- Letters of Love: Franz Rosenzweig’s Spiritual Biography and Oeuvre in Light of the Gritli Letters
When Derrida was asked which question he would wish to ask Heidegger if Heidegger were still alive, after a short hesitation Derrida answered: I would ask him about his sexual life. This answer of Derrida’s is not an answer based on mere curiosity. Rather, his answer supposes that there is no border between life and thinking—and if there is one then this border is arbitrary, and rethinking it would be most illuminating. This is what Ephraim Meir does with Franz Rosenzweig in his book. His exploration confirms the supposition of Derrida’s interest in Heidegger’s sexual life: Rosenzweig’s love with Gritli, the wife of his best friend Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, is very much at the root of Rosenzweig’s intellectual inspiration. Rosenzweig’s highest interest was to rethink revelation in a radically new way. His friend Rosenstock-Huessy helped him to conceive of revelation as orientation. His friend’s wife helped to make this orientation an experience for him. That is because Rosenzweig knew that to have an orientation meant to love and to be loved. Out of this starting point Rosenzweig developed his philosophical system in the Star of Redemption (1921). The author shows convincingly how Rosenzweig’s way of schematizing revelation as love is founded on Rosenzweig’s love with Gritli and Eugen. However, the author never reduces thinking to pure biography, since he is not interested in the private details of the two individuals and their more or less secret amour. What he works out is a better understanding of Rosenzweig’s fundamental insight into the core of Jewish (and Christian) existence by exploring the limits between his life and his thinking.
To provide this understanding, Meir proceeds in the following way. In Chapter 1 he reconstructs the intellectual biography of Franz Rosenzweig, focusing on the dialogical and existential aspects of his thinking. Most readers will feel that Meir is very sympathetic to Rosenzweig, although for some of his readers, perhaps too sympathetic. For instance he reasserts Rosenzweig’s identification of “old” and “new thinking” with “dead” and “living thinking,” as if there were no problems (p. 2). In Chapter 2, Meir provides an insight into the main influences on Rosenzweig and the Star of Redemption. The letters reveal Rosenzweig’s attitude to his philosophical teachers and sources in a way which complements our knowledge based on the other letters of Rosenzweig published in 1979, while never losing sight of the fact that the letters do not reveal more than Rosenzweig’s self-assessments, limited by the fact that Gritli was not a trained philosopher. We also find assessments which seem restricted [End Page 197] by Rosenzweig’s context because at first glance they do not fit very well with other assessments on the same topic, such as when Rosenzweig writes to Gritli that Nietzsche was “never important” (p. 37) for him. A letter to Gertrud Oppenheim, written on August 27, 1918—five days later—sounds rather different. Meir stresses another point which leads me to rank this correspondence among the outstanding documents of Jewish-Christian dialogue: Gritli was a Christian, and Rosenzweig had complete confidence that she was able to profoundly understand his attitude towards his Jewish religion. This encouraged him to write on this subject in a more relaxed way. With Gritli as his counterpart, Rosenzweig achieved insights of general relevance into his personal role as a Jew who walks along the border of being Jewish and being Christian. It would be fine work to bring the relevant passages on interreligious topics from the Gritli letters together with similar passages from the correspondence between Rosenzweig and Rosenstock from 1916 into one single volume under the heading “the first Jewish-Christian encounter in the 20th century.”
If I understand the Gritli letters and Ephraim Meir’s comments well, the basis of this encounter seems to be that Rosenzweig did...