How Should a Jewish Philosopher Read the Bible? Hermann Cohen’s Problem with Spinoza
Part of the series, “Dangerous Ideas: Censorship Through a Jewish Lens”
This session is generously sponsored by Yale Asbell, JTS Trustee
With Dr. Shira Billet, Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics
When the famous German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen died in 1918, he was described in Jewish periodicals as “the greatest philosopher the Jews have produced since Spinoza.” But in 1915, at a time when Jews had reclaimed the 17th-century philosopher as their own, Hermann Cohen had argued that the herem (ban) on Spinoza had been justified. Cohen’s reasons for banning Spinoza were different from those articulated in the original ban. He agreed with Spinoza far more than we might expect, but he also thought Spinoza’s book on the Bible was misleading and dangerous. Cohen disagreed with central parts of Spinoza’s method of reading the Bible, and for Cohen, the stakes of getting the method right were very high with academic, religious, and political implications.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Throughout Jewish history, certain texts and ideas have been deemed too dangerous to circulate—whether by outsiders who banned Jewish writings, or Jewish leaders who suppressed ideas considered heretical or beyond the pale. In this series, JTS scholars will examine efforts to control knowledge from ancient to contemporary times, exploring the ways in which censorship both reflects and shapes broader ideological struggles. They will discuss the varying motivations for controlling or revising narratives, and consider whether and under what circumstances it might make sense to suppress certain ideas. These discussions will illuminate past struggles and help us understand the battles over censorship and free expression playing out today.
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