‘It is a place, Makom, where each man may be called up’: Being and time in Barnett Newman’s art

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Vir Heroicus Sublimis (painted in 1950-51)

‘Even if you don’t know Newman’s place in art history, walking into a space full of his paintings can inspire contemplation. They give you nothing and everything to look at, these huge canvases whose only subject is themselves, enveloping you in the moment, confronting you with seemingly pure fields of color and contrast.’ (Molly Glentzer, “A different stripe,” Houston Chronicle)

By Richard Mather

In an 1965 interview with art critic David Sylvester, Jewish-American artist Barnett Newman stated that his overwhelming Vir Heroicus Sublimis (painted in 1950-51) “should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself.” The notion of place rather than space plays an important role in Newman’s work. Space is relatively unimportant to him because it is common property, without identity. Place, by contrast, takes into account both time and consciousness. It is place that generates in the viewer a “feeling” of his or her own “totality,” of their own “separateness” and “individuality” as they stand before his painting:

“[T]he painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there … To me that sense of place has not only a sense of mystery but also has a sense of metaphysical fact. I have come to distrust the episodic, and I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality and the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate.”

That Newman was given to metaphysical pronouncements will not be surprising to those who are familiar with his writings on art. Newman had a philosophical background and was later exposed to some of the existential ideas of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Indeed, Heidegger and Sartre’s preoccupation with being (being-in-the-world, being-for-itself etc) can be seen in some of the titles of Newman’s work: Right Here; Here; and Not There-Here, among others.

Many critics have noted the significance of place and its Hebrew correlate, makom, which means “place” but is also a name of God (ha-makom) in Judaism. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68:5) explains that God is the place of the world, and yet the world is not his place. This idea resonated with Newman, according to Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery. “He hoped such a place would be created between his art and the viewer,” Cooper remarked. (Quote taken from “His Cross To Bear” in the Jewish magazine Forward.)

Indeed, Newman used the term makom in 1963 when describing his design for a synagogue:

“It is a place, Makom, where each man may be called up to stand before the Torah to read his portion … My purpose is to create a place, not an environment … Here in this synagogue, each man sits, private and secluded in the dugouts, waiting to be called, not to ascend a stage, but to go up to the mound [bimah]where, under the tension of that “Tzim-tzum” that created light and the world, he can experience a total sense of his own personality before the Torah and His Name.”

The space between the viewer and the artwork (or in this case the bimah) is no longer just space, but sanctified place where the physical and metaphysical meet. This meeting is what might be termed presence, a term that captures the sense of physical location (here), time (the present) and awareness of self (here I am). It seems that with the design of the synagogue, Newman intended the worshipper to have a real sensation of “being there,” that is, the consciousness of being present before the Torah. This awareness of being-there, this awareness of presence, is what Newman elsewhere calls “sublime.”

Time and the il y a

It happens that the materiality or sheer presence of Newman’s paintings exposes us to what Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the il y a: literally, “there is,” “the horror of being,” existence without being. Levinas describes the il y a as impersonal, anonymous, as something that deprives consciousness of its subjectivity. The experience of the il y a is an experience of existence in which nothing happens.

But it would be a mistake to think Newman’s chromatic abstractions represent the il y a and nothing else. On the contrary, Newman’s mature paintings boast a particular and distinguishing feature: the Newmanesque zip.

The zip is a vertical band of color, often made with the aid of masking tape and palette knife. Newman introduced the technique in the late 1940s and it remained a constant feature of his work throughout the remainder of his life. Paintings in which the zip went down the middle of the canvas (as in Onement 1) developed into paintings where the zip was off-center, and others in which there were several vertical zips. In some paintings, the zip is up to eleven feet tall. (There are a few instances of horizontal zips, but the vast majority of his paintings feature the vertical bands.)

Newman’s zips act as a kind of intervention or temporal event that differentiates the canvas, preventing Being from falling into the anonymous and impersonal il y a. The zip is what might be described as ecstatic temporality (ecstatic from the Ancient Greek ek “out” + histanai “to place, cause to stand out”). Time not only gives sense or meaning to Being, it marks the emergence of sensation, the physical materiality of something or someone. Humans, in particular, but also some animals, are not just in time, they are conscious of time and take account of time. As Claude Cernuschi points out (in Barnett Newman and Heideggerian Philosophy), “Humans exist in the present, with the past, and in anticipation of the future.”

Time is a physical experience: To those of brought up under the influence of Greek philosophy (which is most of us), the past is behind us; the future ahead of us, while the present is where you are located at this exact moment (hence the words presence and present). The ancient Hebrews, by contrast, thought of the past as something in front of them, as something that can be seen, while the unknown future is hidden from our view, as something behind us, hidden from our eyes.

Time was a dynamic process for the ancient Hebrews. Whereas the Greeks tended to think in terms of space and stasis, the Hebrews conceived of time as activity, the unfolding of events. In fact, this dynamic sense of time is embedded in the four-letter Hebrew name of God: yhwh, which is a derivation of yhyh (future), hyh (past) and hwh (present)

I mentioned earlier Newman’s association of makom with the synagogue. Interestingly, inscribed over the Ark in the sanctuary of many synagogues throughout the world are the Hebrew words דע לפני מי אתה עומד — da lifnei mi attah omed — “know before whom you stand” — which is based on a phrase found in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28b. This, in turn, recalls God’s words to Moses at the site of the burning bush: “…the place [ha-makom] upon which you stand is holy soil.” And it is here that God reveals the temporal nature of his name: yhwh.

And so we have a close proximity of place (makom), time (yhwh) and event (burning bush). It is also here that Moses emerges as a particular someone, a someone who stands in unique relation to the Divine:

“The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and God called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am! [hineni]’.”

Hineni: Here I am. With the word hineni, Moses emerges from anonymity into the self-consciousness of being-there in the presence of God. It is here, at this time, in the presence of God, that generates in Moses what Newman might have described as the feeling of “totality,” of his own “separateness” and “individuality.” In fact, this brings us full circle to the beginning of this essay where I cited Newman’s assertion that his painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis “should give man a sense of place [makom]: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself.”

To experience space fully, we must have a sense of time. Newman once remarked that the sensation of presence “is the sensation of time.” “Each person must feel it for himself,” he remarked. “The concern with space bores me. I insist on my experiences of sensations in time — not the sense of time but the physical sensation of time.”

It is the awareness of time (yhwh) that turns space into place, into makom or holy ground. This, I think, is what Newman successfully captures in his huge canvases (but also in his design for a synagogue and his sculptures). And it is why Newman deserves to be seen not just as a New York modernist but as a distinctly Jewish painter who manages to represent the sheer presence of being and time without resorting to pictorial representation (“do not make graven images”). Newman’s chromatic abstractions are, in my view, the finest examples of a bold Jewish art that aims for the heights of the Hebraic sublime.

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Broken Obelisk (designed between 1963 and 1967) in front of Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas 

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Is Spinoza’s pantheistic ontology a template for authoritarianism?

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OVERVIEW:

  • The pantheist ontology of Baruch Spinoza (b.1632 – d.1677) is an attempt to deny the accountability of political evil.
  • Spinoza’s instinct for statist control and his distrust of the common man are displayed in Theological-Political Treatise (published 1670). His masterwork, Ethics (published posthumously in 1677), is a bold attempt (in the guise of ontology) to classify minds and bodies as attributes of the State.
  • In Ethics, Spinoza ‘outlaws’ any vantage point from which we can address or protest the kind of ‘perfect power’ — and its attendant evils — that constitute the essence and existence of the State.

 

By Richard Mather

Little work has been done on the potentially negative effects of perfection and power in Spinoza’s Ethics and how his pantheistic ontology not only devalues theodicy, but affirms a model of power that resists accountability. Spinoza scholar Yitzhak Melamed has suggested there is a logically transitive relation between God’s essence, existence and attributes, but not much is said about how this relates to perfection and power. Brandon C. Look has examined the relation between power and perfection, but he concerns himself largely with the type of (positive) perfection experienced by the individual (e.g. joy as the transition from lesser perfection to greater perfection). There is still work to be done in examining the negative political implications of Spinoza’s system.

In Ethics, Spinoza draws the opposite conclusion from his Jewish intellectual forebear, Philo of Alexandria. Philo advances a theory of the transcendence of the Existent One, creator of the Good (but not evil). Philo makes a crucial distinction between God’s existence (which can be ascertained) and his essence (which is unknowable). For Spinoza, however, the essence of God does not exist in a transcendent dimension. Rather, “God’s existence and his essence are one and the same” (E1p20). And unlike Philo, Spinoza not only assigns everything to God, he says everything is God. Spinoza says there can only be one “substance,” a substance that is both the cause of itself and whose essence involves existence. Spinoza collapses the ontological difference between God and the world, a radical assertion of pantheism that eradicates transcendence and ushers in, perhaps for the first time, a philosophy of immanence.

(I have previously argued on this blog that Spinoza was a panentheist because of his assertion that God has an infinite number of attributes. However, all but two of these attributes are unknown, and they lie beyond the limits of language. And if there is nothing to be said about these unknown attributes (other than Spinoza’s speculative assertion that they exist), then it begs the question whether we should concern ourselves with them, especially if they contribute nothing to the political implications of Spinoza’s ontology.)

By collapsing the ontological difference between God and the world, Spinoza devalues the problem of evil because his pantheism outlaws the idea of a transcendent moral God. Ergo, evil cannot be explained; we can only describe its effects. Moreover, Spinoza’s rejection of transcendent values and the collapse of the God/Nature distinction leaves us (as “modes”) without any vantage point from which to critique power. All we have is a closed system of immanent causation in which God/Nature is the source of power, the expression of power (via the attributes), and the effects of power (modes). Not only is this power necessarily perfect, it is a permanent and ongoing state of affairs for the simple reason that substance is infinite. Spinoza’s refutation of teleology offers us nothing but an endless expression of this state of affairs. Human beings are likewise constrained in that they are simply modifications of substance.

One would mind less if Spinoza’s all-pervasive substance was good rather than icily perfect. But as Spinoza himself admits, God’s perfection is not the same as saying God is good. Far from it. Besides, what we judge to be good or bad is not true in any absolute sense, according to Spinoza: Good is merely whatever agrees with our nature.

And there is certainly no sense that Spinoza’s pantheistic God suffers, unlike Schopenhauer’s Will or William C. Lane’s pandeistic God who commits an act of self-emptying for the sake of love and suffers as part of the creation he has become. On the contrary, how things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference to Spinoza’s pantheistic God, because God is how things are in the world. Indeed, for Spinoza, it is not so much why (bad) things happen but how things happen.

True, Spinoza holds out the hope that some of us may reach a blessed state in which we are able to intuitively grasp the world as a whole “under the aspect of eternity,” but we know from Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise that this is realistically only available to an elite few. The common man and woman, by contrast, have to suffice with Spinoza’s seven dogmas of popular religion.

Tellingly, one of the reasons Spinoza elaborated his seven laws was the need for a popular religion to ensure discipline. Not only was this popular religion to be under the control of civil authorities, this state religion would be (by Spinoza’s own admission) a lie. It is important, Spinoza says, “that he who adheres to them [the doctrines of faith] knows not that they were false” [italics mine] because otherwise “he would necessarily be a rebel.”

Spinoza’s instinct for statist control can be seen in the assertion, “Whatever is, is in God and nothing can exist or be conceived without God” (E1p15). Or to put it another way: Whatever is, is in the State, and nothing can be conceived without the State. Spinoza’s substance-as-State expresses itself equally in things and in ideas (via the twin attributes of “extension” and “thought”), an astonishing concept when one realizes that ideas, thoughts and minds belong to substance/State as much as bodies do. In fact, the very concept of thought (not just individual thoughts) emanates from the State and belongs to the State.

None of which sits well in our post-Holocaust, post-Soviet world, in part because we have seen how power without accountability — a power that apparently constitutes substance’s “very essence” (E1p34) — can have barbaric consequences. This is of particular interest from a Jewish viewpoint, firstly because of Spinoza’s own troubled relationship with Judaism but also because any attempt to explain or justify evil in the wake of genocide and terrorism is morally and conceptually problematic.

Contrary to a competing claim (made by Antonio Negri) that Spinoza gives us an effective ‘other’ to power, Spinoza’s ontology is actually a closed system, a system that invites moral indifference because there is simply no place from which we, as modes, can critique power. Moreover, we are all guilty by implication because each of us is a modulation of this power, both mentally and physically. (Alain Badiou is closer to the truth of the matter when he says that “Spinoza represents the most radical attempt ever in ontology to identify structure and metastructure.”)

More work needs to be done to develop the suspicion that Spinoza’s pantheist ontology is a political ruse designed to bolster the power and reach of the State. But what kind of State? It seems to me that Spinoza is much less interested in social and economic policy than in the ontological apparatus needed to uphold civic and religious institutions with the supreme aim of ensuring discipline. Indeed, Spinoza’s system looks very much like a political and bureaucratic metastructure that manages people. 

There is no doubting that Spinoza is an impressive philosopher, perhaps one of the greatest-ever thinkers, but his icy metaphysics and his patent distrust of the common man and woman are troubling. Of course, Spinoza could not have foreseen the degree to which excessive and murderous statism would blight Europe’s political landscape during the the first half of the 20th century,  but he can (I think) be taken to task for lending credence to the type of managerial politics espoused by superbodies such as the European Union. And for that reason, it is worth reappraising Spinoza’s contribution to political thought.

Hermann Cohen: ethics, messianism and sin

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This is a collated version of parts one, two and three of my mini-series on the Jewish neo-Kantian ethicist Hermann Cohen.

Hermann Cohen (1842 – 1918) was a German-Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism and an intellectual precursor to the 20th century Jewish existentialist humanism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas. Starting from the proposition that ethics had to be universal, Cohen outlined a Kantian (and non-Marxist) ethical socialism rooted in the prophetic vision of the Hebrew bible.

By Richard Mather

Universal ethics

Hermann Cohen agreed with Immanuel Kant that ethics must be directed towards the well-being of humanity. The essential feature of this is its universality. As Cohen saw it, progress was (or at least ought to be) moving towards universal suffrage and democratic socialism. Following Kant, Cohen defended the so-called categorical imperative; that we should treat humanity in other persons always as an end and never as a means only. (Kant’s famous definition of the categorical imperative is to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”)

The categorical imperative contains, in Cohen’s words, “the moral progress of a new era and the entire future world history.” Although Cohen’s socialism owed more to Kant and the Hebrew prophets than it did to Karl Marx, he was nevertheless critical of capitalism because the individual worker runs the risk of being treated as a mere means for the ends of the employer.

Judaism as the religion of reason

According to Cohen, the human desire for universal ethics is the foundation for religious belief. God is the eternal source of moral law and provides humankind with the imperative to act ethically.

Cohen proclaimed Judaism as the historical source of the idea that humanity can be unified by a single set of ethical laws. He defined Judaism as a “religion of reason” — a revealed type of rationality. And since reason is something that belongs to all people everywhere, a religion of reason must therefore posit a single, unique God for all humanity. In short, a religion of reason must be monotheistic.

Judaism, as interpreted by Cohen, is a set of rational principles that are grounded in God. Not only is revelation given through reason, but a rational religion is necessarily a moral religion. As Kenneth Seeskin describes it in his book Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy, “God represents the highest moral standard possible: a being who wills the moral law for its own sake all the time.”

To know God is to accept the duty of fulfilling the moral law, and this involves imitating God’s attributes of mercy and forgiveness. In other words, holiness is morality.

Messianism

Cohen believed that it is the duty of the Jewish people to teach universal ethics and he cited the Seven Noahide Laws (the Seven Laws of Noah) as an example of a universally-applicable moral code that is rooted in the bible and in rabbinical thought. It is Judaism’s role to point to the ideal of fulfilled humanity and to draw others to it. Cohen asserted that “the general love for mankind is the messianic consequence of monotheism, for which the love of the stranger paved the way.”

Interestingly, Cohen played down the notion of brotherly love as the underlying principle of the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor. He instead identified law as the basis of the moral subject. Although “neighbor” in German has generally been understood as “one who is near,” Cohen argued that “neighbor” should be translated as “Other” or “Another.” As such, a man’s “neighbour” is actually the stranger or foreigner. We are commanded to protect the stranger because we are all equal before the law. As Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in Being and Nothingness, “To live in a world haunted by my neighbour is … to encounter the Other at every turn of the road.”

According to Cohen, since Jewish monotheism has an ethical dimension, it inevitably culminates in what he characterizes as prophetic messianism, which is “the dominion of the good on earth.”

He added: “Morality will be established in the human world. Against this confidence, no skepticism, no pessimism, no mysticism, no metaphysics, no experience of the world, no knowledge of men, no tragedy, and no comedy can prevail.”

For Cohen, messianism was no longer a hope for God to intervene in history. In fact, he dismissed the notion of a miraculous coming of the messiah. Messianism is simply a factor in world history. Rather than being a supernatural or eschatological event, it is an expression of faith that humanity is making progress towards the end of injustice. If the messianic future can be thought of as eternal, it is only in the sense that the progress of mankind and world history are eternal.

Ethics, law and autonomy

Convinced that ethics must be law-based, and that law and the State must be restored to the realm of ethics, Cohen called for legal rights to be the duty and goal of economic and cultural life. Indeed, in Cohen’s system of ethical jurisprudence, morality, rights and the law are very closely intertwined. Ethics must find its completion in the philosophy of law.

For Cohen, the ethical subject is a legal subject. Man is a moral actor when his actions can be held accountable in court and when he can claim or bring an action for his rights. As Robert Gibbs explains in his essay “Jurisprudence is the Organon of Ethics,” “action means not a claim simply to a right, but a claim to bring the claim to court.” Cohen’s assertion that each person not only has a claim to his rights but “the claim to a court’s judgement” should be seen in the context of the Seven Noahide Laws because one of those laws is the commandment to establish courts of justice.

Cohen was concerned that legality had for too long been empty of ethical content, partly as a result of the Apostle Paul’s polemics. Indeed, Cohen was highly critical of those who pursue a definition of legality that is divorced from what Gibbs terms “the inner freedom and ethical insight of duty done for its own sake.” By creating a suspicion of law by splitting it away from ethics, the likes of Apostle Paul and Martin Luther contributed to an unfortunate caricature of the Torah as emptily legalistic.

In Cohen’s view, the law becomes self-contradictory when ethics and legality are severed, and that is because we are left with laws arising through force. When legality is separated from the notion of duty done for its own sake, the only recourse by the State is coercion. When divorced from ethics, the law has to be imposed from the outside because it is no longer in our hearts and minds. The ethical-legal subject cannot be a free moral agent if he is coerced by the State into acting ethically.

Ethics, then, must unite inner freedom and law. Autonomy means we are free, but with respect to our will this means only that we may “impose on it a universal law” — the law of the categorical imperative. As Kenneth Seeskin points out in his book Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy, “[I]n the [Kantian] kingdom of ends, where everyone is rational and every subject’s humanity is respected, no one will follow any orders other than the ones she imposes on herself.”

So it seems that the ethical state is where the will of the individual finds the full meaning and expression of his or her freedom, protected from compulsion by the State. Andrea Poma, in her excellent book Yearning for Form, explains it thus:

“From the ethical viewpoint, however, this individual is, in the situation described, the bearer of the authority of the law; therefore he represents the State, and opposes any powerful, violent subject, though devoid of all authority, since the law only receives authority from itself: it produces the ethical subject and only this task justifies it.”

Science and ethics 

Cohen made a distinction between the logic of science and the ideal of ethics, and noted that the natural world and the world of ethics are perceived very differently. This is because the order of the physical world is unchangeable (e.g, the sun sets in the west, night follows day, etc), while in the ideal world ethical rules can be accepted or rejected. It seems there should be one explanation for science, which is empirically self-evident, and another for ethics, which is something that is open to debate. Cohen reasoned there must be something that allows science and ethics to coexist and interrelate.

Cohen’s answer was to call on God as the inevitable and ultimate ideal coincidence of what is (science, nature) with what ought to be (ethics). Or to put it another way, God is the eventual coincidence of human culture with nature; the real with the ideal. And because God stands outside nature and ethics, He points to the rapprochement between is and ought, thereby helping to bring about moral action in the world, the same moral action that is recommended by the Hebrew prophets as seen through the prism of the Kantian categorical imperative.

As Andrea Poma explains in Yearning for Form and Other Essays on Hermann Cohen’s Thought, the advantage of having a transcendent God is that neither nature nor morality can claim priority over the other, meaning that just as ethics must conform to science, so science must conform to ethics. Poma adds: “The idea of God establishes this connection [between nature and morality] securely. This connection, this unity is grounded in the two members of the system of philosophy, in accordance with its distinction from identity.”

For Cohen, then, scientific praxis and moral praxis must become reciprocal. Furthermore, and congruent with Cohen’s own prophetic messianism, it is in the future that ethical principles will be fully realized, at which time the ethical will merge with the ontological, so that being and morality no longer contradict each other. As Phillip Homburg remarks in Towards a Benjaminian Critique of Hermann Cohen’s Logical Idealism, Cohen aims “to assign ethics a status that raises it to the same level of dignity as the concepts of logic or mathematics.”

As well as bridging science and ethics, the Cohenian notion of correlation extends to the relationship between mankind and God. For Cohen, humans are rational creatures, and our ability to reason demands a particular kind of relationship with God. In fact, God’s awakening of reason in humans is God’s revelation to humanity; reason is how God communicates with mankind. (As a neo-Kantian, Cohen knows that reason is our faculty of making inferences, allowing us to move from the particular and contingent to the global and universal.)

It is important to note that the correlative relationship between God and humanity (which Cohen characterizes as the ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Spirit of Holiness’) is respectful of God’s separateness. As Norman Solomon explains in his essay “Cohen on Atonement, Purification and Repentance,” God and man in Cohen’s system of thought are “the inevitable counterpart of the other, mirroring but not merging.” Solomon goes on to say that merging “would obliterate the distinctiveness of God and human; it would verge on pantheism. God’s holiness demands human holiness as its correlate.”

Indeed, Solomon is right to refer to the bogeyman of pantheism because Cohen was markedly antagonistic towards the pantheistic doctrine that identifies God with the universe (or regards the universe as a manifestation of God). Cohen was adamant that while God is the capstone of both logic and ethics, He nevertheless transcends both. Cohen had nothing but disdain for any form of pantheism or mysticism in which God is equated with the world. In this respect, Cohen was very different from Spinoza, for whom God and Nature are virtually synonymous.

To recap, we see that Cohen defined God as the synthesis (albeit a transcendent synthesis) of nature and ethics, which will ultimately unify all humanity into a Kantian “kingdom of ends,” a world in which all human beings are treated as ends in themselves and not the mere means to an end for other people. The realization of the ideal, which is grounded in God and finds its ultimate fulfilment in Him, is mankind’s historic task, his ethical project.

And since the ethical task is distinguished from the immutable logic of being, the ethical task-as-project is thus not determined, only envisioned and recommended by the Hebrew prophets. As such, the ethical task is free to become realized by human beings. While for Sartre, the undefined, non-determined nature of man can never coincide with the brute reality of being-in-itself, for Cohen, the closing of the gap between the real and the ideal is mankind’s historical task, and he envisioned Judaism as fundamental to this duty.

The redemptive potentiality of sin

Anticipating Martin Buber, Cohen said we must recognize the living, breathing individual as a “Thou,” and not just as a generic example of humanity. As significant as the universal ethical ideal is for Cohen, he recognized that ethics is concerned with individuals only insofar as they are members of humanity as a whole. Ethics can’t always deal with individual moral feelings or with sin. In other words, it is religion — rather than ethics — that concerns itself with the sin of the individual.

It is the prophet Ezekiel whom Cohen singled out as bringing a new and important aspect into early Judaism: the sin of the individual for which he alone stands responsible before God. This is Cohen’s interpretation of Ezekiel’s “Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions whereby you have transgressed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (18:31). Whereas ethics offers a collective but not individual self-transformation, Ezekiel’s Judaism promises personal liberation from sin through repentance.

It is only when we acknowledge our own moral failings that it is possible for us to atone and to strive for moral improvement. This act of atonement establishes an intimate and personal relationship between the individual and God. And in relating to God, the individual becomes a unique moral and religious self:

“The apex of monotheism is Messianism, but its center of gravity lies in the relation between God and the individual. At this point Ezekiel deviates from the mainstream of Messianism, insofar as he ceases to look at the world and turns to an inward look into the individual. Ezekiel transmitted to religion the God of the individual man” (Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism).

Moreover, it is through Ezekiel that God informs us that the fateful correlation between sin and punishment is now broken, and so the punishment of death is abolished. In Jewish Writings, Cohen stated that to “sever the connection between suffering and guilt – to discard, that is, the notion that suffering is a punishment for guilt – is one of the most far-reaching consequences of monotheistic thinking, and of momentous significance for man’s approach to the social problem.”

As well as breaking the old connection between sin and punishment, Ezekiel tells us that teshuvah (repentance) now stands as a substitute for public sacrifice. The prophetic rejection of burnt offerings leads to the religious birth of the individual who, instead of performing a public act of sacrifice, now engages in an inward sacrifice of introspection, private repentance and moral improvement. “In myself, I have to study sin, and through sin I must learn to know myself […] I am permeated by the thought that I do not know any man’s wickedness as deeply, as clearly, as my own,” Cohen wrote in Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism.

Interestingly, Cohen offered the view that sin and its subsequent repression has the effect of making a person unique: it lifts him or her out of the impersonal totality of nature. Indeed, it is through sin — and in the recognition of sin — that man first becomes an authentic individual. Nevertheless, the sinner has a choice: stay unique in your sin (we are uniquely bad rather than uniquely good, it seems), or repent and return to the ethical community.

“[For Ezekiel] the individual raises himself up out of his social environment, and indeed through his own sin,” Cohen said. But this sin “is not an end-station for man, but rather an ever repeated beginning of an ever-opening new life.” A new beginning “must be joined” to the public realm, that is, a return to the world.

In other words, sin, introspection and repentance ought to be followed with a renewed commitment to the messianic task of raising up humanity and helping to relieve the suffering of the exploited and the abused, so that they may live better lives. Or as the prophet puts it: God does not desire the death of him who transgresses; rather, God wants you to “turn away and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32)

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Hermann Cohen and the redemptive potentiality of sin

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This is the concluding part of a three-part series on the Jewish ethicist Hermann Cohen.

Hermann Cohen (b.1842 – d.1918) was a German-Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism and an intellectual precursor to the Jewish existentialist humanism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas. Starting from the proposition that ethics had to be universal, Cohen outlined a Kantian (and non-Marxist) ethical socialism rooted in the prophetic vision of the Hebrew bible.

By Richard Mather 

Do I desire the death of the wicked? says the Lord God. Is it not rather in his repenting of his ways that he may live? […] Therefore, every man according to his ways I will judge you […] Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions whereby you have transgressed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, and why should you die […] For I do not desire the death of him who dies, says the Lord God: so turn away and live! (Ezekiel chapter 18, verses 23, 30a, 31, 32)

Anticipating Martin Buber, Hermann Cohen said we must recognize the living, breathing individual as a “Thou,” and not just as a generic example of humanity. As significant as the universal ethical ideal is for Cohen, he recognized that ethics is concerned with individuals only insofar as they are members of humanity as a whole. Ethics can’t always deal with individual moral feelings or with sin. In other words, it is religion — rather than ethics — that concerns itself with the sin of the individual.

It is the prophet Ezekiel whom Cohen singled out as bringing a new and important aspect into early Judaism: the sin of the individual for which he alone stands responsible before God. This is Cohen’s interpretation of Ezekiel’s “Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions whereby you have transgressed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (18:31). Whereas ethics offers a collective but not individual self-transformation, Ezekiel’s Judaism promises personal liberation from sin through repentance.

It is only when we acknowledge our own moral failings that it is possible for us to atone and to strive for moral improvement. This act of atonement establishes an intimate and personal relationship between the individual and God. And in relating to God, the individual becomes a unique moral and religious self:

“The apex of monotheism is Messianism, but its center of gravity lies in the relation between God and the individual. At this point Ezekiel deviates from the mainstream of Messianism, insofar as he ceases to look at the world and turns to an inward look into the individual. Ezekiel transmitted to religion the God of the individual man” (Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism).

Moreover, it is through Ezekiel that God informs us that the fateful correlation between sin and punishment is now broken, and so the punishment of death is abolished. In Jewish Writings, Cohen stated that to “sever the connection between suffering and guilt – to discard, that is, the notion that suffering is a punishment for guilt – is one of the most far-reaching consequences of monotheistic thinking, and of momentous significance for man’s approach to the social problem.”

As well as breaking the old connection between sin and punishment, Ezekiel tells us that teshuvah (repentance) now stands as a substitute for public sacrifice. The prophetic rejection of burnt offerings leads to the religious birth of the individual who, instead of performing a public act of sacrifice, now engages in an inward sacrifice of introspection, private repentance and moral improvement. “In myself, I have to study sin, and through sin I must learn to know myself […] I am permeated by the thought that I do not know any man’s wickedness as deeply, as clearly, as my own,” Cohen wrote in Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism.

Interestingly, Cohen offered the view that sin and its subsequent repression has the effect of making a person unique: it lifts him or her out of the impersonal totality of nature. Indeed, it is through sin — and in the recognition of sin — that man first becomes an authentic individual. Nevertheless, the sinner has a choice: stay unique in your sin (we are uniquely bad rather than uniquely good, it seems), or repent and return to the ethical community.

“[For Ezekiel] the individual raises himself up out of his social environment, and indeed through his own sin,” Cohen said. But this sin “is not an end-station for man, but rather an ever repeated beginning of an ever-opening new life.” A new beginning “must be joined” to the public realm, that is, a return to the world.

In other words, sin, introspection and repentance ought to be followed with a renewed commitment to the messianic task of raising up humanity and helping to relieve the suffering of the exploited and the abused, so that they may live better lives. Or as the prophet puts it: God does not desire the death of him who transgresses; rather, God wants you to “turn away and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32)

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This was the concluding part of a three-part series on the Jewish ethicist Hermann Cohen.

To read part 1, click here

To read part 2, click here

 

 

 

 

The correlation of science and ethics in Hermann Cohen’s philosophy

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Part two of a series on the philosophy of Hermann Cohen

Hermann Cohen (1842 – 1918) was a German-Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism and an intellectual precursor to the Jewish existentialist humanism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas. Starting from the proposition that ethics had to be universal, Cohen outlined a Kantian (and non-Marxist) ethical socialism rooted in the prophetic vision of the Hebrew bible.

By Richard Mather

Hermann Cohen made a distinction between the logic of science and the ideal of ethics, and noted that the natural world and the world of ethics are perceived very differently. This is because the order of the physical world is unchangeable (e.g, the sun sets in the west, night follows day, etc), while in the ideal world ethical rules can be accepted or rejected. It seems there should be one explanation for science, which is empirically self-evident, and another for ethics, which is something that is open to debate. Cohen reasoned there must be something that allows science and ethics to coexist and interrelate.

Cohen’s answer was to call on God as the inevitable and ultimate ideal coincidence of what is (science, nature) with what ought to be (ethics). Or to put it another way, God is the eventual coincidence of human culture with nature; the real with the ideal. And because God stands outside nature and ethics, He points to the rapprochement between is and ought, thereby helping to bring about moral action in the world, the same moral action that is recommended by the Hebrew prophets as seen through the prism of the Kantian categorical imperative.

As Andrea Poma explains in Yearning for Form and Other Essays on Hermann Cohen’s Thought, the advantage of having a transcendent God is that neither nature nor morality can claim priority over the other, meaning that just as ethics must conform to science, so science must conform to ethics. Poma adds: “The idea of God establishes this connection [between nature and morality] securely. This connection, this unity is grounded in the two members of the system of philosophy, in accordance with its distinction from identity.”

For Cohen, then, scientific praxis and moral praxis must become reciprocal. Furthermore, and congruent with Cohen’s own prophetic messianism, it is in the future that ethical principles will be fully realized, at which time the ethical will merge with the ontological, so that being and morality no longer contradict each other. As Phillip Homburg remarks in Towards a Benjaminian Critique of Hermann Cohen’s Logical Idealism, Cohen aims “to assign ethics a status that raises it to the same level of dignity as the concepts of logic or mathematics.”

As well as bridging science and ethics, the Cohenian notion of correlation extends to the relationship between mankind and God. For Cohen, humans are rational creatures, and our ability to reason demands a particular kind of relationship with God. In fact, God’s awakening of reason in humans is God’s revelation to humanity; reason is how God communicates with mankind. (As a neo-Kantian, Cohen knows that reason is our faculty of making inferences, allowing us to move from the particular and contingent to the global and universal.)

It is important to note that the correlative relationship between God and humanity (which Cohen characterizes as the ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Spirit of Holiness’) is respectful of God’s separateness. As Norman Solomon explains in his essay “Cohen on Atonement, Purification and Repentance,” God and man in Cohen’s system of thought are “the inevitable counterpart of the other, mirroring but not merging.” Solomon goes on to say that merging “would obliterate the distinctiveness of God and human; it would verge on pantheism. God’s holiness demands human holiness as its correlate.”

Indeed, Solomon is right to refer to the bogeyman of pantheism because Cohen was markedly antagonistic towards the pantheistic doctrine that identifies God with the universe (or regards the universe as a manifestation of God). Cohen was adamant that while God is the capstone of both logic and ethics, He nevertheless transcends both. Cohen had nothing but disdain for any form of pantheism or mysticism in which God is equated with the world. In this respect, Cohen was very different from Spinoza, for whom God and Nature are virtually synonymous.

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To recap part two of this series on Cohen’s thought, we see that Cohen defined God as the synthesis (albeit a transcendent synthesis) of nature and ethics, which will ultimately unify all humanity into a Kantian “kingdom of ends,” a world in which all human beings are treated as ends in themselves and not the mere means to an end for other people. The realization of the ideal, which is grounded in God and finds its ultimate fulfilment in Him, is mankind’s historic task, his ethical project.

And since the ethical task is distinguished from the immutable logic of being, the ethical task-as-project is thus not determined, only envisioned and recommended by the Hebrew prophets. As such, the ethical task is free to become realized by human beings. While for Sartre, the undefined, non-determined nature of man can never coincide with the brute reality of being-in-itself, for Cohen, the closing of the gap between the real and the ideal is mankind’s historical task, and he envisioned Judaism as fundamental to this duty.

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[Coming soon: Hermann Cohen and the redemptive potentiality of sin]   

To read part 1, click here

 

 

The ethical idealism and prophetic messianism of Hermann Cohen

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Hermann Cohen (1842 – 1918) was a German-Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism and an intellectual precursor to the 20th century Jewish existentialist humanism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas. Starting from the proposition that ethics had to be universal, Cohen outlined a Kantian (and non-Marxist) ethical socialism rooted in the prophetic vision of the Hebrew bible.

By Richard Mather

Universal ethics

Hermann Cohen agreed with Immanuel Kant that ethics must be directed towards the well-being of humanity. The essential feature of this is its universality. As Cohen saw it, progress was (or at least ought to be) moving towards universal suffrage and democratic socialism. Following Kant, Cohen defended the so-called categorical imperative; that we should treat humanity in other persons always as an end and never as a means only. (Kant’s famous definition of the categorical imperative is to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”)

The categorical imperative contains, in Cohen’s words, “the moral progress of a new era and the entire future world history.” Although Cohen’s socialism owed more to Kant and the Hebrew prophets than it did to Karl Marx, he was nevertheless critical of capitalism because the individual worker runs the risk of being treated as a mere means for the ends of the employer.

Judaism as the religion of reason

According to Cohen, the human desire for universal ethics is the foundation for religious belief. God is the eternal source of moral law and provides humankind with the imperative to act ethically.

Cohen proclaimed Judaism as the historical source of the idea that humanity can be unified by a single set of ethical laws. He defined Judaism as a “religion of reason” — a revealed type of rationality. And since reason is something that belongs to all people everywhere, a religion of reason must therefore posit a single, unique God for all humanity. In short, a religion of reason must be monotheistic.

Judaism, as interpreted by Cohen, is a set of rational principles that are grounded in God. Not only is revelation given through reason, but a rational religion is necessarily a moral religion. As Kenneth Seeskin describes it in his book Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy, “God represents the highest moral standard possible: a being who wills the moral law for its own sake all the time.”

To know God is to accept the duty of fulfilling the moral law, and this involves imitating God’s attributes of mercy and forgiveness. In other words, holiness is morality.

Messianism

Cohen believed that it is the duty of the Jewish people to teach universal ethics and he cited the Seven Noahide Laws (the Seven Laws of Noah) as an example of a universally-applicable moral code that is rooted in the bible and in rabbinical thought. It is Judaism’s role to point to the ideal of fulfilled humanity and to draw others to it. Cohen asserted that “the general love for mankind is the messianic consequence of monotheism, for which the love of the stranger paved the way.”

Interestingly, Cohen played down the notion of brotherly love as the underlying principle of the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor. He instead identified law as the basis of the moral subject. Although “neighbor” in German has generally been understood as “one who is near,” Cohen argued that “neighbor” should be translated as “Other” or “Another.” As such, a man’s “neighbour” is actually the stranger or foreigner. We are commanded to protect the stranger because we are all equal before the law. As Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in Being and Nothingness, “To live in a world haunted by my neighbour is … to encounter the Other at every turn of the road.”

According to Cohen, since Jewish monotheism has an ethical dimension, it inevitably culminates in what he characterizes as prophetic messianism, which is “the dominion of the good on earth.”

He added: “Morality will be established in the human world. Against this confidence, no skepticism, no pessimism, no mysticism, no metaphysics, no experience of the world, no knowledge of men, no tragedy, and no comedy can prevail.”

For Cohen, messianism was no longer a hope for God to intervene in history. In fact, he dismissed the notion of a miraculous coming of the messiah. Messianism is simply a factor in world history. Rather than being a supernatural or eschatological event, it is an expression of faith that humanity is making progress towards the end of injustice. If the messianic future can be thought of as eternal, it is only in the sense that the progress of mankind and world history are eternal.

Ethics, law and autonomy

Convinced that ethics must be law-based, and that law and the State must be restored to the realm of ethics, Cohen called for legal rights to be the duty and goal of economic and cultural life. Indeed, in Cohen’s system of ethical jurisprudence, morality, rights and the law are very closely intertwined. Ethics must find its completion in the philosophy of law.

For Cohen, the ethical subject is a legal subject. Man is a moral actor when his actions can be held accountable in court and when he can claim or bring an action for his rights. As Robert Gibbs explains in his essay “Jurisprudence is the Organon of Ethics,” “action means not a claim simply to a right, but a claim to bring the claim to court.” Cohen’s assertion that each person not only has a claim to his rights but “the claim to a court’s judgement” should be seen in the context of the Seven Noahide Laws because one of those laws is the commandment to establish courts of justice.

Cohen was concerned that legality had for too long been empty of ethical content, partly as a result of the Apostle Paul’s polemics. Indeed, Cohen was highly critical of those who pursue a definition of legality that is divorced from what Gibbs terms “the inner freedom and ethical insight of duty done for its own sake.” By creating a suspicion of law by splitting it away from ethics, the likes of Apostle Paul and Martin Luther contributed to an unfortunate caricature of the Torah as emptily legalistic.

In Cohen’s view, the law becomes self-contradictory when ethics and legality are severed, and that is because we are left with laws arising through force. When legality is separated from the notion of duty done for its own sake, the only recourse by the State is coercion. When divorced from ethics, the law has to be imposed from the outside because it is no longer in our hearts and minds. The ethical-legal subject cannot be a free moral agent if he is coerced by the State into acting ethically.

Ethics, then, must unite inner freedom and law. Autonomy means we are free, but with respect to our will this means only that we may “impose on it a universal law” — the law of the categorical imperative. As Kenneth Seeskin points out in his book Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy, “[I]n the [Kantian] kingdom of ends, where everyone is rational and every subject’s humanity is respected, no one will follow any orders other than the ones she imposes on herself.”

So it seems that the ethical situation is where the will of the individual finds the full meaning and expression of his or her freedom, protected from compulsion by the State. Andrea Poma, in her excellent book Yearning for Form, explains it thus:

“From the ethical viewpoint, however, this individual is, in the situation described, the bearer of the authority of the law; therefore he represents the State, and opposes any powerful, violent subject, though devoid of all authority, since the law only receives authority from itself: it produces the ethical subject and only this task justifies it.”

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[Coming soon: The correlation of science and ethics in Hermann Cohen’s philosophy]

‘Our English Zion’: Oliver Cromwell and the Jews

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“Build up the breaches, and re-establish the bulwarks of our English Zion” – Sir Walter Scott, Woodstock

Oliver Cromwell. Statesman, soldier, Puritan, Lord Protector and friend of the Jews. Contemporary accounts show that European Jewish intellectuals in the 1650s saw Cromwell’s philosemitism and his efforts to readmit Jews in England as proof that the great man was on a godly mission to save Jews and establish Zion – both in England and in the ancient boundaries of Israel. In 1657 – 360 years ago – the newly-confident Jewish community commenced synagogue services in London.

By Richard Mather

In 1655, a rabbi named Menasseh ben Israel arrived in London from Amsterdam. His purpose was to petition the English head of state, Oliver Cromwell, concerning the return of the Jews to England. “I am not come to make any disturbance … but only to live with my Nation in the fear of the Lord, under the shadow of your protection, while we expect with you the hope of Israel to be revealed,” wrote Manasseh in his petition.

Cromwell’s favourable attitude toward Jews was so marked that at least one of Manasseh’s retinue was said to have identified Cromwell as the Messiah. A Jewish delegation was sent to examine Cromwell’s baptismal records in Huntington, to see if he descended from King David. Did Jews really believe Cromwell was the messiah? Perhaps it was a case of wishful thinking on the part of some Jews. More likely it was a case of mischief-making by royalists and foreign agents who wished to sow discord among the English by falsely claiming that Cromwell was Jewish. Either way, it seems clear that continental Jews – especially Manasseh – were in awe of Cromwell. Indeed, Jewish fondness for Cromwell runs deep. Centuries later, Jewish psychiatrist Sigmund Freud named one of his sons Oliver out of gratitude for Cromwell’s protection of the Jews, and in 2006, 350 years after their return to England, Jewish communities throughout the country celebrated three and a half centuries of British Jewish life.

Changing attitudes

The first written record of Jewish settlement in England dates from 1070. According to William of Malmesbury, William the Conqueror brought Jews from Rouen to England. But anti-Jewish sentiment was never far away. Anthony Julius finds that the English were endlessly imaginative in inventing anti-Semitic allegations against the Jews, most infamously the blood libel. (In this regard, not much has changed in England judging from today’s excruciating amount of Jew-hatred on the Left and in the Muslim community.) Things came to a head in 1290, when Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion, whereby the Jews were formally expelled from England. Apart from a handful of secret Jews, England was Judenfrei (Jew-free) for almost four hundred years.

The first half of the seventeenth century saw a modest change in English attitudes towards Jews thanks to the Puritans’ high regard for the Hebrew scriptures and their contempt for Hellenism and paganism. There was a fashion for biblical Hebrew names. Paul, Peter, Anne and Mary were out; Habakkuk, Amos, Enoch, Rebecca and Sarah were in. A Hebrew dictionary (the most complete to date) was produced by the parliamentarian Edward Leigh. The poet and pamphleteer John Milton (whose Christian epic Paradise Lost was published 350 years ago in 1667) recommended the teaching of Hebrew in English grammar schools. And in 1653, a radical overhaul of English law was proposed, including the institution of Mosaic Law, with England modelled on biblical Israel. Although nothing ever came of the idea, there was still a drive to create a godly society – an English Zion – where pagan holidays and festivities (Christmas, maypole dancing etc) were abolished.

Common to both Puritans and Jews was the widely-held belief that the year 1666 was going to a decisive year (think of the pseudo-messiah Shabetai Tsvi) – perhaps the restoration of the Jewish commonwealth in its ancient boundaries and the arrival of the messiah. Indeed, some Puritans were moved to help Jews recreate the Jewish commonwealth in Eretz Israel. And there was also a tradition held by Jews and Puritans that the Jewish diaspora must be extended to all corners of the world – and this included England – before the ingathering of the exiles could begin.

Exploding the myth of Puritan intolerance

Contrary to the popular and untrue portrayal of Puritans as intolerant, many Puritans (Cromwell among them) were quite liberal in matters of freedom of religion. True, one of the first acts of censorship by the Commonwealth in 1649 had been to seize an edition of the Quran printed in London, but attitudes towards Jews and other protestant sects were remarkably liberal. Cromwell, it seems, sought a union of “godly people” comprising Jews, Puritans and other gentiles. “Is it ingenuous to ask for liberty, and not to give it?” asked Cromwell somewhat rhetorically.

There was a small but influential community of Marranos (Jews who converted to the Christian faith to escape persecution but who continued to practice Judaism secretly) in London, living outwardly as Spanish Catholics, who wanted legal recognition. In the atmosphere of philosemitism, it was only natural that they wanted to legalize their position. At the same time, European Jews were already coming back to England, albeit illegally. The expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century had made England a place of refuge for Marranos who settled in York, Dover and London.

There were also economic considerations. Cromwell was aware of the Jewish community’s involvement in the economics of the Netherlands, now England’s leading commercial rival. All of which led to his encouraging Jews to return to England in the hope that they would help speed up the recovery of the country after the disruption of the Civil Wars.

Enter the Jews

Menasseh ben Israel, an Amsterdam-based rabbi, author, bookseller and scholar, arrived in London in September 1655, with a delegation and members of his family. He personally petitioned Cromwell for the readmission of the Jews, for government protection, for the withdrawal of all laws against Jews, as well as a new synagogue, a cemetery, and the right to trade. It was agreed that a conference should be convened to discuss the issues.

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Menasseh ben Israel

Those summoned to attend the Whitehall conference of 1655 included Puritan religious leaders and merchants, as well as some of the most eminent judges and lawyers in the country who declared that there was no law preventing Jews from residing in England, as the 1290 expulsion had only applied to Jews who were then resident in England. However, both religious leaders and merchants – for very different reasons – opposed the readmission. After debating for a fortnight, no decision could be reached. Disgusted, Cromwell berated the participants and dismissed them. All was not lost, however. Unofficially at least, he had decided to readmit the Jews. Cromwell’s personal sympathies were manifested in the pension of £100 granted to Manasseh ben Israel.

And so Cromwell permitted Jews to reside and trade in England, albeit informally. A lease for Creechurch Lane Synagogue was acquired on 16 December 1656 and services commenced January 1657. This was the first synagogue to be established following the readmission of the Jews to England. In February, the community acquired a lease of land in Mile End, to the east of the city, for use as a cemetery, the first Jewish cemetery in England since the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. Meanwhile, Solomon Dormido, a nephew of Menasseh ben Israel, was admitted to the Royal Exchange as a duly licensed broker of the City of London, without taking the usual oath involving a statement of faith in Christianity.

And so began a renewal of Jewish life in England.

Ironically, it was following the collapse of Cromwell’s godly republic that the Jews were legally admitted to England. In 1664, King Charles II issued a formal written promise of protection, and in 1674 and 1685 further royal declarations were made confirming that statement. In 1698, the Act for Suppressing Blasphemy granted recognition to the legality of practicing Judaism in England. William III knighted the first Jew, Solomon de Medina, on June 23, 1700.

The Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753 was an attempt to give foreign-born Jews the ability to acquire the privileges of native Jews, but it was quickly rescinded due to anti-Jewish agitation. In 1846, the obsolete statute “De Judaismo,” which prescribed a special dress for Jews, was formally repealed. In 1858 came the emancipation of the Jews and a change in the Christian oath required of all members of Parliament (since 1858, Parliament has never been without Jewish members). There was significant Jewish immigration from eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, and in the 1930s and 1940s, some European Jews came to England to escape the Nazi menace.

Today, the Jewish population in the UK stands at just under 300,000 – the fifth largest Jewish community in the world and the second-largest Jewish population in Europe. About two-thirds of the UK’s Jews live in the south-west of the country, with substantial communities further north, particularly in Greater Manchester, Leeds, Gateshead and Glasgow. Indeed, Manchester’s Jewish population is said to be the fastest-growing in Europe. Much of this can be attributed, at least in part, to the remarkable Oliver Cromwell, described by the poet Milton as “our chief of men.”

Final thoughts

In 1658 Cromwell was struck by a sudden bout of malarial fever, followed by a urinary or kidney complaint. He died aged 59 at Whitehall on Friday 3 September 1658. His death was a great loss to England and the republican cause. Fast forward three-and-a-half centuries, and British Jews (republicans and monarchists alike) view Cromwell with admiration for his religious tolerance and his fair-mindedness. Still, one question needs to be asked and that is, should Cromwell have legally readmitted the Jews instead of just allowing an informal arrangement?

Perhaps. But as it turned out, Cromwell’s informal decision was a good thing because when Charles II came to the throne in 1660 there was no statute to cancel and so things carried on as they were. Besides, the informal nature of the resettlement meant that opposition to Jewish readmission was unable to coalesce. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains it this way: “The fact that there was no formal legislation readmitting the Jews, which we could view negatively, actually worked out rather positively because other countries which enacted specific legislation found that this became subject to enormous public debate, and sometimes these countries took several steps backwards, sooner or later revoking those laws.” (Quote given to a Financial Times journalist in 2006.)

It should also be remembered that although many Puritans lauded the Hebrews as the noblest race in the world, acceptance of actual flesh-and-blood Jews was still a novel position in seventeenth-century England. There was opposition from religious figureheads who feared Judaism, and there was economic opposition from merchants. In addition, Cromwell’s royalist enemies (and there were many) drew a parallel with the political execution of Charles I, saying that the killing of the king was akin to the death of Jesus Christ, and that Jew and Puritan alike were deserving of exile. It was against this background that Cromwell somehow managed to pave the way for the political, religious, economic and cultural emancipation of the Jews in England. His outlook was largely shaped by the biblical traditions of the Hebrew scriptures, and combined with his passion for liberty of conscience, this predisposed him to regard the Jewish people with favor. And for this, we are extremely grateful.

Spinoza was right: Free inquiry means piety and peace

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By Richard Mather/Israel News Online 

The political outlook of Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) is much like that of Thomas Hobbes, writes Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo in the Addison County Independent.

“This is not surprising, for he schooled himself in Hobbes’ writings and appropriated most of his ideas from them. Yet on one theme in particular, he far exceeded Hobbes — the topic of free inquiry into the nature of things, or as Spinoza described it, the freedom to philosophize and to publish one’s thoughts and discoveries,” says Nuovo.

Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (published in 1670) makes the claim that this freedom not only does no harm to domestic tranquility and religion, but that the peace and piety of a society depends entirely on it, Nuovo says.

Nuovo points out that Spinoza fastened upon this claim while reading Hobbes. In chapter 12 of his major text Leviathan, Hobbes explains the origin of religion. Hobbes observes that humans are curious creatures and are inquisitive about the causes of things, especially those things that are potentially beneficial or harmful.

From painful experiences we know that these causes often occur without our knowledge, much less our bidding.

“Ours, then, is an anxious and perpetual curiosity, motivated by fear of what may come, by fear of the unknown. In this anxious state of mind we imagine causes, powerful unnatural forces, which we personalize, hoping that by offering them homage we might gain their favor and insure ourselves against misfortune. Thus arise, in the human imagination, the panoply of Gods, demons, invisible spirits, who are taken to be our guardians or destroyers,” writes Nuovo.

Sadly, there are those who exploit our anxieties by inventing magical rites, religious cults and assorted superstitions.

Nuovo continues, “But, Hobbes remarks, there is another kind of human curiosity, which is disinterested and impartial; it is a purely intellectual desire to know and that leads the mind to conclude that there is a first cause of existence that is eternal and infinite, and a supreme power of nature that is omnipotent and inexhaustible.”

This search is impartial and fearless. And it results in the conclusion that there is a single and ultimate power of nature, which is the source of everything, and which we call God.

“This is a purely intellectual notion of God, unaccompanied by neither fear nor hope, but seasoned by pure wonder,” says Nuovo.

Nuovo believes that Spinoza pored over Hobbes’ Leviathan, and did so because he was led there by the central belief of his own monist philosophy, which is that God and Nature (Deus, sive Natura) are one and the same, and that God is the ultimate and rational principle of everything, whose ways can explained. And in the light of this discovery, we learn that the world was not created for the sake of human beings.

Nuovo continues, “The search after truth is an act of pure piety. We honor truth, we respect it, not because it is something we can own, like riches or power that we can use to our advantage, but because truth has no owner. It offers no advantages to anyone. Truth offers only itself, and it is the ultimate judge of all our reasoning and judgments concerning it.”

Truth is clear and transparent. It is enlightening, the very opposite of mystery. It is also joyful.

“Moreover, a society founded on the principle that free rational enquiry shall not be abridged will be free of internal conflict. It will not be plagued by internal conflicts between zealous advocates of rival orthodoxies, whether religious or secular, or by the machinations of predatory demagogues, because every claim to truth will be subject to rational scrutiny, to a calm and dispassionate enquiry by everyone everywhere,” Nuovo says.

According to Spinoza, the commitment to free inquiry manifests itself in our right to change our minds whenever we discover that our beliefs are in error. And in so doing, we will have discovered for ourselves that truth is something to be honored.

“This is the surest means to peace and piety,” concludes Nuovo. “I believe Spinoza had it right.”

To read Victor Nuovo’s article on Spinoza and Hobbes visit here

Spinoza’s intellectual love of God

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Baruch Spinoza

It is a popular misconception that Spinoza was a pantheist or even an atheist. He was not. Like the medieval Kabbalists, Spinoza was a panentheist.

By Richard Mather 

Panentheism, meaning “all-in-God,” is situated somewhere between pantheism and classical theism. For pantheists, the world is identical to God, while for classical theists, the world is completely external to God. Panentheists believe  three things: that the world is within God, that God is in all things, and that God is also supernaturally transcendent. To put it another way, God is ontologically at one with the universe and yet remains greater than the universe. The universe does not exhaust what it means to be God.

To use the terminology of mathematical set theory, the universe – the totality of facts, ideas and things – is a subset of God.

If the word panentheist seems alien to Judaism, a synonymous term is available: monistic monotheism. Either way, such a conception of God can be found in medieval esoteric Judaism (Kabbalah), in the writings of seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and in hasidut (Hasidic Judaism) and even in yahadut mitkhadeshet (Reconstructionist Judaism).

In his youth, Spinoza was exposed to Abraham Cohen de Herrera’s Gate of Heaven, a widely influential work of Jewish mysticism written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew. This work was apparently used by Spinoza’s Talmud teachers, Manasseh ben Israel and Saul Levi Morteira. According to de Herrera, God is not just hidden in himself but is also immanent in the universe. Indeed, the material universe “is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God.”

A classic Judeo-panentheistic formulation is memaleh [filling] kol almin u’sosev kol almin – that God fills and surrounds all worlds. This formulation is found in ha-Zohar (the Zohar) and the twelfth-century hymn Shir HaYichud, which contains the words: “All of them are in You and You are in all of them” and “You surround all and fill all and when all exists You are in all.” Similarly, the kabbalist Hayyim Ibn Atar writes in his commentary Or Ha-Hayyim, “The world is in its Creator and the light of the Creator is in the whole world.”

According to hasidut (which emerged as a popular movement less than a hundred years after Spinoza’s death), God both transcends and indwells the universe. The phrase, “The whole earth is full of His glory,” from Sefer  Yeshayahu (Isaiah) is taken to mean that God is in all things.

Hasidic Jews believe that the multiplicity of things we observe in the universe , including ourselves, is due to the screening of the divine light that prevents us from perceiving God as He is in Himself. Similarly, Spinoza refers to things, including ourselves, as “modes” or modifications of God. Both Hasidic Jews and Spinoza believe that only God is substantial. There can be no other substance in the universe but God. That is not to say that individual things aren’t real, just that they are modifications of God and are dependent upon God for their existence.

For Spinoza, because God is infinite, He therefore has infinite attributes, including mind and matter. But the attributes of mind and matter do not exhaust God’s attributes. Because God is infinite, God must have an infinite number of attributes, of which we know nothing. There must be an infinity of other divine attributes that are hidden from us, that transcend our senses and our knowledge.

Spinoza has been erroneously characterised as a pantheist because he asserted Deus sive Natura, which means “God or nature.” But he did not mean that God and nature (i.e. the universe) are synonymous terms, but rather that nature is God, but not God in His entirety. The  two attributes known to us – mind and matter – signify God’s indwelling in the universe. But His transcendence is secured by his infinitely many attributes, of which we can only guess.

As such, there are two inter-related aspects of God in Spinozism. First, there is the active, productive aspect, which is God and his attributes, from which all else follows. This is what Spinoza calls natura naturans (“nature creating”), which is wholly identical with God. Secondly, he employed the term natura naturata (or “nature created”) to describe the aspect of God when it is predicated into “modes” such as the laws of motion and rest, logic, the Milky Way, cats, buildings, rocks, minds, beliefs and so on.

Likewise, mystical Jews sometimes envision two aspects of God: Firstly, the impersonal Ein Sof (meaning “there is no end”), which is God in essence, absolutely transcendent, unknowable and limitless, hidden. Secondly, there is God in manifestation, the revealed aspect of God, which is accessible to human perception, and is dynamically interacting through spiritual and physical existence.

It would be a mistake to think of this as a dualistic conception. If so, the Kabbalists wouldn’t have been able to remain true to the strict monotheism of rabbinical Judaism. Rather, they sought (as they still do) to make the universe holy by unifying God-as-Other with God-as-immanent. Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza made a subtle distinction between two aspects of God, and like the Kabbalists, he also had the  fundamental insight that God is one substantial whole. Indeed, God is the only substantial whole.

Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza believed that there is nothing external to God, nothing outside of Him. And like the Kabbalists, Spinoza held that everything that exists is a part of God and is brought into being by God.

Because God is everywhere, and because holiness is literally in the world, religious Jews often emphasise simcha or joy. A popular teaching by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is mitzvah gedolah le’hiyot besimcha tamid – “it is a great mitzvah to always be in a state of happiness.” Similarly, Spinoza talks of the “intellectual love of God,” which is when the mind perceives God not only as essence but as the immanent causal power of the universe.

Spinoza writes of the person who has attained the intellectual love  of God that he “is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possess true peace of mind.” Spinoza refers to this as “blessedness,” which is similar in meaning to shalem (and hence shalom), a Hebrew word-concept signifying wholeness, harmony, prosperity, delight, peace.

Whether we call it blessedness or shalem, the webbing together of God, humans and  creation is at the heart of both Spinozism and rabbinical mystical Judaism.

 

On the UK terror spree: We need to talk about Islam

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Photo by Katie Chan

Rather than labelling Islam’s critics as racist, we need an honest conversation about Islam. 

By Richard Mather

It’s a strange time to be alive. We live in a world that flies into self-righteous fury when a Jew builds a conservatory in his indigenous homeland, only to decline back into idleness when the footsoldiers of Allah slaughter men, women and children. In the UK there have been two major terrorist attacks in as many weeks, plus the Westminster attack in March. That’s 36 innocent people dead, and 217 injured, many critically. The response? A concert, balloons, candles, hashtags, expressions of love, and lots of waffle about Islamophobia.

The rush to reassure Muslims that they are “loved” now forms a major part of the post-attack ritual. Also part of the ritual is the eagerness to protect Islam from criticism. Indeed, political leaders and the media go to extraordinary lengths to avoid offending Muslims in the wake of each terrorist atrocity. As Brendan O’Neill, editor of spiked magazine, rightly points out, this “censorious privilege” is very dangerous, because it encourages Muslims to become intolerant. “You license their intolerance. You inflame their violent contempt for anyone who questions their dogmas. You provide a moral justification for their desire to punish those who insult their religion.”

Just as one might say about the Cold War that we knew how to make distinctions between what worked (democracy, capitalism) and what didn’t (totalitarianism, communism), the present age does not make distinctions at all: there is no difference anymore, it seems, between the massacred Manchester concert-goer and the terrorist who carried out the atrocity. Why do I say this? Because liberals argue that the terrorist is also a victim – a victim of borders, of capitalism, of the prison system, of colonialism, of global warming, a victim of everything except the ideology of Islam. This is censorious in the extreme. And we have allowed this daft narrative to take hold because we have collectively given Islam a free pass.

In what is shaping up to be the ideological war of the 21st century, we need to accept that there is a serious problem with intolerant Islamic beliefs about non-believers, martyrdom, jihad, sharia law, sexuality and the ummah. We also need to ask why so many criminals are drawn to Islam (especially in prison). More needs to be done to tackle non-violent Muslim fundamentalists who legitimize, excuse and passively allow jihadi extremism. For example, a recent opinion poll of British Muslims found that a mere 34 per cent said they would report to the police anybody they thought was involved with jihadi extremism. And we must not overlook university campuses, which are breeding-grounds for extremism and anti-Semitism. Indeed, universities that turn a blind eye to extremism (or worse still, actively promote such behaviour) must be called to account.

Of course, not all Muslims are extremists (this is a politically-correct cliche we trot out after every terrorist attack) but this does not mean that the religion of Islam itself is unproblematic. Far from it. Most people accept this fact; it’s just that the media won’t allow them to say it. Suppressing criticism of Islam and Islamic beliefs is not only very bad for democracy, it is a gift to the Far Right, which capitalizes on people’s frustration with the political system and thrives on the message that politicians and lawmakers do not speak for (or even care about) the majority.

Rather than labelling Islam’s critics as racist, we need honest conversations about Islam, censorship, and so-called Islamophobia. Such conversations may be embarrassing (for some), and they will no doubt expose some very unsavory truths about the doctrines, ideology and history of Islam. But we need to get this sorted if we are to avoid decades of terrorist attacks. Turning the other cheek in the face of Islamist malice may make liberals and the snowflake generation feel good about themselves, but in actuality it is a kind of enslavement – the enslavement of non-Muslims by religious extremists who think non-believers are whores, apes and pigs, or even worse, sub-human and deserving of death.

First published by Israel News Online and Arutz Sheva