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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2015
Number 82
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Franz and Edith Rosenzweig: Hero and Heroine

An essay by Jack D. Spiro

It is probably true, as Jonathan Swift once wrote, that “whoe’er excels in what we prize appears a hero in our eyes.” What do we prize. If we want to know who a hero is, the first step might be to consider what values, qualities, and achievements we prize. But suppose someone can excel in those things we prize, but without any apparent struggle at all. He reaches the heights with ease; nothing whatever stands in his way. He pays no “price,” in hardship or in sacrifice, in his climb to the peak. Is he a hero? Not quite. It would seem that we demand something more of a hero beyond merely excelling. He has to “pay” somehow; he has to surmount great difficulties.

Surely on the basis of Jewish experience — and it is experience, the best of teachers, that should inform our definition — one of the essential ingredients of heroism is the willingness to overcome obstacles and dangers of every kind. The course of Jewish history itself is a story of heroism. Innumerable Jews were heroic in their will to live as Jews in spite of untold dangers and mortal threats. Here is the key that unlocks the meaning of heroism as Jews have understood the word: in spite of. The phrase in Hebrew is “af al pi chen” How does this phrase help us define heroism?

Abraham was comfortable as the son of a merchant in the city of Ur. He could have enjoyed a life of ease, inheriting his father’s shop — the idol business was flourishing. But he willed to believe in the one God and to cultivate a new religion in a new land — “af al pi chen” — in spite of the dangers, known and unknown, that he would have to face in the land of Canaan.

Moses was a prince in Pharaoh’s court. He too could have looked forward to a life of luxury had he not felt a deep compassion for downtrodden slaves. He willed to rally masses of slaves to flee from Egypt for a life of wandering in the desert,”af al pi chen,” in spite of the palace he left behind.

Jeremiah came from a family of priests and could have lived comfortably all his days with inherited status in the priesthood. But he willed to be a prophet “af al pi chen” — in spite of the loneliness and contempt to which he would be subjected.

There were countless examples throughout Jewish history. In modern times, there is the example of Theodor Herzl. He was a successful journalist and playwright. A dream suddenly came to him out of the nightmare of anti-Semitism. He dreamed that the Jews could live in their own promised land once again after centuries of tormented wandering. Others had this same dream, but Herzl said: “If you will it, then it is no dream.” The dreamer also willed the fulfillment of the dream “af al pi chen.” In spite of his career, literary reputation, and promising future, Herzl threw it all away to struggle for his people.

These great personalities possessed what William James called a “pure inward willingness” despite deterrents. This phrase is an accurate definition of the heroic spirit in Jewish experience. Notice that such a definition has nothing to do with the outer trappings we usually associate with heroes — the brass bands, the medals, the ticker-tape parades — or with fame or fortune. Justice Benjamin Cardozo may have been influenced by his Jewish heritage when he said thad that “the heroic hours of life do not announce their presence by drum and trumpet.” Heroism can be quiet and inconspicuous of the spirit and not of power. The “inward willingness” — that is, the stubbornness of the will — to struggle, regardless of consequences or obstacle, is the true mark of the hero whether in the limelight of crowds or the solitude of his own mind.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), one of the great Jewish thinkers of modern times, lived many “heroic hours” during the short 43 years of his life — a life that poignantly dramatizes the meaning of “af al pi chen.” Although he was a man of the spirit, a philosopher of religion, he found himself at a young age during World War I in an anti-aircraft unit on one of the fronts. He felt that he was “a coward by nature” and “much too nervous to make a good soldier. But it had to be.” Having no choice about being in a war he detested, he nevertheless willed to make the most of it. While mortar shells blasted all around him, he practiced his violin and each Sunday gave lectures to the troops. He received a medal for bravery but made light of it. While he was brave in spite of his feeling that he was a coward. Rosenzweig displayed his real heroism, according to our definition, by making up his mind to continue to think, to study, and to write in the muddy, putrid trenches. War has a way of brutalizing humans, of turning them into snarling beasts. But Rosenzweig, in spite of war, struggled to retain his humanity and creativity.

His first writing feat on the battlefield was an essay, “It Is Time,” which outlined his reasons and plans for the reconstruction of Jewish education. Later, when he was discharged, he carried out his plans for establishing the Free Jewish Lehrhaus (academy for Jewish education) which became the focus of Jewish culture and learning in Frankfurt, Germany.

This was only the beginning. For next he began what eventually became his “magnum opus,” a classic book called The Star of Redemption. He wrote most of this masterpiece in the trenches bit by bit on army postcards which he mailed one by one to his mother for copying. Even as he was writing, he suffered an attack of malaria. But, as he said, the book “grew out of an ardent longing.” It was this longing (or “pure inward willingness”) that produced a masterwork for posterity — “af al pi chen.”

After the war, Rosenzweig continued to develop his philosophy and to organize the Lehrhaus. But, only three years after his discharge, he began suddenly to stumble and fall for no apparent reason. Now, at 35, he was to enter an eight-year period of agony, of constantly increasing pain, but also constantly creative zeal — “af al pi chen.” This is what his physician wrote about him:

“Without bitterness, without a trace of ‘gallows humor,’ he transformed a dismal situation tactfully and gracefully into one devoid of pathos. The patient took my findings very calmly. His whole interest seemed centered on the diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis with progressive paralysis of the bulba. The end was expected in a year.”

In a letter to a friend, Rosenzweig wrote:

“I do not take my illness lightly. The trouble is central. The thing is simply taking its course and, while one might try any number of things, all one can really do is wait and see. All in all, the future begins to press uncannily close on me now, as though it no longer had time to wait until I reach it.”

In other letters he added these thoughts:

“People think I am unhappy. They feel sorry for me. Nobody has a right to feel that. Nobody knows whether I may not be happy. I am the only one who can know this. I read, carry on business, pull strings, and, all in all, enjoy life, and besides I have something looming in the background for the sake of which I am almost tempted to call this period, in spite of everything [!], the richest of my life….This might strike the bystander as funny, and even during the war I myself had only weak and rare intimations of it, but now it is simply true: Dying is even more beautiful than living.”

One year after the onset of his illness, Rosenzweig could no longer write by himself. His speech was indistinct. Even when he read, his physician wrote that “nurses were summoned to turn the pages by a clearing of the throat or turning of the head. Before the night nurses had been engaged, he would ask to be given very difficult reading matter, which he could master only very slowly, such as the Talmud, out of consideration for his entourage.”

In spite of the mounting agony, “it is simply the elementary desire to live,” wrote Rosenzweig, “and an infinite ability to enjoy that keep me from the thought of suicide, which for most people in my situation would be the normal way out.” But he was not like “most people.” He viewed his suffering as “only a sum of great difficulties that have to be overcome.”

Those who knew the man and witnessed his condition realized that he was different from most people. Thus, one of his friends wrote:

“Whoever stepped over the threshold of Franz Rosenzweig’s room entered a magic circle and fell under a gentle yet potent spell. Behind the desk in the armchair sat not, as one had imagined on climbing the stair, a mortally sick, utterly invalid man, almost totally deprived of physical force, but a man, well in the fullest sense, free of life’s pettiness and constriction. Whoever came to him he drew into a dialogue; his very listening was eloquent in itself.”

But, if he was physically incapable of writing or speaking, how did he possibly continue to create? His physician’s notes tell us the astonishing answer:

“When in December, 1922, he lost the use of his hand, the patient had to begin dictating to his Edith, his wife, which he found very hard. But this oral dictation soon came to a stop because of the increasing paralysis of the organ of speech. In the spring of 1923, a typewriter was bought to facilitate communication; the construction of this machine was such that the person working it had only to move a simple lever over a disk containing all the characters until the point indicated the desire character and, at the same time, one pressed a single key to make the imprint. At first, Rosenzweig was able to operate the machine by himself, but later on he had to point out the characters with his left hand. Arm and hand were supported in a sling hanging from a bar next to the sick man. The key was operated by someone else, usually by Edith.

“Eventually, his ability to indicate the characters lessened, so that they had to be ascertained by guesswork. Again, Edith was the only person who could do this. The patient’s extraordinary memory enabled him to ‘dictate’ and have typed in this fashion, during three or four hours of work, the final draft of what he had worked out [in his mind], down to the smallest detail, during a sleepless night.”

Toward the end of his life, Edith began reciting the entire alphabet, stopping when she saw faint signals from his eyes to indicate the correct letters.

Through these eight years of gradually increasing paralysis and agony, when even digesting small amounts of food became a giant physical feat, Franz Rosenzweig managed to write a translation of poems by Judah Halevi, with notes and epilogue; several major essays on theology and Bible; and the translation of 12 books of the Bible, including the entire Torah. Even after his wife had to guess letter by letter what he wanted to write by the flicker of his eyes, he continued to create.

What he was able to accomplish, in spite of everything, underscores the definition that we have ascribed to the hero. In his earlier years, when he was still a man of health, Rosenzweig wrote a description of the hero, not knowing of course, that before long he would himself “successfully” meet his own test of the heroic spirit: “The hero is every inch a human being. He quivers in every limb with mortality. His joys well forth from this earth and this sun shines upon his sorrows…. Everything is volition, everything action and reaction.”

Everything is volition in the heroic life — a “pure inward willingness” to defy all the forces that may possibly deter the hero from the fulfillment of his dreams and goals. Rosenzweig did not succumb to the awesome powers of paralysis. His life was one of “action and reaction” despite the total deactivation of his physical being. His physician originally gave him one year to live. Rosenzweig defied death for seven years longer because he had something to accomplish through sheer will. That “something” can be summarized in the words of the Psalmist — and the words may also very well serve as the hero’s declaration of faith according to the Jewish idea of heroism:

“I will not die but live, And declare the works of the Lord.” – Psalm 118.20

Franz Rosenzweig devoted his brief, tortured life to trying to understand and declaring the works of God, examining the infinite ways that the divine spirit acts upon the world and humanity. He came to his Jewish heritage out of a background of assimilation and secular culture. Having flirted with Christianity in his youth, suddenly, one Yom Kippur, he reached the decision to commit himself to a rediscovery of Judaism. From that moment on, he willed to live as a Jew and to probe the meaning of Judaism as a philosophy and way of life. This process of discovering the rich legacy of Judaism became, through the influence of his writings and the example of his heroic life, the legacy that Franz Rosenzweig and Edith bequeathed to us.

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