Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Goethe and Judaism: The Troubled Inheritance of Modern Literature

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Goethe and Judaism: The Troubled Inheritance of Modern Literature

Article excerpt

Karin Schutjer. Goethe and Judaism: The Troubled Inheritance of Modern Literature. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015. 264 pp.

Schutjer's monograph tackles a topic that has been a subject of debate for more than a century and puts forth a powerful, original, and sophisticated argument grounded in both careful, conscientious close readings of texts by Goethe and a deep sense of historical context. Over the decades, numerous scholars have cataloged, categorized, and studied Goethe's various statements on Jews and Judaism, typically evaluating them in biographical terms to argue whether Goethe was anti-Semitic or philo-Semitic. Schutjer certainly integrates biographical approaches into her study, but she steers clear of the pitfalls of linking Goethe to later forms of anti- and philo-Semitism or studying Goethe in the shadow of the Holocaust. Indeed, her study is the antithesis of the sort of scholarship that cherry-picks statements to make a polemical case about Goethe's relation to Jews and Judaism. Schutjer studies the dynamic and systematic role that reflections on Judaism played in both Goethe's worldview and his massive literary oeuvre, laying bare the central role that Goethe's ideas about Judaism played in his work as a whole. Rather than simply indicting Goethe for his anti-Jewish views (he was, among other things, a clear opponent of Jewish emancipation) or seeking to acquit him of prejudice by stressing his long-standing interests in the Hebrew Bible, Schutjer explores how Goethe's conception of the modern world was inextricable from his conception of Judaism. The contradictory elements in his comments on Jews and Judaism, in other words, are certainly important in their own right, but they also shed light on major tensions in Goethe's own thinking more generally. Goethe finds in Judaism-or, rather, as Schutjer demonstrates, his own, at times idiosyncratic, understanding of Judaism-an attractive, distinctly modern posture toward the world that he deems more attractive than that of Christianity. Yet Goethe also engages in a struggle with Judaism precisely because he finds so much affinity with it, casting Judaism as an object of competition, a force that must be cleared from the playing field to make way for his own, Goethean vision of modernity.

Approaching Goethe in this way, Schutjer is able to make sense of Goethe's pro-Jewish tendencies as well as the elements in his oeuvre that seem anti-Semitic, making clear how Goethe could oppose political emancipation for his Jewish contemporaries at the same time as he celebrated Judaism-particularly the Hebrew Bible-for a type of freedom and heterodoxy he contrasted with Christianity. Goethe found himself attracted to the Jewish ban on images for its opposition to dogmatic metaphysics; he discovered in the Hebrew scriptures a type of diasporic nationhood and peoplehood linked to a book rather than a state that he deemed particularly relevant for modern Germany; and perhaps more than anything else, he was fascinated by Judaism's activism and striving focused on the immanent, historical world. In this context, Schutjer does not just concern herself with Goethe's worldview. Her analysis cuts to the heart of Goethe's literary work, showing how all these elements of his fascination with Judaism come together in the topos of "wandering." Through exemplary discussions of major and minor works by Goethe, Schutjer demonstrates that Goethe's encounter with the Hebrew Bible, from his youth on, decisively shaped not just the topos of wandering but his entire literary program. …

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