Philosophy of Judaism

Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism.
by Hermann Cohen.
Translated, with an Introduction, by Simon Kaplan. Introductory Essay by Leo Strauss. Frederick Ungar. 489 pp. $15.00.

Modern philosophers of Judaism have always had to face a dilemma. If they follow closely the most prominent strands of Jewish tradition, elucidating underlying concepts and revealing connections, then they act as historians of Jewish religion, but they do not create Jewish philosophy. If, on the other hand, they choose to reshape a major portion of Jewish thought and practice—that which they regard as the essence—into a systematic religious philosophy, they lay themselves open to the charge that theirs is not the true Judaism; it is the imposition of a foreign system of thought which cannot possibly encompass the rich diversity of historical Judaism. Scarcely a single creative Jewish thinker has been able to avoid this latter critique—certainly not Hermann Cohen, whose magnum opus after more than fifty years has at last been translated faithfully into English.

Cohen was born in 1842, the son of a cantor in a small town in central Germany. After a brief period of study at the rabbinical seminary in Breslau, his interests turned to philosophy, leading him to a long and successful teaching career at the University of Marburg. Within a short time, he was given the rank of full professor of philosophy, an extraordinary achievement for a Jew during the Second Reich. While at Marburg, Cohen first gained a reputation as an admiring but critical interpreter of Kant. Later he developed his own neo-Kantian system, attempting to overcome the problem of the “thing-in-itself” which, according to Kant, must forever remain unknown. In the beginning he devoted little attention to Jewish thought and affairs, though he never made any effort to hide his Jewishness. It was only as a result of the anti-Semitic agitation, which after 1879 reached into the most prestigious intellectual circles, that Cohen began to assert his identity as a Jew. It took another twenty years until he set out to deal systematically with Jewish thought, and not until the final period of his life, when after his retirement from Marburg he taught at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, did he formulate his philosophy of Judaism comprehensively, as it appears in this volume. The book was completed shortly before his death in 1918 and published a few months later.

Students of Jewish thought disagree regarding the extent and significance of the change which Cohen's thought underwent between his Marburg and Berlin periods. It is certain, however, that during most of his career Cohen was foremost a neo-Kantian philosopher whose God was an idea necessary for understanding the relationship between physical and moral reality, the capstone of a philosophical system. Judaism was of no direct significance for his thought in those days, least of all its traditional religious categories of creation, revelation, and redemption; sin, repentance, and forgiveness. But during the last two decades of his life it is religious thought that came to the focus of his attention. While not dethroning philosophy, it demanded a role which was in no way subservient to it.


In formulating his philosophy of Judaism, Cohen was determined to relate his own view of Judaism to the given tradition. When his contemporary Moritz Lazarus wrote his The Ethics of Judaism, Cohen attacked him mercilessly for merely organizing data without providing a philosophical frame-work. He himself wanted to avoid that shortcoming while at the same time remaining within the bounds of historical Judaism. His solution was to present a religion of reason, i.e., one that was philosophically grounded but which drew support from selected sources of both the biblical and the rabbinic traditions. In practice this meant the explication of particular texts within the logically sequential exposition of a philosophy of Judaism.

Cohen's first concern in his final work is to secure the domain of religion and to assert its independence from ethics. He does so by differentiating the ethical “I” in which every person is an example of humanity from the religious “I,” which represents the individual in his concrete particularity. Religion alone pays heed to this latter aspect of the self and—here Cohen anticipates Buber—to the relationship between the “I” and the “Thou.” The role of God is also different in each instance. For ethics He is the guarantor that human moral aspiration will not be in vain; for religion He is the source of individual redemption.

The God of Jewish religion, as Cohen here understands Him, is not properly called “one,” but rather “unique,” and Cohen goes to great lengths to support this view of monotheism from traditional sources. Consistently deriding any form of pantheism or mysticism, he declares that God is apart from the world; nothing can be compared to Him, no descriptive attributes properly applied. He alone is being, while men and nature are mere becoming. The relation of God to the world is therefore that between what already is and what has yet to be fully realized. Cohen represents the origin and the continuous renewal of this relationship by the traditional concept of creation. But the human being is not merely a creature, he is specifically a rational one and his reason demands a special category of relation. Following medieval Jewish philosophers, and especially his favorite Maimonides, Cohen argues that God is the source of human reason and that revelation, properly understood, is God's awakening of reason in man; it serves as the basis of God's communication with him. Thus revelation, along with creation, “correlates” the unique God with His creature man. For Cohen, this link of reason represents itself in moral terms. God's holiness means that God is the archetype for human conduct. It becomes man's infinite task to emulate this holiness through continuous commitment to moral action. Serving God, therefore, means concern for one's fellow-men both in their individuality and as representatives of humanity. For Cohen, who espoused democratic socialism and pointed out its roots in the Bible, the basis of this concern is poverty and the undeserved suffering which it engenders.

Compassion for the suffering of the poor, richly illustrated by texts from the Hebrew Prophets, leads Cohen to a consideration of the special relationship of Israel to its God, and it is suffering which becomes the key term of this relation. God loves Israel as He loves the suffering poor, for Israel is destined to suffer on their account. In loving God as the moral ideal, Israel committed itself to the messianic vision of moral perfection and took upon itself the role of the “suffering servant.” Thus Israel has ever been the messianic people whose imperative lies in striving toward the fulfillment of the divine ideal (represented in the final chapter by shalom in its double root meaning of peace and perfection). Apart from personal considerations, it was this conviction that Israel's burden was messianic suffering which forced Cohen to decry Zionism as an ideology that sought “happiness” for the Jews along with the other nations of the world. Ironically, such a goal to Cohen's mind had to represent the worst form of assimilation, a betrayal of Jewish messianism.

Yet as significant as the universal ideal is for Cohen, a very large portion of this book is taken up with the religious life of the individual Jew. Among the Prophets, it is Ezekiel whom Cohen singles out as introducing a new and central element into biblical Judaism: the sin of the individual for which he alone stands responsible before God. Cohen differentiates this idea sharply both from earlier Hebrew conceptions and from the Christian notion of original sin. Liberation from sin becomes possible through repentance which leads to God's redemption of the individual and his reconciliation with himself. This is Cohen's interpretation of Ezekiel's “Cast away from you your transgressions, wherein you have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit” (18:31). The new “I” that is formed sets itself the task of holiness which, though infinite in its goal, is not a labor of Sisyphus. Self-sanctification is achieved even in a present moment; it is for Cohen what Judaism means by God's forgiveness of sin. The Day of Atonement serves him as the symbolic framework in which individual sin and its redemption point toward the messianic and universal redemption of mankind. Other fundamentals of Judaism are likewise made to fit the general interpretation: immortality, in his view, becomes the soul's survival within history through the merit it has gained in pursuing the moral task; Jewish law is seen as a symbolic means to redemption, Jewish prayer as the language of the correlation between God and man.


Cohen's reputation has been tarnished over the years because of his anti-Zionism and because of the similarities he noted between Judaism and Germanism. But his antagonists have not always been completely fair. Cohen's view of suffering as essential to the religious identity of the Jew is not popular in an age which has witnessed undeserved, seemingly meaningless Jewish agony and destruction on such a horrendous scale. The model of the Israeli “fighter” seems to many much more attractive and even moral than the Diaspora model Cohen presents. And from the vantage point of today, Cohen's faith in Germany can easily be declared naive and misplaced. Yet it is a mistake to condemn the man's work as a whole because he—like so many others—was blind to the continuing force of anti-Semitism and to a form of Jewish realization possible only within the Jew's own land. He was certainly not, as has sometimes been charged, an assimilationist, but rather the advocate of a religious form of Judaism, stringent both in its ethical imperatives and in its call for a Jewish religious “isolation” to preserve and advance the Jewish teaching.

The historical significance of Religion of Reason is evident in the influence it exercised on later Jewish thinkers. Nearly all who succeeded Cohen drew upon its ideas even while they sought to go beyond it. Franz Rosenzweig, Cohen's student for a time, was deeply influenced by his mentor's concepts of creation, revelation, and redemption, though his own existentialist stance would not allow for an ever-present bridge of reason between God and man. For Martin Buber, Cohen's understanding of the religious transformation of “the next man” into the “fellowman” became basic to his own interpersonal religious philosophy, though he transformed Cohen's God from “idea” into “Eternal Thou.” Leo Baeck's thought was likewise closely related to that of Cohen, though he too went beyond its rationalism-moving from Kantian imperative alone to a dual concept of mystery as well as commandment. Finally, Mordecai Kaplan has also gone to Cohen for inspiration, some years ago presenting an English epitome of Cohen's work. Kaplan's functionalism, however, if in some respects analogous, again represents a departure from Cohen, in this case not toward existentialism or a veneration of creation's mysteries, but rather in the direction of American pragmatism.

Quite apart from its seminal impact on the course of 20th-century Jewish philosophy, Religion of Reason still today, and in the perspective of fifty years, remains an astonishing achievement. The basic concepts of Judaism are all present here—even those which seem furthest removed from the consciousness of secular men. And yet the power of Cohen's mind has woven them into a single philosophical web. He demands allowance for much reinterpretation of texts and religious imagination, but ultimately he asks no major sacrifice of the intellect. To be sure, Cohen fails to encompass the fullness of Jewish reality with in the bounds of a single system, and he fastens upon those elements and interpretations which he finds most congenial to his own cast of thought. But in the end, it remains remarkable how much of Judaism he is able to contain within the limits of philosophy.

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