February 7, 2005


In the end shall Christians become Jews and Jews, Christians?: On Franz Rosenzweig's apocalyptic eschatology (Gregory Kaplan, Winter 2004, Cross Currents)

Gershom Scholem's peerless 1959 essay "Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism" distinguishes "two major currents" of thought. On the one hand with redemption "the restorative forces are directed to the return and recreation of a past condition which comes to be felt as ideal." On the other hand with redemption a "catastrophe" marks "the upsetting of all moral order to the point of dissolving the laws of nature." He goes on to assert that existentialist thinkers, among whom he includes his contemporary Franz Rosenzweig, one-sidedly stress "consolation and hope" and neglect the "abyss" which sunders reality. Given the ubiquitous ambiguity of redemption, however, I think Scholem fails to appreciate the nuance of Rosenzweig's thought.

What Scholem articulates and, I aim to show, Rosenzweig illustrates, is a tension within the messianic idea of Judaism between this-worldly and other-worldly, temporal and eternal focii of redemption. As Steven Schwarzchild has put it, Jewish eschatology reckons "the mixture of grace and morality ... of divine, incalculable action and ... human, rationally moral efforts." But is this mixture benign or volatile, restorative or catastrophic? Rosenzweig's answer offers at once stimulating and disconcerting prospects. Specifically, I will argue that "two currents" (following Scholem) animate Rosenzweig's thought on redemption and, furthermore, the tension between them organizes Rosenzweig's thought on Jewish-Christian-pagan relations. Related questions arise as to whether a coincidence or a contest between Judaism and Christianity redresses the assumed pagan denial of death and whether, in the end, the Christians shall become Jewish or the Jews, Christian. To address these questions this essay considers, in turn, Rosenzweig's dual covenant eschatology, apocalyptic imagination, and messianic hermeneutics.

Eschatology and Dual Covenant Theology

In a recent New York Review of Books essay on Rosenzweig Mark Lilla neatly formulates the dilemma of redemption. "If redemption is wholly God's work, we are tempted to leave him to his work and ignore our own; if, however, we participate in this redemptive labor, the temptation is equally great to think we can redeem ourselves through temporal activity." Does redemption come from outside or is it initiated from inside human life? According to Lilla, Rosenzweig gives an "ingenious explanation": the Jewish covenant is unconditional and passive whereas the Christians covenant is conditional and active. Yet this alleged solution does not, in my view, adequately account for Rosenzweig's complicated, ambivalent position.

As befits a dual covenant theology, on Lilla's (and others') interpretation, Christianity and Judaism each play a complimentary if not a cooperative role with the other. Typically this program maintains that Judaism assures redemption by a covenant once made between God and His chosen People, Israel, while Christian salvation is secured with a new dispensation granted by God to those who declare their faith in the savior, Jesus Christ. And, indeed, just such companionship between Christianity and Judaism evidently provides Rosenzweig with justification for retracting a plan which he had previously conceived to undertake baptism by passing through the gates of Judaism and "not through the intermediate stage of paganism."

However, Rosenzweig would twist the dual covenant formulation to suggest a distinctive eschatology. Specifically, he comes to invert the dual covenant's historical succession and theological priority. Thus a 1913 letter justifies his momentous decision--"Ich bleibe also Jude"--on grounds that the first covenant with Jews is nearer to God than the second covenant with Christians. In other words, Rosenzweig proposes that Judaism is not the superceded premise of Christianity, but rather its surpassing pinnacle. Whereas Christianity "reaches the Father" only by means of the Son, Judaism makes no such approach to God. Because Israel "is already with" God. In short, the People Israel is always already--and the Christian individuals are not yet--redeemed.

Still, Rosenzweig approved of Christianity's "Judaizing the pagans," that is, bringing pagans, through conversion, nearer to Judaism (and thus God). For Rosenzweig, theological priority goes to Judaism and historical success to Christianity: as Christianity aims toward Judaism as its target, Judaism summons Christianity to spread the word throughout the world. This implies that Judaism has no relation to the world save through Christianity, an implication I probe in the next section.

Of course, Rosenzweig's formulation undermines both a standard Christian repudiation of Judaism and its Jewish rejoinder. Even liberal Christians who espouse a dual covenant condemn Jews for refusing to admit that "[a] development ... leads through Jesus, in whom alone Jewish religion 'consummates itself,'" in Rosenzweig's words. This condemnation assumes the Jews are "still waiting" for what presently comes by salvation through faith in Christ. Once again inverting priority and success, Rosenzweig avers "that [the] 'connection of the innermost heart with God' which the heathen can only reach through Jesus is something the Jew already possesses." So, on this view, the condemnation is misplaced: not superiority but rather inferiority motivates Christian animosity towards Judaism. By the same token, this inversion undercuts a liberal Jewish response to Christian condemnation. Liberal Jews often claim that an 'ethical monotheism' calling for universal justice proves the durability of a Jewish covenant; Jews, "a light unto the nations," undertake a mission to reorient Christianity. But to Rosenzweig this claim betrays an atheistic "transformation of Judaism into something this-worldly [Verdiesseitigung]"; it mistakenly denies the "offensive thought" of a Jew who accepts God as "the plunging of a higher content into an unworthy vessel." Turning Judaism into a historical success story perverts rather than exhibits its theological priority. That this dualism runs the risk of identifying Christianity with Constantinianism and Judaism with a perfectly realized utopia would find repeated consideration from Rosenzweig.

Rosenzweig's 1921 opus The Star of Redemption elaborates the inversion of historical succession and theological priority. On the one hand the covenant of Christian faith partakes in or, better, generates human history; its path to redemption is expressed through social-political institutions, Church and State. On the other hand the covenant of Jewish practice circumvents temporal change, as expressed liturgically by the cyclical re-enactment of its redeemed status. Put otherwise, the Christian covenant promulgates a mission to conquer the pagan universe and the Jewish covenant issues its mandate by adumbrating the mission's objective. In Rosenzweig's concise formulation, Christianity is always "on the way" to redemption while Judaism has already arrived "at the goal."

While utterly distinct, in this view, Christianity and Judaism are mutually reinforcing. But the distinction virtually suppresses the mutuality. Thus Rosenzweig baldly states Judaism and Christianity supply "two distinct historical manifestations of revelation ... [and] two eternally irreconcilable hopes for the Messiah." Insofar as the Jewish People stand in the present as the actuality (or, from a historical viewpoint, prospective fulfillment) of redemption, their ritual practice stands apart from the ordinary history which Christianity not only inhabits but, even more, conducts. Embodying the telos, Judaism is not so much unhistorical as it is transhistorical: it simultaneously encompasses (as anticipatory) and surpasses (as ulterior) the vicissitudes of temporal change. Rosenzweig's somewhat priestly account segregates Jewish redemption--"ausserhalb einer kriegerischen Zeitlichkeit"--from the historical alterations and the political vagaries which mark the Christian way to redemption. The Christian approach to and the Jewish accomplishment of living with God are coeval, structurally equivalent positions. The end of time (merely) "restores" their coincidence following a provisional separation.

Rosenzweig's apparent dual covenant program therefore reduces Christianity and Judaism to opposing essences while it nevertheless fails to reck-on the incipient antagonism between them. Neither the radical opposition nor the irenic symbiosis is satisfactory. Another current in Rosenzweig's thinking seems to concede this point. Before getting to that, it bears mentioning that a dually covenanted eschatology attained by the Jewish People and promised to the Christian individual has recently won a stunning endorsement. "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" issued by The Consultation of the National Council of Synagogues and the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, USCCB, reads in part as follows. "While the Catholic Church regards the saving act of Christ as central to the process of human salvation for all, it also acknowledges that Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God." While this dovetails with Rosenzweig's dual covenant program, the statement continues: "The Catholic Church must always evangelize and will always witness to its faith in the presence of God's kingdom in Jesus Christ to Jews and to all other people." Would Rosenzweig approve the Christian Church seeking to evangelize the Jews? Perhaps he would, although this approval would seem to contravene a dual covenant eschatology.

Why would it? If Christians accept that the Jews are uniquely Chosen by God why wouldn't Jews be able to accept, or willing to, that God offers Gentiles salvation through Christ?

-ESSAY: Salvation Is from the Jews (Richard John Neuhaus, November 2001, First Things)
-ESSAY: On the significance of the messianic idea in Rosenzweig (Dana Hollander, Winter 2004, Cross Currents)

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 7, 2005 8:08 PM

"why wouldn't Jews be able to accept, or willing to, that God offers Gentiles salvation through Christ"

I've been reading a good bit on this broad topic lately, and the sense I get is that a lot of the commentariat, Jewish and Christian, want to say that Judaism is fine for Jews, Christianity is fine for Gentiles. There will be Jews who convert to Christianity, and Christians who convert to Judaism (fewer of these unless Judaism loses its inhibitions on seeking converts.)

I suppose that is all right as far as it goes. But, all of this ferment has been, its participants acknowledge, motivated by consideration of the shoah. There was a time, not so long ago, when I thought that was the most important event in the 20th century, but of late I ahve come to the conclusion that focus on only one of the 20th century's human slaughters-- and by far not the largest one-- ignores the larger question of where was the God of Christians and Jews during Pol Pot's slaughter of Cambodians, Mao's great leap forward, Lenin and Stalin's terror, Stalin's purges and forced famine in the Ukraine, etc.

I suspect the better question is where were the elites in the West, Christian and Jews, who excused, denied, minimized and covreed up these artrocities. My tentative answer is that they buried their religous values in an attempt to assimilate to the enlightenment.

Posted by: Dan at February 7, 2005 9:19 PM

To the chief Musician upon Gittith, A Psalm of David.

1 O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.

2 Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

5 For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

6 Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:

7 All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;

8 The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

9 O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!

Posted by: David Cohen at February 7, 2005 10:34 PM

OJ: We are live and let live people. OTOH, there is nothing that Bart, David or I can do to bail you out with She Who Must Be Obeyed!

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 7, 2005 10:45 PM

Quite interestingly, the Book of Hebrews would say otherwise: Although the promise made to Abram in Ur is the basis for God's Coventant with Israel, What makes Judaism Judaism is Israels encounter with God at Sinai and the promise to keep the laws and ordinances that He subsequently transmitted to Moses. The Hebrews writer points out the subsequent failure of Israel to keep those laws and ordinances. What makes Christianity Christianity is the extended encounter of Believing Jews and Gentiles with God, in the person of Jesus Christ, beginning with the first 12 disciples in the First Century AD, and continuing with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all believers.

"On the one hand the covenant of Christian faith partakes in or, better, generates human history; its path to redemption is expressed through social-political institutions, Church and State."

Totally incorrect: I invite anyone to find, in the New Testament, reasonable guidance or guidelines on how the Church should run the State. There are none, unless one wants to stretch the rules Paul laid down explicitly for Church Governance to cover the state. No such luck: He told the Corinthians to AVOID using the State-approved court system to settle inter-Christian disputes.

On the other hand, rules suitable for running a nation, such as rules of judgment, the enumeration of capital crimes, guidance on how to choose kings and conduct wars, inheritance laws, and commercial laws, are found in the Torah. Pre-Captivity "Judaism" is, quite properly, a religion of State and Congregation, while Christianity is a religion of Congregation and Individual.
This is better shown in how the Gift of the Holy Spirit is dispositioned between the two religions. In the O.T., the Spirit of God is a strategic asset: The spirit gives strength just to Samson, who becomes a Judge. It is given to Prophets such as Moses and Elijah. It is given to the kings, starting with Saul, and continuing with David and Solomon. Only on one rare occasion was it given to a larger group, during the dedication of a large number of leaders. Indeed, the bestowing of the Spirit is so rare, and its giving bestows so many advantages, that David begged God not to take away the holy spirit from him while he was struggling with the spiritual consequences of the Bathsheba affair. Why do you think he was so reluctant to slay Saul when he had several chances to do so? His reason was that Saul was "The Lord's Anointed" I.e. had the Spirit of God residing on him. (Or so he thought at the time: the writer of the two books of Samuel stated that God's spirit had departed from Saul a long time ago, and was replaced by an evil spirit.) In David's thinking, if one counted Samuel, there were three people in Israel who had the Spirit of God. In his mind, killing Saul would be as serious a decision as if the Congress decided to totally dismantle one of the legs of the Nuclear Triad.

In Christianity, the Holy Spirit becomes a tactical asset: Everyone has Him, and it is expected of everyone that they avail themselves of His help on a daily basis. The running dispute between the Charismatic and Pentecostal wings of the Church, and everyone else, hinges precisely on the question of the degree of actual, real, tangible, helpful Aid one can expect from the Holy Spirit.

However, regardless of how much interaction one can expect with the Holy Spirit, it is agreed that the Holy Spirit dwells in all believers to a greater extent than to any Old Testament prophet: Of all the men of the O.T., only the Prophets had the greatest degree of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Jesus said John the Baptist was the greatest of the Prophets, but that the least one of the Kingdom of Heaven was greater than John the Baptist. THIS is the Better Covenent, based upon better promises. (Follow the money: Simon Magus knew power when he saw it, and was amazed when he saw the miracles. However, what miraculous power impressed him so much that he offered Peter money to get it? The power to transmit the Holy Spirit via the laying on of hands. Peter, and We, rightly condemn him for his belief that he could obtain the gift of God with money, but we err if we fail to recognize the considered judgment of a man experienced in spiritual and mystical matters of what was the greatest of the Gifts of the Spirit.)

Posted by: Ptah at February 8, 2005 10:23 AM

What makes Christianity Christianity is its answer to David's question, an answer that remakes the question: What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Posted by: David Cohen at February 8, 2005 12:12 PM

As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt I will show them marvelous things.

The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick the dust like a serpent, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their strongholds, they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall fear because of thee.

Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remenant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have com,passion upon us, he will tread our iniquities under foot.

Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as thou hast sworn to our fathers from the days of old.
~Micah 7:15-20

...mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory of thy people Israel.
~Luke 2:31-32

Posted by: Dave W. at February 8, 2005 11:09 PM

Dave, my friends at Calvary Satellite Network say Jews are atheists.

That was the theme of Wednesday's sermons.

You guys need to get out more.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 10, 2005 9:22 PM

They sound like good Jesuits, and they're your friends, not mine.

Posted by: Dave W. at February 11, 2005 12:27 AM

I don't tell Christians what to think, I just listen to them tell me what they think.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 11, 2005 4:04 PM

Okay, your choice. I'm not sure it's a wise one, but I'm certainly not going to attempt to tell you who to/not to listen to as you move along in your faith journey (and yes, I believe that you are on one, even if you end up positively and irrevokably [100%, forever] athestic).

Posted by: Dave W. at February 11, 2005 8:42 PM