March 9, 2009


The Storm Called Progress: Benjamin, Scholem, Rosenzweig and the Angel of History: a review of The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem by Stephane Moses (Adam Kirsch, Nextbook)

For [Walter] Benjamin, a Jewish perspective on language and history meant challenging the prevailing scientific view of each. Language, according to linguists then and now, is a purely conventional system—words stand for objects arbitrarily, which is why French “pain” and German “Brot” can both mean the same thing as English “bread.” For Benjamin, however, language had to be envisioned mystically, as the decayed remnants of the divine language that God used to create the world, and that Adam used to name the animals. Literature, in this view, has a kind of sacred obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the world: as Moses writes, “The progress or decadence of humanity will no longer be measured by the distance separating it from an original Good but by its lapse from an original state of language.” In a similar way, Benjamin came to believe, the revolutionary should not try to abolish the past, but to redeem it—to recapture the lost potential for goodness that exists in every moment, even if it is mostly wasted and forgotten.

In this emphasis on redemption, Benjamin echoed Franz Rosenzweig, whose theological work The Star of Redemption both he and Scholem praised very highly. Rosenzweig, Moses explains, nearly converted to Christianity before deciding to reclaim his Jewishness, by redefining Judaism’s purpose on earth. “I as an individual,” he wrote, “take upon myself the metaphysical destiny, the ‘yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven’ to which I have been called from my birth.”

A crucial stage on this journey, Moses shows, was the correspondence between Rosenzweig and his friend Eugen Rosenstock, a Protestant of Jewish origins who urged him to abandon Judaism altogether. In responding to this challenge, Rosenzweig began to understand Judaism as a religion in some sense outside of history. Where Christianity, and its secular philosophical heirs, believed that history was progressing to a utopian future, Judaism stands for a different kind of salvation—not progress but redemption, which interrupts history instead of completing it. The Jewish calendar, Rosenzweig believed, lifted the Jews outside of Christian time; cyclical rather than linear, it allowed the Jews to live symbolically in union with God. In this sense, Judaism has already achieved what Christianity still hopes for: the Jewish people, Rosenzweig wrote, “is separated from the march of those who draw near to it (redemption) in the course of centuries.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2009 6:01 PM
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