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Ethics of Maimonides

Hermann Cohen, Translated by Almut Sh. Bruckstein

Publication Year: 2004

    Hermann Cohen’s essay on Maimonides’ ethics is one of the most fundamental texts of twentieth-century Jewish philosophy, correlating Platonic, prophetic, Maimonidean, and Kantian traditions. Almut Sh. Bruckstein provides the first English translation and her own extensive commentary on this landmark 1908 work, which inspired readings of medieval and rabbinic sources by Leo Strauss, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas.
    Cohen rejects the notion that we should try to understand texts of the past solely in the context of their own historical era. Subverting the historical order, he interprets the ethical meanings of texts in the light of a future yet to be realized. He commits the entire Jewish tradition to a universal socialism prophetically inspired by ideals of humanity, peace, and universal justice.
    Through her own probing commentary on Cohen’s text, like the margin notes of a medieval treatise, Bruckstein performs the hermeneutical act that lies at the core of Cohen’s argument: she reads Jewish sources from a perspective that recognizes the interpretive act of commentary itself.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

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pp. ix-xv

Without students, there are no teachers. For about ten years, interest in Franz Rosenzweig has been growing, not only in Jewish studies, but indeed, in other contexts, including philosophy, theology, and German studies. Part of that interest arose in relation to Emmanuel Levinas, who, though never Rosenzweig’s student, clearly expressed a deep debt to ...

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pp. xvii-xix

When I first came to the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in 1986, I participated in Shalom Rosenberg’s seminar, “Aristotle’s Ethics in Medieval Jewish Thought.” When the discussion turned to Hermann Cohen’s radically Platonic reading of Maimonides, Shalom Rosenberg told us of the philosophical importance of Cohen’s essay. He emphasized that the ...

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pp. xxi-xliii

This translation and commentary of Hermann Cohen’s 1908 essay, “Charakteristik der Ethik Maimunis,” is an introduction, of a unique sort, to medieval and modern Jewish philosophy. As a translation, it makes available in English for the first time this seminal work ...

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1. Socrates and Plato: Founders of Ethics

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pp. 1-22

In this first chapter, Cohen provides the philosophical foundations for his Platonic, anti-Aristotelian reading of Maimonides: Plato establishes the Good as an idea, as an object of knowledge, whereas Aristotle reduces the good to the realm of economy and politics, ignoring the epistemological question concerning the interrelation between nature and goodness, ...

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2. Maimonides: A Radical Platonist

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pp. 23-47

Ethics, not Aristotelian metaphysics, according to Cohen, constitutes the epitome of Maimonides’ thought. Knowledge of God is inextricably linked to the cognition of the Good, which, according to the last chapters of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, corresponds to the cognition of “lovingkindness, justice, and true judgment.” In this second ...

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3. The Good beyond Being:Ethico-Political Intricacies of a Medieval Debate

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pp. 49-75

In this third chapter, Cohen addresses the problem of the Aristotelian terminology in which mainstream medieval Jewish philosophy admittedly couches its ethics. Cohen demonstrates how the mechanical assumptions of Aristotelian cosmology and metaphysics and Aristotle’s utilitarian understanding of the good are irreconcilable with Maimonides’ theory of knowing God. ...

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4. Religion as Idolatry: How (Not) to Know God

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pp. 77-105

In this fourth chapter Cohen discusses the specificities of Maimonides’ negative theology. Emphasizing the correspondence between Maimonides’ theory of negative attributes and the docta ignorantia of Nicolas of Cusa, and in a critical turn against Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence, Cohen offers a detailed analysis of Maimonides’ theory of ...

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5. The “Unity of the Heart”: On Love and Longing (Where Ethical Method Fails)

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pp. 107-125

Contemplating main topics of Maimonidean theology, such as the relationship of cognition and love, love and fear of God, and questions of eschatology, Cohen in this fifth chapter explores the consequences of his Platonic reading of Maimonides’ theory of divine attributes for a Jewish theology that is grounded in but not exhausted by its rational foundations. ...

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6. Practice and Performance: How (Not) to Walk in Middle Ways

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pp. 127-144

In this sixth chapter Cohen discusses the concept of human perfection in critical relation to the Aristotelian theory of virtues, according to which virtues are mere practical human skills rather than ideal vectors for human action. Cohen therefore rejects the traditional understanding of the “golden mean” or the “middle way” as a “medium between two ...

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7. “He Is (Not) Like You”: How Suffering Commands Self or Soul

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pp. 145-159

Having discussed the ideal of human perfection first halakhically and morally, Cohen in this seventh chapter sets out to ground the human pursuit of the ideal in the individual’s responsibility. The concept of individual responsibility, which Cohen models after the teaching of the prophet Ezekiel, is of central importance to Cohen’s theory of the Self as an infinite task rather than a given entity. ...

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8. On Eudaemonian Eschatology and Holy History: Zionism as Betrayal of the Ideal

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pp. 161-167

In his final three chapters Cohen discusses the ideal of human self-perfection within the context of prophetic messianism. The relationship between eschatology and ideal society, the immortality of the soul, repentance and resurrection in classical Jewish theology, and a socialist concept of ...

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9. To Create Messianic Time: A Jewish Critique of Political Utopia

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pp. 169-177

In this chapter Cohen provides a politically important distinction between messianic times and the world-to-come, two often conflated eschatological concepts in Maimonides’ thought. In contradistinction to the historicity of messianic times, the futurity of the world-to-come represents a metahistorical dimension. Cohen correlates the metahistorical futurity of the world-to-come with the purity of the ethical ideal. ...

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10. The Human Face: Anticipating a Future that Is Prior to the Past

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pp. 179-193

Cohen’s essay on Maimonides’ ethics culminates in the exaltation of Jewish messianism and its sublimity, stressing the social and humane dimensions of Maimonides’ concept of messianic times. Toward the end of this work, Cohen grounds his Platonic reading once again in the traditional sources of Maimonides’ rabbinic code and his commentary on the Mishna. Cohen thereby evokes the universality of human cognition ...


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pp. 195


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pp. 197-219


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pp. 221-243


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pp. 245-259

E-ISBN-13: 9780299177638
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299177645

Publication Year: 2004