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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2010
Number 72
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

A Philosopher Rediscovers His Jewish Roots

Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein by Hilary Putnam: Indiana University Press.
A review essay by Cliff Edwards

Hilary Putnam retired from Harvard in 2000 after over 30 years teaching philosophy of science and ethics there. In his last few years at Harvard he began teaching a course in Jewish philosophy, and that course provided content for his Helen and Martin Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies at Indiana University that comprise this little volume of just over 100 pages. The book includes an autobiographical element, as it had its origins in Putnam joining a “minyan” when one of his sons announced in 1975 that he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. Putnam was led by his son’s request to a renewed interest in his Jewish heritage, and this has led him to a continuing struggle to reconcile his life as philosopher and as religious Jew.

Rosenzweig, Buber, and Levinas are for Putnam the great Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century. As their thought has intrigued him in his struggle with his Jewish heritage, he wrote this slim volume to “help a reader who is struggling with these difficult authors to understand their difficult and spiritually deep writings.” (100) He adds the philosopher Wittgenstein to the mix, as he finds in Wittgenstein certain similarities to the philosophy of Rosenzweig found in two Rosenzweig works of the 1930’s, Understanding the Sick and the Healthy and The Star of Redemption. Though Putnam finds Rosenzweig’s negativity towards religions other than Judaism and Christianity “unfortunate” (35), he values Rosenzweig’s attack on a philosophical quest for essences, and finds value in his call for an existential philosophy he calls “the new thinking,” an “experiential, narrative philosophy,” a “deep-going way of life” with resemblances to the approach of Kierkegaard. (40)

Turning to an interpretation of Martin Buber’s “I and You” (rejecting “Thou” as too formal a translation for “Du”), Putnam focuses on Buber’s replacing “theorizing about God” with “speaking to God.” (65) He identifies misunderstandings of Buber, explaining that the I-You relation is not always good, and I-It relation is not always bad. An I-You relation to a tyrant might be demonic, while I-It relations can be transformed and so serve the I-You in the world.

Levinas, the Lithuanian Orthodox Jew, presents Putnam with numerous difficulties in interpretation, but obviously attracts him. Ethics as “first philosophy” for Levinas calls upon us to present ourselves to others in an asymmetrical relation that obliges us to be available to “the neediness of others” without our expecting a reciprocal service from the “Other.” Ethics therefore is based on an “infinite obligation” to the other, the “other” substituting for God, transforming predicates to the other that traditional theology ascribes to God. (80)

Putnam does not provide an easy understanding of these philosophers. Those who wish a “simpler” summary along with a glimpse of Putnam’s own standpoint might go directly to the nine pages of the “Afterword.” There he locates himself “somewhere between John Dewey in A Common Faith and Martin Buber.” (100) Like Dewey, he does not believe in an afterlife or in “God as a supernatural helper.” (102) God is a living ideal as in Dewey, yet Putnam finds a “miraculous” element in the rituals and texts of Judaism, in the “I-You” relationship, and in natural beauty and art. The centrality of addressing God rather than theorizing about God, infinite obligation to the other, and experiential philosophy as a way of life as he locates them in Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, and Wittgenstein, all are critical elements in Putnam’s continuing struggle to relate his philosophical concerns and his religious nature.


Cliff Edwards is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and consulting editor of Menorah Review.

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