Idealism in Ashes

Reviewed by Jerome E. Copulsky

German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses
by Michael Mack
University of Chicago, 2003, 229 pages.

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tudents of modern Judaism have long acknowledged the significant impact of German philosophy on the development of modern Jewish self-understanding. Throughout the nineteenth century, German Jews bent on modernization argued that the negative attitude towards Judaism reflected in the writings of Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel was based on a misunderstanding of the true essence of Judaism. At the same time, Kant’s description of religion as moral and rational provided the intellectual framework for the theology of the Reformers. One might go as far as to assert that the liberal tradition in nineteenth-century German Judaism tried to show that it was more Kantian than Kant, an effort that culminated in the philosophical theology of Hermann Cohen, who articulated Judaism as a “religion of reason” and proposed the fundamental compatibility of Deutschtum and Judentum.
Even the post-liberal trend in Jewish thinking could not escape the shadow of Kant, as the famous debate between Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig over the nature of Jewish law, or halacha, demonstrates. For even while defending the centrality of halacha to Jewish life, Rosenzweig felt the need to respond to Kant’s critique of it. According to Kant, Jewish law is heteronomous, meaning that it originates from a source outside the individual’s self-legislating will. And since for Kant all morality is such self-legislation, halacha is not moral. Moreover, for Kant true religion is at bottom indistinguishable from morality, and therefore the adherence to halacha is, for the Kantian, a false form of religion. Rosenzweig rebutted these Kantian accusations by stressing how halacha is actually not at all heteronomous, but rather a subjective “response” to revelation, which provides the “landscape” of Judaism. Even Rosenzweig’s “return” could not ignore Kant’s shadow.
And not only Kant. Hegel, too, posed a challenge to the possibility of a modern Judaism. Hegel maintained that Judaism posited an absolute separation between spirit and world, God and man; it was a one-sided religion of sublimity, representing a necessary but incomplete stage in the development towards the absolute religion, Christianity, which apprehends the unity of God and man in Christ. With the advent of Christianity, Judaism’s world-historical mission had run its course. Judaism was now an anachronism, Jewish religiosity an attachment to an outmoded form of consciousness. Despite this view that Judaism had been overcome in history,Hegel insisted that the Jews—as human beings—ought to be granted civil rights in the modern constitutional state. Hegel’s philosophy spurred the early practitioners of Wissenschaft des Judentums not only to clarify the historical record, but also to illuminate the ongoing Jewish contribution to world history, and thereby to prove the indispensability of Judaism for the modern age. Moreover, Jewish speculative idealists such as Solomon Formstecher, Samuel Hirsch, and Nachman Krochmal drew upon the language of Idealism to promote Judaism as the perennial “religion of the spirit,” in contradistinction to the pretenses of Christianity.
More recently, some scholars have begun to question the influence of modern philosophy on Judaism and to assert the fundamental Jewish difference from Western modernity. Others, such as Nathan Rotenstreich and Yirmiyahu Yovel, have scoured the texts of Kant and Hegel in order to detail their problematic treatment of Judaism and the Jews. These two scholarly tendencies meet in Michael Mack’s challenging new study, German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses,a slim but dense volume which is sure to delight and provoke in equal measure.

Jerome Copulsky is director of the Jewish studies program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

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