Henry M. Rosenthal Papers
Scope and Contents
This collection documents the professional and personal life of Henry M. Rosenthal from 1925 to 1989. His tenure as religious director of the 92nd Street Young Men's Hebrew Association and membership of the faculty at Hunter College are well documented through correspondence and supporting materials. Rosenthal’s Philosophical career and published writings make up the bulk of the collection, which includes manuscripts, drafts, and bound copies of his work. Unpublished manuscripts are of particular interest, as are the early drafts of his posthumously published "The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes's Secret; Spinoza's Way". Personal journals and early letters between Rosenthal and his wife, the former Rachel Chernowitz, complete the collection.
- Creation: undated, 1925-1989
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Biographical / Historical
Henry M. Rosenthal was born on January 9, 1906 in Louisville, Kentucky. At the age of fifteen, he was sent to New York City to begin his college years at Columbia University.
In the celebrated Columbia class of 1925, he would become, in the words of theologian Thomas Altizer, “the philosophical and theological center of a brilliant group of young New York intellectuals, including Meyer Schapiro and Lionel Trilling and, while he was the only believing and practicing Jew within this group, in their early days he commanded their moral center of gravity. He did so as a future rabbi who would at a later phase leave the rabbinate and the formal observances and become a professor of philosophy.” (Altizer’s review of Rosenthal’s The Consolations of Philosophy in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Winter 1990).
Trilling called Henry Rosenthal “my closest friend at college” (in Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning (The Viking Press, 1955). Rosenthal and Trilling ”served on the staff of the Morningside, Columbia’s literary magazine under the editorship of fellow students Clifton Fadiman and Victor Lemaitre. The magazine had quality; Whittaker Chambers, Jacques Barzun, John Gassner, S. Guy Endore, and Meyer Schapiro were writing for the Morningside … Louis Zukofsky and Mortimer Adler had appeared in its pages several years earlier. Trilling, Rosenthal, Fadiman and Herbert Solow were known as campus intellectuals … and brought one another into Eliot Cohen’s circle at The Menorah Journal. (Elinor Grumet, “The Apprenticeship of Lionel Trilling,” in Prooftexts May 1984.)
Years later, philosopher Sydney Hook said to Henry Rosenthal’s daughter Abigail, “Henry was Lionel’s Jewish education.” Their differences over what it meant to be a Jew might have played a part in their eventual estrangement, prefigured in the remarkable pair of short stories each published about their friendship in The Menorah Journal (Trilling’s “Impediments,” 1925 and Rosenthal’s “Inventions,” 1928.)
Upon graduation, in 1925, Rosenthal entered the Jewish Theological Seminary. In September of 1927, he married Rachelle Tchernowitz, the daughter of Chaim Tchernowitz, known by his pen name of Rav Tsair (“the Young Rabbi”). She was passing through New York because Rav Tsair had recently been invited to move from Lausanne, Switzerland to accept the position of Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Institute of Religion. The courtship of Henry and Rachelle is recorded in Vol. I of the Rosenthal Journals.
Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism, met Rosenthal as a young seminarian and recorded his impressions: “He is one of the very few extraordinary men that have walked into my life … not only a man of unusual literary gifts but of extraordinary spiritual insight and courage.” (Communings of the Spirit: The Journals of Mordecai Kaplan, Vol. I, ed. Mel Scult, The Reconstructionist Press, 2001.) Graduating from the Seminary in 1929, Rosenthal became Religious Director at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City and founder of its well-known Adult School of Jewish Studies. Speakers included figures of the stature of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Neibuhr.
In 1940, he received the Ph.D in Philosophy from Columbia with On the Function of Religion in Culture (Columbia University Press, 1941). In a Forward, his advisor, Horace L. Friess, wrote, ”One has to go back to Emile Durkheim’s work to find comparable reflections on the basic relations of religion and society.” Together, he and Friess wrote, “Reason in Religion and the Emancipated Spirit: A Dialogue,” published in The Philosophy of George Santayana (Northwestern University Press, 1940). Of that essay, Santayana wrote, “Exactly: this hits the nail on the head … .” (“Apologia Pro Mente Sua,” in the same volume.) Meanwhile, Rosenthal’s essays and reviews appeared in The Menorah Journal, Conservative Judaism and The Reconstructionist. See https://independent.academia.edu/RosenthalHenry
During the War years, Henry and Rachelle rescued ten families from the Holocaust, overcoming the State Department’s formidable barriers. He left the rabbinate in 1945, first as Extension Lecturer at Cooper Union, then Guggenheim Fellow, finally joining the faculty of the Philosophy Department at Hunter College of The City University of New York, retiring in 1973 as Professor Emeritus. His work in that period included essays on Plato and Berkeley to Foundations of Western Thought (Knopf, 1962). His last book, published posthumously, was The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, edited and with an Introduction by Abigail L. Rosenthal (Temple University Press, 1989).
Henry M Rosenthal died July 29, 1977. He had two daughters, Professor of Philosophy Emerita Abigail L. Rosenthal and Lucy Rosenthal, writer and critic.
10 Manuscript Boxes
Language of Materials
The collection is located at the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th Street, New York, NY 10011
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Donated by Lucy and Abigail Rosenthal
- Guide to the Henry M. Rosenthal Papers
- Ruby Johnstone
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- Description is in English.