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 the 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

Cohen makes a distinction between the logic of science and the ideal of ethics, and notes that humans perceive the natural world differently from the world of ethics. 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 reasons there must be something that allows science and ethics to coexist and interrelate.

Cohen’s answer is 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 the transcendence between nature and morality is erased, 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 is markedly antagonistic towards the pantheistic doctrine that identifies God with the universe (or regards the universe as a manifestation of God). Cohen is adamant that while God is the capstone of both logic and ethics, He nevertheless transcends both. Cohen has nothing but disdain for any form of pantheism or mysticism in which God is equated with the world. In this respect, Cohen is very different from Spinoza, for whom God and Nature are virtually synonymous.


To recap part two of this series on Hermann Cohen’s thought, we see that Cohen defines 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 sees Judaism as fundamental to this duty.

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



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 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 agrees with the philosopher Immanuel Kant that ethics must be directed towards the well-being of humanity. The essential feature of this is its universality. As Cohen sees it, progress was (or at least it ought to be) moving towards universal suffrage and democratic socialism.

Following Kant, Cohen defends the categorical imperative: that we should treat humanity in our own person and in other persons always as an end and never as a means only. (Kant’s famous definition of the categorical imperative is, “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 owes more to Kant and the Hebrew prophets than it does to Karl Marx, he is nevertheless critical of capitalism because, as he sees it, the individual worker is treated as a means only, 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, that is, to treat people always as an end and never as only a means.

Cohen proclaims Judaism as the historical source of the idea that humanity can be unified by a single set of ethical laws. He defines 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 for living that are grounded in God. Not only is revelation is 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.


Cohen believes that it is the duty of the Jewish people to teach universal ethics and he cites 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.

Israel is the messianic people whose task it is to strive towards the fulfillment of the divine ideal. It is Judaism’s role to point to the ideal of fulfilled humanity and to draw others to it. Cohen writes, “the general love for mankind is the messianic consequence of monotheism, for which the love of the stranger paved the way.”

(It is worth noting that Cohen plays down brotherly love as the underlying principle of the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor, and instead identifies law as the basis of the moral subject. Although “neighbor” in German has generally been understood as “one who is near,” Cohen argues 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 later 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”. “This view, which even Plato did not have, is the new teaching that the one God brings to messianic humanity,” said Cohen in his masterwork Religion of Reason. Out of the Sources of Judaism.

“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 is no longer a hope for God to intervene in history and he dismisses the notion of a miraculous coming of the messiah. Instead of a supernatural or eschatological event, messianism is simply a factor in world history; it is an expression of faith that humanity is making progress towards the end of injustice.

And as Rory Schacter explains in his article, “Hermann Cohen’s Secular Messianism and Liberal Cosmopolitanism,” 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 calls 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.”

(When Cohen says that each person not only has a claim to his rights but “the claim to a court’s judgement,” he was perhaps thinking of the Seven Noahide Laws, one of which is the commandment to establish courts of justice.)

Cohen is concerned that legality has for too long been emptied of its ethical content, partly as a result of the Apostle Paul’s polemics. Cohen is highly critical of those who apparently 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.” Indeed, this is how Christians, such as the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther, have caricatured Jewish Law when they create a suspicion of law by splitting it away from ethics.

When we understand law as severed from ethics, we are left with laws arising through force. An example of law divorced from ethics is the treatment of the English suffragettes at the hands of the British authorities in the first part of the 20th century. It may be the case that the State had the law on its side, even as it harassed women and girls, but many people would argue that the State acted in a manner that was devoid of ethical duty and human feeling. The use of coercive power used against women and girls was ethically unacceptable because it in no way conformed to the categorical imperative (i.e. the idea that standards should be applied categorically, with a person’s actions in any given context serving as the model for the actions of all other people under comparable circumstances).

As Gibbs explains, law becomes self-contradictory when ethics and legality are severed. When legality is split off from the notion of duty done for its own sake, the only recourse by the State is coercion. In other words, when divorced from ethics, the law has to be imposed coercively from the outside because it is no longer in our hearts and minds.

Only when we understand law as stemming from morality do we have true ethics. And it is because Cohen believes that ethical action should not be coercive (least of all by the State), that the ethical-legal subject is necessarily a free moral agent.

In Cohen’s view, ethics 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, “in 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.”

The ethical state, then, 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.”

[Coming soon: The correlation of logic, ethics, God and man in Hermann’s Cohen’s philosophy]


Purim: Where is God in all this?


Megillah Benedictions and Illuminations, painting on parchment, Italy, 18th century (via

The Purim story shows us that God expects the Jewish people to take the initiative, to act for themselves and to rely on their own talents and skills in order to ensure their long-term survival.

By Richard Mather 

Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) narrates the story of a Jewish girl who becomes Queen of Persia and saves the Jewish people from a genocide decreed by the wicked Haman. The story takes place in 473 BCE. The Persian kingdom is a huge and sprawling empire, and all the Jews are its subjects. When King Ahasuerus deposes Queen Vashti for disobedience, he arranges a beauty parade to find a new consort. Esther is chosen and she becomes the new queen of Persia. However, she does not reveal her Jewish identity.

A wicked man called Haman is appointed first minister of the Persian empire. Haman becomes enraged when Mordechai, leader of the Jews, refuses to bow to him. Spitefully, Haman convinces the King to issue a decree ordering the genocide of all the Jews on the 13th of Adar. The date is chosen by lottery, hence the word Purim, which means “lots,” from the word Hebrew word פור.

Esther takes practical action. She reveals her Jewish identity to the King. Haman is hanged and Mordechai is appointed first minister in his place. A new decree granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies is issued. On the 13th of Adar the Jews kill many of their enemies. On the 14th, they rest and celebrate. The Jews of Shushan wage war on both Adar 13th and 14th, and rejoice on the 15th, which explains the celebration of Shushan Purim in Israel on the 15th.

The holiday of Purim is a time of merriment. Celebrants are allowed to drink alcohol to the point where they are unable to differentiate between the phrases ‘Bless Mordecai’ and ‘Curse Haman.’ Another feature of Purim is the Purimspiel, which is a dramatic retelling of the story of Esther, often involving costumes, masks, music, dance and humour. Traditionally, the Purimspiel was performed by poor students, actors and acrobats. These days, the Purimspiel is often acted out by children who dress up as characters from the story.

But there is a darker side to Purim. Megillat Esther depicts an existential threat to the Jews. Genocide hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. The Jews are saved and their enemies slain, not because God intervenes but because the Jews themselves take decisive action to eradicate the threat. Purim seems to be about the role of Jewish self-reliance in a universe where God has apparently disappeared from the stage.

This is why the story of Esther is particularly relevant in our post-Holocaust era. For many people, God’s goodness cannot be taken for granted. Elie Wiesel, the prize-winning writer and Holocaust survivor, has refused to shy away from the difficult subject of God’s absence during the Shoah. Perhaps his most famous book is Night. But for me, one of Wiesel’s most striking works is his play The Trial of God.

The Trial of God is set in 1649, and is a Purimspiel within a Purimspiel. But it is not the kind of Purimspiel we would recognise. This is a brief outline of the story:

Three wandering minstrels, three Purimspielers, come to a city called Shamgorod in the Ukraine. It is Purim eve, and they want to perform a play in order to get food and drink. The minstrels are unaware that a recent pogrom has killed all of the local Jews except for Berish the innkeeper and his daughter Hanna who was gang-raped and is now in a state of nervous collapse.

But the minstrels insist on performing and finally Berish relents and says, ‘All right. Under one condition – that I will give you the idea. The theme will be a “din torah,”  a trial of God. I want you to indict God for what he has done to my family, to my community, to all these Jews.’ The performers accept. In the first act the decision is made to hold a trial. In the second act there is a problem because there is nobody to play the role of God’s attorney. In the third act an attorney is found and we have the trial itself.

Wiesel’s play is based on an event that occurred in Auschwitz. According to Wiesel, three rabbis – all erudite and pious men – decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. The trial at Auschwitz lasted several nights and culminated in an unanimous verdict of guilty. And then, after a few moments of silence, one of the rabbis looked towards the heavens and said “It’s time for evening prayers.”

Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that Wiesel’s Purimspiel rejects the usual carnivalesque atmosphere of Purim. Mendel, one of the Purim minstrels, frequently asks the question, ‘And where is God in all of this?’ To which Berish the innkeeper answers: ‘Why don’t you ask where Berish is in all this? Let me answer you that one. God sought me out and God struck me down. So let Him stay away from me.’

In Wiesel’s text, God is accused of hostility, cruelty and indifference. Over the course of the trial, a number of arguments are made, both for and against God’s guilt. Wiesel’s play ends darkly, with the victory of Satan (who is God’s defendant) and the imminent massacre of the town’s remaining Jews by a mob of bloodthirsty gentiles.Megillat Esther is the only book in the Tanakh –  except for Shir Hashirim or the Song of Songs –  that does not mention the name of God. The Trial of God, however, makes God the central character, although like Godot in Beckett’s famous play, He never actually makes an appearance. And while Purim is generally a time of merriment, Wiesel’s play plumbs the depth of theological inquiry, asking, ‘Where is God in all this?’

In a world where the Holocaust was allowed to happen, the question of ‘Where is God in all this?’ remains pertinent. Of course, even before the Holocaust, Jewish experience was one of exile, alienation and violence – a sign perhaps that God’s power has rarely been some awesome force. Indeed, for much of history, God has hidden his face from us. The concept of hester panim (“hiding of the face”) is sometimes used to explain the absence or eclipse of God during times of suffering. The concept of divine concealment is based on words from Sefer Devarim: “I will become very angry at them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. They will be devoured, and plagued by many evils that will distress them, and will say, ‘Do we not suffer because God has left us?’.”

In the case of Purim, the importance of hester panim is implied by the name of the heroine. Note the similarity between the words hester and Est(h)er. The Babylonian Talmud tractate Hullin 139B states, “From where does the Torah bring the name Esther? From the verse ‘But I [God] will surely conceal my face [“haster astir panai“] on that day for all of the ill that they have done–for they turned to other gods.”

In our post-Holocaust era, it can be difficult to subscribe to the notion of God as a transcendent Supreme Being who intervenes in history. Doesn’t the Esther story, and the story of the Jews in general, suggest that God’s power is not some ‘top-down’ affair but is conducted through the actions of individuals and groups, like Moses and the Israelites or Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress? Isn’t it perhaps the case that God’s power is channelled through the Jewish people themselves?

In 1948 when Palestine’s Jews declared independence, there occurred a unique rupture in the history of colonialism and imperialism. But this declaration also ruptured the long-held hope of a messianic king or priest who would gather the Jewish people and end the exile. It wasn’t God or the Messiah who restored the Jewish nation. It was the Jews themselves. To paraphrase Rabbi Eleazar (Megillah 15a), the moment the Jewish people decide to cloak themselves in royalty and declare independence is the moment in which the Jews cloak themselves in the spirit of God.

This is why I strongly disagree with those ultra-religious Jews in Israel who refuse to serve in the army because it detracts from Torah study, which (they say) is Israel’s best protection. Unfortunately, history shows us that no amount of Torah study or prayer prevents pogroms or genocides; nor will Torah study protect the State Israel from future attacks. Likewise, it’s wrong of anti-Zionist religious Jews to argue that the State of Israel is a usurpation of the Messiah’s role. My answer to them is simple: for too long we waited for the Messiah, but he never came. And he may never come for one simple reason – because the Jewish people themselves already function as a messianic community.

In other words, it is not God or Messiah, but the Jews themselves who determine what to do, and when and how to do it. As Rabbi David Blumenthal says, God “has all eternity to make up His mind. We do not have all eternity; we have now.”  The example set by Esther shows us that God expects the Jewish people to take the initiative, to act for themselves and to rely on their own talents and skills in order to ensure their long-term survival. The success of the State of Israel and the fact that the majority of Jews are prepared to defend themselves in a world full of Hamans is testament to the spirit of Megillat Esther.


The Noahide Laws: A universal code for peace and unity


Noah and His Ark’ by Charles Willson Peale, 1819, oil on canvas

The Noahide Laws: A universal code for peace and unity 

And God spoke unto Noah, and to Noah’s children with him, saying, And as for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you.’

By Richard Mather  

Judaism is not a religion that seeks converts. Although conversion is not prohibited (far from it), Maimonides and other authorities teach that the Seven Noahide Laws, or Sheva Mitzvot B’nai Noach, are the sacred inheritance of all humanity. Those gentiles who observe the Seven Noahide Laws in accordance with the Torah will merit a share in the World to Come.

What are the Seven Noahide Laws? As enumerated in Sanhedrin 56a of the Babylonian Talmud, they comprise one positive commandment and six negative commandments given to Noah and his offspring after the Flood, and are as follows: to establish courts of justice; to refrain from blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, bloodshed and robbery; and to never eat flesh cut from a living animal. This last commandment is usually interpreted as behaving compassionately towards animals.

All descendants of Noah, which means all of humanity, are required to follow these laws. Gentiles who actively follow the Seven Laws of Noah are called B’nai Noach or Noahides. Sometimes they are referred to as “righteous gentiles” or “the pious among the nations.” Historically, the term B’nai Noach applied to all gentiles as descendants of Noah. These days, however, it is used to refer specifically to gentiles who observe the Seven Noahide Laws.

The Noahide Laws were give to Moses and also preserved by the sages of the Talmud. It is important to note that B’nai Noach observe the Seven Laws because they were reaffirmed at Mount Sinai and not because the sons of Noah received them previously. As a priestly nation, the Jewish people are to safeguard these universal principles and to teach them to the nations. According to Maimonides, “Moses was commanded by the Almighty to compel all the inhabitants of the world to accept the commandments given to Noah’s descendants.”

(Also worth noting is that a Noahide is only considered righteous if he or she accepts the Seven Noahide Laws as coming from G-d. A person who derives the laws from his or her own intellect is not considered righteous.)

Interestingly, the Seven Noahide Laws are more than just seven commandments. They are actually seven category headings or headlines under which a number of other commandants are compiled. For instance, the injunction against theft includes the prohibition against defrauding your neighbour. The commandment to establish laws and courts of justice includes the injunction not to kill a suspected murderer before he stands trial. Depending on the rabbinical authority, there are not just seven laws, but thirty or even sixty-six commandments.

Gentiles who acknowledge and observe the Seven Noahide Laws are not in the business of creating another religion, which is forbidden by the Torah. Rather it is about acknowledging Hashem as the One G-d of both Jews and gentiles, and recognising that He is a righteous and loving G-d, Who is intimately concerned with His creation.

Some Noahides attend synagogues and most study under a rabbi. B’nai Noach reject pagan holidays such as Christmas and Easter. But they are not supposed to create new religious festivals; nor are they allowed to observe Jewish religious holidays in the manner of their Jewish brethren.

However, there are a number of prayers and blessings that have been especially written for Noahides. Rabbi Moshe Weiner, the overseeing rabbi of Ask Noah International, has published a number of suitable prayers. These prayers do not encroach on the spiritual heritage of the Jewish people, and no attempt is made to establish additional obligations for gentiles beyond the Noahide Code.

The Noahide Way is gaining in popularity in the West, especially among former Christians who wish to have a relationship with Hashem without the baggage of Christian dogma (such as the trinity) and two thousand years of Church-sanctioned anti-Semitism. In fact, not since the days of the Second Temple when G-d-fearing gentiles regularly attended synagogues throughout the Diaspora, has the Torah played such an important part in the lives of non-Jews.

It is probably fair to say that Chabad Lubavitch has done the most in recent years to reach out to gentiles. In my home city of Manchester, England, for example, Hasidic Jews have been known to hand out Noahide literature to members of the public. In Manchester, London and other English cities, there are small Noahide study groups, which discuss the Torah and Halachic matters.

There are also Noahide groups and communities in Australia, Europe and North America. Significantly, in 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed into law an historic Joint Resolution of both Houses of Congress recognising the Seven Noahide Laws as the “bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization.”

And in 2006, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel met with a representative of Chabad to sign a declaration calling on all non-Jews in Israel to observe the Noahide Laws. A year later, Chabad brought together ambassadors from Poland, Japan, Ghana, Latvia, Mexico and Panama, who all championed the Noahide Laws.

The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who launched the global Noahide Campaign, commented that a particular task of Chabad (and of religious Jews in general) is to educate and to encourage the observance of the Seven Laws among all people. “The religious tolerance of today and the trend towards greater freedom gives us the unique opportunity to enhance widespread observance of these laws,” he said.

The Seven Noahide Laws – given to the sons of Noah after the Flood and reaffirmed to Moses at Mount Sinai – are not only an expression of G-d’s divine goodness, they also help to ensure that human beings are united and bound by a common moral responsibility to G-d, and to each other. As it says in Midrash Tanchuma, “God gave the Torah to the Jewish people so that all nations might benefit from it.”