I don’t think you can build a non-sovereign Judaism by cherry picking texts culled from Benjamin, Arendt, and Levinas. Reading Judith Butler’s book against Zionism, I was struck by the figure of Franz Rosenzweig, who, in “The Star of Redemption,” imagined a Judaism built upon non-terrestrial forms of holy land, holy language, and holy law. This is in mesh with Butler’s conception of Judaism as “religion,” which is an old form that once went under the rubrics of Reform Judaism and Ethical Monotheism.
Rosenzweig is a tricky fish, and in many respects, “The Star of Redemption” will always be a worthless book, sort of, or at least a period piece. It belongs too much to 1921, too full of itself, too full of the pathos and bathos of German Expresssionism; its acosmic energies don’t belong to this world. Consider its opposition to Zionism. By the late 1920s, Rosenzweig’s thought cooled down. The approach becomes “sachlich.” The opposition to Zionism has softened as the image of Zion has come back down to earth.
About this I wrote in the space chapter in “The Shape of Revelation.” The reference is to a letter written by Rosenzweig which none of the non-Zionists, anti-Zionists, and “diasporists” never, I mean never, cite. This is what I had to say on pp.179-82:
There was no German-Jewish street. In a May 1927 letter to Benno Jacob, a leader of the liberal, anti-Zionist Jewish community in Germany, Rosenzweig had Tel-Aviv in mind when he claimed, “[Religion] needs spontaneity. And when I consider what has spontaneously arisen in Palestine, I must admit that nowhere in the world have the demands of religious liberalism been met, even today, as fully as there.” “[T]ake the observance of Sabbath!” The Zionists smoke, write letters, and arrange sporting events. Even if the Orthodox regard it as hillul Shabbat, a desecration of the Sabbath, Rosenzweig could not feel that way. He wrote, “As for Tel Aviv, the ‘town of speculators,’ which most Zionists view as a questionable Zionist achievement –I cannot help but be impressed by the fact that all stores there close from kiddush to havdalah, and that thus, at any rate, the mold into which the content of the Sabbath can flow is provided.” Secular Zionism more than held its own against Diaspora Judaism. “Where do we have that here?” Referring to the secular Reali school in Haifa, Rosenzweig remarked how pupils read the Bible in Hebrew, which made him “shudder at the mere thought” of religious instruction in Germany (FR: 356-7, ta).
Drawn not to the hoary image of sanctified Jerusalem or to the utopian socialism of the kibbutz movement, but to the symbolic fulcrum of secular Zionist culture and commerce, the letter to Jacob highlights an urbanity that undermines the dogmatic anti-Zionism set out in The Star of Redemption. A signal to Rosenzweig’s own spontaneity of expression, synagogue and Sabbath, no longer a strict monopoly set by their orthodox interpreters, remain open to the saeculum. The appeal of Sabbath sporting events had already been anticipated by remarks about gesture, processionals, and physical movement in The Star of Redemption, but never in relation to Judaism. A new look at Zionism thus marked for Rosenzweig a radical shift towards a space broader than the limited parameters of diasporic congregational life. Against any ideological extreme, Zionist or anti-Zionist, the letter to Jacob reflects the in-between juncture where life “gravitates back to earth” (FR: 358).
In coming back to earth, the kingdom no longer constitutes a utopian no-place whose ideal locus lies in the distant future. It must stand here and now. The gritty realism at stake in this messianism undercuts any combination of liberal idealism and romantic yearning. One cannot pray for something one considers impossible from the very outset. The future envisioned by the prophets was a “future Zion on earth.” Rosenzweig reminded Jacob about a story he once told about Hermann Cohen in his Judah Halevy commentary. Already over seventy years old, Cohen had confessed to him that he still hoped to experience the beginning of the messianic era. When the much younger Rosenzweig replied that he did not think that he himself would live to see the day, Cohen pressed, “But when do you think then?” Not having the heart to name no date, Rosenzweig suggested, only after hundreds of years. Cohen misunderstood him to have meant only after a hundred years and cried, “Oh, please say fifty”. Quoting Halevy, Rosenzweig now insisted to Jacob, “What is not to come save in eternity will not come in all eternity” (FR: 358, H: 259-60).
Fixed on time, not space, Cohen’s pathos rides upon a conception of messianic place that recedes further and further into the future. It lacks the solid dimension found in the letters to Jacob. In an earlier communication, also from May of 1927, Rosenzweig had tried to mediate Cohen’s anti-Zionism and Buber’s Zionism. Jerusalem is a messianic symbol, but for a symbol to become more than an arbitrary appendage it must somewhere and somehow reflect an unsymbolic reality. Against the Zionists, he observed, “Warmth is not only to be found where there is sunlight –that is a Zionist superstition– but wherever I have a good stove.” Rosenzweig now made the following counter-claim. His own “Frankfurt wisdom,” a play off the rabbinic expression “Greek wisdom,” depends upon the Land of Israel, not just the one that was but the one that will be and the Palestine of today which links the two. “[T]he coal and the wood which warm me today could not have grown…if there were no sun…The real sun!” Life requires a real point set in space, “[n]ot merely a painted symbol, no matter how attractive the painting!” (FR: 354-5). In still another letter from the same month and year, Rosenzweig explained to Jacob that the messianic vision of a convocation of nations and world peace will entail a miraculous transformation of human nature. This faith came from Jewish prayer books, the Siddur and Mahzor, and he cannot tear Zion from it. He did not know how big and how modern Jewish Palestine might one day become, but he did not begrudge it its factories and highways (BT: 1145).
About the actual conflicts roiling modern Zionism, one notes a nearly complete inability to read the political map. The letters to Jacob ignored animosity based on religion or inter-national conflict. No one at the time could have foreseen the success with which orthodox and ultra-orthodox streams of Judaism have since overwhelmed religious life in the State of Israel after the Holocaust; or the deep resentments their political monopoly would engender on the part of the less and non-observant majority. Rosenzweig innocently presumed that Reform Judaism would dominate religious life in Palestine, without realizing how alien it was to the politically radical young Jews from Eastern Europe and their sabra children spearheading early Zionist culture. As for the Arab-Jewish conflict, one of his last letters before his death refers to the 1929 Hebron riots, his fear for the future of Zionism, and his worry about an English-Muslim war (BT: 1228). With an eye towards a broader civilizational clash between the western world and Islam, Rosenzweig overlooked the immediate threat of Arab-Jewish enmity, a danger clearly understood by Buber already in the early 1920s.
I’m not sure what any of this has to say about contemporary Israel, after decades of occupation and creeping apartheid and religious fanaticism. Really, it says nothing. Buber remains the sharper tack here. But for now, what I think is interesting is how physical place informs this late and more mature conception of Rosenzweig as to Jewish culture and Judaism as a terrestrial, earth-bound form. It’s what I find missing from Butler’s account of a Judaism without Zionism. I don’t think the utopian and cosmopolitan form of bi-nationalism can hold a candle to the moral complications and contaminations that define sovereign political existence.