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  • The Halevi Book
  • Michael Oppenheim (bio)

I can no longer write a book. (F. Rosenzweig, 1920)

There is no “religious sphere.” (F. Rosenzweig, 1924)

The Notes to my Jehuda Halevi contain instructive examples of the practical application of the new thinking.

(F. Rosenzweig, 1925)

The recent appearance of Barbara Galli’s Franz Rosenzweig and Jehuda Halevi: Translating, Translations, and Translators, will hopefully focus attention on the most significant of Rosenzweig’s later writings. Rosenzweig’s Jehuda Halevi: Ninety-Two Hymns and Poems (German, with an Afterword and with Notes) 1 is a “book,” the purpose of which is both self-evident and radically complex. On the surface the Jehuda Halevi is a translation of the religious poems of the medieval Jewish poet and philosopher named in the title, with selected commentary, that is, an afterword and notes by the distinguished twentieth-century German-Jewish philosopher. However, while this is an accurate description of the text, it is even more a misleading one. As the English translator and commentator on the work, Galli convincingly argues that in order to understand what Rosenzweig was offering in the Jehuda Halevi one must put his effort in the context of his life and writings. 2

The place of the Jehuda Halevi in the life of Franz Rosenzweig necessarily indicates that the prima facie is not the final. By 1922, the time that Rosenzweig had started working on Halevi’s poems, he had learned and felt the first effects of his dire medical condition, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was equally aware of the prognosis of paralysis and a rather imminent death. An important event in that year was the birth of his son, Rafael, in September. Rosenzweig considered having children a fundamental step in the development of the family, and thus, a full Jewish life. The prognosis that he had only months to live meant that some of these hopes would be left unfulfilled.

In terms of his career, Rosenzweig had rejected the easy path, “defined for me by my talent,” 3 of a university professorship, and he was in the process of realizing his commitment to Jewish education as creator and director of an adult education facility, the Freies Judisches Lehrhaus [End Page 83] in Frankfurt. Further, his well-received book Hegel and the State had appeared, as had the first edition of his Star of Redemption the preceding year. Although the latter book had not been well understood, the author knew that its philosophically revolutionary voice would not forever remain silent.

Following the birth of his son, a determined career path, the publication of two important texts, and the prognosis that threatened all, why did Rosenzweig decide to translate the Halevi poems? Was he cutting short his own work to prepare for the end, or was he going further? Given all the essays, articles, and letters that he produced after 1922, there is no doubt that the first option is too limited. In a sense, as we will see, he was both going further and preparing for his death.

The fact that Rosenzweig continued to spend those last years—the gift of which stretched longer than either he or his doctors had anticipated—on the poems provides a first indication of the value that this work had for him. A second, expanded edition of Jehuda Halevi appeared in 1927. Another clue, the investigation of which by Barbara Galli puts all Rosenzweig critics and readers in her debt, appears in his essay of 1925, “The New Thinking.” In this essay, which Rosenzweig allowed to be published only once as an introduction to the Star, he affirmed that the Jehuda Halevi was indeed a “going further.” He wrote, “The Notes to my Jehuda Halevi contain instructive examples of the practical application of the new thinking.” 4

The wide range of meanings contained in the phrase, “instructive examples of the practical application of the new thinking” is illuminated with deep care and insight by Galli. 5 Before reviewing the matter, it will be beneficial first to turn to the contents of the Halevi itself. There are (following the 1927 edition) ninety-two poems of Jehuda Halevi, with an Afterword and Notes by Rosenzweig. The poems are...

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pp. 83-93
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