Franz Rosenzweig 1886-1929

A biographical sketch of Rosenzweig, who needs to be re-discovered by Jews and Christians and for the modern Christian-Jewish dialogue.



Franz Rosenzweig 1886–1929


by Rüdiger Lux


Judaism is not the acceptance of a doctrine, of a religion and its rituals. It is the   experience of a pre-existent reality, which has its ultimate basis in Israel"s "being   with the Father", in the election of Israel. There may be times when this reality is   obscured by the manifold and colorful reality of the nations among whom the Jew lives. But   even hidden, it remains real and mysteriously active, and there may come a time when the   blessed gift, the heavy burden of its confirmation, is bestowed upon those born into it.


Rosenzweig, 11 years old, said to a teacher he wanted "to learn Hebrew   properly". At 20 and struggling with Aldolf Harnack"s liberal Protestant "Theology   of Compromise", he tried to account for his Jewishness: "It is the religion of my   fathers ... I like to observe some of the customs - without any real reason … I like to   think in the images of the biblical story."


His cousin, Hans Ehrenberg, converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1911.   Rosenzweig wrote to his own parents: "We are Christians in all things, we live in a   Christian state, go to Christian schools, read Christian books, our whole culture is based   on a Christian foundation." He came very close to the brink of the baptismal font. On   the evening of July 7, 1913, while discussing baptism with Eugen Rosenstock and his cousins   Hans and Rudolf Ehrenberg, Rosenzweig promised to get baptized. However, he made one   condition. He was, he said, not a goy, but a Jew, and wanted to take a closer look at   the things from which he would be separated by this conversion. He asked his relatives for a   time of contemplation and reviewing, a time of a last (or was it the first?) conscious   participation in the "Ten High Holy Days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur.   For him these became the "ten days of return" to his roots in Judaism. Later he   wrote to his cousin Rudolf saying: "It [conversion to Christianity] seems unnecessary   and for me impossible now. I remain a Jew." He expressed his resolve to reject   conversion saying: "We agree on what Christ and his Church mean in the world: no-one   comes to the Father but through him (Jn 14:6). No one comes to the Father - but it is   different when somebody does not have to come to the Father because he is already with him.   And this is so for the people of Israel (not with the individual Jew." The open bracket   before "(not … is confusing and needs to close. Perhaps "… (if not …   Jew)" or even "… Israel and for the individual Jew." ?


The character and path of the synagogue are quite different from those of the church. At   times they are in sharp opposition to each other, yet they belong together and stand   continually - though antithetically - as united in contradiction to a paganism that is   without revelation. By revelation Rosenzweig meant that which guarantees the continuous   vocation, the lasting right and continuing commission of church and synagogue. It is this   "objective origin" of each, this "fixed orientation", which at one and   the same time distinguishes them and binds them together.


Rosenzweig first studied medicine and then from 1907 to 1910 read history and philosophy.   He used the pursuit of German Idealism as the springboard for his own "new   thinking". "The thesis Goethe and the antithesis Kant is followed by the   synthesis, for which I know no name other than, so I hope, my own." In 1912 he   submitted a thesis for his doctor"s degree to Prof. Friedrich Meinecke. This was later   published in two separate volumes, first as Hegel und der Staat (Munich 1920) in   which he declared: "I believe my Judaization has made me not a worse, but a better   German." In 1926 he published an edition of minor texts Zweistromland. Here his   German and Jewish backgrounds flow together like two rivers, as they do in German Judaism.


He became widely acknowledged through his works where he maintained that there was only   one period in German history "where the professor of philosophy and the philosopher   were one and the same", and that was the time of classic German Idealism. However, it   was not enough for him to be just a mediator of this great spiritual tradition. He wanted to   find his own philosophical answer to life and not make himself comfortable in what he called   "the scholars" republic") [Gelehrtenrepublik]. "The professor engages   in a business that takes him out of the world into pure science." Contrary to this   image he saw in Prof Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) an ideal academic. "Instead of high-wire   acrobats doing their daring jumps on the trapeze of thought, I saw a human being. Here one   had the indestructible feeling: this man must philosophize, he has the treasure in himself   which forces the mighty word to light."


In 1913 Rosenzweig studied Judaism intensely and met Cohen, who had by then given up his   Chair of Philosophy at Marburg University to teach Jewish Philosophy of Religion at the   School for the Science of Judaism in Berlin. Rosenzweig inherited Cohen"s thinking in   correlation [Beziehungsdenken]. He did not use the word correlation, but the much   wider theological term covenant, all his thinking led him to consider the given relations in   which all things find themselves rather than the ideas of matter itself and the essence of   things, as had so many philosophers before him. All the philosophy he had read had been   monistic. The little word and had not been discovered by philosophers — God and   humanity, humanity and God, God and nature, nature and God. Rosenzweig   discovered in his Judaism the and of the correlations in which he himself stood.


The so-called quest for the historical Jesus attempted to free Jesus from all dogmatic   overlays. This quest tried to understand Jesus" claims in the context of his true and full   humanity, but the more his uniqueness became based on his historic existence, the stranger   and more distant he became: he could not become what the God-man of the dogma had been. The   counter move was to be expected. After the first half of the dogmatic paradox "true man   and true God" had been shipwrecked, one had to build on the second half, namely   philosophical theology instead of historical theology, on the Christ idea instead of the   historical Jesus idea. As Rosenzweig asked: "Or is it necessary to win back the courage   for the whole of the paradox?"


Rosenzweig saw in Buber"s Reden über das Judentum a similar dilemma. Buber had   tried to develop the idea of an ideal human community from his concept of Hebrew humanism,   in which the people of God live among the nations. Rosenzweig saw here the danger of a   theological evaporation of the Jewish people into a general idea which is not in any way   bound to their concrete existence: "The belief in the Jewish people cannot be based on   its historical character alone." Again Rosenzweig uses the and of Cohen and   encourages philosophers to stand up for the whole paradox, for "the election of the   people and the people itself". This and speaks of tension and polarity.   But only out of this tension, "this highest estrangement, can the eternal meaning of   the existence of our peoplehood proceed, the drive that always renews itself to reconcile   the unconditional duality into an unconditional unity." Rosenzweig interprets this   tension, this polarity with his concept of revelation because it is not kindled in humanity,   but even is opposed to humanity. Therefore it is necessary to have courage to face the whole   paradox: "In order to understand the Jewish people as the heart-piece of the faith, one   has to think the God who is the bridge between Jews and the rest of humanity."


The Star of Redemption (1985) is Rosenzweig"s great book where he systematically   set out his philosophical answer to life. Here he describes revelation as "dialogical   occurrence of language". The monologue of the old thinking is broken where the world is   only an It, a variety of objects, in which God too is an It, and about whom one could talk   and think as an object. The "new thinking" assumes that the I receives itself in   the You so that in the challenging call of revelation our eyes and our ears are opened.   "The human I is dull and dumb and waits for the redeeming word of God: "Adam, where are   you?" To this first loud You comes the first timid I of shame. This relationship moves in   the I and the You and again in the I."


The Star of Redemption is divided into three parts: The Elements, The Path and The   Form [Gestalt] which may be more fully described as the eternal transcendent world.


"All knowledge of the universe [das All] begins with death, with the fear of   death." The sub-title of The Elements is "Against the Philosophers".   Philosophers, the old thinking, had tried to quench the cry of death within themselves by   considering their essential existence, by looking for the eternal essence of their being.   But Rosenzweig describes this way of thinking as deeply diseased. He does not want to avoid   death as an experience of reality, and so does not enquire about essential nature, but real   nature. His "new thinking" begins with the experience of the reality of the   elements: God, World, Humanity. He does not ask about their essence and in this way can   easily jump over the problem of time and death. New thinking is to know, to acknowledge,   what God, World and Humanity do or what happens in them in time and reality. These are the   factual elements, the ever-existing perimeter [Vorwelt], though not goal, the   empirical starting point of his thinking.


In The Path Rosenzweig concerns himself with the relationship of elements with each   other. His central point is the concept of revelation as the real biblical miracle of faith   from which a theology, tired of miracles, has tried to distance itself. So his sub-title   here is "Against the Theologians". Here he develops the concept of revelation in   the great triad of past, present and future. In creation God is revealed in acts which are   always already there before I am. In the present God is revealed strictly speaking [im   engeren Sinn] by meeting us as the living word, as claim and offer of love. In the   future God promises revelation as redemption. The person then experiences revelation as a   dynamic relationship, the path where God moves from creation through revelation to   redemption.


This great world drama is told in three tenses, actually "told" only in the   book of the past. In the book of the present the "telling" is taken over by the   direct dialogue [Wechselrede]. And in the book of the future the language of the   chorus rules supreme, because the individual can only grasp the things of the future in as   far as that person is able to say We. Now thinking is replaced by speaking. "Thinking   is timeless … speaking is bound to time and nourished by time." In Rosenzweig the   dialogical philosopher becomes the "speaking thinker" [Sprachdenker].


In The Form he poses the questions: Does all that happened in the past culminate only in   the present, in the moment of perception? Is there nothing that gives direction and   character to this stream? Is there nothing left but the unredeemed instant? For this final   part Rosenzweig chooses as his sub-title, "Against the Tyrants". The present   kingdoms have no remaining form, because the redemptive future shines already into the   present. Rosenzweig saw this anticipation of the eternal kingdom realized in the communities   of synagogue and church, in their alternation of everyday life and day of rest, their   liturgy and their festive year cycle. Both synagogue and church have their basis in the   revelation of God"s name: "I am there and I will be there." (Ex 3:14).


In this last part of his book he enquires about truth, this innermost chamber of   revelation, of the name of God. Yet this truth has to be "different from the truth of   the philosophers … it has to be truth for everybody." Truth has to become our truth.   "Truth is no longer what is true, but becomes that which has been proved [bewährt]   to be true." This is the continuous task of synagogue and church, to prove the one   truth of God, truth which is given to them only as divided earthly truth. And they do this   in prayer and commandment, with which they keep the thirst for the eternal kingdom of   redemption unquenched in the midst of the unredeemed kingdoms of this world. Each prays and   lives according to truth as each receives and understands.


The Star of Redemption does not lead us out of this world beyond reality. Rather   it concludes with the stepping out into the world with the task of proving the truth in the   world. "About death …", are the first words of the book. Rosenzweig starts out   with a reality that is experienced very personally. "Into life …", are his last   words. The truth of revelation leads into the reality of life when it is proved [bewährt].   After completing The Star of Redemption Rosenzweig felt that he now had to personally   face up to proving the truth and not avoid reality by continuing to write books any longer.


In 1920 Rosenzweig founded Das Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus [The Free Jewish House of   Teaching]. Anybody was admitted without exam or testimonial. It was open to Jews and   non-Jews and not committed to any sect within Judaism, but to Judaism as a whole. Study was   not meant to consist of writing or reading books only. Rosenzweig wanted a new kind of   learning, what he called "a learning in the opposite direction". By this he meant   "a learning, no longer out of the Torah into life, but out of life, out of a world that   does not know about the law, back into the Torah …This is the signature of the present   time … Those of us for whom being Jewish has again become the central fact of our lives   … we all know that we have to sacrifice everything for Judaism, yet we cannot sacrifice   anything of Judaism. To give up nothing, to deny nothing, and then to lead everything back   to our Jewishness."


In teaching, monologue had to give way to dialogue, the written word was to be less   important than the living exchange. The bossy teacher would not walk among the students   anymore, the teacher must now turn and throw off the mandarin robe — only then would the   academic lion of oratory [der Vortragslöwe] no longer roar among plateachers.   "The lectern has too often been misused as a bad pulpit." Not the expert, but the   person turning to Judaism becomes a teacher. Among other prominent people engaged to teach   at the Lehrhaus was Martin Buber, whom Rosenzweig sometimes fondly called "Rabbi   Martin of Heppenheim".


The curriculum at the Lehrhaus embraced the whole spectrum of Jewish life:   philosophy and politics, law and ethics, art and metaphysics, the experience of God in   everyday life and the experience of personal liberation, letter writing and the laying of a   banqueting table. When one looks at the programs and curricula and tries to sense this   living learning and learning life, one cannot help but dream and wish for things to happen   also among Christians. In view of so much estranged Christian behavior [Christlichkeit]   one wonders if a Free Christian Lehrhaus could not be the place for a renewed   community of learning — a house of teaching, not committed to just one theological or   denominational stance, but ecumenically open, without preconditions, where teachers are not   experts but fellow learners?


In January 1922 Rosenzweig became ill with a quickly progressing paralysis. The Lehrhaus   continued to 1930. In 1933 Martin Buber opened it again.


The last gift we received from Rosenzweig was his participation, with Martin Buber, in   the translation of the Hebrew Bible into modern German. For more than four years, he worked   from his vemeat this translation. The hermeneutic principle they used came very close to   that used by Martin Luther: "Scripture is poison [Schrift ist Gift], so too the   holy one. Only when it is translated back into oral use, the spoken word" [Mündlichkeit]   can my stomach tolerate it." When Rosenzweig died on December 10, 1929, they had   reached Isaiah 53, the fourth song of the servant of God.


Daily, Rosenzweig had written and received letters. He did not finish his last letter:   "… and now it comes, the point of all points, which the Lord really gave me in my   sleep: the points of all points, for which it …". Here broke the thread of his life.

  © Copyright Rüdiger Lux, 1986.
  (Translation from German by Fritz Voll with editing by Barry Lotz)
  All quotations are a translation from the author"s German original, especially those from Der   Stern der Erlösung.
  Rüdiger Lux is Professor for Old Testament, Theological Faculty of the University of   Leipzig, Germany.
  For further reading:
  N. H. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig, His Life and Thought, New York, 1961.
  Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. William Hallo, University of Notre   Dame Press: London, 1985
  For a complete listing of primary and secondary literature for Franz Rosenzweig see L.   Anckaert and B. Casper, eds. Franz Rosenzweig : A Primary and Secondary Bibliography   (Instrumenta Theologica 7. Leuven: Bibliotheek van de Faculteit der Godgeleerdheid van de   K.U. Leuven, 1990).   "top