Modernity raised serious challenges for traditional conceptions of God. Philosophy, science, a new concern with the self, feminism, and many other modern developments and values have led modern Jewish thinkers to reassess their views of the Jewish deity.
Post-Enlightenment Jewish thinkers presented modified conceptions of God that attempted to reconcile modern philosophical trends with Jewish tradition. These figures tended to stress human liberty and the ethical aspects of God. Solomon Formstecher (1808-1889) conceived of God as the spirit of the world, a concept derived from Hegel. God is completely free, and as freedom is a precondition for moral activity, God is the perfect ethical being. Leo Baeck (1873-1956) presented Judaism as, essentially, ethical monotheism, suggesting that the belief in one God–Judaism’s fundamental innovation–is equivalent to the belief in a single source of moral law.
Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) was also, originally, concerned with the ethical implications of God. In his early rationalistic thought, he presented God as the “idea” that guarantees morality. Cohen’s later work, however, was more traditional from a Jewish point of view, and he became more concerned with the reality of God and less concerned with the “idea” of God. Cohen’s students, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1919) and Martin Buber (1878-1965), eschewed Cohen’s reliance on reason and rooted their philosophies in the experiential.
According to Rosenzweig, God cannot be known through rational inquiry. Rather, God is encountered existentially. These encounters amount to personal revelations. Whereas Rosenzweig believed that these direct revelations are the source of one’s knowledge of God, Buber believed that one comes to know God through one’s relationships with other people. Buber’s classic work I and Thou describes the two types of relationships one could have. The I-It relationship is characterized by, among other things, utility. When one uses something or someone for practical purposes, one is engaged in an I-It relationship; this is also true when one describes, categorizes, or refers to a thing or person through third-person language. The I-Thou relationship, however, is relating for its own sake. It is characterized by equality, openness, and genuine encounter. God is the ultimate “Thou,” and we relate to God whenever we engage in an I-Thou relationship.
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