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Article abstract: Rosenzweig, a German-Jewish philosopher, is best known for his work on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s political philosophy and on his own philosophy of religion, which developed as he examined his identity as a Jew. The chief characteristics of Rosenzweig’s works are the questions that he provokes and the originality and wealth of his insights.

Early Life

Though raised in a Jewish community, Franz Rosenzweig was educated in the classical German school system. The ongoing significance of these factors for students of his life is that they provide possibilities for ways to think about and live through the realities of religious and ethnic differences. As a German Jew, he was unavoidably confronted with fierce pressures, social and economic, to assimilate to the dominant Christian and secular community. His assimilated father was a successful businessperson, and his more devout mother maintained a more or less typical bourgeois household, with the exception that the Rosenzweigs continued to observe Jewish festivals and maintain social links to the Jewish community. Despite pressures to assimilate, Rosenzweig did learn a great deal from his uncle Adam Rosenzweig about classical Jewish sources, such as the Torah, Commentaries, Talmud, Kabbala, the Hebrew language, and Jewish ritual life. As a German citizen and an engaged member of the greater German community, he was exposed to and trained in classical German literature, art (including painting and architecture), philosophy, music (violin), and Greek and Latin literature.

As a young man, Rosenzweig actively pursued the study of medicine, history, art, and philosophy. In 1905, he began studying medicine at the Universities of Göttingen, Munich, and Freiburg, to the point of sitting for his preliminary medical examinations. However, Rosenzweig became disillusioned with the technical aspects of medicine and turned ever more frequently to reading works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche and to cultivating his interest in German culture, history, literature, and philosophy. In passionate exchanges with fellow students; his cousins, Hans and Rudolf Ehrenberg; and especially his friend Eugen Rosenstock, all of whom had converted to Christianity, he changed course in 1907 and began studying history and philosophy at the Universities of Berlin and Freiburg. In a diary notation, Rosenzweig wrote:

Why does one philosophize? For the same reason that one makes music, literature or art. Here too, in the last analysis, all that matters is the discovery of one’s own personality.

Under the tutelage of the noted historian Friedrich Meinecke, he studied Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel\’s political philosophy and received his Ph.D. in 1912 for work that became a section of Hegel und der Staat (Hegel and the state).

Life’s Work

Rosenzweig’s first exposure to academic philosophy was a close reading of Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1838) under Jonas Cohn at Freiburg University. On his own, he continued to read Goethe, Plato, Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Nietzsche, as well as Christian, Roman, and Zionist authors such as Jacob Klatzkin and Ahad Ha-Am (pseudonym of Asher Ginsberg). As he matured intellectually, he became ever more occupied with questions about the dynamic relations of Judaism, Christianity, and secularity in contemporary Germany.

In 1908, he began studying history with Meinecke at Freiburg University, who with Wilhelm Dilthey and Ernst Troeltsch is counted as one of the founders of a new kind of historicizing built on the history of spirit and ideas. Rosenzweig applied this fusion of balancing the elements of intellectual personality and historical research, which he learned with Meinecke, when he began his study of Hegel’s philosophy with Heinrich Rickert in the winter semester of 1910. As a philosophy student, he spent considerable time going through original manuscripts in order to form his biographical sketch of Hegel’s formulation of a globalizing, political-spiritual philosophy. Together with other impassioned students, Rosenzweig formed the Freiburger Circle. Within this group, he developed his philosophy of history. It was influenced by the anti-Semitism directed at him by other students in the circle. His principal antagonists were the history student Siegfried A. Kaeler and Viktor von Weizsacker, who was to later become Rosenzweig’s doctor. The developments within this circle fed Rosenzweig’s skepticism about the German academic environment and most likely influenced his decision to direct the Lehrhaus instead of pursuing a traditional university career. Both Rosenzweig, the critical political liberal, and Kaehler, the faithful political conservative, were promoted to the Ph.D. by Meinecke. Rosenzweig left the circle, but Kaehler later dedicated the publication of his dissertation work in 1927 to that same circle, leaving out Rosenzweig’s name.

In 1913, Rosenzweig moved to study jurisprudence at the University of Leipzig and to be close to his cousin Rosenstock, with whom he struggled through a mutual dissatisfaction with contemporary academic philosophy and its political conservatism. After an intellectual and spiritual crisis, Rosenzweig decided to become a Christian but only “qua Jew.” However, on October 11, 1913, after a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service at an Orthodox synagogue in Berlin, he came to the realization that he must “remain a Jew.”

In 1914, two important events took place: a creation and a discovery. First, Rosenzweig wrote the essay “Atheistische Theologie” (atheistic theology), which he described as a “programmatic affirmation of the idea of revelation.” Second, in going through some Hegel manuscripts, he discovered an essay on ethics in Hegel’s handwriting but which, he argued, based on a comparison of philosophical styles, could only be Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s work copied by Hegel in 1796. These two events influenced the two paths upon which Rosenzweig then found himself.

He made use of the latter material in an essay entitled Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus (the oldest program of a system for German Idealism), which was published by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences. The outline of the Schelling fragment that he had found was a plan for a comprehensive system of philosophy that would combine ethics and physics and allow an individual to think of the physical world in conjunction with moral freedom. Moreover, such a system would be dedicated to “absolute freedom” and would include ethics, physics, politics, myth, and religion. At the peak of the system would be philosophy presented as an aesthetic act. This vision was important for Rosenzweig’s own development as a creative philosopher because this outline, which he adapted for his own work, entailed an aesthetic act that joins the rational realm with the sensuous realm. The masses, moved only by sensual images, must then become rational and the philosophers, concerned only with rationality, must become sensuous or mythmakers in a unified vision of enlightenment of the masses and a practical engagement of the philosophers.

After the outbreak of World War I, Rosenzweig spent time both physically and intellectually in the trenches of Europe, patriotically fighting for Germany and also forming his own ideas. At first, he enlisted in the Red Cross as a nurse, then joined the regular army in 1915 and continued to work on Hegel und der Staat. After training in artillery and ballistics, he was sent as part of an antiaircraft unit to the Balkans, where he remained until the end of the war. In a secluded and relatively safe bunker, he began reading the works of writers and philosophers such as Saint Augustine, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Martin Luther, and Hermann Cohen, all the while corresponding formally and informally on German and Jewish cultural and political matters with family, friends, and intellectual colleagues. Rosenzweig also formulated a plan to reform Jewish religious instruction in Germany, organizing his thoughts in what would eventually become the treatise “It Is Time.” Finally, in addition to reading deeply in the Bible and other Jewish sources, he sketched the basic outline for The Star of Redemption on a series of postcards that he sent home to his family.

The Star of Redemption is Rosenzweig’s most original and major contribution to the field of philosophy in particular and intellectual life in general. As part of the overall fabric of Rosenzweig’s life, it should be noted that he wrote the entire text in an inspired six-month period, finishing it after the end of the war and in the context of Germany’s humiliating defeat. This political situation was highly determinative for the remainder of Rosenzweig’s brief but highly productive life. Under that cataclysmic historical impetus, Rosenzweig’s chief focus was to contribute to a renewal of Jewish life in the diaspora.

In 1920, Rosenzweig was appointed director of the Frankfurter Volkshochschule (community learning center) for the Jewish community. He renamed it the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus (free Jewish learning house). Under his directorship, a renaissance of Jewish community began. It was based on education involving the study of Hebrew, classical Jewish texts such as the Torah, and non-Jewish philosophical, literary, and historical texts and movements. In this new institution, the students had to assume active roles in the learning process by being personally challenged by the texts and each other. This method of hermeneutics was also made popular as a way of interpreting seminal texts, but in a different institutional setting, by Rosenzweig’s more famous contemporary Martin Heidegger. Where Heidegger used this method to examine classical philosophical texts in an original way, Rosenzweig’s choice for such a method arose out of his own commitment to renewing a traditional Jewish study that bound students, teachers, and texts together in interpretive practices.


Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1921, Rosenzweig spent the last eight years of his life working to effect changes that he envisioned. That vision is reflected in five major areas of Rosenzweig’s writing, which was roughly divided between his two major philosophical texts and his essays and translations. His two major works, Hegel und der Staat and The Star of Redemption, deal with German Idealism and his coming to terms with the human immersion in and production of history. The latter work displays his systematic philosophical standpoint, which would dictate certain directions in Jewish philosophy for the rest of the twentieth century. In his own lifetime, his work on The Star of Redemption caused him to recognize the need to verify the philosophy or standpoint of his own life and thus led to his later works, including his translations into German of the poetry of Judah ha-Levi, the translation into German of the Bible with Martin Buber, and many letters and short essays.

Through his writing and charismatic teaching, Rosenzweig deeply impressed the Jewish intellectual community of Weimar Germany in the critical years leading up to the Nazi assumption of power. His enduring influence can be traced in the works of other notable Jewish scholars in the twentieth century, among them Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Emmanuel Lévinas, Emil L. Fackenheim, Jacques Derrida, Stephan Mosès, Norbert Samuelson, Robert Gibbs, and Yudit Greenberg. He also deeply influenced such Christian scholars as Catholic theologian Bernard Casper, Protestant theologian Rheinhold Mayer, and the American Protestant scholar Paul Van Buren. Finally, there are several institutes of Jewish learning that have been established throughout the United States and Europe based upon the Lehrhaus institute that Rosenzweig directed.

Despite the near-total destruction of the European Jews by the Nazis, his own relatively early death, and the difficulty and inaccessibility of his major philosophical works, Rosenzweig’s seminal philosophical works are increasingly read and discussed, especially by Jewish and Christian philosophers and theologians.

Additional Reading

Cohen, Richard A. Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. In this collection of essays, Cohen recognizes in Franz Rosenzweig a voice calling for the revitalization of traditional Jewish thought and ethical practice.

Fackenheim, Emil L. To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. One of the best contemporary empirical applications of Rosenzweig’s ideas to a problematic world issue, namely, the Holocaust.

Fackenheim, Emil L., and Raphael Jospe, eds. Jewish Philosophy and the Academy. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996. This work was published in conjunction with the International Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization. It looks at Jewish philosophy, particularly that of Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Lévinas. Contains bibliographical references.

Gibbs, Robert. Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Gibbs pairs Rosenzweig with Emmanuel Lévinas, one of the most influential French-Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, to make his case that Rosenzweig is a postmodern philosopher because of his rejection of the primacy of reason and his acceptance of the particularities of tradition, time, and place.

Glatzer, Nahum N. Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought. New York: Schocken Press, 1976. 2d ed. Glatzer draws from his own personal relationship with Rosenzweig when they studied and taught together in the Lehrhaus. Glatzer comments on chronologically ordered selections from Rosenzweig’s collected letters and papers, which cover the philosopher’s views on a broad and diverse range of intellectual, religious, social, political, and aesthetic issues.

Greenberg, Yudit Kornberg. Better than Wine: Love, Poetry, and Prayer in the Thought of Franz Rosenzweig. American Academy of Religion Reflection and Theory in The Study of Religion series. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1996. This volume examines Rosenzweig’s work in Jewish philosophy. Contains bibliographical references and index.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul, ed. The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig. Hanover, Md.: University Press of New England, 1988. Topics in this collection of essays range from exploring the affinities of Rosenzweig’s work with Jewish Kabbala to examining his place in the German philosophical tradition. There are also recollections of his significance by Glatzer, a former colleague, and Ernst Simon, a former disciple.

Mosès, Stephane. System and Revelation: Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by Catherine Tihanyi. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1992. The most extensive point-by-point elaboration of Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption. Mosès’s work includes a very thorough bibliography.

Samuelson, Norbert M. An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. One of the founders of the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, Samuelson provides a rigorous summary and explanation of each of the major sections of Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption as well as a detailed list of paragraph topics. He also includes helpful diagrams and lists of Rosenzweig’s symbols, signs, and Jewish liturgical expressions.

Vogel, Manfred H. Rosenzweig on Profane/Secular History. South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism series. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1996. This volume, part of a series on the history of Judaism, examines Rosenzweig’s view on history and on the history of philosophy. Includes bibliographical references and index.