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Fire Backstage

Philip Rieff and the Monastery of Culture


Christopher Cain Elliott

At present, the name and writings of Philip Rieff (1922-2006) hang under a sign of neglect. This book is an attempt to identify precisely what has been lost through this lack of critical attention, arguing that Rieff’s lifework marks a singular contribution to the fields of reactionary apocalyptics and social and cultural studies. Providing a working definition for the horizon of contemporary Jewish philosophy, this book also suggests how Rieff uniquely contributes to this field of speculative inquiry with an insufficiently appreciated, but essential, theory of psycho-theology


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An Introduction


Primal Scenes in Jewish Philosophy The following essay is a work of Jewish philosophy and social theory. The first half of this deliberate categorization makes several claims which ought to be partly clarified. Beyond accidents of reference or inheritance, Jewish philosophy might realize its specificity in thought by responding to the threefold injunction of the Pirkei Avot: “They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, develop many students, and make a fence around the To- rah.”1 At the very least, these directives would have three formal consequences for any philosophy written under their aegis. (1) With respect to the seemingly most immediate and practical of concerns, rabbinic commentary provides neces- sary emphasis on the particular wording that concerns the “development” of stu- dents. The term in question [ודימעהו] literally suggests that we ought to “cause [our students] to stand,” which is to say that we give them the methodological and textual footing necessary to make their own determinations and discern the truth.2 As an operative ideal, this would mean that Jewish philosophy is not fur- thered through the simple reproduction of like minds or by attending to the acci- dents of birth and character of teachers or students, but finds its way through the patient labor that can risk difference. (2) The exhortation “to make a fence around the Torah” has already been expertly misappropriated and translated into philosophical and literary idiom by Harold Bloom, who regularly extends the passage in question with a...

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