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Is there a God an sich?: Isaac Breuer on Kant's noumena

  • George Y. Kohler (a1)


Several scholars have noted the affinity of the German Orthodox thinker Isaac Breuer (1883–1946) for the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In fact, legend has it that Breuer had two large pictures hanging over the desk in his study: one of his grandfather Samson Raphael Hirsch and, next to it, a picture of the philosopher from Königsberg, as if in perfect harmony. Just as Maimonides, eight hundred years earlier, had tried to reconcile the biblical Moses with Aristotle in the Guide of the Perplexed, Breuer attempted to explain Hirsch's theology using Kantian terminology. But if Maimonides interpreted the Torah of Moses to fit the needs of Aristotelian metaphysics, Breuer did the opposite: he had Kant's epistemology yield to the needs of his own interpretation of the Torah.


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1. Cf. Niewöhner, Friedrich, “Isaac Breuer und Kant,” Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 17 (1975): 142150 and 19 (1977): 172–185; Wurzburger, Walter S., “Breuer and Kant,” Tradition 26, no. 2 (1992): 7176; Morgenstern, Matthias, “Jüdisch-Orthodoxe Wege zur Bibelkritik,” Judaica 3 (2000): 178192; Morgenstern, , From Frankfurt to Jerusalem: Isaac Breuer and the History of the Secession Dispute in Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2002): 237–59; Wiener, Max, “Judah Halevi's Concept of Religion and a Modern Counterpart,” HUCA 23 (1950/51): 678–82; Shear-Yashuv, Aharon, “Kant ve-haFilosofia ha-yehudit,” HUCA 66 (1995): 3738; Kurzweil, Zvi, The Modern Impulse of Traditional Judaism (Hoboken: Ktav, 1985): 3537; Myers, David N., Resisting History, Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 137139; Ellenson, David H., “German Orthodoxy, Jewish Law, and the Uses of Kant,” in Between Tradition and Culture (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994), 2325; and Ellenson, , After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2004), 251253.

2. Alan L. Mittleman offers a comprehensive interpretation of Breuer's thinking in his Between Kant and Kabbalah: An Introduction to Isaac Breuer's Philosophy of Judaism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990). But in spite of the title, Mittleman, with some justification, claims that Breuer draws much more heavily on the philosophy of Schopenhauer than he does on Kant.

3. In his autobiography, Breuer pronounces the traditional talmudic blessing over a gentile sage with reference to Kant (cf. TB Berakhot 58a) and adds: “Every true Jew, who has seriously and with honest endeavor studied the Critique of Pure Reason, will answer Amen from the depth of his heart.” See Breuer, Isaac, Mein Weg (Jerusalem/Zürich: Morascha, 1988), 55.

4. Breuer, Mein Weg, 57.

5. The most important include: Steckelmacher, Moritz, “Über die Gründe der jüdischen Sympathie für die Kantsche Philosophie,” in Festschrift für Jacob Guttmann (Leipzig: Fock, 1915), 86112 (the essay is based on a public lecture from 1898); Guttmann, Julius, “Kant und das Judentum,” in Schriften der Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaft des Judentums (Leipzig: Fock, 1908); Cohen, Hermann, “Innere Beziehungen der Kantischen Philosophie zum Judentum,” in Bericht der Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Berlin 1910), and in Jüdische Schriften (Berlin: Schwetschke, 1924), 1:284305; Lewkowitz, Albert, “Kants Bedeutung für das Judentum,” in Monatschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, 68 NS 32, n. 2 (1924): 97107.

6. Breuer, Isaac, Concepts of Judaism, ed. Levinger, Jacob S. (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1974), 279.

7. Breuer, Mein Weg, 62.

8. Breuer, Concepts, 277.

9. Kant, Immanuel, The Conflict of the Faculties, trans. Gregor, Mary J. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 95. Of course, euthanasia for Kant referred to the elimination of the ritual law from Judaism, not the elimination of its observers.

10. For the alleged antisemitism in Kant, see Katz, Jacob, “Kant ve-haYahadut,” Tarbiz 41 (1971): 219–37; Rotenstreich, Nathan, The Recurring Patterns (New York: Horizon Press, 1964): 2347; Brumlik, Micha, “Kants Theorie des Judentums,” in Deutscher Geist und Judenhass (München: Luchterhand, 2000), 2274, and many more.

11. Breuer, Concepts, 277.

12. Myers, Resisting History, 137. See also Josef R. Lawitschka, “Metageschichte: Jüdische Geschichtskonzeptionen im frühen 20. Jahrhundert: Franz Rosenzweig, Isaac Breuer und das Echo” (PhD diss., Freie Universität, 1996); and Biemann, Asher D., “Isaac Breuer: Zionist against His Will?Modern Judaism 20 (2000): 1112.

13. Breuer, Concepts, 136.

14. Breuer, Isaac, Elischa (Frankfurt am Main: Kauffmann, 1928). This book is partially translated into English by Levinger in Breuer, Concepts, 135–64.

15. Breuer, Isaac, Die Welt als Schöpfung und Natur (Frankfurt am Main: Kauffmann, 1926). Partly translated into English by Levinger in Breuer, Concepts, 126–34.

16. Breuer, Isaac, Der Neue Kusari: Ein Weg zum Judentum (Frankfurt am Main: Hirsch, 1934). Partly translated into English by Levinger in Breuer, Concepts, 167–292.

17. Ibid, 243.

18. Ibid, 253.

19. Ibid, 255.

20. Ibid, 253. For a similar summary, see Ellenson, “German Orthodoxy,” 24.

21. Cf. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B:294–295f.

22. Breuer, Concepts, 172. The problem is complicated here by the fact that Breuer in this text puts God and Torah on the same level, which basically amounts to claiming that God could not have given a different Torah. This concept has no real equivalence in the Jewish tradition, except perhaps the idea that Torah existed before the creation of the world. Torah, in this view, is not a gift to humans but an imposition upon them, according to Breuer.

23. Ibid. Of course, the argument in Kant is about the difference between what reason holds to be possible without inner contradictions on the one hand and ontological existence on the other.

24. Mittleman, Between Kant and Kabbalah, 41.

25. Jüdische Rundschau 17, no. 7 (1934): 333. For an English translation, see Scholem, Gershom, “The Politics of Mysticism: Isaac Breuer's New Kuzari,” in The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken 1971): 325334.

26. All quotes from Joel, Manuel in Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 1 (1857): 3740. See also the discussion of this text by Heinz Mosche Graupe in his The Rise of Modern Judaism: An Intellectual History of German Jewry, trans. Robinson, John (Huntington: Krieger, 1978), 158–60.

27. Immanuel Kant, preface to Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed. B:xxx.

28. See Kant, Immanuel, “Was heisst: sich im Denken orientieren,” in Werke in zwölf Bänden (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977): 5:277 (my translation and italics).

29. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B:75. The translation of the German Anschauung as “intuition” is problematic (as others have noted), but must be used for reasons of consistency.

30. Ibid., B:309–310.

31. Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, (trans. Smith, N. K., London: Macmillan, 1933): 272 (B 311).

32. Heine, Heinrich, “Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland,” in Werke, ed. Schanze, H. (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1968), 4:128 (my translation). It is in the Kant section of this text that Heine proclaimed that “God is dead”—a statement he would tragically regret twenty years later on his sickbed. By then, all his efforts to prevent a new edition of the book were of no avail; he could only give it a new preface in which he writes that “the last thing that could kill God is the newest German philosophy” (ibid., 506).

33. Cf. here Wurzburger, Breuer and Kant, 75: “…Breuer fails to provide a satisfactory explanation of how one can treat the reading of a text [the Torah] at one and the same time as an event of the phenomenal world, while insisting that it represents an incursion of the noumenal world….”

34. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B:311 (Smith translation, 272).

35. Thus Breuer was also understood by his interpreters and followers. Zvi Kurzweil, e.g., writes that for Breuer there existed both a “noumenal content of the Bible” whose “deepest layers” we are unable to penetrate as well as a “hidden core of Scripture's noumenal character,” accessible only via the mysticism of Kabbalah. (Kurzweil, Modern Impulse, 37). For Kant, as we have seen, positive content cannot be noumenal. Unfortunately, many scholars, among them David Ellenson (“German Orthodoxy,” 23–25) follow Kurzweil here unreflected.

36. Kurzweil calls this Breuer's “a priori readiness to accept the possible occurrence of miracles” (Kurzweil, Modern Impulse, 35).

37. Thus, David Myers misses the point in his analysis of Breuer's thought when he argues that Kant was skeptical “over the value of sensory experience” (see Myers, Resisting History, 138). On the contrary, Kant claimed that this experience provides the only secure source of knowledge. Kant's skepticism, as diametrically opposed to Breuer's, concerned the field of nonsensory knowledge, of abstract, absolute concepts like God that have no physical expression in the world.

38. See Atlas, Samuel, From Critical to Speculative Idealism: The Philosophy of Solomon Maimon (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff 1964): 1415. Against this division into a Jewish and a non-Jewish group stands the position of Fichte, who clearly belongs to the Maimon school and interprets Kant according to the spirit of the Critique and not the letter. Cf. Ross, George MacDonald, Kant and His Influence (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1990): 161.

39. Maimon, Salomon, Gesammelte Werke, ed. Verra, V. (Berlin, 1790; repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 1971).

40. Cf. Kant's letter to Marcus Herz from May 1789, translated into English in Kant, Immanuel, Philosophical Correspondence, 1759–1799, ed. and trans. Zweig, A. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1986), 151.

41. Salomon Maimon, “Philosophisches Wörterbuch” in Gesammelte Werke 3:185. (my translation).

42. Ibid., 186. (my italics).

43. Lewkowitz, Albert, Das Judentum und die geistigen Strömungen des 19. Jahrhunderts (Breslau, 1935; repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 1974), 75. Cf. Graupe, Rise of Modern Judaism, 245–246 (note): “Maimon has already conceived of the Ding an sich as an infinitesimal, limiting-concept… But it seems to me that his use of the differential for the calculation of the integral does not actually differ from the Aristotelian use of form in relation to matter. Cohen's concept of Ursprung (genesis) on the other hand derives from the platonic idea as hypothesis. Cohen strongly rejected the Aristotelian re-interpretation of this idea as form.”

44. Cohen, Hermann, Kants Theorie der Erfahrung, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Dummler, 1885).

45. In German: Oberflächliches Gerede, Ibid, 518.

46. In German: Der Inbegriff der wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis, Ibid, 519.

47. In German: Eine Aufgabe. Cohen's view on the thing-in-itself was, in turn, severely attacked by his contemporary Erich von Adickes (1866–1928), who belonged to the opposite camp, maintaining the independent ontological status of the thing-in-itself. See Adickes, Erich, Kant und das Ding an sich (Berlin: Heise, 1924).

48. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B:384 (Smith translation, 318f.)

49. For a certain agreement between Cohen and Breuer on Kantian thought, see also Schweid, Eliezer, “Medinat ha-Torah be-mishnato shel Yiẓḥak Breuer,” in Horwitz, Rivka, ed. Yiẓḥak Breuer-iyunim be-mishnato (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan 1988), 130.

50. Cohen, Erfahrung, 527.

51. Guide of the Perplexed, 1:50–60. The word negative is misleading though and only used here because it is standard in scholarly literature. In fact, there is a positive aspect to Maimonides' concept of God inasmuch as we can understand the divine attributes of action, which do not belong to God's essence, according to Maimonides.

52. Breuer, Concepts 161.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid. Levinger noted the allusion to Cohen as well and refers to Cohen's Ethik des reinen Willens. But Cohen's most elaborate discussion of Maimonides' theory of the divine attributes is in his Charakteristik der Ethik Maimunis, recently reprinted in Cohen, Hermann, Werke, vol. 15 (ed. Wiedebach, Hartwig, Hildesheim: Olms 2009), 161269. Subsequently, Cohen incorporated this Maimonidean doctrine into his own philosophical system.

55. Breuer, Concepts, 161.

56. In fact, Cohen believes that “monotheism can only be the monotheism of the idea.” Cf. Cohen, Innere Beziehungen, 293 n. 5.

57. Breuer, Concepts, 161. In general, both Breuer's Kantian doctrine that we cannot know God's essence (as the God an sich) but only God's actions as reflected in the world of appearances as well as his concept of revelation as being a part of metahistory rather than an event in space and time are far more reminiscent of the philosophy of Maimonides than of the self-chosen model of a New Kuzari. What interests him in Judah Halevi seems to be the depreciation of reason when compared to revelation.

58. Stammler (1856–1938) was the founder of the neo-Kantian philosophy of law in Germany. Breuer's text was rejected as a dissertation but nevertheless got published in the Kantstudien Ergänzungshefte, vol. 27 (Berlin 1912) and brought him in contact with Hans Vaihinger and other important neo-Kantian thinkers of the time. See for discussion Morgenstern, From Frankfurt to Jerusalem, 251–256.

59. Isaac Breuer, “Der Rechtsbegriff auf Grund der Stammlerschen Sozialphilosophie,” in Kantstudien Ergänzungshefte, 27:42.

60. Cohen, Hermann, Ethik des reinen Willens (Berlin: Cassirer, 1904), 234235.

61. Breuer, Isaac, “Was lässt Hermann Cohen vom Judentum übrig,” in Der Israelit, March 16, 1911, pp. 23. The article is actually a four-part review series of Cohen's Die Bedeutung des Judentums für den religiösen Fortschritt der Menschen from 1910 (Jüdische Schriften, 1:18–35). It continues on March 23, 1–2; March 30, 3–4; and April 12, 3–4. Breuer's review of Cohen's interpretation of Judaism culminates in the prophetic vision that Cohen will make history as the founder of the Jewish sect of the “ethicists” (last part, p. 3), something that is probably not far from the truth.

62. Breuer, Isaac, “Von deutscher Zukunft,” Jüdische Monatshefte 2 (1915): 344345. For this text, see also Horwitz, Rivka, “Voices of Opposition to the First World War among Jewish Thinkers,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook (1988): 241242. Breuer and Cohen at least agreed in their support for the German cause in World War I.

63. Breuer, Mein Weg, 56. See also Myers, Resisting History, 137–138.

64. Breuer, Mein Weg, 56–57. This is an allusion to Num. 15:39: “…and do not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray”from the third paragraph of the daily Shema prayer.

65. Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Gregor, M. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 8586.

66. Ibid., 86.

67. Cf. Breuer, Mein Weg, 63.

68. German: zusammengebrochen. Ibid., 62.

69. Ibid.

70. Breuer, Der Rechtsbegriff, 64. Again, this is supported by a reference to Cohen's Ethics of Pure Will. Interestingly enough, even in Breuer's autobiography, written as his last book when he already lived in Israel, he wants to make sure that this work on Stammler “is not at all unimportant for the understanding of my later works” (Breuer, Mein Weg, 85).

71. Breuer, Was lässt Hermann Cohen vom Judentum übrig, part 3, 3.

72. Breuer, Cohen, part 4, 3.

73. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B:847.

74. One might wonder how Breuer responded to Cohen's Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (1918)—but no written response by Breuer has been preserved.

75. Cohen, Hermann, Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (Frankfurt 1929), 395; English translation by Kaplan, SimonReligion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism (New York: Ungar, 1972), 340.

76. Breuer, Die Welt als Schöpfung, 73.

77. Ibid., 74–76.

78. For a comprehensive analysis of the indebtedness of Hirsch to Kant, see Lesser, Harry, “Samson Raphael Hirsch,” in History of Jewish Philosophy, ed. Frank, Daniel H. and Leaman, Oliver (London: Routledge, 1997), 722730.

79. Only one example: When Rabbi Zacharias Frankel, who was known for his strict personal observance of the law, became head of the newly founded Breslau Rabbinical Seminary, Hirsch publicly put four delicate theological questions before Frankel. When Frankel refused to answer, Hirsch ruled that no Orthodox community was supposed to engage a rabbi trained in Breslau. For this episode, see the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums 20 (1854): 244–246.

80. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B:564–565.

81. Mittleman, Between Kant and Kabbalah, 70.

82. Breuer, Isaac, “Die Erneuerung des Judentums,” in Der Israelit, April 5, 1909, 2. (my italics) (This programmatic essay of Breuer's is a review of Moritz Lazarus's book Die Ethik des Judentums.) The same position of a strict nonethical halakhah, that is, the view that man is not an end in himself, is later held by Yeshayahu Leibowitz. For an Orthodox position that halakhah is actually pervaded by an ethical moment, see Lichtenstein, Aharon, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic independent of Halakha?” in Modern Jewish Ethics, ed. Fox, M. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), 6288.

83. This point was made by both Wiener, “Judah Halevi's Concept of Religion,” 681, and Morgenstern, “Jüdisch-Orthodoxe Wege,” 188.

84. Wolfsberg, Oskar in Monatschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, 70 NS 34 (1926): 426–28. Wolfsberg (1893–1957) was a pediatrician and an activist of the Mizrachi movement. After 1948, he served Israel as ambassador to Sweden and Switzerland under the name Yeshayahu Aviad. Most of his later Hebrew books are not yet translated.

85. Cf., e.g., Samuel David Luzzatto, who wrote in a letter to Leopold Zunz that for him the God of Kant is the exact opposite of the God of the Hebrew Bible. Luzzatto plays with the identical letters in the words “Kant” and “Tanakh” (T-N-A-K). Cf. Iggrot Shadal, ed. Luzzatto, I. (Krakow 1891), 8:1134. Also Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his criticism of Maimonides and Mendelssohn, accused both thinkers of introducing foreign thought into Judaism. See the eighteenth of his Nineteen Letters on Judaism, ed. Breuer, J. (New York: Feldheim, 1969).

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