Shalem College
May 21, 2017

Jewish Philosophy Scholar-to-Watch Dr. Eli Schonfeld Joins Shalem Faculty

Jewish Philosophy Scholar-to-Watch Dr. Eli Schonfeld Joins Shalem Faculty

Dr. Eli Schonfeld, the newest member of Shalem’s Department of Philosophy and Jewish Thought, was certain that, having led courses on Metaphysics and Continental Philosophy at Israeli institutions for more than a decade, teaching them at Shalem would be a breeze. “That was a mistake,” he laughs, explaining that, more often than not, he finds himself rewriting his lecture notes from class to class. “The average student here is just so invested in her studies. I’m starting from a place where I can engage students on a deep level. I don’t need to go over the basics, at least not in such depth.”

While that means more work than anticipated, Schonfeld is philosophical about it—no pun intended. “As I always remind both myself and my students, a proper philosophical understanding of the relation between thought and reality is far more subtle, and a good deal messier, than is usually assumed.”

Before joining Shalem this past fall, Schonfeld was a Berkowitz Fellow at the New York University School of Law, where he focused his research on the question of lamentation and consolation in Jewish thought and practice. The project took him on a journey from Greek tragedy and Plato to Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Levinas, even Isaiah; fortunately for him, he feels equally at home in the worlds of both Continental and Jewish philosophy. “I was born and raised in Belgium, earned my doctorate in Israel, and have taught and done research in the United States. I can’t exactly say that ‘nothing that is human is alien to me,’ but you get the idea.”

Now, in between teaching courses at Shalem, he is putting the finishing touches on a book about Moses Mendelssohn, to be released in France in the coming months.

“Mendelssohn is in many ways the father of modern Jewish philosophy,” explains Schonfeld. “He managed to invent the figure of the Jew who is able at one and the same time to devote himself fully to his Jewishness and to play chess with Lessing and Kant. That Jewish philosophy has always sought fruitful and mutually enriching interaction with Continental philosophy is not well known in French intellectual discourse. I want to do my part to correct the assumption of Jewish insularity.” And of course, Schonfeld reassures us, the book will eventually be translated into Hebrew.

“Intellectual inclusivity works both ways,” he insists. “Israeli philosophical discourse should also be aware of how French intellectuals understand Jewish thought. I’m hoping to play a role in building bridges between these two parallel conversations, and turning them into a dialogue.” The fact, stresses Schonfeld, that my department at Shalem is designed to reveal the points of interaction and influence between Western and Jewish philosophy makes it a great setting in which to write. “As a thinker and a teacher, coming to Shalem was like coming home. I’m really enjoying settling in.”