Friday, November 9, 2012

Rosenzweig: from the fear of death to redemption

To: Edoardo S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rosenzweig: from the fear of death to redemption
Date: 12th November 2008 11:26

Dear Edoardo,

Thank you for your email of 3 November, with the new version of your essay for the Associate program, 'From the fear of death to redemption: the 'ecumenical' soteriology of a Jewish Thinker.'

I found this more gripping than the previous version. Although you give the necessary cultural context, you stay on track with regard to the philosophical and theological issues raised by Rosenzweig's 'Star of Redemption'.

However, I have one remaining problem with this essay; a problem which I am sure that you know how to solve. In the present version, however, the words are just not there.

Any reader looking at your account of Rosenzweig and Heidegger -- two philosophers who emphasized the absolute necessity of recognizing and coming to terms with the fact of our own death -- will want to know how Rosenzweig *differs* from Heidegger in his view of death.

You talk about Rosenzweig's rejection of the 'philosophical' view of death, as a fear which philosophy somehow frees us from, by elevating us to an objective or eternal perspective.

According to the philosophers, it is irrational to fear death: either because as the materialists such as Epicurus argue, 'where I am death is not; where death is, I am not', or, as the dualists such as Socrates and Plato argue, what we term 'death' is the release of the true self, the soul, from the prison house of the body. And so on.

But where does Heidegger fit in the survey of philosophical views of death? You say something which suggests a criticism of Heidegger from the point of view of Rosenzweig: 'The prospect of our 'non-existence' allows us to reappraise our past in the only true way. For such a reason Heidegger's philosophy suggests that the anguish of death should be 'worked through' [in a manner analogous to Freudian analysis, as you suggest in a footnote] in advance all through our life in such a way [as] to conquer the fear of it.'

What exactly would be Rosenzweig's objection to this view? That is the crucial question on which the argument of your essay turns. What is it about the impossibility of denying the fact of death (from Rosenzweig's viewpoint) that Heidegger is missing?

Another tantalising comment: 'Unlike Rosenzweig, Heidegger uses the word 'God' as who looks into his mind; whereas the Jewish thinker, as a believer, cannot conceive of a man without God.'

The English is at fault here: I'm not sure what you mean by, 'as who looks into his mind'. Do you mean that for Heidegger, 'God' is merely a metaphorical expression for our concept of the 'sacred'?

However that may be, it seems that the question turns on the necessity of an actual (not metaphorical) God. I can only surmise from what you have written that for Rosenzweig the fact of death is somehow proof of the necessity for religious belief. Anyone who does not see God as revealed in the knowledge and certainty that one is a finite being who faces certain death, has not fully comprehended what 'death' is.

If that is correct, then the central aim of your essay should be to establish that claim through persuasive argument. I can't help you here: it is your essay. You are the one who is expounding Rosenzweig's views.

Is it merely coincidence that these two great thinkers were asking similar questions at the same time? The two thinkers never met. The debate is one which we are reconstructing after the event, as it were, a debate which would take place if we could place Rosenzweig and Heidegger in a time machine and let them meet face to face, as representatives respectively of 'Jerusalem' and 'Athens'. What would they say to one another? Can the differences between their respective philosophies be reconciled? Or if not, what exactly is the choice which these two streams of thought -- Jewish theology versus German philosophy -- represent?

All the best,

Geoffrey