From Luther to Rosenzweig

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The Luther Bible is the common name for "Die gantze Heilige Schrift Deudsch," first printed with both testaments in 1534. While he was sequestered in the Warburg Castle in 1521-22, Martin Luther began to translate the New Testament into German in order to make it more accessible to all the people of "the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation." Luther said that he strove to write so clearly and plainly that even a stable boy could understand the words.

Arguably the Luther translation has had a greater effect on its vernacular, High German, than even the King James Bible had on the English language.

In 1914 the Jewish scholars Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig began to collaborate on a new translation of the Hebrew Bible. After many interruptions this monumental task was finally completed by Buber alone in 1961. Buber called this version Verdeutschung ("Germanification"), since it does not always use literary German language but attempts to find innovative (often newly-invented) equivalent phrasing in order to respect the multivalent Hebrew original. The principle of literalism, sometimes called word-translation, is often castigated as amateurish. In this instance, though, it achieves remarkable results.

In a lecture of 1926 Buber recommended: [R]ead the Bible as though it were something entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before you ready-made. . . . Let whatever may happen occur between yourself and it. You do not know which of its sayings and images will overwhelm and mold you." The principle of defamiliarization (or estrangement; ostranenie) had been singled out by the Russian formalist critics. In this same period Bertolt Brecht sought a theatrical equivalent in his Verfremdungseffekt (estrangement effect).

Here is the beginning of the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) in Luther's version:

"Es hatte aber alle Welt einerley zungen und sprache./ Da sie nu zogen gen Morgen funden sie ein eben Land im lande Sinear und woneten daselbs./ Und sprachen untereinander: Wolauf lasst uns Ziegel streichen und brennen."

And here is Buber-Rosenzweig:

"Ueber die Erde allhin war eine Mundart und einerlei Rede/ Da wars wie sie nach Osten wanderten: sie fanden ein Gesenk im Lande Schinar und setzten sich dort fest./ Sie sprachen ein Mann zum Genossen:/ Heran! backen wir Backsteine und brennen wir sie zu Brande!"

Here is an effort to achieve the same effect in English (Everett Fox):

"Now all the earth was of one language and one set-of-words. / And it was when they migrated to the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there./ They said, each man to his neighbor:/ come-now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt!"

In Buber-Rosenstock the word choice differs constantly from Luther in order more closely to mirror the Hebrew words. In this mirroring some discretion is called for, as the word rendered "Mundart" is actually "lip" in the Hebrew (a literalism not followed by Fox either). Line three combines the plural and singular, a departure from the grammatical rules of German.

There have been at least two attempts to imitate the Buber-Rosenzweig translation in English. Everett Fox rendered the "Five Books of Moses" as the first volume of the Schocken Bible. Another version has been produced by the Berkeley literary critic Robert Alter. In my view, neither comes up to the level of the German-language model. In addition, Alter disfigures his work with a commentary that cavalierly sweeps aside the findings of modern scholarship.

Everyone is familiar with Martin Buber, at least with his "I-thou" distinction. But who was Franz Rosenzweig? Rosenzweig was born in Kassel in 1886 to a minimally observant Jewish family. He pursued a normal German academic career, studying history and philosophy at the universities of Gõttingen, Munich, and Freiburg.

In July of 1913 Rosenzweig came close to yielding to the entreaties of his close friend Eugen Rosenstock, a convert to Christianity, who viewed Judaism as no more than a historical fossil. Rosenzweig said that before converting he must first affirm his status as a Jew, and not as a pagan. In this way he would complete in his own life the historical trajectory from Christianity to Judaism. This did not happen, for attendance at a Yom Kippur service early in the following year convinced him to reverse course. Henceforth, Franz Rosenzweig would devote himself to Jewish scholarship. Yet, as shown in a new piece by David Wasserstein in the TLS for June 20, 2008, he continued to be preoccupied with Christian theology.

These interests permeate Rosenzweig's major work Stern der Erlõsung (Star of Redemption; 1921), in which he expounds his "new philosophy," a description of the relationships between God, humanity and world as they are linked by creation, revelation, and redemption. The genesis of the text is a remarkable instance of composition in adversity, since the author produced the draft in tiny segments written on postcards to his wife during his military service in Serbia in World War I. In its final form, the book reflects the dual crisis of the war and the postwar instability and inflation that ravaged Germany.

The book is commonly regarded as a cornerstone of modern Jewish philosophy, and rightly so. In my view, though, the key word Erlõsung ("redemption") can only be understood in relation to the common German expression "Christus der Erlõser" (Christ the Savior).

In the third and culminating part of his volume Rosenzweig weighs the capacities of Judaism and Christianity as vehicles for entering the eternal kingdom. In contrast to the other major religions described earlier in the book, Judaism and Christianity both anticipate eternity and are based on love of God and one's neighbor. Yet through ritual and ceremony they manifest their differences. In addition, the Jew is born a Jew. In order to become more of a Jew he or she has to penetrate deeper into the self. The Christian, on the other hand, is born a pagan. In order to become a Christian he or she must be baptized, discarding the former self (the old Adam or the old Eve of the traditional baptismal liturgy). Rosenzweig observes that Judaism is a religion of inwardness, while Christianity is a religion that sends believers out into the world to win converts to the faith. It is notable that he considers the two faiths as basically on the same plane, showing the continued effect of his hesitations in 1913-14.

In a final image Rosenzweig evokes the Star of David as a kind of diagram for the truths he is seeking to express. Judaism is the inner fire in the heart of the star. Christianity finds its locus in the rays that emanate from the star. Each religion supplies only a fragment of the complete star.

While Judaism is the light, Christianity is that which is lighted. Judaism is the eternal life and Christianity the eternal way. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that while for Rosenzweig Judaism retains its autonomy--it is in no way a mere fossil--Christianity is in some significant sense its fulfillment, a view has little appeal in Jewish circles nowadays.

Were he alive today, it is extremely unlikely that Rosenzweig would be tempted to become a "Jew for Jesus"-- that is, to all intents and purposes a Christian. As we have seen, he turned away from that path early in 1914. Through the course of his life, though, he continued to grapple with Christian theology, then passing through one of its most fertile phases, with the incomparable Karl Barth at the head.

Unlike his colleague Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig was not a Zionist. In all probability, he would have rejected the exclusivism and triumphalism evident in some Orthodox Jewish circles today. Instead, he believed in a continuing dialogue between Judaism and Christianity.

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