Hans Jonas and Classical Jewish Sources: New Dimensions

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
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There is growing interest in the Jewish dimensions of the life and thought of Hans Jonas, a twentieth-century philosopher whose increasingly influential teachings address some of the most vexing philosophic and public policy challenges of modern times. This essay aims to clarify the reasons why Jonas might be reckoned as a Jewish thinker while calling into doubt recent claims of his major significance as a modern Jewish thinker, some of which go so far as to urge his addition to the canon of great twentieth-century thinkers, alongside Cohen, Buber, Rosenzweig, Strauss, Levinas, and Kaplan.

Hans Jonas and Classical Jewish Sources: New Dimensions

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy




Respectively: Lawrence Vogel“Editor’s Introduction—Hans Jonas’s Exodus: From German Existentialism to Post-Holocaust Theology,” in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitzed. Lawrence Vogel (Evanston il: Northwestern University Press 1996) 3; David Patterson Emil L. Fackenheim: A Jewish Philosopher’s Response to the Holocaust (Syracuse ny: Syracuse University Press 2008) xii.


Hava Tirosh-Samuelson“Jewish Philosophy, Human Dignity, and the New Genetics,” in Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizensed. Sean D. Sutton (Albany: suny Press 2009) 104–105 107; Tirosh-Samuelson “Understanding Jonas: An Interdisciplinary Project” in The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Christian Wiese (Leiden: Brill 2008) xii xiv xxiv–xxv. Needless to say the membership in this canon of at least some of the figures included in this list could be contested.


Tirosh-Samuelson“Jewish Philosophy Human Dignity” 105.


Benjamin Lazier“The Jews They Were and the Philosophers They Wished to Become,” in German-Jewish Thought between Religion and Politics371–386.


Lawrence Vogel“Jewish Philosophies after Heidegger: Imagining a Dialogue Between Jonas and Levinas,” The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 23 (2001): 119–146; Irene Kajon “Hans Jonas and Jewish Post-Auschwitz Thought” The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 8 (1998): 67–80; Walter Lesch “Ethische Argumentation im jüdischen Kontext: Zum Verständnis von Ethik bei Emmanuel Levinas und Hans Jonas” Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie 38 (1991): 443–469. Wiese expresses the hope that his book will inspire new attempts to bring Jonas “into dialogue with other representatives and currents of modern Jewish thought.” Life and Thought 163.


David J. LevyHans Jonas: The Integrity of Thinking (Columbia: University of Missouri Press2002) 1.


Ullrich Melle“Responsibility and the Crisis of Technological Civilization: A Husserlian Meditation on Hans Jonas,” Human Studies 21 (1998): 321–345.


WieseLife and Thought34–35.


Steven Wasserstrom“Concubines and Puppies: Philologies of Esotericism in Jerusalem between the World Wars,” in Adaptations and Innovations: Studies . . . Dedicated to Joel L. Kramered. Y. Tzvi Langermann and Josef Stern (Paris: Peeters2007) 381–413; Christian Wiese “ ‘For a Time I Was Privileged to Enjoy His Friendship . . . ’: The Ambivalent Relationship between Hans Jonas and Gershom Scholem” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 49 (2004): 25–58; Yotam Hotam “ ‘Le-ʿamit ha-gnosṭi’: ʿod sippur yedidut—Gershom Scholem we-Hans Jonas” Leo Baeck Institute Publication Series 7 (2005): 1–22.


JonasPhilosophical Essaysxii.


JonasMemoirs197–198. The fellowship application provides details of the book’s contents and structure. Jonas reported that three chapters (“ ‘Life’ and the Scientific Spirit” “Metabolism the Basic Mode of Organic Existence” and “Imagination and Mind”) were complete while two others (“Sensation and Perception” and “Motility and Emotion”) were in “advanced drafts.” The fellowship application also indicates that the provisional title of the English book was preserved in the one used in the German rendering of The Phenomenon of Life (Organismus und Freihei).


LazierGod Interrupted56 42. Jonas himself at times connected the earlier researches and later philosophic projects (e.g. Philosophical Essays xviii). For other who have filled out this theme see Wiese Life and Thought 98–99; Richard Wolin “Ethics after Auschwitz: Hans Jonas’s Notion of Responsibility in a Technological Age” in The Legacy of Hans Jonas 4–5; David Nirenberg “Choosing Life” The New Republic November 5 2008 40.


JonasPhilosophical Essaysxxvi.


For the cited passage see Hans Jonas“Is Faith Still Possible?: Memories of Rudolf Bultmann and Reflections on the Philosophical Aspects of His Work,” in Mortality and Morality146. For an enlightening study of Jonas’s most famous work see Ronald Beiner “Ethics and Technology: Hans Jonas’ Theory of Responsibility” in Democratic Theory and Technological Society ed. Richard B. Day Ronald Beiner and Joseph Masciulli (Armonk ny: M.E. Sharpe 1988) 336–354.


Ron Margolin“Mi-ḥeqer ha-gnosis we-ʿad muśag ha-ʾelohim ʾaḥarei ’Aushvits: Qavvim le-toldot ḥayyav u-le-haguto shel Hans Jonas,” in Muśag ha-ʾelohim20.


Herlinde KoelblJüdische Portraits: Photographien und Interviews (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer1989) 122.


WieseLife and Thought113. In the italicized passage (underscored in the original) Jonas switches from German to English.


Dinur“Yahadut” 123.


WieseLife and Thoughtxxi.




Lazier“The Jews They Were” 374.


Tirosh-Samuelson“Jewish Philosophy Human Dignity” 87. Elsewhere Tirosh-Samuelson’s formulation is less dichotomous and Jonas is cast as a thinker “immersed . . . in contemporary philosophy” who engaged it “from a Jewish perspective” (ibid. 105).


Alan Rubenstein“Judaism and Nature: Reviewing the Jewish Dimensions of Hans Jonas,” Religious Studies Review 36 (2010): 15–22 (20 for the cited passage).


On which see Christian Wiese“Abschied vom deutschen Judentum. Zionismus und Kampf um die Würde im politischen Denken des frühen Hans Jonas,” in Weiterwohnlichkeit der Welt: Neue Perspektiven zu Hans Jonased. Christian Wiese and Eric Jacobson (Berlin: Philo2003) 15–33.


Scodel“An Interview” 342–343.


David N. Myers“The Ideology of Wissenschaft des Judentums,” in History of Jewish Philosophyed. Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman (London: Routledge1997) 715.


WieseLife and Thought5.


WieseLife and Thought151.


JonasMemoirs45 214–215; Wiese Life and Thought 151–152. Where there are differences in the translations of this passage in Memoirs and Wiese’s book I cite the latter.


Tirosh-Samuelson“Understanding Jonas” xxxviii. Cf. Wiese Life and Thought xxi. When noting Jonas’s acclaim of the prophets one should immediately register the strongly anti-utopian anti-eschatological element in Jonas’s teaching. See Wiese Hans Jonas 109–110. For this aspect of Jonas’s teaching in relation to its anti-Marxist thrust see Beiner “Ethics and Technology” 346–348.


Nirenberg“Choosing Life” 43.


See Michael Zank and Hartwig Wiedebach“The Kant-Maimonides Constellation,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 20 (2012): 138for the apparently historical rather than normative claim that there is “perhaps no significantly Jewish thought today that has not been touched by Maimonides.” For the second citation see David Biale “Introduction to Part Three: Modern Encounters” in Cultures of the Jews: A New History ed. David Biale (New York: Schocken 2002) 726.


Michael Marmur“Are You My Witnesses? The Use of Sources in Modern Jewish Thought,” Modern Judaism 32 (2012): 155.


BouretzWitnesses626. The lecture which appeared in Harvard Theological Review 55 (1962) The Phenomenon of Life (the version cited herein) and Morality and Mortality was the point of departure for the recent Ingersoll Lecture of Leora Batnitzky published as “From Resurrection to Immortality: Theological and Political Implications in Modern Jewish Thought” Harvard Theological Review 102 (2009): 279–296.


Richard DawkinsA Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope Lies Science and Love (Boston: Houghton Mifflin2003) 13.


Batnitzky“From Resurrection to Immortality” 279.


Respectively: Roberto Franzini Tibaldeo“Sacrifice and Repentance as Self-Restraint. Hans Jonas’ Ethics for a Technological Epoch,” The University of Toronto Journal for Jewish Thought 2 (2011) http://www.academia.edu/5725108/Sacrifice_and_Repentance_as_Self-Restraint._Hans_Jonas_Ethics_for_a_Technological_Epoch (accessed March 11 2014); Bouretz Witnesses 628.


Martin D. Yaffe“Reason and Feeling in Hans Jonas’s Existential Biology,” in The Legacy of Hans Jonas370.


Margolin“Mi-ḥeqer” 23–24. For the argument that Jonas exemplifies secular religiosity see Margolin “Hans Jonas and Secular Religiosity” in The Legacy of Hans Jonas 231–258.


Vogel“Hans Jonas’s Exodus” 23; Langton “Jewish Religious Thought” 338. More circumspect but pulling in the same direction is Langton’s later observation that while “by no means a classical statement of Jewish religion this myth certainly resonates with familiar Jewish and biblical ideas” (341).


James A. Diamond“Exegetical Idealization: Hermann Cohen’s Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Maimonides,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 18 (2010): 49–73.


WieseLife and Thought122. Indeed in this part of his essay Jonas may have made himself into one of the first “post-Holocaust theologians” in America even on the fairly strict criteria entered in Michael L. Morgan Beyond Auschwitz: Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001) 4–5. It therefore requires some explanation why Jonas’s teaching on the Holocaust goes unstudied in Morgan’s book. (Morgan does cite a statement of Jonas reported by Ernst Simon that in Auschwitz “more was real than was possible” [ibid. 186]). As pointed out to me by John Kloppenborg Jonas’s interest in myth would have arisen naturally from his studies with Bultmann. Bultmann in turn drew on Jonas in this area in his own later writings. See Roger A. Johnson The Origins of Demythologizing (Leiden: Brill 1974) 217–237. Margolin suggests that what he calls Jonas’s “belief in myth” was “in keeping with non-Orthodox movements” within Judaism. Margolin “Hans Jonas and Secular Religiosity” 257.


Sandra B. Lubarsky“Jonas, Whitehead, and the Problem of Power,” in The Legacy of Hans Jonas408. For the rabbinic idea see e.g. Ephraim E. Urbach The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs trans. Israel Abrahams (Cambridge ma: Harvard University Press 1987) 326.


WieseLife and Thought139–149. For a critique see Paul Clavier “Hans Jonas’ Feeble Theodicy: How on Earth Could God Retire?” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 3 (2011): 305–322.


Jonas“The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice,” in Mortality and Morality136.


Ibid.132140 141.








Ibid.140–141. Rabbinic literature speaks of a mute deity (Giṭṭin 56b) but not an impotent one.




Kajon“Hans Jonas and Jewish Post-Auschwitz Thought” 76.


Respectively: Margolin“Hans Jonas and Secular Religiosity” 244; Bouretz Witnesses 637. While Lazier rightly has Jonas finding in Kabbalah a minority tradition in Jewish theology that “eschewed talk of total [divine] sovereignty” he does not report Jonas’s indication of the gulf that remained between his teaching and the kabbalistic one. Lazier God Interrupted 61.


WieseLife and Thought134.


Jonas“The Concept of God” 142; Kajon “Hans Jonas and Jewish Post-Auschwitz Thought” 77. For the connection on this score between Jonas and the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto” Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro see Margolin “Hans Jonas and Secular Religiosity” 251–252.


WieseLife and Thought5.


Jonas“The Concept of God” 137. When he is not expressly concerned to buttress his myth Jonas does depict the biblical God in terms closer to the philosophic conception. See pl 71.


WieseLife and Thought114. Though Jonas almost always communicated his ideas in academic outlets this essay first appeared in an explicitly Jewish venue Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly.


JonasPhilosophical Essays176.




Ibid.174186 177.


Gershom Scholem“Reflections on Jewish Theology,” in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essaysed. Werner J. Dannhauser (New York: Schocken Books1976) 274–275.


WieseLife and Thought113.




Vogel“Hans Jonas’s Exodus” 21.


Jonas“Contemporary Problems,” in Philosophical Essays169–171 177–178 179.


Ibid.172178 180 181.


WoessnerHeidegger in America114.


JonasMortality and Morality87.


Jonas“Contemporary Problems” 182.


WieseLife and Thought118.


Eric CohenIn the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (New York: Encounter Books2008) 90.


Tirosh-Samuelson“Understanding Jonas” xxv.


Tirosh-Samuelson“Understanding Jonas” xxii.


Tirosh-Samuelson“Jewish Philosophy Human Dignity” 104.


Jonas“Jewish and Christian Elements in Philosophy: Their Share in the Emergence of the Modern Mind,” in Philosophical Essays31–34.


WieseLife and Thought34–35. Even allowing for exaggeration due to genre and addressee (the remark appears in a condolence letter addressed to Strauss’s wife upon her husband’s passing) the claim makes a strong impression.


WieseLife and Thought34–35. For the quotation from Strauss see Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors trans. Eve Adler (Albany: State University of New York Press 1995) 21. The burgeoning literature on Strauss includes debates about “turning points”; see e.g. Green Jew and Philosopher; Heinrich Meier “How Strauss Became Strauss” in Enlightening Revolutions: Essays in Honor of Ralph Lerner ed. Svetozar Minkov (Lanham md: Lexington Books 2006) 363–382. For the Strauss-Guttmann debates see Leora Batnitzky Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy and the Politics of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006) 183–186.


Melle“Responsibility” 342.


Vogel“Forward” xviii.


Ezequiel A. Di Paolo“ ‘The Phenomenon of Life’, by Hans Jonas,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 36 (2005): 342.


Steven Schwarzschild“The Unnatural Jew,” in Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader ed. Martin D. Yaffe (Lanham md: Lexington Books 2001) 269–272; Schwarzschild “The Lure of Immanence—The Crisis in Contemporary Religious Thought” in The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild ed. Menachem Kellner (Albany: State University of New York Press1990) 61–82where however Jonas escapes censure.


Dinur“Yahadut” 123.


WieseLife and Thought31.


WolinHeidegger’s Children14.


See Jennifer RingThe Political Consequences of Thinking: Gender and Judaism in the Work of Hannah Arendt (Albany: State University of New York Press1997) (with thanks to Tova Moscoe for this reference). Ring’s chapter title “Toward Understanding Arendt as a Jewish Thinker” is telling. The verbal analogy suggests the necessity to treat Arendt “as” something she apparently “is” not. One is not then surprised by Ring’s liberal deployment of scare quotes when affirming the Jewishness of Arendt’s thought. She describes Arendt as one whose intellectual and political agenda was “ ‘Jewish’ in a way that has been insufficiently recognized”; nay Arendt was “more of a ‘Jewish thinker’ than she realized.” Though Arendt insisted that thinking “could not be specifically ‘Jewish’ ” nonetheless she “did ‘think like a Jew’ ” (213 174; emphasis in original). A more plausible claim might be that Arendt’s “experience as a Jew” is “literally the foundation of her thought”; see Jerome Kohn’s preface to The Jewish Writings xxviii. For a study of Jonas and Arendt in tandem see Lawrence Vogel “The Responsibility of Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt versus Hans Jonas” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal (2008): 1–21 and the dissertation of Dinur cited above n. 25. A fuller study is in order into the larger phenomenon of efforts to draw figures like Jonas and Arendt into the ranks of Jewish philosophers—one that goes beyond David Nirenberg’s cynical but possibly still partially accurate suggestion that this development has something to do with exigencies of Jewish studies as a branch of modern academic study (“there is now a sub-discipline called ‘Jewish philosophy’ and it needs ‘Jewish philosophers’ to study”). Nirenberg “Choosing Life” 43.


WieseLife and Thought144.


Kass“Appreciating” 7–8. Elsewhere Kass cites a consensus omnium of luminaries of contemporary biology who disavow the notion of a “soul” even with respect to human beings averring that as far as science can determine humanity’s rich repertoire of thoughts feelings aspirations and hopes “seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes.” Kass “Keeping Life Human: Science Religion and the Soul” Azure 32 (2008): 37.


See Daniel R. Schwartz“Rabbinic Law between Biblical Logic and Biblical Text: The Pitfalls of Exodus 21:33–34,” Harvard Theological Review 107 (2014): 314–339.


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