Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity

By Berghahn, Klaus L. | Shofar, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity


Berghahn, Klaus L., Shofar


Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity, by Jonathan M. Hess. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 258 pp. $35.00.

Jonathan Hess's latest book, Germans, Jews and Claims of Modernity, is an important and provocative contribution to the ongoing debate about German Enlightenment, Judaism, and modernity. It is based on solid archival research, which is as old-fashioned as it is productive. Hess is very well read in the literature, history, and political philosophy of the 18th century, and his interest in the role of the Jews in the intellectual debates of the 18th century gives his research a special touch. In contrast to the recent book by Amos Elon, The Pity of It All, which reconstructed, once again, harmonious moments of the German-Jewish dialogue in the 18th century and beyond, Hess demonstrates the contradictions of Enlightenment's universalism and of the process of emancipation in Germany between 1781 and 1803. What sets Hess's approach apart from previous research is his new perspective on this period, his emphasis on the Jewish contributions to the ensuing debates, and his detailed analysis of many forgotten documents.

Hess predates the emancipation debate by interpreting Dohm's treatise Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews (1781) as the first attempt to grant civil rights to the Jews of Prussia. Indeed, the first recommendation of Dohm's document reads like a demand for emancipation, but he back-pedals in his next eight recommendations, which are riddled with contradiction. Not to forger that Dohm, like many others, expected that the "regeneration" of contemporary Jewry would take two or three generations, a fact that Hess stresses several times.

Moses Mendelssohn can be considered the first Jewish intellectual who develops a coherent political philosophy, which ever so indirectly also demands the emancipation of his brethren. This important aspect of Mendelssohn's Jerusalem is rather undeveloped in Hess's book, because he concentrates mainly on the second part of the treatise, Mendelssohn's definition of Judaism as "revealed legislation," which agrees with natural religion and reason. And even this aspect is handled too narrowly by concentrating mainly on Mendelssohn's provocation of Jesus' Jewish legacy. This is without question an original perspective and Hess makes the most of it, but what suffers is his interpretation of the first part of Jerusalem, where Mendelssohn uses natural rights theory to advocate the separation of state and church, which solely guarantees freedom of religion. This is the complete message of Mendelssohn's Jerusalem, which Hess in his original, bur one-sided, interpretation neglects.

Saul Ascher and David Friedlaender followed Mendelssohn's footsteps and even radicalized his message: Ascher, by challenging Kant's and Fichte's new forms of antisemitism, Friedlaender by offering the strange compromise of a "dry baptism." Saul Ascher's polemic against Eisenmenger the Second (Fichte, 1794) is the first Jewish voice to attack Kant's misreading of Mendelssohn's Jerusalem and his distorted representation of Judaism, as well as Fichte's cold indifference toward the Jewish quest for emancipation and his modern antiJewish ideology. Later, when political antisemitism was already developing into a full-fledged national ideology, Ascher added a biting sarcasm to his polemics, rightly catling it "Germanomanie." David Friedlaender, in his anonymously published Open Letter to His Reverend Provost Teller (1799), followed a different strategy in offering a quid pro quo solution: public baptism of all Prussian Jews (without accepting any Christian dogma) for civil rights. Hess gives this hotly debated document a new twist by reading it against the grain. Instead of joining Friedlaender's critics, he understands it as a clever maneuver to gain emancipation and influence for the Jews of Prussia.

As Hess amply demonstrates, the Jewish voices actively participated in the bourgeoning emancipation debate and certainly influenced Withelm von Humboldt's and Hardenberg's resolve to grant the Prussian Jews emancipation (1812). …

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