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  • Goethe and Judaism: The Troubled Inheritance of Modern Literature by Karin Schutjer
  • Martha B. Helfer
Goethe and Judaism: The Troubled Inheritance of Modern Literature. By Karin Schutjer. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015. xiii + 245 pages + 5 b/w illustrations. $99.95 hardcover, $34.95 paperback.

In this masterful study, Karin Schutjer presents an elegant analysis of the deep structural role that Judaism plays in Goethe’s worldview and his creative production, arguing that Goethe’s conception of modernity is bound up with his conception of Judaism and that the discourse of wandering in his writing “serves as a key site where Judaism and modernity meet” (4). Working synthetically across his œuvre, Schutjer [End Page 656] aims to come to grips with “Goethe’s complex and ambiguous relationship to Judaism” (7).

To this end, Schutjer considers the intellectual, cultural, and political purposes that Goethe’s conception of Jews and Judaism serves in his thought. Her argument runs as follows: while Goethe opposed the emancipation of actual Jews, he found in Judaism a liberating impulse that presented a dynamic alternative to the constraints of certain aspects of his own Christian environment. For example, Goethe discovers in Judaism’s ban on idolatry a paradigm of “semiotic fluidity” (10) concordant with his own intellectual agenda. Moreover, for Goethe the Jews represent a positive model of a diasporic Kulturnation, a people united through a text rather than through a political state apparatus. Finally, Goethe’s conception of Judaism as focused on the immanent historical world (as opposed to the Christian salvific worldview) has strong resonance with his own literary and cultural agendas. Goethe in effect adopts aspects of Judaism as his own. Yet because of his pronounced opposition to the civic emancipation of contemporary Jews, a “deep instability” underlies his reception of Judaism (9–10).

This tension is played out in the discourse of wandering, a topos linked to both Judaism and modernity in Goethe’s thought. Wandering—a concept productively ambiguous in its dual senses of creative exploration and erring—takes on various forms in Goethe’s œuvre. The Hebrew Bible proves to be of “primary significance” not only for his “ethos” of wandering, but also for his “entire literary program”: for Goethe the Hebrew Bible “became a surprising source and model for modern literature” (12).

In the Hebrew Bible, Goethe finds a powerful aesthetic model, a “vastly heterogeneous text, full of fissures, fault lines and challenging, unresolved questions”(19). Genesis in particular informs some of his “most formally innovative work,” “his own literary experimentations with fictional editors, ironic discrepancies, and disparate compound structures” (22). Furthermore, in the transition from the first book of the Hebrew Bible to the second, Goethe perceives a divide: “the transition between Genesis and Exodus provides Goethe with a paradigm shift that he recapitulates throughout his work as he struggles to characterize the direction of his own age” (24). In his adoption of aspects of the Hebrew Bible, Schutjer argues, Goethe replicates a basic gesture of Christian biblical hermeneutics. He denigrates the Jews, disinherits them from their own tradition, and takes this textual corpus as his own: Goethe in effect appropriates the Hebrew Bible not for Christian theology, but for a modern secular literature (24).

Chapter One interprets Poetry and Truth, arguing that wandering is programmatically linked to Judaism throughout the text, and that Judaism plays a foundational role in Goethe’s self-conception as an artist. Patterned after Augustine’s Confessions and its theme of wandering, Poetry and Truth rejects the orthodox Christian-Augustinian theodicy of sin and redemption. Goethe instead finds inspiration for his existential conception of wandering in the Hebrew Bible, Kabbalah, the legend of the Wandering Jew, and Spinoza. Schutjer traces the influences of the Hebrew Bible on Books One and Four of Poetry and Truth, analyzes the young Goethe’s existential interest in the patriarchs and his preference for the God of the Old Testament, and argues that in his reading of Genesis Goethe discovers a “fundamental hermeneutic pattern of focus and dispersal” (51) of signal importance to his own intellectual, aesthetic, and autobiographical endeavors. [End Page 657]

Chapter Two traces the evolving connections between Judaism and nationalism in Goethe’s...


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