Franz Rosenzweig and the Founding of the Lehrhaus
A review of the life, thought, and work of this influential 20th-century existentialist thinker and Jewish educator.
Rosenzweig’s major work, The Star of Redemption, was written in part, on postcards he sent home from the trenches when he was serving in the German army at the end of World War I. In this work, God, the World, and Man are described as interrelated through a process of Creation, Revelation and Redemption. God created the world and revealed his will for man to find redemption.
This theme is represented by two interlocking triangles. At the three points of one triangle, pointing downwards, are Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. At the three points of the other triangle, pointing upwards, are Man, the World, and God. Man relates to the world and through the world to God. God relates to the world though creation and after creation from revelation through to redemption. The two interlocking triangles form the Star of Redemption. Rosenzweig claimed to be giving expression to a new (i.e. existentialist) type of thinking. His work therefore, as he himself states, is heavy-going in parts. It is nevertheless seminal for twentieth-century Jews, though hardly to everyone’s literary and philosophical taste.
Unlike in the general Jewish tradition, where redemption is of the Jewish people as a whole, for Rosenzweig redemption means that the individual achieves the purpose for which he has been created. Revelation, too, is given fresh emphasis by Rosenzweig in accordance with his existentialist philosophy. The Torah is, for Rosenzweig, not a once-and-for-all disclosure of the divine will but an ongoing process in which the individual Jew finds his meaning in the Torah. Rosenzweig detects this process of discovery and rediscovery in the Torah itself, which is the record of the people of Israel’s series of encounters with the divine.
Hence Rosenzweig’s remark that he is not perturbed by biblical criticism. Even if the critics are correct that the Pentateuch is a composite work, stemming from different periods, it was, on any account, finally edited by the redactor, for whom critics use the symbol “R” (Redactor) but which stands, for Rosenzweig, for Rabbenu, “our teacher.” The Torah which speaks to the Jewish soul is the Torah which is now in our hands and this is so even if the masoretic text [the current text of the Bible as established by the Masorete scholar ben Asher in Tiberias in 930CE] is not accurate in all its parts and even if the Samaritans, for example, had the better text. The person or persons who were finally responsible, those who sifted the older material and presented it to us as the Torah in its present form, are our teachers of the living Torah.
In this spirit, Rosenzweig made the bold comment that the story of Balaam’s talking donkey is only a fairy-tale during the rest of the year, yet when it is read as part of the Torah in the synagogue it is no fairy tale but the living word of God speaking to his people. This approach to revelation has commended itself to many Jews, anxious to adopt both a critical and traditional picture of revelation, although Rosenzweig is less than clear on how the transition from redactor to rabbenu and from the documentary hypothesis to the living Torah can successfully be made.
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