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Franz Rosenzweig’s text presents a challenging critique of a traditional rationality that has dominated Western thought systems, and therefore political and social life, from its Greek inception with the Ionian pre-Socratics to its culmination in the pervasive European versions of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s philosophical system. Rosenzweig sees this system of rationality breaking up under the spur of revised Kantian versions of the philosophical-ethical standpoints exemplified by Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and especially Friedrich Nietzsche. His inclusion of such philosophers signifies that Rosenzweig intends to pursue an ethical line throughout the text. This intention is emphasized by his choice to end his first introduction with references to Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s Die Weltalter (1861; Ages of the World, 1942), which provides for a temporally significant revelation; the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen’s Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (1914; logic of pure cognition), whose mathematics Rosenzweig uses; and an approving utilization of Immanuel Kant’s rational-ethical metaphysics.

Rosenzweig’s emphasis on the ethical was instrumental in his attack on the educational thought structures that led to totalitarian political and social systems dominating European, but especially German, universities at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. From Rosenzweig’s perspective, these educational structures validate a universal and dialectical historical process that could only result in the kind of oppositional violence and human destruction of World War I, which Rosenzweig witnessed and in which he fought. Besides attacking conservative political tendencies, Rosenzweig criticizes the Marxist alternative of a dialectical-material progressive political system. None of this, however, is clearly evident in the opening pages of the first section of his text. Rather, in the beginning, Rosenzweig takes his reader on what initially appears to be a Faustian journey to know and experience all, via a descent into the depths of the struggle for knowledge. This descent requires profound encounters with our presuppositions that we know something about the world, the human, and God.

From Negation to Affirmation

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One overarching motif of this text is Rosenzweig’s philosophical orientation, which moves the reader from thinking about death on the first page to a proposal for acting in life on the last. It begins with the thought of death and uses that point of departure as a starting point for a claim to comprehensive, absolute knowledge that leads to an existential affirmation of the irreducibility of individual existence. Such a movement of negation from death to life is influenced by his choice to include Kierkegaardian anguish tempered by Nietzschean joy in people’s radically finite lives. In fact, following Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Rosenzweig argues that one does not “give up” one’s life for the sake of philosophical, religious, or ethical immortality. On the contrary, Rosenzweig’s work represents a critical response to the absolute epistemological and ontological claims of idealist: dialectical philosophy in favor of a philosophical stance that ethically affirms the differences of particular, individual humans.

The Star of Redemption is divided into three formally parallel parts within which there are numerous ways to read and reread the text, ranging from an innovative philosophy of religion to a postmodern critique of idealist philosophy to a critical social philosophy that includes religious communities as viable life-affirming paths. Throughout, Rosenzweig develops a powerful speech-act philosophy that he uses to construct dynamic links between the various readings.

Each of the three parts is divided into three books, and each part has its own introduction and an epilogue that serves as a bridge to the next part. Each unit formally presents a different type of religion and a corresponding kind of language, as well as a corresponding aesthetic theory. Although architectonic in formal construction, the content itself is fluid and dynamic, and the configuration of the Star of David as the symbol of the text can, with benefit, be compared to the star of a Koch curve of contemporary chaos theory. The final “bridge” at the end of the text signifies the passage from textual work to a hoped-for verification of the life of ethical human relations beyond the text. Through the three movements of the three major parts, the reader is led to the final pages of the text for an affirmation of life and an invitation to engage the human other via a face-to-face encounter sealed with a kiss of promise, commitment, and love.

The Three Elements

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Rosenzweig organizes part 1 along the lines of a hypothetical construct that corresponds to three unordered points of his projected star. The three points correspond to three elements of reality that encompass three logical constructs, each capable of being understood on its own terms. Moreover, the three elements correspond to the three branches of the rational sciences of Kant’s critical philosophy, namely, physics, logic, and ethics. Rosenzweig claims that any thinking at all begins with the negation of all other as an affirmation of the unity of the thinking subject. Following Nietzsche, such a unity also entails existential factors such as the irreducibility of embodied existence to an abstract conceptual structure.

Rosenzweig goes on to consider each of the elements as a hypothetical construct based on a phenomenological principle of the fusion of thinking and existing. Adapting Hermann Cohen’s calculus of infinitesimal asymptotes to a three-variable symbolic logic to represent the constitution of these constructs, Rosenzweig gives us the process formulas of A = A (freedom becoming nature) for thinking the inner dynamic of the element God, B = A (particularity becoming logos) for thinking the inner dynamic of the element World, and B = B (free will becoming character) for thinking the inner dynamic of the element Human. What we are left with are the isolated forms of Antiquity: the mythic, secluded God; the plastic, generative world; and the defiant, tragic self.

Each of these formulas is based on a sentential logic that corresponds to a propositional form roughly capable of the generative capacities of Chomskian deep-structure forms or even the rigid logical structures of an ideal language proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his “Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung” (1921; best known by the bilingual German and English edition title of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, 1961). Rosenzweig’s difference is that he weds his phenomenological analysis of speech-forms with negations of the historical occurrences of negative theology with respect to God (negating Maimonides’ thought structure); negative cosmology with respect to thinking the World (negating René Descartes’s thought structure); and negative psychology with respect to thinking the Human (negating Kant’s thought structure).

In other words, Rosenzweig’s argument is that there are philosophical figures who have created thought structures that play into how these developments of the hypothetical constructs come about in the first place, and if one begins with the assumption of the unavoidability of one’s constitution as a finite human being whose thinking proceeds as a negative limit function of that very finitude, a negation of these constructs as definitive is the first step one takes in one’s own original thinking of those elements. Hence, following Rosenzweig’s linguistic logic, one will inevitably arrive at the kinds of conclusions about the humanly constructed character of a secluded God, a plastic World, and a tragic Human toward which Rosenzweig guides the reader.

Through a series of inversions in thinking the elements proposed in part 1, one moves into a different order out of the empirical and epistemological chaos that holds in reflecting on such elements. On Rosenzweig’s analysis, humans impose such an order a posteriori on the elements themselves in their dynamic relations of language and responsibility. Using an interpretation (a midrash) of the Song of Songs as his model, Rosenzweig claims that human-embodied response to the proximity and love demands of the other directs attention outward from secluded and tragic introversion. This revelatory event, which Rosenzweig associates with the theological categories of creation, revelation, and redemption, is also the key moment of ethical determination. The lover, as other, spontaneously but intentionally calls to his or her beloved in love and the lover answers freely in responsibility forming a relational bond that eventually serves as the sound basis for redemptive community life.

Philosophical Theology

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The language of part 1 involves what people can know and that people can know that they do not know something. This is opposed to Hegelian philosophical claims that people can know absolutely all and includes an analysis of ancient myths and religions via mathematical-symbolic logic. The language of part 2, on the other hand, is based on a philosophical theology, the dialogical and ethical origins of monotheistic myths and religions, and is presented as the grammar of spoken language and the revelatory relations of love.

In the final part of The Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig elaborates sociohistorical issues and the communities in which the temporality of lived histories and life relationships of actual communities are set in vital relations. Because Rosenzweig examines historical realities as kinds of idealized social types in order to carry on the initial Cohenian-Kantian-Schellingian asymptotic logic of ideal relations, his social theory reflects his desire to fuse the givenness of chaotic brute sensuality with a humanly ordered cosmos.

The form of communication with which Rosenzweig ends part 2 and begins part 3 is prayer. However, this is a peculiar kind of prayer that is more a cry of hope than of petition or penitence as a result of the very love relationship formed in part 2. The final hope is to redeem the world in such a way that the partisanship of religious particularity no longer holds sway. Furthermore, where the philosopher-scientist is the chief spokesperson of part 1 and the theologian-poet of part 2, the human-prophet is the spokesperson of part 3. This is so because Rosenzweig is committed to a Messianic vision of the world, where the end of days would be a time when from out of the blazing fire of the family love of Judaism, the redeeming rays of Christian love of neighbor would extend to and enlighten, and thereby bring to passionate life the darkened pagan world. Although this means that there would no longer be any pagans in such an enlightened world, because his is a Messianic vision, it also means that there would be no Christians or Jews. Rather, the very human face of each radically individual other would characterize the lived social world of relational responsibility.

As a framing device, The Star of Redemption itself, both as symbol and as text, gives us an aesthetic-philosophical picture of reality. As such a textual picture, the reader experiences a literary thought-world guided by the transformative/performative event of reading itself. Approached from the perspective of any one of the series of tri-form structures that Rosenzweig presents in the text—philosophical, theological, communal; thinking, speech, ritual activity; temporal dimensions of past, present, future; or mathematical signs, grammatical signs, social signs—a rich mosaic of textual texture takes shape. Moreover, although created out of his Jewish particularity, Rosenzweig’s stated aim was to enable his book to be understood philosophically, so he intentionally wrote in a way that allowed the text to be transparent to any reader who would open its pages: Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, or atheist.


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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.