Franz Rosenweig
Franz Rosenweig; drawing by David Levine


The story of Franz Rosenzweig’s life is among the most moving in the history of twentieth-century thought. Rosenzweig was born on Christmas Day 1886 into an assimilated Jewish family in Kassel, Germany. Although there was a long tradition of religious learning in the family, Franz acquired only a superficial introduction to Jewish life at home, where the Sabbath was not celebrated. His family hoped he would pursue a medical career but at the University of Freiburg his interests shifted to philosophy and modern history under the influence of the distinguished scholar Friedrich Meinecke, who supervised his doctoral dissertation. A gifted student, Rosenzweig gave every appearance of being a conventional academic in the years leading up to the First World War.

Internally, though, he was tormented by religious and philosophical questions that scholarship could not help him address. A number of his close Jewish friends and relatives had converted to Christianity, not for the usual social reasons but out of spiritual conviction. They had come to the conclusion that the relativism of contemporary philosophy was false and that all existence depended on divine revelation. They were also convinced that the Christian conception of revelation was the purest and had made the modern world possible. Rosenzweig was susceptible to these arguments. He was particularly taken with his friend Eugen Rosenstock, a convert who was already established academically and would later have a career as a historian in the United States. After several long, heated discussions with Rosenstock in the summer of 1913 Rosenzweig announced his intention to convert, telling his astonished mother that the New Testament was true and that “there is only one way, Jesus.”

What happened next is now part of legend. Before converting to Christianity, the story goes, Rosenzweig decided to attend Yom Kippur services one last time, and there he experienced what might be called a preemptive counter-conversion, deciding on the spot to devote himself to Judaism. That, in any case, was the account Rosenzweig’s mother gave. He himself never wrote about the incident and it is doubtful he would have described such a melodramatic, quasi-Christian awakening. Still, we know from his letters that something important did happen in the fall of 1913, making it possible for him to write to one of his converted cousins, “I have reversed my decision. It no longer seems necessary to me, and therefore, being what I am, no longer possible. I will remain a Jew.”

Rosenzweig was as good as his word. That fall he began to meet with the eminent neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen, who after his retirement from Marburg taught philosophy at a Jewish institute in Berlin, where Rosenzweig was studying Hebrew and Talmud. He also met Martin Buber, who would become a lifelong friend and collaborator, and began writing essays on the nature of Judaism. When the war broke out Rosenzweig was sent to an antiaircraft unit on the Macedonian front, which was relatively quiet. That left him time to pursue his studies and even to meet some Sephardic Jews, whose lives of simple piety deeply impressed him. While in Macedonia Rosenzweig also began work on a book to be called The Star of Redemption, which was an exercise in what he called “the new thinking” and offered a compelling if idiosyncratic account of Jewish experience. Notes for the book were copied onto postal cards which he mailed back to his mother for safekeeping, and it was from these that he reconstructed and published the book after the war.

In 1920, while working on an edited version of the Star, Rosenzweig was called to Frankfurt to become director of a new Jewish studies center (Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus), one of the most important nuclei of the short-lived Jewish reawakening of the Weimar years. He also brought his first life to an end by publishing his dissertation on Hegel’s theory of the state, an essential study that is still consulted today. His teacher, Friedrich Meinecke, was so pleased with it that he offered Rosenzweig a university lectureship, but was turned down. In a moving letter to the baffled Meinecke Rosenzweig explained how the spiritual crisis of 1913 had put his life under “a ‘dark drive’ which I’m aware that I merely name by calling it ‘my Judaism.'” From that point on the pursuit of knowledge seemed to him increasingly vain unless put in the service of flesh-and-blood individuals seeking a way to live. And when The Star of Redemption was published the next year to few and generally uncomprehending reviews, Rosenzweig took it stoically. The center of his life was no longer even Jewish thought, it was the renewal of Jewish life itself.

The Frankfurt study center was open between 1919 and 1926. Its teachers and students, ranging from future scholars of Judaism to secular thinkers like Erich Fromm and Leo Strauss, were put through a rigorous program meant to lead them from their assimilated lives back to a direct encounter with the sources of the Jewish tradition without the mediation of modern philosophy or reformed theology. Yet no sooner had this worthy effort begun than Rosenzweig fell ill with a degenerative condition, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), which doctors said would kill him within the year.


Defying their predictions he lived another seven years, producing a steady current of essays, reviews, and translations under the most arduous conditions imaginable. He first wrote on a specially equipped typewriter; when his muscles failed he communicated with his wife by blinking as she passed her finger over a board with the alphabet on it. In this manner, without ever leaving his apartment again, he managed to translate the poems of Judah Halevi, as well as, with Martin Buber, the first ten books of the Hebrew Bible. He died in December 1929 in Frankfurt, where his gravestone still stands.

If the concept of valor can be applied to the life of the mind, Franz Rosenzweig was a hero. And therein lies a problem. The temptation to focus on Rosenzweig’s exemplary life and pass over his thought uncritically was great until quite recently. Rosenzweig’s pedagogical activities offered an inspiring example of Jewish self-assertion in the face of cultural assimilation and intellectual deracination, and his physical suffering seemed a saintly symbol of the agonies of the entire Jewish people and their determination to survive. His writings, though, were forbidding and largely inaccessible. In 1953 Nahum Glatzer published in English a lovingly compiled anthology of excerpts from his teacher’s public and private writings, woven together to trace his spiritual development up until his early death. This book, recently reissued with a new foreword by Paul Mendes-Flohr, director of the Franz Rosenzweig Research Centre in Jerusalem, spurred interest in his life and is still extremely useful, despite its fragmentary character and hagiographical tone. An English translation of The Star of Redemption only appeared in 1970 and its imperfections ensured that few readers would penetrate it. Thus Rosenzweig remained a mythical figure among modern Jewish thinkers but not a living force.

In the past two decades all that has changed. Rosenzweig’s Collected Works began appearing in German in the late Seventies, facilitating translation of his major and minor works in many languages. Serious Rosenzweig studies had begun and every year seems to bring with it new monographs and translations.1 This is all to the good. Now English readers are finally in a position to consider Rosenzweig seriously as a thinker and to ask themselves the question toward which all his activity pointed: What does it mean to live—and not merely think—as a Jew today?


In his private diaries Rosenzweig dropped a curious remark that turns out to offer a key for entering his thought. “The battle against history in the nineteenth-century sense,” he wrote there, “becomes for us the battle for religion in the twentieth-century sense.” What does it mean to battle against history? And what is religion—and Judaism in particular—“in the twentieth-century sense”?

For Rosenzweig and his intellectual generation in Germany, “history” meant the philosophy of history, which in turn meant Hegel. Throughout the nineteenth century, Hegel had been understood, correctly or not, as having discovered a rational process in world history that would culminate in the modern bureaucratic state, bourgeois civil society, a Protestant civil religion, a capitalist economy, technological advances, and, of course, Hegel’s own philosophy.

This was the prophecy, and when it was first distilled from Hegel’s works it was welcomed throughout Germany. As the prophecy approached fulfillment near the end of the nineteenth century, horror set in and a deep cultural reaction followed. Expressionism, anti-modernism, primitivism, irrationalism, fascination with myth and the occult—a Pandora’s box of movements and tendencies was opened. The horror was genuine: if Hegel and his epigones were right, the whole of human experience had been explained rationally and historically, anesthetizing the human spirit and foreclosing the experience of anything genuinely new, personal, or sacred. It meant, in Max Weber’s chilling phrase, “the disenchantment of the world.”

Whether or not this is what Hegel intended, it certainly is how he was understood, even within the German philosophical establishment, which took seriously his claim to have completed, and thus ended, the history of philosophy. The rebellion against this claim took many forms. Some sought a return to earlier thinkers, such as Kant or even Descartes, in the hope of establishing new grounds for believing that thought could remain independent of history. Others took a more subjective path, turning to Nietzsche or the existential paradoxes of Kierkegaard, who was just being translated into German at the end of the century.


These turns, accompanied by a growing sense that Hegel’s historical consciousness had brought the entire culture to a crisis of relativism, would bear ripe philosophical fruit in the early writings of Martin Heidegger. As Peter Eli Gordon shows in his accomplished study of Heidegger and Rosenzweig, though these two thinkers never met they were comrades in the philosophical battle against “history in the nineteenth-century sense” and shared many of the same views. Among them was the conviction that from its very inception philosophy had made an error by turning away from what Rosenzweig called “the everyday of life” and had lost itself in what Heidegger called “metaphysics.” They also held that some kind of therapeutic return to ordinary experience had to be accomplished by a new kind of thinking.

Rosenzweig’s call to a “battle for religion in the twentieth-century sense” was also directed against Hegel, although the more proximate target was the school of theology that had dominated German religious thinking throughout the nineteenth century. This “liberal” theology began as an attempt to work out a compromise between the doctrines of Protestant Christianity and modern thinking, and in this effort Hegel proved a useful ally. Hegel did not share the French Enlightenment view that religion was mere superstition; nor did he be-lieve that it would be extinguished by the natural development of modern life. He held instead that Protestantism and the modern state were fundamentally harmonious and that even with the culmination of history religion would continue to serve a quasi-bureaucratic function, helping to reconcile individuals to the state through moral and civic education. The leading German Protestant theologians of the nineteenth century, still bruised from the Enlightenment’s attacks, were willing to accept this limited but secure position in the Hegelian scheme.

Odd as it may seem today, many Jewish thinkers in the nineteenth century aspired to the same position. The emancipation of Germany’s Jews at the beginning of the century had brought with it the creation of a new intellectual discipline, free from the closed traditional world of rabbis and yeshivas, called the “science of Judaism” (Wissenschaft des Judentums). The aims of this discipline were reformist and apologetic. By demythologizing those aspects of Judaism that erected cultural barriers against the entrance of Jews into the current of modern life, liberal Judaism hoped to enlighten the Jewish people and make them more acceptable to Christian fellow citizens. Hegel’s insistence that only Protestantism, as the most mature form of religious experience, was compatible with modern life was, in their view, just a detail. Once the fundamental moral teachings of Judaism, separated from the dross of superstition and tradition, were shown to be virtually identical to those of Protestantism; once modern Jews became fully participating citizens of a modern state; once, as Hermann Cohen infa-mously put it, the spiritual harmony of Deutschtum and Judentum was allowed to develop—then, liberal Jews reasoned, the Protestant prejudice would be forgotten and Judaism’s place in the modern firmament would be assured.

By the early decades of the twentieth century the theological-political illusions of liberal theology were only too apparent to the most thoughtful Protestants and Jews. After the disaster of the First World War the young Swiss pastor Karl Barth wrote an explosive book called The Epistle to the Romans that threw into doubt everything liberal Protestantism stood for—humanism, enlightenment, bourgeois culture, the state. Barth’s call to smash the idols and make an existential decision, against the modern spirit and for a suprahistorical faith, changed Protestant thought forever. Rosenzweig’s place in modern Jewish thought is similar to Barth’s among Protestants, with one important difference. While Barth believed that a return to the basic faith of Saint Paul and the Reformers was both necessary and possible, Rosenzweig never for a moment considered returning intellectually to any sort of Orthodox Judaism. For him—and, he believed, his entire generation—this was impossible. A century of assimilation had produced Jews so spiritually atrophied that they could no longer be Jews in a full sense without some sort of inner transformation. The problem of contemporary Jewish education, Rosenzweig wrote in 1924, was to determine “how ‘Christian’ Jews, national Jews, religious Jews, Jews from self-defense, Jews from sentimentality, loyalty, in short, ‘hyphenated’ Jews such as the nineteenth century has produced, can once again, without danger to themselves or Judaism, become Jews.” Given the damage done by theological liberalism, only a “hygiene of return” could fully renew the Jewish people.

The notion of return is what links Rosenzweig’s two-front battle, against history and for religion. Modern philosophy, which reached its culmination in Hegel’s philosophy of history, had cut man off from life and alienated him from what is most his own. Modern liberal theology, whether Christian or Jewish, had gone further by alienating him from his God, whose commands had been reduced to the level of good citizenship and bourgeois propriety. If man was to return to himself and his God, if he was to learn to live fully again, he would have to undergo some sort of therapy. That is what Rosenzweig’s writings aimed to provide.


It is understandable that readers seeking to understand Rosenzweig will turn first to The Star of Redemption, which is rightly considered his magnum opus. Few get very far into it, though, for that mystical, seven-sealed work does little to explain Rosenzweig’s therapeutic intent. A better way to begin is to consult a little book that he wrote (but never published) to introduce his ideas to a wider public, and which has now been reissued in English translation as Understanding the Sick and the Healthy.2 This is a small masterpiece of German philosophical prose, at once playful and profound. The conceit is that it is a medical report, written to ordinary readers over the heads of “experts,” concerning a patient who falls ill and must be cured—the illness being philosophy. Before taking to his sickbed the patient went about his business in the flow of life, occasionally wondering about this or that, but eventually putting wonder aside to get on with the commonsensical business of living. One day, though, he was unable to leave his wonder alone and stopped dead in his tracks; the continuous flow of life started to pass him by. Rather than thoughtlessly use simple words like “cheese,” he began to reflect: “What is cheese essentially?” Cheese became an “object” for him and he became the “subject,” and a nest of philosophical problems was opened. Soon the poor man was no longer able to eat cheese, or anything at all. His common sense had been crippled by a stroke and he was paralyzed.

Is there a cure for such an illness? From Socrates to Wittgenstein there is a stream of Western philosophy that conceives its mission in therapeutic terms as care for souls afflicted with destructive passions or ideas. Rosenzweig mocks this tradition in the narrative by arranging for some philosophical “therapists” to visit his patient, which only renders the poor man sicker. No, the therapy for philosophy cannot be more or better philosophy, it must open a way for leaving behind philosophy as traditionally conceived and returning to the flow of life. But that is no simple task. Common sense, like unreflective religious faith, is lost if challenged and must be replaced by something else. The patient must be reacquainted with his natural environment and learn to live in it on new terms.

The cure consists of an orchestrated trip to the countryside outside the sanatorium. The vista is dominated by three separate peaks, which Rosenzweig calls God, man, and world. When philosophers encounter these land masses their first instinct is to burrow into them to discover their common properties. In different historical periods philosophers have declared the hills to be made entirely of God (pantheism), entirely of man (idealism), or entirely of world (materialism), but they have never succeeded in finding a fourth substance. That, Rosenzweig conjectures, is because there is none: there just are three elements out there. From week to week, as the patient moves from one peak to the next, he is reacquainted with these elements in their integrity; and at the end of the three-week cure, he is finally able to see God, man, and world for what they are, self-sufficient but related to each other within the whole of existence. Once that happens he is able to use ordinary language again without wondering what is behind it.

As part of his convalescence he is returned home but is put on a strict schedule akin to a religious calendar, which allows him to reexperience life within an ordered annual cycle. The patient’s legs get reaccustomed to moving through the flow of time and he starts to live in the moment, yet also anticipates his death with tranquility. Socrates believed only philosophy could teach us how to die; Rosenzweig’s patient faces mortality by purging himself of the philosophical urge.

This is a beautiful allegory. It captures in crystalline form the post-Hegelian conviction—expressed in different ways by Kierkegaard, the American pragmatists, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, among others—that philosophy has alienated us from what is most our own and that thought must find its way back to everyday experience. What makes Professor Gordon’s book the most stimulating study of Franz Rosenzweig to appear in some years is his patient demonstration that Rosenzweig should be seen as a late heir of this German philosophical tradition, and not simply as a Jewish thinker. The point is well taken but the question still remains: Why did Rosenzweig think that the path out of the philosophical tradition could—and for him must—lead to Judaism?


To answer this question we must finally turn to The Star of Redemption —and immediately our way is blocked. Rosenzweig’s short writings, direct and engaging, are like printed invitations to return to common sense and begin a new kind of thinking and living. The Star, by contrast, is a “philosophical system” written, if not in the high nineteenth-century style, then certainly in competition with the old masters. At a time when Heidegger and Wittgenstein were already breaking philosophically and stylistically with the German system-builders, Rosenzweig tried one last time to outdo Hegel.

It was a fateful mistake. For generations now the genuine philosophical and religious insights of his book have been buried within a web of theosophical-cosmological speculations, distracting neologisms, and a pastiche of borrowed notions regarding thought, time, and language that Rosenzweig insisted constituted a “new thinking.” (His confused young friend Rosenstock was responsible for many of these.) As a result, those who managed to get through the book and felt the force of its ideas had to decide how, or even whether, to confront its systematic pretensions.

One common approach, recently taken by Leora Batnitzky in her respectful study I dolatry and Representation, accepts Rosenzweig’s claims for his system and tries to demonstrate that if the Star is only read correctly—back to front, or with the appropriate “hermeneutics”—everything falls into place. The attempt is well-meaning and somewhat persuasive until one turns back to the Star and finds oneself lost again.

A second approach, taken by Eric Santner in On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, is to extract ideas from the Star and other of Rosenzweig’s writings in order to see what the “new thinking” can achieve on its own, leaving the system aside. This study begins with real promise as Santner compares the therapeutic ideals of Rosenzweig and Freud, but by the book’s end so many peripheral concepts, terms, and postmodern gurus have been brought in from the wings that Rosenzweig’s thought is upstaged.

A more fruitful approach is taken in Rosenzweig and Heidegger by Professor Gordon, who follows Rosenzweig’s own advice that philosophical books must be read in a Napoleonic manner, concentrating on the strongest redoubts first. Gordon has no illusions about the “system” of the Star, likening it to “something sprung from the imagination of Caligari,” and displays no patience for its “Kabalistic symbol-mongering.” But once he peers beyond these distractions, Gordon correctly sees in this work a profound meditation on what it would mean to live a life at once fully reconciled to human finitude and open to the experience of transcendence (or “redemption”) within it. This, on Gordon’s charitable reading, is also what Heidegger’s writings aimed to do. The difference between them was Rosenzweig’s conviction that such a life could be lived religiously.

The interplay of finitude and transcendence is the theme of the second part of the Star. Here Rosenzweig speaks of the relations among God, man, and world in terms of “creation,” “revelation,” and “redemption,” terms to which he gives special meaning. All religions, including pagan ones, see the world and human beings as creatures of the gods. What distinguished Judaism, Rosenzweig says, and following it Christianity and Islam, was the discovery that such a world is mute and unfinished unless it is quickened through reciprocal human and divine activity. God and man encounter each other in the moment of revelation and are transformed miraculously by it, as is the world. The language of their meeting is that of love. In a beautiful exposition of the Song of Songs, Rosenzweig describes a living God who, in order to become more fully himself, develops concern for his creation, infusing it with love. Man feels himself to be the object of this affection and is transformed in turn, permitting a genuine encounter through speech. The whole of creation now has an “orientation,” Rosenzweig says, and man above all.

Love reveals, but it also wants to fulfill. It wants, in Rosenzweig’s terms, to redeem, to make God, man, and world whole and perfect. But how is this redemption to happen? Orthodox Christianity and Judaism place it at the end of time when God wills it, while modern thinkers like Schelling and Hegel imagined that creation was being brought to perfection through the workings of an immanent principle. Rosenzweig’s conception of redemption combines these orthodox and heterodox notions in a unique, if not altogether coherent, way. He accepts the orthodox teaching that ultimate redemption can only take place outside time and is brought about by God alone, not by some anonymous world-soul permeating everything. But he also says that we “anticipate” redemption in the present, preparing the world and ourselves for an ultimate reckoning that we can only hope for, not hasten. And while we wait, love continues to do its work as we live and worship together. By making this human interaction possible, God is preparing his own eventual redemption.

The doctrine of redemption is a theological minefield littered with heresies, one that few Christian or Jewish thinkers have traversed unscathed. The problem is deep: if redemption is wholly God’s work, we are tempted to leave him to his work and ignore our own; if, however, we participate in this redemptive labor, the temptation is equally great to think we can redeem ourselves through temporal activity. Rosenzweig sees a kind of wisdom hidden beneath these heresies and offers an ingenious explanation of them. He suggests that behind them lie two complementary but equally valid ways of living in the light of revelation and awaiting redemption. One way, as fate would have it, belongs to Judaism, the other to Christianity.


The third part of The Star of Redemption, and by far the richest, is a startling sociological comparison of Jewish and Christian ways of life.3 Rosenzweig’s portrayal of Christianity is dramatic if not wholly original, deriving as it does from Hegel. For Rosenzweig as for Hegel the distinguishing theological mark of Christianity is belief in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, and the expectation of his return. Sociologically, this revelatory event threw Christianity irretrievably into history, dividing time into three periods: the eternal age before Christ’s arrival, the eternal age of redemption that will follow his return, and the temporal epoch in which Christians must live, and which Rosenzweig calls the “eternal way.”

The manner in which Christians understand their revelation and await redemption turns their individual and collective lives into a journey. The Christian is always en route, making his way from pagan birth to baptism, overcoming temptation, spreading the gospel; and so is the Church, which considers all men brothers and therefore feels obliged to convert them or, if necessary, conquer them. Because he is an eternal pilgrim, Christian man is alienated, feeling himself divided, as Rosenzweig vividly puts it, between Siegfried and Christ, and is therefore never fully at home in the world. Yet as Hegel and Nietzsche had seen, this tension in the Christian soul was highly productive. Struggling with itself, Christian culture moved the waves of history forward, out of antiquity into the medieval world, then to the centuries of Protestantism, and finally to the modern age when, by being secularized, Christianity triumphed. In this way, Christianity prepares the redemption of the world through activity in time.

Judaism answers a different call, according to Rosenzweig. Long before the revelation of Christianity and the opening of its history, the Jews, as the sole people of revelation, lived in a timeless, face-to-face relationship with their God. They needed no mediator because they already had a direct rapport with the Father; they were given no historical task because they were already what they were destined to be. Rather than working toward redemption in time, the Jews anticipated redemption in symbolic form through their religious calendar, and in this sense already lived an eternal life. “The Jewish people,” Rosenzweig wrote, “has already reached the goal toward which the [other] nations are still moving,” which means that for them history itself has no meaning. “Only the eternal people, which is not encompassed by world history, can—at every moment—bind creation as a whole to redemption while redemption is still to come.” Even before their exile, while living on their own land, the Jews were a people apart.

Jewish isolation from the rest of humanity is maintained through divine law and the Hebrew language, but its strongest defense is blood ties. Rosenzweig’s remarks on Judaism as a blood religion have embarrassed some students of his writings, and even the English translator of the Star lightly bowdlerized them. Yet there is nothing ignoble in what Rosenzweig had to say. The only way for a religious community to master fortune and guarantee a direct, continuous, and eternal relation with God is for it to be a “blood-community.” “All eternity not based on blood,” Rosenzweig notes, “must be based on the will and on hope. Only a community based on common blood feels the warrant of eternity warm in its veins even now…. The natural propagation of the body guarantees it eternity.” The Jews did not strike root in land, as the pagans did, or in history, as the Christians would; they struck root in themselves as a way of vouchsafing their eternal relationship with God. Christians attest to their faith by proselytizing strangers whom they consider brothers. The Jews attest by reproducing, by saying through the body that “there shall be Jews,” and thereby renewing the covenant between generations past and future. This does not mean Jews are morally indifferent to the plight of other peoples, only that their concern grows out of love for God and each other, not out of devotion to an abstraction called humanity.

Perhaps the most moving pages of the Star are devoted to an analysis of the Jewish religious calendar, in which Rosenzweig sees an infinitely rich set of rituals permitting the Jewish people to experience symbolically creation, revelation, and redemption. He sees a kind of divine drama in the structure of the Sabbath day, in the family festivals from Pesach to Sukkot, and in the communal holidays from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. The entire cycle of human existence is found reproduced here in every year of Jewish life. This is the common sense of Judaism, the living link between God, man, and world that traditional philosophy cannot understand.

This common sense comes at a price, however. And that is that the Jews, as the bearers of divine law on earth, must forswear a life of politics. Rosenzweig follows Hegel closely here in seeing political law (or right, Recht) as a synthesis of custom and reason, developing in time, and the state as a concrete expression of law. And since Jews consider the divine law to be immutable (if open to infinite interpretation), it follows, according to Rosenzweig, that there cannot be a Jewish state, and any messianic attempt to found one is idolatrous. “The state,” he writes, “symbolizes the attempt to give nations eternity within the confines of time,” thus making it a rival of the eternal people that has already attained eternity. The Jews simply cannot take politics, and especially war, seriously; they are a nation of prophets, perhaps on occasion of utopian dreamers, but definitely not a nation of politicians and generals. Needless to say, Rosenzweig was not a Zionist.4

There are, then, two peoples awaiting their final redemption. Individual Christians focus on spiritual rebirth, every moment finding themselves at the crossroads of decision; as a peo-ple they are oriented toward the future, radiating their message out into the pagan darkness and appropriating whatever is lit there. Individual Jews, on the other hand, live as links in a chain of generations running backward and forward; their rebirth happens communally as they procreate, as they guard memory of the past, and as they internalize their spiritual existence. A slightly chauvinistic tone enters the Star here as Rosenzweig contrasts the psychological and social harmony of Jewish life with the self-alienation at the root of Christianity’s creative destruction. In the end, though, he sees them as complementary ways of life, each fulfilling a function in the economy of redemption.

By complementarity Rosenzweig did not mean that, in order to be itself, Judaism somehow needs Christianity; it does not. But the world, it seems, does. As early as 1913, not long after his aborted conversion to Christianity, Rosenzweig expressed the view that Judaism “leaves the work in the world to the church and recognizes the church as the salvation for all heathens in all time.” Jews do not proselytize but it is good that Christians do. Christianity, on the other hand, needs Judaism if it is to perform this function: while it is busy converting the pagans without, the example of Judaism helps Christians to keep at bay the pagan within. “If the Christian did not have the Jew at his back,” Rosenzweig asserts, “he would lose his way.” Christians are aware of this, too, and hence resent the Jews, calling them proud and stiff-necked. The very existence of Judaism and its claim to have experienced eternity shames the pilgrim Christians, who become anti-Semites out of self-hate, out of disgust with their own pagan imperfections.

Rosenzweig was no ecumenical utopian. He knew that Jew and Christian could never agree on ultimate matters if they took themselves seriously. God “has set enmity between the two for all time,” he wrote, and once remarked in a letter, “We have crucified Christ and, believe me, we would do it again, we alone in the whole world.” Yet God in his wisdom also bound the two religions together for as long as time will last. Judaism and Christianity are imperfect ways of experiencing revelation and redemption because they are human ways, and bring with them human perspective. Rosenzweig likens the Jews to a people that sees the light but is unable to live in it temporally, while Christians live in an illuminated world but cannot see the light itself. The whole truth about God, man, and world—whatever that truth might be—eludes both peoples. It is in their failures, not their achievements, that Judaism and Christianity find common ground.


The last sentence of The Star of Redemption reads quite simply: “Ins Leben“—“into life.” And that, we now see, is its therapeutic aim: to prepare readers for leaving behind the illusions of the “old thinking” and entering fully into what Rosenzweig calls das Nichtmehrbuch, the no-longer-book that is life itself. What that would mean for Christians is clear enough: it would mean accepting their fate as a historical people and learning to see the modern, secularized world as the sanctified fruit of Christian rev-elation and not, as Karl Barth would have it, as the serpent’s fruit. What it would mean for Jews is more difficult to discern.

As a good doctor Rosenzweig knew that even a perfect therapy must be adapted to each patient’s constitution if it is to do more good than harm. His Jewish patients he knew quite well: they were the “hyphenated Jews” of the German nineteenth century, Jews for whom Goethe and Schiller meant more than Abraham and Isaac, Jews entranced by the illusion of a Deutschtum–Judentum symbiosis, Jews who had become unwitting Hegelians resigned to the euthanasia of Jewish life by the progressive secularization of Christianity in the modern world. By entering the flow of history, which for Rosenzweig was Christian by definition, these Jews had abandoned the life fate had in store for them, Jewish life. And so they had to be both weaned from history and prepared for a life apart.

But was it really a life apart? When one encounters the followers of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson on the streets of Manhattan inviting less religious Jews to forsake secular existence for the closed Hasidic community of Brooklyn, one hears an authentic call of those who have left the historical world behind. While Rosenzweig admired the Hassids he did not follow them; nor did he encourage his students to. All he wanted to make possible for German Jews of his generation was a more authentic double-life, one that would be religiously grounded, brooking no compromise with secularized Christian ideas of Judaism, without changing the external status of Jews in Germany. He wanted a genuine renewal of Galut existence—that is, life in a condition of exile—while still maintaining the link with Christian German culture. In January 1923 he wrote to a friend about the Star, remarking that he hoped one day it would be seen as “a gift that the German spirit owed to its Jewish enclave” and added this ambiguous profession of attachment to German culture: “If life were to put me on tenterhooks and split me in half, I know which side my heart, unsymmetrically placed, would fall on; but I also know that I would not survive the operation.”

It takes tremendous effort today to imagine oneself in the intellectual universe that made such declarations seem reasonable in the Weimar years. Pathos is perhaps the only decent response. But Rosenzweig’s lingering attachment to Germany, and therefore Christianity, had such a profound effect on his conception of Judaism that the issue must be addressed if we want to take his thought seriously and not merely preserve him as one more exhibit in a museum of Weimar culture. That is a real danger in the United States, where the academic study of Weimar Jewish life and its representative thinkers—Rosenzweig, Walter Ben- jamin, Gershom Scholem, and others—is intense and provokes mixed feelings, at least in this observer: admiration for the devotion to remembrance, puzzlement at the morbid unwillingness to let much of the past go and, instead, face the challenges of the present. One cannot help thinking how often acts of memory carry forgetfulness and avoidance with them.

After the great drama of Jewish life in the twentieth century it is somewhat mystifying to witness the interest in a thinker who, however evocative and inspiring his reading of Jewish tradition, seriously proposed a Jewish flight from history and the appointment of Christians as its custodians. Professor Gordon wonders in a recent essay whether American Jews find Rosenzweig attractive for just that reason, since he can be read to offer a way of holding on to Jewish “identity” without having to submit to Jewish law or confront the realities of politics.5 This may be so. What certainly is true is that other intellectual options have not been lacking for thoughtful Jews. One thinks of modern Orthodox thinkers like the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, whose popular writings took Jewish law with the utmost seriousness and helped many Jews seeking a way of living in accordance with its strictures in a modern setting. One thinks also of Rabbi Abraham Kook, the messianic mystic whose electrifying writings synthesized Orthodoxy and political Zionism—and which, as interpreted by his son, became the ideological source of the Israeli settler movement. Whatever one may think of these men and their ideas, they had the virtue of growing organically out of Jewish religiosity yet still confronted the contemporary situation without blinking.

Rosenzweig’s intellectual activity grew out of a different soil; it was the late bloom of a European philosophical tradition and referred to a unique cultural situation that has been extinguished by history. In that sense, Rosenzweig’s thought is dead. What remains very much alive are the vital challenges he saw before Judaism—of assimilation, of Zionism, of power politics, of living in a world shaped by Christianity—challenges that have, if anything, intensified since his death. If Rosenzweig’s writings are an invitation to return to life, perhaps the best way of honoring his memory would be to address those challenges directly. His example would then serve as a reminder that history’s grasp can only be eluded by thinking history through, which first means liberating ourselves from the illusions history has bequeathed to us.

This Issue

December 5, 2002