The Magic Circle

In June 1849, in the last days of the revolutionary German National Assembly, the vice-president, Gabriel Riesser, one of its seven Jewish members, addressed the body during a debate on civil rights. Speaking of the inequality from which he and his fellows suffered, he brought thunderous applause from his audience when he cried:

We are not immigrants—we were born here—and so we cannot claim any other home: either we are Germans or we have no homeland. Whoever disputes my claim to this my German fatherland disputes my right to my own thoughts, my feelings, my language—the very air I breathe. Therefore, I must defend myself against him as I would against a murderer.

Riesser was one of a long line of assimilated German Jews whose story is told in The Pity of It All, Amos Elon’s impressive new book, Jews who worshiped German culture and civilization, which they claimed as their own, and who were preoccupied and tormented by the resultant duality. Their enterprise ended badly, but Elon does not believe that this had to be so; nor does he agree with those writers who have seen an inexorable pattern in German history, preordained in Luther’s time and culminating with the Holocaust. “According to this theory,” he writes, “the Jews were doomed from the outset, their fate as immutable as a law of nature. Such absolute certainties have eluded me.” Instead, he sees only a series of ups and downs and unforeseeable contingencies, and he reminds us at the outset that even Hitler, who wrote the story’s final chapter, was a kind of accident, who confounded the intentions of those who put him in power.

In the nineteenth century, German Jews who worried about their identity had no dearth of models to inspire them. Preeminent among them was Moses Mendelssohn, who came to Berlin in 1743 at the age of fourteen as a student of the Talmud and who could neither write nor speak the German language. As a student of Berlin’s chief rabbi, and later as tutor to the son of a wealthy silk merchant, Mendelssohn taught himself not only German, but Latin, Greek, English, and French, while at the same time beginning a systematic study of the ancient classics and such modern writers as Spinoza, Newton, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. He met and became close friends with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the Berlin publisher Friedrich Nicolai, and with their encouragement began to write works of philosophic-aesthetic criticism, the most famous of which, Phaidon, or The Immortality of the Soul in Three Dialogues, an adaptation of Plato’s dialogue on that subject, became the most widely read book in Germany and made him a European celebrity.

As his book about the Rothschilds has demonstrated, Elon has a special affinity for the period in which Mendelssohn’s reputation grew, and his account of the philosopher’s relations with his contemporaries is as amusing as it is rich in detail. Understandably, Mendelssohn’s …

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