Jewish Intellectuals and the Experience of Modernity
by Paul Mendes-Flohr
Wayne State University Press, 449 pages, $39.95
In Genesis (24:10) it is said that Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, descended from Mesopotamia—or as it is called in Hebrew Aram-Naharaim, literally, a land of the two rivers. Paul Mendes-Flohr notes that when the great philosopher and theologian Franz Rosenzweig came to this passage he translated it as Zweistromland to indicate that the Jewish nation is nurtured and sustained by two streams or a conjunction of several sources. It is the image of the Jews as a people destined to live between “two rivers” or to combine multiple cultures that is the recurrent theme of Divided Passions.
Paul Mendes-Flohr is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of two earlier studies of Martin Buber and has edited and contributed to several volumes of Jewish social thought and history. Divided Passions brings together seventeen essays, all previously published but not all easily accessible, dealing with different aspects of the German-Jewish experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each of these essays is written with grace and authority, combining learning and erudition with compassion and sympathy for his subject. The essays range from some preliminary reflections on the category of the “Jewish intellectual” to particular case studies of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem, Ernst Bloch, and Judah Magnes. The work concludes with a “non-philippic” defense of the author’s own Zionism as a way of living with divided passions.
It would be possible to quarrel with the author’s use of the term “intellectual” to describe such a wide range of thinkers. The term calls to mind more the image of a coffee house shmoozer than, say, Ernst Simon’s moving recollection of the dying Franz Rosenzweig stricken with paralysis and struggling desperately with a primitive typewriter to complete his translation of the Bible. Be that as it may, it is no exaggeration to say that Mendes-Flohr is the most interesting historian of the German-Jewish intellectual experience writing today.
The essays that comprise this volume constitute a lengthy meditation upon the “ambivalent dialogue” that characterized German-Jewish relations from approximately the time of Moses Mendelssohn to the collapse of the Weimar republic. To characterize these relations as “ambivalent” is, of course, already to enter disputed territory: Gershom Scholem has passionately insisted that there was never a German-Jewish dialogue but at most a monologue among German Jews about the price of their admission to civil society.
What the nineteenth century called die Judenfrage was in fact a question with two parts. The first required both Germans and Jews to forego their historical animosity and mutual distrust, at least publicly, in order to live peacefully within the new liberal social order; the second required Jews, at least spiritually, to give up their claims to exclusivity and fidelity to an ancient tradition, in order to prove themselves worthy to enter the world of German high culture. Invariably, the acquisition of culture was meant to imply assimilation and the loss of historical identity.
The idea of Kultur was identified initially by Kant as the inner disposition that facilitates our receptiveness to morality. Culture was thus contrasted to the external, public realm of the arts and sciences as well as the institutions of law and government. The distinction between what came to be called “culture” and “civilization” was the difference between what was inner and hence profound and what was outer and hence superficial. In his Untimely Meditations Nietzsche maintained that while civilization could be acquired, culture could not. Although Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite in any crude sense (see Daybreak, aphorism #205), his views were later used to suggest that Jews could not even in principle become a part of an authentic German cultural life. The reason that the Weimar republic lacked legitimacy in the eyes of so many educated Germans was that its principles were thought to embody Anglo-French Zivilisation rather than a uniquely German sense of Kultur.
It was against the backdrop of these debates that Martin Buber proposed his conception of “cultural Zionism” (Kulturzionismus). In “Nationalism as a Spiritual Sensibility” Mendes-Flohr shows how Buber’s Zionism represented a third way different from both the hard-nosed Realpolitik of Herzel and the high-minded anti-Zionism of the Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen. For Buber, Zionism was invested with nothing short of the mission of healing the rift between culture and civilization. Cultural Zionism was meant to embody more than a renewed appreciation for Hebrew language and literature, but was to be a shared sensibility that would form the basis of a new form of collective life. Zionism was to be more than the restitution of political sovereignty, but was to create the conditions for a new kind of “Hebrew humanism.”
Buber’s answer to the scholarly critics of Judaism is treated in “Martin Buber and the Metaphysicians of Contempt.” The title refers to the tendency of certain philosophers to repudiate Judaism as spiritually and culturally alien to the sensibility of Christian Europe. This kind of “metaphysical anti-Semitism”—the phrase is actually Ernst Bloch’s—can be traced back in part to Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, which had treated Judaism as a purely “statutory” religion void of all moral sense. Judaism, Kant declared, was “not a religion at all” but “a collection of mere statutory laws” designed to instill obedience rather than the inner sense required by the moral faith of Jesus. This attitude was only deepened by Hegel’s dialectical theology, which saw in Judaism only a stage or “moment” in the progressive spiritual unfolding of mankind. Judaism with its elaborate system of laws and ritual commands represented a primitive form of religious experience and one that has now finally been superseded (aufgehoben). It was this condescending attitude that led apostate Jews like Heinrich Heine to declare that Judaism had been a “misfortune” and to regard his baptismal certificate as the “passport” to European culture.
It was precisely this culture of condescension that led Buber to found the first Jewish periodical that was at the same time a genuinely “European review.” Boldly called Der Jude (The Jew), the journal’s mission was to promote a “Jewish renaissance” that would rescue the term “Jew” from one of derision to one denoting ancient pride and a distinctive national identity. This project of Jewish renewal culminated in the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible, which attempted the probably impossible task of capturing in German prose the unique cadence and poetry of the Hebrew original. The purpose of this project was to demonstrate that the God of creation was the God of the entire world and not simply of the ancient Hebrews. The Jewish Bible was not merely the “Old Testament” that had been surpassed by the new dispensation but was the very ground of the new dispensation without which the latter was unintelligible.
When Rosenzweig died in 1929 at the age of 43, he and Buber had already publicly quarreled over their different conceptions of law and Jewish spirituality. In an open letter to Buber of 1924 entitled “The Builders” (Die Baulete) Rosenzweig accused Buber of having failed to free himself from the very Kantianism he had so eloquently criticized. Buber, Rosenzweig maintained, retained the Kantian view of the entire domain of the Mitzvot—the ritual precepts and commands of Judaism—as statutory laws lacking any ethical import. In place of command Buber offered a more “personalist” understanding of the Jew’s relation to God. Conversation or “dialogue” was always Buber’s preferred means of communication with the godhead.
In two essays, “Rosenzweig and Kant: Two Views of Ritual and Religion” and “Law and Sacrament: Ritual Observance in Twentieth-Century Jewish Thought,” Mendes-Flohr presents Rosenzweig’s defense of the commandments (Gebote) as the primordial form of Jewish experience. The core of the commandment is not law (Gesetz), which would be merely “formal” and lacking in content, but a specific injunction to love God and one’s neighbor. Both in “The Builders” and the Star of Redemption, written literally in the trenches during World War I, Rosenzweig offered a defense of the mitzvot as the commanding voice of God in the world. The performance of a mitzvah is not a dead ritual but the means, the sole means, by which one can feel the divine presence. This is not to say that Rosenzweig recommended an orthodox acceptance of all the commandments but rather an “open ended” or pragmatic approach to ritual observance. One should in the end accept only as many of the laws and precepts as seem “personally possible.”
The century and a half that separated the publication of Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem in 1783 from the day that Hitler came to power witnessed the most remarkable efflorescence of Jewish thought since the Middle Ages. The attempt to bring together Judaism and German culture provides a striking and overlooked parallel with the attempt to harmonize Torah and Greek philosophy seven centuries earlier. As in the earlier experiment, the attempted synthesis failed. It is the fate of the modern Jew to live between the banks of “two rivers,” between the aspiration for the universal and the assertion of separateness. Not even the creation of the state of Israel has been able to bridge the gap between Judaism and secular political emancipation.
“The establishment of the state of Israel,” as Leo Strauss has reminded us, “is the most profound modification of the Galut [exile, i.e., the Jewish diaspora] which has occurred, but is not the end of the Galut: in the religious sense, and perhaps not only in the religious sense, the state of Israel is part of the Galut.” The establishment of the state of Israel may have allowed Judaism to attain a degree of political normalization, but it has not solved the deeper metaphysical problem. The problem for post-Enlightenment Judaism is to seek a path between the reassertion of an atavistic particularism on the one hand, and the advocacy of a self-liquidating universalism on the other. Divided Passions allows us to understand this problem.
Steven B. Smith is Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University and author of Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism.
Photo by Sander Crombach on Unsplash. Image cropped.