Religion & World-Renunciation (1910, 1913) (Franz Rosenzweig)

 (Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic Landscape, 1912-1913)

For some pretty nasty world-hating religion, go see Franz Rosenzweig and company circa 1910, 1913. Benjamin Pollock has been digging out the early letters and diaries, including unpublished finds, to isolate a very anti-liberal core to the zeitgeist. I’ve been reading his most recent articles in most recent Jewish Quarterly Review (Spring2012, Vol. 102 Issue 2, p224-255) and in German-Jewish Thought Between Religion and Politics, edited by Christian Wiese and Martina Urban. I’m looking forward to seeing all this material in Ben’s second book.

Against the bourgeois cosmopolitanism of the nineteenth century, Ben finds in Rosenzweig the strong whiff of world denial, the notion that one must die for God in order to verify the pure intensity of one’s religious commitments in a broken world. I wonder if this theomorphic violence has something to do with the social isolation of the Rosenzweig circle. It’s ugly stuff. Or it would be silly if it weren’t so pretentious. In the unpublished letter, Rosenzweig has the young Hegel herald to Rosenzweig the move from the transcendent God and godless innocence of the human person in Enlightenment philosophy to the philosophical theology of his own day, in which all things and all values in the world have been rendered absolute and made divine. The only solution to the predicament, the only way to unite with the one true God is to throw oneself into the mouth of a volcano, like Empedocles.

It looks a lot like Expressionism at its most ridiculous, this apocalyptic plunge towards the abyss. It’s very “modern,” in an arty sort of way, what Ben calls this “suicidal theology.”

Ben claims that all this get turned around in The Star of Redemption, and maybe it does but only a little. Indeed, in his first book on The Star of Redemption, Ben pays close attention to the construction of a system in Rosenzweig’s more mature thinking. It could be that it is the very structure of system that begins to cool down the overheated bathos in the early letters and diaries. For Ben, though, it is neighbor love that finally brought Rosenzweig back to earth. I’m not so sure.

I don’t think Rosenzweig ever shook “world denial.” Instead, I think he finds a place for both world and world denial in the system. The Star itself is pretty hot stuff, and I don’t think it is anywhere near as wholesome as Ben seems to think it is.

It’s been common for some time now to claim that Jewish religion hits its apex with neighbor-love. This has been the legacy of Levinas on contemporary Jewish philosophy, but I think it probably also goes back to Glatzer. It rings pious and hollow.

In contrast, it has been my own argument (in the pathos chapter of The Shape of Revelation), that at the hot core of the star of redemption, at the core of Rosenzweig’s conception of religion or revelation-redemption, is the death drive. If the human soul is led back into social life at the end of the book, this is but a dimunendo that pales in comparison to the vision of God’s face at the gates of death.

Quoting Rosenzweig in the the “eros” chapter of my own The Shape of Revelation, I wrote, The system of Jewish life…does not constitute a means toward a social good. It is its own purpose. As Rosenzweig expressed it, ‘miracle does not constitute history, a people is not a juridical fact, martyrdom is not an arithmetical problem, and love is not social.’” This passage from Rosenzweig’s essay ”The Builders” is much, much better than Levinas, much more honest and to the point than either law or neighbor love.

Ben’s new research on early Rosenzweig circa 1910-1913 is peerless and remarkable. With great historical insight, Ben brings us deep into the theological pit, out of which I don’t think Rosenzweig ever fully emerged. One day maybe we can all stop pretending that a fellow named Franz Rosenzweig actually inhabited our world.  It was another world, an alien one, the early twentieth century. I think Rosenzweig has almost as much in common with us as some kind of blue god in Egyptian art, the historical, geographic and mental distance between us is growing so far.

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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