Jewish Philosophy (what is The Star of Redemption?)

I’m running a graduate seminar in modern Jewish philosophy, and find myself in an agitated state. We’ve been slogging through The Star of Redemption. As is often the case, huge amounts of energy are put into organizing the text, sorting through its narrative arc, and trying to make sense of key contents. We just finished the Judaism and Christianity chapters. We’re nearing the “end” of the arc. Having digested a lot, the students and I feel ready to ask the kinds of meta-questions that usually go unasked.

My colleagues and I all talk about “Jewish philosophy” and most of us hold up Rosenzweig as an exemplar. We think we have a good handle on what we mean by Jewish philosophy as combining particular Jewish and general philosophical forms and contents into a hybrid discourse.

Is that what The Star of Redemption is? “Jewish philosophy? And if so, how do we go about relating this text to the classics in the continental phenomenological or critical-theory tradition?  Peter Gordon in his excellent book relates Rosenzweig to the existential phenomenology of Heidegger. Eric Santner does something similar with Rosenzweig in relation to Walter Benjamin. Before them, Robert Gibbs, Richard Cohen, and Yudit Greenberg read Rosenzweig through the prism of Levinasian ethics. Hilary Putnam has sought to attach his star to Wittgenstein.

My students and I are not persuaded that this is a philosophical text, despite all the erudite things that have been written about the relation between Rosenzweig, Hegel, and Schelling. This is not to deny The Star of Redemption its historical patrimony in the German Idealist tradition. But the systems of German idealism, by 1921 have an antiquarian feel to it. More important, it would seem that Rosenzweig came as close as possible to in The Star of Redemption creating a private (theosophical?) language in  a closed social circle. The hothouse milieu was shared with his dear friend Eugen Rosenstock, with whom he shared a passionate friendship, his cousins Rudolf and Hans Ehrenberg, and the woman who seemed most to have mattered to him, namely his mother, his cousin and childhood friend Gertrude Oppenheim, and his confidant and mistress, Eugen’s wife, Gritli Heussey-Rosenstock.

If the late Rosenzweig emerged from this cave, I’m willing to guess that it was in some small part thanks to Buber. And yet, as a private language game, The Star of Redemption seems out of synch with the phenomenological tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas. One could, I guess, take The Star of Redemption to the Society for Phenomenological and Existential Philosophy. We could, of course, set him up with Heidegger or Derrida, but I’m afraid that, at the end of the night, he’d just be sitting there alone,  uncomfortably at the bar.

In our readings of The Star of Redemption, my students and I have highlighted many of the super-natural, super-terrestial elements that shape this 1921 text. It’s a work with deep roots in German Expressionism and in the phenomenology of Rudolf Otto and Max Scheler. With all its shouting and declamations, it’s a strange performance, this starry thing with its eye on sex and the death-event, the planting in time of something that itself does not belong to the order of time –the visible manifest of God’s face.

I’m not sure what to call the The Star of Redemption. Vision, not phenomenology, is its animating impulse, the apocalyptic vision of God, world, soul mediated through interfaces set up by creation, revelation, and redemption into a six point matrix that, in the end, transforms itself into the very face of the godhead made manifest. The impression is more Kafka (whom Rosenzweig admired), not Husserl (whom I believe he did not).

Perhaps we might look at The Star of Redemption as something close, but not identical to what Merleau-Ponty called “natural revelation and natural prayer…the God we see as soon as we open our eyes.” The difference, though, between Merleau-Ponty and Rosenzweig is that vouchsafing the vision of God’s face in The Star of Redemption is more mediate than immediate. It’s not the first thing you see when you open your eyes. The star of redemption is built up out of different media –symbolic, acoustic, and visual. As a form of what Ochs and Kepnes call “scriptural reasoning,” The Star of Redemption might have as much in common with what Merleau-Ponty called “Christian philosophy,” or “the supernatural revelation of the Sacraments and Church” (Signs, 145); except that  Rosenzweig’s “system” is less dogmatic, even when it trusts the human language of Scripture to convey truth about God.

The problem is that Merleau-Ponty does not actually define either term, “natural revelation and prayer” or “Christian philosophy.” These two topoi appear briefly in a discussion of Malebranche in a single essay, “Elsewhere and Nowhere.” Merleau-Ponty goes on to say how the relation between general philosophy (his own philosophy?) (“natural revelation and prayer”) and Christian philosophy is never settled, which is not really an interesting thing to say, because it seems so trite, and the rest of the essay does not really concern our current question. Because unlike Rosenzweig, Merleau-Ponty was not primarily a philosopher of religion.

What I’d like to take away from Merleau-Ponty is the possibility that perhaps The Star of Redemption, viewed as a whole, has precious little to do with philosophy beyond scholastic shards left over from the previous century. It falls instead somewhere between “natural revelation and natural prayer” and “Christian philosophy.” Any critical torque that Jewish philosophy might be able to provide current philosophical currents in the continental tradition will come from its status as an outlier, or what Deleuze called a “minor literature.” I don’t see any way around this.

That’s the best I can do for right now. We’re just a little better off than we were before. My students and I are all looking forward to moving on to Buber circa 1929 and a little “new sobriety” (neue Sachlichkeit).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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13 Responses to Jewish Philosophy (what is The Star of Redemption?)

  1. esque says:

    I would only have bought Rosenzweig a drink at a bar near the Lehrhaus, after the war.

  2. Ingrid Anderson says:

    I have to say I agree with Gordon that Rosenzweig’s Star (never one of my favorite books, but then Rosenzweig is not one of my favorites, to be honest) has a lot more in common with the German culture and thought of its time than with the specifically German-Jewish thought of its time. It also has a lot in common with Heidegger’s Being and TIme, again, as Gordon suggests. I don’t find the text very successfully philosophical, but I think it very much wants to be philosophically successful. There are far better examples of modern Jewish philosophy, but people always hold up Rosenzweig. More than anything I see the Star as a fascinating collection of many different movements/impulses/approaches that are brewing in the tumultuous interwar period.

  3. I wonder what your students would make of Ben Pollock’s approach to Rosenzweig as the one who completed the idealist project of “system.” His book is lucid and, in my view, extremely helpful in reconstructing Rosenzweig’s project. The core text analyzed is the “Earliest System Program of German Idealism,” a text Rosenzweig rediscovered in the Hegel archives during work on Hegel und der Staat. Pollock’s reading of this is brilliant and he shows how it leads to the Star.w

  4. hayyim rothman says:

    I am not so convinced on the idea of the star as “natural revelation/prayer”. what about the strong criticism he offers of the state and the people who create states, emerging as they do, out of the earth and, therefore, willing to shed blood for it. jews, this is why these peoples rise and fall while the jews are eternal (so says rosenzweig) …. because we are in exile and not bound to the land. so it seems to me that rosenzweig is cultivating something very un-natural or, perhaps better put, supernatural. but at the same time, trying to, as it were “naturalize” the supernatural in the jewish calendar. this is where i struggle the most with him. i can and do follow him on the essential quality of exile. but when it comes around to redemption, even redemption in exile, …. well, I think the simplest way i would put it is that it is too pious, god is too close and too friendly.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Hayyim. Like I said, the Star is somewhere between what M-Ponty calls the natural religion of opening your eyes and [2] what M-Ponty also calls “Christian philosophy.” In my own reading of Ros. in Shape of Revelation, the Star is apocalyptic, death-driven, supernatural and not “nice.” By “the natural religion of the God you see when you open your eyes” I meant only to say that the supernatural, super-terrestial, and super-sensusal, super-temporal elements of the System are embedded in the natural, terrestial, sensual, and temporal. And also, by the way: “super-sensual” and “super-terrestial” are Rosenzweig’s terms.

  5. hayyim rothman says:

    so, if by natural you mean this close, friendly god, then i would agree that this is key. but i would also say this is precisely where i feel i must depart from him

  6. hayyim rothman says:

    ZJB – on the question of the shape of revelation: if the star is apocalyptic, then how can it serve as a guarantor of truth by faith? I thought that a large part of that section was to fulfill his promise of showing religion/religiousness as a philosophical category. the way it would do so would be by functioning as the foundation for philosophical certainty. we trust the truth b/c we have faith, and the face of god is the guarantee of that faith…. otherwise the truth would be untrustworthy. if this promise is only met upon death or at the end of history, then he doesn’t really show religiousness as a philosophical category but, rather, supplants philosophy by religiousness.

    but if this guarantee is made, and made in life and in history, then the face of god is close and, as it were, smiling.

    in any event though, i now hear where you are going with the notion of natural religion in the star. still not clear on the status of the shape though.

    i am not wedded to my interpretation, i havn’t read the star in 2 years, so its not fixed in my mind, but this was my impression.

  7. zjb says:

    i think it’s bec. for FR, truth is revealed firs and only in part through language, which Ros. against idealism wants to trust. in its complete “configuration,” truth is then revealed-manfifested apocalyptically, at the end when god’s light or the light of “eternity” from the other side of “the gate” swallows every single figure back up into the one and all. there’s a hint of this at the end of the redemption chapter with the allusion to Rav’s comment in b.Berachot about the righteous in olam ha’ba radiating in the light of the Shekhinah.

  8. hayyim rothman says:

    i’m a little unclear on what you are saying, so let me just summarize how i understand what you mean. for FR truth is revealed, but only partly so, in language. FR wants to trust language (i assume here one could refer to the sections on “an lb. of butter” in the sick and the healthy?).
    But b/c truth is only partially manifest in it, it can only partially be trusted.The complete configuration of truth is revealed when gods face shines and takes up other figures into itself.

    but this cannot be in language b/c the “gathering up” annihilates difference and precludes the necessity of speaking. So language itself is never rendered trustworthy

    if so, and if philosophy be a form of discourse, then what service does religiousness or its culmination render to philosophy, or, perhaps better, show itself as a form of philosophical discourse?

    again, i suppose i am driven back to the suspicion that we are, in the end, left with religion and not philosophy.

    • zjb says:

      i don’t think Ros. is actually all that interested in philosophy as a surface phenomenon. it’s revelation that yields the vision of truth made manifest, at first in dribs and drabs, in mathematical symbols, scriptural-eros language, and finally, at the very end of the “system” (benjamin pollock), in a vision of god’s complete face right up at the gates of death, before being led “back into life.” (sort of like Sean Penn in “Tree of Life.”) the philosophy, insofar as it is important to Ros., is like the operating system. Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche (it’s the sex and Lebensphilosophie in the Star) provide much of the conceptual framing, the 0’s and 1’s, that makes the program work.

  9. hayyim rothman says:

    i see. so philosophy provides a discourse whereby he can move into the weighty silence of the glance/gesture and, ultimately, the glancing in which god participates, which, i suppose, would be adding the fullness of weight to glance/gesture. but philosophy will always be the blabbering which is the condition for, but not the attainment of truth?

  10. zjb says:

    in my opinion, yes.

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