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  • Romantic Roots of the Debate on the Buber-Rosenzweig Bible
  • Brian Britt

Siegfried Kracauer's criticism of the Buber-Rosenzweig Bible translation reflects his views on religion and contemporary culture. While the translators felt a new German Bible could provide fresh religious insight and experience to modern Jewish readers, Kracauer, like Walter Benjamin, argued that modern culture itself was the site of modern religiosity. "For today," wrote Kracauer, "access to truth is by way of the profane." The sharp exchanges between the translators and Kracauer have more to do with ideas of religion and culture than with matters of style and translation. Yet both sides of the debate were influenced heavily by romantic ideas of language and translation from Humboldt, Hamann, Schleiermacher, and Goethe. In this essay, I argue that Benjamin and Kracauer were engaged in projects that aspired to the same kind of romantic ideals as the Buber-Rosenzweig Bible.

When Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig published the first volume of their German Bible in 1925, Siegfried Kracauer called it "romantic and arbitrary," and Walter Benjamin tentatively agreed. In fact, Benjamin took credit for giving Kracauer several of his main critical points.1 The objection concerned not only the quality of the translation but also its rationale. "For today," wrote Kracauer, "access to truth is by way of the profane."2 This essay explores the roots of this dispute in the two sides' divergent ideas of Judaism, language, culture, and translation. Despite this conflict, I argue that Benjamin and Kracauer were engaged in projects that aspired to the same kind of romantic ideals as the Buber-Rosenzweig Bible.3 I seek to show how ideas of language and translation in Benjamin and Rosenzweig depend on works of the romantic thinkers Humboldt, Hamann, Goethe, and Schleiermacher.

The debate on the Buber-Rosenzweig Bible also echoes romantic debates on religion expressed famously in Schleiermacher's 1799 Speeches on Religion. Both disagreements had to do with religious experience and the cultural means to attain it. Buber and Rosenzweig saw their German Bible as a source of religious experience and relief from modern alienation. Without challenging the sacrality of the Bible, Benjamin and Kracauer doubted that the new translation could live up to these hopes. Like those romantics who disagreed with Schleiermacher's ideas of religion (Novalis and Schlegel, e.g.), Benjamin and Kracauer sought religious qualities outside institutional religion, in such profane expressions of modern culture as art and film. [End Page 262]

Terms of the Debate

When Martin Buber was offered the opportunity to produce a new version of the Hebrew Bible, he made his acceptance conditional on Franz Rosenzweig's cooperation. Rosenzweig had already distinguished himself as a translator from Hebrew into German with his work on liturgical materials and the medieval poet Yehuda Halevi, and translation was a basic part of the religious philosophy of his 1921 Star of Redemption. Despite his physical paralysis and misgivings about the project, Rosenzweig agreed to the collaboration, and the two worked together from 1925 until Rosenzweig's death in 1929.4

Buber and Rosenzweig held the Bible to be an antidote to the ills of modern experience. In his 1926 essay "People of Today and the Jewish Bible," Martin Buber challenged moderns to return to the Hebrew Bible as a means of returning religion to reality. Modern people were advised to undertake a program of reading the Jewish Bible "as if they had never seen it."5 Buber and Rosenzweig set out to make the Bible unfamiliar by making a German version vastly different from Luther's but heavily influenced by romantic ideas of language and translation.

While Buber and Rosenzweig saw biblical translation as a way to restore meaning to modern life, Benjamin and Kracauer tried instead to analyze modern life. For them, studying the contemporary world-especially new art forms such as film-was a necessary and more interesting basis for genuine understanding than Bible translation. From at least 1916, when he wrote an essay on language after a falling-out with Buber, Benjamin thought that modernity blocked direct access to revelation.

In his harsh Frankfurter Zeitung review of the translation in 1925, Kracauer objected as much to the...


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