“In the wake of the perceived demise of Marxism and of Heidegger’s Nazism, everybody’s looking for an ethics. But in fact they should be looking for a political theology.” – Gillian Rose
I am grateful to Rev. David Pileggi for drawing my attention to this outstanding Jewish Christian thinker, and reproduce here the obituary in the Tablet that appeared a month after her death.
Page 14, 6th January 1996
The brilliant Jewish philosopher, Professor Gillian Rose, died of cancer on 9 December, aged 48, an hour and a half after being baptised into the Christian Church by the Bishop of Coventry, Simon Barrington-Ward. He speaks with deep emotion about his final memories of her.
So does Bishop Rowan Williams, of Monmouth diocese. Gillian Rose was “a most wonderful woman”, he says, who “taught me more than almost anyone else since my undergraduate days”. In particular he treasures a moving and very personal letter on prayer that she wrote him in her last illness, which showed “an extraordinary sense of learning to worship in the middle of the most acute pain”.
He had been one of the special guests she invited to her baptism, which she had been planning with great enthusiasm for 6 p.m. on 9 December, so that the scholars taking part in a symposium she had organised on “The Soul and the City” could come on after their day’s work. When they arrived, however, they found she had gone ahead of them.
Simon Barrington-Ward had known Gillian Rose ever since she came to Warwick as Professor of Social and Political Thought, and they used to meet for conversations about Hegel and post-modernism. There was “incredible fertility in her thinking”, he said, so that she was always surprising him by her range of knowledge, which would run from John Climacus to Agatha Christie. He found her an “immense stimulus” to his thought and prayer.
[Barrignton-Ward wrote: At Warwick University, where the then professor of social thought, Gillian Rose, helped me to explore the movement of what she called “failing towards,” continuous metanoia, in Hegel and Kierkegaard. Tragically, she was struck down with cancer, which she fought bravely, and in the course of the struggle worked through her own insight until the point at which I had the privilege, on her death bed, of baptizing her.]
She was in no sense conventional. She came from a family background shattered by divorce and by the Holocaust, rebelled against both her headmistress and her Oxford tutor, and discovered Sixties culture through a relationship with a bisexual lover, Jim Fessenden, in New York. She returned to Oxford to write a thesis on the Frankfurt philosopher, Theodor Adorno, and then taught sociology in Sussex, where she attracted many research students and said that her children were her books.
She once told Barrington-Ward that she was “too Jewish to be Christian” and “too Christian to be Jewish”, though she had held a kind of Trinitarian belief, or a triune view of reality, for some years. He had seen her thought gradually converging on Christ, but still her decision, in the last week of her life, had left him “surprised by joy: I never knew when to expect it, or whether”.
He had been due to visit her in hospital on Monday 4 December, but returning from Devon he rang the hospital to say he was tired and would come in the morning. The nurse returned to the phone to say, “Professor Rose says it is imperative that you come now”. He found her writing her journal. She took his hand and said, “I had to speak to you. I want you to do something. I do want you to baptise me”.
The bishop returned home on Saturday afternoon, from a retreat at a Russian Orthodox monastery at Tolleshunt Knights, to find a message from the hospital saying her condition had suddenly deteriorated. Arriving at her bedside at 4.30 p.m., he found her unconscious, but he took her hand and said, “I am going to baptise you straightaway”, and he believed he felt her respond.
About an hour later, the Provost of Coventry Cathedral, John Petty, laid hands on her and prayed, and after that she seemed to rest, and very gradually slipped away.
Acknowledging Christ was very hard for her — Rowan Williams said such a decision must always be for a Jew something of “a violent act” — but she told Simon Barrington-Ward that it had been like the woman touching the hem of Christ’s garment, and being made whole. The miracle story was read at her funeral, in Coventry Cathedral on 15 December. Her baptism, said Margaret Archer, a Catholic sociologist colleague from Warwick, in her funeral address, was not a repudiation of her Jewishness, but a fulfilment of it.
‘This book offers its readers something that is urgently needed, a clear, lively and readable ‘way in’ to the difficult, but fascinating writings of Gillian Rose, one of the most dauntingly original and significant social critics and thinkers of our time. Her seemingly unaccountable and yet, at a deeper level, profoundly consistent spiritual and intellectual journey now appears to be of the greatest importance to all of us.’ The Rt Revd Simon Barrington-Ward, former Bishop of Coventry
The account above gives some small insight into the amazing fertility of Rose’s philosophical thought, her ability to live life as an act of love and worship, and the influence she had on the contemporary theology, cultural studies, feminism and other fields. Her writing is not easy, but I list a series of articles and links about her and her work.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for the life, work and testimony of Gillian Rose, a bright and shining star of a life of love, and a love of life. Although she described herself as “too Jewish to be a Christian and too Christian to be a Jew”, we see in the complexity of her thought, identity and struggles a servant searching for the truth who was found by the one who said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. May her memory and legacy long continue to be a blessing and a challenge to us to think clearly, act with integrity, and live a life that offers true worship to you, Lord of the Universe and Saviour of Israel and the nations. In your name we pray. Amen.
Links for further study:
To hear Rose speak about her life and work listen to:
Dialogue 16th April 2005 – Repeat of Andy O’Mahony’s interview with Gillian Rose, Part 2. First broadcast on 4th November 1995.
text of interview
http://people.bu.edu/joeld/politics-and-metaphysics.pdf -Rowan Williams
Geoffrey Hill, In Memoriam: Gillian Rosehttp://dangreeson.tumblr.com/post/5887188355/in-memoriam-gillian-rose
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+tragedy+of+Gillian+Rose.-a020583585 On December 9, 1995, The Jewish Philosopher and social critic Gillian Rose died of ovarian cancer at forty-eight, after a long and painful illness of more than two years duration. She had published many books, including a memoir of her dying years, Love’s Work, and a posthumous masterpiece, Mourning Becomes the Law. In the last hours before her death, Rose was received into the Anglican church by the Bishop of Coventry, a close personal friend. Her admirers, particularly her Jewish admirers, were and remain dumbfounded, since she had professed a critical loyalty to Judaism for all of her adult life.
Gillian Rose’s story is a tragic one. She died too young. She could not finish her self-appointed task. She found Judaism insufficient to calm her restless spirit. She walked a lonely, perhaps forever a unique path. She has no disciples, only friends who mourn her loss. I never knew her. But she remains in my mind and in my Kaddish prayer on her Yahrzeit. Her work is not aesthetic, only deeply felt. Her conclusions are often highly debatable, but her critiques, I believe, are worth serious investigation. She is no longer our living interlocutor, but her memory may yet be a blessing to many.
ARNOLD JACOB WOLF, a contributing editor, is Rabbi of K.A.M. Isaiah Israd Congregation in Chicago.