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July 4: Hermann Cohen

Lawrence Bush
July 3, 2016

cohen1komp[1]Philosopher and ethicist Hermann Cohen was born in Coswig, Germany on his date in 1842. The son of a cantor, he received a traditional Jewish education and was headed towards becoming a rabbi, but instead took up secular philosophy and developed a neo-Kantian strain of thought that emphasized reason and ethics over metaphysics. According to Rabbi Louis Jacobs, in "Cohen’s earlier work, God is seen as an idea produced by the human mind to give coherence to man’s ethical strivings," but in his later life, "Cohen moved closer to the traditional Jewish conception of God" and "took issue with Kant’s view that Judaism is an obsolete religion." "Ethics is the vital principle of Judaism," wrote Cohen." Its religion aims to be, and is, moral doctrine. Love of God is knowledge of God, and that is knowledge of the ultimate moral purpose of mankind." Cohen was opposed to Zionism as a violation of Judaism's spiritual and moral mission; nevertheless, a street in Tel Aviv is named for him.

"Hermann Cohen, more than any other single figure, is responsible for founding the orthodox neo-Kantianism that dominated academic philosophy in Germany from the 1870s until the end of the First World War. . . . Cohen was his generation's preeminent German-Jewish public intellectual and religious philosopher. His philosophical ethics and political theory provided the foundation for a non-Marxist, Kantian democratic socialism that informed his more popular and topical writings. He argued publicly for universal suffrage and for the rights of workers to organize democratically-constituted collectives. He also saw deep points of connection between ethics and religion, and developed a view of Judaism as a profoundly ethical system of belief and practice." --Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.