Monday, January 28, 2008

Review of A Debate on Jewish Emancipation and Christian Theology in Old Berlin

I have been reading a lot more lately than I have been writing about, but I wanted to throw in a note about the collection By Richard Crouter and Julie Klassen that I just read.

As soon as Jews had some freedom in Germany during the Enlightenment, they started producing an abundance of scholars and men of letters. Each one staked out his own position on Jews and their relationship to the state. From Mendelssohn and on, they advocated for Jewish emancipation from the prejudicial and anti-Semitic laws of the German state. Mendelssohn argued (on philosophical grounds) for simple equality, and a sort of separation of Church and state. David Friedlander, after a long and what must have seemed like fruitless quest to try to improve the Jews and their situation in Germany, argued for mass fake conversion to Christianity.

What do I mean by "fake"? Well, he thought that Jews really didn't need the ceremonial laws, and he thought that no one would know if Jews didn't believe in Jesus when they converted to Christianity, so he asked the State, in an Open Letter, to accept the mass conversion of Jews who agree to stop outwardly practicing Judaism, and get baptized Protestant without actually believing in Jesus.

If you ask me, that misses the point from the perspective of both religions. And the important protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Abraham Teller both agreed. Both wrote responses to Friedlander's letter. Naturally they agreed that keeping the Jewish rituals was unnecessary, but they thought that a fake conversion was no conversion at all, and moreover has the potential to harm Christianity. Of course, in accordance with Enlightenment values, neither thought that being Jewish should be a bar to getting rights though.

For Jews, especially those of Mendelssohn's ilk, keeping the mitzvot is Judaism (though they definitely argued in favor of the existence of God). For Christians Belief in the divinity of Christ is Christianity.

Crouter and Klassen collect their three documents as well as anonymous satirical polemic asking for rights for Jews. The translation reads well, and it is a valuable set of documents for those interested in this period.

I wish they would have included more of the responses to Friedlander. There were many written in pamphlets and in the popular press. I would love to have seen some of them. Also, I should mention that there is an essay at the end that feels totally out of place. It is mostly a discussion about the situation of the Turks and their problems with emancipation in contemporary Germany. While it is interesting, it just really doesn't belong here. I am not sure who at Hackett publishers agreed to it. It's point is unclear and except in the sense that Turks and Jews are both not considered German and they both have had problems there, I am pretty sure the essay is unrelated to the others.

(Also, there is one minor error, which I am not sure whether I ought to attribute to Teller or to the translators, but on p 135 they use the term "yom Ha'aretz", which literally means "earth day". The word they meant to use was "am ha'aretz" - literally: people of the earth.)

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