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The Legacy of German Jewry$

Hermann Levin Goldschmidt

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780823228263

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: March 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fso/9780823228263.001.0001

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Steps Toward Emancipation

Steps Toward Emancipation

(p.65) Six Steps Toward Emancipation
The Legacy of German Jewry

Hermann Levin Goldschmidt

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the historical background of the Jewish people's fight for the emancipation of the Jews as Jews. Jewish religiosity was the first realm of Jewish culture to achieve wide-ranging emancipation and recognition, and as a result, Judaism as a religion soon ran the risk of becoming just like any other set of religious beliefs. In the process of mounting its defense against this prospect, Judaism's religious perspective was able to make important advances and rediscovered its deepest and most authentic roots.

Keywords:   Jews, emancipation, Jewish religiosity, Judaism, Jewish culture

While the Jewish achievement of full civil equality took its course, despite severe setbacks and bitter delays, and as modernity began to include more and more Jewish communities within its scope—communities fighting against excessive adaptation to the ways of their fellow citizens and nations—the battle to grant equal stature and rights to Judaism itself had begun. Judaism had continued to retain its hold and influence in the early stages of this process, even when Jews who had made social advances and claimed citizenship strove to play down their Jewishness. Judaism's influence began to wane only when their children and grandchildren, no longer regarding it as a stay and support, soon lost all memory of a Judaism that had been the wellspring and center of an entire way of life. Without a fully enfranchised Judaism with a firm foothold on modernity's ground, and without a vibrant Jewish community able to announce in no uncertain terms that Judaism's message had become part of every area of human endeavor—for such an assertive, public Jewish presence did not yet exist—the desire to (p.66) turn away from all things Jewish and disappear into a world where “equal rights” had been achieved was unavoidable. All the while, however, the visibility of explicitly Jewish participation in public affairs was on the increase, signaling the beginning of the fight for the emancipation of the Jews as Jews.

This fight for Jewish emancipation found an unlikely ally and comrade-in-arms in what was otherwise an absolutely poisonous, superfluous, wholly undesirable, yet timely and helpful opponent. Rising from the abyss, help of a sort arrived from none other than the chief enemy of Jewish equality: from so-called anti-Semitism, whose greed, delusion and murderous lust reached far enough to lay a finger even on Jews who were hardly identifiable as such, aside from Jewish origins they had long since cast aside. These non-Jewish Jews were persecuted as Jews as well. Suddenly reminded of the Judaism their fathers had left behind, the assimilated strata faced anti-Semitism, and tried to shunt it aside as well, if only to reject the caricature proffered by Judaism's enemies. Still, these nominal Jews were forced to confront Jewish identity anew: a Judaism that was not some historical fossil, but a past of their own of decisive importance, indeed, a past that would today, in the present, decide whether they would live or die. Judaism's own slumbering but nonetheless powerful resources, when roused to action, would help ward off the threat of Jewish disappearance that assimilation posed. These Jewish strengths hardly needed any “assistance” from anti-Semitism; such stimulus to Jewish self-awareness became a significant factor only once Judaism's own independent renewal of its unbroken, living tradition and its enduring significance had already begun. But anti-Semitism's delusion and criminality dramatize time and time again the utter futility of the exaggerated and determined efforts Jews made to fit in. Anti-Semitism thus fanned the flames of the fight to gain equality for Jewish particularity.

Jewish religiosity was the first realm of Jewish culture to achieve wide-ranging emancipation and recognition, and as a result, Judaism as a religion soon ran the risk of becoming just like any other “confession” or set of “religious beliefs.” In mounting its defense against this prospect, Judaism's religious perspective was able to make important advances, and in the process to rediscover its deepest and most authentic roots. This religious development took place at the same time that Jews successfully entered the sciences and humanities in significant numbers, and these successes were the work of individuals fully aware of the symbolic as well as intellectual (p.67) importance their actions carried for their era. Some would succumb to the lures of conformity along the way, whether from careerism or by adopting an apologetic stance. But in the end their efforts would achieve a full scholarly enfranchisement for Judaism, culminating in the first modern movement for the scholarly study of Judaism, the Wissenschaft des Judentums. Theirs was an achievement that transcended any attacks, or countering defense. For when all was said and done, the Wissenschaft des Judentums succeeded in providing us with a scholarship fully as rich and full of significance as its Jewish subject matter deserved.

The development of scholarly discipline of Jewish history, the cutting edge of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, provided the argument for complete Jewish emancipation with its most pronounced academic support. The achievements of Jost, Graetz, and Dubnow and the historic milestones they represent in this regard have already been touched on in our discussion of the historical stages of modern Jewish history, and will be considered more fully when we attend to the turning point that Dubnow's World History of the Jewish People signified in German Jewry's process of inner renewal. At the very same moment, however, Protestant biblical scholarship was winnowing through its own historic sources, and suddenly stumbled upon the fact that Judaism possessed an independent historical existence of its own. With exemplary honesty, Protestant biblical scholars publicized their recovery of Jewish historical sources, shedding new light on Jewish history. Judaism, they showed, was indeed responsible for the advent of Christianity and inseparable from the origins of Christianity. Protestant scholarship remained convinced, of course, that ancient as well as contemporary Judaism had long since been superseded by the new Christian dispensation. Scholarly exchange between Christians and Jews took place despite the fact that Judaism's continuing existence was itself a blatant affront to Christianity's original and guiding self-conception as the new order. And this Christian-Jewish discourse would continue until the combatants rediscovered an historical truth marginalized during the peculiar circumstances of the Jewish entry to modernity: the historical fact that the Jews were a people and nation, and had remained one until the present day. Only this recognition would make the “final step toward emancipation” possible, a movement whose outlines we are about to sketch.

Judaism is religiosity, and achieved its initial modern recognition as a religion, though from the time of Bible forward, Judaism's religious origin (p.68) and vision had belonged to all peoples who, like Judaism, struggled for an emancipation and freedom of their own. What the rest of the world questioned was the rationale for Judaism's continuity: Jewish culture was now, in the full light of public day, claiming the right to reclaim every one of its religious and national traditions in modern form. This effort was questioned on theological as well as political grounds: the demand for freedom of religion laid out its vision of a new historical era with uncompromising clarity for all the world to see, and necessarily drew opposition from all those forces who had prospered under the old regime, and whom modernity had left behind.

Judaism is religiosity—that is, a living, changing religious way of life, and thus both orthodox and liberal: orthodox insofar as its message and messengers testify to a timeless, transcendent Jewish continuity, and liberal insofar as those same witnesses are obliged to testify to this enduring existence in historical era after era, and to carry out Judaism's own renewal as well. The transhistorical core of Jewish teaching leads to orthodoxy, while its historicity leads to liberalism. The former meets the challenge of history's changing, demanding winds with steadfast loyalty, while the latter faces those same challenges by bringing about and furthering historical change, until history fulfills itself in the kingdom of God and a peace that transcends the historical. Both directions blossomed in the period that followed 1818, when contemporary liturgical innovations, including the introduction of the organ into services conducted at the Temple at Hamburg became a focus of heated debate: for the liberals, such adaptation symbolized Judaism's ability to change with the times, while for conservatives, such deviations represented the symbolic final straw that joined them together in common cause to resist any further falling away from the past. This “battle of the Temple” provoked representatives of every shade of opinion to enter the fray and voice their positions pro and contra, from the extreme right to the extreme left: their debate paralleled with precision the factional division that the seating order in the French Assembly had defined in the same period.

On the far right stood Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–88), the instigator of the Orthodox withdrawal and their break with the rest of the Jewish community over whether the strictest observance and faith in the ritual law would be maintained. Closer to the moderate middle, but with the same belief in the law as the key to sustaining the Jewish community, as long as others left him room for his own mode of expressing his piety, stood the (p.69) rabbi of Würzburg, Seligmann Bär Bamberger (1807–78), later the founder of Germany's Orthodox Jewish community. Conservative resistance, of course, provoked opposition of its own, led on the extreme left by Samuel Holdheim (1806–60), who championed a break with the Jewish community's traditional self-conception and “Jewish” notion of the future to allow a full engagement with the contemporary world. On the right, Abraham Geiger (1810–74), the most important leader of liberal Judaism, which unlike the Orthodox, owes its origin to a number of leading figures, established enough space between himself and the left to stake out a middle ground, allowing him to continue with traditional observance while vigorously endorsing the possibilities of the present. Zacharias Frankel (1801–75), who by comparison seems a somewhat dull figure, was nonetheless strikingly successful in arguing for this middle way, eventually becoming the father of conservative Judaism. Frankel rejected out of hand the presumptuous suggestion that a tradition handed down and preserved throughout history could in any way be considered obsolete. Jewish tradition, Frankel argued, represented a path which, while connected to the past, at the same time led forward to a future that would be fundamentally transformed.

Religiosity, in other words, had achieved its own victorious breakthrough and emancipation: but not without a kind of imitative adaptation that was far too extreme, an adaptive adjustment that would henceforth define all Judaism, whether right, left, and center as simply another religious “confession” or “confession of faith” whose obligations extended to only part of life's expanse. Regarded as one of life's peripheral phenomena, Judaism as mere “confession” was stripped of its deeper influence on Jews now swamped with far more encompassing social obligations, those countless duties of citizenship that were part of the everyday life amidst the peoples and states that had become their homes. Religious life was now merely a persuasion, and increasingly amounted to nothing more than the domestic, personal concern of each individual believer. The historical reality of the Jewish covenant—the framework that took individual Jews and forged them into a single Judaism, for the obligation to bear witness to the covenant had preserved the Jews as both a spiritual force and national culture—began to fade away. The idea of religious confession alone sufficed—and does not suffice—to sustain them as Jews in perpetuity.

But one form of Jewish emancipation moved far beyond the scope of religious confession. The recognition achieved by the Wissenschaft des Judentums, representing this people's full acceptance by the intellectual (p.70) world, staked out a bold position in the intellectual landscape. The vibrant activity of Jewish scholars contradicted Hegel's doctrine—then at the peak of its influence—that every world-historical people could be called to lead or share leadership in the march of world history but a single time. Hegel's system implied that modern Jews had no choice but to become Germans, and thereby merge with the German tide of history if they were ever to amount to anything at all. At the same time, German governments intoxicated by their victory over France reimposed repressive and irksome restrictions on their Jewish communities, reintroducing legal barriers which at the very least delayed and where possible sought to undo their transition to modernity. This reactionary legislation culminated in the Prussian Ordinance of August 18, 1822, with its particularly ominous consequences for intellectual endeavors. The Prussian statute banned Jews who had achieved citizenship by March 11, 1812, along with Jews enfranchised during the wars of liberation of 1813–15, from holding teaching positions at the universities and secondary schools unless they consented to baptism.

But as Judaism is religiosity, so it is also scholarship—and Jewish research into and exploration of Judaism cannot be done without it! And so in 1818, at the very moment that liberalism and orthodoxy were flowering, set off by the “Temple Battle”—and simultaneous with Hegel's arrival in Berlin—Leopold Zunz had already produced his groundbreaking, programmatic tract “On Rabbinic Literature.” Zunz's work opened the door to an immensely promising deepening of Jewish modernity, requiring only a change in external circumstances before powerful cultural forces who were ready and willing would carry on his work. In 1818, Zunz, Eduard Gans, and Isaak Markus Jost, together with the first modern historian of Judaism, Ludwig Marcus, Moses Moser, and three other friends, founded the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews (Verein für Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden). Heinrich Heine would join the group in 1822. Each of these figures was born in the last decade of the eighteenth century, and all were gifted with the full bloom of youth and its energy. Yet their journal, Zeitschrift für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, had been in print for barely two years, from 1822 through 1823, when the dissolution of the society was at hand. In 1825 its president, Gans, agreed to be baptized in order to continue his work as Hegel's colleague, that is, in order to become a professor, though he was, to be sure, not the first apostate from the society. On June 28, 1825—almost half a year before Gans took the identical step, which he completed on (p.71) December 12—Heine acquired his baptismal certificate in order to obtain, as his famous phrase has it, his “entrée-billet [ticket] to European culture.”

Yet in spite of this, the entrée of the Wissenschaft des Judentums had been won. And with each succeeding decade of the nineteenth century, it became more and more clear that antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the West's stature as a world power all drew part of their strength and inspiration from the spirit of Judaism, until the fact finally became impossible to overlook. “Entrée” to European culture, and all of modernity's crucial innovations, of course, had not originated from Jewish sources alone, but neither had they passed Judaism by, but had moved ahead together with Jewish culture: modernity's push toward the future had always taken place in partnership with the Jews. This insight, of course, came too late for many and indeed for almost all the best of those “emancipated” Jews who grew up in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The corresponding institutional realization followed even later—and in Germany itself only piecemeal and always inadequately—with the specific integration and inclusion of Jewish subject matter into the university curriculum through the establishment of chairs in Jewish studies.

Yet when ninety-two-year-old Leopold Zunz closed his weary eyes for the last time on March 17, 1886, having kept faith with the project begun in his youth along with comrades from his same generation, Zunz himself obviously grasped the intellectual significance of the fact that Judaism was now a living presence at the university and within scholarship, despite casual as well as explicit attempts to see it eclipsed. This subject will be entered into more fully in a later discussion of German Jewry's inner development and the process of establishing chairs of Jewish studies in Germany, which remains piecemeal and inadequate. Here it is worth noting that even crucial progress that the success the Wissenschaft des Judentums represented was constantly threatened by attempts to imitate and assimilate into the surrounding culture, sometimes finding expression in political gestures and other times as apologetics. Assimilation remained a constant threat to authentic equality, though it brought fewer and fewer advantages to the individual Jew who pursued its course. The assimilated Jew was less and less able to return to the haven of his people after defeats, and reminded in evermore shrilly voiced demands that his efforts serve the German nation and state alone. Only this way, he was told, would his cultural efforts be of any use.

(p.72) The Wissenschaft des Judentums, meanwhile, unearthed a trove of Jewish knowledge and history. The intellectual measure of their efforts, of course, must be taken using scholarly criteria alone. Yet those same treasures lent support and continue to aid the battle of the Jewish community, within its own confines and beyond them, for the prestige and authority its people deserve. The cultural and historical material rediscovered by Jewish historians refuted charges holding the Jews responsible for every conceiv-able sin. Jewish scholarship was also a refutation of slurs that have taken almost every conceivable form, ranging from straightforward objection and doubts to derision, suspicion and defamation, though anti-Jewish charges rarely had anything to do with evidence, and were hardly susceptible to rational disproof. But in the end, the difficulty the Wissenschaft des Juden-tums faced time and time again, constantly sidetracking its own best efforts, was its apologetic stance—that is, its defensiveness—an attitude still in evi-dence today, both in the United States as well as Israel.

Yet a scholarship seduced into cultural weakness can also achieve self-consciousness, when its subject matter is authentic, as in the case of Judaism, and eventually cast its crutch aside and stand on its own. The resulting scholarship remains objective through and through, and is in the end no longer distracted by politics. Apologetics, on the contrary, soon dissipates its own energy, until it becomes dependent on the very opponents whom it is crucial to resist. Before long, apologetic scholarship can neither remain objective nor attain the kind of confident, self-conscious angle of vision that allows the most productive scholarship to succeed. The irony was that the mounting anxiety of Jewish scholars over whether Jewish culture should exist in the future was stoked by well-meaning philo-Semites, possessing little if any knowledge of the Jewish tradition. Meanwhile, the actual magnitude and depth of Judaism's cultural resources should have nipped any such worries in the bud. Extramural pressure of this sort nonetheless had the effect of marginalizing research into Jewish subject matter precisely when its topics were the most compelling and legitimate. But even this apologetic suppression of scholarly objectivity was soon to pass.

Sooner or later the truth wins out, so long as its foundation has been laid, and the fact that Judaism's intellectual values represent the most distinguished kind of cultural achievement—and thus deserve public recognition—is such a foundational truth. The many blandishments of conformity had their effect, encouraging scholars to exaggerate Jewish difference for (p.73) political effect or to minimize it with apologetic ends in mind, instead of trusting that the truth would gradually emerge on its own. But the process that began when the Jewish right to equality was recognized could not be stopped, and the truth gradually reveals itself to the researcher precisely because it is the truth, waiting to be found. The Wissenschaft des Judentums set about its work with a powerful constancy commitment that served as a shield against withering attacks launched from outside the university's walls, allowing Jewish scholars to confront their opponents with a steadily increasing sense of independence well suited to its object of study:

  • Gird your sword upon your thigh, O hero,
  • in your splendor and glory;
  • —in your glory, win success;
  • ride on in the cause of truth and meekness and right. (Psalms 45:4–5)