The themes of Existentialism are well known in Western society at this point. These include lived experience, anxiety, choice, authenticity, being-unto-death, temporality, and mindfulness. But at one point, they were not the language of pop-psych books and shallow clergy sermons. They were the serious turn of 1920’s modern philosophy away from the rationality and grand scale questions towards asking the basic phenomenology of our lives and how we are finite fallible being faced with our own deaths. The leading figure in this turn to the human condition was Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who started teaching in 1923 at Marburg and then in Freiburg after 1927. He placed Being and temporality at the center of his thought. Many of the future greats in 20th century thought were his students and reacted to his thought. This list includes Rudolf Bultmann, Nicolai Hartmann, Paul Tillich, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, and Hans Jonas. His ideas were the overwhelming intellectual force in German philosophy of the 1930’s.
Not just major philosophers, but also theologians, psychologists and religious thinkers turned to his Heidegger’s thought. His ideas traveled to France where they were adapted and developed by major thinkers such as Sartre. Part of this existential movement was a return to Kierkegaard (d.1855), an introspective Danish thinker who lived a century prior, in order to mine his brooding for ideas about the human condition of death, anxiety, sin, and fallenness. Heidegger even learned Danish in order to better understand Kierkegaard.
How was this Heidegger moment received in the Jewish community? Daniel Herskowitz, answers the question in his great new book Heidegger and His Jewish Reception (Cambridge UP, 2020). The book is a rock-solid overview on how Jewish thought received, processed, and grappled with Heidegger’s thought. This is the book that most professors of Jewish thought spent the last half year reading, taking notes, and working into our future class lectures. Herskowitz’s book is a serious work of intellectual history, which will be required reading for graduate programs and advance courses in Jewish thought, and it is a book that will generate hundreds of graduate papers. The book already won the Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Young Scholars Award for Scholarly Excellence in Research of the Jewish Experience, and it is worthy of many other awards.
Daniel Herskowitz received his BA The Open University of Israel; MA Hebrew University of Jerusalem; DPhil Oxford: Research Fellow, OCHJS; Stipendiary Career Research Fellow in Jewish Studies, Wolfson College, and now he was awarded the prestigious British Academy fellowship which he will take at Oxford.
Herskowitz demonstrates the tension of attraction and repulsion to Heidegger’s thought among Jewish thinkers. Many of whom used Heidegger’s thought to diagnose the problems of modernity or to formulate their own Jewish solutions. Everyone who knows modern Jewish thought can speak of a generic concept of Jewish existentialism or label someone a Jewish existentialist, but Herskowitz reorients us to seeing the entire period framed as Jewish reactions to Heidegger.
Much of Herskowitz’s book Heidegger and His Jewish Reception deals with the major philosophers who are Jewish such as Karl Lowith and Leo Strauss. I assumed that most general philosophic book reviews will focus on the general thesis of the book and on the major philosophers. Therefore, I decided to focus this interview on the relationship of Heidegger to the Rabbinic world. I specifically asked about the relationship of Heideggerian thought to Rabbis Altmann, Soloveitchik, Hutner, and Heschel, as well as the religious usages by Schoeps, Buber, and Levinas. Much of this interview is not limited to the book but is found in specific Herskowitz’s journal articles on Rabbi Hutner, Soloveitchik, Heschel, and Wyschogrod.
I must note before going further, that there is no need to create any bube mayse that Rabbi Soloveitchik was in Heidegger’s Marburg classes or that he must have attended the Davos conference making it seem that Heidegger’s works in the 1930’s were obscure or only know by the few. They were known in all major universities, and Soloveitchik’s friend Altmann was doing his degree on Heidegger’s thought.
In this interview we see how Martin Buber’s criticized Heidegger’s philosophy as holding dangerous ideas compared to his own dialogical and prophetic account of human existence. Yet, Buber was one with Heidegger’s critique of modern life as being consumed by a technological approach toward the world.
Alexander Altmann claims that Heidegger’s ideas of Being and Time could be applied to Torah, halakhah, and Jewish peoplehood. More interesting, is that both Altmann and Soloveitchik identified with the volkish elements in Heidegger’s thought. Jews find Jewish destiny over fate through Torah and Jewish peoplehood, in the same way Heidegger thought that he would find his destiny in the Nazi party. Herskowitz shows that many of the elements in Soloveitchik’s thought that we associate with Kierkegaard may actually be parallel or from Heidegger.
Heschel completely rejected Heidegger as pagan and in contrasts with the Biblical view. Levinas also rejects Heidegger as pagan compared to the Jewish ethical approach, being is evil and the goal is to be otherwise than being. The demand of the face of the stranger breaks any wallowing in Being.
Rabbi Hutner surprisingly followed Heidegger the closest by finding true authenticity in experiencing the angst from death and through finding the eschatological horizon of life after death. However, the Torah exhorts us to find authentic life in the individual observance of the commandments as the ticket to resurrection.
Hans-Joachim Schoeps and Michael Wyschogrod both thought Jews should affirm a Karl Barth position to escape from a sinful, godless existence, to an authentic Jewish existence attuned to divine revelation.
Herskowitz’s next project is to read the works of Cohen, Rosenzweig, Buber, and Levinas in light of developments in Protestant thinking and specifically in light of a move ‘back to Luther’ that was set in motion at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. It analyses their negotiation between commitment to Jewish sources and Lutheran structural assumptions and explores how they polemicise against Christianity while sharing with it a common inheritance. This study confirms that just as there is a medieval tradition of Jewish Aristotelianism, so there is a modern tradition of Jewish Lutheranism.
I look forward to that work on Jewish Lutheranism especially after this major work reframing the history of twentieth century Jewish thought. The weakness of this volume was the same as its strength, that the book remained focused on the level of intellectual history without any serious presentation of Heidegger’s philosophy or ideas. Even this interview is much more of a documentary record, done exceptionally well, than a grappling with Dasein. A reader unfamiliar with Heidegger’s philosophy, not counting in any way having read articles debating and castigating his Nazi affiliation, should read one of the many introductory volumes to Heidegger’s thought written in the last quarter century before tackling the book.
- Why was Heidegger important?
Heidegger emerged on the philosophical scene in Germany in the years between the wars, a period that was as politically shaky as it was intellectually productive. During that time there was a general attempt to develop new ways to think about some fundamental philosophical and religious questions. These including new ways of thinking about human existence, the human-divine relationship, politics, law, and more. For many, the most pressing issues were related to the individual’s subjectivity, concrete temporal existence, decision, and authenticity. This more existential sensitivity implied not only a rejection of the supremacy of reason, but also an aversion to the abstractions of metaphysics. Heidegger’s 1927 work Sein und Zeit [Being and Time], with its penetrating analysis of historical human existence in the world and its ‘jargon of authenticity’ turned him almost overnight to a central spokesperson for this philosophical perspective.
2. What was the Jewish Reception of Heidegger’s thought?
If much of medieval Jewish philosophy is rightfully perceived as operating under Aristotle’s domineering shadow, determined by its concepts, possibilities, and boundaries, and the same is true with respect to nineteenth century Jewish thought and Kant, then the previous century might be termed the ‘Heidegger century’ in Jewish European thought.
Now, this general perspective was shared by many young Jewish thinkers were tried to reimagine and reformulate Jewishness along these lines, and many saw Heidegger as a thought-provoking and challenging thinker to think along with – and against. We find, therefore, that Heidegger’s philosophy loomed large for the long list of thinkers for whom this period was formative, like Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Max Brod, Margarete Susman, Leo Strauss, Hans Jonas, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Emmanuel Levinas, and many more (including thinkers of a later generation, such as Emil Fackenheim and Michael and Edith Wyschogrod).
Leo Strauss spoke for many when he said of his early student years in Germany during this time: “Nothing affected us as profoundly in the years in which our minds took their lasting directions as the thought of Heidegger. While everyone else in the younger generation who had ears to hear was either completely overwhelmed by Heidegger, or else, having been almost completely overwhelmed by him, engaged in well-intentioned but ineffective rearguard actions against him,” (An Unspoken Prologue,” 450).
Of course, Heidegger’s support of Hitler, made public in 1933 – for which he refused to express remorse publicly – together with the conviction that his politics derived from his philosophy, made the Jewish engagement with his thinking extremely fraught and painful. But what is striking is that Heidegger managed to regain his preeminent philosophical status after World War II and the Holocaust, in both the general and Jewish world of thought. It is fascinating to see how Buber, Strauss, Levinas, and many others continued to seek out Heidegger’s post-war published work and to respond to it in their own writings. It was not, then, only Heidegger’s early, more existentially leaning philosophy that proved so fertilizing for Jewish thought, but his later reflections on language, poetry, the gods, and technology were as well.
Heidegger fomented twentieth century European Jewish thought in a profound, indelible way, unmatched by any other thinker. The list of Jewish thinkers who found Heidegger’s philosophy meriting serious and repeated consideration makes it difficult to argue otherwise. But this ‘consideration’ came in the form of a wide range of intellectual exchanges, such as identification, incorporation, negotiation, critique, and rejection.
3. Can you briefly discuss some of the ways Martin Buber responded to Heidegger?
Buber had a decades-long fascination and confrontation with Heidegger. A friend of Buber, Werner Kraft, recorded an impression he had during a conversation with Buber, where Buber criticized Heidegger: “Buber then said: ‘Heidegger’s central idea is false,’ but I have the impression that he […] cannot free himself from Heidegger.”
A common way of framing Buber’s critical engagement with Heidegger is as following. Buber accused him of presenting a picture of human existence that was essentially self-contained and that cannot truly account for or encounter the ‘You’, the other who is not the self – be it the fellow human or the ‘eternal You,’ God. In Buber’s terminology, Heidegger’s version of selfhood is ‘monological’. As an alternative, Buber put forth his ‘dialogical’ account of human existence, where that which is most meaningful takes place in the ‘between’ and the self is fully constituted only in and through the encounter with the other.
This presentation is not incorrect, but I think it is just one facet of a far more extensive confrontation of Buber with Heidegger. Ultimately, we see that Buber’s critical engagement with Heidegger did not simply focus on Heidegger’s notion of selfhood but targeted his whole understanding of how we humans inhabit the world.
Buber saw Heidegger’s philosophy as holding dangerous existential, theological, moral and political ramifications, and opposing it was of utmost importance. As part of this confrontation, Buber accused Heidegger of ‘magic’, that is, of advancing a coercive and utilitarian approach toward the world and claimed his philosophy led to Nazism and to nihilism. Buber also tries to appropriate the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, who Heidegger considered the German poet, for his own dialogical thought.
Yet Buber still held Heidegger in the highest esteem, claiming he was on par with thinkers such as Kant and Hegel, but also Buber developed his alternative to Heidegger on the basis of assumptions and concerns which he shared with Heidegger.
Both Buber and Heidegger believed that modern life was being consumed by a technological approach toward the world and that this generated an impoverished way of living. In this context, Heidegger speaks of the need to cultivate a certain closeness and attuned to the world, a way of living that is not coercive toward what ‘is’ but gratuitous and responsive. He calls this ‘dwelling poetically.’
Buber moves in a parallel direction while seeking to counter Heidegger. He advocates as a Jewish-dialogical alternative that I call ‘dwelling prophetically’, a faithful openness to the intimate encounter with the plenitude and presence of God and of the other person. For Buber, the model for this kind of dialogical existence was the biblical prophets.
4. How does Alexander Altman use Heidegger in his theology?
Altmann’s early reading of Heidegger during the 1930s is one of the most interesting and surprising Jewish engagements with the philosopher. It takes place before Heidegger’s affiliation with Hitler became known, and therefore demonstrates both how original Jewish thought was conducted through the conceptual frameworks that were found compelling at the time and how, perhaps, Jewish encounters with Heidegger could have looked like had the political and moral factor not made it inevitably fraught.
For example, in one essay Altmann develops the claim that Judaism is based on two fundamental and particularistic notions, the understanding of revelation as halakha and the Jewish peoplehood. To ground the latter point, he turns to section 74 of Being and Time, where Heidegger outlines how the authentic existence of the individual partakes in the wider context of a community and generation. As part of this outline, Heidegger employs a number of charged volkish terms to describe the communal aspect of authenticity, like ‘volk,’ ‘community’, ‘struggle’, ‘fate’, ‘destiny’, ‘heritage’, and others.
Notably, Altmann claims that Heidegger’s terms could be perfectly applied to Jewish existence: Volk is the Jewish peoplehood, their ‘heritage’ is the Torah and the halakha, and their ‘destiny’ is to live out the word of God in their historical existence. Only as a member of a wider historical community, bound by tradition and driven by a task, can the Jewish person attain authenticity.
Altmann’s reading of Heidegger in this essay is noteworthy for at least two reasons: first, it runs against a common interpretation that saw Heidegger’s philosophy as conceptually linked to Christianity. For Altmann, Heidegger’s volkism made his philosophy more appropriate to Jews than to Christians, because Jews are an organic Volk while Christians are a Church, a theological construct. Second, Altmann identified with the volkish elements in Heidegger’s thought, the very elements that led Heidegger to a political party driven by hatred towards Jews and that engendered a philosophical scheme that excluded Jews.
5. How does Heschel’s “Who is Man” respond to Heidegger?
Heschel’s Who is Man? should be read as an attempt to counter the theological surge of interest in Heidegger’s philosophy that took place in the United States at the end of the 1950s and through the 1960s. Heschel poses a confrontation between his own biblical Jewish theology and what he considers Heidegger’s paganism. His basic premises is this: any framework that denies the essential link between humans and an ineffable God, the personal, compassionate, and demanding biblical God, is ultimately nihilistic and tied to paganism. In Heschel’s understanding, such paganism and nihilism is exhibited in Heidegger’s fixation with being and his godless analysis of human existence.
Heschel claimed that without the reference to God, Heidegger cannot offer a compelling account of authenticity or a moral benchmark to evaluate action. In his understanding, the human according to Heidegger’s godless framework can only ‘be’, not ‘live’ as a moral creature. Heidegger suffers from what Heschel termed ‘the ontocentric predicament’ – prioritizing a de-personalized ‘being’ that cannot account for the true humanity of humans, the moral charge of their existence, or the created nature of the world.
In a handwritten note I found in Heschel’s archive in Duke University Library, Heschel wrote in relation to Heidegger: “The issue is not being itself, for being itself is the invention of metaphysicians. Being in the world as expressing man’s existence confines man and limits the problem. The true issue is being with God.”
Heidegger manifested for Heschel what he saw as the religious and moral bankruptcy of modern secularism and some of the profound flaws of western philosophy. Heidegger confirmed Heschel’s belief that what the world needed most was the biblical God whose pathos and care towards humans grants value and meaning to their lives and enables the moral work toward redemption.
It should be noted that Heschel’s analysis of Heidegger is based on various misrepresentations of Heidegger’s view. In fact, there are some important issues in which both thinkers share a common approach, and some of the ‘biblical’ alternatives Heschel offers in contrast to Heidegger’s philosophy resemble Heidegger’s real position. Nevertheless, his critical engagement with Heidegger teaches us a lot about how Heschel understood the challenges of the spiritual world around him.
6. How does Rav Hutner use Heidegger in one of his essays.
Rav Hutner drew on a plethora of sources – Jewish and others – in his writings. From early on he was occupied with issues concerning existence, authenticity, freedom, temporality, and selfhood, and in his writings, there are various intersections with the existentialist perspective that rose to prominence in the early decades of the twentieth century.
For example, as part of his attempt to come to terms with the question the meaning of life in light of the looming fact of death, Hutner appropriated – and also adapted in an original way – the Heideggerian notion of ‘being-toward-death’ in order to develop a Jewish existential comportment toward life after death, ‘being-toward -resurrection’.
Hutner believed, with Heidegger, that authentic existence is drawn from a certain comportment toward death and the future. But in contrast to Heidegger, for whom death sealed the horizon of existence, Hutner claimed that true authenticity is gained by experiencing the angst from death and by overcoming it, and by comporting oneself toward beyond death, toward resurrection and eternity. For Hutner, the horizon of death is critical for authenticity and a real source of existential angst, but when understood properly, it itself opens a further horizon, the eschatological horizon of life after death.
What is interesting in Hutner’s notion of ‘being toward resurrection’ is not only the usage of Heidegger for the sake of Orthodox Jewish thinking, but its individualized and existential application: ‘Resurrection’ confirms the possibility of an authentic and meaningful life in the face of death. In this way Hutner binds authenticity in the face of death and commitment to traditional Judaism, because observance of the commandments is the ‘ticket’ to resurrection and is therefore a religious mean and end for the Jewish seeking authenticity.
7. How do Rabbi Soloveitchik and Heidegger use Kierkegaard’s idea of the moment?
Both Soloveitchik and Heidegger (as well as many other thinkers) draw on Soren Kierkegaard’s notion of ‘the moment’ (or ‘blink of an eye’). I don’t think Soloveitchik used Heidegger. Some scholars made the Soloveitchik-Heidegger connection on this issue but I think it is a parallel through Kierkegaard.
For Kierkegaard, the ‘moment’ is a religious and existential event of self-transformation that takes place in an elevated instance, touched by eternity. The ‘moment’ is based on a conception of time that is different than the common, every day one. It does not perceive time as a succession of present moments, in which ‘eternity’ would mean the passing of an infinite number of these ‘now’ moments.
Rather, time is approached from a more existential and experiential perspective, and the ‘moment’ is the intersection between a moment in time and eternity. Here time is measured by quality, so to speak, rather than quantity, and eternity is time in its fullness, a moment of wholeness and completeness that encompasses past, present, and future.
Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man models his account of repentance on this Kierkegaardian notion. For Soloveitchik, repentance is an event that takes place in the transient present moment, but is elevated to a moment of temporal fullness. It grants a defining overview on one’s life from which one’s past is revisited from the point of view of the present, taking in view the future – and the eschatological future. This conception of time is at the basis of Soloveitchik’s account of repentance because it is what allows past sins to be completely erased, as if they had never occurred in the first place, rather than acts of transgression that are simply atoned for.
Heidegger, too, utilizes Kierkegaard’s notion. In Being and Time he speaks of an ‘Augenblick’ (German rendering of the Danish Øieblik), an elevated ‘moment’ of authenticity which likewise encompasses what Heidegger calls the ‘ecstatic’ and future-oriented temporality of human existence. For Heidegger, however, the ‘moment’ is not a moment of fusion with eternity and it does not describe the event of repentance, but a moment of existential resoluteness in which the fullness of time makes present the finitude of the individual’s time and accounts for her anticipated death.
8. How does Rabbi Soloveitchik use Volkish ideas similar to Heidegger?
Volkish thinking has many connotations and variations, making it difficult to outline a clear-cut definition of what the volk is. In general, the volk refers to a primordial and close-knit communal body – something like a live organism – that is founded on a common language, tradition, custom, religion, land, and also blood. The volk is said to have a spiritual, even metaphysical vocation, usually referred to as its ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’, which it must struggle to actualize over against those who seek to hamper it. The volk was often thought about through a distinction that was introduced in a different context by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, that is, between an organic and reciprocally-connected community, the volk, and a selfish and utilitarian (modern) society.
Now, many of these features appear in Soloveitchik’s writings when he refers to the Jewish people or Knesset Israel. He speaks of Israel as a trans-generational organism, a living whole, a metaphysical entity for which the individual should sacrifice herself. Perhaps Soloveitchik’s most famous usage of volkish vocabulary and ideas can be found in his The Lonely Man of Faith (1965), where he speaks of two kinds of communities, the natural community and the community of the covenant, which are described exactly as a Gesellschaft and a Gemeinschaft – the former, a utilitarian coordination, the latter, an existential companionship.
In a different work Soloveitchik distinguishes between two ways the individual can approach suffering: ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’. The former characterizes pure factual existence lacking direction and meaning, the latter is active, imbued with meaning and direction. This distinction can apply nationally or communally as well: a community can be a ‘Covenant of Fate’ or a ‘Covenant of Destiny’.
This volkish terminology is a point of contact between Soloveitchik and Heidegger, because Heidegger, too, made use of the volkism in his own highly abstract and idiosyncratic way. He similarly spoke of the ‘fate’, ‘destiny’, and ‘heritage’ of a community that seeks to actualize its historical mission. For him, of course, the volk was the German volk, and its destiny pertained to spearheading a new openness to the holiness of being. His volkish impulse let him to the Nazi party, but it is also the reason he ultimately became disillusioned by it and distanced himself from it.
That Heidegger and Soloveitchik both made use of volkish ideology and vocabulary in their respective writings – albeit in different ways, with different referents, and for different ends – is but one demonstration of how important strands of twentieth century Jewish thought shared a common conceptual horizon with the German philosopher. While they were often fervently critical of his thought, they also shared some important assumptions and theoretical frameworks with him. This makes Heidegger’s Jewish reception a more complicated matter than simply one of ‘critique’ or ‘rejection.’
9. How does early Levinas deal with Heidegger?
Levinas’s relationship with Heidegger is extremely complicated. There is no question he admired Heidegger’s philosophical genius and his own thinking can be fully understood only with the backdrop of Heidegger. At the same time, Levinas identified a direct link between Heidegger’s philosophy and his shameful politics. In fact, he claimed that Heidegger embodied a violent and totalitarian impulse that was fundamental to western thought.
Therefore, while it is certainly true that Levinas’s thought is a forceful attempt to counter Heidegger’s philosophy and propose an alternative to it, this alternative is itself importantly marked by Heidegger’s own intellectual interventions. In one of the many fascinating interviews Levinas gave toward the end of his life, he was asked if it is correct to say that he “went through Heidegger, beyond Heidegger, by means of Heidegger.” Levinas’s answer was this: “always with pain and suffering. But I cannot deny it. Mont Blanc is Mont Blanc.”
In several of his early writings, Levinas explores two ways of being in the world. One he terms ‘being pagan’, featured by a sense of confidence, enrootedness, and sufficiency in an impenetrable totality of the world that lacks the possibility of transcendence. He associates this mode of existence with the world of Heidegger’s philosophy, in which everything is consumed by the immanence of ‘being’. For Levinas, mere ‘being’ is always the site of evil, power, and idolatry, and Heidegger’s biography confirms this.
Levinas terms the second way of being in the world and the alternative to the first, ‘being Jewish’. This existential modality is a universal category and not exclusive to any certain people or religion. It is marked by a sense of uprootedness, estrangement, and insecurity because it is a way of existing in a world touched by transcendence, a totality punctured by otherness. ‘Being Jewish’ means being unheimlich in a world called into question and called to action by transcendence, which Levinas called ‘creation.’ At the same time, and consequently, it is the existential mode in which morality, peace, and religiosity are accessible. In his early writings, then, Levinas follows Heidegger in developing a distinctive way of experiencing being, but he does so in order to formulate an alternative to Heidegger.
10. How does later Levinas deal with Heidegger?
In my reading of Levinas, his later, more mature works continue to develop this initial opposition between Heideggerian paganism and ‘being Jewish’, but he does this in what is, on the face of it, a more explicitly philosophical context, and the opposition is reformulated as the distinction between violent ontology and what Levinas calls ‘ethics.’
In the later writings the ethical impulse of otherness and transcendence is dramatically more pronounced (though it was already present earlier). Levinas claims that the experience governing the encounter with the Other, who interrupts the totality of being, is that of fundamental separation, holiness, and above all, demand. The self’s sense of rootedness in the world is interrupted and revamped from without by the call of the Other demanding to respect its otherness.
There are, of course, many developments and shifts between Levinas’s early and later writings, but I see a clear and instructive line of continuity between them. Levinas’s mature thinking develops his earlier reflections on the axis of the pagan Heideggerian mode of being and the Jewish mode of being. This is confirmed by the fact that there is a strong correspondence between what we find in his philosophical works and what we find in his analysis of Jewish texts. For example, in a parallel manner to his philosophical claims, Levinas describes Judaism as pre-eminently focused on the responsibility for the other. Similarly, in his essay “A Religion for Adults,” found in the collection of Jewish themed essays Difficult Freedom, Levinas proclaims that “Judaism teaches us a real transcendence.”
11. How does Hans-Joachim Schoeps use Heidegger in his theology?
Schoeps was an idiosyncratic thinker who believed that the analysis of human existence offered by Heidegger in Being and Time was an apt description of the contemporary Jewish person: secular, absorbed in immanence, and lacked a ‘consciousness of God’. The average contemporary Jew existed in a state of sin and alientation from God, and the existential analysis developed by Heidegger described precisely that deprived state of existence.
In his early constructive theology, Schoeps encouraged his fellow Jews to overcome their ‘Heideggerian’ state of secular existence and to return to a Jewish life of obedience based on the ever-present event of the Word of God. Oddly enough, Schoeps believed that Karl Barth, the Swiss Protestant theologian, offered the most appropriate framework for authentic Jewish theology and existence.
In effect, what Schoeps was doing was imploring his fellow Jews to turn from Heidegger to Barth, that is, from a sinful, godless existence, to an authentic Jewish existence attuned to divine revelation.
Another Jewish Barthian, Michael Wyschogrod, makes a closely related argument. In his Body of Faith he presents Heidegger as the epitome of western philosophical ontology but also the philosopher who demonstrates best the shortcomings of this way of thinking. As an alternative, Wyschogrod offers his account of biblical Judaism that takes its lead from Barth. (I have an article on Wyschogrod, Heidegger, and Barth coming out soon in JSQ.)
12. Why is there a debate on the relationship of Franz Rosenzweig to Heidegger?
In one of the last pieces that he wrote before his untimely death, “Exchanged Fronts”, Rosenzweig discussed the encounter between Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer that had just taken place in Davos, which was seen as staging the confrontation between the representative of the ‘new’ philosophical perspective (Heidegger) and the representative of the ‘old’ philosophical perspective (Cassirer).
In this piece, Rosenzweig expressed much enthusiasm about Heidegger’s philosophical perspective. He associated his own thinking, which he termed ‘New Thinking’, with Heidegger’s, claiming that both sprang from the actual, temporal existence of the human being and rejected the abstractions of idealism and metaphysics. Rosenzweig even suggested that not Cassirer but himself and Heidegger represented the real heirs of Hermann Cohen, the great Jewish neo-Kantian thinker whose project was generally continued by Cassirer.
In general, there is a question about just how familiarized Rosenzweig actually was with Heidegger’s philosophy and his positioning of Heidegger as the heir of Cohen is contentious.
Rosenzweig’s open association with Heidegger caused much discomfort, especially after 1933, when many wished to disassociate Rosenzweig, who had quickly cultivated a heliographic status in the Jewish imagination, from Heidegger, the Nazi collaborator. And throughout the twentieth century there are various attempts to demonstrate that despite Rosenzweig’s own assessment, a closer analysis suggests that his thought actually differed significantly from Heidegger’s on a number of important issues.
The most extensive argument in this regard was made by Karl Löwith, a former student (turned critic) of Heidegger’s and a central figure in shaping the philosopher’s twentieth century reception. In an essay “M. Heidegger and F. Rosenzweig or Temporality and Eternity”, Löwith sets out to show that while there are some analogous moments in Heidegger and Rosenzweig, they are in fact profoundly different. The distinguishing factor, Löwith maintains, is that Heidegger’s is a philosophy of radical immanence and temporality, while Rosenzweig’s philosophy, which begins with temporal existence, is ultimately geared toward transcendence and eternity.
Löwith’s essay was published in 1942 and for a long it was taken as the final word on the matter. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the Rosenzweig-Heidegger connection – I have counted over 30 titles on the topic published in the last decade or so – and while there is nothing particularly new in the juxtaposition itself, it seems that now the tendency is to acknowledge their shared conceptual horizons rather than to emphasize their differences.
13. Why did some Jews associate Heidegger’s thought with Christianity?
Heidegger had a Christian upbringing and some of his early original philosophical writings dealt with classical Christian theological texts. He soon distanced himself from his Christian rearing and in his 1927 book Being and Time he sought to develop a philosophical scheme that was not beholden to metaphysical and Christian assumptions about what it means to be human. In this sense, his philosophy is decidedly non-Christian, and at times even anti-Christian.
The trouble is that some of the basic categories that Heidegger puts forth in his early analysis of human existence seem to be of discernible Christian origin. Among the notions that bear the stamp of Christianity are ‘guilt’, ‘fallenness’, ‘call’, ‘revelation’, ‘being toward death’, but there are many more. It is clear that in Heidegger’s philosophy they do not refer to traditional Christian content and they are employed in a clearly non-theological context. But many readers, and many Jewish readers, saw this as proof that a number of Heidegger’s basic categories have Christian roots, and that even if they were ontological and philosophical, they still preserved something of their Christian origin and continued to carry Christian resonances.
This interpretation was widespread, and it included the likes of Edmund Husserl, Ernst Cassirer, Karl Löwith, Rudolf Bultmann, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Leo Strauss, Max Scheler, Gunther Anders, and Susan and Jacob Taubes, to name only a few. According to it, Heidegger claimed to be offering a neutral and formal account of human existence as such, but he was in fact caught up in Christian assumptions about what it means to be human and ended up outlining a secularized Christian conception of human existence.
This was one of the reasons evoked by Jewish thinkers to make the point that Heidegger’s philosophy was ill-suited for Jewish thought. Insofar as his understanding of human existence bore an inherent Christian charge, it could not be applied to the specific case of Jewish existence.