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Rotenstreich, Nathan


ROTENSTREICH, NATHAN (1914–1993), Israeli philosopher and author. Born in Sambor, Poland, the second son of Fischel *Rotenstreich, a distinguished leader of Polish Jewry, Nathan Rotenstreich joined the Zionist movement in his early youth. He immigrated to Ereẓ Israel in 1932 and soon became known as an original thinker and prolific writer. In 1951 he joined the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he taught philosophy for close to four decades. From 1958 to 1961 he was dean of the Humanities Faculty and in 1965–69 rector of the university. An academic philosopher, who was intensely engaged in the upbuilding of the Jewish community, the so-called Zionist yishuv, in Palestine, and then in the State of Israel, Rotenstreich was a public intellectual par excellence. A prolific scholar, who published some 30 books and 600 scholarly articles (in English, French, German, and Hebrew), he tirelessly wrote political and cultural feuilletons for the Israeli daily press, cultural journals, political forums, and educational bulletins, responding to issues of the day. His committed engagement in the public discourse of the State of Israel was borne by his conviction that philosophical culture has a direct bearing on the task of furthering human dignity in the realm of history and politics. Dedicated to systematic, "conceptual clarification" – a term that, indicatively, recurs frequently in his writings – philosophy should, he held, contribute decisively to heightening the rational understanding required if human beings are to act within history in a judicious and ethically responsible manner.

Accordingly, the historical dimension of human existence determined much of the thematic thrust of both his scholarship and popular writings. He contemplated history not as an account of the past, but as a way of explaining the present, more precisely, the object of his inquiry was historical knowledge as it is bears on the present. This focus took his work in two distinctive but related directions: the epistemology of historical knowledge and the cultural function of historical consciousness, especially within the context of the modern Jewish experience. As a modern historical consciousness took hold of the Jews, Rotenstreich argued, the structure of Jewish life and sensibility was radically transformed. Modern Jewish thought is thus straddled with the twin challenge of historicism – which pits the relativistic conclusions of critical historiography against traditional Jewish memory and self-understanding – and the "return of the Jews to history" as conscious actors in the shaping of their own political destiny. This process, which is one of the hallmarks of secularization, Rotenstreich observed, was set into motion by European Jewry's quest for civic emancipation, a protracted struggle whose dialectic ineluctably led to Zionism and the restoration of Jewish political sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

In contrast with many of the early Zionist thinkers, Rotenstreich deemed the mere renewal of Hebrew as the secular vernacular of the Jewish people to be in and of itself an insufficient basis to ensure that the emerging culture sponsored by Zionism would have the requisite "energy" to engage the minds and souls of contemporary Jews. Although Hebrew is a necessary condition for the development of an intellectually and spiritually compelling Jewish national, that is, secular culture, he argued, it must be supplemented by a well-informed knowledge of the sources of Jewish tradition. A sound grounding in the classical texts of Judaism would also facilitate a desired dialogue between secular Jews and those Jews still bound to the religious beliefs and practices of the tradition. This dialogue, Rotenstreich affirmed, will allow Judaism to remain, even for the secular Jew, the grammar of Jewish imagination and creativity.

In his political activity, Rotenstreich identified himself with *Mapai, the dominant party in the Zionist Labor movement, but in 1961 he joined the break away faction led by Pinḥas *Lavon, Min ha-Yesod, which strongly opposed to David Ben-Gurion's leadership. As a philosopher, he had a deep interest in German idealism and particularly in Kant and neo-Kantianism. Widely regarded as one of the leading contemporary Kantian scholars, Rotenstreich also emerged as a philosopher in his own right, initiating a series of systematic treatises on historical knowledge. He developed an original set of philosophical principles with which he sought to clarify the epistemological and phenomenological character of various human activities, such as, religious and secular faith. Rotenstreich was clearly influenced at this stage by *Husserl's phenomenology. His writings contain vigorous criticism of many philosophical trends, such as existentialism, Marxism, neo-positivism, linguistic philosophy, and even some specific approaches within the phenomenological movement. In 1963 he was awarded the Israel Prize in the humanities. At the time of his death he was the vice president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Education.

His writings include Between Past and Present: An Essay on History (New Haven 1958); Jewish Philosophy in Modern Times: From Mendelssohn to Rosenzweig (New York 1968; 2nd ed., Detroit 1994); Tradition and Reality. The Impact of History on Modern Jewish Thought (New York 1972); Essays on Zionism and the Contemporary Jewish Condition (New York 1980); Jews and German Philosophy (New York 1984); Essays in Jewish Philosophy in the Modern Era, with an introduction by P. Mendes-Flohr, edited by R. Munk (Amsterdam 1996); Wege zur Erkennbarkeit der Welt (Freiburg 1983); On Faith, ed. P. Mendes-Flohr (Chicago 1998).

For a comprehensive intellectual biography of Rotenstreich, see A.Z. Bar-On, "Nathan Rotenstreich," in: Interpreters of Judaism in the Late Twentieth Century, ed. by Steven T. Katz (Washington, d.c., 1993), pp. 229–48.

[Paul Mendes-Flohr (2nd ed.)]

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