Reviewed by Jerome E. Copulsky

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

Despite the claims that Rosenzweig was an early proponent of a mutual Jewish-Christian dialogue, the two religious communities remain distinct in his system, locked in animosity, at least until the eschaton. While Rosenzweig claimed that the Jewish people received its share of redemption in time, the Christian is always “on the way.” Composed of pagan converts, the Church is tied together in common belief, not by bonds of blood; it must forgo the comfort of Jewish redemption for its work in and through history. It is the Christian anxiety of not-yet-being-redeemed, and the image of the Synagogue outside of history and already there, which Rosenzweig diagnosed as the perennial source of anti-Semitism. Moreover, as a universal community, the Church stands in tension with that other great universal, the State. World history, according to Rosenzweig, amounts to the struggle between the Church and the (still pagan) State over the souls of the people of the world. All these institutions—State, Church, Synagogue—attempt to secure eternity in time, that is, to overcome the problem of temporality and human finitude, but the State’s attempt to wrest eternity into the moment through force is doomed to the ongoing course of violence, war, and revolution. The historical process occurs through the growth of the Church, not the State, and the Church’s growth in the world and in time is given its orientation by the Jewish people and its “messianic politics.” In contrast to Hegel, it is the very timelessness of the Synagogue, its estrangement from the vicissitudes of history and politics, which provides its ongoing spiritual relevance. In this way—and this point is stressed by Rosenzweig partisans—the universal meaning of Judaism is disclosed: Judaism has a perennial mission in and for the world, even if Jews remain unaware of it.
Gordon’s chapters on The Star therefore culminate in a sustained comparison of the structure of Rosenzweigian redemption with Heidegger’s account of authenticity in Being and Time. Gordon perceives in both Rosenzweig and Heidegger not only a similar starting point and philosophical method, but also a comparable mood and attempt to pull transcendence into the here and now. “There is,” Gordon writes, “a significant overlap between Rosenzweig and Heidegger on the question of what kind of ultimacy remains available within the confines of human experience once the traditional theological model of redemption is abandoned.” The title of Gordon’s book is thus somewhat misleading; for the most part, Gordon is content to use Heidegger as a lens through which to see what Rosenzweig is up to in The Star. But towards the end of the book, Gordon turns to the question of the origins of Heidegger’s thought and turns the tables on Heidegger himself.
If Rosenzweig’s is truly a Jewish philosophy, grounded in revelation, then perhaps it casts its light back upon Heidegger. Gordon teases us with “the startling possibility that Heidegger’s philosophy itself might somehow derive from Judaism.” Through the encounter with Rosenzweig’s theism, Gordon hears in the normative language that Heidegger deploys to describe the stance of authenticity a theological remainder: “The concept of authenticity in Heidegger’s philosophy was a religious residue, a gesture of redemption making its belated appearance in the light of a never-completed disenchantment.” Gordon’s text, which began with the moral discomfort of the relationship of Rosenzweig and Heidegger, thus ends with the moral discomfort of Heidegger as crypto-theist, whose philosophy may have been unconsciously drawn from the sources of Judaism. Given this audacious claim, one wishes that Gordon had spent some more time detailing what we might make of it, and what its implications might be for a Jewish reception of Heidegger, or a future Jewish philosophy.
Rosenzweig’s daring reconsideration of the task of philosophy and his creative refashioning of theological themes was matched by a refusal to think of the political as a necessary and meaningful realm of human life and endeavor. Neither in The Star nor in his subsequent writings could he develop a notion of the purpose of politics as the drive for the establishment of a just or decent regime. Nor did he understand Jewish law as being related at all to political life, as the constitution of a theocratic regime, or as the basis of ethical life. Rosenzweig’s vision of an “inner-worldly redemption” left him outside of or indifferent to history; it provided an escape from such mundane matters, content to deputize the Church with the task of work in the world. Here, too, Gordon observes a resemblance with Heidegger:
Paradoxically, one of the deeper “political” similarities between Rosenzweig and Heidegger is that they were both profoundly inept at thinking intelligently about politics. Neither one displayed any true dedication when it came to ruminating upon the real problems of public and political life; and neither showed any real aptitude for interpreting the various social issues of the day. Heidegger’s crude understanding of National Socialism is a case in point. Rosenzweig’s belief that Jewish life happens elsewhere than politics displays a similar inaptitude.
Although today there are those who find Rosenzweig’s celebration of Jewish powerlessness attractive in the face of the burdens of Jewish power, one does not have to be a committed political Zionist to find Rosenzweig’s position profoundly troubling. Still others have tried to find in his later writings and correspondence a softening of his position regarding Jewish settlement in Palestine. It is clear, however, that his interpretation of Judensein precludes the fashioning of a Jewish state and the assumption of political responsibility. Rosenzweig may have been brought to this position by his own political disillusionments and experience of war. But it is a position that is not available to us. Political power demands political wisdom and responsibility, virtues that contemporary Jews should nurture rather than devalue.
Rosenzweig found in Judaism the possibility of delight in anticipation of eternity. But there was a price to be paid—the denial of the present. After all that has happened in the last century, it seems irresponsible today for the modern Jew to revert to the benign eternity of the Synagogue and the four cubits of halacha, without regard to either the history around us or the political-historical perspective presented in the Hebrew Bible and in philosophers like Maimonides and Spinoza. In the end, Rosenzweig’s vision of Judaism reflects a nostalgia for a traditional Jewish life. But Judaism never existed without divine law and prophecy—that is to say, political life and the quest for righteousness in the present.

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

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