Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life:

Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein


by Hilary Putnam

Indiana University Press, 136 pages, $19.95

A funny thing happened to Hilary Putnam on the way to joining the front ranks of American philosophers. He began his long career, the last thirty-five years of it spent at Harvard, laboring in the far reaches of scientific epistemology, particularly the philosophy of physics and mathematical logic. He went on to command respect for his illuminations of the philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. For most of that career, he was the image of an analytic thinker, a scientific materialist, and a self-described “thoroughgoing atheist.” For that matter, he was a Maoist, an anti-Vietnam activist, and a vocal member the Progressive Labor Party, a Communist organization, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the 1990s, however, Putnam grew impatient with the analytic style, and with analytic philosophers who regarded any talk of human flourishing to be hopelessly subjective. In his 1992 book Renewing Philosophy , he insisted that analytic philosophy cannot be the arbiter of whether religious language makes sense. In 2002, with The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy , he challenged the idea that value judgments are subjective and concluded that, in aiding the idea, the fact-value distinction has served to corrupt ethical reasoning. He wrote on pragmatism, in the hopes of reviving the tradition of John Dewey, Charles S. Peirce, and William James.

By turning his back on some of his old habits of mind, however, Putnam found himself turned to face some rather different ideas. When his eldest son announced he wanted a bar mitzvah, the philosopher started attending services at the Harvard Hillel. Finding the experience “transformative,” he began to pray every morning. Although he says he does not believe in an afterlife, or in divine intervention in human affairs, Putnam, now eighty-two years old, considers himself a practicing (though not an Orthodox) Jew.

The impulse to make philosophical sense of his religious activities led Putnam to a close study of modern Jewish thinkers”a survey that culminates in his latest book. In Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life , Putnam offers a glimpse of three of the most daring twentieth-century Jewish philosophers, and lays bare the affinities that bind them.

Putnam devotes the thinnest chapter of the book to clearing away some misconceptions about Martin Buber (1878“1965). Chief among these is the common misjudgment that what is original about I and Thou , Buber’s classic statement of a philosophy of dialogue, is its teaching about human relationships, not its theology. Yet that theology, Putnam explains, lies closest to Buber’s heart”most of all its twin teaching that we cannot talk about God, we can only talk to God, and that to question God’s existence is already to stand outside of a relation to Him.

Putnam’s imagination finds more resonance in the thought of Franz Rosenzweig (1886“1929), a German Jew who, like Putnam, though rather more dramatically, came late to Jewish thought. On Yom Kippur of 1913, on the point of converting to Christianity, Rosenzweig was struck by the necessity of remaining a Jew. Coming to accept the commandments, he gave up a university career to found the Frankfurt Lehrhaus, an advanced school for adult education, and he strove mightily to restore a meaningful Jewish life to Weimar Germany.

Rather than attempt a frontal assault on Rosenzweig’s daunting masterwork, The Star of Redemption , Putnam approaches on two flanks. The first leads Putnam to Rosenzweig through the unlikely path of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein cautioned against turning religion into a theory rather than, as Putnam puts it, “a deep-going way of life.” “A religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference,” Wittgenstein said. “Hence, although it’s belief , it’s really a way of living, or a way of assessing life.”

In Putnam’s view, Rosenzweig, like Wittgenstein, saw metaphysics as an exaggerated form of a disease to which everyone is susceptible. As Putnam interprets it, this disease is borne by those who “substitute words , especially words that have no religious content because they have no internal relation to a genuine religious life, for that kind of life.”

This in turn opens up the second flank of Putnam’s approach. After publishing The Star of Redemption , Rosenzweig composed a book for a popular readership called Understanding the Sick and the Healthy , a parable in which a patient suffers from a kind of paralysis.

Rosenzweig’s cure calls for a new thinking, a “speech thinking.” Speaking, Rosenzweig said, “means speaking to someone and thinking for someone. And this someone is always a quite definite someone, and he has not merely ears, like ‘all the world,’ but a mouth.” This is thinking as dialogue.

Rosenzweig, in Putnam’s paraphrase, suggested through his parable that “a proper relation to God no more depends on a theory, on an intellectual conception of what God ‘really is,’ or a grasp of the ‘essence’ of God, than does a relation to other human beings or to the world depend on a theory of man or the world.”

God, man, world: These three irreducible elements undulate through Rosenzweig’s thought. The conjunction in his scheme between God and man is revelation, and revelation arrives as dialogue. The imperatives of revelation, the mitzvot , represent for Rosenzweig not subsumption under a general law (like the Greek nomos ) but rather God’s direct address.

In the third section of Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life , Putnam links Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) to his predecessors. Like Rosenzweig and Buber, Levinas harbored doubts about the temptation to seek to shore up faith with reason. “The existence of God is not a question of an individual soul’s uttering logical syllogisms,” he wrote. “It cannot be proved. The existence of God is sacred history itself, the sacredness of man’s relation to man through which God may pass.” What matters, rather, is the doing. Judaism’s essential content, Levinas said, “is acquired through a way of living that is a ritual.”

Also like Rosenzweig and Buber, Levinas sought a translation”in his case, of the ethical impulse of Judaism into the language of philosophy. Ethics, Levinas never tired of saying, is not derived from metaphysics; it makes no appeal to abstract arguments. As Putnam interprets him: “The impossibility of a metaphysical grounding for ethics shows that there is something wrong with metaphysics, and not with ethics.” Although religion held the center of Levinas’ attention”he called it “life at the extreme point of life””he insisted on the priority of the ethical. “Ethics is not the corollary of the vision of God,” he taught, “it is that very vision.” Or, as he said elsewhere, “the ethical order does not prepare us for the Divinity; it is the very accession to the Divinity.”

How are we to assess Putnam’s readings of these three giants of modern Jewish thought? Perhaps the main point to make is that the very quality that underlies the strength of these readings also accounts for their oversights. The idiosyncrasy of Putnam’s sketches obscures some important lines.

One cannot get a sense from this book, for example, of the broad inflections of Buber’s thought: his reinterpretation of Hasidism and its forms of communal mysticism; his achievements as a literary critic of the Bible; his editorship of the journal Der Jude , the most important German-Jewish document of the period between the world wars; his influence on Protestant theologians from Reinhold Niebuhr to Rudolf Bultmann to Paul Tillich.

Or take Levinas, about whom Putnam has trouble explaining why he should be regarded as a Jewish philosopher at all. With admirable insight, Putnam argues that Jewishness supplied for Rosenzweig not so much the object as the method of thinking”the insistence on the concrete, on the experience of time and on the spoken word, and the affirmation that knowledge is illuminated in the light of doing. But when it comes to Levinas, Putnam fails to think through in what sense “ethics as first philosophy” might be a universalization of a Jewish theme, or why Levinas’s masterwork, Totality and Infinity , draws so heavily on the dialogues of Plato but hardly on Jewish sources. And oddly, Putnam shows no feel for Levinas’ brilliant talmudic readings, which seek to make the Talmud speak in modern idiom.

The reason for Putnam’s idiosyncrasy is not far to seek. The prior commitments he brings to his readings”which carry the selectivity of those readings nearer to the surface”call to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip about Wordsworth: “He found in stones the sermons he had already put there.” Before coming to Jewish thought, Putnam had sided with those, from Wittgenstein to John Dewey, who condemned the metaphysical turn in philosophy. He had argued that the stress on ontology over the last half century has worked to pernicious effect. He called his 2004 book Ethics Without Ontology , a title he admits would aptly suit a volume by Levinas. Speaking for himself, he expressed the view that proofs of God’s existence “show conceptual connections of great depth and significance, but they are not a foundation for my religious belief.” And he devoted an excellent essay in the journal Faith and Philosophy to Maimonides’ negative theology, where he concluded: “That religious language connects us to God is something one can feel with one’s whole being, not something that one can explain.”

Not that the idiosyncrasy always obscures. In fact, by dint of his own precision of mind, Putnam succeeds in throwing the themes held in common by these three philosophers into high relief. The thinkers have, of course, profound differences. Levinas’ relation with the Other is asymmetrical, while Buber’s idealized I“Thou relation is profoundly reciprocal. Buber, unlike Rosenzweig and Levinas, rejected Halacha. Levinas remained hostile to the mysticism in which Buber invested so much philosophical meaning.

But as Putnam makes clear, the three writers also share some of their boldest insights. Each sought a fundamental reorientation of philosophy away from metaphysical abstraction. Each represented philosophy as a way of life, a path toward inner transformation, rather than as a theory-laden academic discipline. Each, in other words, taught that the proper subject of philosophy is everyday life.

Leo Strauss once remarked that Socrates expected the truth to be knowable only to philosophers, whereas the prophet Isaiah dreamt of when “the earth shall be full of knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the earth.” In yoking Jewish thought to his efforts to give philosophy a human face, and in giving us glimpses of three men who helped shape a vibrant and beautiful form of Jewish thought, Hilary Putnam”to his profit, and to ours”has sided with Isaiah.


Benjamin Balint is a writer based at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.