Saving the World

In 1913, a young, acculturated German Jew named Franz Rosenzweig underwent two faith experiences that eventually transformed modern Jewish intellectual life. Rosenzweig was a postdoctoral student in his mid-20s; writing a book on “Hegel and the State”; and committed to the relativism fashionable among his academic peers. On the evening of July 7, however, Rosenzweig had what he would later call his “Leipzig night-conversation” with two close Christian friends, Rudolf Ehrenberg and Eugen Rosenstock, both of whom came from Jewish backgrounds and would go on to become prominent intellectuals. Moved by their blend of intellectual rigor and simple Christian belief, Rosenzweig grasped the emptiness of contemporary intellectual life and turned to faith. Three months later, after a personal crisis that nearly resulted in suicide—he confessed in one of his letters that after the night-conversation, “I . . . took my Browning 6.35 out of my desk drawer”—Rosenzweig was preparing for baptism. Convinced that he should follow in the footsteps of early Christians and accept Christ as a Jew, he attended Yom Kippur services at a small synagogue in Berlin. And there Rosenzweig encountered a faith so vibrant that he decided to recommit himself to Judaism.

He was soon studying Jewish texts and thought with leading scholars. After the outbreak of World War I, while stationed with an anti-aircraft unit on the Balkan front, he wrote parts of the first draft of his magnum opus, The Star of Redemption, on the backs of military postcards to his mother. When he returned, he abandoned his promising academic career to devote himself to Jewish life and education, eventually establishing a center for adult Jewish education in Frankfurt, the famous Lehrhaus. He continued to produce important work—including a Bible translation with Martin Buber—even as he suffered progressive paralysis brought on by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). And while Rosenzweig’s life was tragically cut short (he died at 42), his writings would eventually gain a wide readership among Jews, Christians, and contemporary philosophers. Two faith experiences in 1913, then, led Rosenzweig from academic relativism to religious faith and ultimately back to Jewish life, and thereby provided modern Judaism with one its most influential—and personally inspiring—thinkers.

The first scholar to tell the story I’ve just recounted seems to have been Nahum Glatzer, who had studied with Rosenzweig at the Lehrhaus and later introduced his writings to American readers in a 1952 essay and 1953 hagiographical anthology assigned and read by generations of teachers and students. In the six decades since then, the story has received nearly universal acceptance. It’s a tale about modernity’s limits: a promising scholar committed to fashionable relativism discovers an anchor in religious faith. It’s also a story about Jewish identity: a brilliant philosopher who has all but embraced Christianity returns to Judaism. It’s a story laden with personal drama: Rosenzweig contemplates suicide after that “Leipzig night-conversation” (and would eventually conduct a love affair with Rosenstock’s wife, though Glatzer certainly never mentioned that). Finally, it’s a story about religious experience: Encounters with believing friends, as well as with communal prayer, redirect the life of an individual and, along with him, the course of modern Jewish thought. No wonder, then, that this tale has achieved such popularity, becoming a staple of High Holiday sermons and Jewish studies lectures (including, I should admit, my own). Nevertheless, Benjamin Pollock shows in his excellent new book, Franz Rosenzweig’s Conversions: World Denial and World Redemption, that there are at least two problems with this widely accepted and frequently repeated narrative: It’s historically false and philosophically pernicious.

 

Pollock does not deny that something important took place on July 7, 1913 (and during the following months) that eventually led Rosenzweig to commit himself to Judaism. But Pollock dismantles the central aspects of this cherished narrative. It isn’t the case that the events of 1913 involved abandoning relativism for faith; by the time of the night-conversation, we learn, Rosenzweig already believed in a God who reveals Himself. What Rosenzweig came to embrace in 1913 was not religion but the world, and what led him to do so was not faith experience but rigorous reflection.

Prior to the July 7 conversation, Pollock shows, Rosenzweig was already committed to a form of faith so extreme that it involved “a denial of the spiritual status of the world.” By 1913, he had come to believe that worldly life is opposed to the pursuit of salvation—that the world is something from which God frees us, rather than something God created. On this view, realizing our spiritual potential (and safeguarding God from perils such as idolatry) involves removing ourselves from worldly affairs.

Franz Rosenzweig, ca. 1905. (Photo by Peter Matzen, Göttingen Studio. Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.)
Franz Rosenzweig, ca. 1905. (Photo by Peter Matzen, Göttingen Studio. Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.)

Rosenzweig came to flirt, that is, with a position that he would later describe as Marcionism. Marcion was a 2nd-century Christian thinker—sometimes described as a Gnostic—who held that the world was created not by a benevolent deity but rather by a lesser, evil divinity and who saw faith in Christ as a means of allowing individuals to escape this world and enter the true Kingdom of God. Indeed, Pollock shows, so radical was Rosenzweig’s neo-Marcionite denial of the world that his writings prior to the night-conversation experiment with the notion of dying for God and with the idea of suicide as a spiritual obligation.

What could possibly have attracted a young, philosophically inclined German Jew to such world denial? Part of the answer is historical: Many of Rosenzweig’s contemporaries were captivated by Marcion. Part of the answer, though, is conceptual. For close to a decade, Pollock shows, Rosenzweig had been plagued by perplexity about the relation between self and world. In particular, he found himself experiencing an ongoing “oscillation between world and self,” between a conviction that the individual self should embrace the world and historical era he inhabits and a posture that Pollock describes as a form of “subjectivism.” While some of the young Rosenzweig’s writings cast the world as a source of value or truth that the individual self can and should embrace, others experiment with the idea that the self creates value and truth—while nevertheless worrying over the validity of such subjective creations. In the years leading up to the night-conversation, then, Rosenzweig was trying to understand how the individual could be both grounded in and distinct from the world.

This perplexity regarding self and world may have made Marcionite world denial appear quite tempting, or at least plausible. If we struggle to make sense of the relationship between our selfhood and our worldly surroundings, and if we find ourselves increasingly convinced that those surroundings offer little in the way of objective values or truth, then it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to consider the possibility that this world was not, in fact, created by the true God and that our fundamental spiritual task is to separate ourselves from it.

If Rosenzweig did not convert to a position of faith during the night-conversation, what did happen? It was, Pollock writes, “a conversion to the world.” Forced by his friend Rosenstock to take seriously the idea that Christian life involves “world-activity”—that Christianity involves building a Kingdom of God on Earth—Rosenzweig came to see that the opposition between self and world can be overcome through history. If Christians are called to build a Kingdom of God in this world through loving deeds, then it need no longer be seen as hostile to an individual’s relationship with the divine. Rosenzweig’s night-conversation with his friends moved him to a belief that the world is created by God and, therefore, the site of the redemption which divine revelation charges us to seek. “What it means that God created the world and [is] not just the God of revelation,” Rosenzweig wrote in his wartime notes, “this I know precisely out of the Leipzig night-conversation of 7.7.13. At that time, I was on the best road to Marcionitism.” In fact, convinced that Christianity transforms the world through redemptive love, Rosenzweig decided to convert.

Why, then, did he recommit himself to Judaism just a few months later? Pollock does not rule out the possibility that a Yom Kippur experience played some role, although he notes that Rosenzweig never mentioned it and that the key evidence for such an event seems to be Glatzer’s description of a report by Rosenzweig’s mother. Nevertheless, Pollock argues, the decisive factor was further theological reflection by Rosenzweig. Christianity may be charged with realizing the Kingdom of God on Earth through acts of love, but it is forever in danger of leaving this task aside since its savior has already come. It is this peril, Rosenzweig insisted, that the Jewish people combats. As a group chosen by the Creator to play a role in redemption, the Jewish people reminds Christians that creation is inextricably linked to salvation—that the Kingdom of God is realized by acting in the world, rather than by escaping from it. Moreover, as a group whose liturgy and practices point toward a future redemption, Jews remind Christians that the world remains unredeemed. For Rosenzweig, then, the continued existence of the Jewish people is necessary.

This is why, Pollock argues, Rosenzweig returned to Judaism. Christians may be tasked with actively redeeming the world, but they will do so only if Jews remain Jews, reminding Christians that creation and salvation are linked, that redemption has yet to occur, and that worldly acts of redemptive love therefore remain necessary.  We might say, then, that Rosenzweig returned to Judaism so that Christians would remember to save the world. His decision was the logical conclusion of a coherent line of thought emerging from the night-conversation: “In this very moment of rejecting Gnostic world-denial,” Pollock writes, “Rosenzweig already had to become committed to a historical account of the reconciliation of self and world in which Judaism and Christianity play necessary and mutually supportive roles.”

It should be clear by now just how problematic the accepted narrative regarding Rosenzweig is. What occurred in 1913 revolved around self and world rather than relativism and faith, and the decisive factor was rigorous reflection rather than faith experience. Pollock goes further, however, and suggests that this story is not only false but also misleading. Assuming that Rosenzweig underwent a series of faith experiences that directed him away from nihilistic relativism and academic philosophy, readers have turned to The Star of Redemption unprepared for its maddeningly obscure philosophical terminology and opaque reasoning. By contrast, Pollock suggests, his new biographical account illuminates Rosenzweig’s philosophical development. The Star is, in part, Rosenzweig’s presentation of a metaphysical alternative to the Marcionite world denial he gave up during that summer evening in Leipzig.

In the Star, Rosenzweig attempts to show how selfhood and worldliness are reconciled through the realization of the Kingdom of God, how Christianity and Judaism play complementary but distinct roles in this historical process, and how all of this results in the redemption of the world—and, surprisingly, of God—through the emergence of a universal community united in recognition of the deity.

 

Pollock’s account is genuinely new, insightful, and persuasive. The breadth of his sources—from little-known letters of Rosenzweig himself to an odd 1897 novel called The Miracles of the Antichrist by Selma Lagerlöf—and the depth in which he has read them is striking. Moreover, Pollock links Rosenzweig’s philosophy and biography without reducing one to the other. Indeed, the value of this analysis becomes clear as soon as we turn to the opening pages of the Star, which was published eight years after the night-conversation.

Although it is notoriously difficult to summarize this book, we can say, at the very least, that it provides an account of three types of entities that we encounter—God, man, and world—and three types of relations between those entities: creation, revelation, and redemption. (These are the six points of the famous star in Rosenzweig’s title.) In lines that have tantalized and haunted generations of readers, Rosenzweig opens the Star by claiming that the path to achieving knowledge of these beings and relations, and to moving toward redemption, begins once we take seriously our fear of death:

From death, it is from the fear of death that all cognition of the All begins. Philosophy has the audacity to cast off the fear of the earthly, to remove from death its poisonous sting, from Hades his pestilential breath. All that is mortal lives in this fear of death; every new birth multiplies the fear for a new reason, for it multiplies that which is mortal . . . That man may crawl like a worm into the folds of the naked earth before the whizzing projectiles of blind, pitiless death, or that there he may feel as violently inevitable that which he never feels otherwise: his I would be only an It if it were to die…Upon all this misery, philosophy smiles its empty smile and, with its outstretched index finger, shows the creature, whose limbs are trembling in fear for its life in this world, a world beyond, of which it wants to know nothing at all…But the earth wants him back…Man should not cast aside from him the fear of the earthly; in his fear of death he should—stay. He should stay.

Pollock’s narrative regarding Marcionism and world denial allows him to offer a fresh perspective on this famous passage—and, in fact, on the Star as a whole.

What does Rosenzweig mean when he says that I learn from death that “I would be only an It if it were to die”? I experience myself as an “I” who will become an “It,” as a being who will lose something when I succumb to the fate—death—that befalls all those around me. I therefore find myself perplexed, for I experience myself as a being who is not reducible to, but who nevertheless is inextricably bound up with, my surroundings: I experience myself as an “I,” as an irreplaceable and singular self different from the world, but also as an “It,” as just another object in the world doomed to the same fate as all other objects. According to Pollock, then, the Star suggests that contemplating death puts us face to face with a version of the perplexity that had once led Rosenzweig to flirt with Marcionism. Just as Rosenzweig had experimented with Marcionism in the wake of long-standing worries about the relation between the self and the world, so too does he begin the Star by suggesting that our fear of death leaves us uncertain about how to understand our status as beings distinct from, yet rooted in, the world we inhabit.

According to the quoted passage, one widespread response to the fear of death is to ascribe value exclusively to “a world beyond” and thereby “cast aside from him the fear of the earthly,” showing that the world possesses no great value and, by extension, that departing it constitutes no great tragedy. We might engage, that is, in precisely the type of world denial that Rosenzweig had associated with Marcionism. But this response, the Star suggests, is profoundly misguided, for it fails to recognize that the individual “wants to know nothing at all” of a world other than this one. On the contrary, the proper response to death and the perplexity it provokes is to “stay”—to remain involved in, and seek to redemptively transform, the world we inhabit. According to Pollock, the Star’s introductory remarks “announce Marcionism as the basic problem with which the book as a whole is concerned.” The Star turns out to be an attempt to avoid the perils of world denial and develop a vision of world redemption.

 

There are many other key passages in the Star that Pollock reframes in similarly illuminating ways. I believe, however, that his study has even more far-reaching implications for our approach to Rosenzweig. Pollock writes:

[V]iewing [Rosenzweig’s] personal and intellectual development through the lens of faith experience has had a deleterious impact on how scholars have come to understand the relationship between Rosenzweig’s personal development and his mature thought. Once one has claimed . . . that Rosenzweig’s ultimate decision to remain a Jew could not have come from thinking . . . it becomes too easy to reduce the metaphysical account of redemption that Rosenzweig developed on the way to this decision—in which Judaism and Christianity play complementary roles in the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth through history—to a post facto apology for these particular faith experiences rather than to take it up as a metaphysical position worthy
of serious consideration.

Pollock forces us to recognize that Rosenzweig’s philosophy is rooted in careful reflection, not inaccessible faith experiences, and thus requires serious engagement. What would it mean to accept Pollock’s challenge to take Rosenzweig’s work “as a metaphysical position worthy of serious consideration”?

Here I will go beyond Pollock’s discussion. What, precisely, should redemptive world-activity look like? As Pollock notes, two of the examples Rosenzweig offers when discussing Christianity are missionizing activity and political imperialism: The former creates an ever-broader community of believers, while the latter facilitates the emergence of an ever-more united humanity that will allow this community to become universal. But must redemptive world-activity take these forms? What about, say, efforts to combat climate change, which are often presented as safeguarding God’s creation? Would such efforts to lovingly engage the world while also directing attention to the divine count as Rosenzweigian redemptive activity? Moreover, how are we to ensure that world-activity, however well intentioned, remains sufficiently humble? How do we keep redemptive love from degenerating into intolerance and violence against those who are not (yet) members of the community of believers?

Consider, as well, Rosenzweig’s account of how the Jewish people ensures that Christians remain focused on the redemption of the world. As Pollock notes, Rosenzweig takes this task to place Jews, in a sense, “outside history.” Through practices such as a recurring cycle of holidays, Jews become a collective united before God and in so doing foreshadow the universal community of believers emerging from redemption. Jews thereby anticipate, or experience hints of, that redemption and are thus directed away from the world-activity within history that they call on Christianity to pursue and toward their own Jewish communal life—toward practices that already provide a taste of redemption.

What consequences would follow if we were to take seriously this claim that Jews should remain outside history for the sake of anticipating redemption? The Star characterizes the Jewish anticipation of redemption as an experience of eternity in time and famously renounces territorial statehood. In part, this is a suggestion that Jews imagine their communal life, with its liturgical cycle and rituals, as persisting endlessly into the future, and in so doing experience this communal life as a kind of eternity, a form of life that will continue for all time. But if this is so, the Star’s argument runs (in part), Jewish life cannot take the form of a territorial nation-state, since such states constantly find themselves engaged in wars and therefore cannot plausibly expect to endure. What are we to make of this? Have Rosenzweig’s views been overtaken by the historical events of the 20th century, in particular the founding of the State of Israel? Or is his perspective important precisely because it stands in tension with contemporary politics? Does his thought offer a valuable reminder of the perils of statehood?

I don’t pretend to have answers to such questions. One of the virtues of Benjamin Pollock’s study, however, is that it should push us to Rosenzweig’s thought in all of its complexity. His conversion from world denial to world redemption poses as many challenges as solutions, and these challenges should elicit from us some approximation of the same intellectual seriousness that transformed a young German Jew on a July evening a little more than a century ago.

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