The Ban on Idolatry and the Concept of Difference in Franz Rosenzweig’s Philosophy

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The purpose of the research is to analyze the context, the essence, and the philosophical implications of Franz Rosenzweig's reconsideration of the ban on idolatry as an implication of pure monotheism. As often as not idolatry is defined generally as the adoration of some images that, representing deity, are considered to be autonomous and hereupon become the objects of worship. The study confines itself to the analysis of the significance of the ban on idolatry in Rosenzweig's interpretation of the concept of difference that underlies his theoretical model of the Other. The consideration proceeds on the general assumption that the encounter of tradition with modernity is the factor that determines the radical change in the philosophies of societies under modernization. In this context, the ancient ban on idolatry means the rejection and prohibition of whatever representation as intricate mediation that is, in turn, the hallmark of modernity. However, according to Rosenzweig, idolatry is not the usage of images as the representations of the reputedly unrepresentable God, but the fixation on one image which would mean the arbitrary limitation of God's infinite freedom to reveal himself visually. This implies that the reconsidered ban on idolatry does not require the absolute prohibition of representation, but the latter should be construed as temporal. Such an approach prevents the identification of the representation of entity with this entity itself, the sign with the thing, and therefore prohibits self-referentiality. Rosenzweig's stance determines also his understanding of familiarity, unfamiliarity, and difference in art and translation. Rosenzweig's emphasis on the shocking influence of the defamiliarizing difference as the feature of the work of art correlates with his interpretation of the translation that should make stable shared senses unfamiliar. Thus, the reconsidered ban on idolatry underlies Rosenzweig's conception of the reconciliation between Jewish tradition and modernity.

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Even though the main aspects of Franz Rosenzweig’s religious philosophy are scrutinized and interpreted with care, the historian of philosophy still comes across the obstacle to understanding the principles of his synthesis of philosophy and Judaism. Nevertheless, it is evident that Rosenzweig’s adherence to the idea of a special synthesis of reason and revelation manifests itself just in the search for a certain balance between them. This synthesis should reconcile the yearning of the European Enlightenment as the philosophical and ideological justification for the perpetual immanent innovations of modernity with the authentic Jewish responses to the challenges of rigorous immanentism.

It should be also noticed that the tenets of Franz Rosenzweig’s “new thinking” [1] and his accent on the finitude of man not only exert influence on Jewish thought but also have areas of contact with general trends in philosophy. They criticize the endeavors of philosophical reason to grasp the beings solely metaphysically as the unbroken and accessible totality and to reduce reality to some single material or ideal elements. Furthermore, these trends whether intentionally or not sought to overcome metaphysics, and hence they unite the historical development of modernity with the crisis of meaning that already manifested itself as an uncanny nihilism to come.

The following analysis is an attempt to examine Rosenzweig’s construal of the encounter of Judaism with modernity in the light of his reconsideration of the ban on idolatry that, as it seems, anticipated the formation of his philosophy as a whole. There are many definitions of idolatry that widely differ from each other and thereby indicate the complexity of the phenomenon under consideration. Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit in their fundamental investigation write on four interpretations of idolatry.

The first interpretation is presented by the Bible and deals with challenges to God’s exclusivity as sovereign. The second interpretation of the idolatry boils down to the great metaphysical error and presupposes the worshipping a wrong concept of God so that the mistake happens in the mind and requires the absolute prohibition of representation; the third interpretation is sufficiently plainly connected with the opposition between polytheism and pure monotheism; the fourth interpretation relies on the concept of the alien worship and emphasizes not so much the falsehood of the worshipped god as just the falsehood of the worship itself [2. P. 237—243].

As often as not idolatry is defined generally as the adoration of some images (idols) which, representing spirit or deity, are considered to be autonomous and hereupon become the objects of worship. In this connection, it is hard to deny that just idolatry as the theological term, having been modified and construed also as the designation of a modern possibility that focuses on the concept of representation, has the high heuristic potential for the study of not only religious but also secular aspects of culture. The representation, being substitution or replacement, to be idolatry, has to be the worship of the image as a false god instead of the worship of the true God as the original one which, however, may be, in addition, inaccessible both immediately and through some mediating structures.

The study confines itself to the range of problems concerning Rosenzweig’s reconsideration of the ban on idolatry and its consequences for the formation of his interpretation of the concept of difference that underlies his theoretical model of the Other. It should be noticed, however, that Rosenzweig’s construal of the ban on idolatry in the context of the relationship between Judaism and modernity exceeds the bounds of philosophy and theology each taken separately. It explains Rosenzweig’s interest in the analysis of the worship and the changeability of tradition that was formerly regarded as the bulwark of firmness and constancy.

Jewish tradition and modernity

There are reasons for believing that just the encounter of tradition with modernity generically became the factor that determined the radical change in the philosophies of societies under modernization. To be more exact, the national schools of philosophy took shape as affected by the encounter of already established and spreading modernity with the societies and cultures that were later called the traditional or pre-modern. Thus, at the moment of encounter they have not yet been modernized, and without outside assistance or external influence, at that. The peculiarity of that encounter as compared with the cross-cultural relation before the emergence of modernity became apparent in the passage from the plurality of reciprocal influences to the tendency of unification per sample of modernity. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that the influence was not only unidirectional and presupposed complex structures of mediation [3, 4].

And yet, the asymmetry implied that in the nascent national schools of philosophy imitation and adaptation, as a rule, prevailed over denial and rejection. The latter’s implications first made them felt thanks to the national forms and masks of Romanticism which time to juxtapose modernity with tradition after the triumph of Enlightenment became ripe fairly rapidly, though [5]. In any case, the encounter of traditional societies with modernity as an exemplary culture, having been, first of all, an act of acculturation, could become a cultural shock to the peoples to be “enlightened” and “modernized” and therefore it needed response which could somehow promote its absorption.

Particularly, Rosenzweig’s philosophical magnum opus “The Star of Redemption” might have been characterized as an episode of Jewish Romanticism [6], although only in the context of the comparative history of ideas. In the same way, Rosenzweig’s translation (together with Martin Buber) of the Hebrew Bible into modern German could be interpreted as reinventing Scripture just for Jewish modernity [7]. It is also precisely the context of the encounter of modernity with traditional societies and cultures that explains to whom the national schools of philosophy were obliged to address. Those schools meant both their indigenous peoples in order to gain an insight into their change and reformation and the audience of their already detraditionalized cultures which, however, were not yet completely or to a considerable degree modernized.

Meanwhile, the national schools of philosophy, having been obliged to appeal to still modernizing persons as the reputedly “extraneous” ones to make them understand the roots and peculiarities of the contemptuous attitude to them of the rest of society. In other words, the intermediary and ambiguous position of culture and person in the process of modernization was inherent in a new type of national, collective, and individual identity, and, in addition, the new type of the Other that, as it soon became clear, could not be made unequivocal. In the issue, the unexpectedly intricate ambiguity of the otherness required either philosophical justification or purposeful correction according to some invented philosophical paradigm.

It should be noticed that the feature of modernity, in general, is the progressive structural differentiation, the sundering of entities that in the previous traditional cultures were closely connected and in certain cases even fused, and the emergence of complex mediating structures which, however, could unite some entities only after their differentiation. In general, the becoming of modernity results in the passage from the state of the fuzzy initial immediacy that from all appearances was inherent in medieval societies and cultures to the complex unity of distinct mediating, alienating, and alienated mediating structures. On the contrary, the romantic stances to a wide extent, whatever forms they took, for the first time and even after the reaching of the point of no return as often as not exemplified the starving for the suppression or, at least, the mollification of differentiation. In the same vein, they insisted on the restoration of the supposedly lost initial immediacy, plenitude, and diffuse wholeness, albeit some modifications of romanticism that look syncretic seem to be less radical.

The main outcome of the process of differentiation that was initiated by modernity was the construal of man as a singled-out subject whose attitude to the outer world that turned into an object was mediated by representation as a differentiating and mediating structure that substitutes one entity for another and thus just represents the latter by itself. In this connection, the touch of Jewish tradition with the culture of spreading modernity gave rise to the attendant phenomena which are allied to the consequences of the adaptation and modification of modernity by other societies. Nevertheless, Jewish culture has a feature concerning the concept of representation that could not but notice the attention of the Jewish philosophers including Rosenzweig. The fundamental peculiarity of Jewish culture is monotheism and the ban on idolatry as its implication.

Whereas every representation is mediation, the main feature of idolatry in modernity may be also characterized as a mistaking of the mediated for the immediate and thus as the misapprehension of the representation’s meaning. In other words, idolatry leads to the identification of representation as a sign of either whatever unrepresentable entity or perceptible material thing or living person with the thing, so that the sign, being in truth dependent on the signified, is paradoxically considered to be self-sufficient. In modernity, the representation not only mediates relations between man and an object but also tends to become a structure that can be imposed on this object and eventually subordinates it to itself.

This makes it possible to construe the representation that is related only to man in the capacity of a reputedly infinite subject as the distinguishing character of modernity which had to be somehow comprehended in the context of the encounter of modernity with traditional societies and cultures. As regards the meaning of the ban on idolatry for the adaptation of the culture of modernity, the rejection, and prohibition of whatever representation opposes the main feature of modernity and its principal tendency to progress differentiation and therefore mediation. Hence, in general, the ban on idolatry means the prohibition of any representation only because it can become alienated and eventually make a semblance of self-sufficiency. In addition, one could not but pay heed to the consequences of the tendency of modernity to ignore the difference between the infinity of God and the finiteness of human beings. In general, such a critical stance on that ignoring is a protest against the deification of man, against giving the infinite significance to the finite man who thereby should be also considered as an idol.

Exemplifying justifiable representation

Rosenzweig’s putting emphasis on the worship followed, first of all, Moses Mendelssohn’s understanding of idolatry, which not only relied on the analysis of the worship but was also motivated by the need for the new interpretation of Judaism that could be compatible with the changes in society and culture which were triggered by modernity [8, 9]. That is why Rosenzweig’s investigation of idolatry and the meaning of the ban on idolatry focused, so to speak, not on substance, but the relation or, according to Rosenzweig, on the meeting of God and human being. More specifically, the centerpiece of Rosenzweig’s interpretation of idolatry is not God and his either justifiable or prohibited representations as such, but the specific relation between God and human beings.

It is the living meeting of God and man as the initial experience of revelation when God reveals himself to human beings. This experience cannot be conceptualized because of its situatedness, and thus it does not satisfy the requirements of abstract and therefore acontextual reason as it was introduced by the European Enlightenment. Meanwhile, the point of contact is also the point of immediacy, the place of immediate proximity, while representation as the substitution of one entity for another creates referentiality as a mediating structure.

Referentiality is the only way of communication that seems to be acceptable for abstractive reasoning and which is hereupon unequivocal and controllable, although it goes without saying that the transmission of meaning through the mediating structures of representation can generate errors and distortion. As regards the possibility of the representation of God, Rosenzweig discussed this problem in his remarks, concerning the so-called “anthropomorphisms” in the Bible that are understood as endowing God with human qualities, activities, and feelings.

Rosenzweig points out that there is no way to “ascribe” to God some qualities, they are rather to be only described, but the description of God is opposed to the description of gods in the ancient Greek tradition. According to Rosenzweig, no relations between two or more “properties” of God may be established, and even if there are many descriptive elements one cannot find a way from one of them to another. There is only a way out of their multiplicity which always leads to creation and creature [10. S. 737]. Meanwhile, the “endowing” of God with some qualities rely on the idea that man created God in his image and likeness. Rosenzweig insists that the Bible turns this argument over and only thereafter takes it seriously.

Hence Rosenzweig argues the justifiability of the concept of “theological experience” which concerns neither God nor human being taken apart, but their specific unity. Rosenzweig remarks, that the so-called anthropomorphisms are in truth theomorphisms, and “<…> when we imagine God as seeing, hearing, speaking, raging, loving, we do it not because we ourselves see, hear, speak, rage, love; on the contrary, we are able to see, to hear, to speak, to rage, to love only because God sees, hears, speaks, rages, loves. It is necessary only to observe some consequences of such dogmatic proceeding from God to notice, that it is no less alien to the experience than the skeptic proceeding from man. The kinds of theological experience, as far as they are not the figments of human imagination, but the specimens of genuine experience, have that which is generic, notably, that they all are the experience of meeting; they are neither the variety of the experience of some object like the experience of the world nor the experience of two-part mix like the interpersonal attitudes” [10. S. 737].

In this connection, Rosenzweig draws attention to the peculiarity of the biblical style that, as he had already noticed, highlights the meeting of the Creator and the creature. Rosenzweig observes that in the Bible each separate utterance is at the end of a line, whereas at the end of the other line stands the frightened one who prays and sees how God comes nearer to him and delivers him from his strong enemy. Rosenzweig emphasizes the amazing poverty of imagery if it is unrelated to the meeting of Creator and creature. That is why he interprets the aspiration for knowledge of God’s “properties” or “being” as an endeavor to fix God by means of visualization, whereas the absolute trust in the unlimited power together with the trust in the instantaneousness of every creaturely entity is needed.

Moreover, where the meeting of Creator and creature does not take place, the idea of God’s property and the abstractive thinking together with its general notions come to the fore [10. S. 739]. In this connection, Rosenzweig analyzes the construal of God as spirit and comes to the paradoxical conclusion that just the biblical “anthropomorphisms” serve as a safeguard of monotheism. It should be noticed that the identification of God with spirit is of great importance to him, because, having no visible body and thus, being unrepresentable, God in the biblical tradition is considered to be “anthropomorphic” just the same.

Besides, the “anthropomorphisms” show that without the courage to believe that the real experience of God as spirit descends just from him this experience gets loose from its origin and searches for new bearers with the exception of God, at that, while from then on he was regarded as weak [10. S. 740]. Exemplifying the new bearers of spirit as the substitutes for God, Rosenzweig writes, particularly, about Philo’s Logos as the necessary equivalent of his spiritual God. In the same vein, he treats Paul’s understanding of the spiritual God as the God of rigorous and inexorable justice. Considering the controversies about the “anthromorphisms”, Rosenzweig states that “the Jewry at that time had saved itself from both extremes of Judeo-Greek spiritual God and Judeo-Christian God-man by the permission of the bold “anthropomorphisms” of the Talmudic Aggadah, i.e., again by the unshakable confidence that whatever our experience of God descends from God himself” [10. S. 740].

Hence, the problem of idolatry is for Rosenzweig, not the problem of God’s being, but God’s changeable and unpredictable relation to man and man’s ability to respond to changeability and unpredictability. Just in this context Rosenzweig, proceeding from the rejection of the omnipotence of abstractive thinking, comes, in fact, to the critique of metaphysics which aspiration for a certain kind of generality based on the procedure of abstracting opposes the emphasis on the situatedness of thinking that is inherent in Jewish tradition. He rejects the sentences concerning God which contain “having” and “being” because they, nevertheless, limit God’s freedom by “freezing” the instantaneity of the living meeting of God with man as a revelation.

At that moment God shows himself, and just owing to this “freezing” the moments are considered generalized and therefore permanent states. Meanwhile, Rosenzweig points out the Greek tradition and especially reminds the stance of Xenophanes who particularly emphasized that if horses or oxen or lions had hands horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses and the oxen as similar to oxen. Rosenzweig is also convinced that “<…> here Xenophanes’ satire hits the mark of reality — and, to be sure, thereby it ceases to be satire. God speaks all languages” [10. S. 739]. In addition, Rosenzweig reminds the words of the Talmud, according to which “<…> God enjoins neither of his heralds to deliver more than one message” [10. S. 741]. Thus, to avoid the return to polytheism, it is necessary to take into account that all forms of revelation including the representation are considered to be justifiable, but on the condition that they are not considered timeless.

From unfamiliarity to difference in art

 According to Rosenzweig, the sin of idolatry is not the usage of images as the representations of the reputedly unrepresentable God, but the fixation on one image which would mean the arbitrary limitation of God’s infinite freedom to reveal himself visually. Hence, representations are also admissible, whereas the “fossilization” of one image as the only true God’s representation or even his unmediated, undistorted, and, in addition, lasting appearance is the indication of improper worship. Proper worship stems from a clear understanding of what God suggests people do, whereas improper worship implies the wrong responses to God’s commandment. Rosenzweig thereby argues that it is insufficient to confine oneself to understanding idolatry as representation within the limits of thinking and to disregard the necessity of the analysis of worship [11. P. 23—25].

The immediate meetings of God with human beings in time turn them into witnesses just at these precise moments and only owing to the immediacy of every experience of revelation. This implies that the ban on idolatry does not require the absolute prohibition of representation as such that blocks one’s vital relation to God, while, being construed as temporal, representation stands not for the unrepresentable God as an eternal unchangeable idea, but for a moment in the succession of the experiences of the revelation of God’s truth. Every moment in this succession is an immediate experience that became the past and therefore should be somehow represented for the present and the future. Every witness is a such representation or, to be more exact, the representative of the past that is kept in a certain tradition.

Rosenzweig’s attention to the issue of situatedness and generalization that is closely connected with the understanding of identity and difference resulted in his analysis of the relation to the Other and the otherness and thus to the identity and difference. Whereas that interest aroused and became apparent because of the specific purpose to translate the Hebrew Bible into modern German, it gave impetus to the analysis of general philosophical problems concerning the constitution, the transmission, and the comprehension of meaning. It is significant that those problems were considered by Rosenzweig, first of all, in connection with the interpretation of art, while just the consideration of art from the perspective of the problem of the Other introduces the ideas of familiarity, and unfamiliarity, difference, strangeness, and uncanniness.

In this context, tradition is the prerequisite for the perception of some thing, event, or situation as unfamiliar, different, and strange, but this does not mean that it should be always unchangeable. For Rosenzweig, just the Jewish tradition, despite the initial meaning of the relevant term, turns out to be changeable and witnesses the past for the sake of the present and the future of humankind as a whole. In contrast to the theories which relate the emergence of representation to the human activity that is therewith considered to be immanent, Rosenzweig related the constitution of meaning to the tradition as the keeper of the past that was, however, subject to eradication by modernity.

Nevertheless, according to Rosenzweig, the past cannot be neglected and eradicated, because it determines the present, whereas modernity focuses only on the present. The witness is besides the primary representative who, as opposed to the representation that mediates through the substitution of one unchangeable entity by another, is able to mediate and thus represent the changeability of God's revelation through his or her very being. As far as idolatry, having been understood as worship of a single or a system of representations can block the relation of man to God, within the limits of monotheism no images could be tolerated. Despite this Rosenzweig was convinced that the work of art was specified just by its unfamiliarity.

Rosenzweig wrote on the work of art that “it really is outside itself; it has neither house no home; it knows of no roof of a kind where it could seek shelter; it is there totally for itself — it is its own kind and mode; it is not related to any other thing, not even to another work of art” [12. P. 260—261]. This characteristic is significant for the understanding of Rosenzweig attitude to the problem that in the quoted translation from German is articulated as “being outside itself”. This implies that the work of art demonstrates its isolation because of the homelessness that underlies its ability to shock. Omitting the details, one could say that Rosenzweig’s study of art is amazingly congenial to Martin Heidegger’s analysis of the same subject1.

It seems, however, that it is not a bit of similarity between two thinkers, but two various expressions of the same general trend that has become apparent in modernity and concerns the specific performativity of the work of art. Suffice it to point out that Rosenzweig, having justified the representation as the visual images in opposition to the ban on idolatry, like Heidegger associates the main feature of the work of art with its ability to make unfamiliar and even strange events and situations that previously looked familiar and, more importantly, intelligible. Moreover, those events and situations may be interpreted as unfamiliar and sometimes even uncanny, so that just the unfamiliarity becomes the key notion that designates the difference which should be taken into account.

In the original text of “The Star of Redemption” the polysemantic German word “un-heimlich” is used, and it can be interpreted to a wide extent not only as something that is literally “outside itself”, but also metaphorically as “homeless”, as it is explained in the continuation of the quotation. Homelessness in the German language is closely connected with the encounter with the uncanny as something strange and often even horrific. Thus, in German, the uncanny, being by implication metaphorically identified with being away from home, implies also the encounter with the strange as the Other, and only because of its difference the uncanny affects man and requires a response from him, at that.

Rosenzweig writes: “In the spectator there has grown together the mere humanity of the originator and the content-rich, soulful uncanniness of the work. Without the spectator, the work would be mute, it would be a statement, but not from speech, since the work does not “speak” to its originator and Pygmalion seeks in vain to animate the marble that he has sculpted; the work “speaks” only to the spectator. And without the spectator, it would have no lasting influence in reality. By bringing into view painted canvases, sculpted stones, and written pages, the work does not, as a matter of fact, enter real life. “Vandals” have always only killed that which is already dead” [12. P. 261].

From unfamiliarity to difference in translation

The construal of the shocking affect of the defamiliarizing difference as the feature of the work of art explains Rosenzweig’s interpretation of the translation that in his sight should also aim at the defamiliarization of stable meanings of everydayness in translation. The translation in the same way as the work of art ought not only to come into notice but also to change and transform the basic aspects of previous understanding. That defamiliarization which makes the previously intelligible strange, being the feature of translation, could epitomize the difference between the shared senses of the past and the senses of the present that are not yet acknowledged and generalized.

For Rosenzweig to translate means to serve two masters and to speak always means to translate [14. S. 749]. So, in Rosenzweig’s philosophy, all speech is, in effect, a translation that makes possible the meaning that, however, cannot be anticipated or imposed. That is why the translation is not the abandoning of tradition, but the perpetual making of its change, albeit not entirely. It implies also that on the one hand, the Bible as the embodiment of tradition cannot be read only from one point of view. On the other hand, that does not mean at all that the previous meanings are condemned to sink into oblivion. In the issue, the reconsideration of the concept of difference as the designation of the experience of the encounter with the Other and, in general, with every otherness became urgent only in a certain period.

That is why one of the tasks of the translator is to shock the reader as the “spectator” of the translated and thus transformed text. Every translation that does not idolize the static familiarity of the text to be translated anew, i.e., is not idolatrous, is hereupon a certain relation to the past as the recognition of its difference, it is admitted that the original language takes priority of the language of translation. Just owing to this recognition, which can be even more shocking, the translation proves to be both the saving of the past and its transformation.

That is why the translation is, according to Rosenzweig’s interpretation, always dialogical, and all translations, being interpretations, are unavoidably partial. In the aftermath of such a point-of-view approach, the absolute point of reference is needed, and Rosenzweig to the effect chooses the tradition as the embodiment of solidity and reliability. Nevertheless, the tradition itself is considered to be subject to translation and therefore transformation.

A very important point, not to be forgotten, is that “in the lives of peoples once also the moment comes when writing ceases to be a maidservant of language and becomes its mistress. This moment arrives when the content comprising the entire life of a people inundates writing, when, for the first time a book appears that “everyone must have surely read.” From then, language loses its ability to progress without embarrassment, and its path can no longer be guided exclusively by whatever it happens to come its way; in its advance it must permanently look back in order not to lose the sight of that significant event” [14. S. 753].

It is not difficult to see that in this connection the period when the isolated Jewish community and its tradition started getting in touch with the dynamic environment of the thriving modernity is of great importance. In the issue, the theoretical modeling of the new attitude to the Other eventually became the primary question. In this connection, it should be emphasized that Rosenzweig construes the tradition as the point of view that excludes the dogmatic “freezing” of meaning. From the perspective of the encounter of Jewish culture with modernity Rosenzweig abides by his intention to combine the traditional, but yet changeable shared senses with the modern aspiration for novelty.

The philosophy that goes back to the pattern of Greek metaphysics sought to model the passage from the familiar to the unfamiliar and even the uncanny in compliance with the history of the movement from the limits of home to the limits of the polis in order to make the latter habitable and thus familiar. The goal of that movement was to recreate and restructure the polis per sample of home and thereby making it intelligible. Rosenzweig proceeds from another theoretical model according to which the self-contained sphere of Jewish culture as its “home” was destroyed by the Enlightenment and the nascent modernity.

He emphasizes that before the coming of modernity the Jewish culture existed under the protection of the walls of a ghetto that made the solitary learning of Judaism possible. In this connection, Rosenzweig emphasizes that what was new owing to modernization was not so much the breakdown of the outer limitations as a possibility of learners who left the ghetto just for learning not to return at dusk. He eventually, “<…> found spiritual shelter outside the limits of the Jewish world” [15. S. 506].

Thus, according to Rosenzweig’s interpretation, the meaning of Jewish existence reveals itself only when it wrenches away from its home as a familiar and more or less isolated realm, but it by no means implies that such realm together with its traditional norms and rules should be abandoned once and for all. According to Rosenzweig’s logic, the previously isolated community should become not a nation-state as it was uniformly presupposed by the design of modernization, but a Diaspora that savors both tradition and modernity.


The ban on idolatry in the wide sense and the context of Jewish culture became in Rosenzweig’s philosophy the starting point of the critique of modern culture and modernity as a whole, having shown the similarity to other attempts of introducing temporality into philosophical discourse and thus of overcoming metaphysics. That critique, in turn, flooded into the growing tendency of the revision of metaphysical foundations of European culture and the reconsideration of metaphysics as such with its predilection for the exclusion of temporality from the comprehension of being. The point of contact became the paradoxical feature of Jewish tradition which, despite the very meaning of the relevant term, shows the ability for continuous change over time and therefore turns out to be an uncommon embodiment of identity and the understanding of otherness and difference.

Rosenzweig, having insisted on the priority of religious performance over whatever imagery and philosophically correct ideas, emphasized the ability of Judaism to relate idolatry, not to the being of entities or the general way they are, and, in addition, similarly to the eternal ideas, but to the situational way they are used. As opposed to things, the religious performance and, generally, whatever action without the perpetual adherence to some normative interpretation as its necessary supplement cannot be preserved. The changeability of tradition depends, first of all, on the repudiation of the metaphysics idea of the eternal truth that could reputedly be understood and accepted without the required interpretations and reinterpretations through time.

Such an approach to the concept of the ban on idolatry prevents the identification of the representation of entity with this entity itself, the sign with the thing, or, in other words, prohibits self-referentiality. This implies that in Judaism no representation is unique and ultimate, so just Judaism, according to Rosenzweig, proposes a solution to the problem of idolatry, notwithstanding that the struggle against idolatry seems to be eternal. This solution makes Jewish tradition compatible with the well-known referencing of European modernity together with its immanentism and its belief in progress to the eluding moment instead of ascending to eternity as was inherent in the European medieval culture. Thus, the compatibility of Jewish tradition with modernity demonstrates how its particularism, situatedness, and the repudiation of the reified truths could become the foundation of universalism.

The evident areas of contact of Rosenzweig’s philosophy with the agenda of Western philosophy indicate some common statements, problems, and stances. They, in turn, suggest the connection with the contexts that exceed the bounds of the range of problems concerning only Jewish philosophy, although its specific character in the context under consideration should surely be of particular interest. It might be supposed that the historian of philosophy deals here with a special case of the encounter of tradition with some qualitatively new cultural and mental external influences of already established modernity which, in addition, had a claim on a specific universalism. It is also known that those influences, however, triggered a specific defense reaction that, beyond peradventure, did not keep the tradition intact, but, having relied on its primordial changeability, prevented it from the prospect of destruction.


1 Heidegger wrote on the work of art, that “from out of the poetizing essence of truth it happens that an open place is thrown open, a place in which everything is other than it was. In virtue of the projection of the unconcealedness of beings which is set into the work and casts itself toward us, everything ordinary and hitherto existing becomes an unbeing. This unbeing has lost the capacity to give and to preserve being as measure” [13. P. 44—45]. Moreover, according to Heidegger, “what poetry, as clearing projection, unfolds of unconcealment and projects into the rift within the figure is the open; poetry allows this open to happen in such a way, indeed, that now, for the first time, in the midst of beings, it brings them to shine and sound” [13. P. 45]. Thereby just poetry, i.e., the art in general, causes the “rift” or the rupture in the figure as the stable appearance and makes the familiar evidently unfamiliar, and therefore noticeable (“brings them to shine and sound”). In the issue, everything becomes “other than it was”, and the previous understanding of beings, beginning with the pre-predicative one, proves to be strange.


About the authors

Alexander I. Pigalev

Volgograd State University

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0003-4858-8862

Doctor of philosophy, Professor, Leading Researcher

100, Universitetskiy prospekt, Volgograd, 400062, Russian Federation


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