Born in Coswig/Anhalt, Germany, Cohen was the son of a cantor, the Jewish religious official responsible for singing the liturgy in the synagogue. The father was also a teacher in the small Jewish community’s synagogue and saw to it that his son received a traditional Jewish upbringing and education during his childhood and youth, and then in 1857, apparently with the thought of preparing him for a career as a rabbi, enrolled him in the Rabbinical Seminary in Breslau. Four years later, while still in the seminary, Cohen began studying philosophy at the University of Breslau. His interest in Plato and Aristotle inclined him to forego the rabbinate in favor of a career in philosophy, and over the next twenty years he would devote himself almost exclusively to that discipline, achieving the doctoral degree from the University of Halle in 1865 and, after further study at the University of Berlin, becoming at Marburg University the first Jew ever to hold a professorship in Germany (thanks to a recommendation from the very Protestant Friedrich Lange).
He stayed there until 1912, initiating a neo-Kantian revival with a variety of publications on Kant and his own version of Idealism. The latter found expression in the three volumes of his System of Philosophy and attracted outstanding students like Ernst Cassirer from Germany and elsewhere. But already in 1880 he had returned (as he himself put it, in the Jewish religious sense of teshubah or conversion) to Judaic matters, writing a book-length response, A Profession of Faith on the Jewish Question, to an accusation by the historian Treitschke that German Jewish writers were antinational and anti-Christian. And the older he grew, the more fervently and extensively did he address specifically Jewish questions.
After retiring from the University of Marburg in 1912, he and the wife he had married in 1878 (the daughter of Louis Lewandowsky, the renowned composer and director of music for the synagogue in Berlin) moved back to Berlin, where he did some lecturing at that city’s liberal rabbinical seminary, published a work on the concept of religion in the system of philosophy, and worked on the book, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism, that would be published only after his death in 1918 and which he apparently had in mind initially to publish under the subtitle, "A Jewish Philosophy of Religion and a Jewish Ethics." According to his friends, he died with his faith in the provident, personal God proclaimed by the Jewish psalmist and prophets fully intact.
Cohen on Religion. Without confidence in the eventual triumph of morality human existence is intolerable. But only the idea of God can support such confidence. It was helpful of Kant, therefore, to posit the existence of God as the guarantor of morality. His conclusions, like all philosophy, can be viewed as an integral part of the divine revelation that goes on through man’s use of the reason with which he has been endowed by the Creator. The Judaic religion anticipated Kant’s moral idea of God by referring to its one and only God as the Supreme Lawgiver and Archetype of right conduct. But it also went beyond ethics by presenting God as something more than an abstract postulate of morality, revealing Him instead as a personal and living God whom one might approach with prayerful adoration—the real, only, and unique Being, who has created nature, grounds its becoming, and correlates it to himself.
In contrast to the ethical preoccupation with mankind as a whole, the individual human was recognized as an I, who, fully aware of his own suffering and guilt, stands in direct and loving relation with God as his only source of solace and forgiveness. Although nothing was learned from such divine action about the actual being of God, it did reveal God’s will regarding the holiness humans would have to show each other if the prophetic messianic ideal of a united mankind were ever to be achieved. Genuine repentance for the sins causing poverty, war and social strife would have to be accompanied by love and justice toward all, especially the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Or, even if one is as innocent as Job, it might mean being asked, as a member of a chosen people, to suffer for others. By drawing them nearer to God, such holiness becomes the immortality of all good people, extending their lives into eternity. While, therefore, it is natural to have a special love for one’s own particular religion, every genuine religion ought to be loved as a manifestation of the everlasting divine spirit of mankind.
- Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen. Translated by Eva Jospe. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1971. .
- Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism. Translated and introduced by Simon Kaplan. Introduced also by Leo Strauss. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1972. .
- Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 2. Edited by Edwards, Paul. New York: Macmillan and Co. and The Free Press, 1967. 125-28. . "Cohen, Hermann."
- Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1972. xi-xxii. . "Translator’s Introduction." In Hermann Cohen,
- Hermann Cohen’s Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1968. .
- Hermann Cohen’s Philosophy of Religion. Hildesheim, Zürich, New York: George Olms Verlag, 1997. , and Hartwig Wiedebach, eds.
- "Cohen, Hermann." In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 3. Edited by Eliade, Mircea. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1987. 559-61.
- Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 107-09; 124-28; 155-57. .
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