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