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Jewish Thought: Contemporary Thought

Last Updated: Jan 8, 2024 4:13 PM

Contemporary Thought

One of the major trends in Contemporary Jewish Thought is to attempt to develop a theory of Judaism through existentialism. One of the most influential Jewish existentialists in the first half of the 20th century was Franz Rosenzweig; he was a philosopher and student of Hermann Cohen. Rosenzweig's major work, Star of Redemption, is a novel philosophy in which he portrays the relationships between God, humanity and world as they are connected by creation, revelation and redemption. Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and Conservative rabbis Neil Gillman and Elliot N. Dorff have also been described as existentialists. The French philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas, whose approach grew out of the phenomenological tradition in philosophy, has also been described as a Jewish existentialist. Likewise, rationalism has re-emerged as a popular perspective among Jews. Contemporary Jewish rationalism often draws on ideas associated with medieval philosophers such as Maimonides and modern Jewish rationalists such as Hermann Cohen. Cohen was a German Jewish neo-Kantian philosopher who turned to Jewish subjects at the end of his career in the early 20th century, picking up on ideas of Maimonides. Another prominent contemporary Jewish rationalist is Lenn Goodman, who works out of the traditions of medieval Jewish rationalist philosophy. Conservative rabbis Alan Mittleman of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Elliot N. Dorff of American Jewish University also sees themselves in the rationalist tradition, as does David Novak of the University of Toronto. Novak works in the natural law tradition, which is one version of rationalism. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl philosopher and mathematician established the school of phenomenology. Husserl was born in 1859 in Proßnitz, a town in the Margraviate of Moravia, which was then in the Austrian Empire, and which today is Prostějov in the Czech Republic. He was born into a Jewish family, the second of four children. His father was a milliner. His childhood was spent in Prostějov, where he attended the secular elementary school. Then Husserl traveled to Vienna to study at the Realgymnasium there, followed next by the Staatsgymnasium in Olomouc. At the University of Leipzig from 1876 to 1878, Husserl studied mathematics, physics, and astronomy. At Leipzig he was inspired by philosophy lectures given by Wilhelm Wundt, one of the founders of modern psychology. Then he moved to the Frederick William University of Berlin in 1878 where he continued his study of mathematics; there Husserl also attended Friedrich Paulsen's philosophy lectures. In 1884 at the University of Vienna he attended the lectures of Franz Brentano on philosophy and philosophical psychology. Husserl was so impressed by Brentano that he decided to dedicate his life to philosophy. Following academic advice, two years later in 1886 Husserl followed Carl Stumpf, a former student of Brentano, to the University of Halle, seeking to obtain his habilitation which would qualify him to teach at the university level. There, under Stumpf's supervision, he wrote Über den Begriff der Zahl (On the Concept of Number) in 1887, which would serve later as the basis for his first important work, Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891). In his early work, he elaborated critiques of historicism and of psychologism in logic based on analyses of intentionality. In his mature work, he sought to develop a systematic foundational science based on phenomenological reduction. Arguing that transcendental consciousness sets the limits of all possible knowledge, Husserl redefined phenomenology as a transcendental-idealist philosophy. Husserl's thought is revolutionary in several ways, most notably in the distinction between "natural" and "phenomenological" modes of understanding. In the former, sense-perception in correspondence with the material realm constitutes the known reality, and understanding is premised on the accuracy of the perception and the objective knowability of what is called the "real world". Phenomenological understanding strives to be rigorously "presuppositionless" by means of what Husserl calls "phenomenological reduction". This reduction is not conditioned but rather transcendental: in Husserl's terms, pure consciousness of absolute Being. In Husserl's work, consciousness of any given thing calls for discerning its meaning as an "intentional object". Such an object does not simply strike the senses, to be interpreted or misinterpreted by mental reason; it has already been selected and grasped, grasping being an etymological connotation, of percipere, the root of "perceive". Husserl's thought profoundly influenced 20th-century philosophy, and he remains a notable figure in contemporary philosophy. He taught philosophy as a Privatdozent at Halle from 1887, then as a professor, first at Göttingen from 1901, then at Freiburg from 1916 until he retired in 1928, after which he remained highly productive. In 1933, under racial laws of the National Socialist German Workers Party, Husserl was expelled from the library of the University of Freiburg due to his Jewish family background and months later resigned from the Deutsche Akademie. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Below: Edmund Husserl. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Unknown. License: public domain

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Edmund Husserl (1859 -1938 CE)

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Martin (Hebrew name: Mordechai) Buber was born in Vienna to an Orthodox Jewish family. Buber was a direct descendant of the 16th-century rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam, the Hebrew acronym for “Our Teacher, the Rabbi, Rabbi Meir”, of Padua. Karl Marx is another notable relative. After the divorce of his parents when he was three years old, he was raised by his grandfather in Lemberg (now Lviv in Ukraine). His grandfather, Solomon Buber, was a scholar of Midrash and Rabbinic Literature. At home, Buber spoke Yiddish and German. In 1892, Buber returned to his father's house in Lemberg. Martin Buber was an Austrian Jewish and Israeli philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism centered on the distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship. In 1902, he became the editor of the weekly Die Welt, the central organ of the Zionist movement, although he later withdrew from organizational work in Zionism. In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou), and in 1925, he began translating the Hebrew Bible into the German language reflecting the patterns of the Hebrew language. In I and Thou, Buber introduced his thesis on human existence. Inspired by Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity and Kierkegaard's Single One, Buber worked upon the premise of existence as an encounter. He explained this philosophy using the word pairs of Ich-Du (I-Thou) and Ich-Es (I-It) to categorize the modes of consciousness, interaction and being through which an individual engages with other individuals, inanimate objects, and all reality in general. Philosophically, these word pairs express complex ideas about modes of being—particularly how a person exists and actualizes that existence. As Buber argues in I and Thou, a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of these modes. The generic motif Buber employs to describe the dual modes of being is one of dialogue (Ich-Du) and monologue (Ich-Es). The concept of communication, particularly language-oriented communication, is used both in describing dialogue/monologue through metaphors and in expressing the interpersonal nature of human existence. His works dealt with a range of issues including religious consciousness, modernity, the concept of evil, ethics, education, and Biblical hermeneutics. Buber rejected the label of "philosopher" or "theologian", claiming he was not interested in ideas, only personal experience, and could not discuss God, but only relationships with God. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature ten times, and the Nobel Peace Prize seven times. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Martin Buber in Jerusalem. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Meitar Collection. License:  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

Martin Buber (1878 - 1965 CE)

Franz Rosenzweig was born in Kassel, Germany, to an affluent, minimally observant Jewish family. Through his granduncle, Adam Rosenzweig, he came in contact with traditional Judaism and was inspired to request Hebrew lessons when he was around 11 years old. Yet he did not learn of Sabbat eve until after he was in college. He started to study medicine for five semesters in Göttingen, Munich, and Freiburg. In 1907 he changed subjects and studied history and philosophy in Freiburg and Berlin; in 1913, he turned to Jewish philosophy. While writing a doctoral dissertation on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel, and the State, Rosenzweig turned against idealism and sought a philosophy that did not begin with an abstract notion of the human.  Rosenzweig's major work is The Star of Redemption (first published in 1921). It is a description of the relationships between God, humanity, and the world, as they are connected by creation, revelation, and redemption. If one makes a diagram with God at the top, and the World and the Self below, the inter-relationships generate a Star of David map. He is critical of any attempt to replace actual human existence with an ideal. In Rosenzweig's scheme, revelation arises not in metaphysics but in the here and now. We are called to love God, and to do so is to return to the world, and that is redemption. Rosenzweig was critical of the Jewish scholar Martin Buber's early work but became close friends with him upon their meeting. Buber was a Zionist, but Rosenzweig felt that a return to Israel would embroil the Jews into a worldly history that they should eschew. Rosenzweig criticized Buber's dialogical philosophy because it is based not only on the I-Thou relation but also on I-It, a notion that Rosenzweig rejected. He thought that the counterpart to I-Thou should be He-It, namely “as He said and it became”: building the "it" around the human "I"—the human mind—is an idealistic mistake. Rosenzweig and Buber worked together on a translation of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, from Hebrew to German. The translation, while contested, has led to several other translations in other languages that use the same methodology and principles. Their publications concerning the nature and philosophy of translation are still widely read. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Right: 1902 photo portrait of young Franz Rosenzweig. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Monozigote. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

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Franz Rosenzweig (1886 - 1929 CE)

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Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. She is widely considered to be one of the most influential political theorists of the 20th century. Arendt was raised in a politically progressive, secular family; her mother was an ardent supporter of the Social Democrats. After completing secondary education in Berlin, Arendt studied at the University of Marburg under Martin Heidegger. She obtained her doctorate in philosophy writing on Love and Saint Augustine at the University of Heidelberg in 1929 under the direction of the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Arendt was arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo for performing illegal research into antisemitism in Nazi Germany. On release, she fled Germany, living in Czechoslovakia and Switzerland before settling in Paris. There she worked for Youth Aliyah, assisting young Jews to emigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. In 1940 she was detained by the French as an alien, despite having been stripped of her German citizenship in 1937. She escaped and made her way to the United States in 1941 via Portugal. She became a writer and editor and worked for the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, becoming an American citizen in 1950. With the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, her reputation as a thinker and writer was established and a series of works followed. These included the books The Human Condition in 1958, as well as Eichmann in Jerusalem and On Revolution in 1963. She taught at many American universities while declining tenure-track appointments. Her works cover a broad range of topics, but she is best known for those dealing with the nature of power and evil, as well as politics, direct democracy, authority, and totalitarianism. In the popular mind, she is best remembered for the controversy surrounding the trial of Adolf Eichmann, her attempt to explain how ordinary people become actors in totalitarian systems, which was considered by some an apologia, and for the phrase "the banality of evil". Arendt wrote works on intellectual history as a political theorist, using events and actions to develop insights into contemporary totalitarian movements and the threat to human freedom presented by scientific abstraction and bourgeois morality. Intellectually, she was an independent thinker, separating herself from schools of thought or ideology. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Hannah Arendt. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Barbara Niggl Radloff. License: Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Hannah Arendt (1906 - 1975 CE)

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Emmanuel Levinas was a philosopher of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry who is known for his work within Jewish philosophy, existentialism, and phenomenology, focusing on the relationship of ethics to metaphysics and ontology. Emmanuel Levinas was born in 1906 into a middle-class Litvak family in Kaunas, in present-day Lithuania, at the Western edge of the Russian Empire. Levinas began his philosophical studies at the University of Strasbourg in 1923, and his lifelong friendship with the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. In 1928, he went to the University of Freiburg for two semesters to study phenomenology under Edmund Husserl. At Freiburg he also met Martin Heidegger, whose philosophy greatly impressed him. Levinas became a naturalized French citizen in 1939. When France declared war on Germany, he reported for military duty as a translator of Russian and French. During the German invasion of France in 1940, his military unit was surrounded and forced to surrender. Levinas spent the rest of World War II as a prisoner of war in a camp near Hanover in Germany. Levinas was assigned to a special barrack for Jewish prisoners, who were forbidden any form of religious worship. Life in the Fallingbostel camp was difficult, but his status as a prisoner of war protected him from the Holocaust's concentration camps. Other prisoners saw him frequently jotting in a notebook. These jottings were later developed into his book De l'Existence à l'Existant (1947) and a series of lectures published under the title Le Temps et l'Autre (1948). Meanwhile, Maurice Blanchot helped Levinas's wife and daughter spend the war in a monastery, thus sparing them from the Holocaust. After the Second World War, he studied the Talmud under the enigmatic Monsieur Chouchani, whose influence he acknowledged only late in his life. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Levinas came to regret his early enthusiasm for Heidegger, after the latter joined the Nazis. Levinas explicitly frames several of his mature philosophical works as attempts to respond to Heidegger's philosophy in light of its ethical failings. In the 1950s, Levinas emerged from the circle of intellectuals surrounding the philosopher Jean Wahl as a leading French thinker. His work is based on the ethics of the Other or, in Levinas's terms, on "ethics as first philosophy". For Levinas, the Other is not knowable and cannot be made into an object of the self, as is done by traditional metaphysics. Levinas prefers to think of philosophy as the "wisdom of love" rather than the "love of wisdom" (the usual translation of the Greek). In his view, responsibility towards the Other precedes any "objective searching after truth". Levinas derives the primacy of his ethics from the experience of the encounter with the Other. For Levinas, the irreducible relation, the epiphany, of the face-to-face, encounter with another, is a privileged phenomenon in which the other person's proximity and distance are both strongly felt. At the same time, the revelation of the face makes a demand, and this demand is before one can express or know one's freedom to affirm or deny. One instantly recognizes the transcendence and heteronomy of the Other. Even murder fails as an attempt to take hold of this otherness. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Emmanuel Levinas. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Bracha L. Ettinger. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic.

Emmanuel Levinas (1906 - 1995)

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