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The Brink

Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption and the Contemporary Moment

For the 100th anniversary of the publication of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, we thought it appropriate to reflect on the relevance of this difficult theo-political (and some would say, apolitical) text for our contemporary political moment. In the spirit of opening living, critical, and generative conversations, four authors wrestle with the Star while also wrestling with a wide range of pressing present issues from politics and policing to racial injustice, religious identity, and radical hope.

This essay appears as the introduction to a recently published roundtable in Political Theology (vol. 22.8) on the contributions of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption to our contemporary moment. In addition to the roundtable introduced in this post, the issue also features several book reviews and standalone articles from Jay Twomey on Taylor Caldwell, Laura E. Alexander on feminist and postcolonial critiques and Christian realism, and Abdul Rahman Mustafa on the problem of gratitude for the gift through the lens of Islamic political theology and queer ecology.

For the 100th anniversary of the publication of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, we thought it appropriate to reflect on the relevance of this difficult theo-political (and some would say, apolitical) text for our contemporary political moment. On the one hand, there are any number of reasons to consider leaving this text behind, not the least of which are its problematic engagements with Jews and race, Islam, and gender. On the other hand, as a testament to the messiness of history, particularity, and life (three of the Star’s own overt themes), Rosenzweig’s book is also a text that, arguably, exceeds its worst impulses and invites us into new openings. Indeed, we might herald this feature of the text as itself holding relevance for the present moment: to the extent that structures can exceed themselves, there can be hope for new political futures.

Here one might even add that the very act of bringing Jewish texts—as well as a wide range of sources from a wide range of traditions—into living, critical, generative dialogue with the diverse readership of a journal such as Political Theology is itself a political gesture of radical hope. We are in that spirit especially thankful to Vincent Lloyd for inviting us to curate this special edition of Political Theology and for the panel conversation that the journal hosted with us this past summer.

In the spirit of opening living, critical, and generative conversations, we invited four authors to wrestle with the Star while also wrestling with a wide range of pressing present issues from politics and policing to racial injustice, religious identity, and radical hope.

Randi Rashkover’s essay contrasts Rosenzweig’s “prophetic politics”—a politics framed by divine revelation—with Hannah Arendt’s rational inter-human analysis of political judgment. Resonating with worries about the Star’s political failings expressed in Martin Kavka’s contribution to this symposium, Rashkover concludes that Arendt has more to offer us than Rosenzweig when it comes to combatting dangerous political regimes—which is in turn to say, when it comes to the contemporary political moment. This is in part because Rosenzweig, for Rashkover, embraces a prophetic/revelatory frame that entails a kind of political impotency. This point can be seen in two inter-related ways in Rashkover’s analysis. It can be seen in her passing mention of political action being determined by theological frames in the Star. It can also be seen in her primary focus on Rosenzweig’s own sense of the limits of human preservation absent a divine source of eternity. Humans are, she emphasizes, unable to preserve themselves in the face of the overwhelming contingencies of nature and history; human preservation requires an eternal divine source.

In both these ways, Rashkover can be seen as foregrounding in the Star a blend of nihilism and skepticism when it comes to political action. While the Star calls us “into life,” for Rashkover the prophetic parameters of the call leave us powerless to intervene in any meaningful sense against political violence. In something of a standoff between a system of revelation and a system of reason, Rashkover contrasts Rosenzweig’s political dead-end with Arendt’s championing of inter-human agency—and with it a variety of rationality tied up with the “common sense” of a deliberative community—when it comes to overcoming violent political systems.

Here we may pose a few questions. As Rashkover herself notes, there are conflicting ways to read Rosenzweig’s overall political attitude (quietist, imperialist, or radically democratic). As this stems from moments of ambiguity in the Star, one wonders if Rashkover has arrived at a final reading of the Star or whether she is perhaps working through the logical/political implications of one (among possibly other) ways to read the Star.

Relatedly, Rashkover notes that “from the vantage point of revelation, all of [the state’s] political activities are idolatrous and sinful” since “only a God can save us or, more to the point, preserve us.” One might ask whether a multi-layered phenomenology of time might help us to a different sense of what this “vantage point” entails: is it possible that the Star’s anti-political thread can be read only “from the vantage point of revelation” but not from the vantage point of creation and redemption, which are two other co-equal spaces in which Rosenzweig invites us into life?

In her essay on abolitionist outlooks on dismantling state-run policing structures, Larisa Reznik draws our attention to the possibility of an affective dimension in Rosenzweig relevant to the contemporary political moment. To be sure, Reznik draws attention to harmful elements of the Star that contemporary discourse ought do without—including gender inequitable heteronormativities and standards of patriarchy set into the very parameters of his frame that can tend to reproduce the very sorts of violence that his emphasis on love purports to uproot. That said, Reznik asks us to consider in Rosenzweig two related political invitations with ongoing relevance: a “longing—a concrete anticipation of things being otherwise”—an affective dimension to lived political experience that is arguably still necessary, even if obviously not sufficient, to bringing about political change; and also a complex sense of the state, in its need to coerce and police, as inherently violent. Reznik takes up both these aspects of the Star to consider the (abysmal) current state of policing, especially in relation to Black bodies. Drawing on Robin Kelley’s sense of “state thuggery,” Reznik considers the possibility of reading Rosenzweig as

suggesting that there cannot be nation-states without thuggery. In other words, violence and coercion aren’t evidence of the state’s legal apparatus malfunctioning…On the contrary, it seems to be functioning exactly as it should.

Reznik pursues the implications of this in relation to current debates over abolition and reform as a question of

whether we need better, more expansive, more inclusive, and variegated representational grids or whether we need to fight for collective life organized otherwise than grid relations; or, at the very least, a form of life that undermines the seeming exhaustiveness of grid relations.

Reflecting on Reznik’s reminder that “for Rosenzweig there is something about the very fabric of the state that necessitates thuggery,” we might ask whether the same might be said about the political. Is the political inherently tied up with violence and coercion, and if so is that a constituting aporia of human life or an obstacle to be overcome? If the former, what are the implications for human action (or for “human” as a category)? If the latter, what is our best goal for human collective life? Relatedly: is abolitionism, in conversation with Rosenzweig or otherwise, ultimately a call for a “time after the time of politics”? What might life in such a time look like? And affectively speaking, what might life in such a time—and even life lived in hope of such a time—feel like?

Furthermore, as Reznik notes, Rosenzweig’s self “marks the limit of politics and the need for revelation.” Beyond the specifics of Rosenzweig’s redemptive framings, does the political benefit from a metaphysical, phenomenological, and/or psychoanalytic grounding in a “self” that exceeds the political in such a way as to render the political necessarily limited in its reach? In other words, is a robustly anarchic ground of human subjectivity a good way (or: the only way) to open a political structure to non-violence?

Martin Kavka’s essay raises doubts about just how much the Star has to offer us today—indeed, about whether Rosenzweig’s is a book “which we ought to make more of an effort to forget.” For Kavka, “if the Star has anything to say to the current political moment, it is only because Rosenzweig has taught us how not to think about politics,” since the Star adopts an eschatological posture that “shuts off certain possibilities for political action.” The problem here is not eschatologically inflected political theology per se. On the contrary, Kavka holds up the poetry of the Martinican intellectual Aimé Césaire as at once politically compelling yet deeply eschatological. Rather, the problem is Rosenzweig’s particular version of eschatology, which, by insisting that redemption comes exclusively from God, “imagines no possibility for resisting violence, or bias or inequality, or imbalances of power in the world.” While a degree of humility regarding the efficacy of human action might be salutary for some of Rosenzweig’s Christian readers, Kavka suggests, it does little good for their Jewish counterparts, who seem to be left with “nothing over and above praying for the coming of the Kingdom of God.” Far more productive, Kavka concludes, is the poetry of Césaire, whose “apocalyptic tone describes…a commitment to ending the way of the world without any knowledge of what will come in its place.” Rather than quietistically insist that redemption comes exclusively from God, Césaire provides hope for the oppressed by calling for resistance against existing hierarchies even while disclaiming any definite knowledge of the future such action will yield.

Kavka’s critique raises a number of questions. First, if Rosenzweig adopts a problematically quietist posture, are there nevertheless ways in which the Star might possess some political relevance and allow some space for political resistance? In her essay, Reznik invokes Rosenzweig’s account of revelation and liturgy as a site where we encounter a “longing” for and “anticipation of things being otherwise” that may possess contemporary urgency, while also noting that this dimension of the Star comes with its own serious problems; other scholars have explored possible links between Rosenzweig and thinkers such as Jacob Taubes, a (deeply problematic) figure whose apocalyptic thinking calls the state into question (and serves as an important influence on Giorgio Agamben, whom Kavka cites approvingly). Might Rosenzweigian communities “praying for the coming of the Kingdom of God” themselves become sites of political disruption? Second, if we accept Kavka’s reading, what implications (if any) follow for modern Jewish thought more generally? Are there other figures who end up in similarly quietist places and should also be forgotten? Are there thinkers who avoid this flaw and merit further attention? More fundamentally, how can modern Jewish thought move beyond what Kavka describes as a “call to return to tradition” (exemplified by a turn to Rosenzweig) and engage figures (such as Césaire) and genres (such as poetry) that have often been neglected?

These themes—questions surrounding the relevance of Rosenzweig’s account of redemption, and the sources with which we might place his work in conversation—are also central to Sarah Pessin’s essay, which nevertheless finds in the Star a robust invitation to contemporary thinking—including when it comes to politics. Her starting point is “a mythopathic frame,” a perspective that takes communities’ narratives or histories to profoundly shape, and thus live on in, the “concrete, embodied, affective life” of the members of those collectives. For Pessin, one of the Star’s most important insights is a mythopathic vision of what she calls “difficult redemption” or “redemption-in-the-underworld”: a vision in which “we acknowledge that the hateful gazes of adversaries in tandem with the living voices of our own kin murdered under that gaze all run through our flesh,” and in which “all of that is part of redemption’s ground.” On this reading, Rosenzweig casts redemption not as some sort of optimistic overcoming of suffering, but rather as a condition in which lived experiences of woundedness—both our own, and those of murdered ancestors—“resound into our pasts and also into our futures.” Part of what’s so important about this insight, she argues, is that it grounds a productive engagement between Rosenzweig and Afropessimism. Without attempting to equate Jewish and Black experience or reduce the history of one group to that of another, she explores what she sees as resonances between Rosenzweig’s account of redemption and the work of figures such as Frantz Fanon, Frank B. Wilderson III, and Fred Moten. The culmination of this engagement is Pessin’s original construction of what she calls “something of an Afro-Judeo midrash” on an image borrowed from Rosenzweig’s reading of medieval Jewish poetry: an image of “redemption without blue skies.”

Pessin’s call to foster conversations between figures who are rarely linked together raises a series of questions. If she’s correct that a notion of “difficult redemption” or “redemption-in-the-underworld” is present in the sources she discusses, what follows, practically, for the contemporary moment? What might it look like, concretely, to live out, or live in the midst of, a vision of “difficult redemption”? What sorts of political action might this type of vision ground or even demand, and what sorts of political action might this type of vision undermine or even preclude? Drawing on the final line of Rosenzweig’s Star, Pessin concludes her essay by declaring that “we are invited to reflect for a moment on the possibility of difficult anti-redemptive redemptions, invoking a time when more of us from all positionalities, religions, cultures, and histories may be called always and forever INTO LIFE.” What might this call “INTO LIFE” look like in practical terms? What does a vision of “redemption without blue skies” demand of us?

In collecting these essays together, we’ve set out to provide readers with new pathways into and out of the Star that prompt new ways of rethinking the present moment. Some of the essays focus on insights in the Star that continue to ring true, while others emphasize errors in the Star that are important to avoid. But we hope all of the essays help us face the contemporary moment with greater clarity, including when it comes to the most vexing theo-political questions of identity, race, violence, resistance, and redemption.

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