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The Storm Called Progress

Benjamin, Scholem, Rosenzweig and the Angel of History

Adam Kirsch
March 09, 2009

In the spring of 1940, Walter Benjamin produced the last and possibly the most influential of his essays, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” The great pathos and urgency of the text comes in part from what we know about Benjamin’s circumstances when he wrote it. In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, Benjamin, who was both Jewish and a communist, fled his native country for Paris, where he spent the rest of the decade eking out a precarious living as a writer. Now, with Germany on the verge of conquering France, the evil he fled was coming after him. In September 1940, after France fell, Benjamin made a last-ditch attempt to cross the Franco-Spanish border on foot. When he was turned back, he committed suicide; in the chaos of the moment, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

In a real sense, then, the “Theses” are the work of a man who is on the brink of the abyss, and knows it. The ninth thesis, especially, has called out to later writers as an unforgettable emblem of a world that could not save itself. In it, Benjamin meditates on a Paul Klee painting he owned, Angelus Novus, which “shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grow skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

It is not just poetic license that made Stephane Moses, the Franco-Israeli scholar who died in 2007, use the title “The Angel of History” for his study of Benjamin and his contemporaries, Gershom Scholem and Franz Rosenzweig. For in Benjamin’s little parable or midrash, we can find all the major themes that, Moses shows, obsessed these three German-Jewish thinkers. There is the savage rejection of progress, the old 19th-century liberal dream, which the First World War and its aftermath turned into a hideous joke. There is the sense that History, which German thinkers since Hegel had seen as the deliberate unfolding of Absolute Spirit, is actually a meaningless chaos. Above all, there is the inverted sense of the sacred, in which God and the angels still exist but no longer seem able to function or help humankind.

The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem, which first appeared in France in 1992 but has just been published in English by Stanford University Press (in a translation by Barbara Harshav), is a brilliantly lucid introduction to the work of these three figures. They are writers who definitely need an introduction, because their originality, and their deep involvement in the tradition of German philosophy, make them very challenging to read. So, too, does their creative reinvention of Jewish traditions and concepts. All three are profoundly, unmistakably Jewish thinkers, yet none was raised with any knowledge of Judaism. Products of assimilated German-Jewish families, they had to struggle to reacquaint themselves with their Jewish origins; as a result, they thought about Judaism in ways that no traditional Jew ever would.

In fact, Moses writes, the rupture in the transmission of Judaism—in the chain of generations, “l’dor va’dor”—is at the heart of their work. In a chapter on “Kafka, Freud, and the Crisis of Tradition,” Moses uses Kafka’s Letter to His Father to illuminate the situation in which Rosenzweig, Benjamin and Scholem found themselves. One of the bitter complaints Kafka makes against his father is his failure to provide him with a living connection to Judaism: his father’s Jewishness was “a mere nothing, a joke—not even a joke.” In his longing to assimilate into German culture and leave behind his shtetl origins, Kafka’s father reduced Jewishness to a few flimsy gestures,” absurd residues.” Yet, crucially, Kafka felt that this empty faith still had an iron grip on him, that he could not be free of a Judaism that had become meaningless.

To Scholem, who came from a similarly Germanized family, the only solution to this dilemma was to return wholeheartedly to Judaism, by becoming a Zionist. For this sin against assimilation, he was expelled from his family home. He moved to Palestine in the 1920s, and spent the rest of his long life trying to unearth the buried tradition of Jewish mysticism, writing about the Kabbalah and the radical heretic Sabbatai Zevi. Yet as Moses shows, he continued to view the Jewish past through the lens of Kafka: Scholem would tell his students that “to understand the Kabala today, we must read the works of Kafka, mainly The Trial.” That novel, in which Joseph K. is at the mercy of a law he cannot recognize or understand, seemed to Scholem a parable of the modern Jewish fate. As Scholem wrote in a long poem that Moses analyzes, Kafka captured a world where God is both present and absent:

Only so does revelation
Shine in the time that rejected you.
Only your nothingness is the experience
It is entitled to have of you.

Benjamin, who was Scholem’s closest friend, followed a different route to Judaism. Benjamin often mused about joining Scholem in Palestine, and repeatedly resolved to start learning Hebrew. But he was not truly interested in making the leap to a strictly Jewish vocation that Scholem had made. Instead, Moses shows in the densest and most interesting section of The Angel of History, Benjamin preserved his Jewish-theological ways of thinking even as he became a critic of secular German literature, and finally a Marxist revolutionary.

For Benjamin, a Jewish perspective on language and history meant challenging the prevailing scientific view of each. Language, according to linguists then and now, is a purely conventional system—words stand for objects arbitrarily, which is why French “pain” and German “Brot” can both mean the same thing as English “bread.” For Benjamin, however, language had to be envisioned mystically, as the decayed remnants of the divine language that God used to create the world, and that Adam used to name the animals. Literature, in this view, has a kind of sacred obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the world: as Moses writes, “The progress or decadence of humanity will no longer be measured by the distance separating it from an original Good but by its lapse from an original state of language.” In a similar way, Benjamin came to believe, the revolutionary should not try to abolish the past, but to redeem it—to recapture the lost potential for goodness that exists in every moment, even if it is mostly wasted and forgotten.

In this emphasis on redemption, Benjamin echoed Franz Rosenzweig, whose theological work The Star of Redemption both he and Scholem praised very highly. Rosenzweig, Moses explains, nearly converted to Christianity before deciding to reclaim his Jewishness, by redefining Judaism’s purpose on earth. “I as an individual,” he wrote, “take upon myself the metaphysical destiny, the ‘yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven’ to which I have been called from my birth.”

A crucial stage on this journey, Moses shows, was the correspondence between Rosenzweig and his friend Eugen Rosenstock, a Protestant of Jewish origins who urged him to abandon Judaism altogether. In responding to this challenge, Rosenzweig began to understand Judaism as a religion in some sense outside of history. Where Christianity, and its secular philosophical heirs, believed that history was progressing to a utopian future, Judaism stands for a different kind of salvation—not progress but redemption, which interrupts history instead of completing it. The Jewish calendar, Rosenzweig believed, lifted the Jews outside of Christian time; cyclical rather than linear, it allowed the Jews to live symbolically in union with God. In this sense, Judaism has already achieved what Christianity still hopes for: the Jewish people, Rosenzweig wrote, “is separated from the march of those who draw near to it (redemption) in the course of centuries.”

As even a brief summary shows, The Angel of History offers an introduction to some of the most brilliant and influential Jewish thinkers of the last century. Anyone who is interested in how German Judaism responded, at the highest and most passionate levels, to its imminent destruction should start by reading Stephane Moses.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.