Why did Rosenzweig reject Christianity?

Forced by discriminatory measures Jews in earlier times became Christians. The Jewish philosopher-theologian Franz Rosenzweig considered becoming Christian as well. However, he came to reject Christianity. On which religious view was that based?

By Marco van Putten

Anti-Judaism (strongly against Jewish religion) seems to be molded into Christianity. Many Jews experienced that. A way-out seemed becoming a Christian. But even after their ‘conversion’ they often were still rejected. Becoming Christian just did not seem enough. The tendency was: a Jew is a Jew, even when Christian. Origin (ethnicity, culture) was seen as being dominant to religion. Jews were most of all hated because of their origin; anti-Semitism. This thinking was strengthened when it became clear that many Jews used Christianity to ‘gain’ from it. To advance in society. So, were they really Christian, even though it was hardly defined what ‘real’ Christianity was supposed to be. Clearly hatred does not comply with it.

Jewish struggle
Jews can sometimes struggle with Christianity. They experience its long ‘tradition’ of anti-Judaism and persecution. Also, the Identity of the Lord Jesus, as Christianity has defined it, is to them similar to a polytheistic Man-God. Most troublesome for them is Christianity’s origin; it is a dissident form of Jewish faith.

Jews are challenged like foreigners to find a way in the non-Jewish world in which they live. But religious Jews have a faith which is characterized by particularistic (aimed at its exclusiveness). Like Islam. These religious Jews reject the thought of any form of becoming acquainted with the world, which in their eyes is secular (pagan/unclean). For them assimilation is a threat for their religion. As a consequence they create ghettos with all its social problems, like discrimination and violence. Sometimes this leads to the encouragement of fellow believers to straighten their faith and religion by doing outreach. These outreach programs develop alternative, easy-to-access ways to enter deeper into their religion or to get (potential) believers involved in it (again). Even more so, because the orthodoxy often does not know how to deal with outsiders, but once there is contact bring forward many religious prerequisites. Many times these outreach programs bring forth ways of Jewish faith which do not comply with orthodoxy.

His history
Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was born in Kassel (Germany) and grew up in a traditional Jewish (minimal Torah observant) middle-class environment. He studied history and philosophy at different universities. During his time as a student he began to realize that a Jew has no place in European society. Becoming a Christian seems a way out and he was encouraged to do so by his fellow Jews. Many already had made that ‘choice’. However, Rosenzweig realized very brightly, but also very honestly, that a sincere conversion to Christian faith was required. He did not want to pretend. The downside was however that he then also would become part of the Christian culture. He wanted to advance in society, but he did not have a high esteem for its culture. Rosenzweig decided therefore to do his conversion outside the cultural framework. He wanted, very originally, to start with the rigid and pure Torah observation of the Lord Jesus and His disciples. So, he started visiting synagogue services at an orthodox synagogue in Berlin. During a Day of Atonement (Jom Kipoer) service he had a mystical experience. As a consequence he decided to become a follower of Judaism instead of Christianity. How he came to that decision remains unclear, but from that moment on (1913) he turns devotedly to Judaism. This has fundamental consequences for his study. On his university it was popular to choose the philosophy of Hegel en of Kant; German Idealism. He however became a philosopher-theologian choosing a Jewish way, in which not mankind (humanism) but God was central.

After his graduation he committed himself to outreach. In Frankfurt am Main he established (1920) the ‘House for Free Jewish Teaching’. He asked, amongst others, Martin Buber (1878-1965) to join him. With Buber he also began to translate the Old Testament into German, because according to them the common Christian translations had too many anti-Jewish characteristics. Partly, they thought, it was because of misunderstanding the Hebrew text, but also because of misunderstanding the Hebrew-Israelite soul of the Bible.
Rosenzweig also wrote many articles and books, of which ‘The star of redemption’ (1921) is its most important work.
Whilst he became older he focused more and more on the orthodox way of life until his muscular disease made him more and more ill and he eventually died. Aged hardly 43 years old.

His religious views
Rosenzweig became defender of a ‘Two-Way’ theory (Judaism and Christianity are two different religions ways of the Same God). This is primarily based on the rabbinical thought that Israel is the chosen people. They thus have already found God, but the rest of humanity is still searching for Him. According to Rosenzweig, the Lord Jesus was specifically sent to point the way to God for humanity. It is all about the Same God, but because Israel is God’s only chosen nation therefore Christians do not have access to the Jewish religion.
Some key foundations on which his Two-Way theory is based:
• Mission
Christianity would have the specific goal to bring (non-Jewish) humanity to God through missionary work. Judaism would not have that goal. Jews are called to live as priests for God by distancing themselves from the world.
• Difference between Jew and Christian
Jews and Christians have a common future in the coming world of God, but they would not have a common present. Christians would be in disarray, due to the fact that they are in constant contact with unbelievers. Therefore they repeatedly are threatened to fall away from their faith. Israel however would be in God’s rest.
• Replacement theory
Rosenzweig rejected the Christian Replacement theory (Christianity has replaced Judaism). According to him it was precisely the other way around. Christianity was replaced by Judaism. Jews were constantly needed to help Christians to remain in their faith and not to fall back to paganism.
• Christocentrism (tunnel vision of the Lord Jesus)
According to Rosenzweig Christianity has a swollen-up view on the Lord Jesus. He supposedly would have resolved everything. However, Jews experienced daily that the world still was not redeemed. Rosenzweig came with tough questions, like: How can God as Revelator be the same as the Redeemer? What sense does it make that God redeems unto Himself that which He created Himself? When the Lord Jesus is credited with all the highest characteristics, what is left over for God, the Father? How can christocentrism explain that the Lord Jesus will return everything to God, the Father, and become sub servant to Him (1 Cor 15:28)?
Because Jews specifically criticize the Lord Jesus, many Christians see Jews as game spoilers. Jews reveal that piety can have blind spots. That explains the rivalry between synagogue & church. Christians would want to get rid of Judaism, because it confronts them with their own failure and because they raise critical questions about their Lord. This made the way clear for anti-Judaism and eventually hate against Jews.
• Eschatocentrism
Rosenzweig noticed the Eschatocentrism (tunnel vision of the end of times) of Christianity. Judaism puts the emphases on religious life in the now, in which the promises of the end of time are discounted.

Rosenzweig was also critical towards Judaism, like on subjects as:
• Exile
Israel’s exile would not be caused by falling away from God, but a consequence of being the chose people. Such a people would be destined to suffer under God’s wrath.
• Orthodoxy
According to Rosenzweig, the ‘boxed-in’ orthodoxy of the 19th century could not sustain. Still, it had to remain orthodox (Torah observant). He rejected esoteric and mystical Chassidism and also neo-orthodoxy which was aimed at assimilation. Rosenzweig did not confirm contemporary orthodoxy, but followed a humanistic, liberal stance. This became clear by stating that Torah observance was all about what is possible. The free will to do it. Not as obligation.
• Zionism
Rosenzweig rejected the ‘makeable society’ type of Zionism, because this wanted to restore Israel without the Messiah. He hammered on the fact that owning the Promised Land did not end the exile. Zionism should be aware of the exile of which only the Messiah can restore from. Attempts to restore Israel by power of man he called, like Buber, madness. He therefore distanced himself from Zionism, but was also attracted by it. For him Israel was a people of faith. The more they would focus on faith, the more they would become God’s people. Zionism would however make Israel more secular. More like the nations.

Rosenzweig’s theology is based on rabbinic Judaism. Although, not confirming the orthodox form of it. His theology is also not neutral. His whole youth he felt compelled to become Christian. However, not for religious but for social reasons. His theology has to be viewed as result of anti-Semitism which was a heavy burden on his life and on that of his (close) Jewish environment. Therefore it has to be question whether or not his ethnocentric view on Israel, on which his Two-way theory is based, with its strong emphases on the particularity of the Jewish people, was his way of dealing with anti-Semitism.

On Two-Way theories can be said many things. The bond between God and the Jewish people is indeed unique. That is also the case for their status as the only nation created by God, which is confirmed in the New Testament (NT). This nationhood is not given to Christianity. However, God has, precisely because Israel is a nation, banished it until the present day, after their rejection of their Messiah, the Lord Jesus. Being banished effectively means no longer belonging to God. So, Two-Way theories lack any basis in the present. But there are more conflicts with the Bible.

Rosenzweig was right is stating that mission is Christianity’s most fundamental function, but he, like rabbinic Judaism, missed out on the fact that Israel is also charged with that function. It is part of its unique calling (Is 49:6). His Two-Way theory blocks mission to Israel, which is also in line with rabbinic Judaism. According to him Jews should remain Jews and Christians likewise. This reinforces the wall of division between Jews and Christians, even though it is clearly stated in the NT that the work of the Lord Jesus has totally broken down that wall (Ef 2:14). His stance makes it impossible for a Jew that has become a Christian to keep hold on its origin.

Rosenzweig’s theology should also be understood as a response to the defects in what is the commonly accepted Christian theology. Especially the still widely accepted Replacement theology. This is the cause why Christianity imagines itself ‘above’ Judaism. Although in the Bible it is explicitly written that the exceptional privileges and promises of God to the Jewish nation are not taken away from them, but are kept in safe keeping until they will be restored. Christianity is however convinced that Israel has lost these permanently and that the ‘Church’ has inherited them. Despite that it is obvious that the ‘Church’ is unlike Israel.
Also christocentrisme is the result of a distorted image of the Lord Jesus, through which the sight on His thru calling, which is primarily for Israel, has been take away. Likewise, the sight on the difference between His earthly and His heavenly state and ministry. Although this difference is essential for understanding Him being a Man.

Still, Rosenzweig has clearly not understood the spiritual facts of the gospel of the Lord Jesus. But since this gospel represents the only will of God. There are no other ways to God. When Christians (Jewish and those from other nations) have become a unity within God’s people then clearly this must mean a change in the one, thru religion. Christianity exists because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, but Judaism with the given of the exile (loss of the Sjechinah (God’s Presence)). That exile is none other than God’s punishment of Israel (Lv 26:41; Js 5:25). The spiritual status and function of the Jewish nation in exile is put on hold. Therefore it is utter nonsense to suggest that exiled Israel is unchanged and thus is suffering due to it being elected by God.

Another mistake Rosenzweig made is his emphases on Israel’s collective. The result of which is the ignorance of the individual Jew. Indeed, God has sealed His Covenant with Israel’s collective, but this ultimately means that each individual Jew needs to take accountability for it. That Israel as a nation has broken the Covenant of God collectively, does not keep God from showing compassion to individual Jews, like Rosenzweig. Obviously he was not acquainted with Messianic Jews who could show him the translation of their Jewish heritage with the NT and how to could bring that into connection with the Jewish nation. Rosenzweig’s religious view was clearly determined by the limitations of his age and its surroundings. Just like every generation.