Kant and the Jewish Question

Susan Meld Shell

Abstract: Kant has been famously attractive to enlightened German Jews. At the same time, it was partly on the basis of its own Kantian premises that German nationalism emerged as a specifically anti-Jewish movement. These opposing legacies are less surprising once the complex attitude toward Judaism held by Kant himself, along with the Jewish responses it provoked, is taken fully into account. The following essay traces four stages in the development of Kant’s views on Jews and Judaism: (1) an early stage in which enlightened Jews figure as major supporters of Kant’s pre-critical thought; (2) a second, critical stage, in which Judaism in its early ‘ethical’ form is praised for its ‘sublime’ law against the making of graven images; (3) a third stage, following upon reaction to the French Revolution, in which, amid mounting political pressure and disappointment with his early Jewish followers, he presents Judaism as a morally empty shell that the true moral religion must discard; (4) a fourth, late stage, in which he comes to regard his Jewish students and followers as useful vehicles of an impending civil and moral revolution. Kant’s specific invitation to enlightened Jews to become apostles of the new moral faith prompts David Friedländer’s infamous letter to Probst Teller.

Biography: Susan Shell is the author of The Embodiment of Reason: Kant on Spirit, Generation and Community (University of Chicago Press, 1996), The Rights of Reason: A Study of Kant's Philosophy and Politics (University of Toronto Press, 1980), Kant and the Limits of Autonomy (Harvard University Press, forthcoming), as well as numerous essays on Kant, Rousseau, German Idealism, and selected areas of public policy. She has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard University, and Brock University (in Canada), and received fellowships from The National Endowment for the Humanities, The American Council of Learned Societies, The Bradley Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute. She is currently chair of the department of political science at Boston College.

Volume 2, Number 1 (Winter 2007) pp. 101-136