Judaism in the thought of Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas
by Avner Dinur
Jonas on Judaism
Hans Jonas didn't write systematically about Judaism but in many of his articles, he took it upon himself to sound 'a Jewish Voice'1 as he himself calls it, in response to specific tendencies in modern philosophy. Jonas is known as a theoretician of the technological age. He claimed that modern science, because it is materialist, is taking the meaning out of existence and portraying the world as an aimless mechanism2. The technological way of thinking is nihilistic because it portrays humanity as a mere object for scientific study without acknowledging man’s special place in the world3. Modern science has deprived the world of meaning and purpose and has taken from man his freedom:
'This is the human condition4. Gone is the cosmos with whose immanent logos my own can feel kinship, gone the order of the whole in which man has his place. That place appears now as a sheer and brute accident'5.
In the scientific world view humanity has no significance. Scientific determinism - historic, psychoanalytic and Darwinist6 - has taken from man his freedom, a freedom that Jonas thought is the tendency of all life forms7. Modern science portrays man as a product of a worldwide system of forces in which his freedom to choose between alternatives has no meaning or impact. This is why the scientific world view leads to nihilism8 – it gives no value to any decision that a man can make. Modern technology has caused what Jonas calls "an ethical vacuum" in which nature is neutralized with respect to moral judgments, and is now considered with pure empirical tools. This vacuum neutralizes even the humankind which is now judged with utilitarian considerations that regard no value9.
Jonas confronted the scientific-modern concept of man’s place in this world with a 'Jewish doctrine'10 that is based on the idea of the creation of the world and the creation of man in God's image. Judaism thus is seen as an escape from nihilistic-determinism. Judaism should suggest a humble alternative to the scientific arrogance that claims the whole world could be analyzed in the same manner, as a mere system of aimless forces11. The Jewish idea of creation should teach us to respect nature and humanity alike, and to put on man’s shoulder some of the divine responsibility for the future of this world. Jonas thinks that caring for this world is a Jewish Mitzvah and not something that we choose whether to do or not. That we are responsible for the world, in his view, is a natural principle to be observed in the structure of being itself. Our responsibility can be deduced almost logically from the fact that we have the power to destroy our surroundings and in doing so, destroy our own future12.
As a rational man of science Jonas is well aware that the story of creation as portrayed in the Bible is a myth, but he thinks that within this myth there lays a meaningful way of explaining human duties that does not depend on whether the myth actually happened or not. The way he presents the myth of creation is connected to the Idea of Tzimtzum13 (decreasing, shrinking) in Lurianic Kabbalah. In the most crucial moment of the myth, the infinite God decreased himself in order to make room for the appearance of another subjectivity – the appearance of man: "With the appearance of man transcendence awakened to itself and henceforth accompanies his doings with the bated breath of suspense"14. The Jewish idea of creation is meant to respect man and his life, a respect that was denied by scientific world view15.
Jonas differentiates in the western philosophical tradition between Christian elements like incarnation, trinity and salvation, and Jewish elements that have passed through Christianity and lie at the bottom of this tradition. By 'Jewish elements' he mainly means creation, and in the spirit of medieval Jewish-Christian polemics he claims that the Christian elements were less rational and therefore stayed marginal in "our" philosophical tradition whereas the Jewish idea of creation has become a fundamental philosophical question16.
Before his focus on the technological age, Jonas had earned world fame17 in the study of ancient Gnosticism, a field he began to study in his dissertation under the supervision of Heidegger18. Contrary to most other scholars of Gnosticism, his interest in this way of thinking is not historical. Jonas saw a meaningful connection between the main concepts of Gnosticism and some tendencies in modern philosophy. Gnosticism treats man as though thrown into the world, as alien to the world and a stranger within it. Jewish monotheism puts man intrinsically in the world, as a citizen of the world and therefore as responsible for it. This is why the Torah is contains mainly laws – it is focused on how to act in the world while Gnosticism, in its ancient and modern (Nietzche and Heidegger) forms is basically antinomian19. His study of Gnosticism was in many ways a Jewish-Monotheistic critique of the Gnostic way of thinking.
It seems that Jonas saw himself as a Jewish polemist; sometimes against Christianity, and other times with Christianity and in the name of monotheism against the ancient Gnostic thinkers and their modern successors in western science. Judaism should be seen in his view, as a Universal call that will oppose the problematic way of thinking of modern science, modern technology and modern existentialism. Jonas thought that Judaism can serve as a prototype for a environmentally aware world and help us to advance human caring for the world.
1 I am referring to the subtitle of Jonas's famous article:
'The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice', in: Jonas,
Mortality and Morality, 131 – 143. Hereafter cited as: Jonas, God after
2 On Jonas's reaction to scientific materialism, see: Hans Jonas, "Evolution and Freedom: On the Continuity among life-Forms", in: Jonas Mortality and Morality, pp. 63-64. And see: Vogel, p. 11.
4 It is interesting to note that Jonas is using here the title of Arendt's well known book, adopted from by André Malraux's novel frm 1933. This quote is from an article that was first published in 1952, before the publication of "The Human Condition" by Arendt in 1958.
5 Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, New-York, 1966, 214. Hereafter cited as Jonas, Phenomenon of Life.
6 About these three fields of study that threatens human freedom see Hans Jonas, 'Contemporary Problems in Ethics from a Jewish Perspective', in: Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to the Technological man, Chicago, 1974, 168 – 172. Hereafter cited as Jonas, Philosophical Essays.
7 Jonas Phenomenon of Life, p. 3.
8 Jonas, Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism, p. 430 – 432. The negation of nihilism is a continuous issue in most of Jonas's writings, and it seems to me that both his early writings about Gnosticism and his latter ones on technology and Biology are motivated by this negation.
9 Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics
for the Technological Age,
10 Jonas, Philosophical Essays, pp. 178 - 179.
11 Jonas, Philosophical Essays, pp. 178 - 179.
12 Hans Jonas, "Toward an Ontological Grounding of an Ethic for the Future", in: Jonas, Mortality and Morality, p. 99 .
Jonas, God After
Jonas, God After
15 Jonas, Philosophical Essays, p. 180.
16 Jonas, Philosophical Essays, p. 25. One should wonder of course whether Jonas was correct in ascribing the philosophical debate over creation to the biblical narrative. We can find creation stories in almost every human culture, some very similar to the Jewish "creation-ex-nihilo". One should also wonder whether the question of creation is indeed such a fundamental question in "our" western philosophical tradition.
In 1951, after two years
of teaching in Carelton college in
18 Later published
as: Hans Jonas, Gnosis und
19 See: Hans Jonas,
“Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism”, Social Research (dec. 1952), p.
441. For Jonas it was crucial to argue that Judaism is totally
separated from Gnosticism. See his
'Response to G. Quispel’s
‘Gnosticism and the New Testament', in: J. P. Hyatt, The Bible in
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel