Hans Jonas: The most inspiring teacher I never met

Hans Jonas: The most inspiring teacher I never met

Some teachers inspire you when you study with them and some teachers inspire you when you read their works. You may never have met them but their influence lasts your whole life. One of the most important people to influence my theology and spirituality was Hans Jonas, who died in 1993. I have encountered him only in his writing.

Hans Jonas was one of the most important ‘0th-century Jewish philosophers. Jonas made major contributions to modern bioethics, biological philosophy, environmental ethics, and the theological implications of the Holocaust. Jonas’s influence has also been felt through his disciples and students throughout the world. But within the Jewish community, he is virtually unknown.

I first encountered the work of Hans Jonas while still an undergraduate, when I read his classic work on ancient Gnosticism, "The Gnostic Religion." After I became a rabbi, I read Jonas’s essay "The Concept of God After Auschwitz." As my interest in bioethics grew, so too did my reading of Jonas. I now consider his work to be one of the foundations of my own thinking and writing on environmentalism, bioethics, and theology. Several years ago I wrote a journal article on Jonas and since then, I have made it a mission to talk about Hans Jonas, his life and his work to Jewish audiences.

Jonas was born in 1903 in Germany and later studied at the University for the Science of Judaism in Berlin even as he studied with philosopher Martin Heidegger and Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann at the University of Marburg. Jonas was one of a group of Jewish disciples of Heidegger that included Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Herbert Marcuse, and Emmanuel Levinas. At a conference at Drew University in 1964 devoted to Heidegger, Jonas publicly denounced his old teacher’s philosophy showing how it inevitably led to Heidegger’s association with Nazism.

Jonas left Germany in 1934, and eventually moved to Palestine. He had taken a vow that he would return to Germany only in the uniform of a conquering army. When war broke out in 1939, Jonas joined the Jewish Brigade of the British 8th Army and volunteered for combat duty. Jonas fought in the 1943 Italian campaign and fulfilled his vow when he finally reached Germany in the uniform of the British army. Upon his return to Jerusalem in 1945, Jonas learned that his mother had been killed in Auschwitz in 194′. In 1948 he joined the Israeli army and fought in the War of Independence.

From 1949 to 1954 Jonas taught in Canada. In 1955, he became part of the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City. During his time at the New School 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 was a best-seller in Germany. An important posthumous collection of Jonas’s essays was published under the title "Morality and Mortality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz."

In November, a conference devoted to the life and work of Hans Jonas was held at Arizona State University. Leading historians, theologians, philosophers, ethicists, environmental thinkers, and political theorists came from all over the world. Next year the conference papers will be published. It is hoped that this volume will raise the visibility of Jonas among Judaica scholars and highlight the contribution of Jonas to philosophy, bioethics, and environmentalism. I presented a paper as part of a panel on Jonas’s environmental ethics.

Here are Jonas’s words delivered only a few days before he died. They constitute the end of a speech entitled "The Outcry of Mute Things."

"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 judgment 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."

Jonas stands as one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the ‘0th century, my teacher, who always displayed steadfast moral integrity in his life and in his work.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the Jewish chaplain of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson and Associate of Bard’s Institute of Advanced Theology. He is the Rabbinic Fellow of the Coalition On the Environment and Jewish Life and at GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental coalition in New Jersey. He also teaches in the Florence Melton Adult Mini School of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. He has published numerous articles and has lectured widely on theology, environmentalism, liturgy, bioethics and Judaism and modern cosmology.

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