There are two stories of Germany and Jews: the culture of assimilated German Jews and the meeting of German culture with Jewish religion
My mother would never buy a Volkswagen. If my parents could have afforded a Mercedes, she wouldn’t have bought one either. Like most Jews of the wartime generation, she abhorred everything German. I wonder what she would have thought about Jews buying German submarines: the electro-diesel, nuclear-armed, Dolphin-class boats Germany designed as Israel’s ultimate Vergeltungswaffe (revenge weapon) and delivered in 1999, Germany’s contribution to preventing another Holocaust.
Germany will not fade from the Jewish present, nor, indeed, from the Jewish past. When we try today to picture the world of German Jewry, we are most likely to see the pointlessness of it all through the eyes of Franz Kafka and other Jews who once formed the cutting edge of cultural experimentation. In 2005 the Jewish Museum in New York devoted its main exhibition space to the salons of wealthy Jewish women from the late 18th century through the 1940s and their patronage of early Modernist artists—Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust. The coffee-klatsch and a college education launched the careers of any number of Jewish literary figures, but memories are fading. As a small child I wondered at the writers who stood on my grandparents’ small bookshelf, with magically unpronounceable names—Leon Feuchtwanger, for example, the bestselling novelist of the 1920s whom Hitler dubbed the “number one enemy of the state.” English editions of his novels are hard to scrounge today from used booksellers. The cultural world of German-Jewish assimilation lies moldering in Jewish studies departments.
In truth, there are two stories within the terrible history of Germany and the Jews. One is the story of the German Jews, Europe’s most assimilated community, who contributed to German civic life in vast disproportion to their small numbers. The other story is the meeting of German culture and Jewish religion. This story will never quite fade from Jewish life. Like the medieval Jewish engagement with Greek and Islamic thought, it raises issues that should preoccupy Jewish scholars for generations. It took place far from the glittering salons of the Berlin elite, in yeshiva classrooms and the lodgings of itinerant students. But it continues to have bearing on how Jews might live in the modern world, and its lessons, good as well as bad, will not soon lose importance.
It is still painful for Jews to bring to mind their long encounter with German culture. In the 2009 edition of Yeshiva University’s journal Torah u-Madda, Marc B. Shapiro published a translation of a sermon that the great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gave before his synagogue on the hundredth birthday of the German poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller in 1859. Hirsch lauded Schiller’s compassion and humanitarianism as Torah values, and quoted at length the poet’s “Ode to Joy,” the one Schiller poem Americans might have read, because Beethoven set its opening stanzas in his Ninth Symphony.
Shapiro’s translation bothered some Orthodox bloggers who objected to any kind reference to German culture. Schiller’s youthful Ode, to be sure, offers a soupy appeal to universal brotherhood that sounds better in his sonorous German verse than in the post-mortem of translation. Schiller wrote, for example,
Rancor and revenge be forgotten!
Our mortal enemy be forgiven!
Not one tear should oppress him,
No regret should gnaw at him.
The above strophe shows how much of the difference between German and Yiddish lies in pronunciation; in Yiddish we would say, rather, “Not one tear should oppress him? No regret should gnaw at him?” With due respect to Hirsch, there is some truth to the remonstration that he conceded too much to the universalism of German philosophy. But the give and take between German Jewish Orthodoxy and the poets of German Classicism was richer and subtler than his Schiller sermon might suggest.
By no accident, the outstanding leaders of what would become the main currents of American Judaism all studied at the University of Berlin during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the sage of postwar Modern Orthodoxy, wrote a doctorate in philosophy and mathematics there in 1932. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the leading voice of Conservative Judaism, finished his doctorate (later published as The Prophets) a couple of years later. The Reform scholar Leo Baeck earned his doctorate under the Berlin philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. The future Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, attended classes for two years in the early 1930s. Franz Rosenzweig, who belonged to no denomination but is read by all, had finished a dissertation (still in print) on Hegel and the state before abandoning academic life to lead a school for Jewish adult education.
Apart from Rosenzweig, none of them were German. Berlin was a magnet for Polish Jews like Schneerson, Heschel, and Baeck, and the Lithuanian Soloveitchik, because German Orthodoxy had created an intellectual world in dialogue with secular culture unlike any other since the time of Maimonides. At the center of this world was Berlin’s Hildesheimer Yeshiva, whose rector in the early 1930s, Yechiel Weinberg, led a Polish congregation before earning a doctorate in Hebrew at the University of Giessen. David Lincoln, rabbi emeritus at New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, met some of the Hildesheimer faculty after they came to Britain as wartime refugees. “My teacher,” Lincoln recalls, “was a traditional Jew with a long beard and forelocks, utterly strict in observance, but he had done a dissertation on Wordsworth.”
Even Franz Rosenzweig, whose attachment to German identity never faded during his brief life, might be counted as an honorary Ostjud. In 1913 he had decided to convert to Protestant Christianity, like any good Hegelian. But Rosenzweig, raised in a secular home, felt that he should convert to Christianity as a Jew, and for the first time attended Yom Kippur services—as it happened, in a shtiebel with Eastern European Jews. The religious passion of the Polish minyan won him over, and he became a baal tshuvah, a Jew who turns to embrace Orthodox Judaism, rather than a Christian.
Judaism’s encounter with Germany took place far from the salons of the German-Jewish elite. The secular achievements of German Jews still astonish: Fewer than a million of them left a giant imprint on science, art, and industry, not to mention the 1914 war effort. In the 1830s, the foremost musician and the foremost poet in this land of music and poetry were, respectively, Felix Mendelssohn and Heinrich Heine—both Christian converts, but prominently identified as Jews. German Jews earned Nobel Prizes in science and Olympic gold medals in saber (after the dueling clubs at German universities excluded them). They built critical sectors of the German economy. Despite his personal anti-Semitism, Kaiser Wilhelm II relied on Walter Rathenau, the Jewish president of General Electric of Germany, and the shipping magnate Albert Ballin, who killed himself when Germany lost World War I. To the extent that German Jews helped build German industry, Hitler was the final beneficiary of their enterprise, and to is hard to suppress the wish that they had done something else.
The story has been told well by Fritz Stern, and Paul Mendes-Flohr and other writers have dissected the German Jews’ tragic identification with their new Fatherland. After World War II, German Jews became the butt of yekke jokes (after the jacket, or Jacke, that they insisted on wearing even in Israel’s summer heat). “There’s no way Hitler could have lost that war if only he had gotten the Jews on his side,” goes one.
German-Jewish assimilation left little trace. The Reform and Conservative movements are German transplants to America, although in their present form they bear little resemblance to their Teutonic antecedents. The great biblical scholar Solomon Schechter (1847-1915) founded the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1903 as a traditional riposte to Reform Judaism, but his notion of a Jewish law that evolves by national consensus has left a legacy so confused that it is hard to speak of a Conservative Jewish theology. The German roots of Reform Judaism have long since faded.
But Modern Orthodoxy still struggles with the challenge that the “neo-Orthodox” Rabbi Hirsch raised in 1851 with the motto Torah im derekh eretz, Torah within the way of the land, or “Torah and civilization.” Pious Jews, he argued, should learn secular culture, not only in the professions, but also in music, literature, philosophy, and art. German neo-orthodoxy hoped to integrate Torah observance with participation in secular culture. His contemporary Esriel Hildesheimer, founder of the Berlin yeshiva where Rabbi Weinberg would later teach Menachem Schneerson and mentor the young Joseph Soloveitchik, spoke of Torah u-Madda (Torah and secular knowledge). Never before had religious Jews had the freedom and opportunity to engage a culture as deep and broad as the one that Germany incubated during the first half of the 19th century. Peter Watson in his 2010 book The German Genius calls the outpouring of German contributions to the arts and sciences “a second Renaissance.” Both as exemplar and admonition, the encounter of Judaism and German culture has no precedent in Jewish history.
A cultural backwater until the last quarter of the 18th century, Germany arrived at the cusp of the modern world ready for reinvention and relatively open to Jewish participation. Depopulated during the religious wars of the 17th century, Prussia welcomed Jewish immigrants of whom Moses Mendelssohn was the most famous. The Germans looked backward to the Greeks (hence the “Weimar Classic” of J.W. Goethe and Friedrich Schiller) and forward to the emerging natural sciences, but they evinced little interest in Christianity. The decidedly non-Christian character of the new German culture made it more approachable for Jews. But the German ersatz national religion of Kultur offered only feeble resistance to Nazi neo-paganism in the aftermath of World War I.
Two German thinkers demarcate the opposite poles of German culture and its Jewish response. One was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose Critique of Pure Reason leapfrogged 2,000 years of debate about the ultimate nature of reality. We cannot penetrate into the inner nature of objects that we perceive, Kant asserted: All we can know is the mechanisms for understanding them that are hard-wired into our brains. The apogee of Enlightenment rationalism, Kant thought that reason would prescribe ethics and foster world peace. The poet and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) saw instead the dark side of the Enlightenment: Freed from constraint, tradition, and faith, modern man faced instead existential despair and self-destruction. Men use reason, Mephistopheles tells God in the prologue to Goethe’s great drama Faust, to be beastlier than any beast. Kant dismissed Judaism as a relic of ancient irrationality; Goethe learned Hebrew and drew on the Bible to make sense of the spiritual crisis of modernity.
Jews who veered toward assimilation embraced Kant’s universalism, most prominent among them Hermann Cohen, Germany’s leading academic philosopher in the last years of the 19th century. Cohen never abjured his Jewish identity and struggled until the end of his life to reconcile the unique calling of Israel with Kant’s universalism. His story has become an object lesson in failed assimilation. The Jewish encounter with Goethe in many ways is more telling, for its failures as well as successes. Some of the great rabbis of the 19th century did not hesitate to draw on Goethe’s reading of the Bible; Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik saw theological importance in Goethe’s rejection of scientific determinism.
On one occasion, a leading Orthodox authority turned to Germany’s national drama, Goethe’s Faust, to translate a difficult passage in Tanakh. We remember the German-Jewish polymath Michael Friedländer for his English translation of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Isaiah. He was also the first Jew to publish an English-translation of the Tanakh, which Koren Publishers, in Jerusalem, keeps in print with minor revisions.
Friedländer translates Kohelet (3:14-15), the famous verse about time and eternity, in an idiosyncratic but convincing way. Unlike Aristotle, who thought time the mechanical counting of motion, or Kant, who thought time a category of perception hard-wired into the brain, or Husserl, for whom time is a phenomenon of infinite regress, Kohelet speaks of God’s time—all that has happened or will happen collapses into eternity:
I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; and God does it, so that men should fear before him. That which is, already has been; and that which is to be has already been; and only God can find the fleeting moment.
All Israel stood at Mount Sinai; all those who cling to God are alive today; Moses could audit Rabbi Akiva’s lectures, and halakha is debated in the Beth Midrash of all generations. We cannot grasp the moment; everything has its season, and we are enjoined to enjoy each thing in its proper time, knowing that it will fade.
But Friedländer’s translation, “only God can find the fleeting moment,” is odd. What Friedländer calls the “moment” is a rare reflexive form of the root r-d-f, “to pursue.” The literal meaning of the text, “God makes that which is driven away,” is obscure. But any contemporary German would have seen straightaway that Friedländer had paraphrased Goethe to clarify it; man’s incapacity to capture the moment, and the danger of falling under its spell, comprise the central theme of Faust. Goethe’s protagonist rejects the devil’s bargain (“I serve you here, you serve me there”); instead he tells Mephistopheles:
If I should say to the moment:
Linger still! You are so beautiful!
Then you can clap me in chains,
Then I will gladly go to my ruin!
Friedländer also might have had in mind “The Favor of the Moment,” a later (and much better) Schiller poem than the “Ode to Joy,” in which Schiller declares that the moment is “the mightiest of powers”: “From the first of all endeavor/ When the universe was wrought/ The divine on earth has ever/ Been a lightning-flash of thought.” And: “As the sunlight’s sparkling glances/ Weave a tapestry of hue/ When immortal Iris dances/ In a raincloud passing through/ So the Beautiful must vanish/ Like the fleeting spark of light/ Which the stormy vapors banish/ To the darkling grave of night.” (The translation is mine.) Whether Friedländer erred or not I will leave to competent authorities. But the exchange between the German national drama and rabbinical exegesis is remarkable.
Friedländer was not the only Orthodox authority to identify Faust with the Bible. Goethe was not the first Western poet to consider why life is worth living in the first place—Sophocles puts the question in the mouth of Oedipus—but he was the first to make it an explicit literary subject. Once the constraints of traditional society fell away, man became free, but the first thing he encountered in his new freedom was existential despair. In his own despair Goethe turned to Job and Kohelet. A generation after Friedländer, Rabbi Isaac Rosenberg (1860-1940), a Hildesheimer Yeshiva graduate with a doctorate in Aramaic, showed how much Goethe owed to King Solomon.
“The Book of Koheleth,” Rosenberg wrote, “portrays life itself—with all its evils and contradictions—as a problem in need of explanation and justification. It becomes a laboratory for an analysis of the manifold phenomena of human existence.” That is what Faust debates with Mephistopheles, whose tirade against life (as Rabbi Rosenberg observed) is an extended paraphrase of Kohelet. Faust does not want riches, women, or fame: he wants life:
What is apportioned to all humankind,
Would I enjoy in my inmost self,
Grasp the highest and lowest with my spirit,
And bring their weal and woe into my own breast. (Coleridge translation)
Mephistopheles listens amused; life is too distasteful to swallow, he replies:
Believe me, who for millennia past
Has chewed on this hard crust:
From cradle to the grave
No man ever has been able to digest this sourdough!
People want the illusion of the moment, not the long slog of living, the devil insists. Which Faust will choose is the subject of their wager and the drama. Much of Goethe’s drama derives from the Book of Job. As I argued in a 2009 essay in First Things, Goethe hit upon a marvelous device: to invert the premise of the Book of Job. To tempt the righteous man of Uz, the biblical Satan takes from him all that ancient man might need (wealth, children, and health). Goethe’s Mephistopheles torments Faust instead by offering him everything that modern man might desire. We moderns, Goethe is saying, have achieved a degree of freedom unimaginable to the ancients but have become the victims of this freedom.
If anything, Rabbi Rosenberg was too generous toward Goethe, who walked the narrow ridge between faith and nihilism without ultimately taking sides. For all their flaws—and they were grievous—the literary giants of the German Classic went to the Bible because they were smart enough to understand that this ancient text spoke uniquely and directly to the existential need of modern man. Orthodox rabbis like Friedländer and Rosenberg were not afraid to study the reflection of Hebrew revelation in Gentile eyes. At its best, this was a dialogue at a distance between keen minds from incompatible worlds. This dialogue permeates Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, which alludes so frequently to German literature and philosophy that a modern English reader cannot easily follow it without extensive annotation, which is why Rosenzweig’s masterwork languishes in the dark mills of academia. A great deal of Rosenzweig scholarship (including the most recent attempt at an English translation of the Star) betrays lack of knowledge of the German language, let alone German literature.
At the opposite pole from the biblical affinity of German poets and Jewish scholars we find yekke universalism in the Kantian ethics of Hermann Cohen.
And if some Orthodox rabbis conceded too much to secular culture, a converted and assimilated Jew became its nemesis. The poet and critic Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) was something of a Jewish double agent within German secular culture. For some decades he was heir to Goethe’s crown in lyric poetry. He called his work “the last free forest-song of Romanticism” but with self-referential irony. After abandoning the Judaism of his childhood for a “ticket of admittance to European culture,” he attacked the flaws of that culture from within.
Heine is the first writer to assert that Germany’s true religion is the old Teutonic paganism that suppurated beneath the veneer of Christianity. His tortuous return to Judaism became one of the most affecting of modern Jewish life stories. Heine’s belated tshuvah has the poignancy of the prodigal son, captured in poems such as “Princess Sabbath” and “Yehuda Halevi.” As their peer in German letters, Heine looked at Goethe and Schiller with less reverence than chutzpah. In “Princess Sabbath” he lampooned the “Ode to Joy”:
“Cholent, spark of Heaven’s lightninge!
Daughter of Elysium!”
That’s what Schiller would have written
If he’d ever tasted cholent.
In Heine’s hands, the measure and balance of German poetry turned into instruments of comic timing, and the form of the Romantic lyric could support the content of a Yiddish curse. Think of something like Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” but with a Borscht Belt punchline. Heine gave double offense to the Romantics, first by writing better verse than they did, and second by refusing to take them seriously.
Heine turned his irony most ruthlessly against his own estrangement from Judaism. A dream sequence in his novel-length poem “Atta Troll,” for example, puts the poet in the path of the wilde Jagd, the spectral hunters of German myth. “Atta Troll” begins as a savage satire of Marxism—the hero is a dancing bear who leads a rebellion of the beasts against human oppression—but descends to deeper matters.
Legend included Herodias—the mother of Salome, who instigated the murder of John the Baptist—in the ghastly pack of hunters. In his dream, Heine observes that in life she secretly loved the Baptist and out of spite had him beheaded. Now she rises nightly from her grave carrying his severed head on a plate, tossing it in the air like a mad child playing with a ball. The poet falls in love with this preposterous ghost at first sight. “Love me, and be my love! Dump this Dummkopf and his stupid plate,” he pleads. “I know that you are not only dead, but eternally damned—but I’m not prejudiced.” He promises to ride beside her and amuse her during her nightly haunt; during the day, he will lie upon her grave in Jerusalem and weep. Pious pilgrims will think that he is mourning the destruction of the Temple. Later he wrote of the great medieval poet Yehuda Halevi, the “Jewish minnesinger” whose love was “the very picture of destruction, and her name was Jerusalem.”
Religious Jews regard Heine with well-founded suspicion, but as a late-in-life returnee to Jewish observance, I found Heine’s account of his tortuous path an inspiration, and I suspect that other Jews undertaking tshuvah might do so as well. Because Heine worked his way out of cultural assimilation from the inside, his critique of the culture is all the more thorough. “Away with heathen musica!” he wrote one in a deathbed poem. “Let David’s pious harp-strains accompany my song of praise. My song resounds, Hallelujah!”
In Heine’s generation conversion to Protestantism was the “price of a ticket to European culture.” Heine’s inner Jew raged against his Babylonian captivity until he emerged triumphant on the poet’s deathbed. A generation after his death in 1856, though, German acceptance of the Jewish presence produced a more insidious form of assimilation. Jews no longer were excluded from university positions. Between 1880 and World War I, Hermann Cohen was Germany’s pre-eminent philosopher as well as its foremost Jewish public intellectual. His famous defense of Judaism in 1880 against the anti-Semitism of Heinrich von Treitschke claimed that Jewish “ethical monotheism” anticipated the ethics of Kant and therefore was compatible with German culture. Like the Reform Jews, who repudiated the Election of Israel and the hope of a coming Messiah, Cohen hoped to get round the scandal of Jewish particularity.
Cohen died in 1918. When the 23-year-old Joseph Soloveitchik arrived in Berlin eight years later, he hoped to write a dissertation on Maimonides but could not find an adviser. Instead he wrote about Cohen, to the lasting benefit of Jewish thinking. The new German science of the 1920s had made a shambles of Cohen’s deterministic world. In The Halakhic Mind, Soloveitchik announced an historic opportunity in the ruin of Kantian objectivity. The end of the Newtonian determinism “has helped deliver the philosopher from his bondage to the mathematical sciences.” He praised the Danish physicist Niels Bohr for “exploiting Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle to [undertake] the refutation of the time-hallowed myth of the insularity of the physical world.”
If the downfall of determinism removes a stumbling-block to religious philosophy, what would constitute a Jewish philosophy of religion? Not, argued the Rav, Maimonides’ attempt to explain the commandments by external criteria. That would reduce religion to “the handmaiden of ethics,” a “means to the realization of a ‘higher’ end.” And surely not through Hermann Cohen’s approach, whose “main trends are Kantian and not Jewish.” Soloveitchik concludes, “There is only a single source from which a Jewish philosophical Weltanschauung could emerge; the objective order—the Halakhah.” The subject of Jewish philosophy is not the “why” of the commandments—that is autonomous—but rather the “how.” Deep investigation of the “how” might “penetrate the basic structures of our religious consciousness. We might also evolve cognitive tendencies and aspects of our world interpretation and gradually grasp the mysteries of the religious halakhic act.”
Soloveitchik’s sketch of a Jewish philosophy of religion remains on the unfinished agenda of Modern Orthodoxy. It is a gauge of how lonely he was in this endeavor that The Halakhic Mind did not appear until 1986, and only in the version in which the Rav had left the manuscript in 1944, without a new introduction, let alone additional notes.
By the time that Martin Heidegger bested Cohen’s disciple Ernst Cassirer at their celebrated 1929 Davos debate, the old order of Kantian objectivity was in ruins. Heidegger shortly thereafter joined the Nazi party and became the rector of the University of Freiburg. So cleverly did he argue the case for radical subjectivity that his Jewish students Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt never broke free of his spell. The great upheavals in German culture terminate in Heidegger, who is all the more dangerous, and all the more persuasive, for offering a secular philosophy that pretends to accomplish what religion did not. Heidegger’s account of non-Being in his famous lecture “What is Metaphysics?” is a prolonged paraphrase of Mephistopheles. If Greek philosophy said that we cannot think rationally about something that does not exist, Heidegger said, we nonetheless can feel non-Being, through boredom, fear, and anxiety.
Where it inclined toward Judaism, the German Classic tried to translate the Bible into secular wisdom. And the dreadful outcome of the project should stand as a warning to Jews that our Scriptures cannot be sold retail in the secular world: They remain our bridge to the God of Abraham, the living heritage of his enduring family.
For evil as well as good, all the great issues of modernity came to a head in Germany. Despite Germany’s descent into barbarism and ruin during World War II, these issues have not gone away. Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1988) quipped that American intellectuals were singing from a cheat sheet, with bad English translations of German originals. Jews sing from their own book, to be sure. But we cannot quite make sense of what modern Jewish religious belief has become—for better as well as for worse—without retracing our steps through German intellectual history. And we cannot advance the religious agenda set forth by some of our best thinkers of the past century without making sense of what they learned in Berlin.
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