Jewish Social Studies 8.1 (2001) 1-57
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The Reception of German-Jewish Thought
Peter Eli Gordon
In Max Frisch's postwar novel, I'm Not Stiller, the title character may or may not be a man called "Stiller." He may be someone quite different. He may just happen to look sufficiently like Stiller so as to be confused for him. When he first appears on a train platform in Switzerland and is hauled off for questioning about his--that is, Stiller's--earlier disappearance, he protests to the Inspector that he is not Stiller and has no idea who this man Stiller is. The new man nonetheless finds himself the object of endless speculation. Though never stated outright, the queasy subtext of the plot is the suspicion that the real Stiller may have committed some wartime offense. The point is, it does not really matter if he is in fact the man in question. Once drawn into the mystery surrounding Stiller's disappearance, the imposter finds himself gradually assuming the habits and haunts of his doppelgänger, even adopting a quiet domesticity with the wife that Stiller (the real one) had earlier abandoned. The novel is implicitly philosophical: the continuity of personal identity, Frisch implies, is not up to us. The role others assign us socially may matter a great deal more in determining who we are than anything we may subjectively believe. Faced with the overwhelming force of context, the protests of the self have scant effect.
As with persons, so too with books. A writer may object that intention still counts for something. But long after the death of the author, the written works are set free into the afterlife of interpretation, gathering a multiplicity of meanings the author may never have intended. In this wider circuit, intention shrinks in relevance; the community will always have the last word. However, this is true only in the special sense that, [End Page 1] in principle, there cannot be a last word: there will always be someone out there who has yet to read the book, who may still intrude upon the settled tribe of current readers to offer an exotic and unforeseen interpretation. This may be the case for any body of work. But it is especially true of something as bottomless in meaning as a philosophical text, and it is especially true of texts as unfathomable as those left to the world by Franz Rosenzweig.
The written corpus of the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) continues to arouse new critical interest. Yet in some respects the attraction is baffling. Of the astonishing number of Jewish intellectuals associated with the ferment of inter-war Weimar culture (such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, Martin Buber, Ernst Bloch, Siegfried Kracauer, Karl Mannheim, Alfred Döblin, and Else Lasker-Schüler), Rosenzweig was, perhaps matched only by Bloch, the most difficult to under-stand. His work is the very embodiment of philosophical syncretism. Though loosely associated with existential theology, it touches upon themes spanning the entire tradition of Jewish and European thought, from Parmenides to Hegel, from Kant to the Kabbalah, from the Bible to Friedrich Schelling. But all of these constitute much less than what is customarily called "influence." Rosenzweig had a gift for harmonizing the potentially dissonant crowd of past philosophical and religious voices; he read them all, sometimes tendentiously, so as to confirm his own idiosyncratic vision. The result was an unmistakably personal but nonetheless immensely sophisticated kind of religious philosophy, a bold affirmation of Jewish existence in an eminently modern key.
In recent years, a new body of scholarship has emerged to upset settled belief about Rosenzweig's philosophical purposes. In this article, I want to explore some of the most impressive examples of this scholarship. My aim, however, is not merely review. Although I hope the survey of current literature will prove helpful, my deeper motive here is to explore why Rosenzweig has enjoyed such longevity.
This is indeed a...