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Karen S. Feldman (University of California, Berkeley)

Karen S. Feldman

Karen S. Feldman
Image Credit: Alexander Riby

Fellow in Research Area 1: “Competing Communities”

June 2023

On Luther, Auerbach and Figural Realism

Erich Auerbach's monumental work Mimesis contains his well-known account of biblical realism in the story of the binding of Isaac. Literary scholars have generally taken Auerbach's understanding of the Hebrew Bible and figuration to reflect a Protestant approach, in line with a long tradition of typological reading – a tradition that Auerbach explores in his lengthy essay on "Figura." Professor Feldman's current project examines how Martin Luther's brief reflection in his "Preface to the Old Testament" on the style and composition of the Hebrew bible suggests a surprising antecedent of Auerbach's understanding of realism. To be sure, Luther's anti-Semitism is virulent and patent; nonetheless his "Preface to the Old Testament" is full of praise for Moses, characterising him as the perfect lawgiver in maximising the conditions for producing crisis among Jewish believers. In Luther's interpretation, the point of Jewish law is to evoke a crisis, a crisis regarding the inability to obey the laws of faith and love and the detailed laws of ritual practice. The crisis and failure of the Israelites to fully accept and follow the law would thus constitute the paradoxical proof of its success, insofar as, in Luther's view, that crisis should cause Jews to convert to Christianity en masse. The project thus suggests that Luther's praise for the style, and specifically what we might anachronistically call the "realism," of Jewish scriptural style, constitutes a literary and aesthetic assessment of Hebrew Scripture that complicates the Jewish-Protestant distinction, and which dovetails with Luther's theological glorification of Moses as the perfect lawgiver.

Karen S. Feldman is Professor and Chair of the Department of German at the University of California, Berkeley. She works at the intersection of critical theory, literary theory, and philosophy, on topics related to narrative and figurality. She is author of Arts of Connection: Poetry, History, Epochality (2019), which examined the ways that narrated events are represented as connected, in texts ranging from Aristotle to twentieth-century phenomenology; and Binding Words: Conscience and Rhetoric in Hobbes, Hegel, and Heidegger (2006), which explored the figural depiction of the phenomenon of moral conscience in modern philosophy. She is co-editor of Violent Origins: Freud, Moses, Religion, with Gilad Sharvit (2018) and Continental Philosophy: An Anthology, with Will McNeill (1998).Professor Feldman is also co-editor (with Rüdiger Campe) of the Paradigms book series at De Gruyter. She has taught seminars on philosophy and cultural studies at the Europa-Universität Viadrina, Universität Potsdam, Universität Konstanz, and the FU Berlin. Previous research fellowships include a Fulbright scholarship and a fellowship from the Alexander-von-Humboldt foundation.