- Goethe and Judaism: The Troubled Inheritance of Modern Literature by Karin Lynn Schutjer
Karin Schutjer’s recent book undertakes an ambitious scholarly enterprise: it opts to scrutinize the relationship of the greatest German poet of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to Judaism, a topic which, as Schutjer herself notes, has been discussed time and again in secondary literature. Schutjer’s intellectual pursuit offers a subtle approach to the subject matter and renounces previous attempts to categorize Goethe as either anti-Semite or Philo-Semite. Against such characterizations of Goethe, Schutjer argues that “behind his very mixed representations of Jews and Judaism stand crucial tensions within his own thinking and a distinct anxiety of influence” (4). Locating these tensions and anxiety throughout Goethe’s outstandingly wide-ranging oeuvre, Schutjer seeks to establish that Goethe’s depiction of modernity is intertwined with his multifaceted approach to Judaism.
The introduction provides an historical account of Goethe’s engagement with Jews and Judaism based on manifold references to biographic data as well as to previous research. A main fact serves as a focal point for the inquiry: [End Page 278] Goethe’s overt pronouncements that Jews should not be given the rights for emancipation. Several of Goethe’s references to Jews and to the Hebrew Bible appear to challenge the animosity that resonates with this decisive position. Some of the intriguing points that Schutjer raises regarding Goethe’s attraction to Judaism include his description of wandering—a trope associated with Jewish history—as an experience constitutive of the modern community and his view of the prohibition on idolatry in Judaism as a metaphysical disposition that may be a vantage point for creativity in an age laden by Christian theology.
The following chapters develop the inquiry of Goethe’s conflicted relationship to Jews via readings of some of his salient works. Chapter 1 centres on his autobiographic writings. Schutjer refers to the influence of Jewish theological principles and narratives on Goethe, describing his reception of Judaism as eclectic (as shown in his interest in notions of the Kabbalah). Chapter 2 investigates Goethe’s writings on nationalism (both in the early 1770s and the 1790s) through the prism of Goethe’s references to the stories of the Hebrew Bible. Goethe draws several parallels between the Israelites and the modern-day Germans; Israelite nationalism is a heritage present in the German nation that is yet to be overcome in order to enable the latter’s maturity. Chapter 3 engages with what Schutjer describes as Goethe’s attempt to unfold German identity in parallel manners to the ways in which the Hebrew Bible acquires its status as a national epic. Examining the Volksbuch project and Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre in that light, Schutjer demonstrates persuasively that Goethe’s references to Scriptures as a cultural asset in fact centre on the Hebrew Bible. Chapter 4 deals with Faust I, which the monograph presents as reliant on early modern images of Jews. Examining the pact with Mephistopheles in light of biblical images, Schutjer considers Faust’s disposition as the so-called keeper of the covenant as reminiscent not only of the biblical Job story, but also of other biblical figures, such as that of King Salomon. Chapter 5 builds on this trajectory in describing Faust II as analogous to the biblical Moses. The engagement with post-Exodus biblical narratives—and particularly with the anticipation of the Promised Land—is thus taken to be a central backdrop for Faust II, which shapes Faust/Moses’s agency, aspirations, and acts.
While the focus on primary literature by Goethe is understandable given the monograph’s aims, the reader may at times wonder what the connection is between Goethe’s multifaceted relationship to Judaism and his period’s Hebraism broadly understood as an exceptionally wide-ranging fascination with the Old Testament. Was Goethe’s split position echoed (and informed) by other thinkers’ compound relationship to Judaism? Is it, rather, a reactionary response to the period’s praises of the Hebrew Bible as an...