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Hans Jonas: Technology, Kabbalah, and the Holocaust

Few people in Israel remember Hans Jonas, one of the most important and fascinating of the Jewish philosophers.
©kei yamane/EyeEm/
©kei yamane/EyeEm/
Professor Ron Margolin a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He has a doctorate in Jewish thought from Tel Aviv University. He teaches modern Jewish thought in the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Comparative Religion at Tel Aviv University. His publications include The Human Temple: Religious Interiorization and the Structuring of Inner Life in Early Hasidism (Hebrew, 2006).

Hans Jonas: Technology, Kabbalah, and the Holocaust

Few people in Israel remember Hans Jonas, one of the most important and fascinating of the Jewish philosophers. Jonas was a student of Martin Heidegger who fled to Israel when the Nazis came to power. He fought in the Jewish Brigade and in the War of Independence and became one of the leading thinkers behind the growth of the European Green movement. Hans Jonas combined thoughts on technology and biology with the Holocaust and the Ari’s Kabbalah. Unfortunately, a position could not be found for Hans Jonas at a university in Israel.

Hans Jonas was known in the 1930’s as an important researcher of Gnostic theology, and during the second half of the century became a major philosopher in biology and technology. Jonas became famous for his extensive influence on the ecology movement in Europe and in particular in Germany, and for his contribution to bio-ethical thinking in the U.S. However, few are aware of his religious philosophy and his discussion in The Concept of God after the Holocaust, one of the most original works written from a Jewish point of view on the subject.

The story of his life, his research and his thought reflect the major events and processes in the intellectual and philosophical history of central Europe, as well as the history of the Jewish people. He was born in 1903 in Mönchengladbach, near Düsseldorf, in Germany, the son  of textile industrialist Gustav Jonas and his wife Rosa Horvitz. Rosa was the daughter of Yaakov Horvitz, the chief rabbi of the city of Krefeld, which is also near Düsseldorf. Like many other young Jewish people in Germany after the First World War, Jonas studied in the leading academic institutions in his country, and participated in Zionist activity and training camps in preparation for aliyah to Israel.

In the summer semester of 1921, Jonas was studying philosophy and the history of art at Freiburg University under Edmond Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Jonas Cohen. During the winter semester of that same year, he moved to Berlin. There he studied until 1923 at Wilhelm Friedrich University under Edward Sprenger, Ernest Trolets, Hugo Grassman, Ernest Salin and Edward Mayer. During those years he also studied at the Higher Beit Midrash for Chochmat Yisrael in Berlin under Yulius Guttman, Naphtali Hertz Tur-Sinai and Yehezkel (Edouard) Bennet. Between March and October 1923, he participated in a Zionist training camp near Wolfenbetal in preparation for aliyah.

During the winter semester of 1924, Jonas began studying at the University of Marburg. Martin Heidegger and the well-known Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann were lecturers there at the time and became his two main teachers. At the same time, he began researching the writings of Christian cults and heretics during the first few centuries BCE, known as the Gnostics. During those same years, a group of students formed at Marburg who were particularly close to Heidegger, and several of them became his personal friends, including Hanna Arendt, Gerhard Nebel, Kart Levitt, Hans George Gadmer, Gerhard Kreeger and Ginter Stern. Jonas and Arendt became close friends after they started working at the New School in New York and remained so until Arendt’s death. However, their relations were clouded by two things: the difference in their positions on Heidegger’s betrayal during the rise of the Nazis to power, and Hanna Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, of which Jonas was particularly critical.

As opposed to Arendt, Jonas was among the few students of Heidegger, who alongside deep respect for the teacher saw Heidegger’s despicable behavior with the rise of the Nazis to power and his refusal to comment on the severity of the Nazis’ crimes following the war and until his death in 1976 as a condemnation not only of Heidegger as a man but also of his philosophy. In Jonas’s opinion, Heidegger’s philosophy was lacking any commitment to the world and quite close to the spirit of Gnosis, which experiences human life as thrown into a cold and alienated world.

In 1928, Jonas submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of Gnosis (“Der Begriff der Gnosis”) to his teacher Martin Heidegger at the University of Marburg. His thesis served as the basis for his work on Gnosis in subsequent years, which he spent at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Universities of Koln, Frankfurt on Main and Heidelberg, where he became a member of the group surrounding the sociologist Karl Mannheim. With the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933, just as his book on Gnosis was going to press, Jonas left Germany for London and from there left for Mandatory Palestine in 1935. The first part of his book was published in 1934 in Nazi Germany after Jonas had left the country. The book, which opened with an introduction by Rudolf Bultmann, who had taught Jonas Christian theology, attracted a great deal of attention and gained a name for its author as a leading researcher in the field.

Jonas arrived in Mandatory Palestine in 1935. He served six years in the British army and fought as part of the Jewish Brigade against the Nazi army on the Italian front in 1943. During his service in the British army, he married Lore Weiner in Haifa. His letters to her contain his first thoughts on the philosophy of biology which would develop years later during his period in the U.S. into the book “The Phenomenon of Life” and the series of articles that led to his well-known book The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age. When Israel’s War of Independence broke out, the 45-year-old Jonas joined the Israeli army and fought with the artillery corps.

In Mandatory Palestine and later in the State of Israel, Jonas was unable to find a position at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and worked at various jobs, both before volunteering for the British army during the Second World War and even after his release from the Israeli army. The invitation to teach at the Hebrew University finally arrived after he had already accepted an offer from Carlton University in Canada. Shortly afterward, he was appointed as a tenured professor at the New School for Social Research in New York.

During his years in New York, Jonas developed a philosophy of biology, which centered upon the claim that “the nature of reality…nurtures something beyond the inanimate existence of material.” In Jonas’ opinion, nature has potential that is directed towards a specific purpose or final goal. Evolution leads to higher and higher levels of “internal intention,” which reach a peak in the complex spiritual life of man. That spiritual life is based on the strengthening of the fundamental freedom of the human soul. On the basis of this approach, Jonas developed the ethical system contained in his book “The Imperative of Responsibility,” whose goal is to deal with the ethical problems created by modern technology. This ethical system, which is based on the principle of parenthood, demands that our generation bear the responsibility for generations to come and that it very carefully weigh the development of technology that may endanger them.

Jonas’ theological articles draw on the one hand from the philosophy of biology that he had developed, and on the other hand from his thoughts on the Holocaust. At the heart of his ponderings is the issue of justifying God, and in order to deal with this issue he turns to the theory of tzimtzum (“contraction”) within the Kabbalah of the Ari. He claims that, on a theological level, man’s free will, which makes possible horrible acts as well as acts of kindness, such as those of the Righteous Gentiles, are conditional on the tzimtzum of God’s ability. This tzimtzum occurred at Creation in order to enable the biological development towards innerness. Creation is good and has meaning, but the power of God to intervene in the affairs of man was restricted right from the beginning, and therefore it is man who must bear the responsibility for the continued existence of the world.

Hans Jonas died in New York on February 5, 1993, six days after accepting the Fermio Nunino Prize in Italy for his book The Imperative of Responsibility, which was chosen in 1992 as the most valued book of the year. The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Germany and had a dominant influence on the development of the Green movement, which has become one of the most important forces in Germany and in Europe as a whole during the past few decades.

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