Yudit Kornberg Greenberg,
Better than Wine: Love, Poetry, and Prayer in the Thought of Franz Rosenzweig
[Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996; 165 p., cloth $39.95 (0-7885-0187-9), pap. $24.95 (o-7885-0188-7)]
Yudit Greenberg's Better than Wine: Love, Poetry, and Prayer in the Thought
of Franz Rosenzweig represents an indispensable contribution to the
burgeoning secondary literature on this important early twentieth Jewish
thinker. Readers of the "Textual Reasoning" list will take particular interest
in the attention Greenberg pays to the relationship between Rosenzweig and
postmodernism and to the hermeneutical foci that inform this work. Throughout
this rich text, Greenberg looks to the situated self, revelatory language and
gesture, the interpretation of text and liturgical life. In the process, she
seeks to bind Rosenzweig to Jewish tradition while showing how he anticipates
intellectual currents prevalent among post-modern and feminist circles.
Three major parts structure Greenberg's text.
In Part I, Greenberg sets what Rosenzweig called "new thinking" within the
contexts of the German philosophical tradition (Feuerbach and Schelling in
particular), Jewish mysticism, and the contemporary intellectual scene (Cohen,
Rosenstock-Huessy, Buber, Ebner). Her comparison of Rosenzweig with Walter
Benjamin and Martin Heidegger proves particularly noteworthy. She shows the
similarity between Rosenzweig's theory regarding the metaphysical status of
human/poetic/liturgic language, Benjamin's notion of "Original Language"
(Ursprache), and the later Heidegger's understanding of poetry
(according to which Being speaks through the receptive soundboard of human
Greenberg proceeds to open up Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption in
Part II of her text. She follows Rosenzweig's analysis unfolding through the
course of Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. A strong reader, Greenberg adds
her own voice into the mix. She pays particular attention to the "sensual"
dimension in Rosenzweig's religious thought with a fine analysis of
hearing/speech and vision/gesture as modes of religious knowledge. I found this
latter of particular interest. Greenberg's concern with vision compliments
Eliot Wolfson's analysis of visionary experience in Kabbalah and as such brings
this important facet of religious life into the twentieth century.
In Part III Greenberg turns a critical eye on Rosenzweig's thought. In a
particularly interesting defense of Greek mythology, she points out the
limitations undergirding Rosenzweig's understanding of "pagan" religions and
Islam. Her text ends with a discussion of how contemporary post-modern Jewish
religious thinkers might critically extend Rosenzweig's project. Greenberg
suggests that this entails coupling the notion of the situated self with mythic
thinking. In her view, Rosenzweig ultimately failed to meet the primary and
daunting challenge of how one might link personal religious experience within
the world of particular Jewish obligations.
The strength of Better than Wine lies in the attention its author pays
throughout the entirety of the text to the hermeneutical and aesthetic turn in
Rosenzweig's thought. As such, it moves the Rosenzweig literature beyond the
two dimensionality of epistemology and ethics.
I consider more dubious Greenberg's call to myth making. The approach to myth
and her own turn to aesthetics betray an underlying weak point: the relative
absence of an integrated and thoroughgoing critique that would advance
Rosenzweig's thought by leaving it behind. This weakness is, of course, not
limited to Greenberg's text. Indeed, a hagiographic glow (a myth making in its
own right that turns Rosenzweig into an exemplar of postmodern intellectual
spirit and virtue) inundates the secondary literature on Rosenzweig. This
hagiography goes back to Nahum Glatzer who first introduced Rosenzweig to the
English speaking world in the 1950s. Unfortunately Greenberg helps advance the
trend to lionize Rosenzweig as a faithful Jewish philosopher-hero-sage (as
opposed to the Jewish dilettante that he himself claimed to be in his letters).
For instance, Greenberg expends a great amount of energy trying to link
Rosenzweig more directly to the past of Jewish mysticism than actually makes
sense. To be sure, she herself admits that Rosenzweig's understanding of
kabbalah was bought second hand (via Boheme, Schelling, and nineteenth century
Jewish scholarship). Nevertheless she tries, I think unsuccessfully, the harder
pitch of drawing direct thematic links between Rosenzweig and that tradition.
It is not enough to show that Rosenzweig and many kabbalists linked redemption
liturgy. When all is said and done, Rosenzweig self-consciously mythologized.
In contrast, kabbalah shows a much more particular understanding of Israel and
active belief in the theurgic power of ritual than one would ever find in
Rosenzweig's work. This suggests, to me at least, the need to attend more
strictly to the difference between mysticism and poetry (despite the
resemblance they share).
I would rather root Rosenzweig's understanding of liturgy and gesture in Hegel
rather than look for it in medieval mystical sources and Scholem's research.
Perhaps this might wreak a little havoc on Rosenzweig's image among Jewish
readers by rudely drawing him out of the context of tradition. That the author
of The Star of Redemption knew Bible, Maimonides, and some midrash
cannot be doubted. But I see no reason to rifle Cordovero, the Zohar, or Hayim
Vital to find possible parallels between Rosenzweig and mysticism. This means
more than noting the by now obvious debt Rosenzweig owed Schelling in
formulating the theosophical material in Part I of The Star of
Redemption. Re-reading Hegel's lectures on religion would remind us of the
importance both Hegel and Rosenzweig invested in "religious community" and its
"ritual." Community and ritual are for both thinkers the loci of religious
truth becoming concrete and manifest. Likewise, Rosenzweig's thought shares
with Hegel's lectures on fine art a keen interest in "the face" and a critique
of the frozen, self-contained quality of Greek sculpture. To find these
influences in Hegel, rather than kabbalah, would help divest Rosenzweig of the
sanctity that so many of his readers have sought to bestow upon him.
Linking Rosenzweig's work with modern intellectual currents at the turn of the
twentieth century would provide similar tonic. Greenberg repeats the typical
assertion that Rosenzweig's turn to tradition and myth marked a departure from
modern intellectual currents. Rosenzweig thus appears to us as a baal tshuva
breaking from "modern" or "modernist" intellectual paradigms. Nothing, however,
could be further from the truth. Indeed, a diverse array of mythical, mystical,
and theosophical currents characterized early twentieth century modernism. The
work of Kandinsky, Klee, Marc, Mondrian, Kafka, Hesse, and Lasker-Schuler come
immediately to mind. The self-conscious turn to myth and mysticism makes
Rosenzweig quite "moderne" if not quite "modern" in the narrower sense of
enlightenment, scientism, and positivism. Indeed, the power of mysticism and
myth was taken even more seriously than it is today. What, after all, are
we to make of Rosenzweig's claim regarding the metaphysical status of
human language? Do we really want to suggest the human tongue reflects God's
own? Who among us would pretend to "see" the gestalt of truth reflected in the
mirror of Jewish ritual? Indeed, there is great reason to suspect the lure of
mystical and mythological thinking following this century's proxyisms.
I would only close by thanking Greenberg for a marvelous text that reveals the
aesthetic turn made by such an important figure in the history of twentieth
century religious thought. And just as important: Greenberg's analysis
unwittingly provokes strong suspicions regarding the coherence of Rosenzweig's
thought. Ideas that may have once made sense at the last fin de siecle
(infused as it was with so many theosophical currents) may make less sense
today. Indeed, their obvious attractions may strike many critics as downright
pernicious. In the end, Greenberg has shown us that love, poetry, and prayer
may be "better" than wine. But perhaps only insofar as they outstrip the
latter's own intoxicating powers.
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