To the Editor:
In his interesting article on Gershom Scholem [“The Greatness of Gershom Scholem,” September 1983], Hyam Maccoby also refers to Franz Rosenzweig, and takes the occasion to inform us that “Franz Rosenzweig . . . was recalled to Judaism not by the decorous German-Jewish Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch, but by attending a fervent Yom Kippur service in a prayer room of East European Jews.”
The factual basis of this story is, one might suppose, taken from Nahum N. Glatzer’s Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought. Glatzer reports: “[Rosenzweig] left Kassel and went to Berlin. There he attended the Atonement Day service (October 11)at a small Orthodox synagogue. The experience of this day was the origin of his radical return to Judaism.”
In Mr. Maccoby’s retelling, the “small Orthodox synagogue” becomes a “prayer room of East European Jews,” and the point is made that the service which Rosenzweig attended on that Day of Atonement did not follow the style of the “decorous German-Jewish Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch.” How does Mr. Maccoby know this?
Professor Rivka Horwitz, an expert on the life and thought of Franz Rosenzweig, has done some research on the subject, and she arrives at the following conclusion: “On that Yom Kippur, Rosenzweig went to the Orthodox synagogue, Potsdamer Brücke. There he saw a different community of Jews and a different kind of rabbi, Marcus Petuchowski, who was versed in Jewish learning, knew Hebrew, and was influential with youth” (“Judaism Despite Christianity,” Judaism, Summer 1974).
Marcus Petuchowski, my grandfather, was ordained at the Hildesheimer rabbinical seminary in Berlin, an institution whose underlying philosophy was not all that different from the views propounded by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Though Marcus Petuchowski did not heed Hirsch’s call for the establishment of a secessionist Orthodoxy, his overall outlook and his way of life were absolutely consonant with Hirsch’s program of “Torah combined with secular culture.” After all, he had obtained his Ph.D. degree at a secular university (Halle), and had studied philosophy, classics, and Semitic languages—hardly the kind of rabbi one imagines leading services in “a prayer room of East European Jews.” In fact, the Potsdamer Brücke synagogue in Berlin was nothing of the sort! In his book, Die Berliner Privatsynagogen und thre Rabbiner (Jerusalem, 1971), Max M. Sinasohn informs us that the synagogue in question was known as “the millionaires’ temple,” that it could boast of a male choir under expert musical direction, and that among its members were leading industrialists like Aron Hirsch, merchant princes like Oskar Tietz, prominent Berlin physicians and jurists, and the father of the painter Max Liebermann. On the basis of Sinasohn’s description, it is hard to believe that the services conducted in that synagogue could have been anything but “decorous.”
It is true that in his later writings Rosenzweig distanced himself from the religious position of Samson Raphael Hirsch, just as he voiced his disagreement with the official brand of German liberal Judaism. But those facts do not warrant the inference that, in 1913, Rosenzweig experienced the turning-point of his life in “a prayer room of East European Jews.”
Jakob J. Petuchowski
Hyam Maccoby writes:
I am grateful to Jakob J. Petuchowski for his correction. I carelessly conflated Franz Rosenzweig’s Yom Kippur experience of 1913 with his later experience of the East European shul and heder while serving as a soldier in Poland in 1918. According to Glatzer, it was Rosenzweig’s encounter with Polish Judaism that confirmed and renewed his Yom Kippur revelation. My main point, therefore, is not affected.