Commentary Magazine

Cedars of Lebanon:
Joy in the Holy Days

Hermann Cohen was born in the small town of Coswig, in Anhalt, Germany, in 1842. Abandoning his intention of becoming a rabbi—his father was a cantor and a teacher of Hebrew—he devoted himself instead to the study of philosophy. After attending the universities at Breslau, Berlin, and Halle, he was appointed instructor in philosophy at the University of Marburg, where, becoming a professor, he taught until 1912. There he founded the famous “Marburg School” of Neo-Kantianism.

His interest in Judaism—he had been given a thorough Talmudic training by his father, and had studied for a time at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau—was re-awakened in 1880 by the attack of the historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) on the Jews as an alien element in the German nation. Answering this charge in lectures and essays, Cohen became intensely concerned with Jewish thought and life (at this time he began calling himself Baal Teshuvah—the one who returns) and this concern led him, in 1904, to play a leading role in establishing the Society for the Advancement of Jewish Studies in Berlin. After retiring from his professorial post and moving to Berlin from Marburg, he concentrated his activities in Jewish channels, gathering about him a small circle of disciples, among whom was Franz Rosenzweig. By the time of his death in 1918, Cohen had made Judaism the basis of his own philosophic idealism, and in his numerous works on Jewish subjects had expounded Jewish Messianism as the key to the meaning of man in history.

The following excerpt forms the conclusion to Cohen’s monumental posthumous Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (Religion of Reason from the Sources of Judaism), and appears here as translated by William Wolf. Other selections from Cohen’s writings appeared in the “Cedars of Lebanon” for December 1945 and January 1946.—Ed.


It has great meaning that those Jewish holidays which are not directly dedicated to the idea of atonement are dedicated to joy. “Thou shalt rejoice in thy festival, together with thy children and servants, and with the strangers and the orphans and the widows” (Deut. 16:14). Joy is the very purpose and goal of a holiday: not the joy around Dionysus or Bacchus, but one defined by its being shared with strangers and the poor. Such joy is to bring the poor closer to yourself; you are to be happy with them and they are to be happy with you. Such joy is to raise man above social affliction; though this affliction cannot be ignored, it is, on the day of festival, at least to be overcome. The holidays would indeed lose all meaning and value if they were unable to implant for a short time joy in the heart of celebrating man.

And therefore joy in the festival—which joy is its very meaning and foundation—is also a symbol of peace. If it is true that holidays make joy a reality among men, the road to peace becomes a road to life. It is no illusion that the holidays are festivals of joy. The joy that is realized in the holiday of freedom, of deliverance from slavery, and of the divine call to become a kingdom of priests, is no deceptive joy. It is a truly historical joy that celebrates the revelation on Mount Sinai, the legislation of a moral world. And it is also a true joy which links the Festival of Harvest with the Wanderings through the Wilderness, concluding with the Rejoicing in the Law as a whole.

Joy is a well-established rubric for these holidays. Joy in the holidays proves peace a fundamental force of the soul and an important road to virtue. Like the festivals, the Sabbath too is such a symbol of peace, establishing a true joy in life and in society. If Judaism had given only the Sabbath to the world, by this alone it would have become a herald of joy and peace to the world. The Sabbath represents the first step toward the ending of slavery and the first step toward erasing the distinction between work of the hand and that of the brain. The Sabbath is the symbol of a joy that will rise over mankind when all men are equal in freedom as in work, in the search for truth as in the struggle for bread. When the Sabbath conquers the world there will be hope and the assurance that joy is not a vain thing, and that the Sabbath’s peace is a basic force for mankind, and will remain so. Among all the ways to virtue, peace may well be the straightest, even though that straightness is so often contested and doubted: for peace is the innermost, the least visible power of human and historical consciousness. The priestly blessing contains the essence of the divine blessing, and its conclusion is—peace. There is no blessing that can surpass peace, and mankind would not benefit by God’s blessing if He had not counseled peace to them. All virtue would go astray if peace were not the staff and the rod upon all the roads to virtue. For the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, means perfection, which is man’s very goal. Thus peace is man’s supreme goal, and all other goals of nature and of the mind are only means in respect to it. Peace is indeed the spirit of holiness. Peace as man’s goal is the Messiah who will resolve all struggles, even the struggle in man himself, and lead him to a reconciliation with God.

Peace in the joy of the festival is a characteristic of Jewish life. It is a miracle that, in spite of all the sufferings which have marked his history, the Jew has been able to preserve such equanimity, even humor, without which he could not have managed to rise out of the deepest humiliation to such proud heights. This miracle is due to the festivals! On the Sabbath as on the holidays, there was joy in the ghetto, no matter what sufferings the week had brought. Joy in the festival was a religious duty, and became an unshakable and vital force in Jewish consciousness.

But it could not have become that had not the mind’s peace been such a magical force. “Peace, peace, to him that is far off, and to him that is near, says the Lord, and I will cure him” (Isa. 57:19). Peace was the healing power of prophecy: peace as opposed to warfare, peace as opposed to human passions. Peace pertains to atonement and redemption. And it is founded on knowledge, on Torah. Therefore joy in the festival has always been a part of the study of Torah. Joy was thus founded on the spirit, it was an intellectual joy, so that it did not degenerate into sensuality, or into aesthetic illusions, or magic.

The Jew could never remain a man of mourning; his festivals and his studies raised him always into the heaven of joy. This he owed to peace, which, like other virtues, came to be his natural way of life. If the Jewish character can be described in one word, it is peace. Only he who explores Jewish consciousness to its religious depths can understand this unity. We should expect hatred and vengeance to rule the Jew’s mind since he has been hated and oppressed by the whole world. But Jewish teachings and Jewish life make this impossible. A life of religious duties, a life under the “burden of the Law,” has set this freedom and this peace into his heart, so that hatred and vengeance cannot dwell there. The burden of the Law is to him the burden of the Heavenly Kingdom, and the Kingdom of God is the kingdom of peace for all the nations.

There is no room for hatred if one believes in peace. Messianism is and remains the basic force of Jewish consciousness. The Messiah is the Prince of Peace. Life receives its meaning and purpose through peace. It is the crown of life.



Life ends in death. But this end is a new beginning. It is characteristic of Jewish consciousness that it connects death with peace. When mentioning the name of the dead, we add “peace is with him.” Peace removes the pain of death. It also solves the riddle of death. When a man is torn from life, he is not removed from peace but brought closer to it. He is now immediately under God’s peace. The memorial to the dead is therefore not concerned with the salvation of a soul, nor does it seek anyone’s deliverance from the terrors of Hell. A man has died with a confession on his lips; thus he has attained atonement, he will be saved by the grace of a forgiving God. “Above him is peace”—this is the best that we can say of his existence. Therefore the memory of the dead remains alive in the survivor’s imperishable feeling of gratitude and in his resolve to emulate the obedience of the dead.

It is this Jewish concept of death which proves more than anything else that peace is a main force of Jewish virtue. Death is the world of peace. The highest praise of death is that by partaking of peace it is distinguished from the world of struggle and error. Life shall seek peace—and find it in death. Therefore death is not the real ending of life but rather its goal, the prize for which it strives. He who loves peace cannot be afraid of death. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . . even in the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” In death too the Only God is with me. This is the climax in the concept of peace.

The Jewish consciousness is not afraid of death. This can be explained only by the absolute absence of any fear of Hell. God’s peace in the Jewish soul does not allow Him to be pictured as a judge of Hell. God is the God of Atonement, and even as a Judge he judges with atonement in mind. We remember our dead in the hope that their souls may be reunited with the souls of the Patriarchs. This is the one thought that is present at our memorial services.

As the Patriarchs themselves were “gathered to their people” when they died, so does every Jew die in the hope of historical survival, of being joined again with his forefathers. Thus death is historical survival. And in this survival it is peace which rules, a peace which has overcome all earthly struggle.

Therefore in a higher sense, too, peace is a way of virtue, leading to eternal life. And eternity is the very goal of all of human life. All temporal things lead to eternity if they are on the right path. That right path is the path of peace. Peace is the virtue of eternity.

It is quite remarkable that the Hebrew word for world, olam, also means “eternity.” “He hath set the world in their heart” (Eccles. 3:11). Because world is also eternity, one is able to substitute “eternity” for “world” in that Biblical verse. It is peace which explains the apparent contradiction between the two terms. Our present world cannot be called eternal since it is perishable. But this profound Hebrew word reveals our faith in the immortality of man and the eternity of the world. Even at a later time our language preserved this faith, by calling the cemetery “the house of eternity.” Death is peace. The grave is the house of eternity. This eternity is the true end of the world, the goal of earthly life. The path of peace leads to this eternity.

But this eternity is only the continuation of earthly life—the same root comprises both aspects of existence, and thus peace which leads to eternity is also the signpost pointing to earthly life, to the beginning of all historical survival. Peace is the symbol of eternity and also the watchword of human life, both in the acts of the individual and in the eternity of that life’s historical calling. Such historical eternity reflects Messianic mankind’s mission of peace.


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