Modern Jewish Thinkers

The emancipation of Jews in Western Europe was a lengthy process that had started as far back into the history, as in the mid-17th century, and attained an exponential momentum from the late 18th century onwards. It involved the gradual secularization of European Jewry, on one hand, and the sociopolitical/empowerment of Jews, on the other. The process was made possible by the discursive weakening of Christianity, the increased importance of Europe’s largest towns, as the centers of science and trade, and the growing popularity of the ideas of Enlightenment/Rationalism through the specified historical period. There were many different qualitative aspects to the process in question. As Bregoli and Francesconi pointed out: “Modern Jewry was shaped by a ‘constellation of processes’… demographic growth and migrations, nationalism, legal emancipation, secularization, and the erosion of traditional forms of communal and religious authority” (235). Probably the most notable of them had to do with the fact that, as time went on, Jews were beginning to play an ever more important role within the Europe’s intellectual domain – the development that was predetermined by the Jewish intellectuals’ realization that Judaism is, in fact, fully compatible with the Western philosophical/theological tradition.

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One of such individuals was Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) – a Jewish-German philosopher, known for the sheer progressiveness (as for the 18th century) of many of his viewpoints. Mendelssohn contributed rather substantially towards helping his compatriots to become emotionally comfortable with the idea that by trying to adapt to the sociocultural realities in Europe, they did act in perfect accordance with the main conventions of Judaism, which according to the philosopher represents the example of a truly “rationale-friendly” religion. In this respect, Greenberg came up with the insightful observation: “Emancipation ideologues viewed Mendelssohn as the great progenitor of the generation…

To them, Mendelssohn was the sole figure responsible for introducing Jews to a culture of historical change and regeneration” (40). In particular, Mendelssohn used to stress out the importance of learning “technical sciences” by Jews, as the foremost precondition for them to be able to attain social prominence. At the same time, however, he never ceased to advocate the idea that Jews must adhere to their cultural and religious traditions, as something that would guarantee the population’s long-term competitiveness. Hence, the philosopher’s insistence that to be considered virtuous, a Jewish person must not question the Talmudic provisions: “Mendelssohn explained that the Jew was not to explore why God prohibited eating milk and meat together. God did not make the reasons for His commandments available, through revelation, for man to probe; the Jew needed to know only that God commanded the obligation” (Greenberg 36). This explains why Mendelssohn is often referred to as the “philosopher of Jewish ambivalence”.

Salomon Formstecher (1808 – 1889) used to promote the essentially pantheistic idea that the God resides in the so-called “world-soul” – a divine realm brought to life by the elusive and yet thoroughly objective unity between the spiritual and material emanations of the deity’s endless existence as “thing in itself”. Nevertheless, it takes a person of great wisdom to recognize that there is indeed such a unity, because to a layman’s eye there appears to be an unbridgeable gap between “nature” (physical world), on one hand, and “spirit” (spiritual world), on the other. According to Formstecher: “Nature was unconscious and followed laws of necessity, while spirit was conscious and aligned with the ideals of freedom. Nature moved in circles, ever repeating and reproducing itself, while spirit moved in a line, ever developing itself anew. Nature manifested itself as complete, while spirit presented itself as ever-striving towards realizing the ideal of freedom” (Greenberg 141).

This partially explains the person’s outlook on the highly dualistic nature of man, as a simultaneously “beastly” and “divine” creature, with the “ability to reconcile the spirit-nature duality in terms of spirit, and to participate in raising the realms of nature and spirit back to the realm of the world-soul” (Greenberg 141). Formstecher believed that the true significance of Judaism should be discussed within the context of how the God strives to reach out to humanity. The reason for this is that, as opposed to what it is the case with Christianity and Islam, the concerned religious paradigm does not consider one’s biological (natural) predispositions “sinful”, which in turn makes it consistent with the dialectical (cause-effect) principle of reasoning – the concept synonymous with the notion of “God’s will”.

Nevertheless, being concerned with preserving “sacred knowledge” (about the existence of the earlier mentioned unity), Judaism had to protect its purity from the external influences. Hence, the significance of Christianity and Islam, as perceived by Formstecher – both of these religions serve the purpose of transcribing the most important of God’s messages to humanity with these religions’ functions, in this respect, being essentially instrumental: “Christianity and Islam served as bridges to bring Judaism to the pagan world – while protecting Judaism from the dangers of contact with the pagan mind” (Greenberg 143). It is understood, of course, that such Formstecher’s idea called for the eventual reconciliation between the three monotheistic religions.

Solomon Steinheim (1789–1866) was one of the most prominent Jewish theologians of the era. He is now primarily known for having applied an extensive effort into conceptualizing the main differences between the heathen sense of religiosity and the Judaic one. According to Steinheim, whereas pagans draw their divine inspiration from observing the marvels of nature, the Jews get in touch with the divine by coming to realize that the God is to be sought beyond the framework of dialectical logic: “According to paganism, all effects had causes and the deity was the ultimate cause. According to Judaism, God created the causal sequence itself” (Greenberg 213). As Steinheim used to think of it, this alone elevated the Judaic religious paradigm above those of the gentiles. However, it was specifically the particulars of Judaic revelation, which Steinheim considered to be the clearest indication of Judaism’s theological superiority.

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The reason for this is that, according to the concerned theologian, while appearing “illogical” on the outside, this revelation correlated perfectly well with the God’s desire to educate people while endowing them with much existential autonomy. In this regard, Greenberg noted: “Revelation, for Steinheim, was characteristically by other-than-reason. It was dramatic and communicated through speech. It belonged to a territory which man did not know by himself and which he could not produce autonomously” (215). At the time, the Christian response to such a point of view, on Steinheim’s part, proved to be cautiously neutral. After all, Steinheim’s theological argument did appear to be consistent with both Catholic and Protestant outlooks on the essence of divinity. Nevertheless, the theologian’s insistence on the supremacy of Judaism (as a direct pathway to God) was not well taken. One of the reasons for this is that ever since the beginning of the 19th century, the intellectual and religious domains in Europe (especially in Germany) began to grow increasingly anti-Semitic once again.

Assessing Steinheim’s revelation-related claim from Christianity’s modern perspective will prove somewhat challenging, because there can be as many different (and even mutually incompatible) points of view, in this respect, as there are Christian denominations. Nevertheless, it is possible to confirm that the adherents of ecumenism in Christianity would be likely to find such a claim thoroughly plausible, not the least because it implicitly promotes the idea of God’s “singularity” – there can be many religions by only one God. At the same time, however, the affiliates of the “traditional” denominations in all three Christianity’s branches (Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodox) would be driven to deny the validity to Steinheim’s idea about the significance of revelation – all because it presupposes that Jesus Christ was merely a prophet and most definitely not the “Son of God”.

In essence, Martin Buber’s (1878 – 1965) view on the relationship between God and man is reflective of the idea that there is a dichotomy between the experiential (casuistic) mode of engaging with the surrounding reality and the one that the philosopher used to discuss in terms of “encounter” (between God and his creations). According to Buber, the industrial society establishes many obstacles on the way of an individual striving to fulfill its spiritual aspirations, which in turn results in causing the concerned person to end up experiencing the sensation of existential alienation. Therefore, by choosing to challenge the society’s “mechanistic” workings, one is indeed being brought closer to God – even when the individual in question does not quite realize it consciously.

Abraham Heschel (1907-1972) used to hold a somewhat similar view on the God-man relationship with that of Buber. The strongly existentialist sounding of Heschel’s viewpoint, in this respect, substantiates the legitimacy of this suggestion. After all, the concerned theologian never ceased to advocate the idea that the process of a particular person attaining a better understanding of God should be discussed in conjunction with how he or she goes about trying to achieve a higher degree of self-perfection. According to Heschel: “God was a living reality, passionately interested in His creatures; man was challenged to transcend egoistic interests and respond to His imperatives” (Greenberg 479). This, of course, positioned Heschel as the representative of the “idealistic” school in Judaic theology.

Just as it was the case with the earlier mentioned Judaic theologians, Joseph Soloveitchik (1903 – 1993) used to stress out the dualistic (God vs. animal) nature of just about every believer while pointing out to the fact that to be able to win favor with the God, one must be capable of exercising a complete control over its animalistic anxieties. At the same time, Soloveitchik continued to justify the idea that along with being highly spiritual, just about every Jew must be “street-smart”. Hence, the theologian’s concept of “halakhic man”: “The halakhic man belonged to both the covenantal and majestic communities, uniting them without annulling their natural tension” (Greenberg 484). Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to suggest that the views of Buber, Heschel. and Soloveichik on the God-man relationship did corroborate to a significant extent.

Works Cited

Bregoli, Francesca, and Federica Francesconi. “Tradition and Transformation in Eighteenth-Century Europe: Jewish Integration in Comparative Perspective.” Jewish History, vol. 24, no. 3, 2012, pp. 235-246.

Greenberg, Gershon. Modern Jewish Thinkers: from Mendelssohn to Rosenzweig. Academic Studies Press, 2011.

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