Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2010
Philosophers of Catastrophe and the Last Kantian in Nazi Germany: How Judaism Redeems Western Philosophy
by Stephen J. Stern
After class, a group of us often followed the eminent philosopher Emil Fackenheim to his bus stop outside Hebrew University, stretching our brains to find a smart question to ask him. When he boarded the bus, everyone walked their separate ways—everyone, that is, but me. I jumped on the bus, pretending my stop was after his, oblivious to robbing him of his after-class downtime and to the patience he extended to me. On one ride, as I was in the midst of asking lots of questions about Martin Buber, he stopped me and said: "Buber is smart, very smart. But if you want to read a truly great Jewish philosopher, read Franz Rosenzweig." I thought, "Who? How can this guy be great if I haven't heard of him?" It turned out Rosenzweig's gates would soon open me to a richer, more livable Judaism.
I immediately went out and bought Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption. I loved the first page—still do—but didn't understand a word after that. It took me years to navigate the text. But unbeknownst to me, Fackenheim had planted a seed. From that day on, I would find myself drawn to philosophers—like Rosenzweig—who emerged from the greatest catastrophes of the twentieth century. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that many of these philosophers came from Jewish backgrounds.
Two to emerge from horrors are Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995). Although they never met, each devoted himself to Jewish education after experiencing catastrophe. In their own ways, each shows Judaism's power to redeem broader Western conversations. Perhaps more importantly, they help redeem European Judaism from its near disappearance in the nationalism manifest in the political Zionism of Theodore Herzl and in the Nazi Judeocide.
Rosenzweig and Levinas were not only critical of the nationalism, social ideologies, and other factors that gave birth to the murderous fields on which they fought and found themselves enslaved; they were also critical of the tradition that intellectually trained them: Western (Hellenic-Christian) philosophy.
Their critique was not part of the cannibalistic tradition of Western philosophy, a movement that argues and feeds on itself without much input from other traditions or civilizations. Rather, Rosenzweig and Levinas critiqued from their embrace of Judaism.
Rosenzweig's Mistrust of Nationalism
Rosenzweig grips me with his passionate writing, his emphasis on common sense, and his focus on living life, not for an afterlife, but for the ordinary moments of this life. Emerging from the trenches of World War I, Rosenzweig introduced what is arguably his most powerful work, The Star of Redemption, which ends with an upside-down pyramid made of words. The last sentences of the book read:
To walk humbly with thy God — the words are
written over the gate, the gate which
leads out of the mysterious-
miraculous light of the divine
sanctuary in which no man
can remain alive. Whither,
then, do the wings of
the gate open? Thou
knowest it not?
Here one closes the book, finding oneself directed away from the text, where philosophers often exile themselves, into life. How to live an authentic Jewish life became Rosenzweig's concern.
After the war, he went on to start the Lehrhaus (Free Jewish House of Learning) in Frankfurt, where he devoted himself to educating assimilated Jews. The school was filled with names that would become pillars of both the Jewish intellectual world and the Western academy: Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, Eric Fromm, Leo Baeck, Gershom Scholem, Nahum Glatzer, Theodore Adorno, and many more.
Rosenzweig's concerns were large, and he feared the totalizing ideologies found in national movements that so easily turn those outside the ideology into unworthy objects to be killed or ignored. His concerns extended to the nationalism of Herzlian political Zionism. He indicated in his letters that he was not anti-Zionist but worried about what would become of Jewish ethical traditions if Jews became nationalists like other nations. This was not a mere intellectual problem for him. Rosenzweig had just come out of a war fought in the trenches of chemical weapons and mass death. The result of nationalist ideologies betrayed his Jewish ethical sensibility.
Nationalism is often opportunistic, readily manufacturing and participating in a totalizing force that can blind one to others; it is pursued often at the expense of human life. In pursuing national goals, Rosenzweig wondered, will political Zionists turn their backs on ethics? What a prophetic insight, to say the least, especially for American Jews born and raised after the Holocaust and the re-creation of the State of Israel.
Rosenzweig's concerns predicated the construction of my own Jewish identity. I, like many others, grew up hearing and chanting, "Never again. Long live Israel." I lived those concerns. But Rosenzweig was right. My national aspirations as a Jew deafened me, like many others, to the "ethics of our fathers" (and mothers). I was not versed in Jewish history, biblical studies, Talmud, rabbinic concerns, or a study of how Judaism learned to live in the midst of other nations while maintaining Jewish life. I didn't even know that there are thirty-six biblical injunctions to care for the stranger, or why gossip is talmudically discussed as a form of murder, or what we mean by "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth." Like so many others, my Judaism was largely found in remembering those who perished in the Holocaust and the felt sense to keep Israel secure.
Israel has succeeded at creating a Jewish homeland. We no longer truly debate its right to exist. It exists, not easily, but it's here, and we exercise a felt obligation to ensure its continued existence. But Rosenzweig's work insists that this is not enough, Judaically speaking. Sadly, in our nationalistic concerns and our fight in securing the rights accorded to most nation states, many of us have lost sight of one of the greatest Jewish ethical themes manifest in Rosenzweig's thought: redemption. Redemption, as Rosenzweig teaches, is found in exercising one's responsibility/obligation for others, such as performing the mitzvoth to care for the stranger, a principle that drives many talmudic discussions.
Which Are More Important: Rights or Responsibilities?
Talmudic discourses are not based on or directed by the Enlightenment's notion of a rights-based legal approach to ethics. The engine is responsibility for the other. How am I responsible for the other? What are my obligations to others? How do I perform them? Rights are legally grounded in governmental institutions and they are (ideally) guaranteed, distributed, and protected by one's government. Rights may exercise obligations, but they are institutionally bound up. One's responsibility for the other precedes the institutions of legal rights and exists when those institutions are eclipsed by or disappear because of sociopolitical forces. Responsibility, unlike a rigid system of rights, is dynamic, interpersonal, situational, and always vulnerable to the distractions of self-interest.
These ancient normative, ethical Jewish concerns over responsibility, where we find redemption with a focus on this life, are a necessity for Jews living as aliens in so many nations without a land of their own. It's in exercising our obligations for one another—in our relations—that we find redemption. Rosenzweig writes, "For what is redemption other than that the I learn to say Thou to the He." We are obligated to see the other, the stranger, the competitor, the enemy as the person she or he is. This is where redemption resides. In other words, I am Judaically obligated to acknowledge you and your moral needs when made aware of them.
When World War I ended, Rosenzweig rejected the world of philosophy to focus on educating assimilated Jews. But his concerns still found their way into the Western philosophical tradition. In ways perhaps unimaginable to Rosenzweig, who died in 1929 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of forty-three, Emmanuel Levinas creatively extended and smuggled Rosenzweig's concerns into the world of Western philosophy.
Levinas's Judaic Ethics Expose Philosophy's Failure
Emerging from a Nazi camp, Emmanuel Levinas accuses Western philosophy of betraying the other in its self-absorbed two-thousand-year struggle to logically define, explain, or "know" the individual. Philosophy was blind and deaf to the actual—rather than theoretical—suffering bodies begging for life in the face of Nazism. The ironies abound for this (in)humanistic tradition.
Nazism stormed out from the land of the greatest philosophical ethicist, the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The philosopher who had argued so cogently that ethical maxims must be universalized to apply to all people had apparently minimal effect on the behavior of his own people's descendants, including some who were well schooled in philosophy itself. Levinas's philosophical hero, Martin Heidegger, became Europe's most celebrated twentieth-century philosopher ... after joining the Nazi Party. Can you believe this? Here is a philosopher in a camp whose philosophical hero—the man who gave him the foundation of his early work—became a Nazi. And then Levinas's Judaic ethics betray, redeem, and transform a discipline that historically colored Judaism as irrelevant, unnecessary, dead.
Levinas exposes philosophy's failure in a two-and-a-half-page midrashic reflection on his Nazi imprisonment. In "The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights" (available in Difficult Freedom, 1990, translated by Sean Hand) he writes:
We were beings entrapped in their species; despite all their vocabulary, beings without language. Racism is not a biological concept; anti-Semitism is the archetype of all internment. Social aggression, itself, merely imitates this model. It shuts people away in a class, deprives them of expression and condemns them to being ‘signifiers without a signified' and from there to violence and fighting. How can we deliver a message about our humanity which, from behind the bars of quotation marks, will come across as anything other than monkey talk?
And then, about halfway through our long captivity, for a few short weeks, before the sentinels chased him away, a wandering dog entered our lives. One day he came to meet this rabble as we returned under guard from work. He survived in some wild patch in the region of the camp. But we called him Bobby, an exotic name, as one does with a cherished dog. He would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight. For him, there was no doubt that we were men.
... This dog was the last Kantian in Nazi Germany, without the brain needed to universalize maxims and drives. He was a descendent of the dogs of Egypt [which Levinas midrashically shows helped save the Hebrews right before the Exodus].
Unfortunately, Levinas could not rely on "Bobby" for his safety. He was condemned to relying on human beings. I wonder: after getting out, how did he go on being a philosopher, especially after finding that a dog was the last Kantian in Nazi Germany? Like Rosenzweig, he could have rejected philosophy. But Levinas chose to redeem it. He redeemed it with Judaism.
Responsibility for the Other: Countering the Unbearable Idolatries of Philosophy
Shadowed by Judaism and the Nazi Judeocide, Levinas's words demand resistance to the supposed ethics that allow for—indeed give rise to—catastrophe. Reaching back to the Talmud, Levinas pleads for real discussion. Catastrophe often happens when someone or some ideology owns the conversation. A plurality of voices upsets such ownership. Discussion is where we find our menacing characterizations of others interrupted, displaced, and resisted. When asked if his philosophy is messianic, Levinas responds:
Only if one understands messianic here according to the Talmudic maxim that "the doctors of the law" will never have peace, neither in this world nor in the next; they go from meeting to meeting, discussing always—for there is always more to be discussed. I could not accept a form of messianism that would terminate the need for discussion, that would end our watchfulness. (See Face to Face with Levinas, edited by Richard Cohen, 1986.)
By watchfulness, Levinas means looking out for the other. Watchfulness is not for oneself, but for the other for whom one seeks peace. In the same essay, Levinas says: "I seek this peace not for me, but for the other." Ideology—especially in defense of nationalism—turns one's entire view of the world back on oneself. This is a betrayal of the other, of the world, of what ethics truly is. It's no wonder Levinas extends this betrayal to philosophy's self-seeking concerns with self knowledge, which turned out to be at the other's expense, a bodily fact of Levinas's life.
Levinas offers philosophical redemption to post-Holocaust Europe with a common Jewish ethic; he substitutes the ethically irresponsible self-centered subject of philosophy with the other, for whom one is responsible. In other words, his philosophy begins with Jewish responsibility for the other instead of beginning with self-seeking knowledge and/or salvation for itself. His work is Other-centered. Like the ancient rabbis, Levinas's concern is ethics, and in his concern we are shown that our encounters with others begin ethically, which he locates in one's response for the other by whom one is addressed.
Levinas shows that that we don't choose to respond to the other, but have choice only about how we respond. For example, when someone I don't like sees me and yells, "Hey, Stephen!" I might pretend to not hear them and keep walking, or I might turn and acknowledge the caller. Either way, I have been identified and directed into response by the caller. At this point what do I do? No matter what, I have found myself in response to (and for) the caller; even if I continue to ignore the caller, it is a response. How I respond, not whether I am going to respond, is the question. Do I respond with a sense of responsibility for the other, or not? Here I am exposed to that ancient Jewish ethic; I am immanently responsible for the other.
Just as the biblical writers were troubled by idolatry, much of the Hellenic-Christian philosophy critiqued by Rosenzweig and Levinas ought to be understood as a historical source of idolatry where reigning moral theories—like a golden calf—blinded the greatest philosophical ethicists from intuiting that which Bobby (the dog in the camp) understood; one does not philosophically search for truth to understand, know, or justify that a person is a person. It's not like reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant or any in between would have provided Hitler and his minions with an epiphany: "These are people and it's wrong to murder them!"
Rosenzweig and Levinas's Gift to Judaism
Rosenzweig and Levinas's exodus from the ashen remains of nationalism and philosophy's "selficating" search for itself in waxen representations of life was guided by Jewish tradition. Ironically, some have said these thinkers contribute little to Judaism. Yes, they take from it, but what do they give to it? Rosenzweig and Levinas were steeped in two traditions deeply alienated from each other. Their very being was and is a bridge between the Hellenic-Christian world and European Judaism. From their Jewish traditions, these two men interrogate the intellectual world of Gentile Europe. There is no way a non-Jew could come up with their critiques, for the non-Jews are immanently alienated from Jewish life and thought. On the other hand, these two thinkers show us—Jews—that Judaism does not live in a world only of our own making. And although these non-Jewish worlds may be alienating for many Jews, Rosenzweig and Levinas show that this alienation is quite fruitful. In amplifying their insights for the non-Jewish world, it plays a role in keeping Judaism open to what it's not; if they had only stayed put in Judaism, how would they have known the implications of their tradition for not only the stranger, but us, too? In their dialogue comes greater self-understanding and a reminder for us all that the thirty-six biblical injunctions to take responsibility teach us not only to care for the other, but also that the stranger reminds us that we're not here alone to act as if the world were a receptacle for our actions. In their Jewish critique of the Western philosophical tradition, Rosenzweig and Levinas fulfill these thirty-six biblical injunctions, for it shows a type of care and concern for the other while demanding that the other take note of the tradition it tried to crush. But there is more that comes from this bridge of two worlds. Their Jewish critique of the Hellenic-Christian world is now applicable to many Jews, especially those of us that have betrayed our ethical traditions on behalf of nationalism.
Nationalism is a deadly disease. When we as a people lose sight of our ethical concerns for the stranger on behalf of imitating the nation-state interests of the non-Jewish Western world, we sacrifice our ethics on behalf of blind ideology. The lives of these two show us that the Jewish world, instead of only saying "Never Again!" to the non-Jewish world regarding anti-Semitism, also teaches us to "Never" ignore or abuse the stranger in one's midst. In the words of these thinkers I find a sociopolitical articulation of the ancient ethics of our rabbis that speaks against Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, that speaks against keeping have-nots from health insurance in the United States. It's as Levinas says: "The other's material needs are my spiritual needs." From here we are not so far from the cries of our prophets. I have no doubt they would command us to demand that Israel lift the blockade against Gazans and stop the settlements from expanding, and demand that America ensure all have health care, all the while reminding us that our covenant is not only for us, but to bring peace to the world. It's as Levinas says—discussion should never cease. It is here that tikkun olam comes out; discussion is the realization of messianism.
I am deeply grateful for the insightful editing of this essay provided by my colleague Steven Gimbel.
Stephen J. Stern is an assistant professor of religious studies and Judaic studies, as well as affiliate of the Department of Philosophy at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Stern, Stephen J. 2010. Philosophers of Catastrophe and the Last Kantian in Nazi Germany: How Judaism Redeems Western Philosophy. Tikkun 25(3): 28