German Jews Beyond Judaism
The German Jew: A Synthesis of Judaism and Western Civilization, 17301930
In the years following Germany’s unification in 1871, the historian Heinrich von Treitschke devoted much of his abundant energy to detecting and attacking what he considered to be forces of particularism and dissent which threatened the frail national consensus. Although by no means an unconditional enemy of the Jews (he praised the Prussian Jews who had fought for liberation in 1813 and was an admirer of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, whom he described as a “German from top to toe”), he came to believe that the present generation of Jews resisted assimilation and was an alien element in society by its own choice. In November 1879, in an article in the Preußische Jahrbücher that became notorious and helped to feed the fires of anti-Semitism in the empire, he wrote that “the Jews are our national misfortune,” adding that Mendelssohn’s achievement showed that they could win respect and recognition only if they submerged themselves wholly and unconditionally in German life.
What made this article doubly offensive to the German Jews to whom it was addressed was that they had long anticipated Treitschke’s demands. Ever since the eighteenth century, when Moses Mendelssohn had called upon his co-religionists to stop regarding themselves as a separate nation and to accept German culture as their own, assimilation had been their goal, and Moses Mendelssohn’s translation of the Old Testament with a Hebrew commentary had encouraged this by teaching German to generations of Jews and easing their transition to a new spiritual home within European civilization.
The determination with which they pursued this course was shown by the fervor with which they cultivated the German classics—the almost excessive admiration that was accorded to Goethe, for example, by Jewish intellectuals from Rahel Varnhagen to Walter Benjamin—and by their own rich contributions to German art and scholarship from Heine to Einstein. By Treitschke’s time, the average Jew, baptized or unbaptized, was German in his virtues and vices, his dress and manners, and his deeply felt patriotism, and this continued to be so, as the way in which they rallied to the colors in 1914 attested. It has been said that German Jews who went into exile in France after 1933 were called “les bei uns” by their hosts because they were always talking of home and comparing what they found abroad unfavorably with what they had left behind, and that even former prisoners in the concentration camp at Dachau who found themselves temporarily in French camps for refugees had been heard to say, “Bei uns in Dachau war alles besser organisiert.”
Yet it cannot be said that this ardor for assimilation was ever as welcome to non-Jews as Treitschke had implied that it would be. For all of their efforts, Jews remained outsiders in German eyes. Ludwig Börne, who was born in the Frankfurt ghetto, once wrote, “It’s like a wonder. I have experienced it a thousand times, and yet it always remains new. Some people reproach me for being a Jew, and some forgive me for it, and still others praise me for it, but they all think of it. They are as if enchanted in a magical Jewish circle, and no one can get out.”
The nobility of Moses Mendelssohn’s character, his intellectual stature, and the quality of his scholarship impressed contemporaries like Lessing and Kant, yet Maupertuis, the president of the Prussian Academy, could not prevent himself from making the waspish comment that Mendelssohn lacked nothing but a little foreskin to be a great man. Almost two centuries later, Walter Rathenau, whose organizational skills were to prove invaluable in the mobilization of Germany’s strategic resources during the First World War, wrote, “In the youth of every German Jew, there comes a moment which he remembers with pain as long as he lives; when he becomes for the first time fully conscious of the fact that he has entered the world as a citizen of the second class, and that no amount of ability or merit can rid him of that status.”
The fact that the more the Jews came to resemble the Germans, the more they were rejected by them is the theme of George L. Mosse’s book, German Jews Beyond Judaism, which is based upon his Efroymson lectures at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He finds the key to this tragic situation in the fact that the German Jews, to an extent that was never true of most Germans, dedicated themselves to the ideals of the Enlightenment—faith in reason, love of humanity, cosmopolitanism, belief in progress, willingness to be modern at the expense of the traditional and the orthodox—and remained faithful to them long after they had been replaced in the German consciousness by romantic notions of Germanness that were based upon a distortion of Herder’s cultural ideas and by an increasingly xenophobic nationalism.
That the German Jews should have taken the philosophy of the Enlightenment as their own was only natural, for that philosophy had encouraged their emancipation from the political and social disabilities that had oppressed them for centuries. The Enlightenment, Mr. Mosse writes, gave them optimism, faith in themselves and humanity, and a goal, complete integration in German society. This was to be accomplished by means of another ideal of the Enlightenment, which found its finest definitions in Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man and the writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt—the concept of Bildung, of education as character formation and moral growth and self-improvement.
For many German Jews, Bildung became a new faith, and the novelist Berthold Auerbach had no hesitation in writing that “formerly the religious spirit proceeded from revelation, the present starts with Bildung,” which would bring the “inner liberation and deliverance of man, his true rebirth.” Those who believed as Auerbach did saw themselves as part of a process, rather than as finished products of education, and it was easy for them to believe, Mr. Mosse writes, that Bildung was “an ideal ready-made for Jewish assimilation, because it transcended all differences of nationality and religion through the unfolding of the individual personality.”
Yet, in following these ideals, the Jews were contributing in the long run not to their integration in German society, but to their continued isolation. In the country at large, the influence of the Enlightenment was scarcely felt; it was confined to the large urban centers, and particularly to Berlin, and even there it affected only the middle class and part of the nobility. The masses knew nothing of the writings of the philosophes or Lessing’s cosmopolitan ideas or Christian Wilhelm von Dohm’s treatise On the Civic Improvement of the Jews. Their minds were still moved by old prejudices; they lived in a world governed by passion rather than rationality, by myth and symbol rather than the printed word. Through the very process of their emancipation, the Jews were alienated from the common people, and their faith in Bildung was not sufficient to integrate them even with those classes that shared it with them. For as the years passed Bildung was institutionalized in Gymnasium and university, the concept became nationalized and narrowed, and the openness and capacity for criticism that had been the most important of its original components were replaced by patriotism and sense of duty and discipline, until Ludwig Marcuse could write of his teachers at the beginning of the twentieth century that they “worshipped Prussian army barracks adorned with Doric columns and Corinthian capitals.”
These developments did not shake the faith of the German Jews in the Enlightenment or in the German culture that they had made their own, and even after 1933, when they were forced back into a cultural ghetto, the program of the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden was inaugurated with a performance of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, the noble plea for toleration that was a kind of magna carta of Jewish emancipation, and included such embodiments of Enlightenment ideals as The Magic Flute and Fidelio.
During the half-century that preceded Hitler’s conquest of Germany, German Jews did their best to use those ideals to hold back the encroaching darkness. Some of them, scholars for the most part, tried with imperfect success to exorcize the forces of irrationality and violence in society by rational inquiry and analysis. This was true of Sigmund Freud and of the art historian Aby Warburg, who was fascinated by the conflict between the Apollonian and the demonic in the German consciousness and, believing that “Athens must always be saved from Alexandria,” used his pen to advance that result. Others, popular novelists and biographers, like Stefan Zweig and Jakob Wassermann and Emil Ludwig, attempted to transmit the classical ideals of Bildung to the mass audience, only to find in the end that their works might entertain but had little power to change ordinary Germans, who were, for reasons that they could not fathom, falling increasingly under the sway of demagogic politics. And some threw their lot in with the working class—Mr. Mosse singles out Ernst Bloch, and the members of the Frankfurt School, and the writers for the journal Die Weltbühne. Such left intellectuals all too often discovered that they were rejected as impractical theorists, or troublemakers who didn’t understand the dynamics of labor politics, or because they were Jews, for anti-Semitism was not unknown even in the working-class movement, particularly in the Communist party of the Weimar period.
The unavailing efforts of these and other members of the cultivated Jewish middle class to close the gap between them and their non-Jewish compatriots form the substance of Mr. Mosse’s book, which, despite the liveliness of its style and the deftness of its individual portraits, has a prevalently melancholy cast, which is only partly relieved by his conclusion. Despite the tragic denouement of the story of Jewish emancipation in Germany, he writes,
the German-Jewish dialogue did take place, and in it the Jews came to exemplify a German humanist tradition which at one time had provided the space for Germans and Jews to meet in friendship. The humanist ideals of Bildung and the Enlightenment lived on, even under the Nazis. Among liberals and leftwing intellectuals, the flame was kept alive from exile…. It was the German-Jewish Bildungsbürgertum which, more than any other single group, preserved Germany’s better self across dictatorship, war, holocaust, and defeat.
This is doubtless true, but the bleak history of German–Jewish relations has another aspect that deserves attention, and that is its effect upon the vitality of Judaism itself. The great days of the Bildungsbürgertum coincided with the ascendancy of liberalism in German life in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, a time of economic progress, material satisfaction, heady optimism, and, at the same time, growing secularization. To the last of these tendencies, the Jews were no less vulnerable than the Germans, and they tended increasingly to lose their inner certainty about being members of a chosen people and their ability to relate that faith to the circumstances of the society into which they were seeking to assimilate themselves. In 1890, Heymann Steinthal, a distinguished scientist and professor at the University of Berlin, attempted to clarify this question by defining the term “chosen people” as a historical reminder of religious and ethical significance, an admonition to strive after the ideal. In this sense, German Jews were a chosen people. But, Steinthal continued, “we are no longer a Jewish people. This means much. It means that in all ways of ethical activity we are determined by the spirit of the people among whom we dwell.”
But, of course, there were already signs that things were happening to the spirit of the German people that cast serious doubt upon Steinthal’s opinion that “we can by now be good Jews only by being good Germans, yet equally we can be good Germans only by being good Jews.” The age of liberalism was waning fast, and as it continued its decline into the twentieth century Western culture no longer maintained its exclusive hold upon the German-Jewish mind. In the consciousness of many fully assimilated German Jews there was a reawakening of interest in Judaism, which came in many cases as a new and startling discovery.
It is the great merit of the late H.I. Bach’s The German Jew that it explains this development by analyzing the thought and work of the greatest of the modern interpreters of Judaism. A scholar of eminence even before the coming of Hitler forced him into exile, Hans Bach went to London in 1939, where he became editor of the Synagogue Review of Great Britain, a participant in the work of the Leo Baeck Institute, and the author of the definitive biography of Jacob Bernays. In 1977, the year of his death, he was recipient of the gold medal of Bonn University for his contribution to the understanding of Jewish emancipation in the nineteenth century. The German Jew, still unfinished when he died, was put into its present form by David Goldstein, Louis Jacobs, and Vivian D. Lipman. Their editorial services have been as skillful as they are unobtrusive, and the result of their labors is a splendid short history of the development of Jewish thought within German society, which represents a lifetime of reflection by its author.
Beginning with a brief account of the role of the Jews in Germany from Roman times until the beginning of the eighteenth century, Mr. Bach then turns to the first of his basic themes, the way in which the Jews, who had at one time looked to redemption from within through the mystical doctrine of the cabala, turned in the age of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to the hope of liberation from without, by adjusting their spiritual values to the demands of their external environment, as Moses Mendelssohn, to whom Mr. Bach devotes a brilliant chapter, had counseled.
This account parallels that of Mr. Mosse but places less emphasis upon the Jewish idealization of Bildung than it does upon the secularization that was its concomitant development. Mr. Bach has some interesting things to say about the positive contributions to German life that came as a result of the diversion of traditional Jewish religious ideas and attitudes to politics and public administration (in the activities of liberal leaders like Gabriel Riesser, Ludwig Bamberger, and Jacob Bernays), to German art and literature, and particularly to German science, in the work of such scholars as Ferdinand Cohn, the founder of systematic bacteriology, and Albert Einstein, whose accomplishment he describes as “the purest and highest form of that secularization of a religious yearning that, beginning with Spinoza, went with inexhaustible preseverance and patience to seek God’s revelation in the laws of nature.”
The crisis of liberalism, the rise of racial anti-Semitism in the last years of the nineteenth century, and its revival in more virulent form after the First World War persuaded many Jews that their integration in German society could never be complete. This proved, many concluded, that looking outward rather than inward for the fulfillment of their human development had been a mistake. Commenting in 1925 on the emerging fact that Germany was confronting a moral and spiritual disaster because “so many men in leading positions know nothing of the two realms [of the State and of God, and because] being German has been turned into a religion,” Rabbi Leo Baeck, grand president for Germany of the B’nai B’rith, expressed the view that “the spiritual aridity of many Jews is due to the fact that they too are trying to turn their German nationality into a kind of substitute religion.”
Baeck called for a return to the basic beliefs of Judaism, and his slogan, “The path to our humanity leads through our Jewishness not away from our Jewishness,” was echoed by other powerful voices in the Jewish community. In the last works of the philosopher Hermann Cohen, Baeck’s colleague in the Berlin Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the emphasis had shifted from a preoccupation with philosophy of religion to religion itself. Cohen’s student Franz Rosenzweig, who made a radical break with humanistic idealism, and Martin Buber, who, in the same spirit, declared that the evolution of Judaism had come to a halt in the nineteenth century and that it must be revitalized, contributed by their new translation of the Scriptures to a profound change of perspective. This helped many Jews, Bach writes, “to re-experience the creative and redemptive quality of divine revelation contained in the Bible.”
Thus the advance of the forces of barbarism in Germany was accompanied by a revival of Judaism, which was to help sustain those who were overwhelmed by, but somehow survived, its horrors. It is no depreciation of the fascination of Hans Bach’s description of this renaissance to remember that it was, however, consummated not in Germany but in Israel, as Zionists like Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem had argued that it must be—Buber in his famous debate in 1916 with Herman Cohen (who like many German Jews was an implacable enemy of Zionism), and Scholem in a discussion with Franz Rosenzweig, which he described as “one of the stormiest and most irreparable arguments of my youth.”