Tag Archives: Philosophers

Jew of the Week: Hannah Arendt

Greatest Political Philosopher of the 20th Century

Hannah Arendt in 1924

Johanna Cohn Arendt (1906-1975) was born in Germany to a wealthy family of secular Russian-German Jews. The family was anti-Zionist and assimilationist, desperately seeking acceptance into broader German society. Arendt was well-educated, and was already tackling heavy philosophical works as a teenager. At 15, after getting expelled from her school for organizing a boycott of an anti-Semitic teacher, she decided to go straight to the University of Berlin. Arendt then studied language, literature, and theology at the University of Marburg, where one of her teachers was the famed philosopher Heidegger (the two would go on to have a secret romantic relationship for many years). Arendt later became a towering figure in philosophy herself, writing on politics and sociology, Judaism and feminism (which she opposed, once writing, perhaps presciently: “what will we lose if we win?” Ironically, today Arendt is something of a feminist icon!) When Hitler came to power in 1933, Arendt operated an underground railroad for refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Realizing the flaws of her old assimilationist ways, she wrote that “Jewish assimilation must declare its bankruptcy.” Arendt immersed herself in Jewish study, while also vocally denouncing the Nazis, leading to her arrest by the Gestapo. After eight days in prison, the Gestapo let her go because they could not decipher her encoded diary. Arendt fled to Geneva, where she worked for the Jewish Agency to secure visas for Jewish refugees. From there, she settled in Paris and soon became the personal assistant of Germaine de Rothschild, taking care of distributing her generous charitable funds. In 1935, Arendt joined Youth Aliyah, eventually becoming its secretary-general. In 1938, she was put in charge of rescuing Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis occupied France, Arendt and her family managed to escape yet again, eventually finding their way to New York. In 1944, she was hired as executive director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, cataloging and preserving Jewish assets in Europe, and reviving post-war Jewish life there. From 1951 onwards, she devoted herself to teaching and writing. Her most acclaimed books followed, including The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. Arendt taught at a number of American universities, including Yale and Stanford, and was the first female professor at Princeton. In 1961, she spent six weeks in Jerusalem covering the Eichmann trial for the The New Yorker. (During this time, she coined the phrase “banality of evil”, and her conclusions were immensely controversial.) All in all, Arendt wrote hundreds of penetrating essays, articles, and poems, and has been described as the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, as well as one its most enigmatic women. The Library of Congress estimates that at least 50 books have been written about her, along with over 1000 scholarly papers. There is a “Hannah Arendt Day” in Germany, as well as an international peer-reviewed journal called Arendt Studies, along with countless things named after her, including the prestigious Hannah Arendt Prize.

Words of the Week

“If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.”
– Hannah Arendt

Jew of the Week: Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

The Polish Nobility’s Hasidic Pharmacist 

A 19th century woodcut engraving of Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Simcha Bonhomme “Bunim” Bonhart (c. 1765-1827) was born in Vodislav, Poland, the son of a wealthy German-Jewish merchant father (who was also a rabbi and rationalist philosopher) and a mother that came from a long line of rabbis going all the way back to Rashi. After studying at the top yeshivas in Hungary and Czechia, Simcha Bunim went to Leipzig to also get a solid secular education at one of the world’s top universities. He studied science and majored in pharmacology. After marrying, he settled in Peshischa (Przysucha) and opened up his own pharmacy. His concoctions were so potent and famous that he soon served the Polish nobility. He also continued his father’s merchant business, sold exotic woods, and regularly appeared at the Danzig trade fair. Meanwhile, Simcha Bunim joined the local Peshischa Hasidic group, then under the leadership of a rabbi and mystic known simply as HaYid HaKadosh, “the Holy Jew”. When the Holy Jew died in 1813, Simcha Bunim took over as the new leader. Unlike other Hasidic groups, Peshischa was all about enlightenment and rationalism. Their aims were to synthesize science with Judaism, to develop each member’s personal autonomy, and to inspire people to discover who they are and to think critically on their own. They encouraged people to pray when they really felt like it (instead of praying by rote three times a day) and to walk confidently with an upright posture. Instead of wearing the classic Hasidic robes, Simcha Bunim dressed in a regular suit. His internal Hasidic revolution spread like fire across Eastern Europe—causing Simcha Bunim to nearly be excommunicated by other Hasidic rabbis! Simcha Bunim is also credited with being perhaps the first kiruv (“outreach”) rabbi. While other Hasidic groups at the time simply ignored the secular Jewish world, Simcha Bunim went out of his way to bring secular Jews back into the faith. In fact, he would regularly go to theatres on Jewish holidays in the hopes of inspiring Jews there to come with him to the synagogue instead. While the Peshischa Hasidic movement itself died out shortly after Simcha Bunim’s death, it sparked multiple new Hasidic groups, and had a significant impact on the wider Jewish world as well. Today is Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

I know who I am irrespective of how I am perceived by others.
– Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Jew of the Week: Martin Buber

Father of Spiritual Zionism

Mordechai Martin Buber (1878-1965) was born in Vienna to a religious Jewish family. His parents got divorced when he was just three years old, so Buber was raised in what was then Poland by his grandfather. Despite growing up in a richly Hasidic home, Buber began reading secular literature and returned to Vienna as a young man to study philosophy. Around the same time, he became active in the Zionist movement and soon became the editor of Die Welt, the main newspaper of Zionism. It wasn’t long before Buber became dissatisfied with the secularism and “busyness” of Zionism and returned (partially) to his Hasidic roots. He saw in Hasidic communities the right model for a new Israel, and a better alternative to the entirely-secular kibbutz. Buber ultimately saw Zionism not as a nationalist or political movement, but as a religious movement that should, first and foremost, serve to spiritually enrich the Jewish people—along with the rest of the world. He would later be credited with being the father of “Hebrew humanism” and “spiritual Zionism”. In 1908, he was invited to address a group of Jewish intellectuals known as the “Prague Circle”, and to “remind them about their Judaism”, as the group’s leader had requested. Among the members of the Circle was (former Jew of the Week) Franz Kafka, who was greatly influenced by Buber. During World War I, Buber established the Jewish National Committee to provide relief for Jews, especially those suffering in Eastern Europe. Throughout all these years, Buber wrote penetrating works on a vast range of themes, including philosophy and psychology, mythology, mysticism, and Hasidism. He co-produced a new translation of the Tanakh into German, and published his most famous essay, “I and Thou”. In 1930, Buber became a professor at the University of Frankfurt. He resigned in protest three years later when Hitler came to power. The Nazis forbade Jews from participating in public adult education classes, so Buber founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education. In 1938, he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem, becoming professor of anthropology and sociology at the Hebrew University. Several years later, he was a founding member of the Ihud party, which prioritized making peace with neighbouring Arabs and worked to establish a bi-national state. Buber was nominated for a Nobel Prize a whopping 17 times (ten times for Literature, and seven times for Peace), though he was never awarded one. He did win the Israel Prize and the Bialik Prize, among many others. Today, the 13th of Sivan, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

The real struggle is not between East and West, or capitalism and communism, but between education and propaganda.
– Martin Buber