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Franz Rosenzweig

ROSENZWEIG, FRANZ (1886–1929), German Jewish philosopher and theologian. Rosenzweig was born in Kassel, Germany, the only son of well-to-do parents. His father Georg financially supported many charity institutions, including the Jewish community, but the family's adherence to Judaism was minimal. In his youth, Franz came under the influence of his great-uncle, Adam Rosenzweig, a bachelor, an artist and a learned Jew, who lived in the Rosenzweig home and spent many hours with Franz. Through him the young boy learned of the Jewish world in an otherwise assimilated milieu. Unlike the rest of his family, Rosenzweig fasted on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and also took private Hebrew lessons. In 1905, he enrolled at the university, where he initially studied medicine, as many a Jewish student did, but then turned to philosophy and history, concentrating on Hegel and German idealism. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on "Hegel and the State."

In 1909, Rosenzweig tended towards assimilation, and justified the conversion of his cousin Hans Ehrenberg to Christianity. He did not see the advantage that Judaism could have over Christianity, the dominant culture, which would also help him obtain a teaching position, almost impossible for a Jew to get. Another cousin and friend, Rudolf Ehrenberg was already born a Christian. Eugen *Rosenstock, a Jewish convert to Christianity, became Rosenzweig's closest friend. Rosenstock, who would become an important nonconformist Protestant theologian, repeatedly urged him to abandon what he considered Rosenzweig's merely nominal Judaism and to convert. After months of deep conversations, and especially the catastrophic conversation with Rosenstock during the night of July 7, 1913, Rosenzweig decided to convert. But he then made the condition, to convert not "as a pagan," but "as a Jew." All this led to a crisis and almost to suicide. He left his converted friends for a few years and refrained from having any contact with them. In the same year, on Yom Kippur of 1913, he attended in Berlin the synagogue of Rabbi Petuchowski and felt a profound identification with the praying Jewish community. After a few days he wrote his friends, "I shall remain a Jew." He then reshaped his life, rethought his identity, and devoted his further life to a sincere return to Judaism, moving from the periphery of Jewish life to its center.

He developed a very close relationship with the philosopher Hermann *Cohen, who had retired from the University of Marburg and now taught at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the institution for adult Jewish education in Berlin. Cohen was of enormous importance for the young returning Jew, who saw in his teacher a great philosopher and someone who represented a source of Jewish tradition. Only in 1916 did Rosenzweig resume his lengthy theological correspondence with Rosenstock, after he had strengthened his renewed Jewish roots; in this correspondence with his friend he explained his new existential position. Although he disliked Rosenstock's continued attempts to convert him, the two remained in close contact. Rosenzweig inherited from his friend the idea of revelation as "orientation" in life, and devoted his first Jewish theological essay (Atheistische Theologie) to the idea of revelation, which went beyond what Rosenstock wrote and debated with Buber.

In World War I Rosenzweig served in the German army, and, while stationed in the Balkans, planned the revival of Jewish education. He sent his plan to Hermann Cohen as an open letter called Zeit ists (It is Time, 1917), a letter that had an enormous influence. Towards the end of the war, in the trenches, with the retreat of the Balkan-troops and in the army hospital he wrote the first draft of his Stern der Erloesung (Star of Redemption), his main work. At a feverish pace he wrote his major philosophical work, which contains hundreds of pages. New light has now been shed on it by Rosenzweig's correspondence with Gritli Rosenstock, which will be discussed below. The Star of Redemption was written from August 23, 1918, to February 16, 1919, and published in 1921.

In his return to Judaism, Rosenzweig was supported primarily by Hermann Cohen, but also by people such as Rabbi Nehemiah Nobel, Martin Buber, Joseph Prager, and Eduard Strauss. In 1920 he married Edith Hahn, and progressively observed the Jewish laws. Their son Raphael was born in September 1922. Realizing that, as a returnee to Judaism, he could play a pivotal role in bringing Jews back to their roots, Rosenzweig became interested in Jewish education, and in 1920 was appointed director of the Freies Juedisches Lehrhaus, an institute of adult Jewish education in Frankfurt on the Main, in which the participants were invited to express their view on Jewish problems and to try to understand their identity. The same year, he turned down an offer by Friedrich Meinecke to become a professional historian. Instead, he desired to free himself from what he called "dead science" and from "mere cognition," so that he could enter into the flow of life, where real questions demand answers. In the Lehrhaus, he used his talents not to write books, but to provide living answers to questions from the public, who were increasingly interested after the war in the return to Jewish faith.

According to Rosenzweig, the uniqueness of the Lehrhaus was in that people took part in conversations through questions and counter-questions. "Lernen," which in German means to study, but which, according to Rosenzweig in a 1919 letter to Margrit Rosenstock, in a Jewish context means both to study and to teach, is possible wherever people come together and try to overcome their estrangement from Judaism. The Lehrhaus in Frankfurt was not dependent on rabbis or religious teachers, but on people who knew little, in Rosenzweig's words: "am ha-arets" (without Jewish education), but who brought with them a great enthusiasm in their return to Judaism. The teachers were Jews on the periphery who were assimilated and wanted to rediscover their identity. People would be willing to read Jewish texts, such as the Bible, Midrash, Talmud, the siddur or maḥzor, and discover and build a Jewish life. It was not the books in themselves but rather the actual living encounter with other Jews that would create the opportunity to build Judaism.

In Rosenzweig's day, the dialogical method of learning was something novel, and at the universities it was completely absent. Today this method is more accepted. Practically, teaching now means being in interaction with the audience, certainly in informal adult education. Yet, Rosenzweig rightly understood that when Jews study together, something else happens. Lernen is not merely interactive learning, it means creating a community of people who make ancient texts speak again to the present generation, in constant renewal.

Alfred Jospe criticized the Lehrhaus in Frankfurt as being over-intellectualized. In his view, the program addressed itself mainly to the intelligentsia and did not really reach the men and women who had questions but lacked a higher education. Secondly, he felt that the school's accent was more on the transmission of knowledge than on the experiencing and living of Jewish values and ideas. While this criticism may be correct from a certain point of view, Rosenzweig's concept of the Lehrhaus was important and functioned as a model for other houses of study in Europe and America. One of the great advantages of the Lehrhaus was that people, through participating in the programs and projects, could express the profound questions that dwelled within them and cultivate a sense of at-homeness with Judaism and the Jewish community. Rosenzweig had to realize his educational project within a public that was not used to interaction and, on his part, he had to abandon the attitudes that prevented him from being truly dialogical. However, the very concept of a new, permanent, dialogical learning style was revolutionary and remains so today.

In the 1920s, Rosenzweig published a translation of 92 poems by *Judah Halevi with a commentary. Together with Buber he began translating the Bible, reaching Isaiah 52. In their Bible translation, the two wanted to bring the reader into as much contact as possible with the oral origin of the Bible. The translation gained great popularity. They rendered the Tetragrammaton in the pronominal forms "I," "You," and "He," highlighting in this manner the divine presence today. Rosenzweig accepted higher Bible criticism, and believed that there can be no contradiction between Torah and science, but considered the abbreviation "R." not as referring to the final Redactor, but rather to "(Moshe) Rabbenu," Moses our teacher, and considered the unity of the biblical text as the source of the Jewish faith. Rosenzweig, in opposition to extreme rationalism, appreciated biblical anthropomorphisms as attesting to the living dialogue between God and man, and as a preeminent way of speaking of this relationship.

Rosenzweig's important essay Die Bauleute (The Builders, 1923) discusses the attitude of the Jew to the commandments. Unlike the orthodox Jew, Rosenzweig did not accept all of the commandments, but distinguished between the subjective "commandment" (Gebot), which addresses the individual in the present, and which he readily accepted, and objective Law (Gesetz), which he could "not yet" accept. His beautiful introduction to Hermann Cohen's Jewish writings and his other Jewish essays further testify to Rosenzweig's steadily growing interest in Jewish life.

Parallel to his religious evolution, Rosenzweig developed his existential philosophy and subsequently explicated it in a more popular way in Das neue Denken (The New Thinking, 1925). The essay shows his dissatisfaction with German idealism and describes his kind of "new thinking," which takes into account the importance of dialogue, pluriform reality, language, and time. Instead of a philosophy serving history and politics and knowing nothing about revelation, Rosenzweig posited revelation as leading to a life of community. Eternity (Ewigkeit) is to be realized in the everyday life in the community of believers.

In his magnum opus, Rosenzweig conceived of the All collapsing into three separate elements: God, man, and the world. In opposition to pantheism, materialism, and extreme anthropology, he rejected the philosophical attempt to reduce these elements to one, and pointed to their interaction with each other in the relationships of creation, revelation, and redemption. In revelation, God addresses man with the commandment "Thou shalt love," which is the basis of all laws. Judaism and Christianity as collective answers to revelation are two twin communities, which are different, complementary, and critical towards each other. They are partial truth in history, whereas God as the ultimate truth transcends them. Yet, as in Judah Halevi's Kuzari, Judaism is given clear priority in the Star.

In opposition to the idealistic attempts to find God in history and to make the world into a platform of the developing Absolute Spirit as did Hegel, Rosenzweig's Star did not put history in the center, but "revelation" and "eternity," which are a "rupture" of history. Jewish history has no epochs; it transcends time and is eternal. For Rosenzweig, there is a new form of interaction between philosophy and theology: theology talks about revelation as the objective breach of history, whereas philosophy approaches the same revelation from the subjective point of view.

With his revelation-centered philosophy, Rosenzweig criticized idealism, which was current in the German universities of that time and in which he was well versed. In 1917 he had published Das aelteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus, in which he identified as Schelling's a manuscript written in Hegel's hand on a unified system of idealism. (Pöggler now argues that the program fits Hegel and not the early Schelling; the subject is in debate.) In 1920 Rosenzweig published his Hegel und der Staat (1920).

However, it was the Star that interested Rosenzweig most. In it he developed his anti-idealistic thinking, and he expressed his existential philosophy in ancient Jewish terms. The Star, a compendium of Jewish insights, was first of all the result of his deep Jewish development: first through the crisis of 1913 and then through the friendship with Hermann Cohen. After the Star he led a Jewish life as a paralyzed, sick man, who worked on translations of Jewish texts and on matters of Jewish adult education. He contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease that gradually prevented him from performing any motor function except from moving his eyebrows. Rosenzweig died after 7 years of long suffering in 1929, at the age of 43.

Rosenzweig and Buber

Over the years, the possibility of a friendship between Buber and Rosenzweig prior to the publication of Buber's I and Thou in 1922 had been considered; surprisingly, through numerous manuscripts and letters it was possible to prove that Buber's theory of dialogue developed out of their dialogue. This research was undertaken by Rivka Horwitz in Buber's Way to I and Thou (1978), which throws new light on the intimate personal and intellectual relationship between the two. It shows that an early version of I and Thou, "Religion als Gegenwart" (Religion as Presence) was presented by Buber in Rosenzweig's Lehrhaus. Additional evidence is found in the correspondence between Rosenzweig and Martin Buber in 1922, while Buber was writing his monumental Ich und Du.

Rosenzweig criticized Buber's dialogical philosophy, because it is based not only on the I-You relation, but also on I-It, a notion which Rosenzweig rejected as idealistic. He thought the counterpart to I-You should be He-It, namely "as He said and it became": building it around the human I – the human mind – is an idealistic mistake. Therefore, Rosenzweig preferred concentrating on the divine He, whose world man is searching for. The world is God's world; He is the Creator of the world. There is ample proof that Buber accepted Rosenzweig's criticism with regard to Ich und Du, although not immediately, as it would have demanded a drastic change in the book, but in his later writing – not only in the Bible translation where the Tetragrammaton is translated Er ("He"), but also in his own philosophy in the coming years. Buber then wrote about the Creator next to the Eternal Thou. The archival evidence thus makes it increasingly clear that Rosenzweig's philosophy played a more important role in the development of Buber's philosophy of dialogue than previously recognized.

Rosenzweig and Margrit Rosenstock

Rosenzweig's voluminous and recently published correspondence with Margrit Rosenstock-Huessy, Eugen's wife, called Gritli, from mid-1917 until late-1925, casts unexpected and lively light on Rosenzweig's New Thinking, as well as on his Judaism, his Jewish identity, his problems with his parents, with his friends and cousins, his attachment to uncle Adam, and his attitudes toward Christianity and Germany. They contain numerous philosophical and theological remarks and offer valuable insights into the birth and development of Rosenzweig's masterpiece, the Star of Redemption. In June of 1917, Rosenzweig met Gritli in Kassel and he became her lover for some time. Whereas Eugen and his other friends wanted to convert Franz, Franz appreciated the attitude of Gritli, who was tolerant of the expression of his Jewishness. She did not try to convert him, and rather said to him in times of crisis: "Franz ich suche dein jüdisches Herz" ("Franz, I search for your Jewish heart"). The Gritli letters give new impetus for scholarly research into Rosenzweig's philosophy and into the complexity of his life. Reading the Gritli letters, we see that the former tendency to write much about Hegel and Schelling as a source for Rosenzweig does not follow from these letters, whereas little has been written as yet on Eugen Rosenstock, Hans and Rudolf Ehrenberg, or Hermann Cohen's profound influence on Rosenzweig. In the letters, Rosenzweig gave Rosenstock a great deal of credit and he greatly appreciated Cohen, from whom he borrowed the idea of revelation as a new creation.

The documents reveal many details about the Star, making it clear that the Star led Rosenzweig from thoughts about the exteriority of death and suicide to the positive experience of the life-transforming exteriority of revelation, which nourishes life in the community. In writing the Star Rosenzweig freed himself from a paralyzing and dead thinking, as well as from suicidal thoughts. He emphasized that the Star only elucidates one concept: that of factuality "Tatsächlichkeit": the fact (die Tatsache, das Faktum) which stands free from the idea. In the letters Rosenzweig speaks about his anti-idealistic thoughts on language, time, and eternity. He discusses the importance of the name, explained why he appreciated anthropomorphisms and attributed a special place to paganism, namely as the truth in embryonic form, and elucidated his concept of the miracle (Wunder) of revelation as "sign" (Zeichen), i.e., as predicted in creation. He stressed the Jewish character of the Star, wanted a Jewish publisher for the book, and described the Star as counterpart of Rosenstock's chief work Im Kreuz der Wirklichkeit (Cross of Reality).

From these letters, we also learn about many existential problems, about his mother's suicidal tendencies and Eugen's continual attempts to convert him. Most importantly, the letters contain many remarks on Rosenzweig's progress on his way to Judaism. He wrote on the Lehrhaus, on his translations, and on his joy of being of Jew. Noteworthy are his thoughts on the "New Law" (neues Gesetz), which is based on the commandment of love, which pertains to the whole of life and is not restricted to religion. This "New Law," being linked to the divine imperative of love, is not characterized by coercive force, but by its possible subjectivization: the objective Law, Gesetz, may become a personal commandment, Gebot. Just as "New Thinking" was required for philosophy leading "into life" (ins Leben), so the "New Law" in Jewish life could make a person alive (lebendig), turning him into a lively, responsive, and responsible being.

Rosenzweig's thoughts on the complex relationship between religion and revelation remain crucial for any future Jewish-Christian dialogue. They are an eminent example of dialogue, showing its possibilities and its boundaries. However, the Gritli letters inform us that Rosenzweig changed his view on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity during the year 1919. Whereas in the Star he still viewed the twin religions as antipodal, he now became increasingly influenced by Gotthold Ephraim *Lessing's parable of toleration, Nathan the Wise, and developed a view of Judaism and Christianity that is less antithetical and more egalitarian than in the Star. The emphasis now was on human beings, not Judaism or Christianity. The institutions are not God's bride; they are homes for the children of God, for people. Although Rosenzweig, like Lessing, conceived the truth as still having to be realized, he also remained critical towards Lessing and thought that the view expressed in Nathan the Wise is too bloodless and abstract; all persons are essentially different.


The Gritli letters, which contain more than a thousand pages and were published to a large extent in recent years, aroused renewed interest in Rosenzweig's writings. Interest is also growing from another direction, as a result of the great scholarly interest in the work of French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel *Levinas, who clearly recognized and expressed his debt to Rosenzweig. In May 2005, the Internationale Rosenzweig-Gesellschaft was founded, which organizes scholarly activities in Europe, the U.S., and Israel. Rosenzweig's impact on Jewish-Christian dialogue has been profound. His combination of a dynamic interest in Jewish learning, of vast general culture, and of a non-parochial Judaism has attracted many Jewish intellectuals.


Y. Amir, Faith-Full Cognition – A Study in Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption (Heb., 2004); L. Anckaert, M. Brasser, and N. Samuelson (eds.), The Legacy of Franz Rosenzweig. Collected Essays (2004); L. Batnitzky, Idolatry and Representation. The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig Reconsidered (2000); G. Bensussan, Franz RosenzweigExistence et philosophie (2000); M. Brasser (ed.), Rosenzweig als Leser. Kontextuelle Kommentare zum "Stern der Erloesung" (2004); R. Burkhardt-Riedmiller, Franz Rosenzweigs Sprachdenken und seine Erneuerung humanistischer und jüdischer Lerntraditionen (1995); H.M. Dober, Die Zeit ernst nehmen. Studien zu Franz Rosenzweigs "Der Stern der Erloesung" (Epistemata, Würzburger Wissenschaftliche Schriften, Reihe Philosophie, vol. 84 (1990)); P.W. Franks, M.L. Morgan (eds.), Franz Rosenzweig. Philosophical and Theological Writings. Translated and Edited with Notes and Commentary (2000); R. Freund, Die Existenzphilosophie Franz Rosenzweigs – Ein Beitrag zur Analyse seines Werkes" Der Stern der Erloesung" (1959); N.N. Glatzer (ed.), Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (1961); idem, On Jewish Learning (1955; paperback ed., 1989) Y. Greenberg Kornberg, Better than Wine. Love, Poetry and Prayer in the Thought of Franz Rosenzweig (1996); R. Horwitz, Buber's Way to" I and Thou." The Development of Martin Buber's Thought and His" Religion as Presence" Lectures (1988; first published in Heidelberg 1978); idem, Franz RosenzweigA Selection of Letters and Diary Fragments (Heb., 1987); W. Licharz – M. Keller (eds.), Franz Rosenzweig und Hans Ehrenberg. Bericht einer Beziehung (Arnoldshainer Texte, Band 42) (1986); E. Meir, Star from Jacob – The Life and Work of Franz Rosenzweig (Heb., 1994); idem, Letters of Love: Franz Rosenzweig's Spiritual Biography and Oeuvre in Light of the Gritli Letters (2005); P. Mendes-Flohr (ed.), The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig (1988); I. Rühle, Gott spricht die Sprache der Menschen. Franz Rosenzweig als jüdischer Theologe – eine Einführung (2004); N. Samuelson, A User's Guide to Franz Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption (1999); E.L. Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life. Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (2001); R. Schaeffler, B. Casper, S. Talmon, and Y. Amir , Offenbarung im Denken Franz Rosenzweigs (1979); W. Schmied-Kowarzik (ed.), Der Philosoph Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929) Internationaler Kongress-Kassel 1986. Bd.1: Die Herausforderung juedischen Lernens. Bd. 2: Das neue Denken und seine Dimensionen (1988); idem, Franz Rosenzweig. Existentielles Denken und gelebte Bewährung (1991); J. Turner, Faith and HumanismReflections on the Religious Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig (Heb., 2001); R. Horwitz, "Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig on Creation and Revelation," in: Archivio di Filosofia, 71 (2003), 115–29; A. Jospe, "The Frankfurt Lehrhaus: A Model for American Jewish Education?" in: E. Jospe and R. Jospe (eds.), To Leave Your Mark. Selections from the Writings of Alfred Jospe (2000), 82–83; R. Jospe and E. Meir, "Franz Rosenzweig's Inexpressible Joy," in: E. Meir and H. Pedayah (eds.), Festschrift for R. Horwitz; E. Meir, "La presenza biblica nella cultura ebraica contemporanea: M. Buber – F. Rosenzweig – E. Levinas," in: S.J. Sierra (ed.), La lettura ebraica delle Scritture (1995), 465–95; idem, "Goethe's Place in Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption," in: Daat – A Journal of Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah, 48 (2002), 97–107 (Heb.); idem, "The Unpublished Correspondence between Franz Rosenzweig and Gritli Rosenstock-Huessy in the Star of Redemption," in: Jewish Studies Quarterly, 9 (2002), 21–70; H. Putnam, Introduction to F. Rosenzweig, Understanding the Sick and the Healthy. A View of World, Man and God, tr. Nahum N. Glazer (1999), 1–20; M. Scwarcz, "The Place of Franz Rosenzweig in the Philosophy of Judaism," in: Introduction to the Hebrew translation of the Star, 9–42 (Heb.); H.M. Stahmer, "Franz Rosenzweig's Letters to Margrit Rosenstock-Huessy, 1917–1922," in: Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, 34 (1989), 385–409.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.