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Martin Kavka

Associate Professor of Religion


Departmental Area: Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy
Research Areas : Continental Philosophy of Religion; Phenomenology; Jewish Philosophy; Jewish Metaethics

Address: Department of Religion
641 University Way / P.O. Box 3061520
The Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306-1520
Office: 115 Dodd Hall
Email: mkavka@fsu.edu
Office Hours: TBA

Curriculum Vitae


My primary research interest is the discourse of modern Jewish philosophy. This means that I groove on thinking about how Jews in the modern West have appropriated (and resisted appropriating!) various ideas and arguments in the canon of modern Western philosophy from Kant to Rorty, in the interest of articulating both Jews’ difference from and commonality with Western culture. My first book, Jewish Messianism and the History of Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2004), argued that a significant strand of thinkers in the modern Jewish philosophical canon—Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas, with some premonitions in the writings of Moses Maimonides—grounded their defense of Jewish messianism in a philosophical account of the nature of nonbeing and potentiality. It received the inaugural Jordan Schnitzer Book Award in Philosophy and Jewish Thought from the Association of Jewish Studies in 2008, awarded to outstanding scholarship in that subfield published between 2004 and 2008.

I have also edited three books; a fourth edited volume is forthcoming. Most recently, in April 2012, Cambridge University Press published The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: The Modern Era (co-edited with Zachary Braiterman and David Novak), which is the most substantial multi-author volume to take a thematic approach to the field. In the fall of 2013, Indiana University Press will publish Judaism, Liberalism, and Political Theology (co-edited with Randi Rashkover), a constellation of essays treating the relationship between Judaism and the political in the canons of modern Jewish philosophy, European "political theology," and scholarship on Judeophobia.

My CV, accessible from this page, lists my articles. Many of the recently published and forthcoming pieces will be adapted in some form in a manuscript entitled The Perils Of Covenant, which argues that the so-called “covenantal theology” that has become popular in American Jewish thought since the end of World War II is politically obsolete at a time when Jews’ and Americans’ “enemies” are no longer godless communists but other religionists, and philosophically vague insofar as it gives little or no criterion for evaluating various approaches to sacralizing the public sphere.


Fall 2014

REL3431                  Critics of Religion                 Dr. Kavka
This course is an introduction to the major thinkers and texts in the critique of religion as it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries in the west. Beginning with Schleiermacher, the course moves on to consider the so-called "masters of suspicion"--Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. By means of a close examination of central texts, students explore the meaning of a critique of religion, the structure of religious consciousness, the place of religion with respect to other forms of culture, the problem of religion and alienation, and the possibility of a critical faith. Meets LS Humanities, Writing requirement

Fall 2012

REL3607 The Jewish Tradition
This course is a survey of the Jewish tradition and its development from the Biblical period to the present. We will critically read important texts representing the fundamental periods/themes of the tradition:
• Biblical texts
• Talmud and Midrash, the texts of rabbinic Judaism
• philosophy and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) from the medieval era
• philosophy and Hasidic texts from the early modern era
• Zionism
• the rise of Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Judaism
• modern Jewish feminism
In addition, we will spend some time on Jewish “lived religion”: the structure of the liturgical year, the primary Jewish festival holidays, and contemporary worship services. Finally, this course contains a writing component in accordance with the university’s “Gordon Rule” (section 1007.25, Florida Statutes; see p. 64 of the General Bulletin for more details).

Requirements: midterm and final exams, two papers of 1500 words.

REL6498 Pragmatism and Religion
Similar to the types of postmodern or antifoundationalist thought that have crossed the Atlantic since the second half of the twentieth century (deconstruction, vitalism, existentialism), American pragmatism is a protest against metaphysical systems that seek to determine ideas; it claims that there is no way in which humans’ acts of reflection can grasp the foundational principles of reality. For the pragmatists, truth has no meaning apart from its practical consequences; truth happens to an idea in life.
Over the last thirty years—primarily thanks to the writings of Richard Rorty—pragmatism in one variant or another has once again become a major current in American philosophy. More recently, this has happened in theology as well, as contemporary scholars, chastened by philosophical attacks on the status of truth-claims about the supernatural, have looked to early twentieth-century European theologians who also offer challenges to traditional notions of religious truth, and interpreted them as pragmatists. This is, on the surface, odd. After all, religiously orthodox people do not go around citing William James’s or John Dewey’s anti-supernaturalist arguments for religious pluralism.

The broad aim of this class is to decide whether such an interpretation of theology in the three monotheistic traditions along pragmatist lines is sustainable or not. More narrowly, the course is a survey of some major figures in the American pragmatist tradition (Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Robert Brandom), and an introduction to twentieth-century monotheistic theologies that focus on "practice"(over against "theory"). We will be specifically looking at Martin Buber, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Sayyid Qutb, and inquiring as to whether they are really arguing that religious communities make truth through their ritual and ethical acts (as pragmatism would dictate that they must).


Spring 2012

REL3194 The Holocaust
This course is a survey of responses to the attempted extermination of European Jews between 193345, often called the Holocaust or the Shoah, a Hebrew word meaning ³disaster.² It is not a survey of the means by which this extermination was attempted; students interested in a historical approach to the material should take one of the classes in the Department of History that speak to this topic. Instead, this course is a survey of literary, theological, and cinematic responses to the Holocaust. (If time, the syllabus will also include a brief unit on the architecture of Holocaust memorials.) The course¹s primary aim is to study the ways in which one represents this traumatic event, the techniques by which one bears witness to it, and the extent to which this event challenges the foundational narratives of the Jewish and Christian traditions.
There will be required film screenings, outside of class, on four evenings during the course of the semester. These will be scheduled during the first week of class. Requirements: three papers of at least 1500 words.

REL4044 What is Religion?
What Is Religion? What Is Religious Studies? This course is limited to undergraduate majors in the Department of Religion. It is split up into two halves. In the "What Is Religion?" half, we¹ll survey what various modern thinkers have said what religion is and the social-scientific and philosophical approaches that they take in their answers to questions about the origin, essence, and function of religion. In the "What Is Religious Studies?" half, we‟ll still engage to some extent with the question of what religion is, but we¹ll do so by a closer look at what it means to be a scholar of religion to look at a religious community, or a tradition, from the outside. To what extent can a scholar bracket her or his own commitments or presuppositions in talking about religion? If the answer to the former question is ³not at all,² does this mean that Westerners are unable to study Asian religions well? Does it mean that historical research published by moderns says more about the present than about the past? Does it mean that it is illegitimate to include subfields that make normative judgments (say, religious ethics) in the field of religious studies?