Jewish humanism

Jewish humanism

25 September 2023 Peter Selg 3233 views

The recent series Contributions to Jewish Humanism provided by the General Anthroposophical Section at the Goetheanum focused on Primo Levi, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas.

In February 1944, Primo Levi was deported from Italy to Auschwitz. He survived the concentration camp Buna-Monowitz (PL). Simone Weil fled with her parents to Southern France when the German Wehrmacht invaded Paris (FR) in May 1940. She worked for the Résistance in Marseille (FR), emigrated to New York with her parents in 1942 but returned to Great Britain to continue her French resistance work. Hannah Arendt was arrested by the Gestapo in Berlin (DE) in 1933. She was released again when a collection of antisemitic literature was found among her belongings and fled to Paris (FR). In 1940 she was held in Gurs internment camp in Southern France, from where she escaped. In 1941 she managed to flee to New York with her husband and her mother. Hannah Arendt’s fellow student Hans Jonas, emigrated to Great Britain in 1933 and from there to Palestine in 1935; he fought in the country’s military defence and from 1944 in the ‘Jewish Brigade’, a military formation of the British Army, against Germany; in 1948 he moved from Israel to Canada and the USA.

Life paths

Primo Levi’s family had lived in Turin (IT) for many centuries; it was to Turin, to Corso Re Umberto 75, that Primo Levi returned from Auschwitz; he lived and died in the house of his parents. Simone Weil’s family had Paris connections although her parents and grandparents came from Eastern Europe and Alsace. She could not get back to Paris, however, even though she would have liked to work on the front line of the Résistance. Her path ended in Kent (GB) in the summer of 1943, with her inner gaze firmly focused on France.

Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas stayed in North America. Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil may have met in the streets of New York in the summer and autumn of 1942 before Simone Weil took a boat to take her back at least as far as England.

Primo Levi experienced the German concentration camp system from the inside; his memories and reflections on the camps, which he began writing down directly after his liberation, are part of world literature. The perceptions, analyses and thoughts arising from his direct, personal, existential experience were groundbreaking. Not many survivors were able as he was to describe and process what happened to them – and to humanity – in the German concentration camps.

Simone Weil analyzed in her own way the abysmal traumatization and uprooting of modern humanity, the plight of civilization and its humane aspects. Hannah Arendt presented impressive analyses of totalitarianism and its preconditions after 1945, and Hans Jonas developed a philosophy of resistance and responsibility.

Relationship to Judaism

The relationships of Primo Levi, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas to Judaism, to its history and culture, its self-image and spirituality, to Zionism and the State of Israel differed widely, down to Simone Weil’s great distance to it. And yet, the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel called even her a ‘daughter of Zion’, given her great, even outstanding gift for the spoken and written word, for thinking, conscience and spirituality.

What unites Primo Levi, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas beyond their fate of flight and deportation as members of a persecuted people threatened with annihilation is that they broke through to profound anthropological and sociological insights, the way they lived and partly even suffered their life of knowledge, which brought light into the darkness in the midst of an abysmal 20th century.

Section work

Their contributions to ‘Jewish humanism’ (Martin Buber) were most recently part of a lecture series provided by the General Anthroposophical Section of the School of Spiritual Science at the Goetheanum.[1]

It is one of the tasks of the School of Spiritual Science to gain an ever deeper understanding of the 20th century’s spiritual signature by confronting the forces of evil but also by engaging with the spiritual light. The time when Rudolf Steiner developed his anthroposophical spiritual science is also the time of the events and reflections described in the second volume of the General Anthroposophical Section’s publications on ‘Resistance and Responsibility: Primo Levi, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas’, and of the conceptions and ideas of these authors. It is well known that Rudolf Steiner, who died in 1925, did not live to see the Nazi system. However, he never tired of warning against the dangers of totalitarianism in the 20th century, and described the developments and forces involved with extraordinary clarity and far-sightedness.

Anthroposophical anthropology is deeply connected with the approaches and conceptions of the Jewish individualities mentioned. It is one of the tasks of the School of Spiritual Science to unlock these connections. ‘For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur – the zeitgeist or history or simple temptation.’[2]

1 Cf. All Recordings, and Peter Selg/Constanza Kaliks: Die Gegenwart des Anderen. Über Martin Buber und Franz Rosenzweig, 2022; Constanza Kaliks/Peter Selg/Udi Levy/Iftach Ben Aharon: Anthroposophie, Judentum und Antisemitismus, 2023
2 Hannah Arendt: Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, in: Responsibility and Judgment, New York 2003, p. 95