The History of History: German Philosophy, Judaism, and the Spinozist Moment

By Bernstein, Jeffrey | Shofar, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The History of History: German Philosophy, Judaism, and the Spinozist Moment


Bernstein, Jeffrey, Shofar


German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses, by Michael Mack. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 229 pp. $35.00 (c).

The Rhetoric of Cultural Dialogue: Jews and Germans from Moses Mendelssohn to Richard Wagner and Beyond, by Jeffrey S. Librett. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. 426 pp. $75.00 (c); $29.95 (p).

Spinoza's Modernity: Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Heine, by Willi Goetschel. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. 368 pp. $45.00 (c); $29.95 (p).

Jeffrey Librett begins The Rhetoric of Cultural Dialogue: Jews and Germans from Moses Mendelssohn to Richard Wagner and Beyond with a sobering passage from Gershom Scholem's 1962 essay "Against the Myth of the German-Jewish Dialogue." Given that this passage can serve as the conceptual starting point for Michael Mack's and Willi Goetschel's studies as well, I will quote it at some length: "I deny that there has ever been...a German-Jewish dialogue in any genuine sense whatsoever, i.e., as a historical phenomenon. It takes two to have a dialogue, who listen to each other, who are prepared to perceive the other as what he is and represents, and to respond to him. Nothing can be more misleading than to apply such a concept to the discussions between Germans and Jews during the last 200 years. The dialogue died at its very start and never took place.... To be sure, the Jews attempted a dialogue with the Germans, starting from all possible points of view and situations.... The attempt of the Jews to explain themselves to the Germans and to put their own creativity at their disposal, even to the point of complete self-abandonment (Selbstaufgabe), is a significant phenomenon.... In this, I am unable to perceive anything of a dialogue" (p. xv). If the history of German Jewry is marked by continually having to respond to (and account for) accusations made by an unwilling partner, then we might suggest (with Scholem) that the dialogue between Jews and Germans was, from the beginning, a marked discourse. This suggestion is borne out by the provocative thesis of Mack's German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses, which holds that there are certain antisemitic tropes occurring in 19th-century German philosophical and cultural writings which provide a justification for German antisemitic practices over a century later (p. 3). Rather than being merely incidental aspects of German philosophy, Mack holds that these tropes are a manifestation of "the presence of irrationality in the self-declared `rational' philosophies of Kant [and] Hegel" (p. 1). Both Mack and Librett are fairly explicit about the normative and binary structure of these tropes; German antisemitic discourse revolves around three oppositions: spirit/letter, spirit/matter, and autonomy/heteronomy. In each case (and in all cases), non-Jewish Germans (or perhaps, in Scholem's view, just "Germans") occupy the former term of this opposition. Consequently, in the language of these tropes, Jews are continually perceived as (and thus denigrated to) the "literal embodiment" of the latter term. For this reason, as Goetschel suggests in Spinoza's Modernity: Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Heine, any and all visible traces of "Jewishness" strikes German philosophy (with its universalizing tendencies) as a scandal (p. 5).

It would be fairly easy to view this historical illustration of Jewish-German (non)relations in a despairing manner. In one sense, this is precisely what Scholem's passage does. This is understandable, given Scholem's radical proximity to the Shoah and the morbid awakening into which it forced worldwide Jewry. For this reason, Scholem is not concerned with reclaiming the intellectual history of German-Jewish relations for a new age. After Auschwitz, he quite rightly views Jewish contributions to German culture (e.g., the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Hebrew Bible) as having amounted to "the tombstone of a relationship that was extinguished in unspeakable horror. …

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