Hermann Cohen on the Figure of Job

Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) remains one of the best-known, though barely read, modern Jewish philosophers. Of his major works, only his posthumous Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism has been translated into English. His studies of Kantian philosophy and the three volumes of his own system of philosophy remain untranslated.

The most important theme in Hermann Cohen’s philosophy of religion is the idea of atonement. Atonement, in German: Versöhnung, presupposes that human beings are in conflict: with the gods, with other humans, and within themselves. I will return to Cohen in a moment. First I want to introduce Job, once again.

The biblical figure of Job presents the case of a conflict between human being and human fate. With no fault of his own, Job finds himself exposed, deprived, abandoned, accused, and he challenges the biblical deity, as the warrant of a moral world order, to give an account that would reconcile Job to his suffering. Job is the closest we come to a tragic hero in the Hebrew Bible. There is no indication that Job’s suffering might be considered meritorious. He is not a martyr. His blood will not accomplish reconciliation, in fact, his blood, i.e., his life, is to be spared so as to experience the exposed nature of human beings all the more clearly. This tragic hero must remain alive so as to expose the chasm between human and God.

Now to Cohen’s interpretation of Job. We are fortunate to have a cache of Cohen’s notes on the subject of atonement that survived in an envelope kept among the papers of Paul Natorp, Cohen’s colleague at the University of Marburg/Hesse (Germany). On one of these pieces of paper, Cohen jotted down the following.

One stage in the question of atonement is the accusation of the gods and God: Prometheus and Job, that is, theodicy. The weakness of the earthbound human being, that coins itself in lament, forms a moment in the atonement with God. His moral consciousness has the power to purify him; and what lacks falls to God. (Zank 2000, p. 508)

Theodicy, a term coined by the late-17th to early 18th-century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, refers to the question, si deus, unde malum, or: if God exists, whence evil? In other words, the question of Job. Two things stand out to me in Cohen’s note. One is the comparison between Job and Prometheus. In what way are they similar? In Greek mythology, Prometheus steals heavenly fire and shares it with human beings, for which he is eternally punished. But perhaps Cohen is not thinking of the Prometheus of Greek myth as much as he is thinking of Goethe’s poem “Prometheus.” Goethe’s Prometheus indeed lashes out at the gods. (You can read the poem, in German and English, at https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/1518)

The second thing is that Job’s lament, unlike Goethe’s “Prometheus,” leads to reconciliation through resignation (see Gesine Palmer’s comments on Job here: https://gesine-palmer.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/leseprobe.susman.pdf). In other words, atonement relies on the human being’s acceptance of fate, leaving it to God to work things out. Cohen makes this insight constitutive of the moral consciousness exemplified by Job. This decidedly unheroic behavior, unlike the contempt for the gods expressed in Goethe’s poem, is characteristic of Cohen’s distinction between religion and ethics. While ethics constitutes the foundation of our struggle to alleviate suffering, religion means acceptance of, and hence reconciliation with, the fact of human limitation. Here is how Cohen puts this in another note.

Sin as ignorance (ki lkhol ha’am hi bishgagah). Instead of ‘b’ maybe ‘k’? Relocation from the will to the intellect and humiliation of the same as highest quality of the human being as spirit. The idea of redemption and atonement is the motif of tragedy. The anagnorisis therefore as an important moment. Connection of religion and art recognizable in this fundamental motif. The atonement of religion means the reconciliation with the human fate and resignation to it, for the purpose of the recognition of the kingdom of God. (Zank 2000, p. 506-7)

 The biblical verse cited at the beginning of this note (Num 15:26) is recited at the beginning of Kol Nidre, the liturgy on the eve of the Day of Atonement. Cohen bends the text towards a question of moral insight. If all sin is as if committed in ignorance, then all sin can be forgiven. Sin means separation, damage to the perfection of the primordial soul, forgiveness means dependence. We cannot entirely repair ourselves but require God to fix what we have broken. Therein lies the humiliation of which Cohen speaks. We cannot think ourselves out of this dependence. This, then, is what Job represents: even though he regards himself as innocent, his comprehension of the moral nature of the universe is shown to be deficient. Even Job errs, even if unintentionally. He accepts the divine rebuke of his presumption, which is a presumption that this universe answers to the moral reckoning of the human intellect.

Cohen sees the human being of religion as reconciled to human limitation. He contrasts this further with the human being of dramatic poetry. (Cohen’s younger contemporary and admirer Franz Rosenzweig draws a similar distinction between the heroic individual of the arts and the human being shaped by revelation.) This emerges from a third note.

Atonement is the basic concept of religion, simultaneously however also of art, especially of dramatic poetry, therefore of that which represents the relation of human being and fate. That is of human being and God. In this the connection of art and religion shows itself: Both represent each one kind of unification of nature and morality. And thus it can be understood why both need and deal with the Idea of Atonement. But the difference is instructive: What art calls atonement and produces as such religion does not recognize or seek as such. In art atonement is the destruction of the individual in its glorification as a hero; in religion: the preservation of the individual, but at the expense of heroism? (Zank 2000 p. 506)

 In the published version of these deliberations, the final question becomes an assertion. (See Cohen 1907 pp. 365 ff.)

Job also appears in Cohen’s 1915 treatise of religion in the context of systematic philosophy, Begriff der Religion im System der Philosophie, pp. 70 ff, where he returns to the problem of theodicy. Cohen starts his disquisition on the trope of righteous suffering (why does the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper) by turning suffering into a precondition of righteousness. Utilizing a traditional rabbinic notion, which considers the suffering of the righteous as yissurei ahavah, or suffering as an indication of divine love, Cohen states more generally that righteousness always requires suffering. Quoting from my exposition (Zank 2000, p. 377):  

No one ‘is’ righteous, except one who is in the process of becoming righteous. The process of becoming righteous is inaugurated by the process of reflection on suffering that is the precondition of becoming a moral self. The story of Job is thus read against the grain of the assumption that Job suffered innocently. Without his suffering he would not be the righteous Job that he becomes only as the story unfolds. The prologue represents the timeless perspective of God for whom Job is always righteous; yet Job realizes what in our human perspective is a mere potential only as occasioned by suffering.

            Keeping human agency in the process of liberation separate from divine care for the individual, suffering is made an integral part of the struggle of liberation which is really a struggle for the generation and becoming of the self as a moral agent. Yet the moral potential and the sufficiency to engage in this constant struggle is the human prerogative. God is therefore not involved in punishment. To conceive of suffering as punishment is part of the process of practicing the moral work of idealization, of transforming isolated individuals into human beings.

            Suffering therefore poses no exception or challenge to the correlation of God as redeemer and human being as self-liberator. The forgiving God is exculpated from causing wanton destruction and pain as the human being learns to conceive of herself as the one who is legitimately, rightfully, deservingly punished for their own sin. The recognition of individual culpability therefore involves recognition of the fact that God must be blamed neither for the evil we wreak upon others nor for that others wreak upon us. By not distinguishing social evils in this context, Cohen implies that no suffering at all, not even that caused by “a higher force,” should be attributed to God as its providential and particular author. But it is nevertheless to be regarded as punishment and thus as a challenge to take upon oneself the yoke of self-transformation. Just as in the Ethics, therefore, punishment is an aspect of the “ethical concept of the human being” (p. 70).   

I offer these few excerpts from Cohen and from my exposition of his Jewish philosophy of religion and ethics as an encouragement for readers to take Cohen seriously as a Jewish thinker and ethicist. My book, from which I quote and which includes the above quoted notes from the Natorp archive, is about to be reissued by Brown Judaic Studies in a second e-book edition that will make it more widely accessible. I hope it will stimulate renewed interest in Hermann Cohen.


Works cited

Cohen, Hermann, Begriff der Religion im System der Philosophie, Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1915.

Cohen, Hermann, Ethik des reinen Willens, second edition, Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1907.

Zank, M. (2000). The idea of atonement in the philosophy of Hermann Cohen: With an appendix of manuscripts from the National and University Library, Givat Ram, Jerusalem and Nachlass Natorp Ms. 831 (Hessisches Staatsarchiv, Marburg). Providence, RI: Brown University.







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