Darwin's Jews: Online Reader

Hans Jonas



  1. Introduction
  2. Primary source: 'The Concept of God After Auschwitz'
  3. Excerpts from other writings
  4. Select bibliography
  5. Discussion forum


1. Introduction ⇧ top

Hans Jonas (1903–1993) was a German-born historian of religion, philosopher of technology, and theologian, based in New York for much of his career at the New School for Social Research. Jonas’ studies before he came to biology are important for understanding some of the ideas he espouses, including self-autonomy and the search for an objective foundation for morality. It is surely highly relevant that these included a book on the problem of freedom in Pauline thought, and another book on Gnosticism and Gnostic concerns about how to free the spirit from matter, and that he was disillusioned by his teacher, Heidegger, whose embrace of Nazism he famously denounced as lacking an adequate ethical core. From the 1950s onwards, Jonas set himself the goal of developing an ethical system that was, in principle, free from divine or supernatural authority. He recognized that for many people the religious basis of morality had been powerfully undermined by the successes of the natural sciences, with the result that modern society had lost its ethical bearings in a sea of moral relativism. Jonas came to believe that he could derive an alternative foundation for an ethical system from the science of biology. His approach, broadly speaking, was to speculate on the meaning and values one might derive from what was known about nature in general, and the evolution of life in particular, in such a way that these speculations absolutely did not contradict scientific knowledge but were rigorously and logically compatible with it. There was no good reason, he argued, why one needed to stop at the purely naturalistic methodology of science, as if only materialist or reductionist interpretations of the science were valid. He wanted to explore the moral and metaphysical meaning of scientifically observed phenomena, even if, or because, one could no longer depend upon religious authority to supply it. His work on metabolism and on certain biological drives found in all organisms led him to view life itself in relational terms and to endow it with ethical meaning.

Later, in an apparently unrelated meditation upon the moral catastrophe of the Shoah, 'The Concept of God After Auschwitz' (1968), Jonas realized that his philosophical reflections about evolutionary biology had made it possible for him to explain the apparent absence of God at the time. Jonas did not regard himself as a theologian, but this synthesis of biology and Jewish religious concerns means that his theological speculations are of greatest interest for our purposes. Somewhat unfairly, Jonas has been marginalized in both twentieth-century Jewish thought and the philosophy of biology, partly because he provoked suspicion by attempting to bring together the two spheres of thought, but more importantly because of the way he understood and applied evolutionary theory. For biologists, he seemed to offer only a partial comprehension of Darwinian evolutionary theory; for religious Jews, his God was disconcertingly paradoxical and unfamiliar, despite his best efforts to relate his ideas to Jewish tradition.


2. Primary source ⇧ top

Hans Jonas. “The Concept of God After Auschwitz” in Out of the Whirlwind; a Reader of Holocaust Literature, edited by Albert H. Friedlander, 465-476. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1968.

Professor Hans Jonas teaches philosophy at the New School for Social provocative thinker with an enormous span of knowl­edge; more than an authority on contemporary philosophy, he is also one of the world authorities on gnosticism and gnostic religion. In this selec­tion, he enlarges upon a concept of God first presented in his Harvard University Ingersoll lecture on "Immortality and the Modern Temper,"[1] which created a stir among religious thinkers. In the course of its argu­ment, Professor Jonas employed the Platonic device of a "myth," that is, a symbolic tale, to adumbrate a possible view of things which by their transcendent nature elude the grasp of direct rational discourse. The following presentation combines excerpts from this myth with a discus­sion of some of its theological implications.

In the beginning, for unknowable reasons, the ground of being, or the divine, chose to give itself over to the chance and risk and endless variety of becoming. And wholly so: entering into the adventure of space and time, the deity held back nothing of itself: no uncommitted or unimpaired part remained to direct, correct, and ultimately guarantee the devious working-out of its destiny in [466] creation. On this unconditional immanence the modern temper insists. It is its courage or despair, in any case its bitter honesty, to take our being-in-the-world seriously: to view the world as left to itself, its laws as brooking no interference, and the rigor of our belonging to it as not softened by extramundane providence. The same our myth postulates for God’s being in the world…. In order that the world might be, and be for itself, God renounced His own being, divesting Himself of His deity—to receive it back from the Odyssey of time weighted with the chance harvest of unforeseeable temporal experience: transfigured or possibly even disfigured by it. In such self-forfeiture of divine integrity for the sake of un- prejudiced becoming, no other foreknowledge can be admitted than that of possibilities which cosmic being offers in its own terms: to these, God committed His cause in effacing Himself for the world.

And for aeons God’s cause is safe in the slow hands of cosmic chance and probability—while all the time we may surmise a patient memory of the gyrations of matter to accumulate into an ever more expectant accompaniment of eternity to the labors of time—a hesitant emergence of transcendence from the opaqueness of immanence.

And then the first stirring of life—a new language of the world: and with it a tremendous quickening of concern in the eternal realm and a sudden leap in its growth toward recovery of its plenitude. It is the world-accident for which becoming deity had waited and with which its prodigal stake begins to show signs of being re- deemed. From the infinite swell of feeling, sensing, striving and acting, which ever more varied and intense rises above the mute eddyings of matter, eternity gains strength, filling with content after content of self-affirmation, and the awakening God can first pronounce creation to be good.

But note that with life together came death, and that mortality is the price which the new possibility of being had to pay for itself . . . . If, then, mortality is the very condition of the separate self-hood which in the instinct of self-preservation shows itself so highly prized throughout the organic world, and if the yield of this mortality is the food of eternity, it is unreasonable to demand for its appointed executants, the self-affirming selves—immortality. The instinct of self-preservation indeed acknowledges this, for it implies [467] the premise of extinction in its straining each time to ward it off for the nonce.

Note also this that with life’s innocence before the advent of knowledge God’s cause cannot go wrong. Whatever variety evolution brings forth adds to the possibilities of feeling and acting, and thus enriches the self-experiencing of the ground of being…. The ever more sharpened keenness of appetite and fear, pleasure and pain, triumph and anguish, love and even cruelty—their very edge is the deity’s gain. Their countless, yet never blunted incidence— hence the necessity of death and new birth—supplies the tempered essence from which the Godhead reconstitutes itself. All this, evolution provides in the mere lavishness of its play and the sternness of its spur. Its creatures, by merely fulfilling themselves in pursuit of their lives, vindicate the divine venture. Even their suffering deepens the fullness of the symphony. Thus, this side of good and evil, God cannot lose in the great evolutionary game.

Nor yet can He fully win in the shelter of its innocence, and a new expectancy grows in Him in answer to the direction which the unconscious drift of immanence gradually takes. 

And then He trembles as the thrust of evolution, carried by its own momentum, passes the threshold where innocence ceases and an entirely new criterion of success and failure takes hold of the divine stake. The advent of man means the advent of knowledge and freedom, and with this supremely double-edged gift the innocence of the mere subject of self-fulfilling life has given way to the charge of responsibility under the disjunction of good and evil. To the promise and risk of this agency the divine cause, revealed at last, henceforth finds itself committed; and its issue trembles in the balance. The image of God, haltingly begun by the universe, for so long worked upon—and left undecided—in the wide and then narrowing spirals of pre-human life, passes with this last twist, and with a dramatic quickening of the movement, into man’s precarious trust, to be completed, saved, or spoiled by what he will do to himself and the world. And in this awesome impact of his deeds on God’s destiny, on the very complexion of eternal being, lies the immortality of man.

With the appearance of man, transcendence awakened to itself and henceforth accompanies his doings with the bated breath of suspense, hoping and beckoning, rejoicing and grieving, approving [468] and frowning—and, I dare say, making itself felt to him even while not intervening in the dynamics of his worldly scene: for could it not be that by the reflection of its own state as it wavers with the record of man, the transcendent casts light and shadow over the human landscape? 

Such is the tentative myth which I propose for consideration. There are a number of theological implications in this myth of mine, but—as a matter of biographical fact—the myth really came first, and the theological or conceptual translation to which it lends itself has only slowly emerged for me. It is still in the process of emerging. I will treat here some of the more obvious concepts involved, in the hope to connect what must seem a strange and rather willful personal fantasy with the more responsible tradition of Jewish religious thought. By this means I try to redeem the irresponsibility of my tentative, groping speculation.

First, and most obviously, I have been speaking of a suffering God —which immediately seems to clash with the biblical conception of divine majesty. There is, of course, a Christian connotation of the term “suffering God,” with which my myth must not be confounded; it does not speak, as does the former, of a special act by which the deity at one time, and for the special purpose of saving man, sends part of itself into a particular situation of suffering (the incarnation and crucifixion). If anything in what I said makes sense, then the sense is that the relation of God to the world from the moment of creation, and certainly from the creation of man on, involves suffering on the part of God. It involves, to be sure, suffering on the part of the creature too, but this truism has always been recognized in every theology. Not so the idea of God’s suffering with creation, and of this I said that prima facie it clashes with the biblical conception of divine majesty. But does it really clash so extremely as it seems at first glance? Don’t we also in the Bible encounter God as slighted and rejected by man and grieving over him? Don’t we encounter Him as ruing that He created man, and suffering from the disappointment He experiences with him—and with His chosen people in particular? We remember the prophet Hosea.

Then, the myth suggests the picture of a becoming God. It is a God emerging in time instead of possessing a completed being that remains identical with itself throughout eternity. Such an idea of divine becoming is surely at variance with the Greek, Platonic- [469] Aristotelian tradition of philosophical theology which, since its incorporation into the Jewish and Christian theological tradition, has somehow usurped to itself an authority to which it is not at all entitled by authentic Jewish (and Christian) standards. Trans-temporality, impassibility, immutability have been taken to be necessary attributes of God. And the ontological opposition maintained by classical thought between being and becoming, with the latter characteristic of the lower, sensible world, excluded every shadow of becoming from the pure, absolute being of the Godhead. But this Hellenic concept has never accorded well with the spirit and language of the Bible; and the concept of divine becoming can actually be better reconciled with it. 

For what does the becoming God mean? Even if we do not go as far as our myth suggests, that much at least we must concede of “becoming” in God as lies in the mere fact that He is affected by what happens in the world, and “affected” means altered, made different. Even apart from the fact that creation as such was after all a decisive change in the condition of God himself, His continuous relation (if only of knowledge, let alone of interest) to the creation, once it exists and moves in the flux of becoming, means that He experiences something with the world, that His own being is affected by what goes on in it. Thus if God is in any relation to the world—which is the cardinal assumption of religion—then by that token alone the Eternal has “temporalized” Himself and progressively becomes different through the actualizations of the world process.

One incidental consequence of the idea of the becoming God is that it destroys the idea of an eternal recurrence of the same. This was Nietzsche’s alternative to Christian metaphysics, which in this case is the same as Jewish metaphysics. It is indeed the extreme symbol of the turn to unconditional temporality and of the complete negation of any transcendence which could keep a memory of what happens in time, to assume that by the mere exhaustion of the possible combinations and recombinations of material elements it must come to pass that an “initial” configuration recurs and the whole cycle starts over again; and if once, then innumerable times - Nietzsche’s “ring of rings, the ring of eternal recurrence.” However, if we assume that eternity is not unaffected by what happens in time, there can never be a recurrence of the same, because God will not [470] be the same after He has gone through the experience of a world process. Any new world coming after the end of one will carry, as it were, in its own heritage the memory of what has gone before; or in other words, there will not be an indifferent and dead eternity, but an eternity that grows with the accumulating harvest of time.

Bound up with the concepts of a suffering and a becoming God is that of a caring God—a God not remote and detached and self-contained but involved with what He cares for. Whatever the “primordial” condition of the Godhead, He ceased to be self-contained once He let Himself in for the existence of a world by creating such a world or letting it come to be. God’s caring about His creatures is, of course, among the most familiar tenets of Jewish faith. But my myth stresses the less familiar aspect that this caring God is not a sorcerer who in the act of caring also provides the fulfillment of His concern: He has left something for other agents to do and thereby made His care dependent upon them. He is therefore also an endangered God, a God who risks something. Clearly that must be so, or else the world would be in a condition of permanent perfection. The fact that it is not bespeaks one of two things: that either there is no God at all, or there is a God who has given a chance and authority to something other than Himself about that which is a concern of His. This is why I said that the caring God is not a sorcerer. Somehow He has, by an act of either inscrutable wisdom or love or whatever else the divine motive may have been, foregone the guaranteeing of His self-satisfaction by His own power.

And therewith we come to what is perhaps the most critical point in our speculative, theological venture: this is not an omnipotent God. We argue indeed that, for the sake of our image of God and our whole relation to the divine, for the sake of any viable theology, we cannot uphold the time-honored (medieval) doctrine of absolute, unlimited divine power.

Let me argue this first, on a purely logical plane, by pointing out the paradox in the idea of absolute power. The logical situation indeed is by no means that divine omnipotence is the rationally plausible and somehow self-recommending doctrine, while that of its limitation is wayward and in need of defense. Quite the opposite. From the very concept of power it follows that omnipotence is a self-contradictory, self-destructive, indeed senseless concept. Absolute, total power means power not limited by anything, not even by [471] the mere existence of something other than the possessor of that power; for the very existence of such another would already constitute a limitation, and the one would have to annihilate it so as to save its absoluteness. Absolute power then, in its solitude, has no object on which to act. But as objectless power it is a powerless power, canceling itself out: “all” equals “zero” here. In order for it to act there must be something else, and as soon as there is, the one is not all-powerful any more, even though in any comparison its power may be superior by any degree you please to imagine. The existence of another object limits the power of the most powerful agent at the same time that it allows it to be an agent. In brief, power as such is a relational concept and requires relation.

Again, power meeting no resistance in its relatum is equal to no-power-at-all: power is exercised only in relation to something which itself has power. Power, unless otiose, consists in the capacity to overcome something; and something’s existence as such is enough to provide this condition. For existence means resistance and thus opposing force. That, therefore, upon which power acts must have a power of its own, even if that power derives from the first and was initially granted to it, as one with its existence, by a self-renunciation of limitless power—i.e., in the act of creation.

In short, it cannot be that all power is on the side of one agent only. Power must be divided so that there be any power at all.

But beside this logical and ontological, there is a more theological, genuinely religious objection to the idea of absolute and unlimited divine omnipotence. We can have divine omnipotence together with divine goodness only at the price of complete divine inscrutability. Seeing the existence of evil in the world, we must sacrifice intelligibility in God to the combination of the other two attributes. Only a completely unintelligible God can be said to be absolutely good and absolutely powerful, and yet tolerate the world as it is. Now, which of the three attributes at stake, the conjunction of any two of which excludes the third, are truly integral to our concept of God, and which, being of lesser force, must give way to their superior claim? Surely, goodness is inalienable from the concept of God and not open to qualification. Intelligibility, related to both God’s nature and man’s limitation, is on the latter count indeed subject to qualification, but on no account to complete elimination. The Deus absconditus, the hidden God, is a profoundly un-Jewish [472] conception. Our teaching holds that we can understand God, not completely, to be sure, but something of Him—of His will, intentions, and even nature, because He has told us. There has been revelation, we have His commandments and His law, and He has directly communicated with some. Thus, a completely hidden God is not an acceptable concept by Jewish norms.
But He would have to be precisely that if together with being good He were conceived as all-powerful. After Auschwitz, we can assert with greater force than ever before that an omnipotent deity would have to be either not good or totally unintelligible. But if God is to be intelligible in some manner and to some extent (and to this we must hold), then His goodness must be compatible with the existence of evil, and this it is only if He is not all-powerful. Only then can we uphold that He is intelligible and good, and there is yet evil in the world. And since we have found the concept of omnipotence to be doubtful anyway, it is this which has to give way.

So far, our argument about omnipotence has done no more than lay it down as a principle for any acceptable theology somehow continuous with the Jewish heritage that God’s power be seen limited by something whose being in its own right and whose power to act on its own authority He himself acknowledges.[2] We may well consider that this is a voluntary concession on God’s part which He has the power to revoke at will. My own suggestion as presented in the “myth” goes further. For reasons decisively prompted by contemporary experience I entertain the idea of a God who for a time—the time of the ongoing world process—has divested Himself of any power to interfere with the physical course of things, and Who responds to the impact on His being of worldly events—not beyad chazakah uzeroah netuyah, but with the mutely insistent appeal of His unfulfilled aim.

This I will not further elaborate. In any case, the elimination of divine omnipotence which follows from our discussion of power leaves us with the alternatives of either some preexistent—theological or ontological—dualism, or of God’s own self-limitation through the creation from nothing. The first alternative might take [473] the Manichaean form of an active force of evil opposing the divine purpose in the universal scheme of things (a two-god theology), or the Platonic form of a passive medium imposing imperfection, no less universally, on the embodiment of the ideal in the world (a form-matter dualism). The first is plainly unacceptable to Judaism. The second answers at best the problem of imperfection and natural necessity, but not that of positive evil which implies a freedom empowered by its own authority over and against God; and it is the fact and success of evil rather than the inflictions of blind, natural causality—the use of the latter in the hands of responsible agents (Auschwitz rather than the earthquake of Lisbon)—with which Jewish theology has to contend at this hour. Only with creation from nothing do we have the oneness of the divine principle combined with that self-limitation which then permits (gives “room” to) the existence and autonomy of a world. Creation was that act of absolute sovereignty with which it consented, for the sake of self-determined finitude, to be absolute no more. My myth merely pushes further the old Jewish idea of the tzimtzum, the contraction of divine being as the condition for the being of a world. The enormous enhancement of this being in the light of modern knowledge, viz., of the irrefrangible, self-sufficient, creative powers of Nature— and of the share appropriable of them by man—must needs radicalize the concept of tzimtzum to a point never imagined before.

Certain ethical conclusions follow from the myth and its adumbrations. The first is the transcendent importance of our deeds, of how we live our lives. If man, as our tale has it, was created “for” the image of God, rather than “in” His image; if our lives become lines in the divine countenance—then our responsibility is not defined in mundane terms alone, by which often it is inconsequential enough, but registers in a dimension where efficacy follows transcausal norms of inner essence. Further, as transcendence grows with the terribly ambiguous harvest of deeds, our impact on eternity is for good and for evil—we can build and we can destroy, we can heal and we can hurt, we can nourish and we can starve divinity, we can perfect and we can disfigure its image—and the scars of one are as enduring as the lustre of the other. Thus the immortality of our deeds is no cause for vain rejoicing—what most often ought to be wished for is rather their leaving no trace. But this is not granted; [474] they have traced their line. Not, however, as the individual’s destiny. The individual is by nature temporal, not eternal; and the person in particular, mortal trustee of an immortal cause, has the enjoyment of selfhood for the moment of time as the means by which eternity lays itself open to the decisions of time. As enacted in the medium of becoming, that is, as transient, are personal selves eternity’s stake. Thus it is that in the irrepeatable occasions of finite lives the issue must be decided time and again; infinite duration would blunt the point of the issue and rob occasion of its urgent call.

Nor, apart from this ontological consideration, does man have a moral claim to the gift of immortality. Availing himself of the enjoyment of selfhood, he has endorsed the terms on which it is offered, and rather than having it as a title for more he owes thanks for the grant of existence as such—and for that which made it possible. For there is no necessity of there being a world at all. Why there is something rather than nothing—this unanswerable question of metaphysics should protect us from taking existence for an axiom, and its finiteness for a blemish on it or a curtailment of its right. Rather is the fact of existence the mystery of mysteries —which our myth has tried to reflect in a symbol. By foregoing its own inviolateness the eternal ground allowed the world to be. To this self-denial all creature owes its existence, and with it has received all there is to receive from beyond. Having given Himself whole to the becoming world, God has no more to give; it is man’s now to give to Him. And he may give by seeing to it in the ways of his life that it does not happen, or not happen too often, and not on his account, that “it repented the Lord” (Gen. 6:6-7) to have made the world. This may well be the secret of the “thirty-six righteous ones” whom, according to Jewish tradition, the world shall never lack (Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkah 45b): that with the superior valency of good over evil, which, we hope, obtains in the non-causal logic of things there, their hidden holiness can outweigh countless guilt, redress the balance of a generation and secure the serenity of the invisible realm.

But does that serenity, or its contrary, matter to our life on earth? Does it touch it? Let me join this question with another one, in conclusion of my groping journey. What about those who never could inscribe themselves in the Book of Life with deeds either [475] good or evil, great or small, because their lives were cut off before they had their chance, or their humanity was destroyed in degradations most cruel and most thorough such as no humanity can survive? I am thinking of the gassed and burnt children of Auschwitz, of the defaced, de-humanized phantoms of the camps, and of all the other, numberless victims of the other man-made holocausts of our time. Among men, their sufferings will soon be forgotten, and their names even sooner. Another chance is not given them, and eternity has no compensation for what has been missed in time. Are they, then, debarred from an immortality which even their tormentors and murderers obtain because they could act—abominably, yet accountably, thus leaving their sinister mark on eternity’s face? This I refuse to believe. And this I like to believe: that there was weeping in the heights at the waste and despoilment of humanity; that a groan answered the rising shout of ignoble suffering, and wrath— the terrible wrong done to the reality and possibility of each life thus wantonly victimized, each one a thwarted attempt of God. “The voice of thy brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground”: Should we not believe that the immense chorus of such cries that has risen up in our lifetime now hangs over our world as a dark, mournful, and accusing cloud? That eternity looks down upon us with a frown, wounded itself and perturbed in its depths? And might we not even feel it? If the secret sympathy that connects our being with the transcendent condition works both ways (as in some manner it must, or else there would not even be that inward testimony for us to invoke on which our whole case for the eternal was grounded[3]), then there will always be some resonance to that condition in ours—sometimes felt, though mostly not, and presently felt, perhaps, in a general malaise, in the profound distemper of the contemporary mind. Things human do not prosper under our hands. Happiness eludes our pursuit, and meaning mocks our desperate need. Could it not be that superinduced upon the many-levelled, but never completely explaining causes from within our historical existence, also the disturbance of the transcendent order which we have caused thus reverberates in the spiritual mood of men—and thus the modern temper paradoxically might itself reflect the immortality [476] which it disowns? It would be fitting—more I dare not say—if the slaughtered had that share in immortality, and on their account a great effort were asked of those alive to lift the shadow from our brow and gain for those after us a new chance of serenity by restoring it to the invisible world.

But even if not their shadow, certainly the shadow of the Bomb is there to remind us that the image of God is in danger as never before, and on most unequivocal, terrestrial terms. That in these terms an eternal issue is at stake together with the temporal one— this aspect of our responsibility can be our guard against the temptation of fatalistic acquiescence or the worse treason of “apres nous le deluge.” We literally hold in our faltering hands the future of the divine adventure and must not fail Him, even if we would fail ourselves.

Thus in the dim light at the end of our wandering we may discern a twofold responsibility of man: one in terms of worldly causality, by which the effect of his deed extends for some greater or shorter length into a future where it eventually dissipates; and a simultaneous one in terms of its impact on the eternal realm, where it never dissipates. The one, with our limited foresight and the complexity of worldly things, is much at the mercy of luck and chance; the other goes by knowable norms which, in the Bible’s words (Deut. 30:14), are not far from our hearts. There might even be, as I indicated, a third dimension to our responsibility in terms of the impalpably reciprocal way in which Eternity, without intervening in the physical course of things, will communicate its spiritual state as a pervading mood to a generation which will have to live with it.

But the first two are more than enough to summon us to our task. Although the hereafter is not ours, nor eternal recurrence of the here, we can have immortality at heart when in our brief span we serve our threatened mortal affairs and help the suffering immortal God.


1. First published in the Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 55 (1962), pp. 1-20, and now forming the concluding essay in Jonas’ book The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

2. The same principle has been argued, with a slightly different reasoning, by Rabbi J. Bemporad, “Toward a New Jewish Theology,” American Judaism, 14 Winter 1964-65, pp.9 ff.

Refers to an earlier part of the Ingersoll lecture, not included here. See Phenomenon of Life, pp. 268 f.


3. Excerpts from other writings ⇧ top

The laws of nature arose through the emergence – also in the midst of disorder – of stable, relatively long-lasting realities that behave always (or for a very long time) in the same way and thus succeed. Here we have the most primordial and fundamental instance of “the survival of the fittest”. Order is more successful than disorder.  [Hans Jonas, “Matter, Mind and Creation” in Hans Jonas and Lawrence Vogel, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 168.]

In this remarkable process of being [i.e. metabolism], the material parts of which the organism consists at a given moment are for the analytic observer only temporary contents, whose own identity does not coincide with the identity of the whole they pass through. On the other hand, this whole [i.e. the organism] maintains its identity by means of foreign material passing through its spatial system, its living form. It is never materially the same, and yet it persists as this identical self by the very fact that it does not remain the same matter. If ever any two of its ‘slices of time’ do become identical with each other [i.e. if ever the organism at two different points in time remains unchanged], then it has ceased to live: it is dead. [Ibid., 64] 

The basic freedom of the organism consists accordingly in a certain independence of form vis-à-vis matter… The first step [of all progress in the evolution of life] was the emancipation of form, by means of metabolism, from immediate identity with matter. [Ibid., 66-67]

The affront to human dignity posed by the [Darwinian] theory of man’s descent from animals provoked outrage, but this reaction overlooked the fact that the same principle restored a degree of dignity to the phenomenon of life as a whole. If man is related to the animals, then the animals are also related to man and therefore, in degrees, possess that inwardness which man, their most highly advanced relative, is aware of in himself. [Ibid., 63]

If permanence was the point, life should not have started out in the first place, for in no possible form can it match the durability of inorganic bodies. [Ibid., 126]

[E]thics has an objective side and a subjective side, the one having to do with reason, the other with emotion... the two sides are mutually complementary and both are integral to ethics itself. Without our being, at least by disposition, responsive to the call of duty in terms of feeling, the most cogent demonstration of this right, even when compelling theoretical assent, would be powerless to make it a motivating force. Conversely, without some credentials of its right, our de facto responsiveness to appeals of this kind would remain at the mercy of fortuitous predilections… and the options made by it would lack justification. [Hans Jonas, “The Good, the 'Ought', and Being” in Hans Jonas and David Herr, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 85.]

In such self-forfeiture of divine integrity for the sake of unprejudiced becoming, no other foreknowledge can be admitted than that of possibilities… [T]o these, God committed his cause in effacing himself for the world. [Hans Jonas, “The Concept of God after Auschwitz,” in Out of the Whirlwind; a Reader of Holocaust Literature, ed. Albert H. Friedlander (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1968), 466.]

I entertain the idea of a God who for a time – the time of the ongoing world process – has divested Himself of any power to interfere with the physical course of things. [Ibid., 472] 

I was moved by the Bible and, at the same time, not a believer. I no longer possessed belief in a personal God, the creator of the Heavens and Earth, who parted the Red Sea and thundered from Sinai, but I found that certain parts of the Bible included something that was incredibly important for humankind and to which I continue to feel as an inheritor. [Hans Jonas, Erinnerungen, based on conversations with Rachel Salamander, ed. Christian Wiese (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 2003), 339-41.]

This is the fate suffered by the biblical propositions that God created the heavens and the earth, that He saw that his creation was good, that he created man in his image, that it has been made known to man what is good, that the word is written in his heart. These propositions, i.e. what through the symbolism of their literal meaning they suggest about reality, are of course in no way ‘refuted’ by anything science has found our about the world and ourselves. No discovery about the laws and functions of matter logically affects the possibility that these very laws and functions may serve a spiritual, creative will. It is, however, the case… that the psychological climate created by science and reinforced by technology is peculiarly unfavorable to the visibility of that transcendent dimension which the biblical propositions claim for the nature of things. Yet some equivalent of their meaning, however remote from the literalness of their statement, must be preserved if we are still to be Jews and, beyond that special concern of ours, if there is still to be an answer to the moral quest of man. [Hans Jonas, “Contemporary Problems in Ethics from a Jewish Perspective,” in Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974), 177.]

And here let us remember that Jewish tradition itself is really not quite so monolithic in the matter of divine sovereignty as official doctrine makes it appear. The mighty undercurrent of the Kabbalah, which Gershom Scholem in our days has brought to light anew, knows about a divine fate bound up with the coming-to-be of a world. There we meet highly original, very unorthodox speculations in whose company mine would not appear so wayward after all. Thus, for example, my myth at bottom only pushes further the idea of the tzimtzum, that cosmogonic center concept of the Lurianic Kabbalah. Tzimtzum means contraction, withdrawal, self-limitation. To make room for the world, the En-Sof (Infinite; literally, No-End) of the beginning had to contract himself so that, vacated by him, empty space could expand outside of him: the “Nothing” in which and from which God could then create the world. Without this retreat into himself, there could be no “other” outside God, and only his continued holding-himself-in preserves the finite things from losing their separate being again into the divine “all in all.” [Hans Jonas, “The Concept of God After Auschwitz” in Jonas and Vogel, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, 142.]


4. Select bibliography ⇧ top

Bernstein, Richard J. Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation. Cambridge: Polity, 2002.

Donnelley, Strachan. "Hans Jonas and Ernst Mayr." In The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life, edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Christian Wiese, xlii, 576 p. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010.

Jonas, Hans. "Contemporary Problems in Ethics from a Jewish Perspective." Central Conference American Rabbis Journal 15, (1968): 27-39.

Jonas, Hans. "Contemporary Problems in Ethics from a Jewish Perspective." In Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man, 168-82. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Jonas, Hans. Das Prinzip Verantwortung: Versuch Einer Ethik Fuer Die Technologische Zivilisation. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1979.

Jonas, Hans. "Evolution Und Freiheit." Scheidewege 13, (1983-4).

Jonas, Hans. "Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism." In The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, xxiv, 303 p. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

Jonas, Hans. "Heidegger and Theology." In The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, xxiv, 303 p. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

Jonas, Hans. "Immortality and the Modern Temper." Harvard Theological Review 55, (1962): 1-20.

Jonas, Hans. "Mind, Nature, and Creation." Scheidewege 18, (1988).

Jonas, Hans. "Non-Objectifying Thinking and Speaking in Contemporary Theology." In Second Consultation on Hermaneutics. Drew University 1964.

Jonas, Hans. Organismus Und Freiheit: Ansaeze Zu Einer Philosophischen Biologie, Sammlung Vandenhoeck. Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1973.

Jonas, Hans. "The Burden and Blessing of Mortality." In Royal Palace Foundation. Amsterdam, 1991.

Jonas, Hans. "The Concept of God after Auschwitz." In Out of the Whirlwind; a Reader of Holocaust Literature, edited by Albert H. Friedlander, 473. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1968.

Jonas, Hans. The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

Jonas, Hans. "Werkzeug, Bild Und Grab: Vom Transanimalischen Im Menschen." Scheidewege 15, (1985-6).

Jonas, Hans "Is Faith Still Possible? Memories of Rudolf Bultmann and Reflections on the Philosophical Aspects of His Work." Harvard Theological Review 75, no. 1 (1982): 1-23.

Jonas, Hans, and David Herr. The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Jonas, Hans, Rachel Salamander, and Christian Wiese. Erinnerungen, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003.

Jonas, Hans, and Lawrence Vogel. Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

Langton, Daniel R. "God, the Past and Auschwitz: Jewish Holocaust Theologians' Engagement with History." Holocaust Studies 17, no. 1 (2012): 29-62.

Margolin, Ron. "Hans Jonas and Secular Religiosity." In The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life, edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Christian Wiese, xlii, 576 p. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010.

⇪ Home