The Legacy of Liberal Judaism

The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer and Hannah Arendt's Hidden Conversation

Ned Curthoys
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Legacy of Liberal Judaism
    Book Description:

    Comparing the liberal Jewish ethics of the German-Jewish philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Hannah Arendt, this book argues that both espoused a diasporic, worldly conception of Jewish identity that was anchored in a pluralist and politically engaged interpretation of Jewish history and an abiding interest in the complex lived reality of modern Jews. Arendt's indebtedness to liberal Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, Abraham Geiger, Hermann Cohen, and Ernst Cassirer has been obscured by her modernist posture and caustic critique of the assimilationism of her German-Jewish forebears. By reorienting our conception of Arendt as a profoundly secular thinker anchored in twentieth century political debates, we are led to rethink the philosophical, political, and ethical legacy of liberal Jewish discourse.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-008-5
    Subjects: History, Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    This book is an attempt to historicize the so-called ‘Jewish writings’ of Hannah Arendt but it is also a reconstruction of an important tradition of Jewish thought and politics, one that is continually being renewed in the face of contemporary challenges. For some time I have felt that despite the veritable critical industry that has grown up around Arendt as a political theorist and philosopher, the specific intellectual and ethical background to her writings on Jewish issues has yet to be sufficiently illuminated. InThe Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer and Hannah Arendt’s Hidden ConversationI suggest that Arendt’s...

  5. CHAPTER 1 ‘This Man of Our Destiny’: Moses Mendelssohn, Nathan the Wise and the Emergence of a Liberal Jewish Ethos
    (pp. 14-43)

    While most foundation myths centred on the heroic achievements of individuals require sober appraisal, it is difficult to overestimate the unique significance of one man, Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), for the emergence of a liberal Jewish philosophical tradition in Germany. Even liberal German Jewish thinkers such as Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer, who demurred at Mendelssohn’s critique of Lessing’s philosophy of human progress, remained faithful to his reconciliation of Judaism and reason and his pride in Judaism’s ethical monotheism. For liberal Jewish intellectuals and for much of the German Jewish community up until 1933, the legendary character of Mendelssohn, his...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Diasporic Visions: The Emergence of Liberal Judaism
    (pp. 44-65)

    The era of Moses Mendelssohn enabled the emergence of a historically aware conception of Judaism that was sympathetic to the spiritual, philosophical, and aesthetic achievements of post-exilic diasporic Jews. Diasporic Jewish acumen in fields as varied as philosophy, poetry, biblical exegesis, diplomacy, astronomy, and medicine were interpreted by liberal and reformist German Jews from the late eighteenth century as the fruits of active Jewish participation in tolerant and progressive non-Jewish societies. This chapter discusses the pronounced tendency of post-Enlightenment German Jewish intellectuals to extol a narrative of Jewish resourcefulness and creativity in diaspora that begins with the Babylonian exile in...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Abraham Geiger: Rabbi and Writer
    (pp. 66-81)

    The leading theorist and intellectual founder of the Reform movement in Judaism, and perhaps the most influential liberal Jewish thinker of the nineteenth century, was the theologian, rabbi, scholar of Islam, historian of Judaism, and intellectual iconoclast, Abraham Geiger (1810–1874).¹ Geiger was a frustrated independent intellectual, for as a Jew he could neither obtain an academic appointment at a German university nor publish in the major Protestant theological periodicals of his day despite his cognate scholarly interests; moreover, due to his liberal views and perceived anti-Talmudic agitations he was also temporarily excluded from the Jewish seminary in Breslau, his...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Hermann Cohen’s Prophetic Judaism
    (pp. 82-102)

    The German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) was perhaps the most influential theorist of Prophetic Judaism and, as I shall argue, one of the greatest exponents of the emancipative historical consciousness and confrontational politics ofWissenschaft des Judentums. Cohen is perhaps best known today (or vaguely remembered) as having founded the influential Marburg school of neo-Kantian philosophy. However, during his lifetime he was one of the most prominent defenders of the German Jewish community, an influential advocate for Jewish adult education, and a leading proponent of a philosophically and historically informed curriculum for Jewish studies in theWissenschaft des...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Ernst Cassirer and the Ethical Legacy of Hermann Cohen
    (pp. 103-138)

    The German Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) was perhaps the greatest representative of the liberal Jewish tradition in philosophy, ethics, and political thought in the twentieth century. Carrying on Hermann Cohen’s public-intellectual efforts on behalf of the German Jewish community, Cassirer was Cohen’s greatest disciple and supporter, consistently defending his philosophical legacy and unique contribution to German philosophy and Jewish thought. Cassirer was arguably Germany’s pre-eminent philosopher of the early twentieth century until the ascendancy of Heidegger. A polymath with wide-ranging interests, he contributed to fields as diverse as the philosophy of science, the history of ideas, linguistics, aesthetics,...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Ernst Cassirer: The Enlightenment as Counter-History
    (pp. 139-161)

    In this chapter I explore Peter Eli Gordon’s heuristic suggestion that Cassirer’s important studyThe Philosophy of the Enlightenment(1932) is not simply a reconstruction but aretrievalof Enlightenment philosophy as a philosophical resource for the modern world which carries a ‘specific contemporary resonance’. This was at a time, as Gordon points out, when Heidegger was ‘turning away from philosophical modernity as an era condemned to ontological oblivion’.¹ Interestingly, in his 1927 account of the History of the Philosophy Chair at Marburg, Heidegger himself had recognized Hermann Cohen’s contribution to the revitalization of Kantian philosophy as speaking with renewed...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Hannah Arendt: The Task of the Historian
    (pp. 162-193)

    Cassirer’s powerful reappraisal of the pan-European Enlightenment and the GermanAufklärungin the 1920s and 1930s, which culminated inThe Philosophy of the Enlightenment, was conceived as an urgent ethical resource, a counter-history to historical narratives that legitimized German exceptionalism and Romantic nationalism. As an expression of his philosophy of history Cassirer’s inspired reconstruction of Enlightenment thought was a testament to the fragility of human creations, a reminder that in order to endure the ‘works of man must be constantly renewed and restored’.¹ In order to ‘possess the world of culture’, Cassirer argued in a chapter discussing history as a...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Hannah Arendt: A Question of Character
    (pp. 194-212)

    My final chapter concerns the ethical importance of ‘character’ or ‘personality’ in Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy. As we discussed in the last chapter, after her caustic repudiation of Enlightenment versions of reason andBildungin the late 1920s and early 1930s, Arendt became increasingly reconciled to Lessing and Kant’sAufklärungethos ofSelbstdenken, an ethos she deemed capable of expressing admirable traits of ethical independence, worldly friendship, and communicative sociability, ethical qualities resistant to the dictates of History, ideology, and social conformity. The following discussion explores Arendt’s particular contribution, from a Jewish perspective, to a post-Kantian tradition of character analysis....

  13. Conclusion The Legacies of Liberal Judaism
    (pp. 213-216)

    The legacies of the liberal Jewish tradition in ethics, philosophy, history, and literature are many and varied. Indeed, they are too diverse and profuse to be definitively accounted for here, since ‘post-Zionism’ is now a rubric for a variety of scholarly tendencies encompassing revisionist Israeli historiography, denationalized versions of Jewish history, Mizrahi critiques of Zionist Eurocentrism and Ashkenazi hegemony in Israel, sociological analyses of post-national tendencies in Israel, and a growing interest in the cultural Zionism of Martin Buber and Judah Magnes.¹ The engagement with Jewish and Israeli history outside of national, religious, and ethnocentric frameworks can be situated with...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 217-230)
  15. Index
    (pp. 231-238)