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EXISTENTIALISM, a modern philosophical movement, which intends to elucidate concrete human existence. To the movement belong such people as S. Kierkegaard, A. Schopenhauer, M. Heidegger, J.-P. Sartre, G. Marcel, M. Buber, F. Rosenzweig, and J.B. Soloveitchik.

Embracing a number of disparate philosophical positions, existentialism can be described as a reaction to traditional philosophy with its emphasis on the static, the abstract, the objective, and the purely rational. In its reaction, existentialism emphasizes the dynamic, the concrete, the subjective, and the personal. More specifically, existentialism opposes Idealism, which gave priority to the idea over factuality and largely neglected the part of the philosopher himself in the construction of his philosophy. Existentialism stresses personal involvement and "engagement," action, choice, and commitment, and regards the actual situation of the existential subject as the starting point of thought. Revolting against the Cartesian view of the self as a thinking entity, existentialism is concerned with the existential subject in his wholeness and concreteness – the willing, feeling, thinking person, who decides and acts from the perspective of his particular life situation rather than from some universal vantage point provided by reason or history. One of the important influences on existentialism was phenomenology, which attempts to understand the world and man not through causal formulae and analysis, but through openness to the whole range of phenomena that are manifest, without asking whether they are "real" in some metaphysical sense. Yet, whereas E. Husserl's phenomenology investigated human consciousness and its intentionality, existentialists themselves were rather interested in existential situations as insecurity, anguish, depression, shame, tragedy, hope, solidarity, and love. Both Husserl's phenomenology and existentialism did not relate to the Kantian Ding an sich, reality in itself, but in the way reality appears to the subject that is open to it: they do not explain phenomena, they rather describe them.

Existentialism in Jewish Thought

Existentialist motifs are central to the writings of many modern Jewish thinkers. One may for instance find existential motifs in the thinking of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav (Meir, 37–54).

According to F. Rosenzweig, Hermann Cohen's thought prepared his own existential thinking (F. Rosenzweig and S.H. Bergman highlighted the dichotomy between the neo-Kantian Cohen of Marburg and the neo-Cohen of Berlin, whereas A. Altmann thought that there was one great continuity in Cohen's neo-Kantian thinking). It was the concern for the individual which led Cohen to accord religion an independent place in his philosophic system. He argued that religion is necessary insofar as it posits the categories of sin, repentance, and salvation to deal with the problems of the individual, which Kantian ethics overlooks in its concern with man in general. Cohen emphasizes the relation between God and man, rather than theoretical speculation concerning God. With his notion of "correlation" Cohen maintains that the relationship between God and man is characterized by the holy spirit. Through his relation to God and his acknowledging God as the model and source of holiness, man strives to attain holiness for himself. Man and God are partners in bringing the work of creation to completion, i.e., in bringing about the messianic era. Both the deeds of man and the divine grace are necessary for the salvation of mankind.

Jewish existentialism proper begins with Franz Rosenzweig. Following Cohen, Rosenzweig attaches a great importance to the individual. In Das neue Denken ("The New Thinking," 1925) he criticizes traditional philosophical categories, instead making the personal experience of the individual the starting point of philosophy. Because God, the world, and man are experienced as three distinct entities, Rosenzweig rejects the approach of philosophy from the pre-Socratics until Hegel which reduced in a monistic manner these three "substances" to one basic essence, to God (in pantheism), to man (in anthropology), or to the world (in materialism). The separation and interrelationship of God, man, and the world is central to his New Thinking. He explains that the relation between God and the world is cognized as creation; between God and man, as revelation; and between man and the world, as redemption. As a result, the I is less a Cartesian cogito than a relating being, called upon to respond.

All of Martin Buber's mature thought bears the stamp of a closely similar existentialism of dialogue reflected in his notion of the I-you relationship, and his insistence on the concrete, on the unique, on the everyday, on the situation rather than the "-ism," on response with one's whole being and the personal wholeness that comes into being in that response. At the center of Buber's existentialism stands "holy insecurity" or the "narrow ridge" – the trust that meaning is open and accessible in the lived concrete, that transcendence addresses us in the events of everyday life, that man's true concern is not unraveling the divine mysteries, but the way of man in partnership with God. The partnership with "the eternal You" comes into expression in the meeting and encounter with a you. The living presence of God is felt when one is present to the other and makes the other present.

For Abraham Joshua Heschel religious reality does not begin with the essence of God but with His presence, not with dogma or metaphysics but with that sense of wonder and the ineffable which is experienced by every man. Through this sense of wonder man is led toward that transcendent reality to which each finite thing alludes through its own unique reality. Heschel approaches philosophy of religion as "situational thinking" and "depth theology" which endeavor to "rediscover the questions to which religion is an answer" (A.J. Heschel, God in Search of Man [1955], 3).

Basic existentialist themes are also found in the thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. His thinking is pervaded by such themes as loneliness and alienation, but also heroic readiness of obeying the divine commandments. Soloveitchik's halakhic hero lives through the normative prism of halakhah. He is the ideal type who orients his life to halakhic discipline and develops an indifference toward the chaotic, death, and the absurd.

Although the existential Jewish writer F. Kafka has his own anti-hero, who is the object of circumstances, of misunderstandings, and alienation and who possesses a total lack of communication, one may sense Kafka's longing for a fuller life in his description of alienated modern man (Meir, 129–145). In their various writings, all Jewish existentialists proposed that their readers adopt an "authentic" lifestyle, the content of which differed from author to author.


Sources:E.B. Borowitz, A Layman's Introduction to Religious Existentialism (1965); M. Friedman, The Worlds of Existentialism; A Critical Reader (1964); idem, To Deny Our Nothingness: Contemporary Images of Man (1967); D. Hartman, "The Halakhic Hero: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man," in: Judaism, 9 (1989), 249–73; E. Meir, Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue (Hebrew; 2004).

[Maurice Friedman / Ephraim Meir (2nd ed.)]

Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.