God in the Age of Reason

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

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This approach emphasizes the individual self, particularly the speech of the individual person, which allows for a dialogue and a living relationship with others. Rosenzweig believed that this encounter with "the other" teaches us about the nature of God because it encourages our commitment to ethical living.

In this sense, Rosenzweig is strikingly similar to Cohen. It is God's presence that inspires human beings to strive toward ethical ideals. Rosenzweig classified this experience as revelation. For him, revelation is not just a one-time moment recorded in the Bible; it is the immediate, on-going experience of God, which produces an ever-evolving and exceedingly dynamic Judaism. However, Rosenzweig's thinking is not strictly individualistic because personal relationships with God are part of the collective covenantal experience of the Jewish people. Interestingly, though this covenantal relationship demands expression in the form of action, Rosenzweig was more concerned with the experiential relationship with God rather than with the performance of deeds.

Rosenzweig's most important work, The Star of Redemption, denies traditional philosophy's argument for an abstract universal concept of God and embraces traditional Jewish language for a God who wills, acts, and is dynamic. In contrast to Cohen, the God Rosenzweig describes is not an abstract idea, but rather is an active willful agent in history, which continues to illuminate human existence.

The writings of both Cohen and Rosenzweig argue for Judaism as an ideal ethical religion, and for the role of God as a foundation for universal ethics, while arguing against conversion to Christianity, which was an appealing option for many of their peers. For Rosenzweig in particular, Christianity was so compelling that he nearly converted, yet after attending Yom Kippur services one year, he reversed his decision.

Rosenzweig realized that the Jew does not need to seek God, for he is already with God, and committed himself thereafter to recovering Judaism for himself and, possibly, for others like him. He created new approaches to adult education outlined in a short book based on his address at the opening of the Lehrhaus (a modern beit midrash, a "house of study" or institution of adult learning) called On Jewish Learning. He spoke of the birth of a "new learning," one which "no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round: From life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law…back to the Torah…From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in."

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Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

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.