Religion and Rationality
Religion and Rationality
The German Idealism of the Jewish Philosophers
"The Jew can play a creative role in nothing at all that concerns German life, neither in what is good nor in what is evil." This statement by Ernst Jünger has outlived the anti-Semitism of the conservative revolutionaries in whose name it was written more than a generation ago. I heard the identical assertion just a few years ago in the philosophy department of one of our great universities. As this version had it, Jews at best attain stardom of the second rank. At that time, when I was a student, I did not give it a second thought; I must have been occupied with reading Husserl, Wittgenstein, Scheler, and Simmel without realizing the descent of these scholars. However, the well-known philosophy professor who gainsaid the productivity of his Jewish colleagues did know of their origins. The stubbornness of the components of an ideology whose discrepancies could be conveyed by any lexicon is remarkable. If it were a matter of dissecting into pieces a form of the spirit such as that of German philosophy in the twentieth century, separating it out according to its parts, and putting it on the scales, then we would find in the domain supposedly reserved for German profundity a preponderance of those the same prejudice wants to assign to the outer court as merely critical talents.
It is not my intention here to offer another proof of what has long since been demonstrated. There is another situation much more in need of clarification: It remains astonishing how productively central motifs of the philosophy of German Idealism shaped so essentially by Protestantism can be developed in terms of the experience of the Jewish tradition. Because the legacy of the Kabbalah already flowed into and was absorbed by Idealism, its light seems to refract all the more richly in the spectrum of a spirit in which something of the spirit of Jewish mysticism lives on, in however hidden a way.
The abysmal and yet fertile relationship of the Jews with German philosophy shares in the social fate that once forced open the gates of the ghettos, for assimilation or reception of the Jews into bourgeois society became a reality only for the minority of Jewish intellectuals. Despite a century and a half of progressive emancipation, the broad mass of the Jewish people had not gotten beyond the formal aspects of equal rights. On the other hand, even the courtly Jews, like their successors, the Jewish bankers of the state of the nineteenth century, never became fully acceptable socially. Indeed, they had not striven so seriously to break down the barriers of their invisible ghetto; a universal emancipation would have threatened what privileges they possessed. Assimilation stretched only a thin protective layer around the permanently foreign body of Jewry. Its medium was a culture gained academically, its seal a baptism often socially coerced. If these cultivated Jews would give back to the culture intellectually as much as they owed to it, their social standing remained so ambivalent right into the 1920s that Ernst Jünger could not only deprecate their productivity as the "feuilleton prattle of civilization" but also put in question the process of assimilation: "To the same extent that the German will gains in sharpness and shape, it becomes increasingly impossible for the Jews to entertain even the slightest delusion that they can be Germans in Germany; they are faced with their final alternatives, which are, in Germany, either to be Jewish or not to be." This was in 1930, when those who could not adapt to a dubious politics of apartheid were already being offered the menacing promise that was so gruesomely kept in the concentration camps.
And so, precisely out of the marginal strata that had been assimilated most successfully, there emerged the spokesmen for a turning back of the German Jews to the origins of their own tradition. This