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Jewish Social Studies 8.1 (2001) 58-87

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The Problem of Tradition and Reform in Jewish Renaissance and Renaissancism

Asher D. Biemann

In recent years, the idea of a "Jewish renaissance" has become an increasingly popular concept for much of American as well as European Jewry. 1 The creation of Israel, the gradual restoration of Jewish life in countries once thought to be judenrein, the reassertion of Jewish consciousness in the midst of ever growing assimilation in the Anglo-American world: these phenomena have often been likened to a "rebirth" or "renaissance" in Jewish terms, a miraculous recovery and regeneration after the rupture of the Holocaust. "No Jew lives today," the historian Lionel Kochan wrote in 1992, "who has not in some measure been touched by the renaissance of his people during the last four to five decades." 2 It is a renaissance that, for Kochan, is still in the making, perhaps even in its germinal stage, but nevertheless one that bears the features of a "second emancipation," greater, more complete, and more aware of itself than the first. 3 At the turn of a new century, the idea of a "Jewish renaissance," along with a wide variety of "renewal" or "revival" Judaisms, has entered synagogues and many realms of Jewish culture and education, replacing older models of ritualization and continuity with the promise of a new spirit and spirituality. 4

Yet, though the concept of "renaissance" or "rebirth" enjoys considerable appeal in proactive circles, it has long come under suspicion among academic specialists in the humanities. To many historians, philosophers, and art historians, the nineteenth-century paradigm of the renaissance--particularly in its Italian manifestation--as a spontaneous rebirth of something new, ushering in the modern period, a [End Page 58] notion credited mostly to the Swiss cultural historian Jakob Burckhardt and the French historian Jules Michelet, can no longer explain the transition from the Middle Ages to a self-declared and seemingly self-propelled "new age."

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, however, Burckhardt's seminal "essay" Die Kultur der Renaissance of 1860 remained by and large unchallenged. 5 In fact, it aroused a highly emotional, romantic interest in and identification with renaissance culture, spirit, and life, enveloping, among many others, the Burckhardt disciple Friedrich Nietzsche and the notorious Comte de Gobineau, whose 1877 collection of historical scenes, La Renaissance, vividly celebrated Savonarola, Michelangelo, and Cesare Borgia as exponents of a higher human species. 6 In Nietzsche's Antichrist of 1888, the Italian Renaissance is seen as the "transvaluation of Christian values," an attempt "to bring the anti-values, the distinguished values, to victory." 7 This "great struggle," the question of the Renaissance, will become Nietzsche's question as well: "My question is her question." 8 It was Nietzsche's vision of the Renaissance as an era of unchained sensual and physical power, aesthetic heroism, and instinctive suspension of the ethical that would inspire a generation of writers and artists of the fin de siècle, from Stefan George to Hugo v. Hofmannsthal. Already by 1897, the literary critic Hermann Bahr could publish his essays on a critique of modernity under the suggestive title Renaissance.9 Thomas Mann later dismissed this literary renaissancism as "Bellezza Begeisterung," enthusiasm for beauty, 10 and Walther Rehm, looking back at the literary Vienna of 1900, spoke of a "hysterical renaissance" where renaissance meant "an aesthetic, aristocratic, and individualistic epoque, a time of a violently progressing, powerful, and demonic spirit," a "romantization of poison and dagger." 11

Despite its romantic, highly evocative corollaries or, more likely, precisely because of them, Burckhardt's paradigm of the Renaissance was eventually dismantled. "Your renaissance," the cultural historian Johan Huizinga charged the romantic "dreamers," "is a Proteus." Its concept, he continued, "suffers from blurriness, incompleteness, and arbitrariness, while it is a dangerous, doctrinal schematization." 12 By the 1920s, the Renaissance had become the "problem" of the Renaissance; 13 in the 1940s, Paul O. Kristeller turned it into a "pseudo-problem"; 14 in the 1950s, Erwin Panofsky wrote a chapter entitled "'Renaissance'--Self-Definition...


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