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VCU Menorah Review Fall 2003
Number 59
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Renewing the Faith of a Diminishing Minority

Judaism Within Modernity: Essays on Jewish History and Religion
by Michael A. Meyer
Detroit: Wayne State University Press

A Review Essay by Peter J. Haas

This book brings together some 22 essays from one of the deans of the history of Jews in modernity. The single subject of these essays, addressed from a variety of angles, is how Judaism struggled to transverse the parlous terrain the modern world laid before it. With one exception, these essays, written between 1975 and 1998, have all appeared elsewhere, so there is nothing particularly new in this volume as far as content. But there is something to gain from reading all these essays together in a sort of logical order. What emerges is not only a series of connected probes into the Jewish encounter with modernity (and to a lesser extent modernity’s encounter with Judaism) but insight into the very writing of that history. This is not an introductory collection aimed at those unfamiliar with the names and events of that encounter: Moses Mendelssohn, the French Revolution, die Wissenschaft des Judenthums, Heinrich Graetz and so on. Rather, it is a collection for those who know details but are interested in reflecting on our, and our predecessors’, understanding of these events and people as they in turn worked to construct the modern Judaisms we now so much take for granted.

The early essays deal, logically enough, with the basic questions. It is clear that even from the vantage point of the late 18th century there was a sense that Jews had entered a new era, one that was already being labeled by those going through it as “modern.” But what exactly marked that era as new? For some it was emancipation, the ability of Jews finally to become part of the surrounding society. The flagship example here, of course, is Moses Mendelssohn. For others, the Rubicon was religious, the opportunity to move beyond the medieval matrix of halachah and to allow Judaism to grow into its true spiritual destiny, the perspective of Reform. For a third group, exemplified by historians like Ben Zion Dinur, it was an event in the national life of the Jewish people, namely, the beginning of serious return to the Land. Whatever the orientation, it was in all events this shared sense of coming to the end of one era and setting foot into another that provoked, Meyer suggests, not only a sense of “modernity” but the whole enterprise of writing Jewish history in the first place. But, just as there were disagreements as to what marked modernity from what went before, so there were disagreements as to what function the writing of that history would perform. Some held that the purpose was to instill pride in the Jewish people and so stem, or at least channel, assimilation, others thought the primary object was to answer the anti-Semites, still others wanted to create a scientific basis for religious reform, and some even hoped that, by shedding light on the Jewish experience, they could add to the knowledge of the history of Germany and the West more generally. So what emerged in the history of Jewish historiography by the middle of the 19th century was neither necessary nor neutral. Jewish historiography, for Meyer, was itself an artifact of the history it was itself creating.

One theme that surfaces in a number of essays in the first part of the book is the interrelationship between what Jewish historians were writing about the Jews and what non-Jewish historians were writing about these same people. In other words, one subtext of these new Jewish histories was shaped not by dynamics internal to the Jewish community but by pressures from the outside. The paradigmatic comparison, detailed in Chapter 4, is the intellectual conversation between two Heinrichs, namely Graetz and von Treitschke. Although when it comes to modern times both are looking at the same data, they systematically draw opposite conclusions about what lessons should be learned. What is important for the one is precisely what is anathema to the other. Graetz celebrates, particularly, Jewish contributions to German culture, for instance. For him, this is an argument for allowing greater cultural interaction between the two communities. Von Treitschke sees such interaction, of course, as exactly the problem and uses his historical studies to argue that such cultural cross-contamination should be limited. Along these lines, von Treitschke delivers as positive examples those German Jews who have most thoroughly assimilated; precisely the people Graetz treats as an example of what can go wrong with emanicipation. What is important is not so much the disagreement but rather the insight that the new Jewish historians were caught in a terrible dilemma. They wanted both to promote Enlightenment and the accompanying emancipation while yet documenting and even promoting some level of particularistic Jewish cultural identity. The notion of the “German Jew” was a hybrid concept, shaped by the very oddness of its structure.

The second section of the book looks at the larger political and social context in which this academic jousting was taking place. In one way, the six essays in this section can be seen as vertical bores, examining the layers of some one aspect of the German Jewish community as it struggled to come to terms with modern discourse: the traditions of Judaism to modern Biblical criticism (Chapter Eight), for example, or the response to German politics in general (Chapters Nine and 10), or to the Prussian government’s policies in particular (Chapter 11), or even to Jewish political leadership under the Nazis (Chapter 12). In another way, this group of essays is an important complement to the first section, functioning as a series of studies in the sociology of knowledge. We come to see that the academic arguments cited in the first section were not merely polemics or case studies in logic and method but were shaped (at times profoundly) by the political and social buffeting to which the Jewish community was subject. The results of German-Jewish scholarship in the 19th century emerge in their distinctiveness as genuine creations of the very odd configuration of Jewish life in the German-speaking lands as these were struggling to coalesce into the nation-state of Germany.

The third section explores the implications that these historical and political controversies had on the conceptualization of Jewish religion. What emerges in this section is that Jewish intellectuals were fighting not a one-or two-front war but a five- or sixfront war. Liberal Jews (the focus of the book) had to fight, for instance, not only their non-Jewish colleagues (like von Treitschke) and the Orthodox establishment but also the government, the Zionist movement and a Jewish population that was increasingly indifferent to, and even alienated from, all things Jewish (Chapters 13 to 15). For the government, especially in the Vormarz period, any attempt at religious reform emanating from the Jews was seen as part of the radical enlightenment whose icon was the French Revolution. In this, of course, the reactionary political forces in Germany were right. The Jews themselves understood religious reform to be part and parcel of the whole process of Enlightenment and Emancipation. But, to make their case against the suspicious bureaucracy, Jewish leaders had to redouble their claims to be nonetheless extraordinarily German. But even after the political implications of the enlightenment were accepted, the job was hardly over. A good proportion of the non-Jewish German intellectual and political elite continued to oppose reform of Judaism because, for them, Judaism (if not religion more generally) was a thing of the past, superseded respectively by Christianity or the secular Enlightenment. Reforming Judaism so as to make it more compatible with contemporary sensibilities was, from their point of view, not only inauthentic but would prolong artificially the Jews’ stubborn attachment to their heritage and religion. In short, every possible gesture made in one direction only provoked negative reaction somewhere else. The dilemma of the German Jewish historians was deliciously complex.

Thus, for example, Meyer shows us that in making the arguments necessary to convince the government that Liberal Judaism was both German and worthwhile, the leaders of religious reform alienated not only the Orthodox but also the Zionists. For the Orthodox, of course, the point of being German was, at best, irrelevant and, at worse, a betrayal of Sinai. For the Zionists, each claim that emancipated Jews were as German as their non-Jewish neighbors was an act of national suicide. Yet in trying not to alienate the Orthodox and Zionist entirely, the religious reformers only distanced themselves further from the Jewish masses, for whom being German was a dominant desire. As the intellectuals were getting themselves more and more entangled in this web of mutual incompatibilities, the Jewish population itself was growing increasingly distant from the official Gemeinde synagogue services that were aesthetically pleasing but spiritually empty. This led, by the turn of the century, to the creation of alternative prayer meetings that stressed gemeinschaft over gesellschaft, arguing that the real function of the synagogue should be to serve as a place for spiritual community rather than as a locus for institutional association (Chapter 16). So yet another node of contention was emerging. On the other hand, however, this essay shows that a kind of consensus was actually beginning to emerge during the Weimar period and into the early 1930s. Seen from this perspective, the coming to power of the Nazis only hastened the move to communal unity, already hesitantly underway. The last two essays in this section (numbers 17 and 18) introduce an important corrective. For a variety of reasons, we conceive of the formation of modern Judaisms as taking place entirely within the Germanspeaking lands. But, other reform and/or liberal Judaisms were developing elsewhere as well — for example, in Russia, to the east, and, in Britian, to the west.

These two essays deal respectively with each of these contexts, showing the influence of German thought on these communities as well as the different paths each chartered as compared to their German compatriots. These comparisons not only let us see that these areas had their own contributions to make in the formation of modern Judaisms but help us to put the German initiatives in perspective.

The last group of essays (Chapters 19 through 22) address the American scene. The first two essays here cover ground that one rarely sees discussed. The first (Chapter 19) examines the emotional and intellectual break with the German mother-country that occurred in American Judaism in the 1970s. The second looks at the initiative of Hebrew Union College in the 1930s to bring German-Jewish intellectuals as faculty members so as to rescue them from Germany outside the visa quotas. This is a detailed and fascinating look at the 10 men who were on the list and gives some insight into the kinds of barriers the State Department could throw up toward the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust. The final essays deal with the assimilation of Zionism into the American, specifically Reform, Jewish community in the first half of the 20th century. The final chapter looks in detail at the position of Abba Hillel Silver as Reform rabbi and Zionist.

In the end, of course, a book like this cannot talk about everything. There is a clear center of attention that emerges on a full reading — that is the formation of Reform Judaism. The collection ends up leaving the reader with a sense of the struggle among various Jewish reformers to negotiate the various and usually contradictory themes that were buffeting the Jewish world, and especially the world of German-speaking Jewry, during the last two centuries. What is amazing is how successful the movement was in addressing and encompassing these diverse themes and the needs informing them. But, it is also clear how amorphous the result was. The journey of Judaism through the waters of modernity has hardly been a tranquil sail and it is clear from reading these essays that many of the shoals and straits encountered along the way have not yet been successfully negotiated. However, at least we have what the subjects of this book did not have — some account of what the traveling has been like during the past 200 years. We are left with a sense of the intellectual achievement of these thinkers in trying to tease out what a modern Judaism could possibly be.

Peter J. Haas holds the Abba Hillel Silver Chair of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University and is a contributing editor.

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