Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making Goethe Jewish

David Goldman has an article, "Faustian Bargains," on the continued importance of German cultural tradition for Judaism. Much of the article focuses on Orthodox Judaism, particularly R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Michael Friedländer and R. Joseph Soloveitchik. Unlike most narratives, which focus on the Kantian philosophical tradition, Goldman argues for the preeminence of German literature, particularly Goethe, for understanding German-Jewish relations. According to Goldman:

Two German thinkers demarcate the opposite poles of German culture and its Jewish response. One was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose Critique of Pure Reason leapfrogged 2,000 years of debate about the ultimate nature of reality. We cannot penetrate into the inner nature of objects that we perceive, Kant asserted: All we can know is the mechanisms for understanding them that are hard-wired into our brains. The apogee of Enlightenment rationalism, Kant thought that reason would prescribe ethics and foster world peace. The poet and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) saw instead the dark side of the Enlightenment: Freed from constraint, tradition, and faith, modern man faced instead existential despair and self-destruction. Men use reason, Mephistopheles tells God in the prologue to Goethe’s great drama Faust, to be beastlier than any beast. Kant dismissed Judaism as a relic of ancient irrationality; Goethe learned Hebrew and drew on the Bible to make sense of the spiritual crisis of modernity.

Jews who veered toward assimilation embraced Kant’s universalism, most prominent among them Hermann Cohen, Germany’s leading academic philosopher in the last years of the 19th century. Cohen never abjured his Jewish identity and struggled until the end of his life to reconcile the unique calling of Israel with Kant’s universalism. His story has become an object lesson in failed assimilation. The Jewish encounter with Goethe in many ways is more telling, for its failures as well as successes. Some of the great rabbis of the 19th century did not hesitate to draw on Goethe’s reading of the Bible; Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik saw theological importance in Goethe’s rejection of scientific determinism.


no one said...

enlightenment thought has run into great trouble and so has anti enlightenment. and in fact it seems to me that we lack any language to even discuses this problem because people are consistently talking in the language and thought of Nietzsche "values" "commitments" "life styles" "the Id" etc.
Even the chasidic and baal teshva i find to be completely Nietzschian. Only a few old Litvaks that i once knew in America seems to have the old values system of the Talmud

I have been thinking for a while that rebbi nachman may have found some path through this impasse that civilization has come to.--a kind of return to the old values of the Torah but in a way that is different. I have mentioned my ideas to tow people that are na nach and they seemed to like the ideas but i have not developed them much.
Incidentally the attack on the enlightenment was really begun by Rousseau and Jonathan swift and i did not think of Goethe as being an attack on the enlightenment but maybe he is. He did after all put action above thought. But that might very well be a continuation of the ideas of john Locke.

Izgad said...

Would you care to further explain your arguments about Nietzsche and the connection between Goethe and Locke? In regards to Nietzsche I assume you are running with Bloom’s argument. Similarly Gertrude Himmelfarb points out the irony of Republicans talking about family values instead of virtues when the concept of values in the realm of ethics comes from Nietzsche and his intentions were the exact opposite.