When was the last time you spent hours after a riveting conversation with your best friend alone in your room, pistol in hand, face to face with the “Nothing” of existence? Believe it or not, one of the most daring and original Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929) did just that.
All of us have had a conversation that altered the course of our lives, maybe it was even an all-night conversation—but could it be construed as causing a minor miraculous moment of our lives?
I suggest that this is what was happening in 1913 while Rosenzweig finds himself in Leipzig as he continues to follow his passion of philosophy while also studying math and law. His quest for all types of knowledge was insatiable, so that in his law lectures, Rosenzweig becomes close friends with his lecturer in jurisprudence, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.
As passionate, budding philosophers these two begin schmoozing regularly over the following question: how can our radical selfhood be reconciled with our grasp of the world? And how must the divine be conceived such that it be understood as grounding and unifying both selfhood and worldliness?
The nature of deep friendship is that when you’re in it, everything around you looks different, and so amidst this life-changing relationship, Rosenzweig begins questioning everything he once believed in and held near and dear, especially that as seeking beings we find fulfillment in the world by joining together to unify and worship in the zeitgeist “the God revealing itself in the here and now.”
This questioning the ground of his own belief system is what keeps Rosenzweig up at night after night, so much so that by the summer of 1913, he is even considering that the only true way to realize one’s selfhood, and ground that selfhood in a relation to the divine is by a radical denial of the world, something the Gnostics before him would have applauded.
But then on that fateful eve of July 7, 1913, Rosenzweig engages in an all-night discussion with his own cousin, Rudolf Ehrenberg and Rosenstock-Huessy and, which Rosenzweig returns to later and realizes it to be a most transformative event in his life.
Over the course of this all-night rap session, Rosenstock-Huessy convinces Rosenzweig to rethink his view of Christianity as inherently anti-worldly to now stress its redemptive work in the world.
As he becomes more convinced that only a Christian life grounded in revelation and devoted to the mission of redeeming the world through history provides the only compelling path to the reconciliation of selfhood and worldliness, Rosenzweig feels he has only once choice—to abandon Judaism and convert to Christianity.
Imagine you are Rosenzweig at the moment—what would you decide to do? Rosenzweig spends the next hours after the conversation alone in his room, pistol in hand, face to face with the “Nothing.” Rosenzweig does not take his life or the life of another, rather he emerges from the experience determined to convert to Christianity in order to join into this flow of the historical realization of redemption in the world.
Three months later, Rosenzweig reverses his decision. Legend has it that upon returning in October of 1913 to wander the streets of Berlin Erev Kol Nidrei in search of a church ready to convert, Rosenzweig miraculously hears the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei and turns around. The rest is history.
Rosenzweig continued to appreciate how Christianity could still carry out the redemptive unity in the world, but that was not the full picture. Rather Judaism remains crucial as a player in the world’s redemption. Even more interesting is how through this process for Rosenzweig, the Jewish people and its insular communal life anticipates the ultimate redemption they must ever pursue.
Rosenzweig’s miracle is a subtle grasping of the possibility of reconciliation between the self and the world in history as actually being common to Christianity and Judaism, without feeling compelled to convert, rather he re-commits himself to return more deeply and authentically to the Judaism of his birth.
Rosenzweig’s renown is not necessarily limited to his philosophic magnum opus scratched on military postcards sent home from the Balkan front during the First World War that becomes known as arguably the greatest work of modern Jewish philosophy, The Star of Redemption. Rather it is his miraculous abandonment of a promising academic career in order to live, teach and create Lehrhaus in the Frankfurt Jewish community as a serious centre for adult Jewish learning, and moreover, his uber-heroic efforts while suffering from ALS to continue his thinking, writing, and communal work after succumbing to the paralysis.
And yet, amidst these all-night conversations, something miraculous emerges in the revelation that inspired Rosenzweig’s magnum opus of philosophical theology scratched on postcards that constitute The Star of Redemption. His system seeks to understand the “All” of existence through the cliched symbol of the “Star of David” [Magen David] composed of two interlocking triangles serving as the matrix of the entire book.
With this visual in mind, Rosenzweig encapsulates the “All” that pulls him out of the abyss of the “Nothing” he was facing with pistol in hand, to see light in these two triangles that compose the Star as follows: the “Elements” composing the “Everlasting Primordial World” symbolize the lower triangle of Creation-Revelation-Redemption, while the “Path” of the “Ever-Renewed World” symbolizes the upper triangle of God-Human-World.
The final “Configuration” that then emerges through the intersection of the triangles forms the Star of David which then also creates a series of three relationships through their vertices—and the one that concerns miracles is found precisely here, at the interstice where God relates to human beings through Revelation.
The close of the first book of the Star that is concerned with Creation paints the following picture: “This becoming-manifest of the everlasting mystery of Creation is the endlessly renewed miracle of Revelation. We stand at the transition—the transition of the mystery to the miracle.”
What Rosenzweig realized through his own minor miracle of missed conversion is the possibility of beginning as a skeptical philosopher who can grow and learn how to overcome the death drive to commit suicide and ultimately embrace life with the openness of a theologian, so that he can conclude the Star with these words of encouragement in the face of eternal anti-Semitism: “To walk humbly with your God—nothing more is asked for here than a wholly present trust…But whither do the wings of the gate open? You do not know. INTO LIFE.”