Just got back from the “Franz Rosenzweig Congress: Love, Law, Life” with many mixed feelings. Clearly, the International Rosenzweig Society (IRG) is an antiquarian society, even hyper-antiquarian. Its activities are devoted to the study of an early 20th German Jewish philosopher-theologian, whose 1921 magnum opus The Star of Redemption was written cryptically under the spells of the German Expressionism circa 1913 and the German Idealist tradition circa 1800. To a person, the senior and junior scholars at the Congress presented meticulously crafted, fine-grained, philosophically nuanced scholarly papers. There were Mendelssohn, Goethe, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Dilthey, Cohen, Buber, Schmitt, and Scholem. Central throughout was the image of Rosenzweig. Participants culled through letters and editions, the major works and minor works, everything handled object-like with extraordinary care and genuine charm and wit.
But ambivalent I remain. On the one hand, I am not sure that the purposes of the IRG, of which I am now a member, will lend themselves directly to the practice of Jewish philosophy, as an emergent contemporary practice. The study of Rosenzweig has clearly entered into the domain of intellectual history. Its main objects –Rosenzweig “the man” and his works– belong to the European past. The contexts and contents that frame that life and work have always been obscure and cryptic and become more so every decade. On the other hand, I would not ever underestimate the power of antiquarianism and antiquarian objects. The images they present, the images they illuminate, continue to flash up in the present, often in surprising ways. This is an insight that Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the past, both the distant past and the recent past, can bring to bear on the study of Rosenzweig as an object, or on the study of The Star of Redemption as an object. As such, I have no doubt that the IRG remains a prominent platform for the practice of new indirect and emergent forms of contemporary Jewish philosophy, based on the quality and care of the scholarship brought to the table by a colleagues who, at least this year, showed to each other remarkable combinations of constructive criticism and human geniality.
So why this attention to The Star of Redemption with its combinations and re-combinations of figures (God-world-soul) and intensities (death and sex) across different sets of relation (creation-revelation-redemption) and upon a variety of artificial platforms (constructs of Jewish and Christian liturgical life)? I think because there is nothing like it in the history of Jewish philosophy, and little like it in western philosophy. In my paper, I compared it to a technological object, a new media object.
I’m just not convinced that this construction and its artifice belong to our terrestrial world. The Star of Redemption is an extra-terrestrial object. At one point during a talk, I turned my attention to the grey orb of sky, rain and cityscape outside the windows from the 10th floor of the Jackman Humanities Building at the University of Toronto, where the meetings were held. Inside, everything was dry, ultra-modern, with lots of slickly white surfaces. In a peculiar way, the world outside seemed to reflect the world outside, as if Rosenzweig and Schelling made some sense of the world. In the car on the way finally back to Syracuse from Toronto, I drove at night by the now closed and deserted New York State Fairgrounds. In my mind’s eye, The Star of Redemption now hovered over the fairgrounds like a spacecraft, an Unidentified Flying Object, out there distant in space like a star in Benjamin’s baroque Trauerspiel, distant in time like something complex and alien. This is its strange place in the world, a part of and apart from, inside and outside. It’s why I think I will always love The Star of Redemption and its object-like character as it recedes more and more quickly into the vanished world and history of German-Jewish ideas. Tomorrow it’s back to Planet Earth.
And, like ET, (how) has/ can he touch/ed the hearts, minds, beliefs of us who cross the threshold in the midst of life?