Franz Rosenzweig and the Systematic Task of Philosophy
by Benjamin Pollack
Cambridge, 352 pages, $90
The main difference between American and German readings of Franz Rosenzweig is how the readers go about their business. By and large, Americans try to place Rosenzweig in the radical liberal model, turning him into an ethicist who has something to contribute to contemporary social concerns. Germans tend to treat him as a chemist might, taking him to the laboratory to identify his fundamental elements. After the study is done, the Germans put him on the shelf next to Hegel, Schelling, and Hermann Cohen (an important inspiration for Rosenzweig), so that they can continue their pedagogical task of instructing students in the sequence of philosophical stories.
Americans and Germans alike do not typically wander far outside their mental comfort zones—and neither, alas, does Benjamin Pollock in his new book, Franz Rosenzweig and the Systematic Task of Philosophy. Here we have the novelty of an American academic taking the Teutonic tack. He explores Rosenzweig’s masterwork The Star of Redemption as an answer to the “problem of system”—a nice Germanic problem if ever there was one. Yes, he was in the midst of his struggle to dedicate his life to the living God, in the passionate storm of his deepest love relationship, and in utter despair as he experienced Germany’s ruin at the end of the First World War. But, as Pollock reads him, what Franz Rosenzweig really wanted was the solace of a system.
Not surprisingly, in a book by a modern academic, Rosenzweig turns out to be much like any other academic looking for tenure. Pollack’s story needs a McGuffin, and for this he purloins an argument that Rosenzweig directed against philosophy for quite different reasons. Like many great books, Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption has a stunning first line: “From death, from the fear of death arises all knowledge of the All.”
Philosophers from Parmenides to Hegel constructed the concept of the All as a fabrication of reason; Rosenzweig demands that we abandon this in favor of the recognition that our relationship to the All stems from our sentience of mortality. In place
of what is being abandoned, Rosenzweig provides a new All that is constituted by six points, or poles, of reference. They are God, Man, and World, together with Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. This, to be sure, is a “systematic” exercise, but it is incomprehensible except as a consequence of Rosenzweig’s religious motivation.
The first three elements are, for Rosenzweig, the fundamental elements of any “healthy understanding” that has not been bewitched by an idealist view of reason. Rosenzweig argues that while all peoples appealed to all three elements, only the ancient Jews saw a relation among these three—a relation in which man and God and world all lived in response to one another. Thus, the world was for man and from God, and God was neither cut off from human beings nor a tyrant that ruled over them.
The realization that there was a relation among these three elements opened up the Jewish people to the realization of another “plane of reference” overlaying the primordial one. The attunement to this other plane means being aware of man as God’s creature and of the world as God’s creation. As God’s creature, man learns through his attentiveness to the revelation that God is a loving God—a God who reveals that love is stronger than death. This revelation is the key to the meaning of existence: God wants to redeem man and the world, and even himself, through a creation that is so charged with love that it proves stronger than death. Thus God commands us to love him and to love one another, because we have been made in his image.
Rosenzweig insists that language itself contains the thread by means of which the Jewish people have heard this account of God’s creation and revelation. He decodes parts of the Bible to illustrate that its grammatical underpinnings give shape to the content of the book of the living word.
This summary of the first two books of The Star of Redemption explains why it is not precisely wrong for Pollock to say that Rosenzweig has written a philosophical system in which he has demonstrated a particular type of All or totality. But the system is not the purpose for his doing so—and it is on the question of purpose that Pollock’s Franz Rosenzweig and the Systematic Task of Philosophy goes so wrong.
I feel somewhat uneasy about taking Pollock to task for what he has done because the book’s thesis is so inoffensive and unpolitical. Yet the inoffensiveness is all part of an obsequiousness to the American consensus that is more or less demanded if someone is to join the priesthood of academia—not just in Rosenzweig studies but throughout the humanities. It is no accident that the most studied Jewish philosopher of the last fifteen years has been Emmanuel Levinas—and no accident that what is taken from Levinas is a critique of totalizing logic that encloses all in a system of injustice due to its inevitable hierarchical character and his messianic hope in a future.
Levinas was deeply affected by Rosenzweig, but Levinas’ was an ontological ethics. In fact, it was really a universalized Jewish ethics.
It is equally no accident that there are numerous articles and books on Levinas and Rosenzweig, all of which largely attempt to transform Rosenzweig into a Levinasian ethicist. The problem that Rosenzweig poses for the radical liberal is that The Star of Redemption is built around the issue of Jewish election. Election is the book’s central problem. Pollock, naturally enough, quotes this, but the fact is that the entire argument of Rosenzweig’s book is a demonstration of why the Jews alone are God’s elect (almost the entire third book of The Star of Redemption is dedicated to decoding Jewish festivals and rituals and comparing them with Christian ones) and showing that they spring from the Jews’ role as the eternal people.
Rosenzweig is attempting to demonstrate the socio-anthropological characteristics of three types of people: pagans, Jews, and Christians. The pagans are those who experience the disconnectedness of God, man, and world. The Christians are pagans who strive to follow the redemptive law of love revealed to them by God. Jews are Jews by blood; Christians are baptized into the Church. The Church’s mission is to bring all into its fold. The Jews stubbornly resist this because they are already with the Father and do not need the Son to come to the Father. The Christian danger and temptation is in succumbing to the pagan energies Christianity seeks to redeem.
The great innovation of The Star of Redemption is its argument that Christians are ever dependent on the Jews, and that together Jews and Christians form a relation both inimical and yet devoted to the same God and same redemptive purpose. For Rosenzweig, Christianity is not simply about a personal choice. Christianity is a collective body, and thus, he argues, the Church has three ages: the Petrine (broadly, the Roman/Orthodox Church), the Pauline (the Reformation), and the Johannine. This last age is the Church of Hope—a wall-less, deinstitutionalized Christianity. For Rosenzweig, most modern atheists are really Johannine Christians who don’t realize it even as they seek to bring all into their church of neighborly love. Yet, ever and always, they, like Christians before them, fall easily into idolatry—and thereby lapse into paganism. The great pagan trial of the twentieth century was nationalism—a movement that originally had a Christian messianic purpose—and it was the most immediate form of paganism against which Rosenzweig battled in, for example, his book Hegel and the State.
The Star of Redemption is a pre-Holocaust book. It emphasizes the statelessness of Jews and the fact that they always have to learn the language of their host nation; thus, they are ever in, but not completely of, another people. Jewish election, for Rosenzweig, means to live under the steadfastness of the redemptive law of love. And he has no illusions about how hard that is. His extraordinary image of the Jewish people is that of being the coal in God’s fire. The lot of the Jews is not one that most pagans and Christians want.
None of this, though, is well understood or appreciated by Pollock or most of the American scholars who want to make Rosenzweig an ethicist. To do that, they need to ensure that we are all individuals and all the same. That’s why the question of Islam is particularly a no-no in writing about Rosenzweig. He writes at length about Islam, and he shows why Allah is not YHWH, and why Jews and Muslims are responding to fundamentally contradictory commands. Most commentators either ignore Rosenzweig’s lengthy account of Judaism and Christianity over and against Islam, which he calls the religious parody of revelation (Pollock relegates this to a footnote), or they shake their finger at Rosenzweig like schoolmasters telling the class that he is prejudiced.
The silences and berating are all parts of the same problem. Rosenzweig’s is one of the few voices of the twentieth century that can help provide orientation through the great problems and collisions that face us as age-old faiths show themselves to provide contrary commands to peoples whose worlds now no longer exist in quasi-isolation from one another. No one will discover this by reading Pollock. Despite his careful presentation of one side of Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, Pollack throws a shroud over a work whose greatness lies in demonstrating the difference between idolatry and redemption.
Wayne Cristaudo is associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, where he is director of the European Studies Program. His books include Power, Love and Evil: Contribution to the Philosophy of the Damaged (2007).