restricted access Chapter Two: Questioning Origins: Friedrich von Schiller’s The Legation of Moses
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Chapter Two • Questioning Origins Friedrich von Schiller’s The Legation of Moses In The Legation of Moses (Die Sendung Moses, 1790), Schiller the historian presents a remarkable revisionist thesis: Moses used reason to invent the Jewish faith, and he did so for expressly political purposes—to establish himself as the legitimate leader of his people. In effect, Schiller maintains, Moses was a shrewd charlatan who cobbled together Judaism from beliefs he took from indigenous Egyptian religions, and then used this invented faith to dupe the Hebrews into following him out of Egypt. The establishment of the Jewish state, grounded in a fabricated “religion of reason” (“Vernunftreligion”),1 has profound consequences for world history in Schiller’s account: the two major religions that “rule” most of the world, Christianity and Islam, “support themselves” on “the Hebrew religion”; indeed, neither Christendom nor the Koran would exist without it; and the “Mosaic religion” forms the cornerstone of the Enlightenment (451).2 Despite its momentous rewriting of the Mosaic tradition, Schiller’s The Legation of Moses is little known and has received scant attention in the secondary literature to date. Indeed, I would hazard to say that many Germanists have not read the essay, and do not even know of its existence . Most surveys of Schiller’s historiography mention the essay only cursorily, if at all.3 The few significant interpretations of The Legation of Moses have focused primarily on Schiller’s sources, and to a lesser extent on his historical methodology.4 One recent study argues cogently for a synthetic reading within the context of Schiller’s oeuvre as a whole, correctly asserting that the literary dimension of the essay has not been adequately analyzed.5 This limited reception history deserves explanation. As Otto Dann has noted, Schiller attached special significance to The Legation of Moses, publishing it as the lead essay in his journal Thalia in 1790 and again 23 as the opening piece in his Shorter Prose Works (Kleinere prosaische Schriften) of 1792.6 Schiller’s decision to place the essay at the start, at the beginning, of two published volumes reflects his agenda in The Legation of Moses: precisely the issue of origins, of originality, is at stake here. This is a text about the origins of monotheism, about the origins of the Jews as “the chosen people,” and about the origins of the presumed author of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses: Moses as “author” is under scrutiny in this text. Ironically, precisely the issue of origins, of originality, has led in part to the essay’s limited reception history. Many—if not most—of the ideas expressed in The Legation of Moses are not new, and Schiller himself raises the question of the originality of his own authorship. Yet the essay’s limited critical reception is too easily explained away by the fact that it is to some extent derivative of a text published pseudonymously by Karl Leonhard Reinhold. By the same token, Schiller’s famous lecture on “universal history,” What Is Universal History and What Is the Goal of Studying It? (Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte ?), is heavily indebted to August Ludwig Schlözer, Immanuel Kant, and Johann Gottfried Herder, yet this essay is widely celebrated both in the scholarship and in the German cultural tradition. It is also too easy to dismiss The Legation of Moses as a minor and not particularly original contribution to the eighteenth century’s burgeoning discourse on Moses, when Schiller accorded the piece significance, twice publishing it as the opening work in collections of his writings. The dearth of recent scholarship on the essay is all the more surprising in light of its influence on Moses and Monotheism, although Freud, characteristically, does not explicitly acknowledge Schiller as a source.7 The reason, I suspect, that Germanistik as a discipline has largely ignored, conveniently forgotten , or tersely glossed over The Legation of Moses is quite simply this: the German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright Friedrich von Schiller is a cultural icon, one of the pillars of German Classicism, and the essay’s treatment of Jews is highly problematic, a fact at best acknowledged in most scholarship to date with an embarrassed nod to the prevalent prejudices of Schiller’s day.8 The following analysis examines the structure and function of the figure of “the Jew” in The Legation of Moses and interprets Schiller’s text as an important document in the history of the formation of...


Subject Headings

  • German literature -- 18th century -- History and criticism
  • German literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism
  • Antisemitism -- Germany -- History -- 18th century.
  • Antisemitism -- Germany -- History -- 19th century.
  • Jews -- Germany -- Social conditions -- 18th century.
  • Jews -- Germany -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Antisemitism in literature.
  • Jews in literature.
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