There are two stories of Germany and Jews: the culture of assimilated German Jews and the meeting of German culture with Jewish religion
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.