Rahel Varnhagen: An enlightenment tragedy

Yes, Rahel, you are weak. Judaism is your affliction and to blame for your spiritual malaise. Its tribalism and superstition are the cause of all your woes.

June 13, 2017 21:03
GENERAL view of the interior of the Roonstrasse Synagogue in Cologne, Germany. The author notes that

GENERAL view of the interior of the Roonstrasse Synagogue in Cologne, Germany. The author notes that Jews from Central Europe who abandoned their faith out of embarrassment illustrate a dynamic we still see today. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The tragedy of Rahel Levin Varnhagen von Ense (1771-1833) is that of a generation of German Jews who abandoned their Judaism and Jewish identity because they believed that their way of life was an obstacle to the superior European Enlightenment and that their Judaism only caused them pain and embarrassment.

This was especially the case in the literary and intellectual salon life created by an elite group of women who brought together Jews and Christians to discuss German culture and the issues of the day in what historian Jacob Katz described as the “semineutral society.”

Katz, analyzing Jewish life in the Enlightenment and Emancipation periods, paints a portrait of societies in which Jews were not granted equality with Christians in Europe but were beginning to be accepted socially and intellectually in salons such as Rahel’s. The earliest example of the “semineutral society” and a harbinger of salons was the acceptance by Christians in Berlin of the great 18th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, dubbed the “German Socrates.”

But did the Enlightenment and Emancipation really start to level the playing field, allowing Jews and Judaism to take their rightful place alongside the faith of Catholics and Lutherans? They did not. In fact the opposite is true.

Historian Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg in his study on the origins of modern antisemitism argues that “some of the most advanced circles in Europe in the nineteenth century were quite impatient with Jews and even hated them.”

In The French Enlightenment and the Jews (1990) Hertzberg traces the Jew hatred that would culminate in the Holocaust to such Enlightenment superstars as Voltaire, who provided the bridge between the antisemitism of classic paganism and the modern age. Yes, Voltaire advocated tolerance of Jews in his battle against medieval ignorance and superstition, but this is the way he expressed it: “In short we find in [Jews] only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched. Still, we ought not burn them.”

As Jews, we often think how wonderful Enlightenment and Emancipation were to our people. Yet, if you want to understand why Rahel and almost all the Jewish women who hosted the salons converted to Christianity, you have to understand the dynamics between “enlightened” Christians and the Jews whom they “accepted.”

The salons were not neutral territory. They were not a refuge for Jews who wanted to discuss their faith seriously with Christians. They were centers of Jewish inferiority.

In salons in Berlin and Vienna that hosted Christian statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians and humanists, the encounter between Jew and Christian was not serious discussions of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed or the groundbreaking Hebrew poetry of Judah Halevi. If Rahel Varnhagen is any gage of discussions in these salons, they focused on Kant, Goethe, Schiller and Lessing. I would include Mendelssohn as well.

Any serious attempt to discuss Judaism on its own terms – instead of the Enlightenment caricature of a Religion of Revelation that was superstitious and anti-social – had no place in these “meetings of the minds.” Take Rahel for example. Hannah Arendt, the influential and controversial 20th-century German-Jewish political thinker, in her meditation on the one hundredth anniversary of Rahel Varnhagen’s death, discusses in depth Rahel’s idolization of Goethe. Arendt writes, “Without Goethe [Rahel] would have seen her life only from the outside, its ghostly contours.”

Rahel was raised in a traditional home – she could not have embraced Ezekiel, Ibn Gabirol or Gracia Nasi to deprive her bitter life of its “ghostly contours”? We, the aristocrats of humanity, are debasing ourselves? The Jewish encounter with the non-Jewish world in the modern epoch is one-sided and humiliating. Let Rahel worship Goethe. But did she not have any pride or dignity? Why did she not announce to her salon that she was the heir to a 4,000-year history rich in events, creativity and successes? The Jewish elite in Germanic lands simply integrated into their soul the caricature of Judaism that was the hallmark of the Enlightenment.

The situation with the women who created the salons did not end well. In 1819, after Rahel’s salon disbanded, she married a minor Prussian diplomat – he was 14 years younger than she – and converted to her husband’s religion, Protestantism. In a letter to husband Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, Rahel writes: “Dear August, my heart is refreshed in its innermost depths; I thought of Jesus and cried over his passion. I have felt, for the first time in my life that he is my brother. And Mary, how she must have suffered! She witnessed the pain of her beloved son, and did not succumb, but kept standing at the cross! I could not have been able to do that; I would not have been strong enough. May God forgive me. I confess how weak I am.”

Yes, Rahel, you are weak. Judaism is your affliction and to blame for your spiritual malaise. Its tribalism and superstition are the cause of all your woes. And you cry for Jesus on the cross instead of all your brothers and sisters who were burned to death for your newfound faith.

You are weak. Even Heinrich Heine, the great German lyric poet of the 19th century, born a Jew but a convert to Lutheranism, found the strength toward the end of his life to make a creative return to his people. You never returned.

Welcome to the “semineutral society.” Henrietta Herz, Dorothea Mendelssohn, Fanny von Arnstein – all converts to Christianity, all founders of the salons. Obviously, it was not just women who abandoned their tribal superstition for the compassion of Christ. There was the case of David Friedlander in 1799 leading Berlin Jews in a “dry baptism” whereby they would be accepted in society as Christians but would reject all Christian dogma. The Christian clergy whom he approached rejected this out of hand.

For us today to elevate Rahel Varnhagen to a Jewish cultural hero is ridiculous. The chronicle of the women and men of Central Europe who abandoned a faith that embarrassed them and made them yearn to be accepted is a dynamic we still see among Jews today. The salon of Rahel Varnhagen is a sad and humiliating chapter in our history.

(I am indebted to Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz’s The Jew in the Modern World for quotes from Rahel Varnhagen and Voltaire).

The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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