the self in the face of tragedy. I see hope ultimately as the affirmation of the full flourishing of the good within time effected through human agency.

In the last chapter of the book, I relate hope to contemporary American democracy and look at some things like education and church-state relations. I also have very concrete ideas about what sorts of policies would enhance human capabilities and agency and thereby enhance hope. The book deals with a lot of stuff: there's metaphysics and epistemology in there, there's theology, there's biblical studies, and I've tried to do it in a way that is responsible to the best possible scholarship in each area and yet have it such that people can read it.

Can we, for the moment, bring it down to everyday life?

One of the things I deal with in the first chapter of the book is neurobiological, evolutionary-biological accounts of hope. There are neurobiologists and anthropologists who work on this and the basic argument is that the human beings who survived the shake-out of Cro-Magnon man were the hopeful ones. So you could make the argument that the successful hominids are hardwired for hope because they think that there's a reason to get up in the morning and hunt mastodons. On the assumption that we're wired to hope, you can't get more everyday than that. But something is wrong with this picture.

In this picture, genes control destiny. There are optimistic and pessimistic people, but I don't think that's really where the action is. In my view, when you talk about virtue you are not talking about psychological constitution, socialization, and habituation—about the way we are and the way we've been raised—you're talking about choices that we make, often in defiance of the way we are. There is a horizon beyond nature; nature is not enough. Furthermore, virtue in the Western tradition is answerable to reason. You're able to say why it's better to be courageous than cowardly or honest rather than dishonest. I think the same is true of hope, so I see hope in its fullest instantiation not just as an optimistic disposition or as a hardwired genetic predisposition, but as a choice that we make in the face of despair. Hope is the affirmation we make about wanting to live in a way that finds life meaningful and good and worthy of being pursued and furthered and brought to its fullest. We ought to be able to give reasons for such an affirmation. The dimension of choice, I think, makes hope the obverse of despair rather than, as the standard philosophical treatment has it, the obverse of fear. A standard modern philosopher would say that hope is expectation of a positive future and fear is an expectation of a negative future. But I think it's less about mere expectation than it is about shaping the future by cultivating an orientation.

Then choosing to have faith, religious belief, or spiritual belief can be seen as encouraging a choice of hope?

Yes. I think it provides part of the rational structure of hope. If hope is a virtue and a virtuous person can give reasons to explicate the nature of virtue, then religious beliefs that account for virtues such as hope must be accountable to reason, to rational justification. I am rationalist in my religious belief. But that doesn't mean that religion is always on the defensive. Pure secularism may be incoherent. I think it's a big question what the rational structure of hope can be in the absence of religious belief. Part of what I do in the book is look at a set of philosophers like Ernst Bloch and Hannah Arendt and Richard Rorty and others, who try to endorse hope in the absence of religious belief. But I don't think robust hope is really possible without a religious orientation. I think all of the purely secular views that I look at essentially divinize something to fill the space where God used to be. This ought not, however, give religion a blank check. Robust religious hope needs the secularist critique.

Do you consider yourself a hopeful person?

Yes and no, I mean part of the view that I came to is simply out of my own experience, which is never a good ground or warrant for a philosophical position; but you know everybody comes from somewhere. I'm in many ways very pessimistic about how things are turning out and are likely to turn out in the future, but on the other hand I'm emotionally and intellectually opposed to a tragic view of life, which is not to say that life isn't redundant with past tragedies, personal and public, but it is to say that tragedy ought not to be the last word. So I feel very committed to affirming hope as a virtue, as an orientation, to living in antagonism to despair. I don't see any good of succumbing to despair. On the other hand, I'm resolutely against Polyanna-ish attitudes. In religion, I'm resolutely against fideism or a faith based on a so-called second naiveté. I view any kind of romanticism leading into happy talk as essentially escapist. I guess it's an open question whether anything's really left [laughs] after you throw all this acid at it. I think something is left, I think that something is the hard core of a durable hope and faith.

Sounds like a book that can get a lot of popular support.

That would be nice, but I doubt it. Nonetheless, I intend to stick to my present direction, which is to craft disciplined Jewish reflection on what it is to be human, what it is to be human as a Jew. There is a great deal that is profound and real and significant in the Jewish tradition. But often, when we speak as scholars, we speak primarily to one another. Nor do we feel entitled to engage our sources constructively as philosophers or theologians. I think that arrests our conversation. I don't want for one minute to diminish the importance of pure scholarship, but I do think we need to be concerned about human meaning; we dare not be on the side of aloofness toward the human meaning of what we study and what we teach. I think our engagement with human meaning needs to be at the heart of what we do, so I hope the Tikvah Institute can be a site where you can engage with great human questions, and I hope that my book can be a good model of how you engage large, urgent human questions.

Rabbis who offer pastoral care are constantly asked about direction and meaning.

I actually dedicated Hope in a Democratic Age to my sister, my only sibling, who passed away four years ago of breast cancer. We had this conversation about hope many times, including on her death bed, and it's part of what motivated me to write the book. I saw that my sister was so desperate to cling to hope that she spent a lot of money she didn't have going essentially to charlatans to try to find hope, and this was very, very troubling for me. I began to wonder whether there is more dignity in giving up on hope than clinging to it, so that's sort of what motivated me to look into not just hope but into the argument for and against hope. Cicero and the Latin poets wrote dum spiro spero (while I breathe, I hope). But what we make of it is another matter.

Alan Mittleman

Alan Mittleman