Jews Beyond Reason: Exploring Emotion, the Unconscious, and Other Dimensions of Jews' Inner Lives

The mind, as the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria recognized two thousand years ago, is not guided by rationality alone; it is also driven by appetite and by the passions, and from his age until our own, Jewish thinkers and producers of culture have recognized something nonrational at the core of being human. Ancient rabbinic sources speak of the yetser, an inclination or impulse, as a driver of human behavior, and source of creativity and destructiveness. The medieval philosopher Maimonides subordinated imagination to philosophy, and yet without imagination, he also realized, there would be no prophecy. And the world owes the discovery of the unconscious to the Jewish physician Sigmund Freud. Jewish thought, history, and culture offer many opportunities to explore those aspects of the mind that lie beneath reason, that go beyond it, that resist it.

During its 2015–2016 fellowship year, the Katz Center will focus on those aspects of internal life that lie beyond reason—emotions and feelings, the unconscious, sensation, imagination, impulse, intuition, and the nonrational dimensions of reason itself. The topic can be explored through various disciplinary perspectives such as history, literary criticism, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, art, and musicology. Relevant fellowship proposals might address any of the following topics:

  • Emotions and feelings. Though rooted in neurological and physical responses, scholars recognize that emotions—like love, anger, anxiety, joy, fear, empathy, sympathy, sadness, desire, pain, and pleasure—are shaped by culture. What is there to be learned about emotions in Jewish cultural contexts?
  • Sensation. Another area of research that engages fields such as art history, film studies, ethnomusicology, ethics, and literature is sensation, a topic that includes sight, sound, touch, or scent within Jewish cultural or artistic contexts.
  • The unconscious. Interest in psychoanalysis continues to thrive, as does the deployment of psychoanalytic approaches to analyze literature and understand behavior. The center welcomes proposals that bridge Jewish studies and the study of psychoanalysis and its history.
  • Mental illness. The idea of “madness” or mental illness in Jewish contexts approached from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
  • Imagination. What is the history of imagination in Jewish culture? How is the imagination understood within specific periods of history or by particular thinkers, and how does that history relate to the broader history of imagination? Also potentially relevant are studies of Jewish artists and their engagement with movements that emphasize the non-rational (Romanticism, Expressionism, etc.).
  • The nonrational within rationality itself. One of the projects associated with post-modernism is a critique of rationality, the exposure of its metaphysical foundations and blind spots. The year is open to research that explores nonrational dimensions of Jewish philosophy or other modes of rationality, including that which draws on new methods or theories to challenge the distinction between reason and nonrational dimensions of subjectivity/cognition.