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.