Yesterday -- December 25 -- marks the birthday of an important, highly influential Jew. Not who you're probably thinking. The man's name -- Franz Rosenzweig.
Rosenzweig, born in 1886, remains on of Judaism's foremost philosophers. His work was on a par with that of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber. In fact, Buber and Rosenzweig not only became friends, they collaborated in writing.
I want to share a bit about Rosenzweig's background -- which led to what may be the most famous non-conversion in Jewish history.
Franz Rosenzweig grew up in Kassel, Germany, in a largely secular Jewish home. His family attended high holiday services, but that was about it. As a young man, Franz showed little interest in Judaism, though he did want to learn Hebrew. However, his thirst for learning took him to medicine, history, and especially philosophy.
These were times of great intellectual ferment for Jews. The Haskalah -- or age of "Jewish enlightenment," opened doors to European culture -- especially in Germany.
Before the Haskalah, Jews kept largely to themselves. This wasn't a choice. They weren't allowed to participate in the culture at large.
But in the nineteenth century, those doors opened. Jews became part of a multicultural society teeming with intellectual excitement.
There was only one drawback. The doors didn't open very wide.
The more Jews found themselves able to join the European world, the more they learned that Jews were only marginally welcome.
One part of German life had not changed: the culture was Protestant and still not welcoming to Jews.
So, we have a young man like Franz Rosenzweig, who knew little about Judaism and was learning a lot about philosophy. By his mid twenties, he had serious questions about what it meant to be a Jew. He had no background, no milieu, to help him understand.
Here's what he wrote his parents at that point: "We are Christians in all things, we live in a Christian state,go to Christian schools, read Christian books, our whole culture is based on a Christian foundation."
I don't know what or even if his parents responded to this. Unfortunately, we can understand his angst. In Rosenzweig's case, it was especially hard.
He grew up as a Jew -- but as a Jew in name only. Like many of his peers, he had no clue what that meant.
Two of his cousins converted to Christianity. Within two years, he told them that he would follow suit. Like his relatives, he was determined to become a Christian. However, he said that he would need several weeks to prepare. He felt it important to know what he was leaving. Further, because he was a Jew, said that he would go to the baptismal font as a Jew -- not as a non-Jew.
If that last sentence leaves you scratching your head in confusion, you're in good company. It's a strange way to put it. What did he mean? After all, at the moment of baptism, he would no longer be a Jew!
Maybe intellectual rigor drove him to learn more about Judaism. And maybe, deep down, he was having second thoughts.
And so, he went with his parents to Rosh Hashanah services. Still determined to convert, he attended services on Yom Kippur.
The day passed and the concluding service, n'ilah, began. N'ilah comes from the word for locking --and at that services, our prayers reach a peak, growing in intensity -- because soon the Almighty will lock the gates of forgiveness.
Rosenzweig never described his inner experience at that service. We only know this: at n'ilah, he realized that he would remain a Jew...
And thus Rosenzweig's Yom Kippur experience became famous as a non-conversion.
But here's why and how we care about this today:
This was not a simple case of a young Jewish man changing his mind about conversion.
It's not even a testament to the power and awe of Yom Kippur ....
We care about this episode because
of what we learn about Rosenzweig after that fateful Yom Kippur.
and what we learn about us.
Franz Rosenzweig went on to write great works of Jewish philosophy. Further, he didn't let even the trenches of WWI get in the way of his drive to think and write. While he served in the Kaiser's army, he wrote sections of his book on postcards and mailed them home. Those postcard became his most famous book, The Star of Redemption.
His youthful lack of Jewish education drove him to focus on Jewish education, especially for adult learners. Just as Rosenzweig found his way back to Judaism, he wanted to make it easier for others to do the same.
In Frankfort, he founded an well-respected institution directed to that purpose.
And then he came down with ALS -- a cruel, debilitating nerve disease. He became paralyzed, found it hard to speak, even swallow. But ... his literary output became greater than ever.
When he spoke, he could barely be understood -- except by his wife. He dictated to her. When he could no longer speak at all, he acquired a typewriter that he used with his mouth. And when that failed -- and he could only communicate by blinking -- his wife pointed to letters on a card and he blinked at the appropriate letter.
Somehow, in the midst of this horrendous eight year illness, Rosenzweig and Martin Buber translated much of the Hebrew Bible into German.
Franz Rosenzweig -- brilliant, indomitable -- a driven Jew who grew up clueless as to what that meant.
We do live in a largely Christian world. And this time, it surrounds us. How do we maintain our Jewishness when Christmas pervades ... well, pervades everything!
That's when Rosenzweig's upbringing is particularly instructive. He didn't know what it meant to be a Jew.
If we don't teach our children -- and more to the point, if we don't learn and don't continue learning ... we do have a serious dilemma.
Christmas especially can bring out issues people may have with their Jewish identity.
But to those grounded in Judaism -- who know they are Jews and know why -- those issues will not be the same.
And we cannot be grounded without education. Nor can we fall into the trap of thinking we already know enough. No one learned enough in Sunday school -- and none of us know enough now.
That is why this great philosopher continued deepening his own commitment to Jewish education. Franz Rosenzeig almost left Judaism because he didn't know what it was.
Once he embarked on his path, he didn't even let debilitating illness stop him. Instead, his soul just grew stronger.
I cannot think of a better role model for our times.