Obituary: Professor Nathan Rotenstreich

Hyam Maccoby
Saturday 27 November 1993 00:02

Nathan Rotenstreich, philosopher: born Sambor, Poland 1914; books include Tradition and Reality: the impact of history on modern Jewish thought 1972; married (two daughters); died Jerusalem 11 October 1993.

THE philosopher Nathan Rotenstreich grappled with the problem of the transition from tradition-based society to secularism. Though he investigated this from a specifically Jewish viewpoint, his thought is of value for all science- based societies seeking to retain moral and spiritual connection with the past.

Rotenstreich was born in Sambor, Poland, in 1914. He emigrated to Palestine at the age of 18 as an enthusiastic Zionist, and entered the Hebrew University, where he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1938. He pursued post-doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, and in 1949 returned to the Hebrew University as a research associate, rising to the positions of lecturer and professor in the department of philosophy. He was also an active administrator, serving as Dean (1958-62) and Rector (1965-69) of the Faculty of Humanities. He was a founding member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

For a period, Rotenstreich played an active role in Israeli politics, as a socialist who opposed, within the Mapai party, the realpolitik approach of David Ben-Gurion. He retired, frustrated, into academic life, where his prolific body of work put him in the forefront of Israeli philosophy and gained him international recognition. All his writings, in both Hebrew and English, are characterised by subtlety and originality.

Rotenstreich performed an important service to Israeli philosophy by his translations into Hebrew of philosophical classics. Together with his colleague SH Bergman, he translated Kant's three Critiques and On Eternal Peace. He also published the critical edition of Solomon Maimon's seminal philosophical work Giv'at hamoreh, a commentary on the work of Maimonides.

In his own thought, Rotenstreich saw tradition as an indispensable mode of apprehending reality. In this he followed an insight of the early Jewish philosopher Saadiah, which he related to modern conceptions of the role of language. In his Tradition and Reality: the impact of history on modern Jewish thought (1972), Rotenstreich examined the attempts of Jewish thinkers and historians from the 18th century on to reconcile Jewish tradition with the characteristically modern rejection of the past. He himself saw basic Jewish concepts, such as the dignity of man, as dynamically connected with the traditional process of ethical rule-making (halakhah); but he proposed a radical overhaul of this process.

In other books, Rotenstreich elaborated his viewpoint in a wide context of philosophical reference. Among these were Spirit and Man: an essay on being and value (1963), On the Human Subject: studies in the phenomenology of ethics and politics (1966), Philosophy, History and Politics: studies in contemporary English philosophy of history (1976), and Order and Might (1988).

In one book, The Recurring Pattern: studies in Anti-Judaism in modern thought (1963), Rotenstreich engaged with the negative attitudes towards Judaism of Kant, Hegel and Arnold Toynbee, showing how little these thinkers had emancipated themselves from medieval theological assessments of the historical role of Judaism.

Rotenstreich was awarded the Israel Prize for the Humanities in 1963 for his services to philosophy, a worthy tribute to a formidable contribution.

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