Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Hermann Cohen was a German Jewish philosopher who lived from 1842-1918. Cohen, the son of a cantor, received a traditional Jewish education and studied for a time at the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary with the intention of becoming a rabbi, but he gave up this plan to study philosophy at the universities of Breslau and Berlin, receiving a doctorate from the University of Halle. Cohen’s place in the history of general philosophy is as the founder of the Marburg school of neo-Kantianisne, in which the general Kantian position is subjected to critique and a reworking.
The question of Cohen’s understanding of Judaism is complicated, his philosophical universalism tending to be in conflict with his fulsome acceptance of the great value of the Jewish ethical stance and the importance of the traditional Jewish practices. In Cohen’s earlier work, God is seen as an idea produced by the human mind to give coherence to man’s ethical strivings.
The story has often been told of how, when Cohen delivered a lecture in which he described God in very abstract terms, a pious Polish Jew declared: “Fine. But where is the Ribbono Shel Olam [‘Sovereign of the universe’, the name used in the prayer life of the devout] in all this?”
In his later life, however, Cohen moved closer to the traditional Jewish conception of God. Cohen took issue with Kant’s view that Judaism is an obsolete religion. On the contrary, Cohen affirmed, Judaism’s teachings regarding ethical monotheism are as relevant and as needed as ever they were. Cohen’s thought is universalistic in scope, for all his insistence that God has a special relationship with the Jewish people. The sufferings of the Jews, far from being evidence that God has rejected them, is evidence of His love for them since God loves those who suffer.
Yet Cohen’s understanding of the doctrine of the messiah is in universalistic terms. The attempts by various communities to achieve better human conditions will lead eventually to the emergence of a world in which the ideal will triumph of social justice for all human beings. Cohen’s opposition to Zionism was based on his universalistic, Messianic thought, which he saw as frustrated by a particularistic movement like Zionism.
Cohen’s influence on contemporary Jewish thought is more indirect than direct. Only one of his works has been translated into English and none into Hebrew and, after the establishment of the State of Israel, his anti-Zionism has become totally unrealistic. Yet his reaffirmation in philosophical terms of the significance of the Jews as the bearers of ethical monotheism has taught many Jews how to live with dignity as Jews and, at the same time, as citizens of the world.