A Modern Jewish Hero

Franz Rosensweig (1886-1929) deserves far greater recognition than he currently receives.  His major work, The Star of Redemption, is not easy going so few readers encounter his thought directly.  He did not leave behind a school of disciples ready to spread their master’s ideas and his tragically short life prevented adding further accomplishments to an already notable list.  Though Rosensweig was a significant thinker, aspects of his life story seem the most impressive thing about him and it is those aspects that I will focus on.

Rosensweig grew up in a highly assimilated Jewish home in Kassel, Germany and was friendly with several cousins who had converted to Christianity.  In 1913, he himself was about to convert but he decided to enter Christianity as a Jew, just as the first Christians did, and first attend High Holiday services in Berlin.  Something affected him during the Yom Kippur service and he determined to remain Jewish subsequently becoming heavily involved in Jewish learning and practice.  He later studied with Rabbi Nehemiah Nobel, Rav of Frankfurt, and named his son after R. Nobel.

While fighting for the Germans in WWI, Rosensweig worked on his magnum opus.  Incredibly, he wrote this complex book in installments sent on military postcards back home to his mother.  Having the peace of mind to pen a major philosophical work while in the middle of a military conflict is certainly a remarkable feat.

Yet his most impressive achievement came later.  In 1922, Rosensweig developed ALS and his ability to use his limbs steadily deteriorated.  Eventually, his communication was restricted to indicating to his wife what he wanted to say letter by letter.  During this time period, he and Martin Buber worked on their monumental translation of the Bible into German.   They finished from Bereishit through Yishayahu before Rosensweig passed away (Buber later completed the project in the 1950s).  To engage in such a fruitful language project with such limited communication ability is an awe inspiring achievement.

Buber and Rosensweig’s efforts set the stage for much of the contemporary literary approach to the Bible.  They highlighted the technique of leitwiort, repeated usage of a word to convey deeper meaning.  They were sensitive to the use of word play, allusion, and resonance and tried to maintain those features even in translation, something quite difficult to achieve.  Those interested in the intellectual continuation of their biblical project should read Robert Alter’s commentary and translations.  This literary awareness has led many readers to greater appreciation of the artistry and sophistication of Jewish scriptures.

When he heard about Rosensweig’s heroic efforts, Sigmund Freud commented:   “What choice did he have.”  Such cynicism is unjustified.  Rosensweig had plenty of other options including despair, anger, and a stoic resignation that would give up on productive work.  To help compose one of the most important Bible translations in history while communicating letter by letter is an achievement we would deem unrealistic if it occurred in a fictional work.  Yet Rosensweig actually did this.

Rosensweig may have had enduring impact on the Jewish community in another way as well.  In 1920, he founded the Lehrhaus, an institute for adult Jewish education in Frankfurt.  Due to his illness, he had to give up the leadership of this institute to Rudolph Hallo two years later but it continued to have an impact throughout the decade.  As many as a thousand Jews would take courses each semester.  In several ways, this was a precursor to the adult education courses given in many shuls today.

The Lehrhaus reflected a statement against Jews uncritically hitching their wagon to the grand edifice of German culture, instead exhorting them to find wisdom and meaning in their own tradition.  In a related vein, while many educated German Jews looked down at the ostjuden, their Eastern European brethren, Rosensweig appreciated impressive aspects of shtetl life.  For one, these Jews were not always looking over their shoulder for approval.

Though the teachers at the institute were certainly academically trained, the learning had an existential quality in which Jews connected to their heritage.  After writing an impressive doctorate on Hegel, Rosensweig eschewed academia precisely because he wanted his study to be personal rather than abstract.  In a letter explaining his decision to Prof. Friedrich Meinecke, Rosensweig wrote:

Not every question seems to me worth asking.  Scientific curiosity and omnivorous aesthetic appetite mean equally little to me today, though I once was under the spell of both, particularly the latter.  Now I only inquire when I find myself inquired of.  Inquired of, that is by men rather than by scholars.

As mentioned, Rosensweig’s interest in Jewish practice developed along with his interest in Jewish learning.  In 1922, his fiends helped arrange a Yom Kippur minyan in his house since his health did not allow him to get to shul.  Participants at this small service included Ernst Simon, Shlomo Dov (Fritz) Goiten, Erich Fromm, and Nahum Glazter, quite a striking list.  Goiten, who later became a famous historian and Arabist at Hebrew University, was the chazzan for neilah.

This brief essay has focused on his extraordinary life and not on his thought but I cannot end without conveying at least one of his powerful ideas, here expressed in a letter to his sister-in-law.

Believe me, no man has this power; no man can help himself.  Thought the world is full of people who try to make themselves believe that they can, they succeed no better than Muenchhausen did when he tried to pull himself out of the mire by the scruff of his neck.  Each of us can only seize by the scruff whoever happens to be closest in the mire.  This is the “neighbor” the Bible speaks of.  And the miraculous thing is that, although each of us stands in the mire himself, we can pull out our neighbor, or at least keep him from drowning.

With all of the difficulties presented by life, it remains possible to accomplish genuine good and to help others in distress.  Rosensweig certainly suffered but he also contributed tremendously to the world in general and to the Jewish people in particular.  With cynicism and the debunking spirit dominating the contemporary field, it behooves us to remember the great acts of individual men and women who lived not that long ago.

The information in this essay comes from Nahum N. Glatzer’s Franz Rosensweig: His Life and Thought (JPS, 1953).  The two letters cited can be found on pages 97 and 92.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Bau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an asociate editor of Tradition magazine and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.