Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

by Robert Erlewine

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Grappling with the place of Jewish philosophy at the margin of religious studies, Robert Erlewine examines the work of five Jewish philosophers—Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Joseph Soloveitchik—to bring them into dialogue within the discipline. Emphasizing the tenuous place of Jews in European, and particularly German, culture, Erlewine unapologetically contextualizes Jewish philosophy as part of the West. He teases out the antagonistic and overlapping attempts of Jewish thinkers to elucidate the philosophical and cultural meaning of Judaism when others sought to deny and even expel Jewish influences. By reading the canon of Jewish philosophy in this new light, Erlewine offers insight into how Jewish thinkers used religion to assert their individuality and modernity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253022394
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/08/2016
Series: New Jewish Philosophy and Thought
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 246
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Robert Erlewine is Associate Professor of Religion at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is author of Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason (IUP, 2009).

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Judaism and the West

From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik

By Robert Erlewine

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Robert Erlewine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02239-4


Exemplarity and the German-Jewish Symbiosis: Hermann Cohen on War and Religion

The Spurned Master

The work of Hermann Cohen offers an important place to begin in our exploration of how Jewish philosophers responded to the world religions discourse, to the unraveling of the once shared understanding of Europe's foundations as resting on the legacy of a synthesis of ancient Greece and ancient Israel. Hermann Cohen occupied a unique and controversial position in German culture as the only unbaptized Jew to hold a chair in philosophy prior to World War I, and he played a quite visible role in the cultural and political disputes of the day. Reflecting on Cohen's influence, Leo Strauss (1972) wrote, "I grew up in an environment in which Cohen was the center of attraction for philosophically minded Jews who were devoted to Judaism; he was the master whom they revered."

And yet due to a variety of reasons, many not philosophical but rather sociopolitical, neo-Kantianism in general and Cohen's thought in particular were eclipsed soon after his passing in 1918. The "war" generation held significantly different sensibilities, both religious and philosophical, from those of Cohen and his generation. Its members increasingly viewed as absurd Cohen's rationalist ideal of harmonizing Judaism and Germanism; they understood Judaism and Germanism to be incompatible and even categorically different conceptual structures. Cohen was painted as someone who muddled bourgeoisie sensibility and Judaism; his vision of Judaism was seen as lacking authenticity.

Politically, Cohen's adamant rejection of the growing movement of Zionism placed him at odds with subsequent developments in Jewish thought. Indeed, a major disagreement between Cohen and later Jewish thinkers concerned the role that Jews were to play in German culture. Cohen's "Deutschtum und Judentum mit grundlegungen Betrachtungen über Staat und Internationalismus" [Germanism and Judaism with Foundational Observations about the State and Internationalism] (1915), in addition to supporting Germany's war effort in World War I, elaborates a notion of German-Jewish symbiosis. This text elicited a great deal of criticism from both Zionists and antisemites, whose critiques overlapped significantly. Both groups believed that Jews could never be accepted in German culture and that a cultural symbiosis between them was untenable. Even the non-Zionists among the following generation neither endorsed nor found credible the strong priority given by Cohen's generation to a cultural symbiosis between Germanism and Judaism.

Prominent in the critique of Cohen's argument was a sense of the futility of dialogue as a means for emancipation and assimilation. This line of criticism found particular resonance in the wake of the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel. Those who take this view at present see Cohen as either a tragic or hopelessly deluded figure, his claims for a German Jewish symbiosis as "obsequious apologetics"; they characterize Cohen as willfully repressing the "xenophobic, racist, and antisemitic elements of German political culture" or as "act[ing] blindly in his German patriotism." This line of critique resonates with Gershom Scholem's famous claim that although "the Jews attempted a dialogue with the Germans starting from all possible points of view and situations, demandingly, imploringly, and entreatingly, servile and defiant, with a dignity employing all manner of tones and a godforsaken lack of dignity," it was naught but a "cry into the void." From this perspective, Cohen did not merely seek in vain for dialogue partners among his Protestant contemporaries, but he tragically embraced an insufficiently critical nationalism for the very nation that would give rise to Nazism a few de cades after his death.

This way of viewing Cohen is anachronistic, deriving much of its force by projecting the Holocaust back in time and interpreting philosophical debates under its dark shadow. As Wendell Dietrich has correctly pointed out, "Cohen should be permitted to stand for what he stands for, no more and no less. In his time, a variety of historical options were still open for the development of the German nation and the situation of the Jews in Germany." As we see later, Cohen does problematically privilege Germany for its special spiritual kinship with Judaism, giving rise to a bitter historical irony. However, what is too frequently neglected in this line of critique is that Cohen's claims are as much constructive as descriptive (or perhaps more so) and that his writings are rhetorically marshaled to counter the rising tide of antisemitism, of which he was very well aware.

Cohen offers a vision of Judaism as a cornerstone of the West; it exemplifies — indeed, is constitutive of — Western civilization's highest values. Juxtaposing Cohen's war writings — namely "Über das Eigentümliche des deutschen Geistes" [On the Particularity of the German Spirit] (1914) and "Deutschtum und Judentum" from 1915 — with his more methodologically focused writings on religion, Der Begriffe der Religion im System der Philosophie [The Concept of Religion in the System of Philosophy] [1915] and the introduction from Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism (1919), highlights the multiple levels through which Cohen attempts to demonstrate the symbiosis between Judaism in German culture. As this analysis makes clear, Cohen is no mere harmonizer. To be sure, Cohen, like many Germans of his time, maintains German culture as the pinnacle of rationality and ethics and thus considers it to be the epitome of European civilization, of the West. However, reading these texts together will allow us to trace how Cohen's thought is not merely compatible with Germanism but also that Judaism inhabits and even constitutes the foundation of Germanism.

Cohen relies on the notion of exemplarity — demarcating a particular identity or a pair of identities as manifesting the most fully developed instance of a universal value — to argue that all peoples and cultures can participate in Germanism and Judaism. Cohen thereby disentangles culture from religion and race. In this same vein, he argues that the ideational cores of Judaism and Germanism are profoundly and inextricably bound up with one another. Cohen shows great ingenuity in using one of the tropes of cultural imperialism — that Germany is the pinnacle of Western culture — as a means to undermine racialism. However, this approach — the privileging of certain identities against all others — can only be justified through circular reasoning.

To make his claims, Cohen combines two different strategies with which later thinkers will wrestle and develop. He both seeks to ground his thought in an overarching philosophy of the West, a philosophical Geist of European civilization, and to engage and critique the comparative study of religion through the use of philosophy. However, where Cohen uses both strategies, later thinkers — at least in the works we investigate here — will privilege one path over the other (Soloveichik will be the exception, in that he, like Cohen, uses both methods, albeit to very diff er ent ends). Indeed, although Cohen's thought is roundly found insufficient or no longer relevant by later thinkers, his work provides the point of departure — whether explicitly or tacitly — for those philosophers discussed here. That is, it is essential to begin with Cohen to understand the subsequent accounts of Buber, Rosenzweig, Heschel, and Soloveitchik regarding the relationship between Judaism and the world religions discourse. Not only do these later thinkers consciously see themselves as following in Cohen's wake, but also in many ways, given his towering presence on the philosophical, German, and Jewish cultural scenes, as well as the rigor and ingenuity of his thought, they could agree or disagree, appropriate or repudiate, but they could not ignore his work.

"Deutschtum und Judentum"

"Deutschtum und Judentum" is a notoriously difficult, dizzying, even esoteric text. Cohen's war time writings play on the notion then prominent in German nationalism that Germany was the educator of Europe and thus the world. However, in the process of "establishing" German cultural and ethical superiority over the other nations of Europe as a justification for its role in the Great War, he simultaneously disentangles culture from race and secures a prominent place for Jews in German culture.

Throughout his war time writings (and other later works) Cohen uses broad, vague terms such as "Germanism" and "Judaism," but not to designate anything either metaphysical or empirical. Although he speaks of a German and Jewish spirit, Cohen is certainly not invoking anything metaphysical such as Hegel's Geist, nor is he referring to race or ethnicity. Commentator Steven Schwarzschild helpfully points out that too often people "take it for granted that by the term 'Germanism' [Cohen] meant to refer to empirical Germany, or at least to actual, historical German culture — and then [proceed] to refute his thesis of an identity or symbiosis by simply pointing to the blatant discordancy between the two entities." Such a view, which fits quite nicely with the typical critique of Cohen, fails to take into account Cohen's philosophical methodology, which never simply accepts the state of affairs or entities like a nation as they are, but instead seeks to idealize them and envision what they could be, a method Michael Zank refers to as a "hermeneutics of optimization."

Indeed, when Cohen speaks of Germanism or Judaism he is using his methodology of idealization. That is, Cohen is at once positing an ideal — what Germany ought to be — and then uses it as a standard by which to mea sure the deficiencies of the present. Cohen uses this idealizing — and mystifying — method to reconstruct the German-Jewish symbiosis. According to Cohen, the spirit of Judaism and the spirit of Germanism are bound together by their profound rationalism. Instrumental in Cohen's account of this link — and indeed, its historical realization — is the famed German Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn. However, Cohen does not celebrate Mendelssohn for his philosophical achievements, but instead for reforming Judaism by exposing it to the spirit of Germanism. Cohen writes, "From the unity of his German and his Jewish essence accrued in him not only the force, but also the restraint and the modesty, to help the German Jews, to raise them into the sunlight of German culture and literature, and to free them from, and inoculate against, the jargon of World Judaism." Cohen's German chauvinism is clear here in that it is not just any language that is "to be the means salvation [Erlösung] from the Ghetto." Rather, the "German language" is "the remedy of Judaism."

As Cohen understands it, by writing in German and engaging in the broader culture, Mendelssohn facilitated the cultivation of Germanism for the Jews of Central Europe. Thus, Mendelssohn's legacy frees — or at least instantiates the process of freeing — Jews from the fetters of backwardness and makes Germany the spiritual homeland of all Jews. It is not that German culture implants something new in Judaism; instead it helps regenerate the rational elements of Judaism that had been suppressed and atrophied by years of persecution: it helps restore rationalism as the proper core of Judaism and allows the jettisoning of superstition and mysticism as aberrations and pathologies of persecution. Cohen is offering a normative vision of both Judaism and Germany here. He insists that au then tic Judaism is rationalist Judaism, a Judaism free of any mystical or superstitious commitments. In turn, au then tic Germanism is cosmopolitan, the language and culture of the highest human ideals, of the culture of Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven. If there are tensions between extant instantiations or iterations of Judaisms and Germanisms, their ideal forms are perfectly compatible, indeed complementary.

In Cohen's estimation Mendelssohn's most significant contributions were his translations of the Pentateuch and the Psalms. His use of German language did not introduce anything foreign, but rather the "German words and writing and at the same time the German religiosity flowed over into the Jewish, and both recognized each other in their affinity" [beide erkennen sich in ihrer Verwandtschaft.]" In less obscure language, Mendelssohn's translations of the Pentateuch and Psalms brought together two diff er ent thought worlds through language, revealing that these two seemingly different worlds are actually conjoined in their depths or, at least, express a profound complementarity.

Cohen seeks to account for this deep "affinity" between Judaism and Germanism by means of the relationship of both cultures to Greekism [Griechentum]. Not only does the complementarity of the thought worlds of Germanism and Judaism come to light through German translations of the Hebrew Bible, but more significantly, Cohen argues that Judaism and Germanism are profoundly linked by means of sharing a relationship with Greekism. In regard to the connection between Judaism and Greekism, Cohen celebrates the diasporic existence as bringing new life to Judaism. He writes, "The new freely willed exile in Alexandria lifted Israel to its world mission." Indeed, Israel's peculiarity [Eigentümlichkeit] is tied exclusively to its world mission, not to its power. Cohen mentions "the Alexandrian Jew, Philo," who in his attempts to blend Judaism with Platonism paved the way for Christianity by introducing such terms as Log os, which serves as a mediator between God and humans. Cohen claims that Philo, in regard to his beliefs and writings, is more of a follower of Plato than a Jew. Nevertheless, although Greekism had a role, is even a "fundamental source [Grundquelle] of Christianity," it is essential to recognize that "Judaism is the main source [Hauptquelle] of Christianity." And Christianity is a key element of German identity, because Germanism is defined by its particular brand of Christianity, Protestantism (i.e., Lutheranism). If Judaism is the main source of Christianity and Christianity is constitutive of Germanism, then it stands to reason that Judaism is not only inextricably bound to Germanism but is one of its most primordial sources.

However, before we delve into this foundational relationship, it is useful to turn to "Über das Eigentümliche des deutschen Geistes," a piece of war time literature that Cohen wrote one year before "Deutschtum und Judentum." In this text, Cohen asserts that there is a special affinity between the Germans and the Greeks, a particularity [Eigentümlichkeit] that marks both the Greek and German spirit as distinct from others: This shared particularity is, paradoxically, their universality. That is, the two spirits are bound up in modes of thinking whose classical expression may be associated with specific geo graphical locations and particular cultures, but whose validity is universal; it is applicable beyond temporal and spatial boundaries. Indeed, it is precisely through their universality and accessibility to other cultures that their respective spirits transcend historical and cultural specificity, a feature that distinguishes them from all other national spirits.

According to Cohen, Germany and Greece share a "universalism" in which other nations can partake or even express to a more or less adequate degree. However, it is the purity or perfection of the universality embodied by Greece and Germany that distinguishes them from all other cultural or spiritual forms. It is precisely this universalism — rooted in science — that Cohen claims distinguishes Greece from "Egypt and Babylon" even though the "the Greeks had learned much from the Egyptians and from the Babylonians." If Greece, this embodiment of occidental rationalism, did in fact borrow from and thus is indebted to the wisdom of the Orient — the religions of the ancient Near East, Egypt, and Babylon — such borrowings did not have anything to do with its essence. Thus, Cohen is critiquing, at least tacitly, the claims of those taking part in what Suzanne March-and refers to as "the furor orientalis." This movement, taken up by those coming after Cohen to challenge the liberal priorities of his generation, sought to relativize and de-center Greece as the spiritual center of the West. Its proponents attempted to do so by demonstrating, through archaeological and philological methods, that other nations such as Babylon and Egypt had achieved great accomplishments before Greece and therefore most likely influenced it. However, at least according to Cohen, it is not Greece's age that merits distinction, but rather that Greece, and Greece alone (at least in the ancient world), was able to achieve a particular sort of universality, a universality that is an exemplarity. It is important to note that Cohen's defense of Greece is bound up with a notion of exemplarity, a notion whose universality is due to reason and ideas, not language and race.


Excerpted from Judaism and the West by Robert Erlewine. Copyright © 2016 Robert Erlewine. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Exemplarity and the German-Jewish Symbiosis: Hermann Cohen on War and Religion
2. Symbol not Sacrifice: Cohen’s Jewish Jesus
3. Fire, Rays, and the Dark: Rosenzweig and the Oriental/Occidental Divide
4. Redeeming this World: Buber’s Judaism and the Sanctity of Immanence
5. Prophets, Prophecy and Divine Wrath: Heschel and the God of Pathos
6. Cultivating Objectivity: Soloveitchik, The Marburg School, and the Religious Pluralism

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author of The Promises and Limitations of Interfaith Dialogue - Paul Mendes-Flohr

A veritable tour de force and will certainly be greeted as a seminal contribution to the study of modern Jewish thought.

author of The Invention of Jewish Identity - Aaron Hughes

An important study that provides a good overview of some of the problems and growing pains inherent to modern Jewish philosophizing. Taken as a whole, the book provides an excellent introduction to modern Jewish philosophy.

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