Hermann Cohen & Franz Rosenzweig

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Cohen & Rosenzweig



Hermann Cohen  (1842-1919)


There are those who claim that Hermann Cohen was the most important Jewish philosopher of the 19th century. While that claim may be in dispute, Cohen can hardly be overlooked as a principal contributor to the exposition of Kantian philosophy. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), not Jewish,  taught phenomenology, which may best be understood as the realization that the world as we know it is dependent on our perception of it and that reality for us is colored by our limited human experience and understanding. Kant uses the phrase “das Ding an sich”, which means approximately “things in themselves”, and holds that we can never know that world. Consequently, our idea of reality is what we view and how we view it even as ultimate reality escapes us.

(Why not read “The Critique of Pure Reason” i.e. Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft” and enjoy Kant?)

Kant concludes that there are several universal imperatives which any reasonable person can understand. Therefore, said Kant, we can all act reasonably as we live our lives by these universal ethical imperatives.

Hermann Cohen agreed with Kant that ethics are therefore universal. For example, we all know that the law distinguishes between mala in se and mala prohibita.  Now mala in se means “evil in itself” and refers to murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, auto theft and arson, all FBI  Class One offenses. The argument here is that we need not read a law book to know that we should not do these things to our fellow men because everyone knows such crimes are  evil in themselves, as contrasted with failure to pay taxes, which is wrong only because the IRS demands the money. At the Nürnberg trials of the Nazi “big wigs” in 1946, the murderers were convicted on the grounds that their deeds were mala in se, even if at that time genocide was not prohibited by any written law.

Cohen sought to teach that we cannot be satisfied until there is complete justice in the world. He further shows that the search for ethics is infinite, just as the search for knowledge is also infinite. Cohen taught that our ignorance increases as our knowledge increases, since every time we learn something new, we also discover how much more there is to know  (The latest findings in astronomy by means of the Hubble telescope have demonstrated this).

Cohen discussed how in the physical world there is order without options for change.  In short, the sun rises each day, the earth revolves endlessly,  etc. However, moral imperatives are our choice to do or ignore. Cohen wrote that the two worlds in which we live, i.e. the natural world of science and the man made world of ethics, appear therefore to contradict each other. Yet, we live in both. Therefore, argued Cohen, the idea that we live in a rational involuntary physical world and in a voluntary ethical world which is our option, that idea is God.

Cohen further holds that since the goal of ethics is universal justice, we must believe it is possible to achieve this, since otherwise we would have given it up long ago.  However, God guarantees a permanent physical world, which in turn allows us to strive for an ethical world leading to a “religion of reason”.

That religion of reason is Judaism. The Torah teaches that God is transcendental, that is, not part of our world. Therefore, “ethical monotheism” is the basis of Judaism and its emphasis on universal ethics. Cohen then taught that Jews should assimilate into the societies in which they live and teach all mankind the principals of ethics by those Jewish rituals which support ethical conduct while discarding those Jewish rituals which make no such contribution.

Cohen points out that Judaism is concerned with acts, not with faith, while Christianity is concerned with faith such as the Nicene creed. Judaism has no trinity, no saints and no hierarchy, and therefore is capably of being a religion of reason.

P.S. Why not read ETHICS OF MAIMONIDES and RELIGION OF REASON. These two books by Cohen are found on the internet in English. Enjoy.


 Franz Rosenzweig (1886 – 1929)


There can be little doubt that Franz Rosenzweig was not only one of the most seminal thinkers of his time, but that he also left his mark on education, psychoanalysis, the critical study of religion and the Jewish Christian dialogue.

Like so many German Jews, Franz Rosenzweig came from a family of businessmen.  His grandfather was a chemist and his father George manufactured dyes.

The Rosenzweigs were hardly interested in Judaism. Although their children were bar mitzvah (girls not included), they had no religious commitment. In fact, until he entered school he hardly recognized himself as a Jew.


   Typical of Jewish interests, then and now, was Rosenzweig’s entry into medical school. He studied at several universities, as is still the custom in Germany, and graduated as a physician. He never practiced but instead followed one of his friends into the study of philosophy. There he of course encountered Kant (1724-1804) and Hegel (1770-1831). That was as also true of Karl Marx (1818-1883), who  turned Hegel upside down and therefore invented communism.


    It is significant that Rosenzweig's cousin had converted to Christianity and had been  baptized in a church. In the 19th century, many German Jews did so in the hope of advancing their careers. Rosenzweig first toyed with the idea of becoming a Christian but changed his mind during a Yom Kippur service.


Subsequently, Rosenzweig became a student of Hermann Cohen, founder of the  so-called Marburg school of philosophy.


   Cohen had recently left Marburg  and moved to Berlin, where he taught at the recently founded Institute for the Scientific Study of Judaism. There he met Martin Buber (1878-1965) who later became the most important Israeli philosopher author of the 20th century. Buber was already well-known in Germany, having migrated there from his native Poland.


    In the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Rosenzweig first served as a medic and later volunteered for the front. Like so many German Jews, he was anxious to be a soldier serving the fatherland because the usual anti-Jewish hate canards pretended the Jews were all cowards when in fact the opposite was the case. We know that later, in the 1930s, the Germans claimed that the Jews were responsible for the defeat of the German armies in the first world war.


Rosenzweig became a noncommissioned officer in the German army, which even then was most unusual.


After the First World War, Rosenzweig moved to Frankfurt- on- the Main (There is also a Frankfurt on the Oder), where he founded the Free House of Jewish Learning. He remained there despite the fact that he was offered a professorship at the University of Berlin, an almost unheard of opportunity for a Jew.


Rosenzweig was married in 1920 and thereupon translated numerous Hebrew prayers and poems into German.  He also wrote a number of books including The Star of Redemption and a book on Common Sense. He further published Sixty Hymns and The Poems of Yehudah Halevi in German.    In 1921 Rosenzweig first noticed that he had muscular difficulties, which turned out to be diagnosed as a form of sclerosis, which was not curable. Rosenzweig became gradually paralyzed until he could only move his eyes. Despite his illness, he and the great scholar Martin Buber translated volumes 1-10 of the Torah (Genesis to Isaiah). He died in 1929.

Shalom u’vracha.


Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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