A Jew of intellectual substance? He must be German.

The title of this post comes from the following piece in Paul Johnson’s “History of the Jews” (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1988, Paperback Edition, p. 405): “…it was not merely intellectual habits Jews shared with the Germans: there was intellectual substance too.

In my post “Once a Jew, oiveys a Jew” I said: “For a Jew, to be a Jew was something special, but to be a German Jew was superlative.” What the enlightened Jew (maskil) loved about the German most of all was his rational spirit. Mind, Reason and Spirit were terms for the same intellectual substance. The maskil drank deep of the nectar of Kant, and of  Hegel – the philosopher of Mind, of Reason, of Spirit. For the German and the  maskil, there was a rational solution to all social problems. I have created the impression that the maskil considered Kant and Hegel to be his forerunner. But not so, according to Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), Professor of Philosophy at Marburg University and one of the founders of Neo-Kantian philosophy.  In his Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, 1919, Cohen (I am quoting Paul Johnson’s assessment of Cohen)

“argued forcefully that Judaism was the first religion in which the essential insights of what he called the ‘religion of reason’ were discovered, but  that it had no monopoly of the formula…Of all the modern nations, he argued, Germany was the one where reason and religious feeling were easiest to reconcile, precisely because Germany with its philosophical idealism, its reverence for pure religion and its ethical humanism, had as it were, been anticipated by Jewish history…The German spirit was infused with Jewish ideals. They were behind the victory of the Protestant Reformation” (Paul Johnson’s “History of the Jews”, p. 405)

I hate quoting from secondary sources; I’d like to read Cohen’s Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism but this pensive volume is so expensive and difficult to find in a library in my corner of the world (the East coast of South Africa).  Having said that, I trust that  Paul Johnson has got Cohen’s thought right. The question now is: Is Cohen’s thought right? What does he mean by  “religion of reason”? Cohen was heavily influenced by Kant. Cohen tweaked Kant. When you tweak Kant you get  neoKantianism. If you’re a neo-something you’re a tweaker of that something. (Another example, Darwin tweakers (if not Darwin tweeters) are neoDarwinists. The neoDarwinist’s motto is “tweak and you shall find”).  All neos-whatever are obviously also heavily influenced by whatever or whoever they tweak. The issue is that “religion of reason” is not a Kantian term at all. Nor is it in Hegel. Hegel wrote much about the relationship between reason and religion (there’s reason in religion), but I don’t think he would have agreed that reason is a religion – Cohen’s “religion of reason”.

Cohen believes that the Tanakh is the very Word of God and that Ethics is grounded in divine revelation. How then does he reconcile his view that ethics is based on divine revelation with Kant’s very German view that ethics is grounded in reason? For Cohen, the Torah Jew, not only religion but reason itself is grounded on the presupposition of Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God…” This presupposition is antithetical not only to the French Enlightenment (horrid atheists!) but to the German Enlightenment as well, and by extension to the Jewish German Enlightenment – the Haskalah another bunch of infernal atheists, but worse because Jewish ones).

Furthermore, I don’t see how philosophical idealism and ethical humanism (Kant and Hegel) contributed anything to the Protestant Reformation. Did Kant and Hegel shine a torch into the dogmatic dungeons of Rome? Yes, they did. Did this newfound light influence the Protestant Reformation? I don’t see it. What I do see is that philosophical idealism and ethical humanism turned many away from one of the foundational truths of the Christian religion, namely, Repentance (that is, turn), which, of course, is a very Judaic concept as well. It was not a new awareness of REASON that impelled the Protestant Reformation – even if this is true of Liberalism in the Church; there was something much more potent that compelled the Reformers than Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes “Phenomenology of the Spirit/Mind”. That something was Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) of which the two great presuppositions are 1. Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God”, and 2. John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Logos.” Logos, of course, is much more than God’s mind or his word: it is his Person. The Reformer’s position was that God reveals Himself through written words (scripture) and not through the Phänomenologie des Geistes. Geistes means “mind” as well as” spirit”; in French,  esprit also  means “mind” or” spirit”. This double meaning may help  explain – what to an unenlightened person, and to me, may appear confusing if not silly – Cohen’s “religion of reason.”

Cohen died at the end of World War I (1918). He probably would have had a less elevated impression of German “religious feeling” if he had spent some time in Buchenwald and lived to tell the tale.

I have been using the term maskil (enlightened person), which derives from the Hebrew haskalah “enlightenment.” There is another maskil,  unrelated to enlightenment, which appears in the headings of a few of the psalms; for example, “To the choirmaster: according to Lilies. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah; a love song” (Psalm 45). Maskil, here, refers to a particular poetic or musical structure. More than that we do not know. In this maskil of Psalm 45 appear the words “in Your majesty ride on victoriously
for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness.” Enlightened maskils are seeking for truth, but what is often missing is righteousness  and meekness. All three are attributes of the King. He’s not like ordinary kings (and many maskils) who want all the pomp and show – an” emaskilation” of the Kingdom of  God. After healing all who came to Him, Jesus ordered them not to make Him known (Matthew 12:15). Jesus said to Pontus Pilate, ““My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). The Kingdom of God is completely different to the kingdoms of this world. Martyn Lloyd Jones says:

“While  the world is indulging in its power politics and its clashings of empires and nations and wars and all that it reveres in that respect, this other kingdom has been coming in and being introduced, and it’s so different. And that’s why you get the sarscasm: ‘This carpenter, a king? Behold your king!’ They don’t understand it; of course, they don’t, because the characteristics of this kingdom is truth and righteousness and justice…and order.”

Sin is disorder, chaos. But the powerful and the clever of this world don’t understand this. Sin has only one concern: “What do I want, what will I get out of it, what will please me, what will give me pleasure, what will give me glory? But no peace. Strife, unforgiving hearts, envy, restlessness –  the Wandering Jew and the wandering German. Their attitude is not beattitude:

Blessed are  the poor in spirit, for  theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the  meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and  thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons  of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:3-11).