“Politics” and “Life” (The Star of Redemption)

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Just finished watching Bill Clinton present an argument to the American people on national television at a political convention, and am getting back to a little bit of work. It’s the mix of politics, reason, and performance, and it helps me frame things that I like and don’t like about my-our old friend Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish philosophy guy from another time and place, 100 years ago, Wilhelmine-Weimar Germany, a guy in whom I and others have invested and continue to invest lots and lots of energy trying to figure out. If it all sounds extra-terrestial to you, well, I can’t blame you.

There’s a totalitarianism, I’ve suspected for a while now in The Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig’s magnum opus. It’s kind of harmless. It has more to do with fantasy and apocalyptics, not so much with “the poltical,” about which Rosenzweig had almost nothing of real interest to say, at least after the Hegel and the State book, which to tell you the truth, I’m never going to read. As for The Star of Redemption, I can’t think of a more politically useless book. It is even more hapless than Buber’s I and Thou. At least Buber was an anarchist, not a revanchist monarchist. It’s not that Rosenzweig didn’t get over it. He did, thanks to Buber, perhaps. The Star of Redemption reads like a red-hot fever. When the fever broke, his thought became much more gesllschaftlich, more sober and less self-nihilating, more open-minded, less hermetic and sealed, less esoteric and cryptic, more big-city like, and capacious, more Bauhaus than Auschwitz. The Auschwitz crack is new, but about most of this I also wrote in the space-chapter in The Shape of Revelation.  Compare the cooler temperatures in the “New Thinking,” the Sick and Healthy Understanding, the Lehrhaus lectures, and the essay on “the Eternal” in the Scripture essays.

But what about all those materials in The Star of Redemption that relate to life, passionate love, love of the neighbor, inter-subjective relations between I and You and We, the lived life of religious community, straining towards the promise of messianic redemption, the animation of life and our life in this-world for as long as we live in it? All of this I used to find so appealing. I’m not so sure anymore. At one point in his later writings, Rosenzweig referred to his system as “absolute empiricism.” And maybe that’s what he wanted, but I’m not sure about “the absolute.” About all those points that would have once appealed to me and which still appeal to my colleague-friends in the guild, I’m beginning to think they are all unreal. They are staged bits of pre-written dialogue between figures onstage, the figure of God and the human soul, another figure. All the declarations in part II and the gestures in part III that carry these points along are pre-scripted, pre-programmed, like the libretto of an operatic chorus and performed dramatically as ritual, set apart and aloof from the life it wants to redeem.

It’s a fantastic performance, pure German Expressionism, full of pathos and bathos that reflects the culture in Germany from 1913 to 1921 or 1925. It’s a pity Schoenberg didn’t get his hands on it after Moses und Aron. But it’s not “political.” At least I don’t think so.

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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