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Faustian Bargains

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

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Goethe Schiller monument in Weimar, Germany. (David Ortmann/Flickr)

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.

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The irony of the reform Jews and the revolutionary Jews in the 19th century is that they were the first to jump on the bandwagon of anti-nationalism, mostly because that was the best way to fit in. We all know how that turned out. Now one one of the reasons that Israel is hated by some in Europe is because Nationalism is out of fashion and Israel is viewed as some sort of dinosaur. Maybe the lesson here is that we should do what is best for us without wondering what the rest of the world thinks.

Ruth Gutmann says:

Mr. Goldman occasionally substitutes his opinions for the historical facts. I only wish to mention that Leo Baeck was a German, not an Eastern Jew. But it is not my purpose to claim that that made him either better or worse

David Goldman says:

Ms. Gutmann,
Baeck was born in Posen, a Polish territory acquired by Prussia at the end of the 18th century and returned to Poland after World War II. Wikipedia lists him as a “German-Polish-Jewish” rabbi.

allan siegel says:

Is this an article about how to make a scrambled egg? Maybe Mr. Goldman’s mental GPS can’t follow destinations or is stuck on some endless interstate of half-baked opinion with an occasional pit-stop filled with tidbits of information. Precisely, what are you trying to say?

Michael says:

A fascinating essay. The story of Jewish assimilation and unrequited love for Germany has been told many times. But the story how the committed Jews, including what we call today orthodoxy, used German/secular culture to try to understand their own identity is certainly original, and would make the theme of a book I certainly will love reading.

Get out of my head, David Goldman! This is the milieu and era I think about constantly, so your article made for a highly enjoyable subway ride. I’m currently reading Gershom Scholem’s book about his buddy Walter Benjamin. Did you know the latter was distantly related to Heine? I’m also thinking about doing my MA thesis on Rosenzweig and Modernism.

Would you hypothesize any historic/identity parallels between German Jews and American Jews? How is it that (the German-born, American-raised) Ludwig Lewisohn went through the same conversion process as Rosenzweig, at a similar time?

David Goldman says:

Lewisohn and Walter Benjamin have not been my areas of study, but any time spent with Franz Rosenzweig is worthwhile. For all his lacunae, Rosenzweig was a genius. There is more to be gleaned in his smallest asides than in the main arguments of many another author. My only caution would be not to rely on translation but to read Rosenzweig in the original.

JCarpenter says:

Interesting comparison of Job’s story with the Faust legend; how much more encouraging is Job’s statement of faith—the anti-Faust, having all taken away by the devil—”I know my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my body has been destroyed, yet in my flesh, I shall see God.”
Thanks for the article;
Peace and Light–JC

The most important and critical part of this artice is a message for American Jews. Buying in to the dominant culture at the expense of first and foremost comeplete identification as Jew completely is they you too wi be lost to Jewish History.

Most Jews didn’t get out of Egypt. Most didn’t get out of Babylon. Most didn’t get out of Persia. And most didn’t get out of Europe. When you disconnect from the 4,000 year inexcorable journey of the Jewish Peope to your Tribal Homeland, you disconnect from our history and at best become an article lamenting your ultimate irrelevancy.

And it’s happening before your eyes. Becoming chic youtube Heeb’s is no substitue for the fullness of being Jews in your Land, speaking your Language, living your Traditions and becoming One with your Ancient Elders and your G-d.

All the rationalizations and self-serving Hellenistic living cannot overcome these truths. And it’s happening before your eyes!

Simple as it is.

Dietz Ziechmann says:

The 17th Century saw the awarekening of the Jewish Enlightenment in Germany. The 19th century saw the birth of pro-Jewish Protestant biblical scholarship there and the begiinings of the Reform Movement. Reform de-cannonized the Talmud for itself and denounced nationalism for itself and others, but it fatefully didn’t redact the bloody, ruthless genocide in that palimsest of literature the Torah, nor did it lead in a long-over due redaction of the New Testament with its peculiar undertones and overtones of Judeophobia and anti-Jewishism. Yet, therefore Christians and other non-Jews continued to read these texts and derive unconsconscious or subsconscious Judeophobia from them which was never removed, because never fully explicated and never fully countered. Non-Jews tended to regard antagonism towards non-Jews as continuing to be active because it was not removed from Torah passages, after all treated ritually as sacred “Instruction” as it continues to be a source for some political Zionists, even the atheists who founded and continue leadership in the present-day “State of Israel”. Add to that the prominent, if generally “secular” element, often clandestine, sometimes flamboyant,of Jewish leadership in the violent “Red” revolutionary movement and one can see sources of ongoing Judeophobia. Jay Michelson offers a new paradigm of non-dualistic Judaism, which helps, but a new, highly redacted edition the Bible (both “Testaments” explained and an addition explaining he core foundation of Islam)needs to be produced and distributed in multiple languages throughout the many countries of the Abrahamic world before we shall see a truly messianic olam haba, an Eschaton, an “End of Days”, a trully secure and wholisic state in the Near/Middle East honoring the best of Jewish and Zionist (to say nothing of “Christian” and “Islamic” ideals). A gigant task, but less work than tracking down all terrorists in the world. B’shalom,l’shalom. Dietz Ziechmann, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

a small point: i do not think that rabbi soloveitchik ever studied with rabbi y.y. weinberg–if you know of a reliable source which has otherwise, please let me know

WFB, I was careful not to say that Rabbi Soloveitchik studied with Rabbi Weinberg, but rather that he was his mentor–that is, he looked out for the young Soloveitchik during his student years and kept in contact with the Soloveitchik family in Lithuania. I learned this from students of R. Soloveitchik.

Mike Weber says:

The “Mercedes” Benz is named after a Jewish girl.

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Faustian Bargains

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