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  • On German-Jewish Thinkers Not Knowing Hebrew
  • Vivian Liska

The establishment of German-Hebrew Studies is by no means self-evident and the definition of its tasks and contours are still in the making. As an afterthought to this collection, which will undoubtedly be a landmark in the development of this field, I want to reflect on the potential of this scholarly endeavor to go beyond a mere focus on existing interactions between German and Hebrew language, literature, and culture. I want to demonstrate that it can also encourage a revision of established positions and entrenched assumptions underlying traditional Judaic Studies on the one hand and modern German-Jewish Studies on the other. While the former is based on the study of the ancient Jewish textual tradition and requires knowledge of Hebrew, German-Jewish Studies is less concerned with an expertise in Jewish texts and traditions or with the mastery of Hebrew and concentrates instead on the history of the German Jews and their intellectual, artistic, and cultural contributions to the German-speaking world. I will show how a paradigmatic controversy between proponents of these two different approaches can reveal their respective limitations and the potential of German-Hebrew Studies to open up alternative perspectives.

“On Not Knowing Hebrew” is the intriguing title of a chapter in Robert Alter’s book Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem, a study of German-Jewish modernism published in 1991.1 This volume by one of the pioneers of European Jewish literary studies and a prominent translator of biblical Hebrew texts into German, explores the connection between three giants of twentieth-century German-Jewish intellectual life and focuses on the ways in which the Jewishness of these writers contributed to their achievements as modernist masters. [End Page 140]

The chapter discussing their relationship to Hebrew argues that--in spite of major differences in the importance it played in their respective lives and works—the tension they experienced between their native German and the ancestral Jewish language constituted for all of them a decisive factor in their thinking and writing. Considering the core of modernism to be a fascination with language as well as an awareness of its limitations, Alter regards these writers’ simultaneous love for and estrangement from their native German language and their concomitant attraction to Hebrew as a key source of their inspiration and the originality of their thought. While this appeal was fulfilled only by Scholem, it remained, Alter insists, an important horizon for Kafka and Benjamin. For all three, Alter writes, Hebrew signified a counterforce to the weak and superficial ways in which the Jewish tradition was handed down to them by their assimilated bourgeois parents. Alter describes how Scholem remained faithful to German even as he “crossed over” to the Hebrew language, how Kafka nostalgically invokes Hebrew, which he made serious efforts to learn, as “the real singing of the old days and the grandeur of biblical Israel”,2 and how Benjamin transposes the Hebrew language he never really learned into a universalist utopian vision of “language as such.”3 For all three, Alter argues, it is mainly their “divided identity, particularly in respect to language”4 and their projection of this specific existential dilemma onto a universalist view of modern man as such that turned them into “modernists writ large.”5

A radically different view of the ignorance of Hebrew among German Jewish thinkers is formulated in a more recent book by Moshe Idel, one of most prominent contemporary scholars in Judaic Studies, particularly on the Kabbalah. Like Alter, Idel, in his book Old Worlds, New Mirrors (2010),6 pays particular attention to Scholem, Benjamin, and Kafka among the German Jewish writers of their period. Like Alter, Idel insists on Benjamin’s and especially Kafka’s ignorance of Hebrew as well as on the influence of these authors on Scholem. But while Alter derives a positive impact from the linguistic dilemma of these authors, Idel discredits them on precisely the grounds on which Alter bases their greatness. The most obvious reason behind Alter’s and Idel’s contrasting views lies in the difference between their criteria in assessing the importance of these authors. While...


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pp. 140-146
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