A View of Religion That Transcends Differences

Clemence Boulouque’s Another Modernity profiles a 19th-century rabbi who believed Judaism was a solution to world problems.

Eve Glasberg
April 07, 2021

Elia Benamozegh, a 19th-century Italian rabbi and philosopher whose work profoundly influenced Christian-Jewish dialogue in 20th-century Europe, is the subject of Another Modernity, the new book by Professor Clemence Boulouque, who teaches in the Religion Department. Benamozegh was a prolific writer and transnational thinker, who corresponded widely with religious and intellectual figures in France, the Maghreb, and the Middle East.

Benamozegh proposed that the Jewish tradition presented a solution to the religious crisis of modernity. According to him, the defining features of Judaism were universalism, a capacity to foster interreligious engagement, and the political power and mythical allure of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical practice.

Boulouque discusses her new book with Columbia News, as well as what books have made her laugh and cry, how she and her students are working their way through the pandemic, and who her ideal dinner guests would be.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A. I grew up in France in a very secular environment where religion is seen in a negative light, mostly as a reactionary force. Moreover, when I was working as a book critic and journalist, the spotlight was on religious conflicts or terrorism. I was interested in finding other voices, namely those of thinkers and individuals who tried to promote a different narrative of religion for their time, and read the canonic texts of their tradition anew. My study of Benamozegh serves as a springboard for interrogating the question of religious modernity and probing the validity of theological strategies for religious coexistence.

Q. How did Benamozegh's universalism influence interreligious engagement and cooperation?

A. Benamozegh was a peculiar figure who never left his hometown of Livorno in Tuscany, Italy, and yet wrote in many languages and composed his magnum opus on Jewish universalism, Israel, and humanity in French because he wanted to be widely read. He had an impact on advocates of church reform at the turn of the 20th century, Jewish intellectuals during the interwar period in Paris, proponents of the ecumenical Second Vatican Council, and left-wing French Catholics.

One of his main arguments is that Judaism could inspire religious and political reforms, thanks to a key aspect: Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. Benamozegh envisioned it as a myth-making force and the collective unconscious of humanity. Kabbalah is also a place of non-dualism, which is exactly how the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would describe the unconscious 100 years later. Kabbalah becomes a source of theological and political engagement, and not just an esoteric practice for initiates.  

"Another Modernity: Elia Benamozegh's Jewish Universalism" by Columbia University Professor Clemence Boulouque

Q. What is Benamozegh's continuing legacy, and are there any lessons from him that can be applied to today’s crises?

A. The spectrum of religious thinkers and actors who claim Benamozegh’s legacy can be disconcerting: In addition to the people I mentioned above, American evangelists and right-wing Zionists in Israel have also claimed him. How come Benamozegh’s efforts to work toward religious unity have fueled such irreconcilable stances and extreme views? This suggests that scriptures are a Rorschach test, and that he is an instance of noble failure.

I do think that a lot can be learned from Benamozegh’s rejection of binaries—religion versus science, tradition versus progress, faith versus reason—which are still routinely used today. He likes to emphasize both the frictions that come with proximity, and the importance of the coincidence of opposites. One should not essentialize seemingly irreconcilable differences, but probe ways in which these differences can be transcended—an important lesson in our age of bitter divisiveness.

Q. What books do you recommend now?

A. Books that remind you that spring is around the corner—and so is hope, “this thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson wrote. So I would say Dickinson and the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, for the art of finding meaning in small things, and for the enduring presence of those we have lost. Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, an ode to Vienna’s vibrancy and a reminder of the fragility of our democracies, even beacons of culture like the Austrian capital used to be at the turn of the 20th century.

Imbolo Mbue’s new novel, How Beautiful We Were, about the fight between African villagers and an American corporation polluting their village in an imaginary country in Africa. The book is very different from her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, where she captured the 2008 financial crisis from the point of view of immigrants, but equally powerful.

Q. What's the best book you ever received as a gift, and why?

A. All seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. People sometimes stay away from Proust because they are scared by his long, convoluted sentences, but for me, his books are like medicine, or meditation. And his descriptions of Parisian dinners and their snobs are extremely funny.

Q. What's the last book that made you laugh?

A. Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus. It is coming out in June. I read it in one sitting, and literally laughed out loud more than once. His depictions of the delusions of grandeur of the historian Benzion Netanyahu, this clueless and arrogant academic who brought his whole family on a campus visit that went horribly wrong, and of the havoc wreaked by the insufferable children— one of whom would grow up to become Bibi—are brilliant. He turns the genre of campus novel on its comic head, not to mention the psychological portrait of the son avenging his father’s bruised ego, and turning the bigoted scholarship of his father into the kind of Israeli politics we know today. 

Q. The last book that made you cry?

A. Romain Gary’s Promise at Dawn, a memoir of the writer’s early years in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Nice, France, where he emigrated as a child. Gary was raised by a single mother, a failed Russian actress, whose unconditional love and ambitions for her son made her ridiculous and the object of cruel mockery. When World War II broke out, Gary joined the resistance. Throughout the war, he received letters from his mother, but upon his return, he found out that she had died almost four years before. Having fallen ill and realized that she would not survive, she had charged an acquaintance to mail her son over 250 letters that she had written to him in advance. She didn’t want him to get crushed by her death when he was needed in the fight against Nazi Germany.

Q. What are you teaching this term? How are you helping your students cope with online learning?

A. I teach Literature Humanities—the great books for first-year students—and a graduate seminar on Religion and Public Life. I like seeing parallel conversations happen in the chat, and I encourage them. This space is ideal for students who are not comfortable when they have to speak in public. We do have serious conversations, but I am particularly happy when the tone gets playful: It means that the group has managed to create an atmosphere of trust and warmth, even in our cold virtual boxes, Zoomed out, but soldiering on.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite and why?

A. Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Jacques Derrida, and Muhammad Sharur, the Syrian philosopher who died in 2019, and whose work on the Quran challenges traditional exegesis. I would have liked to hear him talk with Derrida about deconstruction. Arendt would certainly have a lot to say about the current state of our democracies, and I would like her to continue the fascinating exchange she had with James Baldwin on the (im)possibility of using the concept of love in politics. I know I was only given three choices, but I like the idea of always being able to add to the guest list.

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