Review Essay: Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue

Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue. By Ephraim Meir, translated and edited by Miriam Meir. Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2004, 162 pp.

Ephraim Meir’s Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue seeks to provide the reader with an understanding of “the special character of Jewish existentialism” and the contribution it can make to general existentialist thought (p. 1). The book is divided into three parts. The first part limns the main features of general existentialism (pp. 5-14) and briefly surveys the lives, works, and leading doctrines of the major existentialists (pp.  14-33). The second and main part of the book reviews the lives, works, and basic teachings of important Jewish existentialist thinkers and writers, namely, R. Nahman of Bratslav, (pp. 37-54), R. Joseph Soloveitchik  (pp. 55-67), Martin Buber (pp. 68-83), Franz Rosenzweig, (pp. 84-102)), and Franz Kafka. (pp. 129-145). Meir also devotes a chapter to Emmanuel Levinas (pp. 103-128) — interestingly enough, the longest chapter in the book– on account of Levinas’ critical interaction with Husserl and Heidegger, this despite the fact that, as Meir admits, Levinas, strictly speaking, is not an existentialist. In light of his analyses in the first two parts of the book, Meir in the third and final part (pp. 149-162) identifies “the special character of Jewish existentialism” and the contribution it can make to general existentialist thought as consisting in its emphasis on dialogue and intersubjectivity.

I wish this were a better book. The time is ripe for a work such as Meir’s. While the roots of existentialism date back to the brilliant if unsystematic writings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, in retrospect it is clear that existentialism as a philosophical movement proper begins with the existential turn taken by phenomenology in the 20s and 30s as exemplified by such classics as   Heidegger’s Being and Time, Jasper’s Psychology of World Views, and Buber’s I and Thou.  In this respect, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1944) and Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945) should be seen as the latest major existentialist works.   Despite the fact that Being and Nothingness dates from before the end of World War II and Phenomenology of Perception from just shortly after its end — while the other above mentioned works predate its beginning as well — existentialism as a cultural force came into its own only in the post-war era and gathered increasing strength in the 50s and 60s. This period saw the appearance of such popular expositions of existentialism as William Barrett’s Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, H. J.  Blackham’s Six Existentialist Thinkers, and Mary Warnock’s Existentialism, works which were both a token of and in turn contributed to the widespread interest in the movement. In the 70s and 80s, however, existentialism as a philosophical movement fell out of fashion; indeed, many denied that it was even a coherent, much less a philosophically significant, movement at all. But beginning with the 90s there has been a revival of interest in existentialism. The reasons for this revival are varied and not entirely clear. Partially it was owing to the appearance in 1990 of David Cooper’s Existentialism: A Reconstruction, generally considered to be the best and the most philosophically sophisticated treatment of the subject; partially to the publication of previously unavailable crucial works by existentialist authors; and partially to the penetration of existentialist themes into the mainstream of Anglo-American philosophy.

As an illustration of the above, we may look at the changing place of Heidegger within the history of philosophy. In the 50s and 60s Heidegger — or, to be more precise, the Heidegger of Being and Time – was routinely characterized as an existentialist, and in the works on existentialism from that era he was discussed alongside Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre, Tillich, and others. He may have been treated as first among equals, but his place within the existentialist firmament was firmly fixed. However in the 70s and 80s, with the declining interest in existentialism and indeed, as we have seen, with the denial of its being a philosophically coherent movement altogether, Heidegger was detached from the existentialist company and was treated in lone splendor as one of the towering figures of twentieth century philosophy. If he was considered in relationship to other twentieth century philosophers at all, the philosophers in question were no longer, as previously, Jaspers, Sartre, or Tillich, but rather Dewey, Wittgenstein, or Sellars.  With the revival of interest in existentialism in the 90s, however, Heidegger has been reintegrated back into an existentialist framework.  Thus in Cooper’s Existentialism he is discussed alongside Jaspers, Ortega y Gasset, Marcel, and, in particular, Sartre, while in the recent anthology Existentialism: Basic Writings, edited by C. Guignon and D. Pereboom, his writings are included alongside those of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre.  We have returned here full circle to Barrett’s Irrational Man, the central section of which, “The Existentialists,” is devoted precisely to these four major existentialist thinkers.

If the past decade or decade and a half has thus seen a renewed appreciation of existentialism, it has also seen a veritable explosion of studies in the area of modern Jewish thought. While the scholarly interest in and study of the works of Buber have tapered off somewhat, though not entirely, a host of extremely high level studies in English, French, Hebrew, and German on the thought of Hermann Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Levinas have appeared, as well as a flood of new editions and translations of their writings. Similarly, the passing of Rabbi Soloveitchik in 1993 triggered an outpouring of both appreciations and, more to the point, rigorous scholarly analyses of his writings, both halakhic and philosophic, accompanied here as well by an unending stream of   books based upon his oral discourses and/or materials he left in manuscript but had not readied for publication.

The time, then, as I said earlier, is ripe for a work that would examine key twentieth century Jewish existentialist thinkers, place them in the context of general existentialist thought, and seek to determine if, indeed, there is a distinctive Jewish existentialism, possessed of a “special character,” that can make a contribution to general existentialist thought. Unfortunately, Meir’s Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue is not that work.

The boldness and scope of Meir’s project are impressive, and his study does contain certain individual valuable insights; nevertheless, as a whole, it is seriously flawed. First, his characterization of general existentialism is thin and incomplete; second, his principles of selection are problematic:  a number of the particular thinkers and works he chooses to discuss are unrepresentative and his focus on them is difficult to justify, while he ignores entirely or passes over lightly very important and relevant thinkers and works; third, many of his interpretations of the overall thought of the thinkers he examines as well as his readings of specific texts of theirs are often questionable, if not plain wrong; fourth and finally, the distinction he draws between general and Jewish existentialism is problematic.

Meir, in his characterization of general existentialism, focuses on its rejection of idealism, its opposition to every system, its emphasis on concrete lived human existence, and, finally, its focus on border situations. While these are important features of general existentialism, to restrict existentialism thus misses its very heart. What this description leaves out are first existentialism’s characterization of the special nature of that concrete human existence, and second its characterization of the lebenswelt, the lived world, as it arises out of human beings’ interaction and engagement with that world in the course of their concrete human existence.

With reference to the first point: existentialism focuses on those features of concrete human existence that differentiate it from non-human existence.   Negatively, this means that human existence, human being, should not be conceived as resembling the existence possessed by things or substances.   Positively, this means, as Ortega says, that we should think of human being as having the kind of being possessed by narratives; or, as Kierkegaard says, that the individual not only exists but is “infinitely interested in existing;” or, as Fackenheim says, that human existence is “self-making in a situation;” or, as Heidegger says, that the human being is always “ being-ahead-of-itself.” In all these respects, the human being is projected beyond himself both temporally and spatially.  Temporally:  the future is the key tense of human existence, for a person can be understood only in terms of his life goals and projects, in terms of what he is on the way “towards.” Spatially: our human reality is a Da-sein or “being-there,” we exist as beings-in-the-world, and our consciousness is always directed outward towards a world of human significances and meanings.

This last observation leads to the second point: The fundamental world is the pre-cognitive human world, is the world-as-it- is-for-human beings. This human world, this lebenswelt, is both logically and temporally prior to and presupposed by any image or theory of the world provided us by metaphysical or scientific speculation. Indeed, such a metaphysical or scientific worldview is, for the existentialist, parasitic upon the human world. To use Heidegger’s terminology: the world encountered as zuhanden (ready at hand) is logically prior to the detached spectator’s view of the world as vorhanden (present at hand).

Obviously, the above is just a bare bones account of these fundamental existentialist claims, and all this would have to be spelled out and elaborated upon at some length in any adequate account of existentialism. But what is troubling is that almost none of this is to be found in Meir’s characterization of general existentialism, certainly not in any clear, full, and ordered form.

In light of this brief account, it becomes clear that many of the particular thinkers and works that Meir chooses to discuss are only marginally connected to existentialism, while other thinkers and works that he ignores entirely or passes over lightly other are of central significance. Thus, with reference to general existentialists, it is impossible to justify Meir’s devoting an entire chapter to Schopenhauer and none to Heidegger.   As is well known, Schopenhauer fundamentally distinguishes between the world as idea or representation and the world as will (more precisely, blind will), and further argues that it is the world as blind will which is the true underlying metaphysical reality, that man has direct, immediate access to this underlying metaphysical reality, and finally that man’s bodily existence, and, indeed, all natural processes are nothing but an expression of this blind will. It should be immediately clear that all these theses stand in direct contradiction to the existentialists’ focus on those features of concrete human existence that differentiate it from non-human existence, to their claim that human existence, human being, should not be conceived as resembling the existence possessed by things or substances, to their stress on the importance of human freedom, and finally to their strongly held position that the fundamental world is the human pre-cognitive world, the world-as-it-is-for- human beings.  It is not for naught that none of the standard works and anthologies on existentialism, neither Barrett, nor Blackham, nor Warnock, nor Cooper, nor Guignon and Pereboom, devote any space to Schopenhauer. Most don’t even accord him a mention!

There is an irony involved in Meir’s characterization of Schopenhauer as an existentialist, inasmuch as he argues that the very first characteristic of existentialism is its opposition to metaphysical idealism. But if there is any philosophic system that can be   characterized as idealistic, it is that of Schopenhauer. Meir argues that Schopenhauer’s claim that ultimate reality is irrational, rather than rational, suffices to render his philosophy anti-idealistic. But, as Maurice Mandelbaum correctly argues, “metaphysical idealism holds that within natural human experience one can find a clue to an understanding of the ultimate nature of reality, and this clue is revealed through those traits that distinguish man as a spiritual being.” And, as Mandelbaum goes on to argue, in light of their agreement regarding these fundamental assertions, the quarrel between Schopenhauer and Hegel as to whether the ultimate reality underlying the world of appearances is rational or irrational is of secondary significance.

On the other hand, Meir almost inexplicably does not devote a chapter to Heidegger. He has two and a half page chapter “The Influence of Husserl and Heidegger on the Existentialists” (pp.12-14), a page and a half of which is devoted to Heidegger. It need not be said that this is ludicrously inadequate. Meir offers two reasons for not considering Heidegger to be an existentialist.  First, Meir argues that Heidegger was primarily an ontologist who was   interested in human Being (Da-sein) only the extent that it provided a gateway to the understanding of the truth of Being itself. Thus, as Heidegger states, he was concerned in Being and Time with “the Being of those beings [i.e., human beings] who stand open for the openness of the Being in which they stand, by standing it.” This is certainly true, but it does not at all change the fact that, as this very quote itself makes clear, Heidegger in Being and Time was, for whatever reason, concerned first and foremost with the Being of human beings, that is, with the existence of man,  “that being whose Being is distinguished by the open-standing standing-in in the unconcealedness of Being, from Being, in Being,” and that one may find in its pages an existential analysis both of human being-in-the world and the world-as- it-is-for-human beings of unrivalled depth and profundity. The bottom line is that Being and Time is the existentialist philosophical classic, par excellence, and Meir’ neglect of the work, devoting to it only a few scattered paragraphs, is simply inexcusable.  Second, Meir argues, Heidegger denied that he was an existentialist, and, indeed, spoke very critically about Sartre’s existentialist writings. But then Marx was wont   to declare that he was not a Marxist; yet, it would be a strange study of Marxism that didn’t devote a lion share of its attention to Marx!   As for Heidegger’s critical attitude toward Sartre’s existentialist writings, David Cooper has convincingly shown that Heidegger did not, to say the least, possess a particularly good understanding of those writings, and that, despite his protestations the contrary, there is enough common ground between his philosophy and that of Sartre, to characterize them both as existentialist.  And, again, the bottom line is that, contra Meir, all of the standard works and anthologies on existentialism: Barrett, Blackham, Warnock, Cooper, and Guignon and Pereboom, give Heidegger — and correctly so–pride of place. Would that Meir had done the same!

It is also difficult to understand why Meir accords barely a mention to the thought of Gabriel Marcel, certainly the most important Christian existentialist philosopher of the past century.  This lack on Meir’s part of any sustained analysis of Marcel will, as we shall see, prove particularly problematic when we shall examine the validity of the   distinction Meir wishes to draw between Jewish existentialism and general existentialist thought.

Meir’s principles of selection regarding the Jewish existentialist thinkers and writings he chooses to discuss– and not discuss — are similarly problematic.  First, it is about time that existentialism should be seen as being primarily a philosophical movement. Therefore, despite the fact that there are existentialist motifs to be found in the writings of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka, given the brevity of Meir’s book and the fact that neither of these two figures can be viewed as philosophers even in a very loose sense of the term (as opposed, say, to Kierkegaard), I do not see the justification for his devoting an entire chapter to each of them. Moreover, regarding Kafka, it is not even clear if he should be regarded as a Jewish writer at all. As is well known, though Meir somehow neglects to make mention of this fact, in none of Kafka’s novels or stories do the words “Jew,”  “Jewish” or “Judaism” appear. Furthermore, once Meir decided, rightly or wrongly, to devote an entire chapter to R. Nahman, he should not have relied only on R. Nahman’s famous stories, but should also have analyzed the profound and existentially tinged theological reflections to be found in his derashot. Particularly surprising is the complete absence of any reference to the most famous and profound of R. Nahman’s “existentialist” derashot, “Bo el Paro” (Likkutei Maharan 64).

Meir’s emphases in his chapter on Rabbi Soloveitchik are very skewed. Most of the chapter (pp. 57-60) is devoted to an analysis of R. Soloveitchik’s classic essay, Halakhic Man. However this essay, with its highly intellectualist portrait of halakhic man and, more significant, its description of halakhic man’s cognitive-normative a priori approach to the world, an approach that resembles in many respects the mathematical- physicist’s scientific a priori approach, clearly reflects the influence of Hermann Cohen’s Neo-Kantianism rather than any existentialist influence. Since Meir takes note of the significant Kantian (to be more precise: Neo-Kantian) elements in Halakhic Man and since he further cites David Hartman’s astute suggestion that, if anything, R. Soloveitchik’s portrait of the essay’s halakhic hero can serve as an antidote to the dangers of modern existentialism, it is difficult to understand why Meir devotes so much space to the essay.

The proper starting place for a discussion of R. Soloveitchik as an existentialist thinker ought to be his well-known essay, The Lonely Man of Faith. In that essay, R. Soloveitchik, basing himself on the two creation stories, offers phenomenological portraits of two Adams: creative, majestic Adam the first, and sacrificial, covenantal Adam the second. And while R. Soloveitchik’s portrait of Adam the first bears a striking resemblance to his portrait of halakhic man in the essay of that name (with the important –indeed critical — difference that halakhic man’s creativity is primarily individual, theoretical, and takes place within a covenantal framework, while Adam the first’s creativity is primarily collective, practically-oriented, and takes place in a cosmic framework) and both figures are drawn in broad neo-Kantian brushstrokes, his portrait of Adam the second  clearly bears a strong existentialist imprint. Thus, to cite just some of the existentialist terminology which R Soloveitchik employs in his description of Adam the second: for Adam the second  “‘To be’ is a unique in-depth-experience;” his fundamental “I” identity involves “awareness of his uniqueness and exclusiveness;” and, finally, he is firmly rooted in and devoted to exploring the “the living, ‘given’ world into which he has been cast.” And yet Meir devotes less than a page to the essay as a whole and only a brief paragraph to a discussion of Adam the second. Other important essays of R. Soloveitchik that would need to be analyzed in order to determine to what extent we may properly characterize his thought as existentialist are “Confrontation,” “The Community,” “Majesty and Humility,” and “Catharsis.” None receives even a mention from Meir.

Finally, how are we to account for the absence of a chapter on Emil Fackenheim? (Fackenheim receives just two mentions in passing from Meir: p. 87, n. 13; and p. 122, n. 75.) Certainly Fackenheim’s early philosophical and theological writings are broadly existentialist in character. Thus the last thirty pages of Fackenheim’s early philosophical essay, Metaphysics and Historicity has been described by one scholar of existentialism as “the best statement of the internal structure of existentialist thought in general.” In a similar vein, Fackenheim’s theological essays from the fifties adopt the approach of Niebuhr and Tillich in beginning with an existentialist analysis of the human situation, or, perhaps better, the human predicament, and moving from there to theological conclusions.  And while Fackenheim, for a variety of reasons, abandoned this theological method and his later writings are not existentialist in the strict sense, they are nevertheless permeated with existentialist motifs. One has only to look at Fackenheim’s most important work, To Mend the World to see how he sets about to develop the “foundations of future Jewish thought” (the subtitle of the book) in constant dialogue with the writings of Buber, Rosenzweig, and Heidegger. If Levinas deserves a chapter in a book devoted to Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue, how much more so does Fackenheim.

One of the results of Meir’s problematic principles of selection is the often-superficial nature of his discussion. Obviously, the few scattered paragraphs on Being and Time or the less than a page on The Lonely Man of Faith are insufficient for any in-depth analysis of these rich and challenging works. Two instances when Meir does pursue a particular subject in depth are his discussion of Heidegger’s essay, “What is Thinking?” (pp. 21-24) and his very interesting contrast between Buber’s attitude to a tree in I and Thou and that of Sartre’s protagonist in his novel Nausea (pp.  82-83). However, it must be noted that the discussion of Heidegger’s essay is peripheral to the main theme of the book, while the contrast between Buber and Sartre, as Meir candidly acknowledges, just follows up on an earlier suggestion of Theodore Dreyfus (p. 82).

And there are times when Meir’s analyses and generalizations are either dubious or even just plain wrong. Allow me three examples.

Meir correctly contrasts the notion of “the Look” in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness with that of “the face” in the writings of Levinas (p.109). “The Look” of the Other threatens to reduce me to being a mere object, and in response to this threat I affirm my subjectivity  “[through] a negation of the other.” It thus gives rise to an inter-human relationship that is fundamentally agonistic in nature.  In contrast, the appearance of “the Face” in Levinas is an “epiphenomenon” that makes ethical demands of me, that, in its naked vulnerability, both reveals to me and imposes upon me the commandment  “Thou shalt not kill.”   Meir goes too far, however, when in order to sum up what he believes to be Sartre’s view of the inescapably problematic and agonistic nature of inter-human relationships he cites Sartre’s famous epigram from his play No Exit (Huis Clos): “Hell is other people” (p.153). What Meir overlooks is that, for Sartre, the attempt to ward off the threat to one’s freedom contained in the objectifying power of “the Look” by negating the Other and denying his freedom is as much an act of “bad faith” as allowing oneself in the first place to be fixed as an object by other people or by oneself. It is, in Sartre’s view, possible, if difficult, to escape this vicious circle and create a virtuous circle of mutual recognition, confirmation, and reinforcement of the other’s freedom.

What, then, of Sartre’s famous epigram, “Hell is other people”? It must be remembered that this statement, far from being intended by Sartre as a summary of his philosophy, was meant as a cautionary warning.  The statement is made at the end of No Exit by one of it three main protagonists, Joseph Garcin, who during his life was a coward and deserter. But, of course, Garcin in the play is dead and in Hell. The fictional premise of the play is that, on the one hand, its characters, though dead, still possesses the possibility of action but, on the other hand, since they are dead,   they lack the freedom to change. Sartre’s point is that if one has lived a life of bad faith, then, at the moment of death  — but not before then — one becomes frozen, fixed,  “encrusted” (to use Sartre’s terminology), ready to be judged and objectified by other people.  As Inez Serrano, one of the play’s other protagonists, says: “One always dies too soon — or too late. And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are –your life and nothing else.” (Interestingly enough, Meir cites this comment of Inez  [p.80], but its significance apparently eludes him.)    In short, if one dies after having lived a life of bad faith, then, indeed, Hell is other people.  But like so many other fictional works about life after death, No Exit is really a reflection on life before death, which, of course, for Sartre, is the only life we have.   And Sartre’s point is that as long as one is alive it is an act of “bad faith” to believe that “Hell is other people,” for as long as one is alive one is not unalterably subjected to and fixed by other people’s judgments, as long as one is alive one always possesses the freedom to change one’s life   and live a life of authenticity.  One scholar, thus, correctly sums up Sartre’s message in No Exit as follows: “live authentically by making good choices while you can, for after you die it is too late.” Sartre’s cautionary exhortation, paradoxically enough, turns out to be not that different from the famous rabbinic exhortation “Repent one day before your death,” that is, everyday. This may seem surprising, but then, as another Sartre scholar argues, “Sartre’s voice resembles that of the great Christian reformers, calling to repentance and evoking dreadful punishment for misdeeds, while assuming the freedom of those addressed to change their nature.” Of course, Sartre’s conception of repentance and that of the Rabbis or, for that matter, the great Christian reformers are poles apart, but this does not detract from the striking resemblance of their calls.

Perhaps, in partial extenuation of Meir’s misreading, we may say that Sartre’s memorable and catchy epigram, “Hell is other people” almost lends itself to misinterpretation. The same, however, cannot be said for Meir’s misreading of Buber on the Akedah.  Meir claims that for Buber “only Moloch who imitates the voice of God could demand this most personal of all sacrifices from Abraham. He [Buber] claims that for Abraham to have offered such a sacrifice would be equivalent to submitting to the demand of the Satan. This interpretation of the Akedah on Buber’s part is light miles away from Kierkegaard’s view, according to which Abraham became the ‘Knight of Faith’ once he decided to unconditionally obey the divine voice” (p. 76). To be sure, Buber does say that generally – indeed, perhaps almost always – the person who thinks that it is God that is demanding that he offer up to Him his only son is in truth being addressed by Moloch who is imitating the voice of God. And, contra Kierkegaard, Buber maintains that “Where therefore the ‘suspension’ of the ethical is concerned, the question of questions which takes precedence over every other is:  Are you really addressed by the Absolute or by one of his apes?” All this, however, cannot detract from the fact that Buber clearly and unequivocally maintains that it was God and not Moloch Who demanded of Abraham that he take his only son and offer him up as a burnt offering. As Buber states:

Abraham, to be sure could not confuse with another the voice which bade him leave his homeland and which he at that time recognized as the voice of God without the speaker saying to him who he was. And, to be sure, God only “tested” him, that is, through that extreme demand He drew forth the innermost readiness to sacrifice out of the depths of Abraham’s being, and He allowed this readiness to grow to the full intention to act. He thus made it possible for Abraham’s relation to Him, God, to become wholly real.  But then, when no further hindrance stood between the intention and the deed, He contented Himself with Abraham’s fulfilled readiness and prevented the action.

Here, I am simply unable to understand how Meir could so misconstrue Buber’s meaning.

Finally, I wish to take note of a tendency of Meir that is highly problematic, namely, his consistently linking together the ethical views of Rosenzweig with those of Levinas.  For example, Meir argues that the commandment  “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” in Rosenzweig parallels the commandment  “Thou shalt not kill” in Levinas (p. 116).  In a similar vein he lumps together Levinas’ concept of “the Face” with that of Rosenzweig (p.109). Finally, he argues that for both Rosenzweig and Levinas it is the Other’s turning to the I and the I ‘s acceptance of the Other, which endow the existence of the I with significance. And Meir concludes: “It is the endowing with significance which in the thought of both Rosenzweig and Levinas is what is meant by ‘revelation’” (p.150).   More generally, throughout his book, Meir describes both Levinas and Rosenzweig as dialogical thinkers.

While Levinas, as he indicates in the introduction to Totality and Infinity, was certainly influenced by Rosenzweig and while there are interesting and significant similarities between their teachings, there are equally interesting and significant differences between them as well, which recent scholarship in particular has brought to light, differences which Meir’s linking the two, as noted above, tends to blur. More particularly, it would seem that Meir reads Rosenzweig through Levinasian lenses.

Thus, as we saw, Meir contends that both Rosenzweig and Levinas move from the relationship between the Other and the I to revelation. But this holds true only for Levinas and not for Rosenzweig. For, as Martin Kavka has correctly noted, while Levinas “moves from the ethical interpersonal scene to its grounding in a quasi-theological metaphysics, Rosenzweig moves in an opposite direction, from a posited theological ground to a construction of ideal ethical behavior.” In this connection, it is not the case that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” in Rosenzweig parallels the commandment  “Thou shalt not kill” in Levinas, and this for two reasons. First, as we have already observed, for Levinas it is the human face of the human Other who is the source the commandment  “Thou shalt not kill,” although in its power to obligate me, to make me infinitely responsible, “the face of the other person … ‘appears’ as though it were the divine face” (here we see Levinas’ “move … from the ethical interpersonal scene to its grounding in a quasi-theological metaphysics”), while for Rosenzweig the source of the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is God’s love for man, and in my loving my neighbor I imitate God, namely, I make my face like His (here we see Rosenzweig’s “move… from a posited theological ground to a construction of ideal ethical behavior”).  (We should note parenthetically that we see here as well the striking distance separating Levinas’ conception of “the Face” from that of Rosenzweig.  Though, for Levinas, “the face of the other person … ‘appears’ as though it were the divine face,” strictly speaking, God has no face. The Star, however, concludes with a profound and daring reflection on the face of God that man is able to see in  “a life beyond life,” a divine countenance that remarkably resembles man’s own. Rosenzweig’s thinking about God has thus been aptly described as theomorphic, a term that could never be applied to Levinas’ reflections on God.) Second, for Levinas the Other who commands me not to kill is genuinely an Other, an  “Other [who] is what I myself am not,” while for Rosenzweig, the neighbor whom I am commanded to love is, as the verse states, my neighbor who is like myself, my neighbor who is not an Other.  As Rosenzwieg emphatically maintains, the neighbor “is like You, is like your You, is a You like you are a You, is an ‘I’—a soul.”  Finally, and most importantly, it follows from this last point that, contra Meir, Rosenzweig is not a dialogical thinker. For, in Rosenzweig’s teaching, the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” does not give rise to a real dialogue between the I and the neighbor.  Rather the I and the neighbor who is like the I join together in love in the praying Chorus of the Jewish community or the Church. Of course, there is a concept of dialogue in the Star, but the dialogue being discussed is a dialogue between man and God, and not a dialogue between man and man. It is not for naught that the paragraph on dialogue in the Star is to be found in the section on revelation and not in the section on redemption.

This last observation leads us to examine the cogency of the fundamental thesis of Meir’s book. Is it true, as Meir contends, that “the special character of Jewish existentialism” and the contribution it can make to general existentialist thought consist in its emphasis on dialogue and intersubjectivity? One can call this contrast into question from both its sides. Thus looking at Jewish existentialism, it is not at all clear, as we just saw, whether Rosenzweig’s existentialist teaching is in fact characterized by an emphasis on dialogue and intersubjectivity. And, conversely, had Meir examined at any length the existentialist teaching of say Marcel, it would soon become evident that it is not accurate or, at the least, an oversimplification to maintain that general existentialism as a whole lacks that emphasis. Here we need merely note Merold Westphal’s explanation in his preface to Marcel’s Creative Fidelity as to why it has always been his favorite book by that author. “My love of this text focuses around what I take to be its central theme: intersubjectivity. It doesn’t matter what Marcel chooses to talk about; the next thing you know he is reflecting on some dimension of my relation to the Other.” Indeed, Westphal goes on to argue that Marcel’s teaching, with its emphasis on belonging, disposability or availability, welcoming, openness, and fidelity, may serve as an ideal mean between Levinas’ teaching, with its “harsh responsibility” and emphasis on the asymmetry of the ethical relation, and that of Buber, which perhaps, with its emphasis on sharing, reciprocity, and sympathy, is in danger of weakening the absoluteness of my responsibility for the Thou and degenerating into a type of “cheap fellowship.” One can certainly take issue with Westphal on this last point, but at the very least it fruitfully bring Marcel’s teaching into dialogue with that of Levinas and Buber.  Ought a book entitled Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue do any less?

If there is any broad contrast to be drawn here, it is, I would very tentatively suggest, not between Jewish existentialism and general existentialist thought, but between religious and secular existentialism, more specifically between religious and secular existentialist ethics. Here I would like to take as my point of departure the following (unintentionally) revealing comments of David Cooper in which he sets forth what he considers to be the core of existentialist ethics, namely, reciprocal freedom. Cooper begins by discussing the ethics of reciprocal commitment as found in Marcel.

What are the constituents of this reciprocal commitment [according to Marcel]? In part, the mutual exercise of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In charity or “generosity,” for instance, I must permanently be on call for the other person in case he is in need.  More interesting is the point made, in very Buberian terms, in this passage: “If I treat the Thou as a He, I reduce the other to  …an animated object…. If I treat the other as a Thou, I treat him and apprehend him qua freedom…. What is more, I help him … to be freed, I collaborate with his freedom.” …

Availability [according to Marcel], then, is a reciprocal relation through which each party is committed not only to treating the other as a free person, but to enabling and “collaborating with” his freedom… Marcel [here] is in the territory not only of Buber, but [also] of Sartre who … states that a person’s freedom “depends entirely on the freedom of others.”…  Marcel …urge[s] commitment as a precondition of availability; while Sartre … holds that it is something like the reciprocal freedom of availability that is the one end of true commitment.

What I find striking in the above statement is how easily Cooper in developing his idea of   existentialist ethics as an ethics of reciprocal freedom dismisses as philosophically uninteresting and unimportant Marcel’s remarks about “the mutual exercise of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.” And this leads me to my suggestion regarding the difference between secular and existentialist ethics. Secular existentialist ethics as an ethics of reciprocal freedom emphasizes the importance of mutual recognition, acknowledgment, respect, enabling, collaboration, and confirmation. What is missing is mutual love.   And, I believe, it is precisely this emphasis on the critical importance of the mutual exercise of the virtues of love, generosity, hesed (loving kindness), and sympathy in the sphere of inter-human relationships that characterizes the ethical teaching of   the major religious existentialists philosophers of twentieth century, both Christian and Jewish, from Marcel to Buber to Rosenzweig to R. Soloveitchik. I further believe that this emphasis on their part stems from their taking the personal God-human person relationship as their model for personal relationships in the inter-human sphere.   Certainly God does not turn to, address, and enter into a personal relationship with a human being because His freedom “depends entirely on the freedom of others”! Rather God turns to, addresses, supports, and affirms the human person as an act of grace, generosity, and love. And this act of grace, generosity, and love both enables and obliges the person so addressed, supported, affirmed, and loved to turn to his or her fellow, whether neighbor or Other, in a similar act of support, affirmation, and love.

Whether or not a fuller and more nuanced presentation of the distinction I have sketched here can withstand criticism remains to be seen. Obviously, this is not the place for such a presentation. Be this as it may, I believe I have shown that the distinction Meir draws between Jewish existentialism and general existentialist thought is untenable.

In conclusion, I wish to say that I take no pleasure in advancing the stringent criticisms of Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue contained in this review. The book reflects Meir’s wide learning, his genuine enthusiasm for his subject, and his conviction of its overriding significance. These are important virtues, particularly for a work on existentialism. But the serious failures of Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue, alas, outweigh its virtues. My negative judgment on the book as a whole thus serves to confirm what we already know: that when it comes to a work of philosophy, learning and enthusiasm are no substitute for rigor and depth.


Merold Westphal, “Preface,” Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), p. ix.

Cooper, Existentialism, pp.176-177

See my essays, “Maimonides and Soloveitchik on the Knowledge and Imitation of God,” Moses Maimonides (1138-1204): His Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Wirkungsgeschichte in Different Cultural Contexts, Eds. Gorg Hasselhoff and Otfried Fraisse (Ergon Verlag, 2004), pp.491-523; and “Martin Buber on the Imitation of God,” DAAT 56 (2005).

At times, however, Meir’s enthusiasm leads him to substitute homiletical exhortation for scholarly analysis. See, for example, his rather simplistic comments on the Pax Americana and on rationalism on p.150.