Commentary Magazine


The Star of Redemption, by Franz Rosenzweig

God, Man, World

The Star of Redemption.
by Franz Rosenzweig.
Translated from the second edition of 1930 by William H. Hallo. Foreword by N. N. Glatzer. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 445 pp. $10.00.

To anyone even remotely interested in 20th-century Jewish thought the name of Franz Rosenzweig has long been familiar, as are the outlines of his extraordinary life. Born into a cultured, assimilated Jewish family in Kassel, Rosenzweig received only the most rudimentary Jewish education. His interests lay outside Judaism: first in medicine, then European intellectual history, philosophy, literature. At the University of Freiburg he came under the influence of the historian Friedrich Meinecke who prompted him to write a major treatise on Hegel and the State. But shortly before World War I, Rosenzweig underwent an intellectual—today we would probably say an identity—crisis. His great ability to comprehend the past and to give it form and shape, the historicist heritage of Wilhelm Dilthey and his teacher Meinecke, had set him aimlessly adrift. By endeavoring to understand all, he had lost himself. In the turbulence of a Europe rushing toward war, he began to seek a mooring that could hold fast against the inexorable tide of historical events. From the discipline of history he withdrew to existentialist philosophy and theology, from relativism to revelation.

For Rosenzweig, there seemed at first to be only one serious elaboration of a trans-historical point of anchorage. Relatives and acquaintances who had become serious about religion were unversed in Judaism and therefore chose Christianity as the obvious expression of their new faith. In the summer of 1913 Rosenzweig too was at the point of conversion. Only a decisive, perhaps theophanous, experience at Yom Kippur services in Berlin that year turned him around. He was compelled to conclude that while Christians must come to the Father via the Son, Jews, as God’s people, already dwelt with Him. Thereafter, Rosenzweig began a lifelong return to Judaism: intellectually, first by attending Hermann Cohen’s lectures in Berlin and later studying Jewish sources with Rabbi Nehemiah Nobel in Frankfurt; practically, with the gradual acceptance of an increasing portion of Jewish tradition as personally directed divine commandment.

In Frankfurt he founded an unusual institute of Jewish studies intended to reintroduce Judaism to those who, like himself, were trying to find their way back. There he drew into his orbit some of German Jewry’s brightest intellectuals, a number of whom taught at his Lehrhaus. And then, late in 1921, at the age of thirty-five, he noticed the first signs of a nerve disease which progressively paralyzed his body. Amazingly, he held on to life for another eight years: maintaining his sense of humor, writing essays, translating much of the Bible together with Martin Buber, and rendering into German Judah Halevi’s Hebrew poems without loss of meter or rhyme.

The remarkable, courageous life, the reversion to Judaism both theologically and in practice by one so absorbed in European culture, have kept Rosenzweig’s name very much alive in Jewish religious circles. He is spoken of favorably by traditional Jews for whom Buber—because he rejected the Hal-akhah and frequented no synagogue—is anathema. He has also served as a model for secular Jews seeking a return to religion.

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Until now the principal text for Rosenzweig in English has been Nahum Glatzer’s Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought1 which combines biography with brief selections from Rosenzweig’s shorter writings and letters. Included as well are a few excerpts from the Rosenzweig magnum opus, Der Stern der Erlösung (The Star of Redemption), most of which are taken from Part III. But this work as a whole remained untranslated, accessible only to those who could avail themselves of the German text. Most potential readers were thus unable to explore at first hand the philosophical basis for Rosenzweig’s return to Judaism and to appreciate fully the radicality of his thought. Now, fifty years after its first appearance in Germany in 1921, Der Stern der Erlosung is at last available in English. Here, finally, is Rosenzweig the systematic thinker, the “philosopher-theologian,” seen apart from his biography.

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The Star of Redemption is not a book to be read casually. It does not afford the aesthetic satisfaction of Buber’s I and Thou or of Abraham Heschel’s evocative writings. Rosenzweig wrote a philosophical-theological work which requires the utmost mental concentration and even then often leaves the best-intentioned reader in a quandary. Gershom Scholem has noted that in its time it was considered one of the most difficult works in the literature of philosophy. Rosenzweig himself suggested that it could not simply be read through in sequence. It must be conquered: first the citadel of the main ideas, then the minor fortresses of lesser points. In Weimar Germany the book went through two editions, but usually remained unopened on the shelves of cultured Jewish homes. Some thought, Rosenzweig once quipped, that it was an admonition to “keep kosher.”

Yet the main outlines of Rosenzweig’s thought are relatively clear. The book opens with the intractable and supremely individual fact of human mortality. All philosophizing begins with the fear of death and in some fashion tries to overcome it. The web of thought then spins outward to encompass God, man, and world in the single philosophy of the All. It is a tradition traceable from Parmenides to Spinoza and finally to Hegel, the object of Rosenzweig’s special interest and the last great expounder of the equation between being and reason. Ro/?/nzweig aims at nothing less than to commit high treason against the canons of this most central philosophical tradition, to follow the path of personal revolt already laid out for him in part by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. There is not, Rosenzweig insists, a single all-encompassing essence but three primal and irreducible entities which in their original state stand unrelated to each other: God, man, and world. They form the immutable points of a triangle that symbolizes the “pre-cosmos,” as Rosenzweig terms it. Despite all efforts, human reason remains unable to reduce their essential disparity. Pagan attempts to bring the points out of isolation—and Rosenzweig illustrates with abundant examples—have produced the mythical view of God, the plastic world of art, and the tragic, heroic man—but they have failed to bridge the chasms of isolation.

The three entities can be brought into real relationship only by the initiative of God, expressed first in the act of creation. For Rosenzweig, creation means God’s affirmation of the world, His summoning it into genuine existence and sustaining it in the relationship of creator and creature. As in creation God tears the world out of primordial seclusion, so in revelation God’s voice breaks through the isolation surrounding man as He turns to His creature in love. God’s only commandment is to requite the love. He says to man: “Love Me,” and nothing more. Yet out of this love is born a sense of sinfulness, for the first time a genuine soul, and an anguished prayer for the coming of the Kingdom which will universalize such love. More importantly, there arises out of God’s love the turning in love to neighbor and hence the task of “ensouling” the world. Man himself works at constructing the final link, that between man and world, whose goal is redemption—the ultimate all-embracing unity which philosophy posits at the beginning but Rosenzweig allows only at the messianic end. Thus, as the second triangle of creation, revelation, and redemption is superimposed inversely upon the first, a star takes shape which for Rosenzweig is no mere ethnic ensign of Judaism but the ultimate ontological symbol.

Judaism—and Christianity—are given special and complementary roles to play in this theological drama. Judaism anticipates the redemption even in the present moment. As God’s people, the Jews live in eternity even as they exist physically in time. In the circuit of the liturgical year the Jew already possesses an expression of the intimate relation with God which non-Jews must conquer for themselves in history. As it is the task of the Jew to dwell removed from the course of world events, so it is the Christian’s mission to master time, to proselytize the world and strip it of paganism. In Rosenzweig’s imagery, the Jewish people is the eternal flame that burns at the center of the Star, Christianity the eternal rays that reach outward into history. Together and inter-dependently they constitute the instruments of redemption.

That is the schema. Needless to say, such a skeletal outline does scant justice to the intricacy of Rosenzweig’s thought. His discussion is everywhere fleshed out by examples and modes of explanation drawn from such diverse sources as mathematics, grammar, liturgy, aesthetics, history of religion, biblical exegesis, and literature. A multi-dimensional symmetry takes shape for the reader who can assume distance and view the work as a whole. Emerging through the final “gate,” one can trace back a well-ordered course through the exquisite labyrinth of thought that separates the death of the beginning from the final mystical vision of the Countenance, which prompts not absorption—at least not yet—but leads immediately into life.

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Those who have so often and so casually mentioned Rosenzweig will now have to read the book. Without doubt most will be challenged and exhilarated. But they will also be frustrated and despair of understanding him fully. With all of its critique of philosophy, The Star of Redemption remains a speculative tour de force, intimately related to a philosophical world of discourse which is today far removed, especially for non-German readers. Nor will they find everything they may expect. For those who have looked to Rosenzweig for a justification of the traditional Jewish life, reading the Star will almost surely bring disappointment. At this particular stage in his thinking Rosenzweig chose to illustrate revelation by the relation of God and man as lover and beloved in Song of Songs, not by the Sinaitic commandments. Only in his shorter, later writings and letters, once he had himself come closer to the tradition, did he dwell upon the significance of the mitzvot.

Then, too, for many—perhaps most—who open its pages, the Star will appear simply too great an act of faith, too idiosyncratic a construction, too personal a vision. And some elements of Rosenzweig’s thinking will seem exceedingly narrow or even morally pernicious. Rosenzweig, to be sure writing well before Hitler, defined the Jewish people in frankly racial terms: it draws its eternity from the “mysterious sources of the blood.” One is born a Jew; one becomes a Christian. Having its existence outside of time, Judaism is expressed in the ever-recurring cycle of Sabbaths and Festivals, not by participation in historical events, neither those specifically concerning the Jewish people like Zionism (which Rosenzweig, unlike Buber, did not espouse, though he favored settlement on the land) nor those of world history, despite their ethical dimensions. For all of Rosenzweig’s own moral concern, his system makes historical action the sphere of Christianity, not of Judaism. As for other religions, they have no role at all in the scheme of redemption. Hinduism and Buddhism have been unable to bring the world out of its primeval seclusion, while Islam, the object of a sustained polemic, fails to qualify as a religion of genuine revelation. Rosenzweig’s Judaism-cum-Christianity plan of redemption may seem distressingly parochial, if not presumptuous.

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Translating The Star of Redemption from German is a formidable, almost hopeless task. Perhaps in no other philosophical work is verbal expression so intimately associated with idea, or the equivocality and specific structure of words within a particular language so purposefully used to evoke the embeddedness of an idea in human discourse. It seems almost as if the philosophy cannot exist outside the matrix of the German language. William Hallo’s translation must therefore be viewed with the utmost appreciation of the enormous obstacles it has had to surmount. Yet, unfortunately, the English text has fallen somewhat short of even realistic expectations. Although the translation was done with considerable care and successfully introduces some ingeniously devised English equivalents, its virtues must be measured against certain infelicities of style, a number of inaccurate and occasionally misleading renditions, and some inconsistencies in the translation of philosophical terms. The greatest defect, however, lies in the almost complete lack of explanatory notes and the absence of a comprehensive philosophical introduction. The index of names which is supplied does not substitute for notes; it offers only confirmation of a good guess. If, for example, I already suppose that the “most determined systematic philosopher of the last generation,” mentioned on page 102, refers to Hermann Cohen, I can verify my identification by looking under “Cohen” in the index. But there is no note on the page itself to apprise me of this information. Nahum Glatzer’s Foreword is surely of interest, yet it provides only the briefest explication of Rosenzweig’s philosophy. That relatively better justice might have been done to the work will be clear to anyone who compares the English version with the recent Hebrew translation by Yehoshua Amir, and its extensive philosophical introduction by Moshe Schwartz of Bar-Ilan University. To understand Rosenzweig in depth, therefore, one is well advised to keep at hand the German original, or at least avail oneself of the Hebrew.

After all of the above, is the book still worth reading? Unqualifiedly yes. For nowhere else, to my knowledge, has the 20th century produced a Jewish thinker so original and daring in his hypotheses, so vigorously systematic and yet so personal, so suffused with philosophy and yet so critical of its conventions. Reading The Star of Redemption in any language is a bracing, heady experience. The vision may not always compel, but it is surely worth trying to see.

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Footnotes

1 Schocken Books, Second Edition Revised, 1961.

About the Author




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