German-Jewish Thought and Its Afterlife: A Tenuous Legacy

German-Jewish Thought and Its Afterlife: A Tenuous Legacy

by Vivian Liska


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, March 28

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253024855
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/19/2016
Series: Jewish Literature and Culture Series
Pages: 218
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Vivian Liska is Professor of German Literature and Director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. She is also Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Faculty of the Humanities at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is author of When Kafka Says We: Uncommon Communities in German-Jewish Literature.

Liska's academic bio is available here:

Read an Excerpt

German-Jewish Thought And Its Afterlife

A Tenuous Legacy

By Vivian Liska

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 Vivian Liska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02500-5


Early Jewish Modernity and Arendt's Rahel

The beginnings of German-Jewish thought, generally associated with Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), date back to the last decades of the eighteenth century. Although critics traditionally pointed to the Enlightenment as the starting point of German-Jewish thought, its source may lie in Early Modernity, a term in scholarly use since the 1970s. This term has become a battleground for historians of Jewish modernization. On one side are scholars who consider the period a mere — and insubstantial — precursor of a genuine, enlightened modernity, a "halfway house of the modern spirit"; opposing them are those who, refusing to "accept modernity's own narratives about itself," regard it as a distinct and praiseworthy epoch in its own right. This construction of an Early Modernity entails both a questioning of Enlightenment narratives of linear progress leading toward emancipation, integration, assimilation, and homogenization and an affirmation of the preceding era's discontinuities and disparities, its mixing and mingling of identities, its contradictions, incongruities, and collisions, and the mutually inspiring simultaneity of incompatible, even incommensurable, cultural, social, and religious entities and endeavors. Whereas historians who affirm the Early Modern paradigm appraise the coexistence of tradition and modernity without harmonization, those who reject it see only "debris of the collapsed breakthroughs to modernity that had not quite come about."

The dispute between these two narratives is particularly significant in the Jewish context. The first believes in a progressive and teleological development and assumes a dichotomy between traditional and modern society. It implies the backwardness of religious Judaism and its eventual dissolution into a radically secular mainstream modernity or, alternatively, a dilution of both modernity and Judaism as embodied in proponents of a Jewish Enlightenment, who attempt to harmonize their faith and the benefits of modernity. From this perspective, Jewish modernity begins in the late eighteenth century; everything that preceded it belongs to a pre-modern era, in which Jewish life existed mainly inside a closed community that hardly participated in or interacted with the surrounding modern world.

Historians who consider the Early Modern period in Jewish history as an independent moment oppose this narrative and its belief in a teleological process from the ghetto to modernity. They see an opportunity for revaluing the praiseworthy aspects of modernity — mobility, creativity, heterogeneity, and flexibility — precisely in the Early Modern period, with its incoherencies, overlapping, and mixed identities, when elements of the premodern world coexisted with anticipatory visions of a new one. Advocates of this perspective view the Early Modern period as a model for situations, figures, and modes of life that affirm the possibility of being consciously, even traditionally Jewish, yet at the same time eager to participate in modernity and engage in the exploration of an ever-expanding world.

Embracing the contradictions, conflicts, and disparities that ensue from these multiple and potentially clashing worlds, this view lends visibility to a period that allows for a simultaneous perception of the multifarious possibilities of Jewish modernization. Soon after, both external and internal factors — rising nationalisms, a more rigorous division between traditionalist and modern Jews, and increasingly formalized borders between Jews and non-Jews — defined and consolidated the character of modernity and institutionalized it according to the more starkly contoured categories of the Enlightenment proper. One can thus view the Early Modern period as a reservoir of potentialities inherent in the encounter between Jewish life and the modern world.

The German-Jewish context provides a particularly fertile ground for probing the assumptions and consequences of the two narratives outlined above. The first option equates modernity with emancipation, integration, and assimilation; the second views it as a moment ending in a more clear-cut but also more sterile modernity characterized by "solutions." In her study of German-Jewish life between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, Deborah Hertz succinctly described these "solutions": "Whereas in the seventeenth century one could be either a Christian or a Jew" interacting in the manifold ways described by the historians of early modern Jewry, in the period explored by Hertz — the end of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth century — Jews "faced three fundamental alternatives: They could remain traditional, commit to the harmonious modernization of Judaism, or try to escape Judaism altogether." Hertz concludes: "The choices which emerged in this era set the terms for the centuries since." Possibly, by invoking the Early Modern period, described by Adam Sutcliffe as this "fascinatingly vivid episode" with "countervailing values" and without "final resolutions," one can provide an alternative to these three choices, preclude the story of progress from a premodern to a fully enlightened modern world, and recognize a prefiguration of the matrix underlying German-Jewish thought in the early twentieth century.

Heroine of Jewish Modernity or Herald of Its End?

In the German-Jewish context, the stakes of narrating history as a story of progressive, teleological modernization are especially high because it inevitably has to confront German Jewry's tragic end. A particularly significant case is the reception of Rahel Levin Varnhagen, whose life presents a paradigm for the situation of the privileged class of German Jews at the end of the eighteenth century. Her thousands of letters offer a lively testimony to the exhilarating changes that opened up hitherto unknown horizons for a Jewish woman yet also instilled self-doubts resulting from unfulfilled aspirations and conflicts of loyalty that continued to haunt her throughout her life.

Born in 1771 in Berlin, the daughter of a rich jeweler, she spent most of her life trying to escape what she considered the stigma of her Jewish origins. She finally converted in 1814, when she married the Christian diplomat Karl August Varnhagen von Ense. The conversion and marriage did not end her anxieties, and her increasingly nervous efforts to gain acceptance in the high society of her times marred her existence until her death in 1833. Rahel's life story became an inspiration for many scholars of the history of women, minorities, and intercultural relations but also an object of scrutiny for those who tried to understand the evolution of German-Jewish history up to its cataclysm. Examples from this reception of Rahel's life and writings can illuminate the implications of the positions that scholars have taken in the debates about the beginnings of Jewish modernity; they can also illuminate the temptations, risks of — and possible alternatives to — constructing a linear narrative of German-Jewish modernity. As the following examples show, the perspective of the prevalent teleological model leads to a portrait of Rahel's life in which her assimilation and conversion mark a sharp rupture between old and new. The binary opposition between a backward ghetto and an enlightened modernity is correlated with either a positive or negative appraisal of her assimilation and abandonment of her Jewish origins. These judgments hinder an understanding of Rahel as a figure caught between cultures, religions, and classes who both embraces and doubts her own solution.

The most famous study of Rahel is undoubtedly Hannah Arendt's monograph, largely finished by 1933, completed in exile, and published in 1958. In it, Arendt introduces her famous and controversial distinction between the pariah and the parvenu and describes Rahel's life in terms of the relative success and ultimate questioning of her long and desperate efforts to become a respectable member of the established society. Despite repeated attempts to escape her status as pariah through her marriage to Varnhagen von Ense and her conversion to Christianity, Rahel nevertheless remained, in Arendt's view, a mere parvenu who had given up her freedom and had condemned herself to a life of opportunistic subservience to the powerful. What saves Rahel in Arendt's eyes are faint hints (given great emphasis in the final chapters) that Rahel retrospectively embraced and affirmed her former existence as Jew and pariah.

Critics often disparage Arendt's overemphasis on Rahel's Jewishness at the expense of her challenges as a woman or her achievements as an author. More relevant to the present context, these readers take Arendt to task for the general rejection of Jewish assimilation into German society underlying her portrait of Rahel, a position she was accused of articulating under the impact of her youthful Zionist leanings. The main criticism leveled against Arendt's portrait was that she made an ahistorical judgment based on the hindsight perspective of the annihilation of German Jewry. One of the harshest of these criticisms came from another German-Jewish intellectual, the important literary theorist Kate Hamburger.

Hamburger expresses her disagreement with Arendt in her essay "Rahel und Goethe," which ends with an emphatically universalist credo: "The question whether someone is Jewish or German becomes irrelevant, and all that matters is the human being itself, without any concern for race, class, nation, and religion as the Enlightenment and classicism regarded and wanted it." Guided by her Enlightenment ideals of homogeneity and integration, Hamburger polemically attacks Arendt's focus on Rahel's Jewishness, her scornful attitude toward Rahel's conversion, and the continuity she constructs between eighteenth-century assimilation and the catastrophe of Nazi Germany. Hamburger's critique that Arendt projected her own experiences onto a figure from the distant past — a critique that Arendt's dissertation supervisor and friend Karl Jaspers had also expressed years earlier — is plausible from a historicist perspective. Hamburger's own depiction of Rahel, however, also raises questions, but of a different nature. She acknowledges the "yawning abyss" that the Holocaust created between German Jewry (Deutsches Judentum) and German culture (Deutsche Geisteskultur), but, unlike Arendt, she does not acknowledge the rupture it caused in Arendt's assessment of Rahel. Her Enlightenment-inspired belief in universality and its progressive deployment from the time of Rahel until her own remains unshaken. Numerous scholars and critics from the 1970s onward who rediscovered Rahel as a model of emancipation and adhere to Hamburger's ideals of a coherent and stable self and a homogeneous and integrated public sphere echo her view of Rahel as a classical humanist striving for unity and harmony. Among them is Rahel's biographer Heidi Thomann Tewarson.

Tewarson goes even further than Hamburger in her critique of Arendt's "Zionist-influenced anti-assimilationist" and "anachronistic" judgment of Rahel as a traitor to her people. Rejecting Arendt's (admittedly speculative) belief in Rahel's return to Jewishness toward the end of her life, Tewarson considers her conversion the fulfillment of her desire to "join the large class of enlightened humanity" that, she believes, "has been Rahel's wish almost from the beginning." Projecting her own ideas onto Rahel's final thoughts, she concludes: "her life must have appeared to her as a small token of historical progress. ... She could at least look with satisfaction upon her own case."! Tewarson defines the aim of her own study as a demonstration of Rahel's "prophetic understanding of the forces of history" because "eighteenth century Jews had good reasons to be optimistic."! Tewarson accuses Arendt of blindness to the fact that "for Rahel and her generation, history began anew with the Enlightenment." She clearly regards assimilation as the desired culmination of an initial promising "Jewish modernity," whereas Arendt saw it as the beginning of the end.

Although Arendt and Tewarson's interpretations of Rahel's life and its significance could not be more opposed, they share similar assumptions, which they evaluate in different ways. For Tewarson, Rahel is a heroine of emancipation, which she achieved through assimilation; Arendt criticizes Rahel on precisely these grounds and sees her as a social climber who had betrayed her origins and her less privileged, still backward coreligionists "who were still present and geographically close by." Tewarson regarded Rahel as a forerunner of contemporary liberated moderns; Arendt considered her a representative of the "Berlin Jew who looked upon his origins" and incorrectly assumed that he or she was "not one of the last but one of the first." For both, however, Rahel's modernity sharply demarcates her world from the somber and primitive place that preceded it. Even as Arendt criticizes Rahel for her lack of solidarity with her still religious brethren, she describes their world as a "dark stage set of poverty, misery and ignorance." Tewarson could not agree more: For her, there is simply no Jewish history before Rahel's letters. Despite their contrary views, Arendt and Tewarson have little doubt that there is a beginning and an end and that the two can be clearly distinguished.

Rahel — End or Beginning?

"Early Modern" can be construed to extend beyond its accepted time lines and include the entire period of Rahel's life (1771–1833) by regarding it not only as a circumscribed period that ended in the 1880s but also, as David Ruderman writes, "a condition," a paradigm characterized by a specific state of mind and mode of being. Her affinities with the Early Modern paradigm are evident where she is described as "a polyphonous and not always harmonious self," as an outsider striving to be accepted in gentile society without accepting its norms and prejudices, as an author of idiosyncratic letters in which her Yiddish mother tongue lurks behind her High German words, or as a bridge-builder who created a social space in which individuals of the most diverse backgrounds could "mix and mingle with each other," forging "bonds across classes, religious groups and the two sexes."

This view of Rahel derives primarily from scholars who read her letters as literature and, like Arendt, evoke her life and person as a literary text. If one abandons the attempt to pin her down conceptually, Rahel emerges in all her multiple unresolved contradictions, including her equivocal, inconsistent statements about herself. This brings to the foreground how she borrowed contradictory elements of different registers and traditions in her reflections on her existence as well as on the art and society of her times; how she cursed femininity as a personal obstacle, yet in various contexts affirmed the superiority of its ways to the ways of men; how she said of herself that she could write nothing but letters, yet considered her epistolary exchanges worthy of publication and spoke of herself as an artist equal to the greatest in the literary tradition; how she strove with all her means to be accepted in established society, yet repeatedly commented on its worthlessness; and finally, how she struggled with her Jewishness all her life, generally considering it her most painful stigma and doing what she could to escape it, yet never fully freeing herself from it and, in some ways, never wanting to relinquish it entirely.

Her letters testify to the conflicts and the suffering resulting from her contradictions, but she was also highly self-conscious about them and affirmed them as a privilege and strength. Even in her early letters, Rahel repeatedly and proudly praises her own duality and views it as a talent rather than a defect or a plight. In a letter to her close friend David Veit, himself a "successfully assimilated Jew," she contrasts herself with him and describes herself as "doppelt organisiert" explaining: "I have a tremendous power to be double without confusing myself." Her most famous words, which she reportedly said on her deathbed, echo this unruffled lack of coherence: "What a history! A fugitive from Egypt and Palestine, here I am and find help, love, fostering in you people. With real rapture, I think of these origins of mine." For Arendt, who begins her book with this quote, Rahel's words that allude to the depth of Jewish history signify her return to Jewishness at the end of her life. Tewarson has a strong case, however, in objecting to Arendt's conclusion. As she and others have observed, Arendt omitted the continuation of this sentence, in which Rahel calls Jesus her brother, empathizes with Mary, and affirms the solace she derives from these thoughts. Disagreeing with Arendt, Tewarson concludes that Rahel's "life must have appeared to herself as a small token of historical progress." Possibly, however, it is more fruitful to view her final sentences not in terms of a progressive supersession — whether by Christianity or the Enlightenment — but in terms of the simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous. This coexistence of realities from different times and registers and her oscillation between melancholy and affirmation about the uncertainties manifest in the concreteness of her existence make her a paradigmatic figure of Early Jewish Modernity and a worthy forebear of twentieth-century Jewish critical modernists.


Excerpted from German-Jewish Thought And Its Afterlife by Vivian Liska. Copyright © 2017 Vivian Liska. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


I Tradition and Transmission
1. Early Jewish Modernity and Arendt’s Rahel
2. Tradition and the Hidden: Arendt Reading Scholem
3. Transmitting the Gap in Time: Arendt and Agamben

II Law and Narration
4. "As if Not": Agamben as Reader of Kafka
5. Kafka, Narrative, and the Law
6. Kafka’s Other Job: From Susman to Žižek

III Messianic Language
7. Pure Languages: Benjamin and Blanchot on Translation
8. Ideas of Prose: Benjamin and Agamben
9. Reading Scholem and Benjamin on the Demonic

IV Exile, Remembrance, Exemplarity
10. Paradoxes of Exemplarity: From Celan to Derrida
11. Two Kinds of Strangers: Celan and Bachmann
12. Exile as Experience and Metaphor: From Celan to Badiou
13. Geoffrey Hartman on Midrash and Testimony

Epilogue: New Angels

What People are Saying About This

Steven E. Aschheim

In a highly sophisticated—but clearly written and accessible manner—Vivian Liska traces the impact of the Jewish tradition on modernist German-Jewish thought and provocatively points to the challenges facing this aspect of its legacy for our own time.

Jean-Michel Rabaté

Convincing, original, and well thought. A crowning achievement for one of the most astute and visible critics of Kafka and of German Modernism today.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews