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Hermann Cohen

(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 infinite.

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 reason."

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.

Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage