Reviews

Friedlšnder, David; Schleiermacher, Friedrich; Teller, Wilhelm Abraham. A Debate on Jewish Emancipation and Christian Theology in Old Berlin. Translated and edited by Richard Crouter and Julie Klassen. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2004. 177 pp. $12.00 (paper).

With German National Socialism as accelerant, Hitler struck the match igniting a pyre of anti-semitism that was centuries in the making. This slim volume of essays, originally published in 1799, reveal one period in the construction of that genocidal pyre. The essays included were originally published between March and June of 1799, and except for Teller’s, they were distributed as anonymous pamphlets. The anonymity itself speaks to the environment in which two highly-regarded public personages (Friedlšnder and Teller), and a not yet prominent, young theologian (Schleiermacher) wrote on the controversial issue of Jewish-Christian relations, in the context of tension between state-sponsored religion and human rights.

This slim volume, translated and edited by Richard Crouter and Julie Klassen, brings these essays together for the first time in English translation. The introduction analyzes the historical context of the essays. Its most illuminating contribution is the discussion of the divide between so-called Jewish intellectuals, and the vast majority of German (and other Central European) Jews who held to traditional rituals of prayer and spoke the combined Hebrew-German language now identified as Yiddish. The divide between the mass of traditional Jews, known as Ashkenazi, and their educated, Enlightenment-minded, largely secularized kinsmen undoubtedly infiltrated the consciousness of the Christian intellectuals who fraternized with their Jewish counterparts in exclusive Berlin salons. These intellectual Jews occupied a very insecure place in German political and intellectual life, enjoying less than full citizenship and yet removed from, and often embarrassed by, their common ancestry with “The great mass of the Jews… characterized by a babbling away of their prayers, conscientious observance of religious ceremonies, and other outward piety, just like the riffraff of other religious groups.” [5]

Schleiermacher’s “little-known” [17] Letters on the Occasion of the Political-Theological Task and the Open Letter of Jewish Householders, consists of six letters written by “a preacher outside of Berlin” [80], responding to letters between Friedlšnder (published anonymously) and Teller. The most controversial issue in the Friedlšnder and Teller correspondence was Friedlšnder’s proposal that Jews be baptized as Christians, insincerely if necessary, as the means of entry into full German citizenship and the full panoply of rights accruing to citizens.

Only hindsight reveals the terrifying limits and inflammatory prejudices embedded in the debate. Among these were the caricatures of the “babbling” Jews and the presumptive superiority of professed Christianity. Schleiermacher questioned the premise that church-sponsored Christianity was the gate to full citizenship: “Reason demands that all should be citizens, but does not require that all must be Christians.” [85]. Although he rejects the stereotypes of Jews as un-trustworthy, dangerous to civil society [87], and morally corrupt [89], he nonetheless indulges less caricatured, unexamined Christian chauvinism. He rails against the “judaizing-Christianity” resultant from wholesale conversion as “true disease,” capable of infecting Christianity and causing “all sorts of harm.” [98-99] The church, he argues, must declare itself unopposed to full citizenry for Jews, but “not prescribe to the state either whether or under what conditions it should allow Jews into unlimited enjoyment of civil liberty.” [100] The political and social passivity of Protestant Christianity was a persistent theme through the early 20th century. That passivity contributed to the conflagration that consumed most of European Jewry during the Second World War.

This book of pamphlets, read both within its historical context and with the benefit of hindsight, serves as a cautionary tale. It reminds us that our presumptively liberal and reasoned debate about human rights and civil liberties may be constrained by deeply embedded, unexamined prejudices that, at the end of the day, may prove more determinative of outcomes than our philosophical and theological analyses. It certainly constitutes an important “find” in the historical excavation into the causes giving rise ultimately to the lethal anti-Semitism ignited by Hitler’s National Socialism.

Jennifer Coleman
Boston University
2009

The information on this page is copyright ©1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use text or ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you have corrections or want to make comments, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.