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Exegetical Idealization: Hermann Cohen’s Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Maimonides

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image of The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy

While Maimonides reread his sources to reconcile biblical and rabbinic texts with the demands of reason, Hermann Cohen, in his construction of a “religion of reason,” rereads Maimonides’ rereadings of those very same texts. Maimonides’ Judaism often bridges the sources toward Cohen’s religion of reason by providing a philological anchor that nudges a term or verse now viewed through a more modern historical and evolutionary lens toward its ultimate reason-infused meaning. This paper will explore a hitherto neglected feature of their oeuvres that unites Maimonides and Cohen as much as it distinguishes them: the “Jewishness” shared by both, as evident in the most Jewish of all exercises that suffuses both their works, biblical and midrashic exegesis. Their exegetical nets are systematically cast widely throughout the breadth of the Hebrew Bible, but more often than not they offer highly discrepant readings of the same passage or prooftext. Cohen’s referencing of many of the same sources appeals to their Maimonidean rationalist refurbishment, but at the same time often places them in combative discourse in order to subvert and reorient Maimonides’ exegesis. The notions of divine names, the “image” (tselem) of God, “nearness” to God, and divine “glory” (kavod) are closely examined to demonstrate this intertextual relationship between these two seminal Jewish thinkers. While Cohen may be misreading Maimonides’ rereading of scripture, he remains a true hermeneutical disciple in his exegetical restructuring and realignment of scripture. Cohen’s programmatic exegetical idealization of Maimonidean prooftexts to reconstruct a new Kantianized God forms a common ground of discourse with Maimonides that traverses seven centuries of a quintessential Jewish enterprise.

Affiliations: 1: University of Waterloo 200 University Ave. W., Waterloo, ON N2L 3GI Canada, Email:


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