Cohen, Arthur A(llen)

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COHEN, Arthur A(llen)

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 25 June 1928. Education: Friends Seminary, New York, 1941-44; University of Chicago, B.A. 1946, M.A. 1949, further graduate study, 1949-50; Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950-52. Family: Married Elaine Firstenberg Lustig in 1956; one daughter. Career: Founder, with Cecil Hemley, and managing director, Noonday Press, 1951-55; founder and president, Meridian Books, 1955-60; vice president, World Publishing Co., 1960-61; director of religion department, 1961-64, and editor-in-chief and vice-president of general books division, 1964-68, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc.; managing editor, Viking Press, Inc., 1968-75; founder, with Elaine Lustig, and president, Ex Libris (rare books), 1974-86. Visiting lecturer, Brown University, 1972, and Jewish Institute of Religion, 1977; Tisch Lecturer in Judaic Theology, Brown University, 1979. Consultant, Fund for the Republic "Religion and the Free Society" project, 1956-59; member, 1983-86, and chairman of the board, 1985-86, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; member of advisory board, Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies, Brandeis University. Awards: Edgar Lewis Wallant prize, 1973, for In the Days of Simon Stern; Jewish Book Council national Jewish book award in fiction, 1984, and William and Janice Epstein award, 1985, both for An Admirable Woman; George Wittenborn memorial award, 1986, for Herbert Bayer: The Complete Works.Died: 31 October 1986.



An Arthur A. Cohen Reader: Selected Fiction and Writings on Judaism, Theology, Literature, and Culture, edited by David Stern and Paul Mendes-Flohr. 1998.


The Carpenter Years. 1967.

In the Days of Simon Stern. 1973.

A Hero in His Time. 1976.

Acts of Theft. 1980.

An Admirable Woman. 1983.

Artists & Enemies: Three Novellas. 1987.


Martin Buber. 1958.

The Natural and the Supernatural Jew: An Historical and Theological Introduction. 1962; revised, 1979.

The Communism of Mao Tse-Tung. 1964.

The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition. 1970.

A People Apart: Hasidism in America, with photos by PhilipGarvin. 1970.

If Not Now, When? Conversations between Mordecai M. Kaplan and Arthur A. Cohen. 1970.

Osip Emilevich Mandelstam: An Essay in Antiphon. 1974.

Sonia Delaunay. 1975.

The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust. 1981.

The American Imagination after the War: Notes on the Novel, Jews and Hope. 1981.

Herbert Bayer: The Complete Works. 1984.

Editor, with Marvin Halverson, A Handbook of Christian Theology; Definition Essays on Concepts and Movements of Thought in Contemporary Protestantism. 1958.

Editor, The Anatomy of Faith: Theological Essays of Milton Steinberg. 1960.

Editor, Humanistic Education and Western Civilization: Essays in Honor of Robert Maynard Hutchins. 1964.

Editor, Arguments and Doctrines: A Reader of Jewish Thinking in the Aftermath of the Holocaust. 1970.

Editor, The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. 1978.

Editor, The Jew: Essays from Martin Buber's Journal "Der Jude." 1980.

Editor, with Paul Mendes-Flohr, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs. 1987.


Critical Studies:

Crisis and Covenant: The Holocaust in American Jewish Fiction by Alan L. Berger, 1985; Witness through the Imagination: Jewish American Holocaust Literature by Lillian S. Kremer, 1989.

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Arthur A. Cohen was a challenging and wide-ranging thinker who set for himself the task of formulating a Jewish theology for the postwar world. Chief among his concerns was the question of the theological implications of the Holocaust. Beginning with a series of analytical books and essays on modern Jewish thought and Jewish and Christian theology, he turned his energies to literary fiction in the late 1960s, producing a "messianic epic" (In the Days of Simon Stern ) alongside a series of novellas. He also produced a powerful meditation on the Holocaust and the problem of evil, The Tremendum , which is perhaps the best known of his entire opus. All of Cohen's varied works are characterized by an elegant and occasionally recondite writing style and by a common set of concerns, foremost among them the possibility of Jewish faith in the contemporary world. Other recurrent themes are the theological incommensurability of Christianity and Judaism, the redemptive vision at the core of Judaism, and the significance for contemporary Jews of the work of Franz Rosenzweig. As the scholar David Stern has noted, Cohen may be situated amongst a generation of Jewish thinkers that emerged on the American scene in the postwar years, a group that included Eugene Borowitz, Emil Fackenheim, Will Herberg, Steven Schwartzchild, and Joseph Soloveitchik. These figures shared an overall distrust of cultural liberalism, and they opened their work in different ways to the influences of European existentialism.

In The Tremendum , a "theological interpretation of the Holocaust," Cohen asserts that the Holocaust represents an unprecedented manifestation of absolute evil. As such, it fundamentally alters the terms of God's relationship to the Jewish people. Unlike the destruction of the Temples or the expulsion from Spain, the Holocaust cannot be explained as divine retribution; traditional Jewish theodicies do not suffice. In their place Cohen calls for a recognition that normal time can open onto "the abyss," a dimension in which intelligible causality is interrupted and the provenance of God gives way to that of "infinitized man." Cohen's neologism for the Holocaust, the Tremendum , recasts the central idea of the nineteenth-century German theologian Rudolf Otto. Otto contends that God's presence manifests itself to humans as a mysterium tremendum , an unfathomable or terrifying mystery. By contrast, Cohen identifies the Holocaust as a manifestation of sheer terror without the accompanying mystery of God's presence.

Cohen proposes that Jews must come to regard the Tremendum in the same way that the Passover Haggadah has instructed them to consider the exodus from Egypt—namely as a decisive moment in their own experience of God. "I was really, even if not literally present in Egypt," he writes, "and really if not literally, present at Sinai… No less is it the case that the death camps account my presence really." Having drawn this analogy Cohen asserts that contemporary Jews have an obligation to hear the witness as though they were also witnesses. For Cohen, then, the Holocaust represents a challenge to traditional conceptions of the Jewish God, but a challenge that can be met. "The God of Israel is worth the undertaking," he asserts. "And the time is now to build again upon the wreckage of previous understandings." When he describes this project of "building again," Cohen emphasizes that the new understanding of God will differ from the old, specifically with reference to the question of power. Cohen describes a God with limited control over the world. "The God who will endure," he writes, "may well prove to be less imperious and authoritarian, but may gain in credibility and truth what he has lost in unconditional absoluteness." Cohen's God will endure, that is, though not in the guise of the proverbial omniscient and omnipotent father.

Cohen's longest and most celebrated work of fiction, In the Days of Simon Stern , also deals with the question of post-Holocaust faith. Written from the perspective of a blind, oracular narrator named Nathan, it recounts the emergence of the Messiah during the 1940s in New York. When the messianic figure Simon Stern receives news of the death camps, he determines that "now is the time to begin the work of redemption." He travels to Europe and retrieves a group of Holocaust survivors, whom he houses in a version of Solomon's Temple—rebuilt on Manhattan's Lower East side. The messianic project self-destructs, but, as the novel's narrator assures us, the Messiah himself has escaped and is now at large in the world. The novel is at once playful and profoundly serious in its declaration of faith in Judaism's redemptive mission. One of its many running themes concerns the difference between the genre of Greek tragedy, with its doctrine of the implacability of fate, and a "messianic epic," with its insistence that human history remains open to the incursion of the divine.

—Julian Levinson

See the essay on In the Days of Simon Stern.