- Heinrich Heine's The Rabbi of Bacherach and the Ends of Judaism
Heinrich Heine's The Rabbi of Bacherach succeeds just where it seems unequivocally to have failed. Begun in 1824 but tabled and then revisited following the Damascus Affair of 1840,1 the tale remains "unfinished" through no fault of the author (Heine 1994, 145).2 Its unfinished status seems a fitting end to a story that offers its Jewish communities no hope for survival. As the affair that prompted Heine to continue the story suggests, nothing has been resolved regarding what will come to be the "Jewish Question." Or, as Jost Hermand argues, the tale announces the end of Judaism; its fragmentary condition points to a break, a complete break from tradition and, finally, being (Hermand 1997, 152–57).3 More recently, the text has given rise to readings that espy a horizon of hope secured by the text's refusal of closure. Several of [End Page 47] these more affirmative readings deserve mention, for no other reason than they prepare the terrain for my own. Specifically, I propose that this very same horizon gestures toward a messianic potentiality embedded in Heine's sketch of select chapters of Jewish history. The inability to finish the manuscript points to a promising interruption of Jewish history and its tragic trajectory.
In doing so, I will rely on Susan Bernstein's trenchant critique of the false dichotomy that has come to characterize Heine scholarship, namely, that between his apparent Romantic and post-Romantic periods, as a crucible for understanding the affirmative readings that have recently emerged. In other words, what Bernstein sees as the very critique of identity that has been part and parcel of Romanticism since Schlegel disabled any possibility of making of Romanticism "some thing,… as something that can be superseded, surpassed, transcended, critiqued, or demystified. The uncontainability of Romanticism means one can't really get rid of it" (Bernstein 2003, 369–71). But by aligning the back-and-forth that characterizes depictions of Heine as Romantic and anti-Romantic with his position within and then outside of the canon, I discover in the Rabbi stirrings of a messianic voice that bring with them the possibility of an end to the Jew's precarity.
Not surprisingly, the unfinished tale has invited a myriad of voices, frequently at odds with each other. These voices constitute a new kind of community as promising and as distant as any horizon. The purpose of this paper is to add yet another voice to those that reconsider the earlier negative readings in favor of more affirmative ones. I will suggest that Hermand's reading in particular offers impulses of a different kind of history to interrupt what will nonetheless become the tragic trajectory of European Jewish history. The text speaks to a coming community that may never be realized but disrupts the progression of a history that repeatedly dooms Judaism. Just as Bernstein disables any linear reading of Heine's early works as Romantic and the later as post-Romantic, my reading situates such uncontainability in a history that exceeds any textual dimension. Or in in Bernstein's terms of being one or the other—Romantic or not Romantic is navigated with surprising results. [End Page 48]
A 1968-generation of scholars (Hermand included) seemed to have disentangled the two Heines from each other to allow for depiction of a Romantic Heine and a later, or mature, one whose works are decidedly political and topical. But as Bernstein reminds us, Romanticism is really no entity at all, and the dichotomies that emerge from its sham postulation are also untenable. What Bernstein writes of Florentine Nights in particular holds for Heine in general: "The assumed distinction between fiction and history installs the illusion of generic stability that makes a clear judgment [Romantic or post-Romantic] possible. … Heine's text[s] enact an oscillation between reference and figuration that makes it impossible to hold history and fiction apart, to discard or to privilege one or the other." That is, nothing about Heine's oeuvre is ever settled or contained (Bernstein 2003, 369).