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.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press

[Franz Rosenzweig was an] influential German Jewish existentialist thinker (1886-1929). Rosenzweig’s parents belonged to an assimilated Jewish family with little attachment to Judaism or Jewish life. He himself, although extremely well educated in general German culture and especially proficient in the classics of philosophy, had, at first, hardly any Jewish knowledge. A cousin who had become a Christian urged Rosenzweig to take the same step. The story has often been told of how Rosenzweig felt that if he was to be converted to Christianity he ought to do so as a Jew, moving, as he saw it at the time, from a lower to a higher form of religion.

While contemplating his conversion, he attended an Orthodox synagogue in Berlin on Yom Kippur. There he was so profoundly overcome by the devotion of the worshippers as they sought forgiveness from the God of their fathers that he realized there was no need for him to find his salvation outside his ancestral faith. As he was later to put it, the Christian claim that no man can come to the Father except through Jesus was true for all others but not for the Jew, since Jews, being already with the Father, had no need to “come” to him. Rosenzweig came to adopt the novel view that both Christianity and Judaism were true religions. Christianity for all others, Judaism for the Jews.

The critique of this position has often been advanced. If there is room in God’s world for these two religions to exist side by side, both as true religions, why should the same not be said of Islam, which is closer to pure monotheism than Christianity? The answer so far as an existentialist like Rosenzweig is concerned, was that Islam was not, for him, in William James’s famous phrase, a “live option.” Rosenzweig’s approach was subjective also in connection with the mitzvot, Jewish observances. He did think that he would one day become a fully observant Jew, but believed in the gradual approach in which the observances slowly made their impact by “ringing a bell” for him. Typical of this approach is Rosenzweig’s answer to someone who asked him whether he wore tefillin [phylacteries]: “Not yet,” he replied.

After his awakening, Rosenzweig devoted himself to Jewish studies, and in 1920 established in Berlin the Lehrhaus where Jewish teachers of high renown lectured on many aspects of Jewish life and thought. This remarkable institution provided German Jews with opportunities to follow Rosenzweig in the quest for a Judaism that spoke to their condition and would be authentic for them. Towards the end of his life, Rosenzweig was afflicted with a severe form of paralysis but he continued working and writing heroically…

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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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.