Broken Promises and Redemptive Yearnings: Jewish Intellectuals and German Universities before the Second World War

Paul Franks Senator Jerahmiel S. and Carole S. Grafstein Chair in Jewish Philosophy Centre for Jewish Studies and Department of Philosophy University of Toronto Imagine a world in which, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, you may pursue their intellectual interests, whatever they may be; a world in which you may pursue the course of education that best matches your interests and education, and in which you may, if you are the best candidate, find a job that enables you to investigate the questions that most concern you, with all necessary institutional support and security. Do citizens of western countries such as Canada inhabit this world today? For many generations of Jewish intellectuals, such a world was no more than a pipe-dream. To be sure, the establishment of schools has long been a priority of Jewish communities. But formal education for girls is a recent development, the provision of general as well as Jewish studies has been the exception rather than the rule, and jobs suited to intellectuals have been few and far between. It is hard not to be astonished at the productivity of scholars such as Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who needed to earn a living in areas at some remove from their intellectual pursuits, often while contributing greatly to communal affairs. To be sure, a few were fortunate enough to be supported, along with their students, by personal or communal wealth, and rabbinic studies have frequently been pursued at high levels of sophistication and in communication with similarly minded specialists in other, often far-flung parts of the Jewish world. However, with the exception of medical studies at Padua and, later, a handful of other schools, Jews had no access to the university: the institutional framework developed by European Christians and dedicated to teaching and research, which has been the key to the west’s intellectual and economic successes. Jews could obtain knowledge of the latest developments in areas of study that are not tied specifically to Judaism, and interaction with a broader community of thinkers and scholars, only with the help of a prodigious amount of that rarest of commodities: good luck. The exclusion of Jews from general intellectual life was, of course, part and parcel of their exclusion from the general political life of Europe. In the seventeenth century, however, Barukh Spinoza (1632-1677) – the Dutch Jewish philosopher of Portuguese descent, who had been banned from the Jewish community of Amsterdam – envisaged a new kind of state, which would grant citizenship to all, regardless of their religious and philosophical opinions, and which would guarantee freedom of thought. In the most liberal European country, he was tolerated despite his “dangerous” ideas, and he survived several hostile campaigns, but it would take a century or more before Jews would be granted civil rights in accordance with his vision. When, remarkably, Spinoza was offered a professorship at the University of Heidelberg in 1673, he wisely declined, since the friendly configuration of interests leading to the offer could hardly be expected to last long. Without a guarantee of academic freedom, Spinoza preferred the life of a lens-grinder, who earned enough to support his intellectual pursuits and who had been fortunate enough to make contact with other philosophers and natural scientists. Still,


in part because Prussian resentment of French Revolutionary ideas. As students. excommunication was not obligatory. Notably. not least in regions conquered by Napoleon. and the idea of emancipating Jews spread to other European countries by means of Napoleon’s sword. it was during the Napoleonic occupation of Prussia that the aforementioned salon hostesses converted to Christianity. The French Revolution changed everything – though not all at once – by issuing a promise honoured more in its breach than in its fulfilment. who could only cultivate intellectual friendships by hosting salons. They sought to apply to the study of Judaism the new historical methods developed in German universities. while laying the foundations for much of what we now call Jewish Studies. implementation fell far short of the ideal. in search of careers. Rahel Levin (17711833) and Mendelssohn’s daughters. they might enjoy fruitful relations with Christian thinkers and scholars. not long after Napoleon’s defeat. Like him. None of them. However. leading Jewish intellectuals who wanted to pursue and contribute to general studies would have to follow Spinoza’s model – though. In France in 1791. In the eighteenth century. they were autodidacts who applied the analytical skills attained through their rabbinic educations to other areas. Consider the members of the Verein für Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden (Association for the Culture and Science of the Jews). or with their German. a private tutor. the promise of equal involvement in general political and intellectual life had now been made. would not have published his work in philosophy and literary criticism without the support of his friend. with far less success. Occasionally. however. a bookkeeper. Thus Raphael Levi Hannover (1685-1779). Whatever advantages these men had – flowing from their Talmudic educations – were unavailable to female Jewish intellectuals. and Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Over the next century and a half. such as Henriette Herz (1764-1847). Dorothea (1764-1839) and Henriette (1775-1831). after 1908 – contributed greatly to all disciplines. as well as their fellow-Jews. it would repeatedly be betrayed. Christian. male or female. Jews were granted civil rights. and they supported themselves in whatever way they could. But it could not be unmade. Between the French Revolution and the First World War. including the idea of equality for Jews. and there was considerable resistance to the emancipation of the Jews. founded at the University of Berlin in 1819. put them under intense pressure to demonstrate where their loyalties truly lay: with the French. fortunately. Germany invented the modern research university. it would be kept. Still. undermined and repudiated. All too often. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). they 2 . and they could also become part of an informal network of like-minded Jews. a romance that would end in bitter betrayal. in search of educations and. in addition to attracting the resentment of those who feared increasing competition for livelihoods and resources. and Jews who studied there – including Jewish women. In the course of the nineteenth century.1673 marks the beginning of the long romance between German universities and Jewish intellectuals. partly out of the conviction that Judaism mattered. became the informal student and secretary of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). and partly out of zeal for the new scholarship. had an institutional framework to support their intellectual pursuits. it was now branded as a foreign imposition. the price to be paid for a professorship was conversion to Christianity. If they were fortunate and persistent. intellectual comrades. Jewish intellectuals from Germany and Eastern Europe entered German universities. where.

The Jüdisches-Theologisches Seminar (Jewish Theological Seminary) in Breslau. Jakob Bernays (18241881) – son of the renowned Hakham Bernays. The seminary at which Zunz taught was one of several institutions arising from an educational revolution in the Jewish community. replaced the old kehillot. for scholarship in general. died out in Germany and faded away in Eastern Europe. which combined the scholarly approach pioneered by the Verein with a conservative attitude towards observance. followed a year later in the same city by the Rabbiner Seminar für das Orthodoxe Judentum. founded in Berlin in 1840. He did not convert. associated with the kehillot that had enjoyed relative autonomy in Europe before the rise of the nation-state. Three years later. In 1822. necessitated by the fact that. took a different path. the old. Leopold Zunz (1794-1886). local yeshivot were replaced by seminaries for the training of rabbis and teachers. “The baptismal certificate is the ticket of admission to European culture”. The paradigm. He was followed – with famous reluctance – by his fellow Verein-member: the critic and poet. By the end of the nineteenth century. and never attained a university position. Meanwhile. and the traditionalist orthodox Israelitische Lehrerbildungsanstalt (Jewish Teacher Training Institute) began training teachers in Würzburg in 1863. Instead. 3 . Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). student of the renowned Vilna Gaon (1720-1797). which was to some extent a return to the yeshivot of the geonim a thousand years earlier. under French occupation. applied for a position. the old yeshivot. and their hopes rested on the Prussian Emancipation Edict issued in 1812. Meanwhile. some of these would also found yeshivot on the new model. however. But they also provided institutional bases for the teaching and research of major scholars. Gans converted. opened in 1854. whose meticulous studies of synagogue sermons and liturgies established a new paradigm for Jewish history. and run by the chief rabbis of significant communities and/or scholarly reputations. both products of the Lithuanian yeshivah of Slabodka: Rabbi Abraham Eliyahu Kaplan (1890-1934) and Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg (1878-1966). the law was changed to bar Jews once again. the Hasidic movement gave rise to dynasties and courts which. Eduard Gans (1789-1837). in the nineteenth century. which dedicated themselves to Torah lishmah (Torah study for its own sake). and uncle of Sigmund Freud’s wife – taught at the Breslau seminary from its inception. In Lithuania.were determined to remain Jews. the orthodox seminary in Berlin came to represent the coexistence of German historical scholarship and Lithuanian Talmud scholarship. whose contributions were foundational for Jewish Studies and. they were eclipsed by new yeshivoth. Thus.1 Another member of the Verein. In Germany. he helped to run one of the Jewish community’s own educational institutions: a Jewish teachers’ training seminary. which opened academic positions to all. elitist reputations and distinctive traditions. sometimes. the German seminaries undertook to train religious and educational functionaries. attracting both funding and students from throughout the country and beyond by dint of their rigorous teachers. when their erstwhile leader. in their own ways. philosopher of law and Hegel’s assistant. while the liberal Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Advanced School for the Science of Judaism) began operating in Berlin in 1872. Unlike the Lithuanian yeshivot. embodied in its two final rectors. who remarked. was established in 1802 by Hayyim of Volozhin (1749-1821). and made a decisive contribution to the historical study of classical Greek texts. in order to take the job. for example.

university teachers were civil servants. The natural and exact sciences were also less hostile than other disciplines. But this hardly meant that the next generation had no obstacles to overcome. Cohen was a knowledgeable. this was progress. he was the founder of a school – the Marburg school of Neo-Kantianism – and. Jews tended to spend longer in unpaid positions. and he now ended his career at another. it seemed. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) and Leo Strauss (1899-1973). First. Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945). and some distinguished scholars – such as Moritz Lazarus (1824-1903).2 Still. and Schelling. there were only twenty unbaptized Jewish professors in the country. became the first ordinary (full) professor at Göttingen in 1859. who. Third. No wonder Jewish students. the promise was being kept. so academic appointments required a change in the law. through his students and junior colleagues as well as his own work. became the first unbaptized. chairs in philosophy played a special role in German national culture. his profound impact on contemporaneous philosophy would endure until the 1920s. In Cohen’s case. enabling his ideas and relations to reach far beyond the Jewish community within which he had begun and ended. After he retired from Marburg. By the end of the 1870’s. whereupon Robert Remak (1815-1865). a growing feature of political and intellectual life. proud and articulate Jew. but this hardly opened the floodgates. on his second attempt. and not least. figures such as Fichte. Hegel. a mathematician. during the heyday of Jewish intellectual life in Imperial Germany. was appointed to a chair in philosophy at the University of Marburg in 1876. who remain central to philosophy today – helped to create the self-understanding of a nation that still existed more as an idea than as an actuality. the various regions proceeded at their own paces. Cohen had come full circle: he had begun his higher education within one communal institution. founded during the French occupation as an act of resistance and hope. although the civil service law had been altered throughout Germany. where his classes were attended by some of the stars of the next generation: Franz Rosenzweig (1887-1929). the promise had been kept. a physiologist. and no affirmative action policy was ever implemented to design to change attitudes. he began teaching at the Hochschule in Berlin. Until the unification that followed the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Beginning in 1880. They were secular pulpits whose occupants – at the University of Berlin. Second. among others. he heeded the call to respond to the anti-semitic attacks that were. Jewish Privatdozent (non-stipendiary lecturer). and although many Jews were already wellestablished within a variety of disciplines. came to hear Cohen lecture at Marburg. Prussia changed its law in 1847. Slowly. culminating in his late classic Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism (1919). nationalist fervour led to 4 . Cohen’s closest student. along with the increasing involvement of Jews. at the Breslau seminary.In Germany. Nevertheless. could not obtain a stipendiary appointment for many years. Without ever becoming merely parochial or forfeiting his status as a systematic philosopher of the first rank. despite his undisputed accomplishments. Nobody better represented this fulfilment. than Hermann Cohen (1842-1918). the university had provided the setting for the core of his career. Moritz Abraham Stern (1807-1894). one of the founders of the discipline of Völkerpsychologie (psychology of peoples) – received much recognition without any regular appointment. Cohen was not only a masterful writer and teacher. Cohen became increasingly interested in Judaism and its philosophical importance. During the First World War.

Rosenzweig responded to a call from Nehemiah Nobel (1871-1922). Jews were more central than ever to intellectual affairs. Jewish intellectuals were alienated from the classical German culture that had captivated their parents. which he named. but out of a deep. Ernst Cassirer became. Friedrich Meinecke. like their forbears. not Cassirer. many of them would have been happy to attain university positions enabling them to think. not only professor of philosophy at the University of Hamburg in 1919. and they attained academic stature to an unprecedented degree. “my Judaism”. To be sure. because of a “dark drive”. like Hans Ehrenberg (1883-1958). and several knew more about being German than about being Jewish. since Jews were widely blamed for Germany’s defeat and were seen as the beneficiaries of a political regime that seemed a foreign imposition. like Gans and Heine. In any event. religious conviction that was in revolt against bourgeois life. Schiller and Cohen against Martin Heidegger’s retrieval of questions suppressed by western civilization since antiquity. Franz Rosenzweig. seeking to establish themselves within German culture. whether Jewish or not. Instead. notwithstanding Cohen’s argument that Deutschtum and Judentum (Germanness and Jewishness. The defeat of Germany and the establishment of the Weimar Republic brought the tensions inherent in German-Jewish intellectual life to an almost unbearable tension. teach and write. for what no academic career could provide: redemption. then it was not worth pursuing. like his cousin. volunteering in 1934 to help bring the University of Freiburg into line with the ideology of national purity and dictatorial governance. a prominent intellectual historian who had supervised Rosenzweig’s doctoral dissertation. converted to Christianity – not under pressure. and who had then taken time off from his rabbinical duties to write a doctoral 5 . was in tune with the profound insights of Cohen’s late work at the Hochschule. but also the country’s first unbaptized Jewish rector in 1929-1930. or Germanism and Judaism) were so interlinked that Jews throughout the world should support the German cause.increasing anti-semitism. regardless of religion or ethnicity – the state for which Cohen and Meinecke longed. Rosenzweig had lost faith in the ideal German state. both Cohen and Cassirer resigned from the journal’s editorial board. On the other hand. Cohen’s German-Jewish symbiosis was hollow. which would live up to all its promises to its citizens. But they yearned. in a debate at Davos in 1929. and Franz Rosenzweig argued that Heidegger. The generation of the First World War were not. above all.5 Even before the disaster of 1918. Others. a prominent Frankfurt rabbi who had distinguished himself as a talmudist at the orthodox seminary in Berlin. If the promise required one to “fit in” with desiccated ideas and a corrupt culture. When. returned to the Jewish community. They had been born into the world of German ideas. On the one hand. the Jewish students present – including Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) and Leo Strauss – took Heidegger’s side. or should at least prevent America from intervening to defeat it. Ernst Cassirer championed the humanism of Kant. must have been astonished to receive a letter informing him that Rosenweig would not be pursuing an academic career after all. Bruno Bauch distinguished between the essentially German philosophy of Kant and the essentially Jewish views of Cohen.4 Not one of them anticipated that Heidegger would join the Nazi party.3 When. in a 1916 issue of the Kant Society’s periodical. anti-semitism continued to hamper Jewish aspirations. Some. like many German intellectuals who had come of age in the war years. in order to revitalize its cultural life.

It was. in the words of Julien Benda (18671956). German-Jewish intellectual life could subsist only in exile or in withdrawal. after earning his doctorate with a ground-breaking study of the early kabbalistic work. or within Germany. redemption would be found. If the French Revolution changed everything. or one could withdraw to a Jewish community institution. found a lifelong home for his teaching and research. which served as an analogue of the Jewish rejection of idolatry.dissertation under Cohen at Marburg. who had been hired as librarian. German universities attracted some of the greatest products of both Lithuanian yeshivot and Hasidic courts – including Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (19031993) and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994). which dismissed all non-Aryan civil servants. and the messianic role of the proletariat. developed by the mostly Jewish members of the “Frankfurt School” based at the Institute for Social Research. His classic work. and the Russian Revolution ignited his imagination. The philosopher and literary critic. or even their grandparents. In practice. But the storm-clouds were gathering. Some. was attracted to Marxism. whose cornerstone had been laid in 1918. One could seek an academic job in another country. On 7 April. the first step was taken to reverse the effects of emancipation in Germany: the law for the “Restoration of the Civil Service”. Nor did baptism help. but in the traditional. Others gave up on Europe altogether. the Institute for Jewish Studies was established at the Hebrew University. The Star of Redemption (1920). Nobel invited Rosenzweig to head a recently established bet ha-midrash of an innovative kind: the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus (Independent Jewish Study House). Rosenzweig had written the single most important work of modern Jewish philosophy. there was no mass protest by German faculty and students. indeed. articulated the ideas that became the basis for the Western Marxist tradition. either in another country. against all the odds. where they continued to function – and. The twenties saw a renaissance in German-Jewish intellectual. making explicit the critique of capitalist reification. which would establish the groundwork for the field of kabbalistic studies. While a handful of non-Jewish academics objected. unless they were First World War veterans or had been in office since August 1914. the Sefer ha-Bahir. and most Jewish academics lost their positions. During the war. enjoyed a 6 . which quickly swept Hitler to power. and he now established new directions in popular Jewish education. so did the German Presidential election of 1932. not a religious. “the betrayal of the intellectuals”. In 1924. not in politics. Expelled from the universities. In 1923. Gershom Scholem left Germany for Palestine. for which they soon lost their jobs on political grounds. Lukács served as deputy to the Commissar for Education in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. returned to Jewish observances that had long been abandoned by their parents. as well as those with unreliable political opinions. and Scholem. religious and cultural life. exemptions were not always honoured. For him. 1933. since Judaism had become a racial. where Jews of every religious persuasion and background would be welcome to study Jewish tradition. attracting a circle of remarkable people who brought their university educations into mutually challenging relations with Jewish tradition. Georg Lukács (1885-1971). History and Class Consciousness (1923). who had known Ehrenberg and Rosenzweig at Heidelberg. like Rosenzweig himself. and some sought redemption in radical alternatives to German-Jewish life. messianic hope of everyday Jewish life. designation.

Scholem’s classic overview of the field of kabbalistic studies. even as it speaks to us. Walter Benjamin. while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The ninth thesis envisaged the “Angelus Novus” painted by Paul Klee – a prized possession of Benjamin’s – as the angel of history: His face is turned towards the past. although several of them felt uncomfortable with American culture.6 For German Jews who had not escaped from Europe by 1939. which he had entrusted to her in Marseilles. or with his Marxist friends in the Soviet Union. looking with horror on a catastrophe that they would nevertheless survive? To this day. and the conversation of his fellow German-Jewish intellectuals. and later worked for the Jewish Agency. was unable to receive the teaching license that she had earned.7 Were the Jewish intellectuals who were both formed and betrayed by the German universities nothing more than pieces of wreckage? Or were they angels of history. Benjamin would eventually die a mysterious death on the Spanish border. 7 . in May 1940. As is well known. the walls seemed to finally close in. awaken the dead. on September 1. Where we perceive a chain of events. after a brief interlude in breath of life – until Kristallnacht in 1938. in the midst of the Second World War. The angel would like to stay. the book directs our gaze towards Benjamin’s obscure grave. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Thus. in a voice that Hitler could not silence. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned. she joined Youth Aliyah in France. he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. the options had all but run out. carrying with her Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. The members of the “Frankfurt School” were fortunate enough to move their Institute to New York. he wrote his last. their epoch-making works still bear the question’s scar. When war broke out. Inconceivable without the scholarly and philosophical achievements of the German universities. great work – a portrait of the nineteenth century as crystallized in the Paris Arcades – employing an innovative method that continues to influence the humanities today. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. This storm is what we call progress. and make whole what has been smashed. while Arendt would proceed to Lisbon and thence to New York. were dedicated when published in 1941 to the memory of his friend. it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) dithered. delivered as lectures in 1938. When it became unsafe for her to continue gathering information on German anti-semitism. arranging for the resettlement of German-Jewish children in Palestine. the learning of Scholem’s rabbinic teachers. But a storm is blowing from Paradise. Benjamin was interned at a camp in Nevers. who had been seduced by Heidegger as a student and who completed her second dissertation in 1933. Confronted by the choice between different varieties of redemption. and Arendt was interned at Gurs a few months later. Meanwhile. He could not decide whether to cast his lot with his Zionist friend Scholem in Palestine.

1 The Jew in the Modern World. 1915). trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge. Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (Indianapolis. 3 Hermann Cohen. in Philosophical and Theological Writings. 4 See Franz Rosenzweig. 2003). 1995). 6 See Walter Benjamin. Jews and the German State (Detroit. IN: Hackett. eds. 92-3. “Transposed Fronts”. 146-152. Harry Zohn. 2 Peter Pulzer. Deutschtum und Judentum (Giessen: A. 392. Paul Franks and Michael Morgan (Indianapolis. MA: Harvard University Press. 7 Walter Benjamin. Marcus Bullock. IN: Hackett. and eds. ed. 1938-40. 259. 96. Howard Eiland and Michael William Jennings (Cambridge. Roy Tiedemann. Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 4. in Selected Writings. Vol. 1999). MI: Wayne State University Press. 5 See Nahum Glatzer. 1999). The Arcades Project. . eds. trans. MA: Harvard University Press. Töpelman. “On the Concept of History”. 1998). trans. 2003).

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