Origin and Transformation: Salomon Maimon and German-Jewish Enlightenment Culture

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Salomon Maimon's Lebensgeschichte (1792) presents a strange and troubled man, a solitary wanderer between the darkness of Polish-Jewish superstition and the light of German-Jewish reason. When he arrived in Berlin in 1777, the 25 year-old Maimon had left behind his life in the shtetl with its great material and intellectual poverty and premature responsiblities. A rabbi and husband at age eleven, he had experienced the near total lack of interest in a larger world, of teachers and books that taught anything, the unquestioning authority of texts that were impenetrable to reason, the absence of thoughtful social -- not to mention political -- organization and conduct. In Berlin, he was to develop into an intellectual with remarkably broad interests, insights and erudition. But his early struggle to gain access to such learning had impressed on him a sense of authenticity, a "true" self that, given his difficult temperament and the social and political conditions of German-Jewish Enlightenment culture, inexorably separated him from what he most desired: an intellectual community that would accept him as he was. Maimon the intellectual had attracted the interest and support of a number of distinguished Berlin Enlightenment figures, Moses Mendelssohn, Ephraim Veitel, Samuel Levy, David Friedlaender among them. Marcus Herz had sent Maimon's Versuch über die Transzendentalphilosophie (1790) to Kant, who thought it one of the best critiques of his work. Yet by the time his Lebensgeschichte was published, Maimon had managed to alienate all of them because of his lack of"civility." He could not adapt to their grossbürgerlich sociability and they, the posterchildren of the Enlightenment ideology of tolerance, were too insecure in their minority status to tolerate Maimon's chaotic person and subversive, "heretical" ideas. This conflict points to larger issues of tolerance which are discussed in the context of a general German-Jewish tension around 1800 between assimilation to German society and culture and an enduring Jewish identity.

Salomon Maimon's Lebensgeschichte, published in 1792 by one of his few remaining friends and quickly forgotten, presents a strange and troubled man, a solitary wanderer between the darkness of Polish-Jewish superstition and the light of German-Jewish reason. Powerfully attracted to Berlin intellectual culture, he was shaped by both Enlightenment encouragements and Romantic allurements. To put it in general terms for the sake of clarification: in eighteenth-century European "Enlightenment" culture identity is experienced as temporary and fragmentary, a working concept for making sense of living and learning, a "work in progress." Identity, then, is a continuing process of being reshaped by curiosity about the world, the self reaching out to and partly assimilating what is different. Since self-knowledge is interdependent with knowledge of the world, it cannot therefore be complete, and identity cannot be sameness. In reaction -- and in contrast -- to this concept of a mobile, open self, the Romantic concept of identity, most notably in the writings of the first generation of German Romantics around 1800, suggests enduring sameness once full self-knowledge has been achieved through a final transformation that transcends the world.(1) Romantic identity, then, requires the experience of rebirth into what seems radically different but reveals itself as the original true self.(2) Where the Enlightenment encourages the traveler to go on traveling and looking at the world out there, suspending, as it were, the question of the "true self," Romanticism lures the traveler back to the origins to find a permanent answer to that question. It is the peculiar tension between these forces in Maimon that illuminates the promises and difficulties of a German-Jewish cultural symbiosis in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: a host of entangled psychological, social, and political reasons for a sometimes almost paradoxical combination of closeness and distance, identity and non-identity, similarity and otherness, familiarity and strangeness that has seemed so characteristic of German-Jewish relations. …