#85 A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy (7)

In this Jewish Philosophy lecture, David Solomon explores the ideas and contributions of four philosophers:

  • Nachman Krochmal
  • Hermann Cohen
  • Franz Rosenzweig, and
  • Martin Buber   

who lived from the late 18th to early 20th centuries.

This post-Enlightenment period saw a movement from reason to existentialism, influenced by Kierkegaard, Kant, and Hegel.

David’s examination of these Jewish philosophers reveals:

  • Nachman Krochmal and his consideration of the religious versus the good
  • Hermann Cohen and his emphasis on a return to Jewish sources and the concepts of being and becoming
  • Franz Rosenzweig and his replacement of Enlightenment universalism with three modes of relationship between the Divine, the world, and humanity – as well as creation, revelation, and redemption
  • Martin Buber and his exploration of dialogic relationships and expressed in his work “I and Thou.”

In his discussion of these four remarkable thinkers, David provides historical background to Jewish life in Europe – including the impact of emancipation and assimilation – and how this played out in the individual stories of these figures.

This is the seventh talk in David’s eight-part series, A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy, delivered on Zoom for Caulfield Shule in 2020.



Welcome back to the seventh instalment of our journey through Jewish philosophy. Today’s talk is not a simple talk. It has a lot of material I want to cover. So, we’ll get right into it. I’m going to take us from the first part of the 19th century into the 20th century, a period which forms the core of the issues and concerns of Jewish philosophy of the last of the 20th and 21st centuries – issues that are still very much with us in the way that the Jewish people respond to the challenges brought to them by the wider paradigms of world thought, which is really what Jewish philosophy is trying to do.

As I always emphasise, Jewish philosophy is first and foremost reactive. Philosophy is the idea of how we can construct a picture of reality out of the human mind, and it responds to world challenges. So, let’s look at where we got up to – the end of the 18th century, this famous Age of Reason that we talked about with Mendelson and so on, (when) reason –highlighting human reason and rationality – almost becomes a kind of secular religion in itself. 

Kant and Hegel

If France and England were dominant cultures in world philosophy in the 18th century, then the 19th century belongs to German philosophy. The Germans took the ideas coming out of the 18th century, out of the Age of Reason, and developed them to great heights in a project which we now refer to as the great period of German Idealism. And the two big figures – and we have to talk about this for a minute – that are sitting at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century are, of course, Kant and Hegel.

It would be foolhardy of me to try and summarise Kant and Hegel in the course of half a minute, but foolhardy is my middle name, and I’m going to try and do it. For those who are a little unfamiliar with the immensely influential ideas of Kant and Hegel, in absolute summary for our purposes to understand going forward: what they’re looking for, Kant and Hegel, are what are the laws, what are the universal laws behind human reason and human rationality? How does it work? It’s all very well to talk about rationality and human reason, but what are the laws that make it work? 

So, Kant’s big idea – an immensely influential idea and in many respects we’re still living in a post-Kantian universe – is that our understanding of the world relies on categories that belong to the human mind. The way objective reality unfolds itself to us is not because of any particular essence that those objects or entities have that determine the laws by which we understand them. Everything happens in the human mind. The categories of time, space, quantity, quality, attributes – all these things happen in the mind. It’s a big shift that’s going to have a lot of implications. Kant argues that what the thing is in itself you can never really know. Everything that you know about it is all happening in the mind. Knowledge cannot be attributed directly to the entities or objects that you are experiencing. 

Whereas Hegel takes the very area that Kant says you can’t go to, and that’s Hegel’s starting point. For him, reason is a great spirit, a geist as he calls it, that is evolving through history and is revealed to humanity through history through the famous processes of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Those of you who are interested in going into the thought of Kant and Hegel are invited to walk that well-trodden path. But in essence, this is what Kant and Hegel are doing. They are attempting to determine the universal laws of reason.

Nachman Krochmal

One of the thinkers I’m going to mention today, but I can’t go into in detail – I think probably it needs a whole other talk just to go into this – but I wanted to make mention of Nachman Krochmal, who is not as well known a name as perhaps he should be. (He’s) a big name in Jewish philosophy because he’s dealing mostly in the philosophy of history. And I have mentioned Krochmal in the context of some talks I’ve given on history. Krochmal’s telling you that whereas all nations go through three basic stages – he’s very influenced by Hegel and the idea of how a geist and spirit is revealed through national histories – of birth, flourishing, and decay, the Jewish people go through four stages. They go through birth, flourishing, decay, and rebirth. The Jewish people are vouchsafed that unique quality of being able to rebirth themselves in history.

His famous book Moreh Nebukhe ha-Zeman is clearly taken as a parody on Maimonides’s book Guide for the Perplexedand so Krochmal wrote Guide for the Perplexed about the Times. Krochmal is writing in the first half of the 18th century, at a time when the world is changing, and the Jewish people are in a sense being reborn. What we see in the first half of the 18th century is the rise and influence of something we mentioned last week, which is the Haskalah – sometimes wrongly translated as the Jewish Enlightenment – where Jews are starting to discover a whole range of world culture that they are trying to incorporate into their own. 

If we have a look at this particular graphic that I’ve done here, what I want to show you is what I’m going to talk about today. I’m just going to situate Krochmal here in the first half of the 19th century. The Haskalah was in full force, and the Haskalah is going to be followed – this intellectual emancipation, if you like – throughout the 19th century by political emancipation for Jews. And that’s going to have a whole effect. 

But the three thinkers I really want to talk about today who are immensely influential in 20th century and 21st century Jewish philosophical thought are, of course, Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Buber. I really should point out that they are not the only philosophers that are wandering around, but I have to pick the three most influential to try to get to terms, in the brief time that we have, with the essence of what they’re saying. 

Hermann Cohen

So, the first person I want to look at is Hermann Cohen. And Hermann Cohen is a fascinating figure. He was, for much of the latter part of the 19th century, one of the dominant philosophical figures in Germany. And he belonged to a school which is roughly called the Neo-Kantian School. These were philosophers that took the philosophy of Kant and developed it further. Cohen’s particular idea about Kant is almost like Kant on crack. He’s arguing that nothing about that reality out there exists outside the human mind. Kant would have told you it exists and the human mind processes reality in a certain way. But Cohen was going to the other extreme saying it probably does not even exist.Everything happens in the human mind – everything. There’s absolutely nothing that we know about anything that’s outside the human mind. It’s just this is the way that the mind processes reality according to the Kantian categories. This a massive discussion and not relevant today to what I’m going to talk about, but it shows a background of someone who was deeply embedded in German idealist thinking.

And then, having been professor at Marburg and the most eminent Neo-Kantian thinker in Germany in the 19th century, in his older age – around about the age of 70 – Cohen remembers that there is a God in the world. This is, in some ways, an ironic realisation to have in the midst of this massive secular emancipation happening across Germany. But on retirement, Cohen revises all of his philosophy – a very brave thing to do – and rethinks everything. 

Cohen produced a book that wasn’t published until just after he died in the early 20th century, a famous book called Religion of Reason – Out of the Sources of Judaism. (It is) an immensely influential book – and I’m going to just pick on one point of it to show why it’s influential – that is a revision of German Idealism. Cohen is saying: well, Idealism is fine for the ideal individual, but religion is for the individual person – the individual person embedded in a reality with real existential concerns.

I should have pointed out another very big moment in European and world philosophy that happens in the middle of the 19th century due to a Danish philosopher that a number of you will have heard of called Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s shift is really what we call the beginning of the existential track of philosophy. And Kierkegaard – Kierkegaard was not Jewish, don’t get confused – is living in the middle of the 19th century and his existential revision of the dominance of Kant and Hegel’s thought goes something like this: it’s all very well for them to talk about the universal principles of reason, but what does that mean for me? I mean, Hegel’s very impressive, says Kierkegaard, but I’m a religious man. When I read the Bible, the story of Abraham annihilates me.

Søren Kierkegaard

In his famous book, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard talks about this dilemma that Abraham has, that on the one hand, he is pursuing the ethical and the moral and the good, and then along comes his God and says: I want you to sacrifice your son to me. This moment of conflict between Abraham’s pursuit of the good in a moral sense – in other words, following his own ethical and moral reasoning – versus the demands of duty made upon him theologically within the context of his belief in God, come into conflict. So, Kierkegaard shifts the starting point to the individual and their embeddedness in the world and the factuality of their actual existence. And, therefore, begins what we call existential philosophy. 

Cohen at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century is similarly revising the universal picture of Idealism to try to work out what it means for Judaism and for a person who is Jewish and wanting to reconcile all of those ideas. And what he comes up with is very profound. Cohen says to you: I have realised that on the other side – meaning, transcendentally, outside what we can know about reality from inside the human mind – whereas Kant tells you (that) you can’t know it and I was saying before it’s not even there, I’ve realized that it is there and it is God. God is the grounding of all being. 

There are only two things that exist. There is being and there is becoming. This is Cohen’s famous philosophy of correlations. God is being. God is the grounding of all existence, the grounding of all being. Humanity and the world are facets of becoming. And all intermediaries that we perceive between us and God, are facets of the relationship between being and becoming.

They’re not independent entities. Whether we are talking about the holy spirit or about the logos, or we are talking about any of the other ideas we’ve looked at, these are not independent entities, says Cohen. They are simply facets of this correlative relationship between the ground of being – which is God – and the realm of becoming, which is the world and humanity. Now that’s a tremendous summary of Cohen’s thought, but that, as we’re going to see, is going to have a tremendous influence. 

One young Jewish philosopher upon whom Cohen’s revisionist project became extremely influential was someone who I think is probably the most important – the word important is a difficult word to quantify – but possibly the most influential Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, even the 21st. (He is) someone who met Cohen, was deeply influenced by him and studied with him. He was a young man, Cohen was an old man, and he went on to write a book and to develop a series of thoughts that’s going to become overwhelmingly influential in 20th century and Jewish philosophical thinking.

Franz Rosenzweig

I’m talking of course about Franz Rosenzweig. Just Rosenzweig’s biography itself, we could talk about for some time because it’s so fascinating. I have spoken about it elsewhere, but I’ll just run over the basic details to give you an idea. We’re talking about someone that comes from a very eminent intellectual, academic Jewish family that during the 19th century had become emancipated and highly secularised. One of the things that was happening in Germany at the time, during the 19th century, was that they were saying Jews are equal, but they were not really equal. And what Jews were finding is that yes, it’s all very well to run around saying: oh, we’re equal, we’ve got equal rights (but) you don’t really get anywhere in society – you can’t get tenure and you can’t get any of the good positions and secure status in German society of the 19th century – as a Jew unless you made some form of outward conversion to Christianity.

Christianity, Protestant Christianity, was still the dominant cultural discourse of the 19th century and many Jewish families converted to Christianity. It was not so much a theological commitment, it was just something you did. In fact, these people were so secular that it didn’t even bother them to convert just for the sake of their professional and cultural status (on Facebook or whatever). 

But the Rosenzweig’s family was a family that for a long time had resisted that, although some cousins of Rosenzweig had converted. In around 1912/1913, Rosenzweig finds himself in some deep discussions with people, and he makes the decision that he can’t theologically justify being Jewish anymore – or just Jewish – and he’s going to convert to Christianity. 

But, says Rosenzweig, before I do that, I’m not going to walk into the church as a pagan, I’m going to walk into the church – into Christianity – as a Jew. Therefore, I’m going to go to shule. I’m going to go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. I’m going to make peace with my Father in Heaven and then as a Jew who’s just come out of Yom Kippur and had my sins atoned for in the traditional way in Judaism, then I’m then going to convert to Christianity and walk into the church as a Jew.

This is a very noble idea, except that Rosenzweig went to shule on Yom Kippur, he spent the day in shule in Berlin, and in that experience – which deeply affected him for the rest of his life – he realised that conversion to Christianity was not going to happen. Everything that he sought was, in fact, found and justified in Judaism. One of his fantastic quotes is that the Jew does not need to seek God because he is already with God. This is the essence of Rosenzweig’s epiphany in Berlin in a small shule on Yom Kippur of the year 1912 or 1913 – this realisation that he was already standing as a Jew in the presence of God and that everything that he was looking for was already there.

But he had only just started to develop those ideas. And then he met with Herman Cohen and Herman Cohen was teaching at a higher education institute for Jewish learning in Berlin. Cohen was already very advanced in years, but Rosenzweig became close to him and did a journey of what we would call – what Rosenzweig called – teshuva.

He was the first real baal teshuva of the 20th century. He started coming back to sources and lifestyles that were more authentically Jewish and immersed himself in Jewish learning extensively but continued to write philosophical works. The big work that emerges from Rosenzweig’s thoughts was a book that he started writing in the trenches in World War I -because he fought for the German army in World War I. In the years 1917 and 1918, he’s sitting in the trenches – being bombed by Monash probably – writing notes on postcards and sending them back home in case anything happened to him. Those notes that he wrote from the trenches formed the core – this is why Rosenzweig’s biography is so fascinating – of the book that was published as the Star of Redemption

The Star of Redemption is a massively influential book in 20th century Jewish thought. It’s a big fat book – I’ve got it in the other room, I didn’t bring it. As has been said by many people who read Star of Redemption, you have to be familiar with the whole of the German Idealist tradition and that’s a big tradition because it goes from Kant and Hegel through to Fichte and Shelling and Schopenhauer and then it gets exploded by Nietzsche. You have to be familiar with that to understand a Star of Redemption on one. But on another level, as complex as is, it’s reducible to a very simple set of propositions.

Just before I go into Star of Redemption in detail, I should also add that Rosenzweig’s biography is so fascinating because it involves the stories that I’ve mentioned and more, but apart from that, from 1921-1922 onwards, Rosenzweig started suffering from ALS, a motor neuron disease that eventually took him. He died in 1929 and for the last few years, all of his writings and all of his outputs were done by use of a device where he would indicate simply with his head to his wife which letter he wanted to have typed and so on. So, it was just an incredible story. He’s going to spend much of the 1920s working on a very, very famous translation into German of the Torah that he worked on with Martin Buber, who I’ll speak about in a few moments. 

So, what is Rosenzweig’s big idea? Rosenzweig is wanting to do – not so dissimilar from what Kierkegaard was proposing and what Cohen was also aiming toward – a revision of the universalist picture coming out of Idealist philosophy of the 19th century and replacing that universal set of propositions with a picture that took into account the particularity of the Jewish person living in the world – any human living in the world – who was attempting to understand the relationship between God and the world in the light of a universal understanding of reasoning. 

I’m going to talk about this and then I’m going to show it to you because I’ve done a graph – it’s easier to explain. 

Rosenzweig says: what’s really going on? I mean, with everything that’s been said and done in philosophy and thought and this attempt to ameliorate world philosophical thinking with Jewish reality, what’s really going on? There are only three entities – that’s all that exists, just three entities. There’s God, there’s the world, and there’s humanity – which philosophers in the 19th and early 20th centuries are still calling “man”. Don’t get upset at the word man, man is just a word for humanity. So, there’s God, the world, and man. They are the only three: the God, the world, and the realm of the human. And those three entities are intermediated by only three processes that are going on: creation, revelation, and redemption. 

This is building on Cohen’s idea of being and becoming. There are grounded entities and there are processes. And what Rosenzweig does is show you how this works. God and the world revealed to each other through the process of creation; God and the human through the process of revelation; and the human and the world through the process of redemption. And through these processes, this is really where these entities meet. God and man meet in revelation, God and world meet in creation, and the world and man meet in redemption. This is a revision of the whole of the universalist picture of philosophy from the point of view of either a Jew or a Christian, someone coming with this theological background of revelation to understand what is happening in the world. 

There is a very fascinating contrast to be made between Rosenzweig and Cohen’s project on the one hand and Krochmal’s on the other because Rosenzweig’s is notably ahistorical. Whereas Krochmal is all about historical consciousness, Cohen and Rosenzweig are kind of ahistorical. They’re looking for a universal picture, and Rosenzweig even goes further and tells you that the people of Israel are outside the whole stream of history. In that stream of history, all the nations of the world are flowing towards the end of days. But the Jewish people are outside of that. The Jewish people – just like Rosenzweig found himself already in the presence of God on Yom Kippur – are already liturgically and spiritually in the presence of God. They have already arrived at that point. It’s not the way, for example, the Rambam would say 800 years earlier that Judaism is a science that the rest of the world is trying to catch up. This is from an existential point of view. The ideal manifestation of revelation and reason is found in Judaism and Judaism in its pure sense, is not subject to historical circumstances. 

This is an influential point because – I don’t know if you heard about it – the Jewish people are going to undergo in the 20th century – after Rosenzweig – some very impactful historical processes. In the 20th century, we’ve got this thing called the Holocaust and we’ve also got the State of Israel, which are enormous, historically impactful events – and all of their attenuated details, of course. There is a sense in which Rosenzweig might have been thinking that having arrived at the 20th century (with) full emancipation, secularisation, now it’s just a case of trying to realign Mendelssohn’s project with reality and that the Jewish people can just go forward and universalise their religion. It wasn’t to be the case.

Rosenzweig was also not terribly excited about Zionism. He recognised that the Jewish people needed to find a place of safety, but he didn’t find (it in) the program of Zionism. He didn’t believe that Judaism’s answer was in finding a political status for itself in the world that would be similar to other nations. It’s the classic anti-Zionist argument. But Rosenzweig didn’t see much of the 20th century and those positions would be perhaps revised even by him today. 

So, while Rosenzweig is struggling with ALS through the twenties, he has developed a very interesting and fascinating friendship with the other big Jewish philosopher that I want to talk about coming out of that kind of emancipated – perhaps a little bit more traditional – German Jewish background of the 19th century. I’m talking about Martin Buber. 

Martin Buber

Buber’s thought is immense. Of all the thinkers I’m talking about today, perhaps Buber is the most influential. He’s influential not only on Jewish philosophy but very much on Christian thought as well. I want to touch upon Buber.

Buber, at the age of 21 was a spokesman to the third Zionist Congress, so he was already, from an early age, an ardent Zionist (from a) much more traditional background than Rosenzweig. (He was) much more learned but was more interested in philosophy than in traditional Jewish pursuits. In his twenties he discovered Hasidism. He didn’t become Hasidic, but he became fascinated with Hasidic culture and the way that Hasidic culture was able to express many of the existential ideas that were emerging in late 19th century philosophy as a result of the revisions of universal Idealism. And he was fascinated with that.

Some of you would be familiar with Buber’s writings on Hasidism and his adventures into that. He saw the Hasidic community as an ideal existential community. Some people have criticised Buber because they said that he took all the exciting and idealistic parts of Hasidism but left out some of the things that are not so savoury. Nevertheless, that was a huge part of his journey. He worked with Rosenzweig on the translation of the Torah and so on. Buber is a major figure. Buber eventually came to Israel – came to Palestine – in the late thirties and was very much around until the sixties as a leading intellectual figure.

But Buber is most famous for his book which summarises his thought. And that is the book Ich und Du – I and Thou (or) I and You. Buber would tell you: well, Rosenzweig’s picture was very clever, but there’s only one thing going on and that’s a process. And that process is the process of revelation. And revelation is a presence by which the other is revealed to you, and by which you were revealed to the other. There are two types of ways in which human beings relate to other things and other people and other things. We have a relationship that is an I/it relationship – that means if I relate to something as an ‘it’, it is an objective entity, and I can talk about it as an ‘it’ – whether it’s a person or a thing. There are many ‘its’ in our world, but true presence and true revelation only happen when we relate to things as ‘you’. Only second-person relationships – and being open to second-person relationships – reveal other and, ultimately, reveal God. Because in every second-person relationship, in every ‘you’, we get a glimpse of the eternal ‘you’.

It sounds like a very simple idea. It sounds like an idea that a five-year-old could have in the bath, but it is one of the most incredibly influential ideas in 20th century philosophy. I made a graph because I like this, and even if you don’t like it, I’ve spent a while making it, so I like it.

All right, so this is what Buber wants us to arrive at. He wants us to arrive at an understanding that our relationships with other are at the level of ‘you’, not at the level of ‘it’. Things can’t always stay at the level of ‘you’. They move in and out towards ‘you’ and ‘it’, but our ideal is to treat everything that we come across as a presence, as a revelation of other, with whom we can have this ideal relationship. That is where free will truly takes place – where we raise relationships with other to the second person. ‘You’ is the pronoun of presence, not ‘it’. I/it relationships objectify, I/you relationships reveal. 

I and Thou is not a long book. It’s an essay. You could read it in a couple of hours. It’s a beautifully written book. Over Buber’s career, he takes this fundamental idea and applies it to a great many things that are fruitful in the existential tradition – and the existential tradition means that something starts with the factuality of a person’s existence as the starting point. (It’s) not the great, big rational reasoning of Kant and Hegel. It’s very simple fact of where do I start from? What is my reality? What are the things that I’m dealing with – that we can understand philosophically? And Buber’s contribution is immense and incredibly influential – as I said, not just in Judaism, but also in Christianity. And that is why Buber found the communities of Hasidim and the Hasidic way of life so appealing. Also, it’s mystical underpinnings – and particularly the thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and so on, where people are encouraged to have conversations with the Divine on the level of ‘you’ to call God ‘You’, and to have a dialogue with God and to speak things up in God’s presence – that is the ultimate I/you relationship, says Buber. But what he wants us to do is to take that relationship and apply it as much as we can to everything that we encounter – to have second person I/you relationships. 

Buber and Rosenzweig disagreed on a great many things – not simply on Zionism – they disagreed on quite a number of philosophical positions, although Buber owes more to Cohen perhaps than he often admits. But they were great friends, and they were great collaborators. And in fact, it was Buber who read Psalms 73 at Rosenzweig’s funeral. 

The Legacy of Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Buber

So, these three thinkers that I’ve covered in extreme brevitas – Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Buber – are going to be very influential on the subsequent thinkers of the 20th century that we are going to touch upon next week as the century unfolds and raises even greater existential concerns. If we were to look at challenges – and it’s always useful to look at these philosophical ideas in terms of the challenges facing the philosophers themselves – for Cohen and Rosenzweig, the challenge is coming from the very nature of secularity itself. In an age of emancipation, in an age of rampant secularity, how can I make the factuality of my Judaism meaningful? There’s no point, says Cohen and Rosenzweig, in going over to another religion simply because it’s a dominant cultural discourse. Especially when in Judaism we already find the sources for a very profound understanding of the notion of revelation in the world and that there is a universal picture emerging from Judaism.

Unfortunately, in the 21st century, many people have – and I’m going to get in trouble for saying this – lost sight of that universal picture. I think that it would be worth us going back to look at the writings of Rosenzweig and, to some extent, Buber to understand that Judaism contains within it a spiritual discourse that is universal, that can apply to the whole world.

It is not merely the product or the parameter of a particular people. There is something in Jewish ideas about creation, revelation, and redemption that lead the world to a better place. And Rosenzweig and Buber were both very much understanding that the role of the Jewish people in the world is to reveal that universal thrust within Judaism – to bring all of the world to a better place where the presence of God is revealed both universally and individually.

I encourage you to use that summary as a launchpad and to look at Star of Redemption, look at I and Thou, and understand the importance and influence of these philosophers and how in many ways we would do well to come back and revisit them. It’s important going forward to understand that. 

I’m just going to finish off now (by) going back to the first graphic I showed you, which is the timeline, so we can understand exactly where all these thinkers are embedded. And you can see that while emancipation is going on, secular thought and science is running rampant.

We’ve got Marx, we’ve got Darwin – the world is changing. Eventually, emancipation ends up even with Herzl around about the turn of the century. But Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Buber are building a different picture. They are building a picture of a Judaism that can fulfill its ultimate mission, the mission entrusted to have Avraham and the avot, to tell the world about the presence of God.