This Day in Jewish History / A Born-again Jewish Philosopher Is Born for the First Time

German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was ready to convert to Christianity until one last experience of Yom Kippur turned him in the other direction.

On December 25, 1886, German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was born. Rosenzweig is best remembered for announcing his intention in 1913 to become a Christian, but deciding he wanted first to expose himself to the experience of life as an observant and studious Jew so that he would be making the move with open eyes. He learned about Judaism and then attended High Holiday services that year, and the spiritual power of Yom Kippur led him to reverse his decision. From then until the end of his life, he led his life as an observant Jew and devoted himself to Jewish thought and education.

Rosenzweig was the only child of Georg and Adele Rosezweig, a well-off and largely secular Jewish couple in the German town of Kassel. After briefly studying medicine, Franz turned to history and philosophy, and concentrated on the work of Hegel, whose idealized but abstract vision of history saw it as a process progressing constantly toward redemption. Rosenzweig had several friends and close relatives who had converted from Judaism to Christianity, and he found the logic of their decision persuasive. At one point, he became convinced that a Jew had two choices: either to become a Zionist or to convert to Christianity. He chose the latter, but told his friends he wished to undergo baptism “as a Jew” rather than as a “pagan.”

Rosenzweig never spoke or wrote about what precisely happened to him in that traditional Berlin synagogue on Yom Kippur of 1913, but the historian Nahum Glatzer concluded, from conversations with Franz’s mother and from indirect statements by the philosopher himself, that he underwent a personal mystical experience. Later, for example, Rosenzweig said in a lecture that, “Anyone who has ever celebrated Yom Kippur knows that it is something more than a mere personal exaltation (although this may enter into it) or the symbolic recognition of a reality such as the Jewish people (although this also may be an element) – it is a testimony to the reality of God which cannot be controverted.”

For the next year, Rosenzweig immersed himself in Jewish study before joining the German army with the outbreak of World War I, in 1914. Late in his service, he had an opportunity to spend time with – and be impressed by -- traditional Orthodox Jews in German-occupied Poland. When he returned to the trenches, he began writing what became his major work of Jewish philosophy, “The Star of Redemption.” He wrote it out on postcards, which he then sent home; it was published as a book in 1921. Very roughly, Rosenzweig understood revelation for the Jews as an ongoing and personal experience, rather than a one-time historical event. The individual Jew is to find meaning through a personal encounter with the Torah, which is itself a record of the Jews’ encounters with God. If the Christian – and the secular philosophical – view of history was linear, something progressing toward ultimate perfection, Judaism, according to Rosenzweig, existed outside of history.

Rosenzweig developed a progressive motor disease (ALS) shortly after that point, and from then until the end of his life in 1929, he became gradually but completely paralyzed. Deprived of even the ability to speak, he nonetheless continued working and writing until the end with the help of his wife, Edith. In 1920, he was appointed director of the influential Frankfurt Lehrhaus (House of Jewish Learning) for adults. He also collaborated with Martin Buber on a translation of the Hebrew Bible to German.

Rosenzweig died on December 10, 1929 in Frankfurt. He was 43.
 

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