God in the Age of Reason

Hermann Cohen and his student, Franz Rosenzweig, stressed the ethical implications of God.


Jewish thought after the Enlightenment was, in large part, a product of the Jewish encounter with modern German philosophy (particularly the thought of Immanuel Kant and Georg Friedrich Hegel). Two Jewish thinkers in particular are central to understanding the impact of German philosophy on the emergence of modern Jewish thought: Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929). 

Cohen’s view of God is of particular interest as it is quite different from the traditional Jewish conception of God. Relying largelyon traditional rabbinic sources and commentaries, Cohen emphasizes the ways in which God allows for the realization of what he calls the “ethical task,” the attempt to improve existence in accordance with moral rule, and thus to lessen human suffering. This notion of God shifts the focus of religion; its primary purpose is to motivate humans to build an ethical society.

god and ethicsCohen discusses this concept in connection to the covenant God established with Noah after the flood. This covenant is distinct from the covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai, in that it is universal and stresses that all of humankind was created in the image of God.

Cohen is more interested in the symbolic role of God vis-à-vis humankind, rather than the role God plays in the lives of individuals. Cohen’s idea of God is, in principle, humanistic. Alternatively, one might understand that, for Cohen, to be a humanist is to be religious. The human desire for universal ethics is the foundation for the belief in God, for it is God that motivates the realization of morality.

For Cohen, God is an idea, or a concept. Rather than describing God as an existent being or as a force behind creation, as did his predecessors, Cohen emphasized the element of God that is a kind of “spirituality” or disposition toward other human beings. This demands the kind of universal ethical concern, which in turn allows for the possibility of a moral world. Cohen’s philosophy is thus less concerned with the Jewish people in particular and more interested in the role of Judaism in the world and the Jewish duty to teach universal ethics. In his well-known work, The Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, Cohen writes, “the general love for mankind is the messianic consequence of monotheism, for which the love of the stranger paved the way…. The Torah granted equal rights to a non-Jew under the Jewish law and state.” (Religion of Reason, p. 327)

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Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi was ordained by the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and earned her Ph.D. at the Jewish Theological Seminary and serves as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President's Scholar at HUC-JIR. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, Rabbi Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, and their three children.

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