Franz Rosenzweig

The German-born philosopher and writer Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was important for his formulations and definitions of Jewish-Christian relations.

Franz Rosenzweig was born at Kassel on Dec. 25, 1886. Rosenzweig first took up medicine; but, not finding this to his liking and discovering also a certain dichotomy in his life, he turned to the study of history and philosophy. He followed this with law studies. His early upbringing and education inclined him more and more to conversion to Christianity. However, in 1913 he attended an Orthodox Day of Atonement service and suddenly decided to halt his drift to Christianity and to adopt seriously the religion of his Jewish forefathers. It was these three themes, Christianity, Judaism, and Atonement (redemption), that formed the kernel of his life achievement in religious research.

While serving in the German army during World War I, Rosenzweig initiated a lively correspondence with Eugen Rosenstock concerning the relationship of Jewish and Christian theology. This correspondence was published (1935) only after Rosenzweig's death. He also started at this time one of his outstanding works—Der Stern der Erlösung (1921). In this he expressed his full thought on the nature of religion and the mutual relationship of Judaism and Christianity. Religion for Rosenzweig was a three-way relationship; he distinguished God, man, and the world as three distinct beings, none of which could be confused with the other. The point was important for Rosenzweig because on it he broke with the German idealism of his day and fore-shadowed the position later taken up by the existentialist philosophers of the 20th century. He then proceeded to define the triple relationship: between God and the world, it is one of creator and created; between God and man, it is one of revelator to the recipient (man) of that revelation; and between man and the world, it is one of redemption. Man has a redemptive function for the world: he helps to save it.

Rosenzweig then proceeded to define Jewish-Christian relations. He spoke of two Covenants, one between God and the Jews, the other between God and other men (the Christian Covenant). He considered the two Covenants as complementary elements in God's overall plan of redemption for the world and for man. Yet, Rosenzweig held, the two Covenants were mutually exclusive. This was a bold step for a Jewish thinker; it involved an admission that some limitation had to be placed on the Jewish claim of being exclusively and uniquely the Chosen People. Consequently, it involved much protest and controversy.

Rosenzweig started off as an idealist philosopher; he broke, however, with this philosophic idealism because his religious beliefs and studies interfered. In 1920 he also established his Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus, an adult study center, at Frankfurt am Main. Its academic excellence and religious commitment provided an example on which many such institutions were founded in Germany. Unfortunately, he was attacked by a progressive paralysis in 1921. In 2 years he lost his ability to speak, write, or move. With his wife's help, however, he turned out several important minor works published as his Kleinere Schriften in 1937 together with an annotated version of 92 poems of Judah Halevi. He undertook (1925) a German translation of the Bible with Martin Buber, but he did not see its completion and publication (1938). He died on Dec. 9, 1929, at Frankfurt.

Further Reading on Franz Rosenzweig

A full-length work in English is Nahum Norbert Glatzer, ed., Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (1953; rev. ed. 1961). See also Bernard Martin, comp., Great Twentieth Century Jewish Philosophers (1969), and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Judaism despite Christianity (1969).