Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought, by David N. Myers

Article excerpt

Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003. 253 pp. $29.95.

Ever since he wrote his dissertation under Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, the author of Zakhor, a meditation on Jewish history and historians, historian David N. Myers has been intrigued by this subject and the tensions between modern history and its methodology (historicism) and faith. During the nineteenth century, these tensions escalated as the scientific study of the past threatened to reduce historical events to individual units linked in causal relationships that transformed human history into a "long, undulating but ultimately chartable current...[rather than] a vast Divine terrain whose grand design eludes full human comprehension" (p. 5).

As Myers' book amply demonstrates, reactions to this reduction from "super-naturalism" to "naturalism" were swift. Though by no means limited to Jewish philosophers and theologians, this book focuses on German-Jewish thinkers who sought to reverse what they considered the corrosive effects of historicism on modern life in general but Judaism in particular. Myers limits his study to late Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany (1870-1933), a complex, dynamic milieu alive with articulate debates on what the German Protestant historian Ernst Troeltsch called the "Crisis of Historicism." Myers' 1995 publication, Reinventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History, was dedicated to the founders of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a group of German Jews who after leaving Germany applied their historicist training and expertise to "the nurture of a new Zionist collective memory rooted in the soul of the ancestral Jewish homeland" (p. 6). Resisting History, its counterpart, explores German-Jewish anti-historicism, which has not yet received "sustained" scholarly attention.

Together, the lives of the four German-Jewish scholars whose philosophical and/or theological objections to historicism Myers chose to examine span the entire period of 1870-1933 and reflect its major spiritual, social, political, and intellectual currents, which together with each man's personal beliefs and experiences inform their anti-historicist positions. Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), Professor of Philosophy in Marburg, launched his anti-historicist critique to reestablish the primacy of philosophy, "the science of reason," over history in the hierarchy of the liberal arts. His "return to Judaism" in 1880 culminated in a vision of modern Judaism beyond the grasp of historicism. Concluding that Judaism and his beloved neo-Kantian philosophy are both rational systems devoted to the advancement of ethics, he constructed a "grand ethical lineage" of the Judeo-German spirit over and through time, beginning with the prophets and including Plato and Martin Luther as well as his most admired philosophers, Moses Maimonides and Immanuel Kant.

His student Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) started out as a historian in the historicist tradition of his Doktorvater Friedrich Meinecke but eventually also became "intent on overthrowing the reign of history in German-Jewish thought" (p. 81). Myers places him into the context of "theological anti-historicism" rather than the "philosophical anti-historicism" epitomized by Rosenzweig's contemporary Martin Heidegger. Like Cohen, Rosenzweig had strong ties to Protestantism. Yet his radical return (teshuvah) to Judaism in the midst of contemplating conversion did not produce an ecumenical theology akin to Cohen's, for he came to regard Judaism as separate from all other religions and the Jewish people as "existing outside the normal flow of events" (p. …