Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) continues to challenge and engage me. So, too, his mentor, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973), the steel to Rosenzweig’s flint. They escort me roughly out of the easy seats onto the stone seats of a contentious forum; there they bid me listen until I squirm, my butt on the hard limestone, my brain on their hard arguments.
Yet this I want to do, it’s worth the effort and discomfort. Rosenzweig was the skeptical Jew converted to his own people’s religion; Rosenstock the acculturated Jew who was baptized a Christian in his teens, and who eviscerated Rosenzweig’s sloppy thinking about reality, forcing him to dare to face God.
Right now I am working through Judaism Despite Christianity and find in Rosenstock’s letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943 many stunning comments making a unified argument that prayer is an absolute necessity–and his definition of prayer encompasses the entire life of a people. Nineteenth-century biblical scholars did not represent Jewish history accurately or fairly. The missed the “No” of the Jews to idols–Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and God’s three “No’s”: the Fall, the Great Flood, and the Exodus. “‘Revelation’ is a knowledge of God’s will, after his ‘No’ to our will has become known.” (181) But the “No” was necessary if Israel was to recognize “herself as God’s servant, merely a man in the face of God’s majesty.” (181) This is not just strong stuff, it is the basic stuff. It undergirds everything else Rosenstock wrote in the letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943.
One example will be enough:
The Germans all knew in 1918 that the World War had been lost deservedly. Faith accepted the defeat. But it takes faith in God to accept defeat fully. If there be no divine will, then our will must reign supreme. Naturally the whisperers came–those all-knowing ones who cannot be named but who are always being quoted–those who said, “It was a stab in the back,” “It was this or that,” “It was unnecessary,” etc. The reaction was inevitable: “We shall undo the defeat.” Whispering is unauthorized speech. The devil is any person who does not wish to be quoted; and so he never attains the rank of a person. For a person accepts God’s judgement over what he has said or done. Thus can he come to know the truth. The devil never receives his verdict because he whispers only and never speaks truly and confidently.
. . . The people who had believed only in science, and who could not distinguish between spell-binding magic and prayer, now fell for the stump speakers.
Rosenstock summarizes the German history of persecution and repression against Lutherans (after 1825) and Catholics (certainly after 1871) and identifies Hitler as “the third attempt to free the German nation from any check on its nationalistic conscience. This time, the triangle Luther-Rome-Israel is attacked foremost at the Jewish corner. Also, the attack is far more violent than the two former.” The furor Teutonicus runs a system of hatred, and there are other arguments to illustrate, but I will finish this statement with a few more of Rosenstock’s sentences:
Hitler hates everything started by the Jews, including democracy and the Freemasons. Why? They all know of the insertion of God’s “No” into history as a vital element. But a spellbinder must be sure that his spell will work under all circumstances. This prevents him from admitting God’s “No” to the fabric of history.
Hitler’s will and his god’s will are nauseatingly one. The great art of speech has made Hitler crazy. Since he has the privilege of speaking, of inflaming the masses, he spellbinds. And so he hovers as a ghost from the abyss of paganism, a ghost of the days before God touched Israel’s lips with his fiery coal: “My will, O mortal, not thine, be done.”
The specific character of biblical prayer explains the uniqueness of the Bible. We can’t forget the Bible because the divine “No” was created, in our speech, during those thousand years of Jewish prayer. And all the other departments of our linguistic faculty rest on this clear distinction between prayer, on the one side, and science, poetry, fiction, and law, on the other. If we do not pray with Israel, we cannot retain our Greek mathematics or our Roman law. This will sound arbitrary or exaggerated at first reading. But it is simple truth. (183)
Rosenstock goes on to illustrate examples that bind ancient and modern paganisms together while they show biblical prayer (faith, religion, core of revelation) to be absolutely distinct from them. It is the distinction and emphasis that energized the philosophical, faithful thinking and dialogue that Rosenstock and Rosenzweig conducted over many years — theirs was an astonishing interchange between Christian and Jew; it started a century ago and lasted until Rosenzweig died. Rosenstock lived to write voluminously on themes that grew out of scholarship as — I would like to say this — a form of prayer.
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, letter to Cynthia Harris (in 1943 a freshman at Radcliffe College): “Hitler and Israel, or On Prayer,” first published in The Journal of Religion (University of Chicago Press, April 1945). Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, ed., Judaism Despite Christianity: The 1916 Wartime Correspondence between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig (with a new foreword by Paul Mendes-Flohr, a new preface by Harold Stahmer, and a new chronology by Michael Gormann-Thelen (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011).