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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)

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.”

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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