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Book Reviews : A Spiritual History of German Jewry

March 29, 1985|HERB HAIN | Although Hain got out of Germany in 1936, well before the Holocaust, he has never been able to get away from either. and

The German Jew: A Synthesis of Judaism and Western Civilization by H. I. Bach (Oxford: $24.95; 250 pp.)

Warning: Though this book claims to be for the "general" reader, that reader had better be well grounded in philosophy. But what can you expect from a Hans Bach, who, according to the foreword, is "equally at home in philosophy, Germanistics, art, music, the humanities and the world of Jewish thought"?

The book is replete with references to Plato, Artistotle, Maimonides, Kant, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Descartes and many others. Out of their ideas, Bach has synthesized a brief, but thorough overview of the intellectual and spiritual history of German Jewry from Moses Mendelssohn to the mass murdering.

Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was, of course, the first prominent Jew who saw himself not only as a Jew but also a German. Until then, Jews had been unwelcome foreigners, eking out a precarious living in their ghettos, never far from pogroms and persecution and forever having to defend themselves, usually with scant success, against the charges of Christ-killers (even though crucifixion was strictly a Roman punishment; Jews used stones) and against accusations of blood libel. Bach calls this charge that Jews murdered gentile children and drank their blood for ritual purposes a case of psychological projection--"not that Jews needed the blood of Christian children, but, on the level of inner reality, Christians, one could say, needed the blood of a 'Jewish child,' Jesus of Nazareth, for the expiation of their sins." Undaunted, Jews continued to hope for "redemption from within" their ancient faith.

Age of Reason

Then came the age of reason, with its new view of a soul-less world. Philosophers managed to reconcile science and God; enlightenment, the belief in the goodness of man, became the faith of the 18th Century. Mendelssohn stuck to his Orthodox Judaism, but he believed in the separation of church and state and held that Jews, meaning German Jews, could be good citizens. His most monumental work, the translation of the Old Testament into German, bridged the gap between the two cultures.

Mendelssohn not only brought Jews to the edges of German society (and acceptance), he also modernized Hebrew, the ancient language of the Torah, laying the foundation of today's Israel.

Complete emancipation in Germany, achieved finally under Bismarck in the 1870s, brought with it the rise of Jews in business, science and industry. Dizzied by this heady development, some advocated the abolition of circumcision and favored a Jewish church into the existing church. Others wanted to observe Sunday as the day of rest. What had been a movement of spiritual faith became a mere convenience that was not allowed to interfere with business and social action.

But emancipation proved no answer, no more than the ghetto had been. Increasing Jewish influence brought anti-Semitic reaction. Jews were called the "German misfortune" and were blamed for economic woes. Seventy years before Nazism, the myth of the blond, blue-eyed German "Superman" raised its head, nurtured in part by Darwin's theory of natural selection. Hitler had to invent nothing; he only copied and refined ancient antagonisms.

Seeing that emancipation, that great "redemption from without," had also failed them, some German Jews began to be convinced that the only way they could ever be safe, let alone equal, was in a country of their own; thus Zionism was born.

By the start of World War I, Jews had risen to prominence in science, industry, politics, arts, theater and literature. In spite of the widespread antagonism, they had achieved the synthesis of Judaism and Western civilization. But now he devotes the last third of the book to yet another synthesis, one within German Judaism itself.

That internal synthesis (how Bach loved that word) was shaped by the works of four men: Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Leo Baeck and Franz Rosenzweig. Cohen's "Ethics of Pure Will" saw God as the ultimate basis for morality. Buber, A Zionist, wrote in "Discourses on Judaism" that nation and religion are one. Baeck's "The Essence of Judaism" held that the totality of Judaism is expressed in the Bible. And Rosenzweig's "The State of Redemption" emphasized the timeless quality of Judaic thought, independent of Western influences. Bach combines all this in a viewpoint that is liberal in courage, orthodox in its care for tradition, and Zionist in its view of the Jewish community. Thus, he is able to describe what made these men and their ideas tick early in 20th Century; but he is unable to explain why the clock suddenly stopped in 1933.

Consequently, Bach does not dwell on the Holocaust to any extent, although he was forced to flee Germany for England in 1939. So the book leaves large questions still unanswered. While Jews have at last achieved a geographic redemption with the birth of Israel, their ideas of God may need much redefinition. When a prominent Reform rabbi was recently obliged to state, from the pulpit, that "after Auschwitz and after Hiroshima, it's no longer possible to believe in an all-powerful God," he was challenging not just Jewish thinking, but Christian theology as well.

The pain of the recent past may be followed by the larger pain of an uncertain spiritual future.

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