- Goethe and Judaism: The Troubled Inheritance of Modern Literature by Karin Schutjer
Karin Schutjer enriches our understanding of the profound, abiding, complex, and highly ambivalent nature of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's (1749-1832) engagement with the Old Testament and certain other Jewish texts, ideas, and figures. In close readings of generically diverse works spanning Goethe's entire career, Schutjer deftly illuminates how Goethe consistently returned to Jewish texts and figures as touchstones for his own literary endeavors, sometimes looking to what he understood as Jewish modes of thought, action, meaning-making, and individual and collective experience and identity as worthy of emulation, sometimes subjecting them to derision and abuse, but usually adopting a much more complex and ambivalent position vis-à-vis Judaism as he understood it, combining in various proportions admiration, identification, envy, competition, and gratuitous nastiness. The major contribution of Schutjer's careful and detailed study is her commitment to unearthing and tracing out the complex logic and subtle textures of Goethe's various engagements with Jewish texts and figures. The book strives, and mostly manages, to avoid both polemics and apologetics regarding Goethe's purported philosemitism and/or antisemitism and leaves us, instead, with a far richer appreciation of the hermeneutics and poetics that Goethe developed in relation to his understanding of Judaism as he confronted modernity's shifting ground.
After an elegant and lucid introduction, Goethe and Judaism unfolds in five chapters. Chapter 1 analyzes books 4 (1811) and 8 (1812) of Goethe's autobiography Poetry and Truth. In book 4 Goethe recounts his childhood fascination with the book of Genesis and gives his own, mature analytic account of the book. Schutjer teases out how Goethe "edges Genesis away from any Christian doctrine of divine sovereignty and transcendence" (45), finding in it, instead, a this-worldly existential faith in meaning and purpose amid diverse and ambiguous experience, what Schutjer later in her book describes with the lovely phrase "faithful wandering" (184). Schutjer persuasively shows the crucial importance of this existential and hermeneutic dynamic of ultimately meaningful indirection for Goethe's own poetics and understanding of modernity. In her reading of Goethe's creation myth in book 8, Schutjer endeavors to distill "out of [its] brew of Christian, pagan and various other eclectic ingredients" (52) a crucial role played by specifically Lurianic Kabbalah.
Chapters 2 and 3 explore Goethe's sometimes ambivalent but generally negative treatment of Jewish figures, literary and political models, and contemporary Jews in diverse texts from his Sturm und Drang beginnings in the early 1770s to the late 1790s and 1820s. The first part of chapter 2 elaborates close readings of three of Goethe's early essays, and the second part explores Goethe's post-French-revolution epic engaging national German identity, Hermann and Dorothea (1797), and the essay "Israel in the Desert" (written largely in the late 1790s). In all of these texts, Goethe aligns Jews with pre- or post-revolutionary France against the German nation. Whereas "Goethe's complex, multivalent deployment of the Exodus material" (86) in Hermann and Dorothea looks ambivalently to Exodus for models of how to forge an integrative German cultural nation, "Israel in the Desert," which Schutjer adeptly reveals to be a veiled polemic against Jewish emancipation in the [End Page 262] wake of the French Revolution and the granting of equal citizenship to Jews in France, excludes modern Jews from participating in that very cultural nation. While Goethe generally admired the patriarchal wanderers of Genesis, he was on balance disappointed, indeed uncomfortable, with Exodus and the subsequent books of the Pentateuch, which turn from the free, wandering individuals of Genesis to the collective concerns, identity, and laws of the Israelites as a nation. Schutjer shows this split between Goethe's assessment of Genesis and Exodus to be one of the most profoundly consequential conceptual and hermeneutic structures shaping his aesthetic project and political thinking across his career.
Chapter 3 analyzes Goethe's abortive project around 1808 to compile an anthology (or canon) of German texts to...