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Modern Judaism 23.1 (2003) 74-98

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The Rosenzweig–Tosenstock Triangle, Or, What Can We Learn From Letters to Gritli?:
A Review Essay

Michael Zank

Franz Rosenzweig, Die "Gritli"-Briefe: Briefe an Margrit Rosenstock-Huessy, ed. Inken Rühle and Reinhold Mayer, preface by Rafael Rosenzweig (Tübingen: Bilam, 2002), vi + 860 pages. Henceforth, "R-M."
The lover who says "thou art mine" to the beloved
is aware of having begotten the beloved
in his love and given birth to her in travail.
He knows himself the creator of the beloved.
And with this awareness
he now enfolds her
and envelops her
with his love in the world—
"thou art mine."

—Franz Rosenzweig,
The Star of Redemption

Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), a historian, a Jewish intellectual, and the spiritual inspiration of an ongoing movement of Jewish renewal, is an outstanding figure among modern thinkers. A Hegel scholar of some renown, he made a lasting mark with a philosophy of revelation written in some of the most difficult and enchanting German prose produced in the twentieth century. Memorialized as a courageous sufferer of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease) who translated the Bible with Martin Buber even as he lost all voluntary muscle control and the capacity of speech, Rosenzweig has come to symbolize the best of the legacy of German Jewry, its peculiar combination of humanism and Jewish liturgical practice, while resisting the illusions of assimilation. 1

Under the surface of this textbook biography lurks a less known personality whose deep strain of mental bipolarity came to the fore in periods of superhuman productivity and energy, giving way to despair, self-loathing, and despondency. 2 Driven to prove himself professionally [End Page 74] to an overly pragmatic father, he also tried to satisfy the inconsistent upper bourgeois expectations of a mother whose temperament, prone to hysterical outbursts of jealousy followed by abject depression, was too similar to her son's for comfort. 3 Add to this a love triangle, whose record in the form of more than one thousand letters has fully come to light only now, more than seventy years after Rosenzweig's death, and one begins to sense just how complex a character we are dealing with in the author of The Star of Redemption. 4

Once a prodigy among the students of famed German historian Friedrich Meinecke (1862–1954) and much sought after as a rising star among post–World War I junior academics, Rosenzweig turned down all encouragements to seek a university career: "The author of the Star of Redemption . . . is of a different caliber than the author of Hegel and the State." 5 Full of contradictions and torn by the very impulses whose sorting out was his major pursuit, he aggressively pursued the publication of these two very different works and was disappointed when gainful and prestigious visible employment failed to materialize for the author of either book. Of course, some of the acquisition editors with whom he negotiated during the lean years of demilitarization and runaway inflation were willing to publish—but only if the son of the erstwhile Kassel Kommerzienrat was willing to pay.

Were it not for the recently published Letters to Gritli we would be forced to continue to think of Rosenzweig as someone who disdained the bourgeois value of public recognition, someone who willingly remained unemployed for the sake of spiritual purity, an impression mostly due to the self-image Rosenzweig generated for the benefit of his restless and unnervingly worried mother. Instead, we now have a torturously detailed record of Rosenzweig's many failed attempts to find his footing in the post–World War I period. 6 The Rosenzweig who emerges from these letters, written almost daily between 1918 and 1922, is not the carefully edited sage of the Frankfurt Lehrhaus but, rather, a brilliant and elegant snob given to bouts of pettiness and vanity, traits that would have gotten the better of him had it not been for Gritli, the young wife of his friend Eugen Rosenstock, who became...