Judaism in the thought of Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas*
by Avner Dinur**
Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas worked side by side throughout the main part of their lives1, were educated with the same philosophical and cultural background, and yet created two very different philosophies. Arendt wrote about what she called "political theory"2, whereas Jonas was a theologian and an environmentalist3. One of the significant meeting points of their philosophy is their attitude toward Judaism. In this paper I will read through several claims of these two thinkers regarding Jewish identity and its meaning, and then will consider their concept of Judaism in the light of a wider historical context of German-Jews at the beginning of the 20th century.
Jonas and Arendt were both born in the first decade of the 20th
century. They met as students of Rudolf Bultmann4 and Martin
Both Arendt and Jonas were well aware of their personal identity as Jews, but never in a religious way. Their minimal commitment to Jewish heritage prompted them to think about Judaism in a secular10 and philosophical manner. For both of them Judaism is not connected with any specific practice – Judaism is a matter of thought – a moral-universal stand-point which is relevant to every human being. Despite the fact that Judaism was perceived as universal in Arendt's and Jonas's philosophy, it is also a matter that distinguishes them personally from their surroundings and obliges them to write philosophy differently – 'ethical-theology' in the case of Jonas, 'political theory' in the case of Arendt, and in both cases – a philosophy that is centered on the actions of humankind and on the future of society, i.e. aimed at changing the present.
In what follows I will show that both Arendt and Jonas portray Judaism as a prototype of the ideal society that they are trying to advance in their philosophy, and as a kind of 'ethical call' that should be heeded by all people. I will claim that from this perspective, they share meaningful similarities with the works of other Jewish-German thinkers that have identified Jewishness with a moral-universal obligation. I will call this perspective on Judaism "The Jewish-German Hyphen-Culture", and will examine the implications of this unique cultural phenomena.
This paper was first presented in the conference: "Hannah Arendt
and the Human Condition"
1 In a lecture that Jonas presented in 1973, he declared that next year he will be celebrating 50 years of friendship with Arendt. See: Hans Jonas, “A Retrospective View”, Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Gnosticism, Stokholm, 1973, p. 4. hereafter cited as Jonas, Retrospective.
2 As apposed to "philosophy", see in her famous Gaus interview: "What Remains? The Language Remains: A Conversation with Günter Gaus", in: Hannah Arendt, Essays in Understanding 1930 – 1954, New-York, 1994, p. 1. Hereafter cited as Arendt, Gaus Interview.
3 The research on Jonas's work is relatively small. in a few of
these studies one can find a distinction between his early studies,
focusing on Gnosticism and his later studies – focusing on modern
technology and environmentalist critic of the dangers in man actions in
this world. See Ron Margolin,
'From the Study of Gnosis to the Concept of God After Auschwitz:
The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas', introduction to: Hans Jonas, The
Concept of God After
4 Bultman was a well known theologian at that time and a close friend of Heidegger up until Heidegger's notorious rectoral adress in 1933. Jonas says in his memoirs that he met Arendt in a seminar of Bultman on the New Testament, where Jonas and Arendt were the only Jews and only Philosophers, a fact that put them in a certain position against the teacher and other classmates. See: Hans Jonas, Erinnerungen: nach Gesprächen mit Rachel Salamander, Frankfurt am Main, 2003. Hereinafter cited as Jonas, Erinnerungen.
5 Jonas Erinnerungen. Also see: Jonas, Retrospective, And Herlinde Koebel, Jüdische Portraits, Frankfurt am Main, 1989, pp. 120 – 123; Harvey Scodel, "An interview with Professor Hans Jonas", Social Research 70: 2 (2003), internet edition, no page number. Hereafter cited as: Jonas, Scodel Interview.
6 Jonas, Retrospective, p. 2.
7 Jonas, Scodel Interview, p. 2
8 Jonas, Erinnerungen, p. 111.
9 Arendt, Gaus Interview, pp. 6 – 7.
10 Their being secular does not imply that they were also atheists. In this paper I will not go into a detailed account of the meaning of secularity for Arendt or for Jonas, but it is worthwhile to note that in spite of their wide interest in theology and the importance of God in their philosophy (especially in Jonas) they were non observant Jews that time and again expressed alienation from religious Judaism. Jonas once said in an interview that he is a religious person (Jonas Scodel Interview, p. 15) but it seems that he wanted to express the centrality of the concept of God in his work and beliefs and not to imply on any traditional form of observant religious Judaism.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel