Less often mentioned, however, is Rosenzweig’s analysis of Islam, a religion he regarded as a throwback to paganism. Indeed, Rosenzweig predicted a prolonged conflict of civilizations between Islam and the West. The coming millennium will go down in world history as a struggle between Orient and Occident, between the church and Islam, between the Germanic peoples and the Arabs, he forecast in 1920”in part because Islam is a parody of revealed religion, while Allah is an apotheosized despot, the colorfully contending gods of the pagan pantheon rolled up into one.
Rather than three Abrahamic religions, Rosenzweig saw only two religions arising from the self-revelation of divine love, with Islam as a crypto-pagan pretender. He was no Islamophobe, observing that Islam during certain eras evinced greater tolerance and humaneness than Christian Europe. But he was emphatic that truly foundational differences distinguish Judeo-Christian religion from Islam.
Contemporary academic thinkers almost universally eschew Rosenzweig’s view of Islam. But it makes no sense to affirm Rosenzweig’s depiction of the unique bond between Jews and Christians”their response to God’s self-revelation through love”while ignoring what makes this bond so different from other human responses to the transcendent. In Rosenzweig’s theology, the soul’s awareness of God begins with his love, and from this arise both faith and authentic human individuality. The existential condition of being loved is what uniquely characterizes Christian and Jew, as opposed to the pagan, for whom God must remain hidden.
At first glance, Rosenzweig’s characterization of Islam as pagan appears strange, for we habitually classify religions according to their outward forms and identify paganism with manifestations of polytheism or nature worship. Insisting on the uniqueness of Allah and suppressing outward expressions of idolatry, Islam appears the opposite of a pagan religion. Rosenzweig, however, requires us to see faith from the existential standpoint of the believer, who in revealed religion knows God through God’s love. For Rosenzweig, paganism constitutes a form of alienation from the revealed God of Love; Allah, the absolutely transcendent God who offers mercy but not unconditional love, is therefore a pagan deity.
All humankind acknowledges the divine, Rosenzweig insists in The Star of Redemption , because humans are mortal. From the fear of death arises the perception of the transcendent; and, in the pursuit of eternal life, one proceeds to life, as he avers in the book’s final words. The path to human life, however, requires a life outside time”that is, in the Kingdom of Heaven. Man cannot abide his mortal existence and the terror of death without the prospect of eternal life. Rosenzweig’s existential theology looks through the patina of received doctrine to the spiritual life of the congregation and its attempt to create for itself a life beyond the grave. How different faiths”different modes of living”address the fear of death creates a unique vantage point from which to understand how profoundly Christianity, Judaism, and Islam differ from one another.
Rosenzweig’s existential theology is embedded in what he calls a sociology of religion . He considers not only the individual’s response to the fear of death but also, and more important, the response of entire peoples to the threat of extinction. It is not only our own death that we fear”under some circumstances we may not fear it at all”but rather the death of our race, our culture, our language, and with them the death of the possibility that some trace of our presence on earth will persist through our successors.
Perhaps Rosenzweig’s most influential claim holds that the Jew converts the inner pagan inside the Christian, such that the living presence of the Jewish people creates a counterweight to the Gnostic impulses in Christianity. Before God stand both of us, he wrote, Jew and Christians, laborers at the same task:
It is only the Old Testament that enables Christianity to defend itself against [Gnosticism], its inherent danger. And it is the Old Testament alone, because it is more than just a book. The arts of allegorical interpretation would have made short work of a mere book. If, like Christ, the Jews had disappeared from the world, they would denote only the Idea of a People, and Zion the Idea of the midpoint of the world, just as Christ denotes only the Idea of Man. But the sturdy and undeniable vitality of the Jewish people”to which anti-Semitism itself attests”opposes itself to such idealization. That Christ is more than idea”no Christian can know this. But that Israel is more than an idea, the Christian knows, because he sees it . . . . Our presence stands surety for their truth. [ All translations from Rosenzweig are my own. ]
In the post-Holocaust world, after neopaganism nearly conquered Europe, Rosenzweig’s contention that Christianity requires the presence of the Jews found great resonance. Yet his formulation stems from a theological sociology with broader application. Pagans, Rosenzweig explained, have only the fragile and ultimately futile effort to preserve their physical continuity through blood and soil. Their hope for immortality takes the form of a perpetual fight for physical existence, which one day they must lose. Rosenzweig’s sociology of religion thus offers unique insights into the origin and nature of civilizational conflict when he argues that a pagan people, ever sentient of the fragility of their existence, are always prepared to fight to the death.
It is hard to dismiss Rosenzweig’s view of Islam as an expression of Jewish prejudice, for he also rejected Zionism and celebrated the virtues of a Judaism removed from the temporal constraints of nationhood. He formed his view of Islam during the First World War as a German soldier (and an ally of Muslim Turkey), long before Arab-Jewish conflict was a concern to most Jews. Indeed, Jews of Rosenzweig’s generation tended to view Islam as more hospitable to Judaism than Christianity.
Like Martin Buber, with whom he translated the Hebrew Scriptures into German, Rosenzweig remains a rallying point for non-Zionist Jewish universalism, attracting the sorts of admirers who most desire reconciliation between the State of Israel and its Muslim adversaries. By the same token, the embrace of Zionism by all mainstream Jewish currents after 1948 makes Rosenzweig something of an anomaly to Jewish thought today.
Still, it is misguided to dismiss Rosenzweig’s analysis of Islam as a matter of secondary interest, for he stated plainly that his critique of Islam was quite as important to his thought as his presentation of Judaism. In his essay The New Thinking, he wrote that the Star of Redemption is not a Jewish book’ at all . . . . It does deal with Judaism, but not any more exhaustively than with Christianity and barely more exhaustively than Islam. Nonetheless, the Rosenzweig scholars who bother to address the issue tend to dismiss his discussion of Islam as troublesome or as an embarrassing prejudice.
Only one extant monograph addresses Rosenzweig’s analysis of Islam in depth”a German-language collection of his writings with introductory essays by Gesine Palmer and Yossef Schwartz, in which Schwartz claims that Rosenzweig wasn’t really writing about Islam at all but rather about a Hegelian construct that Rosenzweig confounded with Islam. That seems an odd assertion, considering that Rosenzweig formed his view of Islam in part through direct contact with Muslims in Macedonia during the war, and he wrote about his experience in a letter reproduced in Palmer and Schwartz’s own volume.
None of these scholars address the definitive aspect of Rosenzweig’s analysis, what he called the sociological basis of religion. Although most of Rosenzweig’s comments about Islam are found in book two of The Star of Redemption , it is book three, his portrayal of the encounter of the peoples with mortality, that establishes the context”for it is there that he explains the pagan world of fate and chance, which applies to paganism’s manifestation in Islam. Although Palmer and Schwartz have collected every passage that mentions the word Islam in Rosenzweig’s work, they exclude his striking portrayal of pagan society. In short, they excise the context in which to understand his assertion that Islam is a mode of paganism.
Early in The Star of Redemption , Rosenzweig argues that pagan society cannot foster authentic human individuality but dissolves the individual into an extension of race or state. For the isolated individual, his society is the society, he writes.
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