Judaism Despite Christianity (Book Overview)

Judaism Despite Christianity is a collection of letters between Franz Rosenzweig and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy written in 1916. That’s a hundred years ago, but the topics discussed in these letters directly relate to our world today. Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy were prophets.

Franz Rosenzweig (FR) was a practicing Jew, but that was not true of him or his family while he was growing up. It was in his encounters with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (ERH), a Christian, when he was forced to face the emptiness of his tradition-only religion. Thanks to ERH, not only did FR have to face the reality that merely paying homage to his Jewish faith was not good enough, he also had to face the possibility that Judaism itself was no longer necessary in a Christian world.

FR’s view of history was described by Alexander Altmann, who wrote an essay about the correspondence between FR and ERH, as this:

What happens in history, [Rosenzweig] says, is not a struggle between man’s faith and man’s reason but a struggle between God and man. In world history the absolute powers themselves are dramatis personae [the characters of the play]. Revelation breaks into the world and transforms creation, which is the Alpha of history, into redemption, which is the Omega. Philosophy has a pagan quality. It is an expression of the Alpha, of creation, of pure nature to which God has given freedom — even against himself. But as revelation comes into the world, it gradually absorbs philosophy, deprives it of its pagan elements, and illuminates it with its own light. The Omega of history will be realized after the element of creation, the world’s freedom, has spent itself. Then God, who has allowed the world to be in the Alpha, will again be the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega.*

FR, along with others, believed the Church was entering into the “Johannine” period of Christianity. Rather than the “Petrine” or “Pauline” periods, in which the Church focused mainly on dogma (Who are we?), in the Johannine period the Church would focus primarily on reaching out to the Gentiles. This Johannine period would be directed by the Spirit, whereas previous periods were directed by the Father and the Son. If this was/is true, then the world was/is coming into its “Omega” time, and Judaism is being left behind as a relic of the “Alpha” time.

If it was the function of Christianity to convert the heathen and to transform the Alpha element of creation — the world in its raw state — into the Omega element of redemption — the world as the place of revelation — was there any room left for Judaism?


This created a crisis for FR, and he strongly considered converting to Christianity. The Church was symbolized as holding the sceptre of power and rule, while the synagogue held only a broken staff. FR did not, however, want to enter the Church as a pagan, he wanted to enter as a true Jew, and this desire forced him to establish a new and more serious relationship with his Jewish faith. In the end, it was that new relationship with Judaism which prevented him from ever becoming a Christian at all.

FR eventually came to the conclusion that Judaism still served an important role in the Christian world. He recognized that her [Judaism’s] stern refutation of the pagan world and her uncompromising attitude constituted the only safeguard for the completion of the work of revelation and of the church herself.‡ Jews and Judaism continue to exist to remind the Church of what it is, and what its purpose is. ERH was obviously influenced by FR’s idea as he wrote a couple decades later in his book, Out of Revolution, something very similar:

The Jew is a stranger among the Gentiles, a reminder to them that their Christianity is always threatened by a backsliding into mere paganism.§

When [the Jews] were scattered over the earth after the loss of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., they had no other function than to bear witness to the “economy of revelation,” to the growing Kingdom of God. Without their existence, the gospel of Jesus might have come to the Gentiles like a myth or a legend. Christianity becomes an historical fact only through the existence of Jews. The natural inclination of men and nations to take flight into dreams of ancestral pride or the cobwebs of abstract philosophy always leads to excesses of agnosticism and mythology. The Jews, simply by their existence, bar the nations from a relapse into that comfortable self-adoration which makes Jesus himself into a blond Germanic hero instead of a despised Jew.||

[T]he Jews are not like the Armenians in Turkey or the Japanese in California or the Irish in New England. The Jews were created as counterfoil to the Gentiles; and whenever … the Christians grow weak in their faith, hope, and love, then the glowing nucleus of revelation and the inanimate forms of creation diverge and threaten to destroy human history, which is a process of salvation of the world and the conversion of the pagans by the Word.

Before this point, FR was afraid to talk to ERH again about his Judaism. ERH, in a conversation with FR in 1913, had shaken FR’s beliefs to the foundation. But now, as FR dived deeper into this new understanding of what Judaism existed for, he began to feel ready to confront ERH yet again, and defend his beliefs and Judaism as he could not before. This was the state of FR when these letters between himself and ERH began.

ERH and FR touch on the topic of the “stubbornness of the Jews” quite a bit in the letters. As FR writes to ERH…

But I should like to quote you [from] one … legend. The Messiah was born at exactly at the moment when the temple was destroyed [A.D. 70], but when he was born, the winds blew him forth from the bosom of his mother. And know he wanders unknown among the [Jewish] peoples, and when he has wandered through them all, then the time of our redemption will have come.

So that Christianity is like a power that fills the world (according to the saying of one of the two scholastics, Yehuda ha-Levi: it is the tree that grows from the seed of Judaism and casts its shadows over the earth; but its fruit must contain the seed again, the seed that nobody who saw the tree noticed. This is a Jewish dogma, just as Judaism as both the stubborn origin and last convert is a Christian dogma.# [Note: At no point in the letter does FR close the parenthesis.]

[T]he corresponding Jewish outcome of the theological idea of Christianity as a preparer-of-the-way is the pride of the Jews. This is hard to describe to a stranger. What you see of it appears to you silly and petty, just as it is almost impossible for the Jew to see and judge anti-Semitism by anything but its vulgar and stupid expressions. But (I must say again, believe me) its metaphysical basis is, as I have said, the three articles: (1) that we have the truth, (2) that we are at the goal, and (3) that any and every Jew feels in the depths of his soul that the Christian relation to God, and so in a sense their religion, is particularly and extremely pitiful, poverty-stricken, and ceremonious; namely, that as a Christian one has to learn from someone else, whoever he may be, to call God “our Father.” To the Jew, that God is out Father is the first and most self-evident fact — and what need is there for a third person between me and my father in Heaven? That is no discovery of modern apologetics but the simplest Jewish instinct, a mixture of failure to understand and pitying contempt.**

FR, throughout his letters, seems to believe that if and when a Jew converts to Christianity, he is not doing so as a Jew, but as a Gentile, for no true Jew would leave Judaism. This belief irks ERH, and he criticizes FR for not seeing Judaism as being trapped in the elemental (Alpha) part of reality while rejecting the revelation (Omega) part. As to FR’s statement that Jews need not a third person between them and God, ERH writes: Christ has mediated to us the breaking through into the universe in a heavenward direction of this force [faith], which was latent and imprisoned in the earth.††

ERH points out how, at Babel, humanity was split and that the Jews were separated at that time by God to be His chosen people. However, the healing of humanity came through Christ…

“The Word became flesh” — on that proposition everything indeed depends. While the word of man must always become a concept and thereby stagnant and degenerate, God speaks to us with the “word become flesh,” through the Son. And so the Christian revelation is the healing of the Babylonian confusion of tongues, the bursting open of the prison, but also the sign on the new tongues, speech that is now informed with soul. Since then, it has become worthwhile to think again, because thought has a standard outside itself, in the visible footsteps of God…

That from which Christ redeems is exactly the boundless naïve pride of the Jew, which you yourself exhibit. In contrast to the peoples talking the 372 languages of Babel, this pride was and is well founded, and therefore the Jews were separated and chosen out of all the peoples of the earth, until the destruction of the Temple. But Christianity redeems the individual from family and people through the new unity of all sinners, of all who are weary and heavy laden. That is Christianity, and its bond is equal need.‡‡

ERH further criticizes FR by saying that, even though the Jews say all people will one day come to Jerusalem to pray, they continually crucify the One who made that truth possible. The Jews have rejected and grown to be far away from the revelation that is Christ. In appearance they wait upon the word of the Lord, but they have grown through and through so far away from revelation that they do everything they can to hinder its reality. With all the power of their being they set themselves against their own promises.§§

FR later argues that Christians only have what the Jews gave them, and any Gentile who becomes a Christian was first “Judaized” — a Judaizing of the Pagans as he puts it. He writes: Your [ERH’s] whole description of the Synagogue since A.D. 70 forgets, or refuses to recognize, that we consciously take upon ourselves “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” that we pay the price for the sin of pride of non-cooperation, of walking without mediator in the light of God’s countenance. We pay subjectively through suffering the consciousness of being shut out, of being alienated, and objectively, in that we are to you the ever-mindful memorial of your incompleteness (for you who live in a church triumphant need a mute servant who cries when you have partaken of God’s bread and wine, [“Master, remember the last things”]. (FR wrote this last part in Greek.)||||

Well, this bantering back and forth goes on between the two in all the letters, but there is more to these letters than that. FR and ERH also discuss philosophy, history, and other religions. I can’t comment on all of that, and I don’t understand all of it either.

In the end I can’t say that FR and ERH resolved their conflict. FR died young and never was able to complete his whole theory of thought. He did publish his work Star of Redemption, which was highly influenced by ERH and these letters. ERH taught at Dartmouth College from 1935-1957, and died in 1973. You can listen to many of his lectures here. I recommend starting with The Cross of Reality.

I highly recommend this book if your are into Franz Rosenzweig and/or Rosenstock-Huessy, and the relationship between Christianity and Judaism today.

I gave the book 4/5 stars.

Further reading: Commentary Magazine: Judaism Despite Christianity

* Altmann. Judaism Despite Christianity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. Page 33
† Altmann. Ibid. Page 35
‡ Altmann. Ibid. Page 38
§ Rosenstock-Huessy, Eugen. Out of Revolution. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013 [1969]. Page 216
|| Ibid. Page 220
Ibid. Page 235
# Judaism Despite Christianity. Page 112
** Ibid. Page 113
†† Ibid. Page 119
‡‡ Ibid. Page 122-123
§§ Ibid. Page 125
|||| Ibid. Page 135

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