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Rosenzweig’s Bible: Reinventing Scripture for Jewish Modernity (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 1, Fall 2012
pp. 81-83 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0050

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One of the central challenges to religious belief in the modern era has been the application of critical literary and historical techniques of reading to ancient religious texts, particularly the Bible. The challenge goes beyond the theological issue of whether or not the Bible is divinely revealed. Reading the Bible and other ancient religious texts with the benefit of modern literary and historical techniques tends to make them look like any other piece of literature or any other historical document. Is it possible to embrace modern liberal sensibilities in the domain of religious thought and still view the Bible as a privileged source of religious wisdom and law? Put another way, is it still possible to view the Bible as a “scripture?”

This is the question that animates Mara Benjamin’s new study of German-Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig. In Rosenzweig’s Bible, Benjamin explores two significant features of Rosenzweig’s work that have gone unnoticed or underappreciated. First, Benjamin reads Rosenzweig as a thinker primarily interested in the significance of biblical language for modern Jews and Germans. Second, Benjamin understands Rosenzweig’s most famous and complicated work, The Star of Redemption (published in 1921), as only the beginning of his engagement with this issue. Benjamin not only offers a novel interpretation of Star, but also tracks the development of Rosenzweig’s attempt to articulate a conception of Scripture within the boundaries of distinctly modern ways of thinking about religious and literary texts.

Most studies of Rosenzweig take The Star of Redemption, a notoriously difficult book to understand, to be the definitive statement of his philosophy, of which his later writings are only an elaboration. Benjamin proposes looking at Star as a crossroads in Rosenzweig’s thought, where the strictly philosophical concerns of his earlier work meet his new embrace of the significance of revelation and biblical language. In Star, Rosenzweig attempts to articulate the philosophical implications of giving primacy to the word of revelation found in the biblical witness. In his later writings, however, Rosenzweig left aside explicitly philosophical issues and focused on the significance of biblical language. Rosenzweig’s “new thinking,” which he also called “speech thinking,” is not, Benjamin argues, about speech in general, but about the meaning and significance of biblical speech, a kind of “scriptural thinking.”

The animating idea of Rosenzweig’s project was that a direct encounter with the biblical text as revelation, as Scripture, could provide a truth and meaning that Hegelian philosophy could not. Benjamin plays close attention to Rosenzweig’s use of biblical sources in Star and explains what this tells us about his thought. She argues that his use of biblical texts in Star does not resemble the classical Jewish genres of commentary or midrash, but rather constitutes a “rewritten Bible,” Geza Vermes’ term for ancient sources (like the Book of Jubilees) that retell biblical narratives and law. For example, Rosenzweig’s summary of revelation as God’s commandment to “love Me” is based not on a straightforward biblical quotation but rather on an amalgamation—a mash-up, if you will—of two biblical verses (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Exodus 20:2). Likewise, Rosenzweig placed the Song of Songs at the heart of his account of revelation not because he viewed it as a poetic metaphor for revelation at Sinai (as did the classical rabbis), but because he viewed the Song as a source of revelation itself. Indeed, Rosenzweig did not view revelation as a historical event at all, but rather as a universal event available to all humanity. The uniqueness of the Jewish people lays for him not in its historical presence at Sinai but rather in its continued attesting to the possibility of a revelatory encounter with God that can become available to the whole world.

After Star, Rosenzweig engaged in a series of translation and educational projects that served to develop his scriptural thinking as a cultural politics for German Judaism. Translating Jewish texts into German not only made them accessible to German speakers, but accomplished the goal of bringing scriptural thinking to German culture as a whole, in fulfillment of the Jewish people’s task of witnessing to the word of revelation to the world. Rosenzweig...


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