A Marginal Jew

Sometimes, pace the Lord, a prophet is honored only in his native land. So suggests the case of Hans Jonas, a philosopher whose prophetic warnings in the 1970s about dangers to the environment earned him fame in his native Germany and even played a part in inspiring a political movement there, the German Green Party. By contrast, Jonas is hardly a household name in the United States, where he lived from 1952 until his death in 1993, and even many professional philosophers here hardly know his work.

Jonas’s life story is a complicated one, and it is arguable that, when he came to fame in Germany toward the end of his life, the country of his youth no longer quite existed. That is proposed by Rachel Salamander in the foreword to Jonas’s Memoirs, edited by Christian Wiese from thirty-three tapes recording conversations Jonas had with Salamander and her partner Stephan Sattler. In his diction, Salamander writes, Jonas “had preserved a piece of Germany that one hardly encounters nowadays. It vanished along with the highly educated middle-class Jews who went into exile or were exterminated by the Nazis.” Born in 1903 in the city of Mönchengladbach, Jonas was one of these highly educated Jews, and in his youth a passionate Zionist. In 1933 he saw the writing on the wall and left Germany for Palestine by way of England. His father, a well-to-do textile manufacturer, died of cancer in Germany in 1938; his mother was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. Jonas returned to Germany in 1945 as a soldier in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army. He thereafter returned to Jerusalem; fought for two more years, 1948–49, now in the newly founded Israeli Army; and then fled with his wife and daughter to North America, first for temporary teaching positions in Canada, finally for a permanent position at the New School in New York, where he taught from 1952 to 1976.

That Jonas is not well known in the United States reflects the fact that philosophy does not have nearly the same cultural prestige and prominence here as it does in Germany. This is, surely, both for the better and for the worse: for the worse, since many of our pressing political problems—bioethical, environmental, and other—call for sustained philosophical reflection; for the better, since we are spared the rule of philosopher kings, whose ideas, as Plato’s Republic demonstrated long ago, can be terrifying. Jonas was, in his own words, “taken less seriously by the professional philosophers in America than in Germany” for a related reason: the kind of philosophy he practiced—namely, historically informed metaphysics, with all its big questions about being—was and is not the kind of philosophy dominant in the English-speaking world. In the American academy, once more in Jonas’s words, “philosophy tends to concern itself with linguistic analysis and...epistemology [the theory of knowledge], leaving the world and its conditions to the scientists.” This is a bit of an overstatement—philosophy in the United States is more diverse than Jonas allows, or at least has become more diverse—but still his claim is more right than wrong. In the United States, metaphysics in the grand tradition has long been subordinate to more “positivist,” pragmatic concerns, again for better and for worse.

Still, the fact that Jonas’s Memoirs has been translated from German (in which it appeared in 2003) and published by an American university press is an indication that Jonas is not altogether unknown and unappreciated in the United States. In religious studies, he is known for his groundbreaking work, begun in the 1920s under his teachers Martin Heidegger and the Scripture scholar Rudolf Bultmann, on gnosticism. In bioethics, he is known for a series of probing assessments of the promise and potential perils of our growing biotechnological powers. (Jonas was made a fellow of the Hastings Center in 1969, the year it was founded.) Lately, he has become a subject of interest for intellectual historians, especially scholars of Judaism. Benjamin Lazier’s brilliant God Interrupted is an example of this discovery of Jonas’s significance, as are Wiese’s study The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas: Jewish Dimensions (Brandeis, 2007), and a hefty volume of papers by various scholars edited by Wiese and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson under the title The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life (Brill, 2008). It is to be hoped that these studies of Jonas’s thought, together with his wonderfully engaging Memoirs, will send readers back to his own philosophical works. As John E. Morearty wrote in Commonweal in 1966, reviewing Jonas’s major philosophical work, The Phenomenon of Life, “even the reader who has not yet worked his way through [Kant’s] three Critiques will find most of these essays, unlike much of what passes for philosophy these days, not only rewarding but intelligible.”

What Commonweal readers would find most rewarding about Jonas’s Memoirs and Lazier’s intellectual history is that they both succeed in giving a sense of the organic environment, so to speak, in which the philosopher’s intellectual life was rooted and from which it richly sprang. For the same reason, Commonweal readers might also find both books somewhat disturbing, for they serve as reminders of a deep anti-Semitism that, as the recent controversy over Pope Benedict’s rehabilitation of the Society of St. Pius X indicated, has not been entirely uprooted from Christianity to this day. (See John R. Donahue’s “Trouble Ahead? The Future of Jewish-Catholic Relations,” Commonweal, March 13, 2009.)

Jonas paints a picture of a Jewish community both integrated into German society—its industries, its politics, and perhaps above all its universities—and set apart; assimilated (his family’s Judaism was more cultural than cultic, and he knew his Goethe better than nearly everybody else), yet nagged by a sense that Jews, as he puts it, “didn’t really belong” in Germany. Jonas’s identification with Judaism as a youth was deeply visceral, and he recounts how he would be “flooded with Maccabean rage” when a classmate made an anti-Semitic joke or remark. What he calls his “defiant pride” earned him respect from his classmates, but it also once got him beaten up, and in 1933, just before he emigrated from Germany, it nearly got him and a loved one killed. Jonas and his Christian girlfriend, the first woman he had fallen in love with, had gone on a long hike. At an inn where they had stopped for lunch, “several hefty men” struck up a song with what Jonas calls “the charming refrain, ‘When Jewish blood from the knife blade spurts / Then all will be well again.’” To which he responded: “Come on, pull out your knives. Here I am. Here’s a Jew.” Fortunately, a policeman was present who ordered Jonas and his girlfriend to be escorted safely away. Having silenced the singers and shamed the other Germans at the inn, Jonas judged this incident “a complete moral victory for me.” In retrospect, though, he also realized he had endangered his girlfriend.

What Lazier’s book persuasively argues is that Jonas’s philosophical work may itself be understood as an expression of his “defiant pride” and deeply rooted Jewishness. In other words, Jonas’s metaphysics as it is developed in The Phenomenon of Life is in its origins (like his reaction to the several hefty singers) a morally motivated, though in this instance thoroughly responsible and long-contemplated, response to anti-Semitism. Lazier presents God Interrupted as “an intellectual history of Europe between the world wars, the Weimar period above all, and some of its important afterlives”—that is, he considers how thinkers who were formed in this era went on to develop beyond it. The book focuses on three Jewish thinkers: Jonas and two of his longtime friends, the political philosopher Leo Strauss, best known as the intellectual father of American neoconservatism, and Gershom Scholem, the great and notably eccentric scholar of Kabbalism, among many others things Jewish. (Strauss, Scholem, and another longtime Jewish friend of Jonas’s, Hannah Arendt, also figure largely and colorfully in his Memoirs.) According to Lazier, those thinkers “discovered that the crisis of religion in the modern world was also a crisis of nature,” as “rebellion against God dovetailed with a rebellion against teleological nature.” A teleological nature cannot be understood mechanistically, but develops in view of ends that resist explanation in other terms. Theology underlies traditional conceptions of natural law and links nicely with the biblical theology of creation. Jonas further discovered, Lazier claims, that the crises of religion and nature precipitated in turn “a crisis of what it meant to be a Jew,” and it is Lazier’s interpretation of Jonas’s work in relation to these interlaced crises of modernity that makes God Interrupted an impressive and revealing work. (Lazier’s presentation of Strauss’s thought is also highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand this controversial, complicated man apart from all polemics and in the context of his times.)

Ironically, the key figure in Lazier’s account is not a Jew but a Christian, namely, the great evangelical theologian Karl Barth. Lazier claims that “it is difficult to overstate the importance” of Barth’s commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans for the German-speaking academic world in the 1920s and ’30s. Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans appeared in eight editions from 1918 to 1928, and, as Lazier writes, “it set the terms...for much of Christian and Jewish thought in the wake of Versailles.”

What is remarkable about Barth’s gargantuan book, when read with the knowledge of what would happen in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s, is how oblivious he appears to be to the implications of his theology for the Jews of his day. Barth’s so-called crisis theology sought, against nineteenth-century liberal Protestant theology, to liberate what he called “the dangerous element in Christianity”: its insistence on “the chasm which divides the Creator from the creature, spirit from flesh,” its rejection of the Law as bringing only sin, and its renunciation of “the corruptibility of my body and...my existence in the world” in favor of the “pure other-worldliness” of faith, that “impossible possibility” of “the divine ‘Yes’” spoken by God through Christ. For Barth, organized religion ultimately “compels us to the perception that God is not to be found in religion.” It follows that, “if we be heirs through the law”—like the Jews—“we are veritably dispossessed and excluded from all expectation of the promised heritage.” The second-century Christian heretic Marcion was then correct, by Barth’s lights, to revolt against the Old Testament in favor of the Gospels. Marcion’s basic error, according to Barth, was only to forget that every religion must be reduced to “awe in the presence of the divine incognito,” which is another way that Barth characterizes faith in the risen Christ. (To be fair to Barth, it should be noted that, unlike Heidegger for example, he refused allegiance to the Nazis, lost his university job at Bonn, and was deported to his native Switzerland. Barth was also the principal author of the 1934 Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church, squarely rejecting Nazism. But unlike his fellow evangelical Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barth did not make central “the Jewish question” in his public opposition to the Nazis, and the Barmen Declaration makes no mention whatsoever of Nazi policies toward Jews.)

Against this background, Lazier’s claim that “Jonas’s philosophical career reveals itself...as a profoundly hostile, Jewish response” to anti-Semitism—more precisely, to the “metaphysical anti-Semitism” articulated by Barth in his reading of Paul—makes a lot of sense. Barth himself acknowledges in the preface to the 1921 second edition of Romans “the remarkable parallels” between Marcion’s teaching and his Pauline theology, first and foremost the essentially gnostic claim that it is “the ‘Wholly Other’ which is our unforgettable home,” whereas “Life (BIOS)” is “after the flesh” and so “absent from Christ.” It is then no wonder that, as Lazier writes, “Jonas recognized in his age—and in Barth—a recrudescence of gnosticism” and so “discovered in his age not only a parallel to the gnostic era, but also a proximate cause or stimulus to his researches,” first on gnosticism itself, then on the phenomenon of life in its different forms, and finally on bioethics and the human responsibility to the environment. In brief, Jonas sought to redeem the flesh from Barth’s condemnation. Given the Pauline association of Jews and the Law with carnality, Jonas’s work may also be understood as a defense of what Lazier terms “Jewish being-in-the-world.”

It would be a mistake, however, to imagine Jonas as an angry, resentful man. In his Memoirs, he tells the moving story of his reunion with his beloved teacher Bultmann in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, with Jonas still in military uniform, and Germany in utter ruin. (Jonas’s reunion with the disgraced Heidegger happened many years later, and came off much less successfully.) Not long before visiting Bultmann in Marburg, Jonas had learned of the fate of his mother, which he tearfully judged at that moment “something I can never forgive the German people for.” On Jonas’s arrival, the pale, gaunt Bultmann was at first able to offer only an awkward greeting: “So how are you?” But then, in Jonas’s words, “something remarkable happened.” Bultmann pointed to a book under Jonas’s arm “and asked, ‘May I hope that that’s the second volume of the gnosticism book?’” (The first volume of Jonas’s study had been published in 1934.) Jonas’s recollections here are worth quoting at length:

"At that moment something changed inside me. For the first time since my return to Germany, the terrible bitterness gave way, and a sort of peace filled my heart. The evidence of this man’s loving loyalty, which had outlasted the liquidation of an entire world, the most terrible catastrophes, and the destruction of Germany, and had clung to the hope that his student Jonas might yet finish his gnosticism project let me feel for the first time the possibility of reconciliation. What I needed was to recover my belief in humanity. What happened in this moment was the restoration of trust in a person of German origin."

Perhaps this experience also inspired the statement of belief with which the Memoirs concludes: “That there is indeed a supernatural element in human affairs—for this the human spirit seems to offer evidence.”

Published in the ??? 2010 issue: 

Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory: An Introduction (Paulist Press, 2016). 

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