Judaism despite Christianity? The 1916 Correspondence between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig – University of Copenhagen

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Judaism despite Christianity? The 1916 Correspondence between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig

Workshop and PhD course with Paul Mendes-Flohr, organized by Claudia Welz and Lars Bruun

See program.

Funded by CEMES: Centre for Modern European Studies, University of Copenhagen and KU s Almene Fond


In 1916, in the midst of the World War I, the historian, sociologist and lecturer in jurisprudence Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973) and the historian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) exchanged a series of letters while the two friends were serving in the German Army at the front different places in Europe. Both were assimilated Jews, yet while the former converted to Christianity, the latter had recently decided to remain a Jew. As German and European intellectuals in the midst of what has later been termed the primordial catastrophe of 20th century Europe, they entered into a dialogue, which now, nearly a hundred years later, seems more relevant than ever. It brings into focus a number of issues that readers and scholars today too need to address, principally the following four:

1. Identity and self-transformation. Through their dialogue on religion and fundamental conviction, both partners of the epistolary dialogue were challenged to explore, identify with or renew the traditions in which they felt at home. They had to review their personal beliefs and were required to take a clearly defined and justified stance with respect to the most urgent issues of the contemporary intellectual ‘climate.’ Rosenstock-Huessy’s motto Respondeo etsi mutabor (I respond even though I will be changed) purports that none of them would remain the same after their intellectual exchange grounded in existential issues – and neither would dogmatically hold on to their prior understanding of the relation between Judaism and Christianity.

2. Revelation and orientation. In a secular age it is far from self-evident why one should take one’s point of departure from the biblical heritage. Interestingly, Rosenzweig and Rosenstock- Huessy became pre-occupied with the significance of divine revelation as a life-orientation with regard to fundamental existential concerns, theological and ethical questions (e.g. as to human freedom and the problem of evil; the concept of and relationship with God; the love of neighbor; the fear of death). Both of them were disappointed by idealist philosophy and historistic relativism. Yet instead of opposing faith and reason, philosophy and theology, they showed how these dichotomies – as well as the theological and religious sensibilities of Jew and Christian – could cross-fertilize each other.

3. Language and communication. Rosenstock-Huessy and Rosenzweig are, next to the Jewish thinker Martin Buber and the Austrian Catholic theologian Ferdinand Ebner, the pioneers and founders of the philosophy of dialogue. Their so-called ‘grammatical thinking’ and face-to-face ‘speech-thinking,’ which takes time and alterity seriously, has greatly influenced Emmanuel Levinas and through him Jacques Derrida and many other philosophers. The situating in time and the verbalization of the relations between God, man, and world have prompted a radical break with the previously dominant abstract, essentialist thinking.

4. Religion and politics. The correspondence under consideration creates a space for reflections on the future of democratic culture in Western societies. Rosenstock-Huessy and Rosenzweig address urgent and difficult questions: How can irresolvable disagreements concerning basic convictions be handled peacefully in pluralistic contexts? What is the role of the public for the formation and re-formation of religious outlooks on life, and how can (self-)critical discussions of oral traditions and different interpretations of ‘holy texts’ be facilitated? Last but not least, how can the concept of ‘redemption’ be reformulated in (post-)modernity when belief in a God who is ‘the Lord of history’ no longer can be presupposed?

The 1916 wartime correspondence between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig is the first and probably most important Jewish-Christian dialogue in the 20th century as well as the cradle of the philosophy of dialogue. Moreover, the letters address questions of how Jewish thinking about existential, political, religious, cultural and linguistic matters have been formative factors in the shaping of a European understanding of self, nation and the world. The workshop and PhD course focuses on genuine European concerns in exploring

  • the cultural consequences of World war I, the ‘European civil war,’ through the lens of the discussion between two German-Jewish intellectuals who because of their war experience distanced themselves not only from Bourgeois idealism in general, but also from the dominating positivism of pre-war Germany

  • the educational impact of their interreligious dialogue, for instance Rosenzweig’s establishment of Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt am Main and the translation of the Hebrew Bible together with Martin Buber – activities that express shared European values and norms such as human dignity, the freedom of religion and gender equality in adult education

  • the experience of historical breaches that lead to migration and the search for new forms of life beyond nationalist or other ideologically informed tendencies.

    Forms of working 

    The forms of working at the workshop include introductory presentations, Paul Mendes-Flohr’s keynote lecture, PhD papers, plenary discussions, and a session with ‘Chavruta’ – the dialogic way of reading, raising questions, and learning together with a partner of conversation, which was practiced by Jews for centuries and revived in the Lehrhaus founded by Rosenzweig in Frankfurt.

    Text material and preparation

    The main text we will discuss at the workshop will be Judaism Despite Christianity: The 1916 Wartime Correspondence Between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig, with a new foreword by Paul Mendes-Flohr, Chicago/London 2011. We expect participants to read this book beforehand and bring it with them (where necessary, we will involve the German original).

  • Letters between Rosenzweig and his cousin Rudolf Ehrenberg from Oct./Nov. 1913 documenting the Leipziger Nachtgespräch in July, which led to Rosenzweig’s decision not to convert to Christianity (in: Franz Rosenzweig: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I/1: Briefe und Tagebücher, pp. 125-143).
  • The so-called Urzelle of The Star of Redemption, i.e. Rosenzweig’s letter to Rudolf Ehrenberg from Nov. 18, 1917 (in: Franz Rosenzweig, Kleinere Schriften, Berlin 1937, pp. 357-372 / translation by Paul W. Franks and Michael L. Morgan in: Franz Rosenzweig: Philosophical and Theological Writings).
  • Rosenzweig’s description of the new dialogical thinking: “Das neue Denken / The New Thinking” (1925) (in: Kleinere Schriften, pp. 373-398 / translation in: Franz Rosenzweig: Philosophical and Theological Writings)
    Comparison of Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy’s approaches with those of other philosophers / historians such as Walter Benjamin.

Paul Mendes-Flohr is one of the leading scholars within the field of Jewish Studies. He is the former Director of the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he is Professor emeritus, and still active as Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago and Advisory Board Member at CJMC at the University of Copenhagen.

His major research interests include modern Jewish intellectual history and philosophy, religious thought and philosophy of religion, German intellectual history, and the history and sociology of intellectuals.
Among his publications are
A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber and the Arabs (Oxford University Press 1983); The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (with Jehuda Reinharz, Oxford University Press 1995); German Jews: A Dual Identity (Yale University Press 1999); Progress and its Discontents: Jewish Intellectuals and their Struggle with Modernity (in Hebrew, 2010). He is the editor of a series on German-Jewish literature and Cultural History for the University of Chicago Press, as well as the collected works of Martin Buber in German, which has published two volumes in the past year. He is currently completing a biography of Martin Buber to be published by Yale University Press. He is the editor of Gustav Landauer: Anarchist and Jew (de Gruyter 2014) and Dialogue as a Trans-Disciplinary Concept (de Gruyter 2014).


April 28, 2015

Session 1: Identity and self-transformation

10.00-11.00 Introduction by Claudia Welz and text reading
11.00-11.30 Paper by Meghan Jakobsen (University of Copenhagen): “God My Father – A Genuine Expression of Faith”
11.30-12.00 Plenary discussion


Session 2: Revelation and orientation

13.00-14.00 Introduction by Carsten Pallesen and text reading
14.00-14.30 Paper by Karin Nisenbaum (Hebrew University, Jerusalem): “Rosenzweig’s Concept of Revelation: The Human Word as a Response to the Word of God, and Human Words and Actions as the Means for the Unification of God.”
14.30-15.00 Plenary discussion

Coffee break

1st floor, auditorium 7

Keynote lecture by Paul Mendes-Flohr (Chicago/Jerusalem): “Dialogical Affirmations of Theological incommensurability” and plenary discussion

April 29, 2015

Session 3: Language and communication

10.30-11.30 Introduction by Paul Mendes-Flohr and text reading
11.30-12.00 Paper by Casper Løwenstein (University of Copenhagen): “Language and Experience in Rosenzweig and Heidegger”
12.00-12.30 Plenary discussion


Session 4: Religion and politics

13.30-14.30 Introduction by Lars K. Bruun and text reading
14.30-15.00 Paper by Agata Bielik-Robson (University of Nottingham): “Tarrying with the Apocalypse: Jewish Messianisms in Comparison (Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Levinas)”
15.00-15.30 Plenary discussion and rounding off