Response to George Mosse and David Myers

By Jay, Martin | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Response to George Mosse and David Myers


Jay, Martin, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


John Munro, the historian of the American University of Beirut cited by David Myers in his fascinating essay, accused the American missionaries who were its progenitors of succumbing to the dreaded spirit of "Hebraism," which in a footnote he defines as a zealous inflexibility that "was hardly conducive to the establishment of a university in the full humanistic sense of the word." Although there may be little overt irony in the recoil from an alleged Hebraic narrowness in the foundation of a Christian university in Lebanon, it is hard not to feel its far stronger presence in the narratives we have just heard of the origins of a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For many of its founding fathers, those scholarly colonists from Central Europe who are the heroes of both these essays, were running headlong away from what has for centuries, if not millennia, been stigmatized as the Hebraic alternative to Hellenic culture. True, the language of their new university was to be Hebrew and, as Professor Myers notes, Talmudic and rabbinic literature did find an honored place in the curriculum, which allows him to say that "in the early years . . . the Institute replicated the diaspora rabbinical seminary." But it seems that the center of gravity of their existence ultimately lay elsewhere, in that powerful tradition of Bildung and Wissenschaft that had so captured German Jews in the nineteenth century as a passport to assimilation into the dominant culture of their environment. Their essentially liberal, open-ended interpretation of that tradition may have resisted the transformation of it into the aggressively nationalist, even sometimes racist, variant that characterized what Fritz Ringer has famously called the "decline of the German mandarins." But it carried with it many of the initial assumptions that Bildung even in its most cosmopolitan guise had shared: a fervent faith in the values of harmonized personal culture, aesthetic self-fashioning, and the realization of innate capacities of individual growth. Bildung, to quote Ringer, "is epitomized in the neohumanist's relationship to his classical sources. He does not only come to know them. Rather, the moral and aesthetic examples contained in the classical sources affect him deeply and totally. The whole personality is involved in the act of cognition."(1)

Now, it is to George Mosse along with David Sorkin that we have come to know the costs of the German Jewish embrace of Bildung as a means of achieving acceptance back in pre-Holocaust Europe. In Mosse's German Jews Beyond Judaism and Sorkin's The Transformation of German Jewry,(2) the sad story is told of German Jews who doggedly held on to their cosmopolitan faith in Goethe, Lessing, and Humboldt at a time when gentile Germans were trading theirs in for a much more sinister version of volkisch exclusivism. Although neither of these accounts fails to acknowledge the remarkable fruits of that delusion, at least in cultural if not political terms, the essential lesson is a sobering reminder that Bildung did little to save German Jewry from the fate of its allegedly less cultured ostjudische brethren.

Interestingly, however, in his compelling account of the ways in which that ideal was displaced to its new setting on Mount Scopus, Mosse provides far less of a sense of any of the costs that it might have entailed there as well. There is, to be sure, no comparable story to be told of blindly holding on to an ideology that was being undermined in the larger cultural environment, no hindsight that tells us that their optimism about acceptance was sadly misplaced. But perhaps there was something lost nonetheless in the triumph of an essentially Hellenic model of learning at a Hebrew university. Perhaps there is, after all, a hidden irony in what David Myers calls their "mission civilisatrice . . . to introduce Western standards of academic excellence to the Middle East," a mission that might have questioned a bit more rigorously which civilization was meant and what standards it was bringing. …

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