Reviewed by Jerome E. Copulsky

Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy
by Peter Eli Gordon
University of California, 2003, 328 pages.

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ranz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) is often considered one of the most original and innovative modern Jewish thinkers, but he is also one of the most misunderstood. Born into an assimilated family, Rosenzweig set out on a promising academic career. But like other young intellectuals of his time, he found himself in the midst of a spiritual crisis, finding no solace in academic philosophy. In 1913, convinced by his friend Eugen Rosenstock that only belief in Christianity could rescue modern man from the impasse of historicism and provide true orientation in life, he prepared himself for conversion. But although he had decided in favor of Christianity, Rosenzweig chose to walk to the baptismal font as a Jew, and dutifully prepared for his entrance to the Church by attending High Holy Day services in the synagogue. Spiritually, he never left it.
The experience of a Yom Kippur service apparently proved the turning point in the young philosopher’s life. Christianity was no longer necessary, and from then on, he threw himself deeply into the study of Jewish texts. Upon his return from World War I, Rosenzweig published his dissertation, but in 1920, he rejected an offer for an academic position. Rosenzweig confessed to his academic mentor that “scholarship no longer holds the center of my attention… my life has fallen under the rule of a ‘dark drive’ which I’m aware that I merely name by calling it ‘my Judaism.’” Instead of becoming a professor, Rosenzweig became instead the director of the new Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt.
Rosenzweig’s rather idiosyncratic interpretation of Judaism presented an alternative to the theological options of assimilationist Judaism, neo-Orthodoxy, and what Rosenzweig deemed the “atheistic” theology of Martin Buber’s early speeches, which stressed the peculiar national psychology of the Jews; it was also an alternative to the Zionist political and cultural projects. Unlike the liberal Jewish theologians, Rosenzweig was not concerned with finding a way to accommodate Judaism to the contemporary political and cultural order; he was uninterested in showing that Judaism, correctly understood, was compatible with, or sustained, modern politics. Nor was he moved by the attempt to establish a Jewish state. Judaism as Rosenzweig understood it provided the escape from such worldly entanglements.
In 1922, Rosenzweig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and was expected to die in a year’s time. Yet he continued with his projects, translating a portion of the Bible with Buber, a collection of poems by Judah Ha-levi and a commentary upon them, and composing letters and essays on a variety of subjects. For seven years he struggled with his illness until death finally took him in December 1929. His work lived on, lovingly carried to the new centers of Jewish life—America and Israel—by his friends and disciples, such as Gershom Scholem and Nahum Glatzer, whose 1953 anthology, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought, brought the philosopher to the attention of the English-reading public. Yet owing to the details of his biography and to the enormous difficulty of his thought, it is not surprising that the image of Rosenzweig has often yielded to the temptations of hagiography. It was the image of man, and the possibility of an intellectually robust attachment to Judaism in the modern world, rather than the philosophy itself, that funded so much interest. Rosenzweig, who had so inspired his students in Weimar Germany, was now recast for an American Jewry eager for new models of Jewish authenticity. In short, respect was paid to Rosenzweig the saint, not Rosenzweig the philosopher.
Although Rosenzweig may have forsaken the academy for Jewish life, the academy did not forsake him. Thinkers as diverse as Leo Strauss, Emmanuel Levinas, and Hilary Putnam have drawn inspiration from Rosenzweig’s thought, and in recent years a veritable cottage industry of Rosenzweig scholarship has emerged, with practitioners in America, Europe, and Israel. Scholars tend to place Rosenzweig within the canon of “Jewish philosophy,” or the trajectory of German-Jewish thought, or as a herald of post-modernism. A number of recent approaches to Rosenzweig’s thought have taken their cue from Levinas, who had stated his indebtedness to Rosenzweig, and have tried to illuminate the relationship between the two. Such a connection provides an alternate history of modern philosophy; Levinas’ critique of Martin Heidegger is found to have its origin in Rosenzweig’s “new thinking.”
But such scholars are faced with the uncomfortable fact that Rosenzweig understood his intellectual position somewhat differently. In particular, they must contend with Rosenzweig’s assessment of Heidegger. In May 1929, Rosenzweig wrote an essay called “Exchanged Fronts” (Vertausche Fronten), which gave his views about the debate that had just occurred between Ernst Cassirer and Heidegger at the Swiss mountain resort of Davos.
“Exchanged Fronts” begins as an announcement of a new, corrected edition of Hermann Cohen’s posthumous work, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism. The stakes for Rosenzweig in this book were high. He believed that, in the last years of his life, the master took a dramatic turn from his Idealism to what Rosenzweig called “the new thinking.” There were therefore two images of Cohen—the sage of Marburg, still stuck in the flawed Idealist project, and the prophet of “the new thinking.” But the advent of the new edition of Religion, Rosenzweig asserts, is important not because of the work’s “classical character,” but because of its “current significance.” And it was at Davos that the late master’s turn had become public, in “a representative confrontation between the old and the new thinking.” It was in this confrontation that “Cassirer, Cohen’s most distinguished disciple,” was met by Heidegger, who “advocated against Cassirer a philosophical position that is precisely our position, that of the new thinking, which falls entirely in line with what starts from that ‘last’ Cohen.” In other words, Heidegger’s analysis of the horizon of human existence emerges from the turn taken by Cohen’s late philosophy. In short, Rosenzweig saw the Davos disputation as a struggle between the old and the new Cohen, a bout in which the old had been decisively and publicly defeated. Rosenzweig snatched the garland from the neo-Kantian, liberal, assimilated Jew, Cassirer, and dubbed Heidegger—former Catholic and future Nazi—Cohen’s heir apparent.
And herein lies the problem. For Heidegger’s story is deeply troubling. In 1933, Heidegger publicly decided in favor of Hitler, joining the Nazi Party and taking up the position of rector of the University of Freiberg. Though he left his post after a year, he never disavowed his involvement, and as late as 1935 could still speak of “the inner truth and greatness of this movement.” Ever since, Heidegger’s supporters and opponents have quarreled about the meaning and extent of his engagement with National Socialism.

Jerome E. Copulsky is director of the Jewish studies program at Virginia Tech.

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