Cohen, Arthur A.
COHEN, ARTHUR A.
COHEN, ARTHUR A. Arthur A. Cohen (1928–1986) was an American Jewish theologian, novelist, essayist, editor, and publisher. Born in New York City, Cohen grew up in an affluent, assimilated Jewish home and was educated at the University of Chicago where he studied philosophy and religion. His first year at Chicago, on realizing "that Western culture is a Christian culture" (Stern and Mendes-Flohr, 1998, p. 34) he underwent a spiritual crisis and seriously considered converting to Christianity. To save their son from taking this path, his horrified parents enlisted the help of their rabbi, Milton Steinberg (1903–1950; arguably the most original Jewish American religious thinker of his day), and under Steinberg's tutelage, Cohen began to study Hebrew and Jewish texts. In 1949, after receiving a master of arts degree from the University of Chicago, Cohen spent six months in Jerusalem where he met Martin Buber (1878–1965) whose theology subsequently became the subject of Cohen's first book, published in 1958). He later studied briefly at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. In 1951, he left academia for good to cofound the Noonday Press, the first of several publishing ventures in which Cohen was involved—the others were Meridian Books (where Cohen pioneered the publication of high-quality paperbacks), World Publishing House, and Holt, Rhinehart, Winston, where he eventually became editor-in-chief and vice-president. At Holt, Cohen commissioned a number of extremely important Jewish books including the English translation of Franz Rosenzweig's (1886–1929) The Star of Redemption.
In 1969 he retired from publishing to write theology and fiction full time (although in the 1980s he re-entered business with his wife, the celebrated designer and artist Elaine Lustig Cohen, and became a very successful dealer in rare early twentieth-century art documents and books). Although he occasionally taught a course at universities and participated intensely in New York literary and intellectual circles, Cohen eschewed most institutional, educational, and organizational ties in the Jewish world. In 1986, at the age of fifty-eight, he died of leukemia.
Cohen first won major attention with his second book, The Natural and Supernatural Jew (1962), which sets out the basic structure of his religious thinking. The foundation of that structure, intimated in the book's title, is the distinction between the natural and the supernatural Jew. The natural Jew, Cohen wrote, is "a creature situated in nature and activated by history" (Stern and Mendes-Flohr, 1998, p. 44)—that is, one whose fate is essentially defined by his or her cultural and social circumstances and who cannot alone transcend the determinations of nature and history. In contrast, the supernatural Jew is a messianic being, the Jew aware of being called by God to the transhistorical vocation of bringing redemption, who must testify that "there is no redemption until all history is redeemed" (Stern and Mendes-Flohr, 1998, p. 45). These two types, Cohen emphasized, are not to be understood as opposites or as mutually exclusive: they "are joined in every Jew" (Stern and Mendes-Flohr 1998, p. 48). Although "the supernatural Jew may occasionally forget that he is also flesh and blood"—that is, fated to live in history—such a Jew, Cohen wrote, "is as much in error as is the natural Jew who forgets what links him to eternity" (Stern and Mendes-Flohr, 1998, p. 48). The renewal of the Jewish vocation lies in the reuniting in the Jew of both selves, natural and supernatural, and in turning Judaism toward history and culture in such a way that they will be made into "bearers of ultimate and consummate meaning" (Stern and Mendes-Flohr, 1998, p. 49).
In distinguishing between the natural and the supernatural, the historical and the meta-historical, Cohen's work both drew on the new existentialist philosophy coming out of Europe at the time and represented a rejection of the ideological rationalism that had characterized the Jewish theologians of the previous generation, preeminently Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881–1983), the naturalist Jewish theologian and founder of Reconstructionism. Cohen and his contemporaries—such other Jewish thinkers as Will Herberg (1901–1977), Eugene Borowitz (b. 1924), and Emil Fackenheim (1916–2003)—argued for a renewal of Jewish theology as a prerequisite for the renewing of Judaism itself and reasserted the centrality of supernaturalist categories like faith, revelation, chosenness, and messianism.
More than his contemporaries, however, Cohen emphasized the messianic, eschatological side of Judaism, which for him meant the quintessentially unredeemed condition of the present world. Like Rosenzweig (whose adolescent near-conversion to Christianity clearly anticipated, if not served as the model for Cohen's own early experience), Cohen predicated his understanding of the Jewish vocation on a repudiation of Christianity, indeed on an essential theological enmity between Judaism and Christianity. The latter was always for Cohen a promise and a reality to be denied by the Jew. This theme was the primary subject of his second major early work, a collection of related essays entitled The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (1970).
Beginning in 1974, Cohen's theology became increasingly concerned with the Holocaust. In a lecture delivered that year to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, Cohen argued that the Holocaust represented an unprecedented manifestation of absolute evil that fundamentally changed the terms of God's relationship to the Jewish people. Because it defied all the traditional categories of Jewish theodicy (e.g., sin and punishment, divine retribution, and so on) the Holocaust was, in Cohen's terminology, the Tremendum, a term Cohen borrowed from the nineteenth-century German theologian Rudolph Otto (1869–1937), who had used it to define God's presence as a mysterium tremendum, a terrifying and unfathomable mystery. Cohen analogously identified the Holocaust as a manifestation of sheer terror—although one unaccompanied by the presence of God.
In Cohen's view, for the Jew living after the Holocaust, the Tremendum was the defining event of his or her relationship to God, hence of Jewishness itself. Drawing on the Passover Haggadah (as Julian Levinson has pointed out), Cohen wrote that a Jew must feel as though he or she "was really, even if not literally, present in Egypt, and really, if not literally, present at Sinai" (Stern and Mendes-Flohr, 1998, p. 248). As such, the Holocaust represented a challenge to traditional conceptions of the Jewish God. Even so, Cohen was adamant in his belief that Jewish theology could meet that challenge. "The time is now to build again upon the wreckage of previous understandings" of Jewish theology, and particularly its conception of the divinity. Even if "the God who will endure may … prove to be less imperious and authoritarian, … [He] may gain in credibility and truth what He has lost in unconditional absoluteness" (Stern and Mendes-Flohr 1998, p. 101).
Fiction and Literary Essays
The most remarkable feature of Cohen's theological work was his career as a novelist. In the course of this career, Cohen published five novels and one book of three novellas. Although only one of these books is on an explicitly Jewish and theological theme—In the Days of Simon Stern (1973)—Cohen's turn to fiction as a medium for Jewish theology was not entirely surprising. Even his explicitly theological writing possessed the rare eloquence and passion of poetry, what he called "the language of existence—the means by which the paradoxes of theology can be rendered into life" (Cohen, 1962, p. 146), as he wrote about the dedication to language shared by his own literary-theologian models, the German-Jewish theologian Rosenzweig and the medieval Jewish poet and philosopher Judah Halevi (1086–1145). Rosenzweig once remarked that Judaism must be smuggled into life; Cohen used fiction to smuggle Judaism into art.
Although he is often described as a novelist of ideas, it would be more accurate to say that Cohen's fictions are all about characters—poets, artists, intellectuals, messiahs—obsessed with ideas. Thus, Simon Stern recounts the history of its protagonist, the Simon Stern of the book's title, a millionaire real estate dealer on the Lower East Side who, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, attempts to save the remnants of European Jewry (a select number of survivors chosen for their capacity to "endure" history) by rescuing them from Europe, bringing them to New York and building for them a temple-like sanctuary in New York City. By the novel's end, however, this project of redemption has failed, and the temple itself has been destroyed in a fire (once again!). Cohen's protagonist, Simon Stern, although certainly a failure, is a genuine, messiah. However, his particular messianic mission in the novel is ultimately not to save humanity but to prove the impossibility of redemption so long as history lasts. In this way, through the novel, Cohen succeeded in recreating a classic Jewish myth that was also a perfect expression of Cohen's own personal theological obsessions.
As a novel, Simon Stern is often creaky, heavy-handed, and shapeless, but its enormous intellectual and spiritual energy, epitomized in the book's sprawling, massive shape, encompasses the boundless Jewish yearning for redemption and the equally boundless messianic disappointment. Even if the book fails on purely literary grounds as a novel, it is an extraordinary epic of the theological imagination.
The impossibility of neatly categorizing Simon Stern is almost a perfect correlative for Cohen's own exceptionality as an American Jewish thinker. In his numerous essays, Cohen wrote about nearly every conceivable subject—from Franz Kafka (1883–1924) and George Frederick Handel's (1685–1759) Jephthah to architecture, art, and the history of modern typographical design (about which he happened to be a world-recognized authority). As a single corpus, all of his writings, although hardly adhering to any conventional generic classification, were inhabited and enlivened by a single literary and intellectual persona.
Perhaps the most unusual example of the deep coherence of Cohen's literary-theological oeuvre is an essay he wrote titled "The Typographic Revolution: Antecedents and Legacy of Dada Graphic Design" (1979). On its surface, this dense and complex study traces the prehistory and influence of Dada typography—those chaotic and inventive arrangements of letters and print familiar to all students of early twentieth-century art. As Cohen argues, however, the Dadaist letters are actually ideograms come alive, and the Dadaist ambition to enliven letter types so that they can be "reapprehended as living voice, speaking volumes, shouting and making love" (Stern and Mendes-Flohr, 1998, p. 475) should be understood in conjunction with the inquiries of such contemporary philosophers and theologians as Ferdinand Ebner, Nicolai Berdyaev, Buber, and Rosenzweig, all of whom, Cohen asserts, sought to reconceive the direct speech between humans and God and thus to reclaim those "realms of intimacy" in which the living voice of the divine once spoke. The brilliance of this essay, with its unexpected connections between avant-garde typography and modern theology, exemplifies the uniqueness of Cohen's own voice as a religious thinker. The writing produced by that voice was like nothing else in American Jewish culture.
Cohen, Arthur A. The Natural and the Supernatural Jew: An Historical and Theological Introduction. New York, 1962.
Katz, Steven T. Historicism, the Holocaust, and Zionism: Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Though and History. New York, 1992. See pp. 251–273.
Levinson, Julian. "Arthur A. Cohen's Resplendent Vision." Prooftexts 23 (2003): 259–267.
Morgan, Michael L. Beyond Auschwitz: Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought in America. Oxford, 2001. See pp. 14–54.
Stern, David, and Paul Mendes-Flohr, eds. An Arthur A. Cohen Reader: Selected Fiction and Writings on Judaism, Theology, Literature, and Culture. Detroit, Mich., 1998.
David Stern (2005)