Habermas : Jews, Europe, and philosophy

A major figure in global intellectual debate, Jürgen Habermas is the author of a monumental body of philosophical work that can be read as the theoretical basis of the European political ideal since the Second World War. The consciousness of German crime and the Jewish contribution to European philosophy over its long history occupy a fundamental place in his thinking. This is what recalls this essay by philosopher Bruno Karsenti, conceived as a tribute. It is also a tribute to what the European spirit, as extended by Habermas, can still bring to today’s Jews.


Jürgen Habermas.


On June 18, 2023, Habermas turned 94. His last opus of 2019 presents itselfs as, Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie, according to a difficult-to-translate formula that allusively refers to Herder’s Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte written at the end of the 18th century. Indeed, the intention is similar: to relaunch modern philosophy – “post-metaphysics”, as the author calls it – by gradually drawing it back into its true groove, a groove that the German Enlightenment was the first to grasp. The gesture is like a replacement, the choice of an angle and the repeated cutting of a path, from the present to the past, and back again – the return taking up practically all the space, but as the action of a past that is not just any past, since it is the one that comes towards us, the one that moves us internally. Philosophy is thus brought back to the meaning it should have in our eyes: it is put back on track so as to reassure its directional axis, with the help of a specific genealogy. 

This genealogy goes back to the Bible and Greek philosophy, via medieval philosophy, the Reformation, the classical age, German idealism, the young Hegelians, Marxism and pragmatism.  Of course, there’s no question of recapitulating this long journey here, which is impossible to summarize in a single stroke, even if it were to be pared down to the extreme. Instead, we would like to honor its author, unquestionably one of the greatest philosophers of the post-war period. We’d like to celebrate his birthday in our own way, rejoicing that we can always count on him to stand by us as we face up to our practical and theoretical challenges.

But we would like to honor him precisely from our own point of view. This point of view is that of European Jews and their particular challenge, at the very moment when the two facets of their identity run the risk of splitting under the pressure of events, and when they are forced to react by readjusting one to the other. It is anchored in a Jewish journal born of this reaction, K. The Review, run by intellectuals trained at different times and in different places in Europe, all of whom were born and grew up against the backdrop of the masterly unfolding of Habermas’s work. They have related to it in different ways over the years, never losing sight of their admiration, but also of what more or less confusedly set Habermas apart from the cohort of post-Shoah German philosophers: an acute awareness of the German crime – as demonstrated by his salutary outburst in die Zeit in 1986, the start of the German historians’ quarrel whose full scope Julia Christ has shown in K. – coupled with an equally acute awareness of the Jewish heritage of German thought. A heritage of a density and nature never really analyzed, however, and burdened for this reason by persistent shadows. In short, the tribute we would like to pay to Habermas here is to bring him back to the Jewish question as it is posed today in Europe or from Europe, a question that he had the singular merit, at an early stage in his work, of posing to himself as a German philosopher, and which we wonder how, from now on, it might be reformulated for Europeans visibly embarrassed by their memory, if it even concerns them anymore. 

Let’s start with this reminder: with Habermas, German philosophy was reborn after the war in a way that was unthinkable. He was the one who opened up an unhoped-for path to what Karl Jaspers, as early as 1945, called the Miteinanderreden: the “dialogue” or “communication” that had to be rebuilt after the Shoah, without deflecting our eyes, but on the contrary forcing us to probe the “German guilt”, Die Schuldfrage.

Nazi party rally grounds
Nazi party rally grounds, Wikipedia commons

This reconstruction through guilt had to begin with Germany, and therefore with Germans being able to talk to each other about their guilt. This guilt was the guilt of all Germans, that is to say, of all Germans as Germans, since it tainted the very consciousness of those in the minority who had not been Nazis, or who had even opposed Nazism. From this center, self-analysis spread throughout Europe. Through it, it was possible to give Europe a new lease of life, demonstrating its capacity to be the vector of a universalism that included first and foremost the protection of minorities and the absolute rejection of discrimination and persecution, whether they came from social forces always ready to unleash themselves, or from state power always ready to follow or anticipate them. The only way for Germany to rise from its guilt-ridden status was to turn it into a civilizational task, i.e., to project itself into the vanguard of the new Europe as the land of choice for the most consistent and best-guaranteed rights. Habermas’s philosophical voice counted for more than any other in this operation of conversion, which indeed took place. In the end, it was in his thought that the most solid foundation was laid for “European construction” as a bearer of the universal. So much so that his name remains indissolubly attached to it.

When we turn to the foundations of his work, it’s impossible not to detect the echoes between the revival of the modern project based on “communicational rationality”, on the one hand, and the post-Shoah German demand for dialogue based on a reflection on the collective guilt of the Germans, on the other. Yet it is doubtful whether sufficient attention has been paid to this initial knot. However, there is a precise moment that allows us to re-engage with it. It has remained in abeyance over the years, and the recently published History of Philosophy, rich as it is, bears only fleeting traces of it. 

It happened in 1961. It was then that Habermas took a serious decision, the kind that has a strong and lasting impact: to make Germany aware of its philosophical debt to the Jews, the very Jews it had driven out and murdered. The step was to collate the Jewish contributions to German idealism, to identify and understand them in their irreducibly Jewish light, without dissolving them into the unitary, homogeneous march of a tradition of thought that claimed to be uniquely German. From Mendelssohn to Bloch and Adorno, via Cohen, Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Simmel and other lesser-known authors, each thinker, one by one and individually, recovered his Jewish name beneath Habermas’s pen. More to the point, each of them recovered their German-Jewish name, restored to the pediment of their work, a singular and unique work on which philosophical Germany, if it is to continue to exist, must recognize that it depends.

Th. W. Adorno, whose assistant Habermas was between 1956 and 1961

If it is deeply in its debt, it’s because the contribution, according to Habermas, concerns precisely that which is most German in the history of philosophy: idealism, in the highest and most radical form it has taken in this nation of modern Europe. “The German idealism of the Jewish philosophers”: it’s all in the title of the text. In this case, Jewish thinkers are not the products of German idealism, but its unacknowledged producers. Not exclusive, of course, but nonetheless decisive, and decisive as Jews. A personal confession, at the end of the story, sets the record straight. Habermas says he hesitated to make this hagiographic gesture, fearing that it would merely adorn the confession of the crime with a Jewish motif and “pin a Jewish star on the exiled and the beaten

once again “.  But at that moment, an irrepressible force overcame his reluctance. For, he asserts, it is clear that his intervention was historically imposed as a necessary act within the particular generation to which he himself belongs. 

A generational lock had to be broken. The experience was one of blockage, paired with silence. And it’s easy to see why. If the immediate post-war period returned Germany to the centrality of the Jewish question in its own history, it could only be as a past, not a present. Such was the moral dilemma facing the generation of thinkers trained in philosophy in the post-war period. Why “past”? There are two empirical reasons for this. On the one hand, with the vast majority of Jews no longer living in Germany, the Jewish question could no longer have any social anchorage, and was therefore shrouded in abstraction, taking on an unreal, theoretical quality as soon as it was brought to the fore. Even the return from exile of certain Jewish philosophers – among them Habermas’s mentors, starting of course with Adorno – did nothing to change this. On the other hand, there was almost unstoppable resistance to distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews, in terms of both people and ideas. In Germany, the operation of identification was, as it were, forbidden, seeming to carry with it something of the crime of which it had been, so to speak, the technical condition. 

Ignorance could therefore set in. Intranquil, certainly, but no less surely, almost mechanically. In retrospect, there’s something astonishing about this ignorance. In 1961, Habermas wrote: “Although I had studied philosophy for years before I started on this study, I was not aware of the lineage of even half of the scholars named in it.”

Erich Rothacker, Habermas’s thesis supervisor, member of the NSDAP and active supporter of the regime, working in the Ministry of Propaganda.

A complete course of study in philosophy could normally proceed without the slightest mention of the Jewish origins of a considerable portion of German thought. Or rather, it had to be performed in such silence. Ignorance was collective, handed down from professor to student, oscillating between denial and non-knowledge, tacitly maintained by the fathers and just as tacitly accepted by the sons. This was because it was backed up by the reasons we’ve seen: on the one hand, there are no real Jews; on the other, asking who is (or rather was) Jewish is forbidden. 

This is where Habermas took his cue: “Such naiveté is not adequate today, in my opinion.” “Today”, that is, in 1961, when, at the request of North German Radio, as part of a series initiated by Tilo Koch of portraits “drawn from the intellectual history of the Jews in Germany”, this scrupulous, precise text was written, chanting the Jewish name in every monographic paragraph, like a challenge to an ignorance that was no longer wanted, and even rejected with all its might.  

The first question we ask ourselves relates to this strange era. It concerns the way in which this refusal, this revolt even, gradually grew in Habermas, what caused it and made it grow, during the 1945-1961 sequence. Here too, several scenarios are possible. First, there is the remoteness of the crime, which has various aspects, the most important of which is undoubtedly that, by the early 1960s, the demographics were slowly beginning to balance out the adult Germans who were involved and the new adults who were not personally involved. Another factor is that analysis of the crime itself only really began in these same years. 

But we must consider something else: the turning point represented by the gradual affirmation of a different Jewish presence on the scene, if not in Germany, then at least in Europe and the rest of the world – a scene where European Jewish communities are reorganizing in the West (especially in France), while the State of Israel exists as a victorious political power, the definitive protector (as long as its existence and conditions for action are assured) of all the Jews of the Diaspora. The 1961 resolution certainly bears witness to these developments, which signal a change in moral attitudes. However, it was not made explicit at the time, nor has it been since. Today, when the situation is changing in a completely different direction, it may be that clarification is even more important. Especially if, as we believe, the intention is to use it for purposes that are no longer those of the time, but which relate to another regime of ignorance in the process of settling in, which once again, albeit in a different way, affects the distension of the link between Jews and Europe.

That’s why, on this, the philosopher’s birthday, we take the liberty of insisting. What happened in the long post-war period that made Jews so present for Habermas, to the point of imposing the duty to speak their name by naming them Jews? Is something of this gesture worth taking up again today, and if so, how?

These questions undoubtedly have a historical and sociological dimension, since their answer is to be sought in the first post-war sequence, understood in terms of social and political evolution, where Jews are enrolled and redefined as a post-Shoah people, which has a direct effect on the reconstruction of German consciousness in the first instance, before and to indicate its more general significance for the rebuilding of Europe. But the same questions can also be addressed philosophically, and it is on this level that Habermas intends to situate himself. If we allow ourselves to be guided by the 1961 text, we see that the meaning of idealism is at stake. This was the aim of the gesture: in order to renew idealism and restore its vitality as a modern current, naming the Jews is of the utmost importance. This is the only way to understand the debt philosophical Europe owes to its Jewish thinkers. From this we can deduce that it is a certain destiny of idealism that is reflected in the early choice to no longer be “naive”. The philosophical question now becomes: what is the specifically Jewish root of idealism as such, which irrigates the European mind today as it did in the past, and which is still at the root of post-metaphysical thought as it guides us today? 

Habermas has returned to this theme on several occasions. He did so in a number of texts where philosophy rubs shoulders with theology, as in his reading of the Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz, praising his intransigence in the face of contemporary Christianity’s refusal to confront the Holocaust and its own relationship with the Jews. In this reading, it is still the idealistic and rational legacy of Judaism to modern thought, on a line that goes back to the prophets of Israel and continues in the Haskala that is primarily taken into consideration. This same line shines through in many places in the latest opus, not least in the way biblical semantics is revived as the most remote point of the knotwork between reason, faith and justice, on which we still depend. At the heart of these discussions is the question of how to understand the Covenant and its permanence even through secularization. That said, in these discussions, the Jewish and German question posed in 1961 hardly comes up – or only in a laconic, somewhat mysterious way, in a note on Luther, whose anti-Judaism is strongly emphasized and condemned without the slightest ambiguity.

Gershom Scholem, 1974, photo by Aliza Auerbach, the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

We do, however, know of another text in which it is taken up directly. For this reason, it is undoubtedly this one that best fits our view of a possible update. This is the speech given at the German Embassy in Israel in 1978, in honor of Gershom Scholem. Here, the meaning of “idealism”, in a sense that is both irreducibly German and Jewish, and whose elucidation only becomes complete with modernity – and thus in the face of the growing modern anti-Semitism that culminated in the Shoah, as a German and European crime – is revealed a little more clearly. At a distance of four decades from this speech, it stands out like a cornerstone for a reflection that it might be time to pick up again today. 

The title of the text is The Torah in Disguise. Habermas surrenders to the arguments of Scholem’s famous 1957 indictment of the falsity of the “Judeo-German symbiosis.” From the outset, it was a trompe-l’oeil in which only Jews, deluded about themselves and their German nationalization, could believe, while practically no non-Jewish German even took the first step. But then, if this is the case, all the names in the 1961 text have to be included in the trompe-l’œil, whether they are its component parts or its hallucinated subjects – and sometimes both together. Habermas concedes that there is an undeniable “historical truth” here. But he also lets his defensive reaction to this truth speak for itself, all the more keenly as it reflects his connection to the Jewish thinkers who returned from exile in the post-war period. Claiming the advantage of seeing the problem “from both sides” – that is, not from the Jewish side and the German side, but from the side of those who know that there has been trompe-l’œil, and who, at the same time, measure the Jewish heritage essential to German thought – Habermas can both stress that “the future of the assimilation of the Judeo-German spirit now belongs to the past”, and see how this future, always already past, is precisely not the only one. For “the future you represent, Mr. Scholem, is different”. 

In this future, which Scholem embodies, the destinies of Germans and Jews can still come together, provided they do so on two tracks: on the one hand, that of Europe, in which and for which Germany, definitively guilty, works, and on the other, that of the Jews, who now have the possibility of projecting themselves into a future they have given themselves, with the help of the place where “Mr. Scholem” lives and where Habermas’s words echo as he speaks them, i.e., in Israel.

For Scholem represents another future of the Judeo-German spirit, and thus another figure, not of synthesis, but of linked paths, on two non-overlapping stages, one of which now has the privilege of being able to call itself resolutely Jewish – not assimilated to anything else – while the other no longer has the privilege of calling itself exclusively German. Such is the new asymmetry, which throws the old asymmetry of trompe-l’œil far behind it – endorsing its denunciation, but also surpassing it. How can we describe this asymmetry of the future? Clearly, it is in turn based on an inheritance operation. We need to get to the heart of what really makes Scholem, i.e. his work, represent this other future.

Chair of the prophet Elijah, Cavaillon synagogue, wikipedia

This brings us to the core of specifically Jewish idealism, without which there can be no idealism as such, German beyond Germany, European i.e. universal, and only in this way a bearer of the future. But the task, as Habermas is well aware, is all the more delicate in that there is, strictly speaking, no philosophy of Gershom Scholem. With the exception of the “Ten anhistorical propositions on the Kabbalah”, everything in the historian’s work is a matter of philology and history, which are like a suit of armor for advancing on a terrain where hostility to Jews is the rule, and listening the exception. But Habermas listens, and listens ardently. This makes him aware that the history of Jewish mysticism was first inspired to Scholem by the Zionist movement, as a living force for the rebirth of the people. From this inspiration is drawn attention to a stratum of which he has made himself the tireless surveyor: mysticism as the subterranean tradition that keeps Judaism in tension, a source covered by the official doctrinal and dogmatic framework, guaranteeing it a duration and an unheard-of effectiveness even through modern experience – an experience of which Zionism can then be seen as the unprecedented figure, where the archaic surfaces in what seems to be furthest from it. 

Habermas sums up what is modern about the mystical tradition as follows: “The mystical concept of tradition covers a messianic concept of truth that is able to counter historicism.  To historicism, that is to say, to the cutting edge of the modern mind which, eager to do away with all revealed truth set up as dogma, devotes itself entirely to history, relativizing its productions and renouncing the absolute. Judaism objects to the nihilistic, skeptical drift that threatens modernity with an immunity of principle, which is in no way a dogmatic retraction or refusal. On the contrary, the mystical concept of tradition, with its image of the “Torah in disguise”, where the oral overdetermines the written by replaying it in each generation, and where knowledge and the most accurate life of which one is capable converge in uninterrupted expectation, offers a completely different disposition to modern knowledge than that which prevails in the non-Jewish world. For in this case, the dimension of historicity inherent in this knowledge bears no degradation. It is freed from “the horror that seizes us when faced with the relativization of anything that claims any form of validity.”  

In Habermas’ eyes, it is undoubtedly in the thesis drawn from the Lurianic Kabbalah, at the dawn of modernity, of God’s self-contraction, that this line is most clearly expressed. And, as he said in his 1961 text, the proposition, or at least its implications, can be found in the Renaissance work of Jacob Böhm, the mystical root of the idealism of Schelling, Hölderlin and Hegel, whose links with Luria’s Kabbalah are now well known. Here lies what remains of the Judeo-German spirit without trompe-l’œil, and thus of the other future we can imagine. 

What is at stake in this thesis of self-contraction – the Zimzum – is the fact that it can present God’s self-exile as constitutive of the world, and that it follows that nothingness can be seen, not as a force opposed to divine creation, but as its paradoxical effect, so as to open up the space for a full participation of human action in this very creation, through the meaning it is able to bring into it. For this to happen, the Jewish exile in modern times must be understood quite differently from the Christian vision. Not as a punishment and expulsion from history for having refused the “good news”, but as resistance to its claim that everything is finished, as a permanent objection to what this “news” threatens to produce, or to command in the long run: the loss of the treasure of modernity itself, namely the activation of sensible reason, the capacity to introduce meaning into history by placing itself at the height of what each epoch and each historical situation is capable of bringing about, in its assumed tension in the direction of redemption.

Paul Klee, Cloche Ange, wikiart

Call it Jewish messianism if you like. Today, the formula gives rise to contradictory representations, as it finds itself captured by political currents that are far from suming up its meaning, even if they pathologically express one of its virtualities. It is striking that Habermas, in his attempt to define Scholem’s position by contrast, had already described its double face. The greatness of the historian-philologist, he said, “lies in having characterized the depth of Jewish thought (which is also its real legacy to modern thought), in the fact that it identifies itself “neither with the political figure of Israel, nor with traditional religious content.”  A fortiori, we would add today, when dealing with both at the same time. It is not the slightest merit of Habermas, a non-Jewish thinker, that he offers us a lesson in the vital relationship between Zionism and European thought – not as an exogenous, conjunctural origin, but as the rich soil of the authentically Jewish forces that made it possible, and made it the shining sign of the people’s modern renaissance.

That’s why we, in turn, owe him more than praise – we owe him gratitude. But in this case, it is inevitably marked by a request: that the same gesture be accomplished on the other side – since we too, here in Europe and now that it is facing an equally obvious crisis, a crisis of which the departure of the Jews has for two decades been the direct effect, have the advantage of seeing “both sides.”  The hope that emerges is that the effort to formulate the Jewish legacy to European political thought will be resumed in the terms of the present. In short, if the point of contact that remains active is indeed to be found buried in the archaeology of Jewish messianism, then it is necessarily valid on both sides, for the Jews assured of having their own state, which is not a theocratic state but a modern secular state, elevated to the highest requirement of fulfilling the dream of justice that drives modernity, and for Europeans, whose construction is the first in the world to have resolutely taken on, after 1945, the mission of internally commanding States to achieve a justice that takes them beyond themselves, transforming them from within and uniting them ever more into a political and moral entity of the highest order.

Mr. Habermas, in your old age, you too, in 2023, are for us, as you said of Scholem in 1978, the representative of another future. At least, that’s how European Jews are inclined to see you, as they anxiously search between the lines for what you have to say today about their present hardship, and what it may yet mean for the future of us all.

Bruno Karsenti

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