Steinheim, Salomon Ludwig

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STEINHEIM, SALOMON LUDWIG (1789–1866), physician, poet, and theologian. Born near Hamburg-Altona, he studied at the University of Berlin and received his medical degree at the University of Kiel. He practiced medicine in Altona from 1813 to 1845 and was active in the struggle for Jewish emancipation in Germany, collaborating in political activity with Gabriel *Riesser (1806–63), and publishing essays in Riesser's literary journal Der Jude.

He spent the last 20 years of his life in Rome as a Jewish scholar. There he completed his magnum opus on revelation in Judaism, Die Offenbarung nach dem Lehrbegriffe der Synagoge, ("Revelation According to the Doctrine of Judaism"; 4 vols., 1835–65). Steinheim undertook this work to stem the tide of assimilation and conversion to Christianity by Jews emerging from the ghettoes in the post-Napoleonic era to become integrated in a more open society. He aimed to demonstrate the truths of Judaism's revealed religion as superior to the metaphysics of contemporary philosophies and Christian theology. He rejected the attempts of Jewish thinkers to reformulate the revealed doctrines of Judaism in terms or concepts of the philosophic systems of Schelling, Hegel, and other contemporary German philosophers.

The key to Steinheim's work is his contention that reason is deficient in its comprehension of reality. Reason's view of reality is bound by the law of causality. God is "necessarily" existent as the first cause initiating the chain of cause and effect which produced the world, life, and human beings. Reason is bound by another "necessary" principle, ex nihilo nihil fit, out of nothing comes nothing. The physical world could not have emerged out of nothing.

Reason is, therefore, compelled to assume the eternity of physical matter, an assumption that clashes with the law of causality, which demands some initiating cause, a beginning in time, contrary to the eternity of physical matter. There is no escape from this contradiction in which reason stumbles over itself except through the revealed doctrine of God as Creator who made the world out of nothing. The idea of God acting in absolute freedom, creating something out of nothing, and, derivatively, the idea of man's freedom of will, independent of the law of causality, cannnot be rationally conceived. Such knowledge can come to us only through revelation.

Steinheim recognized as revelation only doctrines, ideas, principles. Formulations of civil and cultic laws (Halakhah) are in Steinheim's view derivative, conditioned by time and place and secondary in importance.

Among his most original thoughts are his criteria for the validation of revelation. One of these is that revelation must have the character of novelty; it must be new truth not previously known, better yet, it must contradict previously held knowledge; it should not coincide with rational awareness since the supreme spirit would not solemnly announce to us truths which we already know or can determine for ourselves.

Another criterion of revelation is its historical appearance in time and place. Natural religion develops out of human consciousness in the course of generations. Divine revelation suddenly bursts upon the scene. It is an unprecedented illumination. Yeḥezkel *Kaufmann and Leo *Baeck also stressed the mystery of monotheism's sudden appearance as a radical departure from a pagan environment of polytheism.

Also cited as validation of revelation is the historical uniqueness of the Jewish people. The unparalleled survival of the Jews testifies to a supernatural element received through revelation.

Steinheim was not an anti-rationalist as charged by his critics, but a supra-rationalist. He used rational arguments with rigorous logic to demonstrate the superiority of revelation over speculative reason as a source of ultimate truths. At the same time, he recognized critical reason as an indispensable tool with which to detect misunderstandings of revelation and validate its truths. Nevertheless, the charge of anti-rationalism stuck and doomed his work to a century of neglect and obscurity.

Steinheim's isolation was further accentuated by his rejection of both Reform and neo-Orthodoxy. Reform, in his view, had embraced a shallow rationalism and degenerated into a "blind reforming mania." Neo-Orthodoxy was vainly trying to puff up Jewish tradition with zeal for ceremonial observance. Neither side addressed itself to the core of beliefs which is the essence of Judaism.

The revival of Jewish theological thought in the 20th and 21st centuries, initiated by Franz *Rosenzweig, and, in the wake of the Holocaust, disenchantment with the power of reason which had been so tragically overestimated, may make Steinheim's supra-rationalism more acceptable, and he may at last receive the recognition due him as a major Jewish thinker in keeping with Heinrich Graetz's judgment that "no one of his time or earlier, understood the foundations of Judaism as profoundly as did he."


J.O. Haberman, Philosopher of Revelation: The Life and Thought of S.L. Steinheim (1989); idem, "S.L. Steinheim's Critique of Messianism," in: Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, 11 (1993), xxv–xxxvi; A. Shear-Yashuv, The Theology of Salomon Ludwig Steinheim (1986); idem (ed.), Shelomoh Levi Steinheim, Iyyunim be-Mishnato (1994); J.H. Schoeps (ed.) "Philo des 19. Jahrhunderts": Studien zu Salomon Ludwig Steinheim (1993).

[Joshua O. Haberman (2nd ed.)]