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A Theory of Everything

Franz Rosenzweig is one of the most mentioned and least read of the Jewish philosophers. Everyone with an interest in modern Jewish philosophy includes him in its highest circle, along with Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Emanuel Levinas and, if religious philosophers are included, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rav Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik. But while even laypeople know a little Buber (something about “I” and “Thou”), hardly anyone can understand Rosenzweig’s masterpiece, “The Star of Redemption.” Few people have even tried to read it, preferring instead to dwell on Rosenzweig’s remarkable life story: “The Star” was partly written in the trenches of World War I and right after it was published, Rosenzweig was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He died seven years later, at 42.

For a long time now, Rosenzweig’s unusual reputation — he’s very important, but I don’t know what he says — has been blamed on the appallingly difficult language of “The Star.” Not only is the book, published in 1922, written in the heavy prose of German philosophy — somewhere between the opacity of Hegel and the oracular tone of Heidegger — but its standard translation, the 1971 effort by William Hallo, is clouded in needlessly arcane language. Hallo, whose primary field was neither philosophy nor German but Assyriology, struggled to maintain the character of Rosenzweig’s language, which often includes neologisms and wordplay. But as anyone familiar with the German language knows, it’s much easier to create words in German for complicated states of mind or matter than it is to create them in English. Hallo had to stretch, and the result was a very, very difficult read.

The arrival of Barbara Galli’s new translation, therefore, was greeted with nothing less than elation in the small academic circles in which Rosenzweig is actually read, studied and taught. Galli, whose endeavors include editing and translating numerous works by and about Rosenzweig, has at last rendered “The Star of Redemption” into language that anyone can read. No more of Hallo: “Is love not rather a matter of fate and of seizure and of a bestowal which, if it is indeed free, it withal only free?” Now, at last, rendered by Galli: “Isn’t love destiny, and being deeply touched, and if it is free, isn’t it a free offering?”

Unfortunately, “The Star” remains an exceptionally difficult book. Its project is to be honest with all aspects of the human experience — reason, yes, but also love, embodiment, particularity and happenstance — and somehow unify all of what makes our lives worth living into a schematic understanding of humanity, the world and God. Crucially — centrally, really — this project cannot undermine what Rosenzweig saw as the essential property of human beings: We are not essential at all, but all particular, all radically different.

These days, when people speak colloquially of “difference,” it’s the end of the philosophical conversation. Postmodernism and multiculturalism have been cheapened into mere relativism: You have your opinion, and I have mine. Pluralism has been reduced to giving up on conversation entirely; no one is supposed to be convinced in a “dialogue.” We’re just there to express our feelings.

This state of affairs would horrify Rosenzweig, but so would its alternative: the fundamentalist, reactionary “values” that currently dominate our political sphere — values based not on reasoning but on authority and fideism. Does anyone believe in modernity anymore? Has liberal Enlightenment universalism really become extinct?

For Rosenzweig, as for many of us, the problem with rationalist philosophy is that it denies why it exists in the first place. “It is from the fear of death that all cognition of the All begins,” Rosenzweig writes at the very beginning of his work. And yet, philosophy “does not value death as something, but makes it into a nothing.” In other words, we start wondering about the meaning of life when we deeply realize that our lives are finite. What is the point? What matters? But then, philosophy — at least, serious philosophy — denies the importance of our motivation, speaking in terms of general absolutes and categories that seem to have little to do with why we cared in the first place.

The primary alternative to such philosophy — the move to the subjective “interior” that characterized Romantic thought in the 19th century, and contemporary “spirituality” today — was, for Rosenzweig, equally unsatisfying. He really wants it all: a physical and metaphysical view of the universe with an emotionally mature account of human nature; truth but also feeling; science but also God.

So Rosenzweig proceeds from the world as we find it, rather than in terms of philosophical categories. “What is dismaying in the world is that it is not spirit. There is still something else in it, something always new, pressing, imposing.” Translation: We don’t see essences and categories; we see particularities. There’s a nice joke about the idealist philosopher sent to the market with a shopping list. He comes home empty-handed, because there was no essential milk or juice, only different brands.

We are also all different brands — defined, in Rosenzweig’s language, by our first and last names. Our last names — our histories, our families, our luck — and our first names: our individuality, our particularity. “I am here,” Adam answers to God in Eden, and there we begin — not as types, but as individuals.

This matters. “Contrary to what unbelief unceasingly maintains with empty and prideful obstinacy, the name is not sound and smoke, but word and fire.” It is not meaningless. (Hallo’s translation is much better here: “For name is in truth word and fire, not sound and fury,” evoking Shakespeare’s “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”) Rather, it is the key to understanding what creation, revelation and redemption actually mean.

About God we know nothing, Rosenzweig avers. But the fundamental reality is not a “no” — no-self in the Buddhist conception, or no-world in the Hasidic one — but a “yes.” We don’t really end in negative theology or atheism, because, after all, there is the world. Whatever God may be, we can see from the world that God is creative, world affirming, world generating. This is the meaning of creation: not its unknowable source, not theology, and not the world’s fundamental laws of thermodynamics or religion, but its fullness and becoming.

Revelation, then, can only be a revelation of particularity. If God speaks, God speaks only to the individual, because there is no “general” that actually exists. This is the secret of love. Think about it: Are you ever in love with a category? With an essence? We speak the language of particularity all the time — in helping our children cross the street, in going to work every day. And it is love that, for Rosenzweig (quoting the “Song of Songs”), is as strong as death. Love — but love understood, not merely rhapsodized — is the answer that true philosophy provides, because love touches the irreducible selfhood of the other, and offers the possibility of a bridge.

And redemption? When the love of lovers becomes the love of sisters and brothers; when love of God really turns into love of God’s creatures. This may sound like precisely the neo-Romantic claptrap that Rosenzweig railed against, but remember, this is just a summary. What Rosenzweig does, in the last part of “The Star of Redemption,” is prove it. Or at least systematize it. That includes the concept of God (“The Star of Redemption” is essential reading for intellectual agnostics), the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, and what it would mean for universal love to exist when there is no such thing as a universal. Importantly, Rosenzweig is not basing his philosophy on an exciting peak experience, or on the hormonal sensations of love. Rather, the attempt is to understand what philosophy and religion are really talking about, and to include everything — time, history, war, revolution — in a system of “new thinking” that does justice to each component of our experience.

The integrative project — begun in Greek thought, reaching perhaps its apogee in Hegel but resurfacing today in the integral efforts to create “theory of everything,” associated with philosopher Ken Wilber — is, invariably, either overly simplistic or very difficult. In the case of Rosenzweig, it’s the latter. And that is why no one reads his work, even though they acknowledge that, according to the experts, it’s important. Galli’s new translation may help somewhat. Certainly, the language is more straightforward, although sometimes, inevitably, the majesty of certain phrases is lost (not unlike the New International Version of the Bible as compared with the King James). And even if Rosenzweig still does not gain a space on every Jewish bookshelf, maybe he’ll get his due in the academy as — earlier and more reliably than Heidegger — the true progenitor of postmodern ethics and metaphysics.

“The Star of Redemption” is difficult, but as Rosenzweig himself writes, this is how it must be — not only because of his grand project but also because the work is related to the reward. In an all-too- prescient passage on the difference between supposed piety and true religion, Rosenzweig speaks to all of us who love truth but live in a time of simplistic faith and political fideism.

A rabbinic legend tells the tale of a river in a faraway land that is so pious that it stops flowing on the Sabbath. If, instead of the Main, it was this river that flowed through Frankfurt — there is no doubt that the whole Jewish community there would strictly observe the Sabbath. But God does not give such signs. Obviously, He shudders at the inevitable result: that then precisely the least free, the most fearful and the weakest would be the “most pious.” And God obviously wants only those who are free for his own.

Jay Michaelson is an adjunct professor of Jewish studies at The City College of New York, and the creator of

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The Star of Redemption

By Franz Rosenzweig

Translated by Barbara E. Galli

The University of Wisconsin Press, 447 pages, $19.95.


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