A valiant attempt to provoke philosophical questions about identity and purpose in unlikely hotspots.
Over the course of a few years, Fraenkel (Philosophy and Religion/McGill Univ.; Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy, 2013, etc.) took philosophical conundrums outside the confines of academia to test whether questions about morality and politics taught by Plato and Maimonides could be relevant to people in enduring conflict—e.g., Palestinians and Israelis, orthodox practitioners both Muslim and Jewish, Afro-Brazilian youth, and indigenous Mohawk. Between 2006 and 2011, Fraenkel, who is Jewish and speaks Arabic, held workshops among these groups, and he chronicles in abbreviated essays how the discussions proliferated, with himself constantly taking on the role of Socratic interlocutor. At his seminar at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, he discussed how the “examined life” advocated by Socrates in Plato’s Apology can apply to notions of justice authorized by Islam or Judaism. In Makassar, Indonesia, the author stimulated conversation about democracy—a rather new concept in that once-authoritarian, Muslim-dominated country—and whether it is just a Western import. Among a group of Hasidic Jews in New York City who were questioning their childhood faith, Fraenkel read 11th-century Muslim thinker Al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error, in which the author describes his own loss of faith. Reading these texts, such as Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed, is prohibited in their community, and thus offers the students the thrill of leading a “double life.” In Brazil, where teaching philosophy in high school is now mandatory, Fraenkel plunged into received notions of justice and equality in a deeply unequal nation. Among the Mohawk of the Akwesasne reserve, near Montreal, the author tried to endow his students with tools for discussing how to reconcile tradition and modernity and what it means to “live well.” Above all, the author endorses the questioning of “bonds of authority” and “inherited beliefs.”
Fresh, iconoclastic, stimulating debates.