#86 A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy (8)

In this final installment of his lecture series on Jewish Philosophy, David Solomon explores the philosophical contributions of six remarkable Jewish figures from the twentieth century:

  • Rav Kook
  • The Nazir
  • Emmanuel Levinas
  • Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik
  • Yeshayah Leibovitz
  • Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Watch the Zoom lecture here https://youtu.be/FQwN1_NKPOY

In addition to outlining the philosophical ideas of each of these figures, David reviews some of their shared intellectual themes, including their discussions on Jewish ethics, faith, and revelation, and the importance of moral relationships with others.

As always, David places these Jewish philosophers in their historical and cultural contexts, reviewing the impact of developments of the century on their thoughts and writings. In particular, he discusses the effect of the two seismic events of the twentieth century: the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

Explaining the impact of philosophers like Rosenzweig, Kierkegaard, Buber, Cohen, and Heidegger on the work of these six thinkers, David also discusses the personal devastation experienced by Levinas over Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism.


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


Today I’m going to do something a little bit ambitious. I’m going to try and deal with the 20th century and it is ambitious because I’m not entirely sure how coherent we can make this. But I’m going to try and pick out what I feel, and what other scholars feel, are the major themes of 20th-century Jewish philosophy.

Historical Background

In order to do that, we just have to talk for a minute about the 20th century itself. Some of us might even remember the 20th century. It wasn’t too long ago and it was, as you know, dominated from a Jewish history perspective by two overwhelming events one of which was the Shoa, the Holocaust that happened in the middle of the century, followed almost immediately, in relative terms, by the establishment of the State of Israel.

These two events are inescapable in terms of their influence on all aspects of Jewish thought and culture. And really when we look at those two events, the Holocaust and the State of Israel, we look at them both in the lead-up to them and in the response to them as a way in which we can access what has happened in 20th century Jewish Philosophy.

As I said at the very first talk, and always reiterate, that in many ways Jewish philosophy is a reactive exercise, that it is responding to challenges that come from outside. And because philosophy deals with what we can know about the world through the human mind then, for the most part, those challenges come from other intellectual ideas and how Judaism responds to them. That’s Jewish philosophy. 

But in the 20th century, the events are so existentially overwhelming that the challenges come from a great variety of places. And here we can just bear in mind the distinction between what we might call Jewish philosophy and what we might call Jewish thought. I’m focusing more on figures that are recognised within philosophy generally.

In order to do that, let me show you roughly what I’m going to talk about today. I’ll just show you the timeline of what I want to speak about today. Here’s the 20th century, and I’m going to come back to this particular diagram in a few minutes, but I’m going to focus mostly on Levinas, Soloveitchik, and Sacks as belonging to the second half of the century.


In the first part of the century, I want to deal with those issues separately. I want to talk first about the rise of the Zionist struggle which was in many ways consuming much of the Jewish world. We don’t see the Zionist project, the idea of restoring a Jewish homeland to the Jewish people in the land of Israel. We don’t see that producing many philosophical products until the second half of the 20th century. But there is something definitively to be noted about that, – and that is that if you were to come back in 500 years’ time and see who was the dominant thinker in terms of influence of that period, you would almost certainly go with a figure like a Rav Kook. 

Although Rav Kook is not really considered a philosopher per se because he’s not working in the milieu classically of philosophical discourse, but Rav Kook read philosophy and he read just about everything right up to his own time, which meant right up to Nietzsche. As I pointed out in a previous talk, really the 19th Century belonged to German philosophy and its tremendous adventure following Kant into transcendental idealism. You had Kant, you had Hegel. We talked about Hegel’s idea of historical consciousness and the spirit evolving in history. And then Fichte, Shelling, Schopenhauer, and then the whole thing got exploded in Nietzsche. Rav Kook had read Nietzsche, he’d read everybody. 

For Rav Kook there was really only one thing going on. Remember we spoke last week about what’s going on – and for Buba it was revelation. There’s only one thing going on for Rav Kook and that is redemption. All of those philosophical discussions are really mute no. We are in a framework of time where the redemptive idea in Judaism is being revealed on the historical stage, and that is the project that everyone needs to engage in. And ,of course, Rav Kooks tremendous insight into the fact that the collective of the Jewish people is responsible for that redemptive and religious exercise of establishing a state in the land of Israel and, for that purpose, he incorporated religious and secular. Everybody was involved in that project and Rav Kook was famous for finding sparks of holiness in everything in the world – even in other religions and faith systems. 

Rav Kook’s great student, Rabbi David Cohen – known as the Nazir because he was a Nazarite for much of his life – is a philosophical figure. And I just want to touch on him very briefly because David Cohen was a philosophy student with a lot of questions right up until the time of the First World War. He went to Switzerland to meet Rav Kook. He had a lot of questions and it was just because he was in the room next to him in the hotel, (that he) heard Rav Kook saying the Shema in the morning and that was enough to change David Cohen’s life towards becoming completely enamored with his teacher and an expounder of Rav Kook’s ideas on a philosophical stage. 

The Nazir’s basic idea is that – and we can see this earlier if we think about the Kuzair and other thinkers earlier within whose tradition Rav kook sits in – Rabbi David Cohen’s idea is that Judaism has its own unique spiritual logic that doesn’t follow the logic of Greek philosophy and subsequent to it, which the Nazir says is really a visual logic. Whereas the unique spirituality of the Jewish people is really emergent from an audio logic about what we’ve heard, not what we can see.

That’s a totally different way of knowing things. And, of course, they’re the ultimate spiritual logic of the Jewish people is embodied in the concept of nevua, the concept of prophecy. And so in his famous work, Kol HaNevua, The Voice of Prophecy, the Nazir is calling for an predicting a return of the prophetic dimension to the Jewish people, now that we are coming into a revealed, redemptive state. 

There’s no question that for Rav Kook and the Nazir, the Zionist struggle and the establishment of the State of Israel was God’s supernatural redemptive intervention into history and a restoration of the authentic original spirituality of the Jewish people and that we will see the return of nevua or prophecy. So really, if anything was to come out of that whole project, it’s that philosophy itself will be overtaken by the full revelation of God in history. And Rav Kook was completely convinced of that; the Nazir was convinced of that. The Nazir lived until the 1970s. He saw the establishment of the State of Israel and that idea has never left the adherents of Rav Kook.

But we have to deal with this big shadow that sits on the 20th century and we have to realise that the entire German project of idealism and philosophy, as impressive as it was, ultimately failed. It failed because after more than a century of impressive intellectual achievements, German culture and German society then perpetrated the greatest crime against humanity that history has recorded. And if anything that is going to show tremendous failure of any ethical system that might have arisen out of that discourse on being, which is a failure. And let me get a little bit more specific about that. 

Edmund Husserl

Some of you would be aware that we talked about Hermann Cohen last week. We talked about the whole of the neo-Kantian enterprise that continued throughout the 19th century and then started to combine with some of the existential insights that we spoke about last week through Kerikegarde and so on. By the time we get to the earlier 20th century, the dominant philosopher in German society is Jewish. It’s Edmund Husserl. 

Husserl is not recognised so much as a Jewish philosopher, but more of a philosopher who was Jewish by birth. And his Husserl is the father of an entirely new philosophical movement called Phenomenology. A big word, no reason to be scared of it. Phenomenology looks at states of being. In other words, it’s taking the neo-Kanntian idea about how do human beings, from within themselves, create reality. And combined with the existential aspect of what it is to be a human being in the world, phenomenology starts to look at states of consciousness and states of being and how they construct reality.

Husserl has a student and his student is Martin Heidegger. And in the 1920s, Heger produces this massive magnum opus called Being and Time, Sein und Zeit, which is an overwhelmingly impressive and influential textbook in 20th century philosophy. Make no mistake, it’s very difficult to move anywhere without making some reference to Heidegger’s insights. Incredible. This is not a talk on Heidegger, and I’m not going go into Heideggeruian thought right now but it’s an incredible exploration of the concept of being in relation to, particularly, time as the kind of like the guiding parameter by which we can understand different states of the human being.

His first edition of Being and Time, Heidegger dedicated to his teacher. But by the time you get to 1933 and the Nazis are already in power and Husserl has had to leave his position – as all Jews in tenured academic positions had to leave. It didn’t matter how big a philosopher or influential you were, when the Nazis came to power, if you were Jewish, you were out. Heidegger reprinted Being and Time without the dedication to his teacher.

The first thing that Heidegger did when he became the new Head of Philosophy at Fryburg in his inaugural speech, he got up and told the students that the best thing that you can do for yourself is to join the Nazi party. And throughout the 1930s and even into the 1940s, Heidegger was in communication with Hitler and he was saying things like: whereas you, Hitler are the political of the German people, I am its Shepherd. I am its intellectual and spiritual guide. 

Heidegger was a Nazi. He became a Nazi. And even though he was still regarded as a major force in philosophy after the Holocaust, he never really came to terms with that and never really apologised for it. It’s not that Heidegger was pushing buttons that Auschwitz himself, but he was regarded as the leading intellectual, philosophical figure of Nazi Germany.

One young man who came from Lithuania to Germany to study with Hussel at Fryburg is a very important person we’re going to look at for a few minutes as a response to the Shoa. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how clever you are, Jewish philosophy has to respond to an event like the Shoa. How do we even begin to incorporate such a thing? 

Emmanuel Levinas

And the first person I want to look at in that regard is possibly the deepest thinker in Jewish thought after the Holocaust, and that would be Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas is regarded as a world philosopher, but he had a lot to say about Jewish thought as well. Levinas was born in Lithuania, but he came to Germany as a young man to study with Husserl and Heidegger. He was very impressed with Heidegger.

But you can imagine that when Heidegger announced himself as a Nazi – and subsequently Levinas himself, who became a French citizen of the late 1930s and fought for the French Army and spent most of World War II as a prisoner of war – was not impressed. In fact, he said it’s possible to forgive many Germans a great many things, but it’s very difficult to forgive Heidegger. Heidegger disillusioned an entire generation of people, especially his Jewish students.

Levinas, in his famous book Totality and Infinity – that he wrote after the war – is trying to work out what it was that Heidegger had left out of his comprehensive discussion of being. In doing so, Levinas is trying to ground philosophy itself to create what he called a ‘first philosophy’ that underpins in any other intellectual consideration in philosophy. And that grounding, for Levinas is ethics. And an ethics, particularly, that emerges from relationship with other. That is the thing that is missing from he’s very impressive discussion of being is the concept of other, and the meaning of existence in terms of the ethical transcendence of the other.

The other, for Levinas, and we’d already looked at this concept of the other last week when we talked about Buber and the dialogic relationship of revelation that happens with the other. Levinas’ great insight is that the other is fundamentally irreducible. The other is a self whose otherness is infinite. It’s beyond the ability to reduce any individual to an object. It is beyond totality. The other is beyond any totalising systems. You can never truly know the other itself, because the other is essentially an irreducible infinity and, in a sense, our encounter with the other, who is an irreducible self, is an encounter with God. The other is the face of God in many ways.

This connects with Levinas’ whole idea of building this existential first philosophy on a very foundational existential experience of what it is to encounter another human being face-to-face. The face-to-face encounter becomes the paradigm for Levinas, to build an entire ethical system. And he talks about the idea of fundamental hospitality. This is an amazing phenomenology of hospitality as Derrida later called it. He takes the very simple idea of hospitality, the idea of the face-to-face encounter with all of its primary qualities, and builds an existential system based on that. 

And out of that comes leaving us as a concept of responsibility. It’s not just that I am respecting the other, that I am not killing the other, or not reducing the other to an object, but I also have a responsibility towards ‘other’. Even the victim has a responsibility. In thinking about all these thinkers, we can see how they can reflect all of each other. (It’s) an interesting idea about the victim having a responsibility to the other. It echoes a very famous statement of Rav Kook – in terms of victimhood and other states of mind – whereas, instead of complaining about how dark it is, create light is the ultimate paradigm of the righteous person. 

Levinas talks about a responsibility for the other, and how, if we can understand the irreducibility of the other ten then the awful evils of totalitarianism that we saw dominating much of the 20th century would not emerge. It’s a bit like Crescas, philosophy should not be about the love of knowledge, but about the knowledge of love. And anything that’s not emergent from contemplation upon the relationship with other is not within the philosophical discourse of humanity that’s going to lead anywhere productive. 

Levinas writes that his work is influenced by Rosenzweig and others who we have discussed, but don’t underestimate the importance of Levinas in later 20th-century thought. But I’m going to move on because I could talk about Levinas a lot and I’m holding myself back because I want to talk about some other people.

There are a number of responses to Shoah that we don’t have time to talk about it. We could talk about Emil Fackenheim and Avraham Joshua Heschel, who are also very important thinkers in the later part of the 20th century or the second half of the 20th century. But I want to focus on someone who is extremely influential within their own millieu, and that is Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, often seen as the leading figure of what has come to be known in the 20th century by that awful name “Modern Orthodoxy”. 

Soloveitchik, interestingly enough, although he comes from one of the great rabbinic families of Europe, nevertheless studied philosophy as a young man. He went to Berlin. He was in Berlin at the same time that they were all in Berlin – him and Nechama Leibowitz and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and anyone who was doing anything interesting was hanging around in Berlin and Soloveitchik was as well. 

He wrote a PhD on Hermann Cohen. And if you recall our discussion on Hermann Cohen from last week, the whole idea correlationism, being and becoming, the great neo-Kantain interpretation of Judaism and relationship with God that’s so inflamed Rosenzweig and so on.

Joseph Ber Soloveitchik,

I want to focus on Soloveitchik because it’s extremely influential, particularly in Jewish religious philosophy going forward in the late 20th and 21st centuries. But the essence of Soloveitchik’s idea – and you’ll see how Cohen’s influences in this – is that Soloveitchik points to this interesting discrepancy – apparently – in the Torah. In the Book of Genesis the account of the creation of Adam happens twice. There are two Adams created. I mean, it’s the one Adam, but it’s related differently – the different ways in which Adam is created and the different charge he is given. 

Soloveitchik focuses upon this and talks about two different types of human beings, two different types of ‘Adam’. The first he calls the majestic Adam, the Adam of science, the Adam of the world, the universal Adam, who is given the creative task of dominating the world and possessing it, and utilising it. This is humanity in its most glorious Star Trek form. It is evolved. It is technological, it is scientific, it is open.

And the second is what Soloveitchik refers to as covenantal man. That is the human being that enters into a relationship of faith with God as a result of the existential loneliness that human beings ultimately feel and that level of unfulfillment that they have in a state which does not…

Kierkegaard talks about a leap of faith, but Soloveitchik’s idea is more to do with a necessity upon the existential loneliness of the individual vis-a-vis the pressure to be the majestic human being and causes human beings to enter into a framework of faith and a covenantal relationship with God. Those of you who are into the thought of Soloveitchik will probably not like the way I’m expressing it, but what we can see in Soloveitchik is this kind of unique synthesis of neo-Kantism and existentialism and Torah and orthodoxy and so on.

The key point emerging from Soloveitchik is that the halachic individual, the individual that observes halakha as a living way, as an existential process, allows eternity – which is resonant in the eternal collective of the Jewish people and the Torah – to emerge into being. And the observance of halakha is like an apparatus that allows that eternal dimension to be expressed in the world creatively. So as the individual observes halakhah, they are, in a sense, creating themselves. They’re creating their own humanity.

That places Soloveitchik in a unique position to be able to talk about the relationship between these two epistemic realities of science and halakhah and so. But Soloveitchik also responds to the Holocaust and in an interesting way – not in a way that’s easy to access, but opens the door for a conversation. Levinas said that the Holocaust was the end of any attempt to explain evil, the end of theodicy.

Soloveitchik says something similar, but he puts it in theological terms when he talks about this concept of hester panim – that is, that there are times in history where God, in a sense, abandons his direct supervision of the world and hides his face from the revealed covenantal relationship with the Jewish people. We don’t know why that happens, but we can recognise the pattern, the divine pattern that happens in that.

That’s fascinating because Levinas has talked about how the face-to-face encounter is the basis of any ethical system. And Soloveitchik after the Holocaust is talking about the concept of God’s face being concealed. Meaning that, in a way, humanity had become theologically objectified in relation to God. And it’s a very difficult thing to try and analyse. 

We cannot explain the holocaust and philosophy failed to explain the Holocaust. Soloveitchik ascribes that to some kinda overarching theological framework in connection with that. Very few people have tried to marry the two main streams of 20th century thought – or projects of 20th century Jewish life – about the state of Israel and the Holocaust, except maybe for a very contentious figure like Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Leibowitz would argue, for example, that it’s irrelevant to give any kind of contemplation to the Holocaust. Judaism is about faith. Actually, before I talk about Leibowitz, I’ve got a picture I want show you. These two Adams, they both connect with faith. But Adam one, who is the majestic (one) and whose primary project is creative, whereas covenantal man, his energies are expressed in community. It is the pressure to reconcile these two concepts of Adam that creates the interesting space inside Soloveitchik’s perception of the world. 

But Leibowitz’s idea of faith is not a creative one. Leibowitz’s idea of faith is that faith is a commitment. It’s a commitment to obey the demand of God. That conversation with God is only ever a one-way conversation. It is absolutely useless to try and say anything about God. Anyone who says anything about God is really saying something about themselves. There’s nothing we can say about God. Leibowitz famously said to someone who said that they lost their faith in God after the Holocaust: well, that shows that you never actually believed in God, because faith has got nothing to do with your rationalisation of what God should and should not be doing. If you are born into the factuality of an existence where there is a God who demands from you to keep halakhah, that’s what you do. 

Leibowitz was very insistent on the separation of state and religion. He was extremely liberal on a range of political issues, but in terms of his religious philosophy, there’s no discussion about why we keep mitzvot. There’s no discussion about why we express our Jewishness in religious terms. That’s just a commitment that we make because God demands it of us. You can run away and ignore that commitment, but if you are born into the Jewish people, that’s the call that’s upon you. You don’t do it. You don’t do it. But if you do it, you do it. You don’t talk about why you do it, that’s just what you doing. It’s very interesting. He’s not for everybody, Leibowitz’s philosophy, but it has a certain logic to it. 

Having felt I inadequately discussed Soloveitchik, I’m going to come back to him in a second because I want to talk in the remaining minutes about the other figure that I think is going to be considered for a long time as a big influence in the late 20th and 21st century – that’s someone who’s still alive – and that is Jonathan Sacks. 

Jonathan Sacks

Jonathan Sacks’ thought and writings and insights are extensive across a vast range of concerns, but I want to try to whittle it down to what his essential contribution is. And the more I look at Sacks, the more it seems to me that sex is taking from quite a number of different earlier philosophies. He doesn’t always say that.

Jonathan Sachs is, in many ways, not a terribly original thinker. He is a he’s a thinker who has a phenomenally excellent way of expressing ideas. There’s no question that he is a marvelous articulator of thought and perhaps there’s no better articulator of thought in the Jewish world at the moment. And he does have some original insights. Sacks is trying to build not just an ethics for the individual, but a social ethics for the world. And Sacks has this idea of Torah and hochmah – that hochmah Hoai is like the the aspiration to science and knowledge generally of humanity and to universalism and Torah is the particular discourse of faith and particularly the faith of the Jewish people. I’m not sure I can see the difference in Jonathan Sacks’ notion of Torah and hochmah and Soloveitchik’s idea of the first and second Adam. They seem extremely similar to me. 

Jonathan Sacks has written many books. The one that I want to focus on, which is the one I’ve been focusing on for a while whenever I think about Jonathan Sacks, because I can’t get beyond that in a way. And that is one of his earlier books, which you’d be familiar with, which is the book from the early two thousands called The Dignity of Difference, which I think really stamped Jonathan Sachs as a phenomenally original thinker within the framework of Jewish philosophy.

In The Dignity of Difference – and remember that The Dignity of Difference whose impressive subtitle is How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations – was a very contentious book that was basically banned by the ultra-Orthodox community, primarily because of a line that Sacks has in that book where he says: in heaven there is one truth, on earth there are many truths. And that was not an acceptable statement for the Manchester Beth and other ultra-Orthodox organisations. How could you say that on earth there are many truths? That gives validity to other spiritual systems, and validity to other religions. Sacks had to change that line – quite an incredible episode. 

In the course of that discussion, what Sacks demonstrates is that difference in the world has a purpose. That purpose, the purpose of difference between different peoples, not just as individuals, but as collectivesm with their own ideas about the world, their own ideas about God, their own cultures, their own ways of looking, has a purpose. And it is a tremendous purpose because it is the purpose of allowing human beings to express this idea of dignity for the other. (It is) building on Levinas and other thinkers of the 20th century who talked about the concept of otherness. It’s difference that allows us to express that level of dignity and that level of respect that we can have for the other. 

You can’t have respect for the other if everyone is the same. This is an inversion, amazingly – going right back to the beginning of this series – of Plato. Plato will argue that the ideal realm is up there, but the reason difference exists here is because of plurality and corruption and that starts the whole journey in post-platonic philosophy about how we get from the ideal one to this corrupt plurality down here. Whereas Sacks is telling you that the plurality and corruption down here is the very point because that is the place where dignity of the difference of other can be expressed and can be emerged. In that dignity and in that expression, is an understanding of the transcendence of the divine. 

In the course of that, Sacks talks about the elucidation of faith. And faith for Sacks is the foundation of what is going to build a system of social ethics for the world. Unlike Leibowitz who tells you that faith is just a personal commitment to be religious. That’s Leibowitz idea. But for Sacks, faith is a far deeper and more complex and active arrangement. Sacks tells you that Jews are not optimists. There’s no way you can read Jewish history and come out as an optomist. But the Jewish people are hopers. The Jewish people brought the idea of a belief in a better world, of a redeemed world, hey brought this to humanity. 

Tomorrow is the 17th of Tamuz and we once again begin the cycle of the three weeks. The three weeks of the mourning of the destruction of the Temple is part of the engine of what the Jewish people are striving and yearning towards – a better and redeemed world. That is the active faith of the Jewish people that can contribute to the building of a better world between all faith communities and between all individuals. It’s a very deep message. It has, of course, echoes from a whole range of philosophers that we’ve looked at. Some of it is not always entirely original, but as I said Sacks has a very unique way of articulating all this.

 Ben adam lechavero and ben adam lamakom

I want to just finish off by showing how in the 20th century we can order those different philosophers because they have different emphases. One emphasis is trying to comprehend the idea of the transcendent, the idea of a relationship with God, a covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people and the world and the Torah, and so on. And in that category, we could put someone like Hermann Cohen, we could put Rosenzweig, we could put Soloveitchik who see within the performance of mitzvot and engagement with the unique covenant requirements of being a Jewish person in the world, the continuation of a creative process. You are creating yourself and you’re creating the world with God through the Torah.

The other group, which would include Buber, Levinas and, to an extent, Sacks are looking at relationship with other – what we might call ben adam lechavero rather than ben adam lamakom. They’re looking at the horizontal relationship with other – not so much as a creative process but as a core of creative purpose. 

And for this I have I have done a quick diagram to indicate that. This is the kind of thing that I wanted to indicate – that these are the twin themes that emerge from 20th-century philosophy that are dealt with in a variety of ways. I know that this discussion is not really comprehensive, it can’t go into great detail, but really I’m just dealing with the outlines here of what might help people to order their understanding of the way that Jewish philosophy in the 20th century has unfolded. It is still going. We still have this inherent need to try and reconcile these two grounded facts of Jewish existence. 

On the one hand, a relationship with God, because if the Jewish people are concerned with one thing, they are concerned with the idea of God in the world. And what Jewish thought and Jewish existence in the world has to contribute to relationship with other. These two towering events, the establishment of the state of Israel and the and the Shoah have never been properly reconciled and are emergent in the world as a calling on the Jewish people to reconcile them. 

I think going forward we will see that at some point the Jewish people need to realise – just as the world needs to realise that it has a responsibility towards the Jewish people – that the Jewish people have a responsibility towards the world, not just to their own self-protection and survival, which Fachenheim might have argued is the one commandment to come out of the Holocaust to survive, which unquestionably is a paradigm of the continued existence and protection of the state of Israel. But beyond that, the Jewish people have a collective responsibility towards the world to bring the world to a greater understanding of the relationship of other, so that the atrocities of the 20th century will never be repeated.