Magazine article Tikkun

How Judaism Redeems Western Philosophy

Magazine article Tikkun

How Judaism Redeems Western Philosophy

Article excerpt

Philosophers of Catastrophe and the Last Kantian in Nazi Germany:

AFTER CLASS, A GROUP OF US OFTEN FOLLOWED THE EMINENT PHILOSOPHER Emil Fackenheim to his bus stop outside Hebrew University, stretching our brains to find a smart question to ask him. When he boarded the bus, everyone walked their separate ways- everyone, that is, but me. I jumped on the bus, pretending my stop was after his, oblivious to robbing him of his after-class downtime and to the patience he extended to me. On one ride, as I was in the midst of asking lots of questions about Martin Buber, he stopped me and said: "Buber is smart, very smart. But if you want to read a truly great Jewish philosopher, read Franz Rosenzweig." I thought, "Who? How can this guy be great if I haven't heard of him?" It turned out Rosenzweig's gates would soon open me to a richer, more livable Judaism.

I immediately went out and bought Rosenzweig's Star ofRedemption. I loved the first page- still do- but didn't understand a word after that. It took me years to navigate the text. But unbeknownst to me, Fackenheim had planted a seed. From that day on, I would find myself drawn to philosophers- like Rosenzweig- who emerged from the greatest catastrophes of the twentieth century. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that many of these philosophers came from Jewish backgrounds.

Two to emerge from horrors are Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-1995). Although they never met, each devoted himself to Jewish education after experiencing catastrophe. In their own ways, each shows Judaism's power to redeem broader Western conversations. Perhaps more importantly, they help redeem European Judaism from its near disappearance in the nationalism manifest in the political Zionism of Theodore Herzl and in the Nazi Judeocide.

Rosenzweig and Lévinas were not only critical of the nationalism, social ideologies, and other factors that gave birth to the murderous fields on which they fought and found themselves enslaved; they were also critical of the tradition that intellectually trained them: Western (Hellenic-Christian) philosophy.

Their critique was not part of the cannibalistic tradition of Western philosophy, a movement that argues and feeds on itself without much input from other traditions or civilizations. Rather, Rosenzweig and Lévinas critiqued from their embrace of Judaism.

Rosenzweig's Mistrust of Nationalism

ROSENZWEIG GRIPS ME WITH HIS PASSIONATE WRITING, HIS EMPHASIS ON COMMON SENSE, and his focus on living life, not for an afterlife, but for the ordinary moments of this life. Emerging from the trenches of World War I, Rosenzweig introduced what is arguably his most powerful work, The Star ofRedemption, which ends with an upside-down pyramid made of words. The last sentences of the book read:

To walk humbly with thy God - the words are written over the gate, the gate which leads out of the mysteriousmiraculous light of the divine sanctuary in which no man can remain alive. Whither, then, do the wings of the gate open? Thou knowestitnot? INTOLIFE.

Here one closes the book, finding oneself directed away from the text, where philosophers often exile themselves, into life. How to live an authentic Jewish life became Rosenzweig's concern.

After the war, he went on to start the Lehrhaus (Free Jewish House of Learning) in Frankfurt, where he devoted himself to educating assimilated Jews. The school was filled with names that would become pillars of both the Jewish intellectual world and the Western academy: Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, Eric Fromm, Leo Baeck, Gershom Scholem, Nahum Glatzer, Theodore Adorno, and many more.

Rosenzweig's concerns were large, and he feared the totalizing ideologies found in national movements that so easily turn those outside the ideology into unworthy objects to be killed or ignored. His concerns extended to the nationalism of Herzlian political Zionism. …

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