No institution has had more of an impact on adult Jewish learning in the past century than the Frankfurt Lehrhaus, founded by Franz Rosenzweig in 1920. The brilliant young philosopher forsook the rigidity and hierarchy of the German university system and instead established a school for everyone: young and old, men and women, people of all social classes, immigrants and native Germans, and those of every stripe of Judaism. He also invited Christians and Buddhists.
In particular, he sought to bring Jews like himself, who had grown up in assimilated homes, back home to the Judaism of their ancestors. In 1913, like many in his circle, he had actually decided to convert to Christianity. But after experiencing an epiphany at Yom Kippur services in a small Orthodox shul, he resolved to remain a Jew. Later, as a soldier in World War I, he began work on his magnum opus, the pathbreaking theological tract Star of Redemption, on army postcards that he mailed home from the trenches for his mother to transcribe. While in military service, he encountered Yiddish-speaking Jews in Warsaw and Sephardi Jews in the Balkans, and famously said, “Nothing Jewish is alien to me.”
A few years after his return from the army Rosenzweig opened the Lehrhaus, envisioning stimulating dialogue and discussion in seminar rooms rather than formal professorial lectures in auditoriums. He wanted people to freely explore their Jewish identity, based on individual needs and desires, and maintained that the questions were more important than the answers. The teachers would not come to class with pre-set lesson plans; rather they would arrive in the discussion room prepared to listen to the students. He strongly encouraged students and teachers to frequently exchange places in the classroom.
Rosenzweig himself lived as an Orthodox Jew but he rejected observance based on habit or obligation. For him, Jewish education and practice had to relate to life, hopefully the rejuvenation of Jewish life within the individual. It could be a gradual process; when asked if he performed a particular mitzvah, he often refrained from a yes or no answer and replied, “Not yet.”
The faculty of the Frankfurt Lehrhaus was studded with luminaries. Rosenzweig, along with Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, both of whom would later direct the school, are often considered the three most influential modern Jewish thinkers. One could study Jewish mysticism with Gershom Sholem, philosophy with Erich Fromm, art with Marc Chagall, and Hebrew literature with the future Nobel prize winner S.Y. Agnon.
But Rosenzweig was even prouder of those teachers who were not renowned specialists steeped in Jewish learning from childhood, but who rather had learned the material themselves in later life, often as Lehrhaus students. Even more than scholarly achievement, he valued instructors with good communication skills who could create dialogical situations.
Tragically, in 1922 Rosenzweig was diagnosed with ALS (known today as Lou Gehrig’s disease), which robbed him of his mobility and even his power of speech. His classes met at his home and he pointed to letters on an alphabet board that his devoted wife transcribed and enunciated for him. When he read, she had to turn the pages. The disease grew progressively worse until his death in 1929 at the age of 44.
But Rosenzweig’s philosophy of Jewish education has lived on. Perhaps the Frankfurt Lehrhaus and its environment seem familiar to us today—an assimilated Jewish community of people searching for a Jewish identity, an adult school trying to meet that need based on non-denominational pluralism, a very broad spectrum of offerings, an inclusive faculty both of established scholars and knowledgeable, inspired laypeople, and above all, a pedagogy based on dialogue, the invaluable interchange between teacher and student and among the students themselves.
Lehrhaus Judaica, founded in the Bay Area in 1974 (currently HaMaqom), owes much to Franz Rosenzweig and his revolutionary vision of bridging the gap between Jewish learning and life. Please join me and Hamaqom CEO, Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, Ph.D., on Tuesday evening, December 15, as we celebrate the centenary of the Frankfurt Lehrhaus and discuss its legacy.
Lehrhaus Judaica, founded in the Bay Area in 1974 (currently HaMaqom), owes much to Franz Rosenzweig and his revolutionary vision of bridging the gap between Jewish learning and life. Please join me and Hamaqom CEO, Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, Ph.D., on Tuesday evening, December 15, as we celebrate the centenary of the Frankfurt Lehrhaus and discuss its legacy. (info below)