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  • The Elusiveness of Tolerance: The “Jewish Question” from Lessing to the Napoleonic Wars
  • Thomas Kovach
Peter R. Erspamer. The Elusiveness of Tolerance: The “Jewish Question” from Lessing to the Napoleonic Wars (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997). $34.95.

In his Elusiveness of Tolerance, Peter Erspamer surveys a crucial period in German-Jewish history, from the beginnings of the debate on Jewish emancipation (marked by the appearance of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise in 1779), to the era of the Napoleonic Wars, when public opinion, now informed by the nationally-based anti-Semitism of the nascent German nationalist movement as well as by traditional religiously based anti-Judaism, turned against the idea of accepting Jews as fellow citizens.

Although it covers the historical background necessary to provide a context for his discussion, Erspamer’s book centers around a reading of texts in which the debate on Jewish emancipation is carried out. These range from canonical literary texts like Lessing’s Nathan, to philosophical defenses of emancipation by non-Jewish and Jewish writers such as Dohm, Mendelssohn, and Ascher, to religious treatises opposing emancipation by Tralles and others, to satirical treatments that point to the unassimilability of Jews, such as Sessa’s Unser Verkehr (which marks the end-point of Erspamer’s survey).

The introductory chapter introduces the historical background, but deals primarily with the work of a variety of social theorists whose concepts are to be used in the succeeding analysis; I will return to this section later. Chapter 2, “The Beginnings of the Tolerance Debate,” discusses the origin of Lessing’s Nathan, pointing out that it was not only Goeze’s dogmatic Christianity, but specifically his anti-Semitism, reflected both in the exchange concerning the Reimarus fragments and in earlier writings, that prompted the writing of Lessing’s play. Erspamer’s analysis points out several of the tensions and contradictions underlying the play, in particular the portrayal of Nathan, while at the same time acknowledging the play’s aesthetic, moral, and political importance. He then examines two responses to the play, by Tralles and Pfranger, that reflect a defense of orthodox Christian belief against what was perceived as Lessing’s relativizing tendency. Finally, Erspamer considers two pro-emancipation texts which appeared in the wake of Nathan, the well-known work of Dohm (Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden, 1781–83) as well as a lesser-known work by Diez. Erspamer shrewdly points out the disparity between Lessing’s positive valuation of Nathan’s status as a merchant, and Dohm’s suggestion that the character of Jews had been degraded by trade.

Chapter 3, “Jewish Identity in a Changing World,” surveys the work of writers of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, notably Moses Mendelssohn, but including also Wolf, Arenhof, Wessely, and Ascher. The section on Mendelssohn’s seminal text Jerusalem is one of the weakest in the present book. On page 67 there is an extended quote from Jerusalem that is cited from Dubnow’s history; the author was apparently unaware that this was taken from Mendelssohn’s most important text on a Jewish theme. His recapitulation of Mendelssohn’s argument seems disjointed and is questionable at times (e.g., the statement on p. 71 that “[Mendelssohn] feels that religious teachings can only regulate behavior,” when Mendelssohn emphasizes that it is the primary mission of religious institutions to teach rather than to regulate). Erspamer concludes the chapter with a discussion of “Taufjuden,” exemplified by Rahel Varnhagen.

Chapter 4, “Emancipatory Drama,” surveys the work of relatively unknown non-Jewish bourgeois dramatists such as Reinicke, Lotich, Steinberg, Bischof, and Ziegelhauser, who present a positive view of Jewish family life as an exemplar of bourgeois values. Chapter 5, “Myths of Ethnic Homogeneity: Anti-Semitic Literature after 1800,” examines the response of German Christian writers Grattenauer, Buchholz, Arndt, Rühs, Sessa, as well as the well-known Romantic writers Arnim and Brentano, to the philo-semitism of these works. Chapter 6, “Concluding Remarks: Beyond the Tolerance Debate,” reflects on the moral and political implications of this study for today’s multicultural society, and argues for genuine tolerance. [End Page 127]

Erspamer’s greatest strength is in his placing...

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