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  • Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy
  • William Nathan Alexander
Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy, by Peter Eli Gordon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 328 pp. $25.95.

Peter Eli Gordon, in his provocative and brilliant book, Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy, uses Franz Rosenzweig's concept of redemption to examine the intellectual kinship between the two contemporaries of Weimar, Germany. Redemption, in Gordon's understanding, is more than just a point of similarity between the German and Jewish thinkers. It becomes a tool for rethinking the relationship between Jewish and German [End Page 181] philosophy and, at its most speculative, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

Gordon argues that comparing the Jewish Rosenzweig and the German Heidegger is historically appropriate because, until the 1930s, German and Jewish culture were intertwined. "Jewish philosophical and national distinctiveness was the fruit of imagination, a performance of difference that gained its very identity in borrowing from the German philosophical tradition. . . ." Gordon argues that to separate Jewish from German thought "cannot be [intellectually] sustained without attributing essential and nonhistorical features to each." Karl Löwith, Heidegger's Jewish pupil, for instance, thought of himself as a German, and he believed that the Jews would emancipate themselves "into Germanness." The real subject of Gordon's study is thus neither Germanness nor Jewishness. It is what links them together, and in Weimar these were the "modernist" themes of "finitude and isolation."

Finitude and isolation were central to Heidegger's philosophy. In his lecture "What is Metaphysics" (1929), Heidegger argued that the proper object of metaphysics is not logic or science ("the infinite") but "nothingness." While science and philosophy imagine they are self sufficient ("infinite"), it is the task of metaphysics to reveal the finitude, or "nothingness," upon which all human experience, philosophical or otherwise, rests. To grasp this "finite" and unconceptualizable reality as the basis of one's scientific understanding of the world, Heidegger declared, is to experience the world as one's "own-most possibility." Heidegger called this experience "authenticity." In his opaque language, he wrote: "Being held out into the nothing—as Dasein is—on the ground of concealed anxiety makes man a lieutenant of the nothing."

The central chapters of Gordon's book, an exegesis of Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption, argue that Rosenzweig's concept of redemption is similar to Heidegger's notion of authenticity. Karl Löwith had famously argued that Rosenzweig's concept of redemption was a "transcendent Jewish" and religious reference, distinguishing it from Heidegger's atheistic philosophy (and German philosophy in general). Gordon argues that Löwith was wrong. Because Rosenzweig embraced "the New Thinking" ("Das Neue Denken"), that is, the themes of finitude and isolation as the basis for modern thought, his understanding of Eternity must reflect the culture of Weimar, Germany and not traditional Jewish metaphysics. Gordon argues that Rosenzweig's philosophy is an attempt to "wrest itself free of traditional, theological categories . . . even while it struggle[s] to find theological purpose within the confines of human, temporal life." Rosenzweig's concept of redemption must be understood as "redemption in-the-world." In this sense, redemption is similar to Heidegger's notion of nothingness—but a nothingness which is the basis of authentic [End Page 182] Being. Rosenzweig writes: "Of God we know nothing. But this Nothing-knowledge is a Nothing-knowledge of God. As such it is the beginning of our knowledge of him."

An obvious objection presents itself: If "redemption" is an indefinable, preconceptual "nothingness," what in truth distinguishes it from Heidegger's "authenticity"? Not very much, Gordon concedes. In fact, Rosenzweig's concept of redemption, in Gordon's view, "cannot be strictly Jewish"—which is why he wrote that the Star of Redemption "is not intended as a philosophy of religion." Just as Heidegger used his idea of finitude to criticize the entire history of Western philosophy for the "forgetting of (finite) being," so Rosenzweig will use the notion of "redemption-in-the-world" to critique Judaism as a traditional religion. In distinction to the conventional idea of a transcendent Messiah, Gordon argues that Rosenzweig believed that it was necessary to risk the...


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