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.

Cohen 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)

In spite of Cohen’s foundations in rational philosophy, many of his students explored the nonrational elements of God. Franz Rosenzweig, who edited and titled Cohen’s Religion of Reason after Cohen’s death, believed that any argument in defense of Judaism necessitates a departure from purely rational thought. Fueled both by optimism and existentialism, Rosenzweig moved beyond rationalism and universalism and returned to particular and personal notions of the experience of God in the world. He described his intellectual approach as “a new thinking,” in which the basis for one’s ideas is one’s actual life, as oppose to abstract thinking about life.

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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