Judaism Despite Christianity. The “Letters on Christianity and Judaism” between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig.
Translated by Dorothy M. Emmet. Introductory Essays by Harold Stahmer, Alexander Altmann, and Dorothy M. Emmet. University of Alabama Press. 198 pp. $7.00.
Franz Rosenzweig is undoubtedly the secret (and often not so secret) saint of religious Jewish intellectuals. This is quite proper, for he represents both voracity for knowledge and the despair of ever achieving it; rebellious rejection of bourgeois and academic philosophizing along with an avidity for the post-Hegelian German Christian inheritance of autonomous fideism and existential philosophy. More important, however, Rosenzweig transcends these historical and philosophical dichotomies: he is a man who returned to ancestral Judaism, not as a simple penitent but as one who accepted the total heritage, reconciled it, and made of this reconciliation the grammar of a Jewish teaching for intellectuals. Then, sadly for the course of history but as befits a religious genius, he died prematurely, leaving behind a consummate statement of his philosophical thought, the magisterial The Star of Redemption. The present work, which contains the correspondence between Rosenzweig and Eugen Rosenstock on the subject of Christianity and Judaism, is a much earlier effort; indeed, it constitutes the earliest document of Rosenzweig’s journey along the way to faith. Yet, not surprisingly, his youthful thinking is more acute and luminous, more suggestive, than that of most mature thinkers.
Franz Rosenzweig and Eugen Rosenstock met for the first time in 1913 at Leipzig University where Rosenzweig’s uncle was on the Faculty of Law and Rosenstock, a convert to Christianity, two years younger than Rosenzweig, was a privatdocent lecturing in medieval constitutional law. Rosenzweig had studied medicine and then turned to history and philosophy; he had completed his dissertation on Hegel und der Staat for which publication was projected (it did not appear until 1920) and, well versed in the philosophical and theological foundations of medieval law, had sought out Rosenstock and became his pupil.
On July 13, 1913 Rosenzweig, his cousin, Rudolf Ehrenburg, and Rosenstock entered into a nightlong conversation which had as its point of departure Selma Lagerlöfs novel, The Miracle of the Antichrist. Rosenstock, already committed to his notion of Sprachdenken (“speech thinking”), according to which truth is the creative revelation of divine and human speech, pushed the resistant Rosenzweig to the limits of his rationalism. It was shortly after this encounter (one to which their correspondence frequently alludes) that Rosenzweig himself determined to become a Christian—out of, not despite, Judaism. But in the course of services at a small Berlin synagogue, in what was to have been his last experience of a Day of Atonement, he passed through a reverse conversion experience which returned him to Judaism as a Jew of faith. In 1916, Rosenzweig, by then an officer in an anti-balloon battery stationed in Macedonia, received a letter from Rosenstock, an officer on the Western Front, which, as Rosenstock remarks in his gnomic prologue, “unwittingly” initiated his and “Franz’s dialogue on Judaism and Christianity.”
When Rosenstock’s first letter arrived, Rosenzweig was still in the midst of feeling his way back into Judaism—not as a blind man, however, who inches around walls and over obstacles, but as a trained athlete who has shifted games: the pace, the energy, the endurance are intact, but inexperience and uncertainty alternate with tenacity and competitiveness. All this finds echoes in the correspondence which, as a human document, is splendid. As an intellectual document, the correspondence is no less remarkable, its close argumentation being justified less by the familiar interest in scoring points as by the fact that two human beings, profoundly respectful of each other, have joined in the highest play—those serious rites of the mind in which all learning is brought to bear to enhance gravity and delight. Nonetheless, at its depth the argument is for keeps, since these young correspondents understood that talk was life. None of the stunt-playing here of Luther’s Tischreden, or the arch self-consciousness of Goethe to Eckermann. This is not to suggest that either Rosenzweig or Rosenstock fancied himself greater than Luther or Goethe, only that it was truth and not showing-off (even to each other) that mattered.
Rosenzweig and Rosenstock were in full revolt against the academic post-Hegelian method of philosophizing. Philosophy then, as now, seemed at a dead end. Hegel had explained all things, and as the explicator par excellence his own mind had become the summation of reason, the incarnated logos which brought the wisdom of the Greeks and the faith of the Church to their consummation. Rosenstock no longer regarded himself as a philosopher, certainly no longer as the philosophical antithesis of Rosenzweig. Their precise divergency is therefore hard to locate, and the opening letters spar and ferret for the distinction. It is only when Rosenstock addresses Rosenzweig as “Dear Fellow Jew + post-Christum natum + post Hegel mortuum” [Letter 8] that the issue becomes joined, for however true it is that Rosenzweig was born into the era after the birth of Christ and the death of Hegel, he objects to joining in fellowship with a convert to Christianity. The two men are not Jews together before an overwhelming history, but Jews apart, for the one cannot understand the “stubbornness” of the other. The converted Jew can only know Judaism in “theoretical retrospect.”
The militant separateness of the Jew is a Christian dogma, but, as Rosenzweig makes abundantly clear, it is also Jewish dogma, for while the Church was making of Judaism a dogmatic impediment to its eschatological vision, the Jew was conceiving the mimetic faiths of Christianity and Islam as preparations for the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, Rosenzweig continues, the practical way “in which the theological idea of the stubbornness of the Jews works itself out, is hatred of the Jews.” This enmity is theologically justified since for the Jew of faith the cause of the Church is a “fiction,” and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ an indisputable fact which would have to be repeated—that act alone—if any man should ever again confuse himself with God. The Jewish correlative to Christian hatred of the Jews is not so much stubbornness as pride. Through these simple points of view, narrow and limited as Rosenzweig admits, “one can understand why the Jew can afford his unmediated closeness to God and why the Christian may not; and one can also understand how the Jew must pay for this blessing.”
The correspondence is not limited to the personal standpoints of the writers. It expands from there, pressing historical controversy, Scriptural interpretation, the era of Johannine freedom in the aftermath of both Hegel and the French Révolution, to the ultimate theological issue, the nature of revelation. Revelation means, Rosenstock proposes, orientation. After revelation there is real distinction in the universe, “above” and “below” in space and “before” and “after” in time. In “natural” space and time, the center is always perspectival, marked by the position of him who numbers movements and events. But in the “space-time” of revelation, the center is fixed, the beginning is begun, the end can be previsaged, and the personal center is oriented by the truth revealed. Rosenzweig’s own formulation of the problem of revelation, articulated in The Star of Redemption, was discovered a year after this correspondence ended, but it is a formulation which leans gratefully upon Rosenstock’s suggestion.
The timeless relevance of this correspondence is to be found in its postural form as much as in its substance. It tells us something about that neglected category of human love, philia. The friendship of both thinkers did not, as it does for most of us, demand that areas of human thought and feeling be shrouded in darkness and obscurity. Rosenstock, for instance, knew perfectly well of Rosenzweig’s love for Hermann Cohen, but that did not prevent him from being ironic at Cohen’s expense, particularly since it drew forth from Rosenzweig impassioned clarifications; nor did Rosenzweig feel embarrassed at reminding Rosenstock that his conversion left him a defective, rather than a completed, Jew. The two men addressed each other as persons who, if not yet whole, could be made whole by the right speaking of the Word, the whole Word of God and the broken word of man.
The correspondence of Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy, then, constituted a dialogue in the true sense of the word. At the very least it should serve to remind us, in this time of organized ecumenical confrontations between Christians and Jews, that it is not Christianity and Judaism that can meet most successfully, but single Christians and single Jews, and that, in meeting, unless theirs be natural philia, the distortions of theological enmity will not be dissolved.