(1842 - 1918)
Hermann Cohen, Systematizer of Ethical Monotheism
Hermann Cohen was probably the most important Jewish philosopher of
the nineteenth century. His major works, ironically, were purely
secular, as he advanced the basic ideas of Immanuel Kant.
Kant maintained that the most that humans can know
about the world is how we systematically view it and behave in it.
What we view and how we view it is our idea of reality. It doesn't
mean that the world is actually the way we see it. That certainty of
actuality transcends us.
If we know, however, how a reasonable person
should view the world and behave in the world, then we, being
reasonable, must behave accordingly. Thus we are obligated to live
our lives by a set of universal imperatives which are clear and
understandable to every reasonable human.
Hermann Cohen agreed with Kant that ethics had to
be universal. Moreover, every ethical act had to, in the end, aim
toward the entire society. We cannot rationally be content until
there is complete social justice in our world. Therefore striving for
the ethical is an infinite process. In addition, every time we use
our minds to learn something, we are rationally aware of what we
still do not know. The search for ideas (knowledge) is equally
Cohen noted an apparent conflict between the
viewed natural world and the viewed ethical challenge. In the
physical world, things are apparently ordered without the option for
change. The sun comes up in the east; the seasons alternate. Yet the
apprehended moral imperatives remain our choice to do or to discard.
It would appear irrational for one part of an apprehended world to be
voluntary (ethics) and another part involuntary (science), so there
must be an idea that will allow two different ideas of rationality to
exist at the same time and also be connected. The idea that enables
us to view a physical world that is ordered and involuntary, while
living a life of ethics that is our personal voluntary option, is God.
Moreover, since the goal of ethics is to achieve
universal global justice, we must have some hope of achieving that
goal; if we felt the goal were impossible, we would just give up. Yet
the world empirically threatens to fall into further physical
randomness. Therefore the idea of God as the guarantor of an eternal
world and our ability eventually to achieve ethical justice is
necessary. Cohen called this world-view of ordered world and
voluntary ethics integrated with the idea of God "religion of
He then pointed to Judaism's belief in the uniqueness of God. In the Torah,
God is not part of the world (that idea would be idolatry); God
transcends the physical world. Yet at the same time, this idea of an
eternal God provides us with the imperative to act ethically. Thus,
for Hermann Cohen, Judaism provides the source for "religion of
reason," namely ethical monotheism.
Hermann Cohen's influence on modern
nineteenth-century Jews was tremendous. His emphasis on Judaism's
universal ethics to better the entire world encouraged Jews to
integrate into the secular cultures around them as an aspect of their
religion. It was legitimately Jewish to assimilate into society so
long as the individual's goals focused on social justice. If a Jewish
ritual enhanced that ethical imperative, it was important to retain
it. If it appeared to contradict the high ethics of religion of
reason, it was to be dropped.
Moreover, Hermann Cohen's description of Judaism
emphasized that it was a much better religion of reason than
Christianity. Judaism focused on acts, ethics; Christianity was
involved in faith. Judaism was much more clearly a religion that
found its source in ethical monotheism; Christianity's involvement
with the Trinity and saints and a variety of other beliefs got in the
way of a religion of reason.
The term "ethical monotheism" has become
a Jewish household word synonymous with Judaism. The systematizing of
that concept was Hermann Cohen.
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