Hans Jonas: The Most Inspiring Teacher That I Never Met

Hans Jonas was one of the most important 20th century Jewish philosophers. But within the Jewish community, he is virtually unknown.
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There are some teachers who inspire you when you study with them and there are some teachers who inspire you when you read their works. They may be gone but their influence lasts your whole life. One of the most important people to influence my personal theology and spirituality was the late Hans Jonas, who died in 1993. While I deeply regret never having met him nor studied with him, studying his work has been enough to make me one of his followers.

Hans Jonas was one of the most important 20th century Jewish philosophers. But within the Jewish community, he is virtually unknown. However, outside of the Jewish world and especially in Europe, Jonas is considered to have been one of the most important thinkers in environmental and medical ethics. Jonas was also one of the most original thinkers about the ethical implications of modern technology. And it was through his work on the meaning of God after the Holocaust that radically changed my own personal theology.

I first encountered the work of Hans Jonas while still an undergraduate. I took a course on religion in the late Roman Empire and I read his book on Gnosticism. Later, after I became a rabbi, I read Jonas's essay "The Concept of God After Auschwitz," which was included in an anthology of writing about the Holocaust. At the time, I really could not quite comprehend what he was doing -- it was too radical for me at the time -- and it was a long time before I came back to his work. As my interest in bioethics and environmentalism grew, so did my reading of Jonas whom I rediscovered through the work of his student Leon Kass. Year by year, Jonas's philosophy and theology spoke to me more and more. I now consider his work to be one of the foundations of my own thinking and writing on environmental ethics, bioethics and theology. In 2003, I wrote an article on Jonas and his theology of God after the Holocaust and since then, I have tried in my own writing to make people aware of Hans Jonas, his life and his work.

Jonas was born in 1903 in Mönchengladbach, Germany and in 1921 began to study at the University for the Science of Judaism in Berlin. At the same time, he studied with the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultman at the University of Marburg. He received his doctorate under Heidegger in 1930. Jonas was one of a group of Jewish students of Heidegger, which included Hannah Arendt, Leo Straus, Karl Lowith, Herbert Marcuse and Emmanuel Levinas.

In 1933, the German Association for the Blind expelled its Jewish members. Although not blind himself, Jonas was outraged that a disability he felt should create a common solidarity among those who had it would be so betrayed. For him, it was the final straw. Jonas left Germany, and after a year in London, ended up in Jerusalem, where he was part of an exile community of German Jewish scholars. Jonas took a personal vow that he would return to Germany only in the uniform of a conquering army. When war broke out in 1939, he joined the Jewish Brigade of the British 8th Army and specifically volunteered for combat duty at the front lines even though he was offered a position in army intelligence. Jonas spent five years in the army, which included being part of the 1943 Italian campaign where he saw a great deal of action. He fulfilled his vow, arriving in Germany in the uniform of the British army. But then Jonas learned that his mother had been killed in Auschwitz in 1942.

He returned to Jerusalem and when war broke out in 1948 he joined the Israeli army and again served in combat. In 1950 Jonas moved to Canada, where he taught in Montreal and Ottawa. In 1955, Jonas was given an appointment to the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City. Jonas also publically broke with his old teacher: At a conference at Drew University in 1964, Jonas gave a speech in which he showed that Heidegger's philosophy had inevitably led to his association with Nazism. Jonas received a standing ovation and his speech began the reassessment of Heidegger's wartime activities, which has been the subject of many recent books.

It was at the New School that Jonas wrote his most important books: "The Phenomenon of Life" (1963) and "The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age" (1979). This last work sold more than 200,000 copies in Germany and received the Peace Prize of the German Bookseller Association in 1987. In 1992, just days before his death, he received the Premio Nonino Prize in Italy. After his death, an important collection of his essays was published under the title, "Morality and Mortality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz."

In November 2005 there was a conference devoted to the life and work of Hans Jonas at Arizona State University, which eventually produced a volume called "Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life: The Legacy of Hans Jonas," the first major academic assessment Jonas in English. The conference brought together leading historians, theologians, philosophers, ethicists, environmental thinkers and political theorists from all over the world. Jonas's widow as well as two of his children and one of his grandchildren attended the conference and were able to provide fascinating biographical commentary to the scholarly presentations. I presented a paper as part of a panel on Jonas' environmental ethics which became a chapter in the conference volume.

When Jonas received the Premio Nonino Prize, his acceptance speech, "The Outcry of Mute Things," were the last words he publically spoke, as he died only a few days after returning from Italy. He ended the speech with the following words:

It was once religion which told us that we are all sinners, because of original sin. It is now the ecology of our planet which pronounces us all to be sinners because of the excessive exploits of human inventiveness. It was once religion which threatened us with a last judgement at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day without any heavenly intervention. The latest revelation -- from no Mount Sinai, from no Mount of the Sermon, from no Bo (tree of Buddha) -- is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.

I consider these words to be truly prophetic and they deserve to be heard again and again. Hans Jonas stands as one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, who always displayed what one scholar called "the unwavering moral integrity" that was the "hallmark of his life and work." I continue to be inspired by both his courage and his writing.

The original version of this was first published in The Jewish Standard.

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