Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1925)

Jewish culture By Michael Mocatta 24th May 2019

If you were able to transport yourself back to an average Jewish home in interwar Germany, and if you were to look at the bookshelves of this Jewish home, the chances are that you’d find, next to the chumash, siddur, and machzor, a copy of Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption. 

Franz Rosenzweig arguably represents the zenith of German Jewish culture. A friend to Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin and many others whose names will be familiar to modern ears, Rosenzweig’s achievements and impact were curtailed first by Gehrig’s disease, which took his life aged 42, then by the Holocaust, which destroyed the cultural hinterland of intellectual, philosophical Judaism which he did so much to serve. For as well as writing Star, Rosenzweig also founded the Lehrhaus adult education institute, translated the works of the eleventh century Sephardi Rabbi-poet, and with Buber, the first Jewish translation of Torah into German. 

Rosenzweig’s first passion was philosophy, but his post-doctoral studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Great War. Star was written on postcards sent from the trenches to his mother, and the death and violence he witnessed formed the inspiration for this text that Rosenzweig would describe as not a ‘philosophical system’ but a ‘theological philosophical treatise’. 

Star was the intellectual heart of Rosenzweig’s ‘New Thinking’, which recommended the discovery of truth through engagement with other human beings, rather than the obtuse and abstract thought of academic philosophy. A year after publishing Star, Rosenzweig followed his own advice, resigned from University and established the Lehrhaus to promote both the quality and quantity of German Jewish thought. 

Rosenzweig’s personal and spiritual life was punctuated by events rather splendid in their intensity and tragedy. Rosenzweig’s best friend married the woman he loved – a woman he would later invite to sing at his own wedding. Earlier, Rosenzweig had seen cousins and friends be seduced by a zeitgeist in which Christianity reconciled to Philosophy. Like them, he planned to convert. Attending his ‘final’ kol nidre service, Rosenzweig experienced an epiphany which confirmed in his mind that Judaism was compatible within, even necessary for, modern, Christian Europe.

Star’s conclusion is a call for Jewish and Christian communities to cooperate: the Jews in preserving the flame of God’s revelation; Christians in transmitting this revelation across God’s creation. Linking these two faiths was (i) the rupture of God’s call as experienced by the ‘Hineni’ (“here I am”) of Abraham, Moses and others (ii) the command to love God and love the neighbour (Leviticus 19:18) (iii) the impossibility of experiencing God’s love directly, (iv) the realisation that God’s love could only be experienced by finding God in the face of the person and people around you. It is in communal life, Rosenzweig argued, and in loving the neighbour (the central words of Star), that one emerges ‘from death’ (the first words of Star) ‘to life’ (the final words). 

Rosenzweig died in 1925. Even in his final days, he maintained his commitment to Judaism, with Martin Buber transcribing the final comments on their translation of Torah. Although Rosenzweig’s work fell into relative obscurity after the war, many Lehrhaus educated German Jews would bring their learning to London, provoking an intellectual revival in Jewish Britain. Whilst Star itself remains hard to recommend to twenty-first century Jews, Rosenzweig’s core principles remain as fresh, relevant and important today as they did a century ago. 

Michael Mocatta is a member of New North London Synagogue.

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