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 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 Heidegger at Marburg University and became good friends. Apart from a few years during the war and after it, they maintained a close friendship throughout the rest of their lives until Ardent’s death in 1975. Jonas died much later, in 1993, and close to his death wrote and was interviewed intensively about his own life story5. From these memoirs one can recognize the importance of Arendt in Jonas's life and the centrality of the Jewish question for both of them. Jonas states that in high school he was mainly influenced by three sources: the prophets of Israel, Immanuel Kant and Martin Buber6, by saying this he emphasizes the Jewish aspect of his education, but he also says that in his parents home Judaism didn’t play a central role, they celebrated a few holidays and occasionally the Shabbat, but nothing more than that7. According to Jonas, Arendt's Jewish education was even poorer. When she met him, she was "am ha'aretz" - ignorant of what Judaism was about, but he still emphasizes her awareness of her Jewish identity and calls her a Troztjüdin8: a stubborn Jew or "a Jew to spite". Arendt said about her own Jewish education that her mother (her father died when she was only five) was "completely a-religious" and "the word 'Jew' never came up". Her mother never denied her being Jewish but Arendt says that she just didn’t "have any special ideas about this"9.

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" Bar-Ilan University – April  2007.  I would like to thank Prof. Paul Mendes-Flohr and  Prof. Daniel J. Lasker for their helpful comments, and Sharon Dinur for what Arendt used to call 'Englishing my English'. (See: Hannah Arendt, "On Hannah Arendt", in: Melvyn A. Hill (ed.), Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, New-York, 1979, p.334.)  © All rights reserved to Avner Dinur. Please respond to:


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 Auschwitz, and Other Essays, Tel Aviv, 2004, p. 11 (Hebrew) hereafter cited as Margolin. See also: Lawrence Vogel, "Hans Jonas's Exodus: from German Existentialism to Post-Holocaust Theology", Editor's Introduction to: Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz , Evanston, 1996, hereafter cited as Vogel. The book cited as Jonas, Mortality and Morality. I think this distinction is far from being accurate since there are a few meaningful lines that cross this distinction and Guyed his account of both Gnosticism and modern technology,  mainly in what I call Jonas's "Jewish response" to the nihilistic implications of both lines of thought. Jonas himself has compared ancient Gnocticism with Modern Science and modern existentialism. See his: “Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism”, Social Research (dec. 1952), pp. 429 – 452.

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.


This e-lecture is from the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought
        Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel