Reviewed by Jerome E. Copulsky

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

Yet, for Löwith, these similarities masked a more profound difference. While his former master had located meaning in limited temporality, Rosenzweig’s thought opened up to an expectation of eternity. The implication of this difference could be seen in Heidegger’s terrible political decision of 1933. According to Löwith, it was Heidegger’s very denial of eternity, his demand to locate authentic human existence in temporality, which led to such disastrous political consequences. Unlike those who saw Heidegger’s decision as foolish or opportunistic, Löwith maintained that it was bound up in his philosophical outlook. Without the anchor of eternal verities or a horizon outside historical time, such a choice was inevitable. As he put it, “the possibility of a Heideggerian political philosophy was not born as a result of a regrettable ‘miscue,’ but from the very conception of existence that simultaneously combats and absorbs the Zeitgeist.” The decisive break with the history of philosophy was matched by a refusal of modern democratic politics. By contrast, Rosenzweig’s achievement of the experience of eternity in life, in his interpretation of Judaism and Christian ways of being in the world, provides the individual with a grounding in truth outside of his own finitude, a sturdy foundation upon which one may face the tremors of the age.
Peter Eli Gordon’s admirable new study, Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy, serves as a belated rejoinder to Löwith’s analysis. Gordon, associate professor of modern European history at Harvard, has previously published an excellent review essay entitled “Rosenzweig Redux: The Reception of German Jewish Thought,” and his book represents a turning point in the scholarly approach to Rosenzweig, by returning him to his historical and intellectual context. If matters were as simple as Löwith presented them, Gordon argues, if Rosenzweig ended up affirming a traditional theological position, “then there would be no innovation in Rosenzweig’s new thinking.” Rather, “Rosenzweig’s new thinking was… new precisely because it aimed to wrest itself free of the traditional, theological category of eternity, even while it struggled to find theological purpose within the confines of human, temporal life.” Thus, the distinction between Rosenzweig and Heidegger cannot be drawn as neatly as Löwith would have it. And reconsidering Rosenzweig’s particular philosophical position, his embrace of eternity in the world, therefore entails re-evaluating the political implications of his thought.
Gordon traces Rosenzweig’s understanding of his intellectual position, and explores the “intimate commonality of ideas” of the German philosophical expressionism that emerged in the cultural and political tumult of World War I and the Weimar era. Born of a crisis of confidence in the power of philosophical idealism, philosophical expressionism emerged as “a distinctive intellectual orientation poised between the religious nostalgia for origin and the modernist struggle to move beyond metaphysics.” This mood was shaped by the forces of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard; it was marked by a thoroughgoing critique of the philosophical tradition, an attempt to return to authentic religious experience before metaphysical obscurantism, and the quest for a redemption, not in the timeless speculations of Idealism, but in everyday life. The entire philosophical tradition had been so many attempts at avoiding the real question. The philosopher had sought serenity in the timeless halls of reason, but Rosenzweig believed that in the end, metaphysical speculation offered only a false promise of liberation, a denial of life itself. Though it tried hard to deny it, philosophy could not stand up to the fact of human finitude. It could not teach us how to live.
Throughout his book, Gordon proves himself a sensitive and intrepid reader of Rosenzweig and an able navigator of the landscape of prior Rosenzweig interpretation. The first chapters situate Rosenzweig’s intellectual development in the context of his research on Hegel and Hermann Cohen’s late philosophy. Gordon provides a pithy analysis of Rosenzweig’s doctoral dissertation, and first book, Hegel and the State, a text too often ignored by Rosenzweig scholars who take too literally his claim to have moved beyond it. Gordon considers this book not only for its part in the unfolding of Rosenzweig’s intellectual development, but for its effect on Rosenzweig’s interpretation of Judaism. It is from Hegel’s critique of early Christianity, Gordon writes, that Rosenzweig was able to envision the continuation of German nationalism in a new form, “a form of collective life without the metaphysical dangers of statehood.” Rosenzweig’s peculiar vision of Jewish existence, in other words, may turn out to be Hegelian in inspiration.
The core of Gordon’s book is an illuminating discussion of the nature of Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption (1921). Composed on military postcards on the Balkan front during World War I, The Star remains one of the most intriguing, obscure, and difficult books in modern philosophy.Gordon attends to questions of genre and style, the peculiar architecture of the book, the boldness of its claims to revolutionize philosophy—which, in Gordon’s analysis, turns out to be noticeably less audacious when The Star is considered in the context of the crisis of German philosophy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through all of this, Gordon treats The Star as Rosenzweig intended it, not as a baroque confession of faith, but as a philosophical system in its own right, to be handled not with pious reverence, but with critical, though passionate, engagement. Gordon proves to be an expert guide through this notoriously labyrinthine work.
The purpose of The Star, Gordon writes, is to develop a ‘phenomenology of religion’ based on lived experience, “without recourse to the language of the metaphysical tradition,” to rediscover tradition after the encrustations of hundreds of years of philosophizing and theologizing have been scraped away. Rosenzweig believed he heard in the biblical text the authentic voice of revelation, the call of God to man, and he believed he saw in religious community the response of man to his neighbor. The upshot of such a phenomenology of religious experience was the articulation of a worldly “redemption” as opposed to otherworldly transcendence. Rosenzweig believed he had found in Jewish life a form of redemption within the world and bounded by finitude. Eternity was discovered in time.
For Rosenzweig, redemption is a binding of man and the world, within time, an anticipation of eternity within life. As Gordon puts it, “What Rosenzweig calls the ‘eternity’ of life is really the eternity of a temporal orientation; it is a stance toward the future that nonetheless remains within time.” This temporal orientation provides meaning for the present, forging a new totality of God, World, and Man, but it is a totality formed by the relationship of the three (in the modes of creation, revelation, and redemption), rather than the denial of any difference among them, as in Hegel.
How does one experience eternity in time? For Rosenzweig, it is achieved through the particular form of Jewish communal existence. It is the very exilic situation of the Jewish people—their physical estrangement from their land, peculiar relation to their “holy” language, and fidelity to their “eternal” law—that allows for their redemption-in-the-world. As a “community of blood,” the Jews depend upon themselves, their procreative ability, to guarantee their existence, rather than the contingencies of territory and politics. The Jew is always homeless, yet always at home in himself. And it is through the unique liturgical moments of the year—the Jewish calendar—that the Jewish people comes together to awaken its experience of eternity. (Gordon could have paid more attention to how the experience of eternity is achieved through participation in the festivals that constitute the Jewish liturgical year, the analysis of which provides the most sustained “phenomenology of religion” in The Star.) This is Rosenzweig’s notion of the “messianic politics” of Judaism: The Synagogue is the true city of God, untroubled by the “warlike temporality” of the nations.
The Star therefore celebrates exile as the condition of Jewish being-in-the-world. In contrast to Zionists who believed that galut perpetuated Jewish suffering and was to some degree responsible for anti-Semitism, Rosenzweig deemed it an “ontological condition” of das Judensein, “being Jewish,” which guaranteed its participation in eternity. Redemption was thus premised on a certain estrangement from the world, at least insofar as political life is concerned. Gordon correctly points out that here Rosenzweig breaks decisively from the Jewish tradition of redemption as an end to exile and a re-establishment of Jewish life and sovereignty in the land of Israel. Paradoxically, in Rosenzweig’s view, the Jews experience their redemption in the very situation of believing themselves to be unredeemed. Rosenzweig offers a vision of Judaism as a worldless worldliness, an unredeemed redemption.

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