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Attitudes Towards the Non-Jew in 20th Century Jewish Thought

The issue of the Jewish stance towards the non-Jew recently came to the fore as a result of a rabbinic appeal to refrain from renting homes to non-Jews. The viewpoint expressed in that document can be called religious, on the one hand, and ethnic-nationalist on the other. It is not my intention here to debate this viewpoint, (though I personally reject out of hand the fanaticism manifest in the appeal), but rather to claim that the best of modern Jewish Thought, both Zionist and non-Zionist, takes an entirely different approach to the non-Jew, even though it too is generally founded on a religious and/or ethnic-nationalist basis.

In the interest of brevity I will limit myself to a concise discussion of the ideas of two important thinkers from the early 20th century:  the national-cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am, and the religious-liberal Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen.  I aim to demonstrate that their nationalist and/or religious orientations notwithstanding, the outlook they express is rooted in a broad moral humanist approach.

Ahad Ha’am: the Cultural-Historical Model

Ahad Ha’am examines the relationship between Jews and non-Jews within the long-term cultural-historical framework that determines his outlook on Jewish existence in general.  The reason for his preoccupation with this issue was the manner in which it juxtaposed with the problem of cultural assimilation which he perceived to be the biggest threat to Jewish existence at the beginning of the 20thcentury.

Assimilation, according to Ahad Ha’am, is the product of the inevitable interaction between peoples and cultures. Mutual influence of cultures, he believed, is not only unavoidable but even desirable. He presumed that all cultural creation begins as an imitation of a foreign culture and only later develops an independent character. Assimilation occurs when the cultural dynamic of a people remains in the imitative stage, and fails to draw upon its own, unique internal experience.

In order to elucidate this point Ahad Ha’am differentiated between two types of ‘imitation,’ one which he described as ‘self-effacing (חיקוי של התבטלות)’ and the other as ‘competitive (חיקוי של תחרות).’ The former is characterized by a sense of awe accompanied by self-denigration in the face of another’s superiority. In the bequest of a people’s cultural legacy to the broad populace, ‘self-effacement’ is a method by which the masses copy the cultural patterns of the creative elite, better known in the sources of the past as patriarchs, sages, elders, etc. (The Complete Writings of Ahad Ha’am, Dvir, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 1965, p. 87.). The problem arises when the process of copying cultural content impacts not only upon the relationship between leaders and their flock, but also upon the relationship between Jewish culture and the surrounding cultures. When it comes to Israel and the nations, Ahad Ha’am believed that the preferred type of imitation should, of course, be ‘competitive’ rather than that of ‘self-effacement.’

The point of ‘competitive’ imitation is precisely that it is not limited to replicating the content created by others but also brings to the light of day the original spirit of the imitator. This type of imitation is characterized by “jealousy and self-love,” (Ibid.).  and its importance lies in the fact that “the imitation does not remain permanently confined to within each society;” rather, “the progression of life ultimately brings different societies closer to one another and makes them familiar with one another, allowing the imitation to spill over from group to group and people to people.” In this instance, he writes:

The characteristic of imitation is a function of the stature of the societies meeting one another. If they are matched in power and education, they will begin a process of competitive imitation: learning from one another new ways to reveal their own spirit and striving to pass back and forth along these ways. But, if one is much smaller and weaker…. it will imitate the other in self-effacement, not with the aim to reveal its own independent spirit but strictly with a sense of awe and capitulation. (Ibid.).

From this, he believed, stems the problem of cultural assimilation. The root of the problem is the disintegration of the national-cultural spirit of the Jews which, in his opinion, followed from the universalization of the spirit in Western culture beginning in the Enlightenment and aggravated by the increased social and cultural encounters between Jews and non-Jews in the time of Emancipation. According to Ahad Ha’am, the universalization of the Western spirit in the modern age and the desire of the Jews to mesh into society and the surrounding non-Jewish culture following Emancipation, caused a meeting of cultures in which the Jewish participant was necessarily the weaker, leaving it no choice but to adopt the model of imitation through self-effacement.

As opposed to the Haredi viewpoint – and I will allow myself to argue, by the same token, as opposed to the insular ethnic-nationalist approach of our day – Ahad Ha’am considered the problem of assimilation with the understanding that the Jewish spirit had always striven to engage in dialogue with the cultures of the world, and he knew that many of the national treasures of Jewish culture were the product of this exchange. He therefore did not perceive assimilation to be a result of Judaism’s openness but of the social and cultural conditions of the modern Diaspora.

The spirit of our nation strives for growth, to swallow the fundaments of general culture […] to digest them and make them part of itself, as it has done in the past. [Yet] the condition of life in our day in the Diaspora is not suited to this. The outside culture clings to the national spirit of the people everywhere, and any alien element must perforce efface itself and be subsumed by it. Thus, Jewish culture cannot develop itself in the Diaspora as it would want. Outside the ghetto walls, it is in danger of losing its self, or at best, its national unity. (The Complete Writings of Ahad Ha’am, Dvir, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 1965, p. 138).

Why was the Jewish creative spirit able in the past to maintain a link with the cultures of the world without obliterating the spiritual substance of its cultural heritage, and why was the modern period so different?

The answer to this question lies in the social, cultural and even political condition of the Jewish community. In the past, the autonomous framework of the Jewish community acted as a filter that allowed infiltration of external content by adapting it to the values and internal cultural language of Jewish heritage. But in the modern period, after the Enlightenment and Emancipation, this filter no longer functioned.

To resolve the problem, Ahad Ha’am founded Spiritual Zionism, describing as its purpose the establishment of a spiritual center for the Jewish People in the Land of Israel that would enable the maintaining of a fruitful dialogue with the cultures of the world through ‘competitive imitation’ from a position of internal spiritual strength, rather than the ‘self-effacing imitation’ so widespread in the Diaspora.

What was needed, in his opinion, was:

a decent collection of Hebrew [speaking] people who are free to engage in all aspects of culture, from agriculture to crafts, intellectual pursuits and literature. This collection, which will be assembled bit by bit, will eventually become the center of the nation where the [national] spirit can be realized… developing in all aspects and realizing its full potential. From this center will come a Jewish spirit that will reach the whole Diaspora, resuscitate it and preserve its unity. (The Complete Writings of Ahad Ha’am, Dvir, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 1965, p. 138).

Ahad Ha’am, it seems, no less than the rabbis signed on the petition, greatly valued the importance of preserving the cultural uniqueness of the nation. However, unlike those rabbis, his spiritual Zionism was not expressed as a narrow ethnic-nationalist world view; rather, it expressed a sophisticated plan to preserve the nature of Jewish existence in the Land of Israel, resulting from positive mutual influence with other nations and cultures on the outside, and a living cultural dynamic on the inside.

Hermann Cohen: The Religious-Moral Model 

Hermann Cohen treats the issue of attitudes towards the non-Jew quite differently from Ahad Ha’am, mainly due to his being a liberal Jew who developed a general and Jewish philosophy suited to the vision of continued Jewish life as a religious minority in modern civil European society.

Thought by many to be the most important German philosopher of his time, and very much rooted in the Jewish community and one of its central spokespersons, Cohen developed a view that stresses the universal moral-religious mission to which Jews and Judaism were bound since the days of the Prophets. Although I believe he erred in judging the historical developments of his time, I also believe that he understood well the tension between the particular Jewish character of the past and the interaction between Jews and non-Jews in the present.

Cohen argued that ‘the idea of one God for all of humanity’ had its source in the ‘messianism’ of the prophets of Israel, and that from the start, the prophetic faith in the appearance of the Messiah as a time when all nations will worship the God of creation imposed a “basic Jewish obligation … to improve the moral level” of Jewish society and “to repair the politics of the Jewish nation.”

Cohen later claimed that this obligation also applied to relations between Jews and non-Jews. The Jewish Torah, he argued, broadened the horizons of Jewish existence by means of a moral imperative that exemplified the ethical ideal of concern for all humanity. This moral-religious imperative is expressed, he believed, in the singular idea of crowning God as King over all the nations in the liturgy of the Days of Awe. Building on this idea, Cohen believed that even those Jews who have distanced themselves in all other ways from the traditional Jewish heritage are still obligated by this moral-religious mission.

The section of the Malkhuyot [Kingship] prayers in the High Holiday liturgy ends with the ‘Shema’ prayer and is connected to the proclamation of God as King…’over all the inhabitants of your land.’ Kingship over the world means a moral order… and herein lies the difference between monotheism and pantheism. The ethical agenda of divine majesty demands a judgment [of justice] for the world. (Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism,Bialik/Leo Baeck, Jerusalem, 1971, p. 420).

According to Cohen’s thinking, the status of the Jewish community as a special entity in world history allows the fulfillment of this historical-religious purpose, resulting both from the conceptual influence of the Torah of Israel on the surrounding culture, as well as from the serious moral implications stemming from the existential anomaly of Jews as citizens of the non-Jewish state.

Socio-economic inequality and other inflictions of human dignity that occur in political life are the signs of human failure. As a consequence of anti-Semitism, rampant in Cohen’s time, the Jews joined the poor as eternal victims of society in which the majority exploits political power for its own benefit. In symbolic language, Jews who were supposedly citizens of the state in all respects, took on the status of ‘aliens,’ ‘orphans’ and ‘widows,’ made so by an environment of hatred. They physically experienced the failure of society as expressed in the rebuke of the prophets.

The partial segregation of the Jews from Western society causes them to suffer. But it is also a pre-condition for moral advancement, for by preserving their religious tradition even as they suffer for such, even to a small extent, the Jews fill a dual role of serving as a reminder of man’s duty to God, and of the admonishment to society for its failure in the socio-economic sphere.

Thus, in language taken from the prophet Isaiah, the Jews stand before the surrounding culture as ‘servants of God’ and ‘messengers’ to the moral humanity of the future as prophesied by the Prophets of Israel. ( ibid., pp. 301-303).

The Jews, according to this approach, represent, for general society, the idea of the future as they spread the moral human vision of the prophets via their involvement in general culture, on the one hand, and by bearing the burden of humanity’s moral failure, on the other. By their willingness to fulfill the Torah’s commandments even in light of a hostile non-Jewish majority, the Jews sanctify God’s name and cause the moral-religious charge of the Prophets become the inheritance of all humankind.


I noted, above, that in my opinion Cohen was wrong in his estimation of where history was going in his time. By this I mean that his words reflect an optimism regarding the ability of the Jews to fill a leading role in determining the moral direction of world civilization. He did not- and perhaps could not – foresee that the events of his time manifested the beginnings of the historical processes that led to the Holocaust.

For this and other reasons that I cannot detail here, my personal affinity lies more with Ahad Ha’am’s vision of a spiritual center in the Land of Israel than with a vision of the Jewish community as an ethnic-religious minority in the Diaspora. Still, I think, Cohen surpasses Ahad Ha’am in his high estimation of the importance of the religious ideal in building a moral society.  The question is, of course, what is the nature of this ideal?

In the context of contemporary nationalist Jewish perspectives, and especially the religious-nationalist stance behind the petition of the rabbis, Cohen’s words above, which focus on the Malkhuyot [Kingship] prayers in the High Holiday liturgy in order to “proclaim God as King…’over all the inhabitants of your land,’” are very important. They compel us to improve the moral position of Jewish society and “to repair the politics of the nation” in order to achieve ‘the moral world order of Divine Kingship.’

Prof. Yossi Turner is a lecturer of Jewish Thought and Philosophy at the Schechter Institute

Photo Credit: Chenspec

Yossi Turner is professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy (Emeritus). He received his MA and PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is active in a number of academic and public forums interested in the advancement of Jewish education and culture in Israel and around the world. Professor Turner has written dozens of articles and edited a number of works on a variety of topics in the area of Jewish Studies. He has also authored three full-length books: Faith and Humanism – An Examination of Franz Rosenzweig’s Religious Philosophy (Hebrew); Zion and the Diaspora in 20th Century Jewish Thought (Hebrew); and Quest for Life – A Study in Aharon David Gordon’s Philosophy of Man in Nature (English).  Professor Turner is currently writing a book of original philosophical thought concerning the present state of the Jewish people, Israel and humanity, tentatively entitled: Between Desperation and Hope.

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