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).