Jewish Thinkers’ Fatal Attraction to an Anti-Semitic Philosopher

October 13, 2021 | Steven Aschheim
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Unquestionably one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger laid the intellectual foundations of existentialism and bequeathed the West his ideas of authenticity and self-actualization. He also wrote about the necessity of providing “German intellectual life once more with real talents and educators rooted in our own soil,” lest it be handed over to “growing Jewification [Verjudung].” And that was before he joined the Nazi party and helped to purge his university of Jews, while worrying that “World Judaism” would “undertake the uprooting of all beings from being as world-historical mission.”

The 20th-century Jewish thinkers whose ideas were deeply shaped by Heidegger’s—some of whom, like Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt, had been his disciples—would not have known of the last quotation, or many like it, that appear in his long-unpublished Black Notebooks. But they did know about his support for Nazism, and his lack of contrition after World War II ended. These Jews, both those who studied under Heidegger and those who merely read him, are the subject of a new book by Daniel Herskowitz. Steven Aschheim writes in his review:

Herskowitz’s rich, exceedingly complex treatment of his central Jewish protagonists—Martin Buber, Leo Strauss, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Emmanuel Levinas—and their engagement with Heidegger defies any effort at a quick or comprehensive summary. But one can point to the common tendencies and themes that he identifies in their writings, as well as some of the ways in which they diverged. All regarded Heidegger’s worldview as ultimately nihilistic, and they felt compelled to contend with Heidegger’s rejection of the Jewish God or any other “external and ultimate reference point that can offer a stable ground to human existence and history.” At the same time, as Herskowitz demonstrates, these thinkers often found the German thinker’s work “to be fertile ground for reconceptualizing what it means to be Jewish,” despite his troubling political history.

Abraham Joshua Heschel . . . had an ongoing, if more sporadic, concern with Heidegger’s thought, culminating in his 1963 lectures at Stanford that became the small book Who Is Man? “The fundamental assumption with which Heschel approaches Heidegger,” Herskowitz argues, “is that ‘the problem of being can never be treated in isolation but only in relation to God.’” Accepting the Heideggerian position that “a key element of human existence” consists in “the fundamental distress of existential alienation and misplacement,” Heschel redirected this sense of homelessness as the reflection of “an embedded existential urge toward a relation with what is beyond”—the personal God of the Hebrew Bible.

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