Looking at the picture of Hermann Cohen on the cover of his opus Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, it is a bit difficult to believe that he was a rock star. Not in the sense that he wrote brave contemporary music that spoke to the minds of the people, garnering an immense following and becoming a household name in his country, but rather that he did exactly that in the field of philosophy. Cohen (1842-1918) made his bones as a Kant scholar, attaining a professorship at the University of Marburg while still in his early thirties, exceptional by any standard and unheard of for a Jew – the Jews had not been emancipated for even half a century.
Cohen’s shift of focus to Judaism in his later life brought about a conceptual revolution in Jewish philosophy. Religion of Reason, which was published in 1919, after his death, takes the textual sources for Jewish religion and uses them as a jumping-off point for a universalistic religion centered not around an imminent God and heteronomous law, but rather morality and autonomous moral striving – a la Immanuel Kant. This new Kantianization of Judaism came as a breath of fresh air to Germany’s Jews and non-Jews alike, showing that Jews really could be good, productive, full citizens of a German state without their religion posing any conflicting “dual loyalty.” The fact that he was able to pull off such a move was all the more impressive given that Kant himself hated Judaism and considered it the very antithesis of his philosophy.
An as-of-yet unpublished article by a friend of mine poses the age-old textual problem: where does interpretation end and polemical, agenda-based reading begin? There are clearly many mutually contradictory interpretations of scripture, but often it appears as if scholars willfully cherry pick passages that they feel will support their pre-conceived notions. This can be as innocuous as the American Jewish World Service’s fixation on texts and readings that promote universal social justice, or more sinister, as in the case of Meir Kahane, who interpreted “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” as justifying blood vengeance from killers of Jews. In our case, many traditionalists have demanded of Cohen: if you can read the Bible and come out with Kant, what do we need the Bible for?
To this Cohen would respond that there are in fact several elements in his philosophy that are not found in Kant. The pre-eminence of a personal empathy with an individual other is not characteristic of the vast impersonal system of Kantian morality. Moreover, Cohen might argue, he is in good company: didn’t Maimonides, considered by all to be one of the greatest Jewish rabbis and scholars of the middle ages, manage to pull Aristotelian physics and metaphysics out of the Bible like a rabbit out of a hat?
Of course, one man’s reductio ad absurdum is another’s in hachi nami. (That is to say, what one person considers a ridiculous consequence of a position might be heartily entertained by whomever he argues with.) So I’ll put my head on the chopping block and ask: mightn’t one be justified in making the same heated criticism of Maimonides?
I hope to talk about this a bit more next week.