Image of an interfaith dialogue demonstrating respect and understanding among diverse religions. The scene embodies community togetherness and the essence of humanity, generative ai

Recently, the Fetzer Institute had the honor of interviewing our partner, Dr. Shira Billet from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Dr. Billet's research focuses on the beginnings of modern Jewish philosophy and its place within the history of philosophy, especially ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of religion. She is partnering with Fetzer on an upcoming event on the theme of love and friendship in Jewish and political thought.

Dr. Billet is Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Prior to her role with JTS, she was a postdoctoral associate in Judaic Studies and Philosophy at Yale University. She completed her doctorate at Princeton University in 2019.

Fetzer Institute (FI): Can you describe a bit about how the development of modern Jewish thought during the 19th and early 20th century (your area of expertise) connects to our current political and cultural moment?

Dr. Shira Billet (SB): Modern Jewish philosophy was born in the context of a political struggle for civil rights for Jews in modern Europe. My research focuses on one of the most important modern Jewish philosophers, a German Jew named Hermann Cohen (1842-1918). Cohen studied philosophy at German universities and made a name for himself as an interpreter of Plato and Kant. He helped found a prominent school of German philosophy that focused on reviving Kant’s philosophy. Cohen believed that philosophy needed to be scientific, grounded in mathematics and logic, but also that it needed to be grounded in human cultural history, and oriented above all toward ethics and just politics.

It’s important to know that it was very unusual for a Jew to become a professor of philosophy at a German University in that era. Philosophy departments were important engines of German culture, and Jews were typically excluded from their upper echelons. Cohen was thus in a rather unique position. In the beginning, he understood that he needed to keep his Judaism separate from his philosophical work. But there’s a fascinating moment in Cohen’s career when he begins to shift from writing commentaries on the history of philosophy to writing more of his own philosophy. This moment also coincides with him incorporating more Jewish sources into his philosophical writing, and also beginning to write philosophical pieces for Jewish audiences. He began to take on the role of a public philosopher, and also a Jewish philosopher.

This came at a moment when antisemitism had been on the rise in Germany for over a decade. Tragically for German Jews, this began shortly after they had obtained full civil rights in 1871, just as they were hoping to fully integrate into German society.

This radical political shift in the legal status of Jews had aired all sorts of underlying social and political tensions, anxieties, and fears.

One consequence was that antisemitism became more vehement, more widespread, and more mainstream. By the 1880s, antisemitism in Germany was unlike anything Cohen had experienced in his first four decades of life.

In 1888, things came to a head in the small university town where Cohen lived and worked. Events at a local rally for an antisemitic political party had led to a libel court case in the local municipal courthouse. Part of what the court needed to adjudicate in the context of the case was whether the Talmud—the core corpus of traditional Jewish texts second only to the Hebrew Bible—was an unethical corpus, and whether the Jews were an unethical people, as the alleged slanderer had claimed. While such public claims about the Talmud and the Jews had a long history in Germany and Europe, they took new political urgency as they sowed mistrust and division within the modern multi-religious, multi-ethnic state. The ability to integrate its newly legally emancipated Jews into the political community became a litmus test for the success of this enlightenment political project, which Cohen saw as a fundamentally ethical project based on a commitment to the complete equality of all human beings.

Cohen became a public philosopher—and a Jewish philosopher—the moment he stepped into the courtroom as an expert witness and publicly expressed an ethical reading of the Talmud. I argue in my work that Cohen took inspiration from Socrates, the founder of philosophical ethics, who also philosophized publicly from a courthouse at the time of his own trial. Cohen saw Socrates as a figure who wanted to help ancient Athens stay the course toward becoming a more ethical political community. Socrates’ decision (as documented in Plato’s Crito) to testify in court and face his unjust sentence, rather than to flee Athens, was an act of self-sacrifice for the betterment of the political community, for the advancement of ethics in political life. Only the philosopher’s public testimony and self-sacrifice could accomplish this goal. Cohen wasn’t forced to drink hemlock, but his choice to philosophize from the courthouse also came at great personal cost. He suffered professionally in significant ways for this violation of the norm that Judaism and its traditional sources ought to be kept out of philosophy.

Kant’s categorical imperative, one of the greatest philosophical expressions of universal ethics, had been born in Germany, much as Athens had been the birthplace of philosophical ethics. But just as Athens wasn’t living up to its values, neither was Germany. The role of the public philosopher was to continue to hold up those values to a resistant political community. This was part of what Cohen saw as philosophy’s contribution to politics, both historically and in the present.

These trials—in ancient Athens and in 19th century Germany—arose in contexts of great political and philosophical change. Wherever there is great change, fear and mistrust rear their heads. We see similar dynamics in America today. Today’s contexts for civic mistrust are quite different from 19th century Germany and ancient Athens. There are many irresponsible uses of the past and one must be careful not to impose the past onto the present or the present onto the past. Still, if we can find ways responsibly and with great care to draw appropriate analogies to our present-day challenges, we may also find within the past methods, ideas, and resources that can help us face the thorniest issues of our present moment.

FI: Is there a Jewish idea of civic friendship? What is its significance to fostering healthy social and political communities?

SB: When Cohen spoke about the ethics of Jewish sources, beginning with that 1888 trial, the central tradition he tried to recover was that of love for the political stranger, based on biblical sources about the resident-stranger in the ancient Hebrew state. This is the basis of a kind of civic friendship that can help a state face the challenge of incorporating a marginalized other. In Germany in his lifetime, the quintessential political stranger was the Jew. Cohen recognized how hard it was to achieve friendship and to build trust with the stranger. In a eulogy he penned upon the passing of the famed Protestant Bible scholar Julius Wellhausen, an erstwhile colleague and neighbor, Cohen reflected on the inherent challenges in developing true friendship between Jews and Christians in that era. Although he describes mutual respect, collegiality, and even mutual forms of affection in his relationship with Wellhausen, social forces proved too great an obstacle toward achieving complete mutual trust between Jews and Christians. Cohen expresses a wish for a future in which this divide can be bridged and more such true friendships achieved. This has resonance with contemporary challenges of mistrust and obstacles to friendship and civic friendship among historically divided groups in America today.

Embedded in Jewish traditional understandings of Judaism’s own history is a strong sense that civic enmity seeds the demise of the social order, and that a kind of civic friendship is a necessary ingredient for any flourishing society.

We see this in traditional Jewish reflections on the destruction in 70 CE of the second Temple and with it the Jewish polity, one of the most pivotal turning points in Jewish history. Although ancient Rome was the political power that destroyed the polity, according to traditional sources, Rome was able to achieve this political victory because the social fabric of the Jewish political community had already irreparably frayed through civic enmity. The Hebrew term for this is sinat hinam, a civic hatred that is unjustified, even if there are understandable reasons that explain the genesis of the enmity. Sinat hinam thus ought to be overcome rather than embraced. Such a restoration of trust and friendship, however, entails incredibly hard work and mutual sacrifice.

This reflection on civic enmity's toxicity, and on how difficult it is to reestablish civic trust, resonates today. Many of us recognize that American society is tearing apart from within with our hyper-polarization. We know that we need to establish a new social fabric built on trust and solidarity across our differences. But civic friendship is challenging, especially when the divisions run deep, and the mistrust is based in real violations of trust. The challenge is to overcome the enmity in a way that is mutual and reciprocal, fair to all parties involved, and attuned to historical contexts and injustices.

I believe that most people prefer friendship to enmity, mutual respect to mutual animosity. But there are powerful forces operating in our world and in our lives that thrive on sowing mistrust, on deepening divides rather than encouraging us to bridge them. Many of us are caught up in these forces, but we are longing for lifeboats that can help us steer a new course.

FI: Can you tell us about your upcoming event?

SB: The upcoming JTS event on Love in Dark Times taps into this desire for a new course away from enmity toward love and civic friendship. We’re trying to see how ideas from the past—primarily from Jewish philosophical, literary, and theological traditions—speak to contemporary concerns. Showcasing the work of excellent scholars, the event will be of interest to non-scholars too, giving special consideration to how this scholarship can speak to this moment in political and ethical life.

Learn more about Shira Billet and the Jewish Theological Seminary