The prevalence of religiosity in the twenty-first century has led scholars to critically revisit the concept of secularization. The term itself simultaneously describes declining social relevance and religiosity. It is descriptive, is normative, and explains a process with its outcome and often lacks more detailed historical and comparative perspective. More too, it uses a narrow definition of religion that is modeled on the church.1 Religion might not have as much declined as its authority and relevance in the public realm was transformed. Indeed, religion no longer manifests itself solely in institutionalized form, but rather in individual believes and practices.2 Discharging his critical sensibilities, José Casanova suggestively offers, “the theory of secularization [...] tends to function as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”3 Others like the German sociologist Detlef Pollack have not simply rhetorically wondered whether secularization is “a modern myth?”4 Among his many critics are those like Talal Assad who denounce secularization as ideology that coerced individuals and communities into the alleged secularized modern state. To Asad, secularization appears as part of hegemonic Western historical narrative, a political doctrine, legitimized by an epistemological category of the secular that preceded the ideal of secularization.5
These wide-ranging, politically charged, and provocative views are part of much longer debate about the epistemological category of the secular and the political and cultural meaning secularization acquired in public discourse and political debate. Secularization indeed surfaces within a larger historical progressive and optimistic historical narrative within the German contexts. Several decades ago Karl Löwith charged that the concept of secularization remains indebted to religious ideas. In his very influential book, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (1949), he argued that an intimate connection exists between all modern philosophies of history and religious thought. Löwith noted that the belief in progress is “a sort of religion, derived from the Christian faith in a future goal, though substituting an indefinite and immanent eschaton for a definite and transcendent one.”6 Leaving aside Löwith’s privileging of a Christian origin for the modern concepts of history, secularization appears wedded to religious ideas. Hans Blumenberg in his influential The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, a book first published in 1966, contended that modern thought had developed out of medieval theology. It still bore the external forms from its predecessors but had transformed the content. For Blumenberg, modern philosophy represented a reoccupation and a new secular self-affirmation against religious traditions.7
Underlying these debates remains the binary opposition between the sacred and secular. For Yosef Yerushalmi, secularization introduced an irrevocable break and provided a linear structure for the study of Wissenschaft des Judentum.8 In contrast, Amos Funkenstein explored transition to better delineate the continuous interdependence between the sacred and the secular.9 A break would have created discontinuity, whereas transition promised to transform religious tradition. Indeed, Wissenschaft des Judentums refashioned instead of fully secularizing the Jewish past. Insofar as Wissenschaft des Judentums unraveled pre-modern tradition in search of a single contextual history, it sought to forge continuity, despite apparent rupture that allowed for the continuous and shifting interaction between the sacred and secular.10
Investigating the ongoing interaction between the sacred past and its modern interpreters, Wissenschaft’s reformulation of the Jewish tradition appears as an ongoing engagement with religious tradition. Jewish thinkers from the eighteenth century reclaimed these ideals instead of dismissing them. Their continued reliance particularly on concepts of messianism remained wedded to the concept of progress. Therefore, sacred traditions and modern secular thought existed in their mutual constitutive interdependence and not in opposition.11 When the optimism in historical progress and faith in reason unraveled in the fin de siècle, it engendered a new critical response by Jewish historians and philosophers of the twentieth century. These critical voices emerged within the fault lines of nineteenth and early twentieth century Jewish anti-historicist response that David Myers aptly elucidated.12 What separated twentieth century Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Gershom Scholem from their nineteenth century forerunners was not their embrace of religion but their critical stance toward reason and their crumbling faith in historical progress.
The German Enlightenment introduced a new way of thinking about religious traditions; but instead of secularizing Judaism, it relegated and marginalized them. Within the Germanic lands, the publication of Christian Wilhelm Dohm’s On the Civic Improvement of the Jews in 1781 aimed to secularize the Jewish past, present, and future. In this seminal work, Dohm explored “if and by what means the Jews can become morally and politically better than they are now.”13 He argued that once civic improvement set in, Jews would undoubtedly reform their religious practices as well.14 Civic improvement was predicated on and promoted through Jews’ religious, cultural, and social transformation. Johann Michaelis, the eminent German scholar of Judaism, challenged Dohm and argued that Jews would never integrate themselves into German society because their hopes would continue to be directed at their return to Palestine. Jews could hardly be convinced otherwise, claimed Michaelis, because their rabbinic authorities understood it this way, as did Isaac Newton and John Locke. Michaelis was apparently thinking of Locke’s Commentaries on St. Paul’s Epistle from 1705 and Newton’s Observation Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, published in 1733.15
Messianism appears at this point as an obstacle to Jews’ civic improvement precisely because it is viewed as secular and not as a religious concept. Various German enlighteners fully equated Jewish messianism with political and national ideals that allegedly posed an obstacle in the process of civic improvement. In order to progress on the charted path of legal and social equality, Jews were pressured to renounce their postulated national parochial messianic beliefs. Thus, Dohm agreed first of all with Michaelis’s understanding of Jewish messianism as a political ideal. Yet he doubted that this represented a serious threat to the stability of the state. He noted that, “the idea that the Jews still expect a savior who will save them from the present misery, and will erect a kingdom for them should not give us concern about the peace of our states.”16 Moreover, in an interesting twist, Dohm postulated that the Early Church also believed in a Messiah who would come and destroy empires and erect a thousand-year rule.17 Together with German enlightened thinkers such as Johann Kaspar Lavater, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, and Michaelis, Dohm asserted that this political messianic idea eventually waned and was replaced by a spiritual universalist understanding of the messianic era.18 It is this newly formulated spiritual dimension of messianism that Dohm maintains and asserts against political concepts of the messianic era. He did not secularize the universalist concept of the messianic era but preserves it. He only argued that Judaism still succumbed to a narrow parochial political concept and that Jewish messianic expectation, nevertheless, did not disturb the stability of the states.19 Even the seventh-century Sabbatean movement that had attracted a great following among the Jews was eventually suppressed by the Ottoman Empire as Dohm also related.20 More importantly, Dohm observed that various rabbis no longer regarded the belief in the messiah as a fundamental principle of Judaism.21
In his rejoinder to the Dohm debate, the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn denied the imminent importance of messianic hope and reminded Michaelis that the Jewish tradition prohibits speculating about the end of days.22 Moreover, Mendelssohn countered the pervasive representation of Jewish messianism as a political ideal when he envisioned the ultimate fusion of all religion. He wrote that,
“All the prophets of the Old Testament agree and reason is pleased in this expectation that the differences between the religions will not exist for an eternity and that the recognition of the true God will cover the whole earth, like the water the ocean.”23
Siding essentially with Dohm, Mendelssohn refrained from secularizing messianism, but reclaimed Judaism as the originator of the universal and spiritual messianism, and asserted that the messianic era was attainable not within a historical progress but only through God. History would come to completion only at Divinity’s whim.24 For this reason, Mendelssohn also staunchly opposed philosophies of history, when he attacked his friend Lessing with “You want to divine what designs Providence has for Mankind?”25
Mendelssohn’s opposition presented a well-crafted critique of Dohm’s attempt to distinguish between Jewish secular political and Christian spiritual universal messianism. His refusal to equate messianic hopes with historical progress served to uphold Jewish difference. Discarding Jewish messianism allowed enlightened thinkers to curiously leave Christian ideals of salvation untamed by secular concepts. In his rejoinder to the debate, Kant dismissed Mendelssohn’s opposition to the idea of progress as tantamount to a new version of the Sisyphus myth.26 Moreover, Kant returned to the previous changes and faulted the Jews as having “sought to create a political and not a moral concept of the Messiah.”27
Far from inaugurating a secularized concept of progressive history, the Enlightenment had only cast one form as solely political, while preserving a universal and spiritual concept, which in the case of Lessing and Kant, they had started to align with historical progress. It was this optimistic legacy that shaped the thinking of the members of the Verein für Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden (Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews) during the 1820s, when they initiated a new program of study. Nine years to the day after Prussia’s emancipation edict of March 11, 1812, Eduard Gans assumed the presidency of the Verein and delivered a programmatic speech. He believed that the Verein’s task was “to hasten the time that [emancipation and cultural renewal] would occur otherwise, with all the required power and effort: This is the task, gentlemen, that you set before yourselves with this society.”28 In the quest to further the ongoing process toward emancipation, elements of Jewish messianism initially merged with the eschatological hopes of many German intellectuals who had begun to identify Prussia as the most progressive state.29 Leopold Zunz regarded the year 1820 as another fundamental turning point in Jewish history: “Israel has eight epochs, each of 450 years past totaling 3600 years. These are marked by Deborah, Elisha, Nehemiah, the Mishna, the Gemara, and the years 1370 and 1820.”30 A few years later, he observed that with the inauguration of cultural and social changes among the Jews promoted by Wissenschaft, “the Messiah will not remain absent.”31 To be sure, this messianic belief was modern and not particularistic and anticipated a general political process, rather than divine intervention.32 It equated historical progress with eschatological concepts. Absent from these reflections are sharp divisions between the secular world of history and the sacred world.
Zunz also fundamentally altered the status of the religious canon by uniting all texts under the single description of historical sources and thereby further obliterating the demarcation between the sacred and profane. No text could maintain a meaning that elevated it above the time and place out of which it emerged.33 The “historical operation” entailed not only source criticism but also situating ideas, texts, individuals, and communities in a historical context.34 In order to assign each document its proper place in time, Jewish historians divided the past into several periods. Zunz emphasized that only those documents that had undergone a careful scrutiny could become part of world culture: “Thus every historical datum that diligence has discovered, astuteness deciphered, philosophy utilized and taste put in its proper place becomes a contribution to the knowledge of man, which is the most worthy goal of all research.”35 Therefore, while the Verein introduced a radical new vision of the Jewish past, they had effectively converged sacred and secular traditions into a new category of historical texts. While they subscribed to Mendelssohn’s universalistic notion, they differed insofar as they promoted that the world to come was attainable through progress.36 Secular and sacred progress are effectively merged here, which was possible only because of the pervasive optimism in humanity’s development.
Their views were too dependent on viewing Judaism as a historically evolving culture, while critics like the famous Orientalist de Sacy posited along the lines of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Christian Hebraists the immuntable nature of Judaism, when he opinioned that messianism as the foundation of Judaism could not be changed.37 In response, Lazarus Bendavid, a latter day maskil, differentiated between various Jewish messianic ideas. Thinking of Moses Maimonides’s definition of the messianic era, Bendavid stated along the lines of other members of the Verein that since the thirteenth century, Jews had abandoned their belief in an individual messiah and equated the ensuing messianic era with a this-worldly and universal process.38
After these initial disputes about Jewish messianic conceptions, the debate revitalized around the late 1830s and early 1840s. Several events converged, which pitched the issue to a new height. The year from 1839 to 1840 first of all coincided with the turn of the century according to the Hebrew calendar. Moreover, the Egyptian ruler Mehemet Ali came into conflict with Britain and other European countries, while at the same time, the Ottoman Empire seemed to lose control over Palestine. Together, these factors renewed hopes for the restoration of the Jews in the Holy Land. Furthermore, the turn of the century according to the Hebrew calendar sparked not only messianic expectations throughout English evangelical circles but also in Germany, based at times on the Zohar’s exegesis on Genesis 7:11, which implied that the gates of wisdom from above and below would be opened in the year 5600, that is, 1840.39 Consequently, in 1840, a small pamphlet appeared entitled Neujudaea, in which the author promoted the idea of a Jewish state, possibly in America.40 A few months later, an anonymous call to restore the Jews in the Holy Land appeared in the periodical Orient.41 At the same time, the Bavarian historian and theologian, Johann Nepomuk Sepp recounted the history of various false Jewish messiahs from Antiquity onwards. Basically paraphrasing a seventeenth-century work by Johannes Lent on false Jewish messiahs from Bar Kokhba onwards, he ridiculed these false hopes as pointless and dangerous.42
These debates formed the backdrop for future deliberations. The ongoing politically charged disapproval of political concepts of messianism should not detract from the continuous equation of historical progress with eschatological process. It is this duality that the attendees of the rabbinical conferences of the 1840s had to come to terms with once again. Already the opening address to the rabbinical conference warned that those who held the traditional belief in the Messiah “should be aware of creating any doubt concerning their allegiance to the state.”43 In line with this warning, the committee’s report suggested avoiding all political and national implications.44 Even the more Orthodox-minded Rabbi Bernhard Wechsler, who replaced Samson Raphael Hirsch in Oldenburg, favored the removal of prayers referring to the restoration. He suggested, however, that additions “including the confession that our newly gained status as citizens constitutes a partial fulfillment of our messianic hopes” would be desirable.45
Notwithstanding the pervasive criticism of Jewish messianic beliefs, most attendees agreed that the messianic idea was an essential part of Judaism, while they discarded any political national elements. Building on the emerging work of Wissenschaft des Judentums, and cognizant of the contentious nature of Jewish messianism, reform-minded scholars and preachers started to embrace a mission theory possibly under the spell of French-Jewish scholar Joseph Salvador.46 The formulation of the mission theory asserted Jews’ particular historical role, but, more importantly, distinguished not unlike Mendelssohn between divine purpose and historical progress. Salvador, the descendant of Spanish Jews, during the 1820s and 1830s, had already promoted in a number of writings the idea that Judaism encapsulated a blueprint for the ideal future republican society that would promote equality, liberty, and peace. Within this comprehensive Jewish philosophy of history, the Jews functioned as the eternal preserver and promoter of this ideal. Far from being relegated or secularized, religious traditions appear in their lasting influence upon modernity.
In the 1830s, Salvador’s writings appeared in German and German-Jewish periodicals, which discussed his work at great length.47 Gabriel Riesser, the champion for Jewish civic improvement wrote even an introduction to Salvador’s History of Mosaic Institution in German.48 Possibly influenced by Salvador, the eminent scholar and preacher Levi Herzfeld promoted the mission theory according to which Jews functioned as a light unto the nations in the Diaspora. By comprehending the messiah not as an individual but rather as the Jewish people, Herzfeld displayed a curious resemblance to political liberal voices like Heinrich Heine, who, in his essay on Ludwig Boerne, ridiculed the Germans for placing all their hopes in a docile messianic contender like Friedrich Barbarossa. In contrast, Heine asserted a few years later in his Wintermärchen that modern times differed insofar as the agent of historical change was not a heroic messianic contender, but the people.49
Yet neither Herzfeld’s notion about the messianic era as the coming together of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the acknowledgment of the existence of one God nor his contention that ideas of an individual messiah found a positive response among Christian scholars, who immediately labeled Jewish messianic beliefs once again as political and outdated.50 It is within these ongoing public debates that we have to place the works of Moses Hess and Heinrich Graetz. Not unlike Salvador, Hess in his Rom and Jerusalem interpreted history as an imminent process led by the Jewish people. He postulated that the last historical epoch progressed from Spinoza, the French Revolution to the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in socialism.51 While Hess was hostile toward the Reform movement, he shared with it the conception of messianism without a messiah.52 Rom and Jerusalem, however, appearing in 1862, was severely criticized in the German-Jewish press. Nevertheless, the work made an indirect impact as it influenced the German-Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz.53 During the 1860s, Graetz published two articles entitled “The Rejuvenation of the Race” and “The Stages in the Evolution of the Messianic Belief” (1865), in which he rejected the belief in a personal Messiah and maintained that the prophetic promises referred to the Jewish nation as a whole.54 According to Graetz, the traditional concept of messianic figures as the descendants of David exerted its dominance during the first cycle of Jewish history and was overcome in the third cycle that had commenced with Moses Mendelssohn. The leadership for the final stage in universal history (eternal peace and redemption) would emerge from the Jewish people, endowed with special racial qualities of self-regeneration. Graetz believed that the frequently cited expression “suffering servant of the Lord” buttressed his reading. Assuming that an unknown post-exilic author had written the second Isaiah, Graetz interpreted Isaiah 53 in line with many traditional Jewish commentators as referring not to an individual messiah but to the people of Israel. Moreover, he pointed to the prophesies of Isaiah to underscore that the suffering of the Jewish people was instrumental in their salvation.55
Upon the publication of this essay, the anti-Semitic Wiener Kirchenzeitung attacked the author, the editor, and the journal. Consequently, the Viennese public prosecutor charged the editor of the yearbook Jahrbuch für Israeliten, Leopold Kompert, with contradicting the teachings of Judaism and violating Catholic sensibilities. Graetz had allegedly offended Judaism, an officially recognized religion, by denying one of its fundamental principles. In addition, Graetz was accused of having offended Christianity when he posited that the Christian interpretation of the “suffering servant of the Lord” as a single person reduced biblical prophesies to a caricature.
During the trial’s deliberations, the question was raised as to whether a schism or sect existed within Judaism and if, therefore, Graetz had or had not slandered a state-protected religion. The two experts witnesses, Isaac Noah Mannheimer and Lasar Horwitz, strongly denied claims of a schism and explained that the differences within modern Jewry were insignificant. Rather, Mannheimer and Horwitz argued that a slight graduation existed between lenient and strictly observant Jews on the issue of messianic beliefs. In addition to these witnesses, the defense had collected written testimonies from Solomon Rapoport, Zacharias Frankel, and Graetz. However, their statements were not utilized as Kompert was acquitted on the first count of slandering an officially recognized religion and convicted for the lack of oversight in the publication of his yearbook. 56
While Mannheimer and Horwitz had rallied to Kompert’s defense, they had in effect muddled the definition of a Jew by effectively denying the centrality of messianic hopes as the core creed of Judaism. Subsequently, a wide-ranging public debate erupted. Neo-Orthodox Jews emphasized that there was only one definition of Judaism that encapsulated the written and oral laws and thereby also the messianic hope.57 Samson Raphael Hirsch agitated against the diluted definition of Judaism and asserted that the acceptance of the written and oral traditions defined Judaism. Hirsch maintained that whoever denied a fundamental principle had essentially left Judaism.58 Esriel Hildesheimer immediately enlisted the support of more than 100 rabbis, who exclaimed that whoever denied a fundamental principle of Judaism denied the whole Sinaitic revelation.59 While Der Israelit, unlike Jeschurun, refrained from viewing Reform and Conservative Judaism as independent sects, it, nevertheless, clearly posited that a schism existed within Judaism.60 Both Der Israelit and Jeschurun restated the traditional belief in the personal messiah.61 By contrast, Ludwig Philippson, the editor of the influential Allgemeine, was in full agreement with Graetz’s interpretation of Isaiah 53 and refused to understand Reform Judaism as an independent sect.62
The ongoing debates over the issue of messianism illustrate the centrality of messianism for nineteenth-century German Jews. Especially, the Komperttrial and its aftermath demonstrate a common concern that went beyond the particularities of Reform, Conservative, or Neo-Orthodox Jewry. While by and large the German-Jewish periodicals had distanced themselves during the 1840s from the ideal of a Jewish state and downplayed the importance of messianism in the Rabbinical conferences, the Kompert trial and the ensuing debates reflect above all a growing concern on the part of German Jews about contemporary Jewry and its future across denominational boundaries. During the 1840s, the belief in historical progress had led major representatives to equate future expectations with the process of emancipation, whereas in the 1860s, the debate centered on new concepts of distinct Jewish expectations. The differences are quite striking and must be explained in light of the increasing frustration about the still incomplete emancipation and the accelerating fragmentation of German Jewry.63
Liberal Christian scholars like Adolf von Harnack by the end of the nineteenth century continued to emphasize the historical Jesus as an ethical preacher and, along the lines of the German Aufklärer, discounted any Jewish messianic interpretation. In these studies, the concept of a universal progressive ideal of history illustrated that Christianity had cleansed itself of Jewish vestiges, while Jewish messianic ideas were discarded as parochial national politics. From the perspective of the Christian critics, Jewish messianic expectation could not be secularized but had to be discarded. Only Christian expectations remained relevant insofar as they equated with a progressive model of historical development. It is against the renewed virulence of these polemics that Hermann Cohen, for example, asserted that the concept of a progressing history is a creation of the biblical prophets.64 Cohen’s insistence notwithstanding, the dichotomy between Jewish and Christian conceptions of the messianic era remained influential. As Cohen went on to reassert the importance of Jewish messianic traditions, he engaged also in a debate with Martin Buber. Like Buber, Cohen regarded Jewish messianic ideas as the foundation of Judaism.65 In Cohen’s public exchange with Martin Buber during 1916, their debate did not concern the issue of messianism as such, but rather the interpretation of Jewish nationalism. While they differed sharply on the supremacy of nation and religion, they shared the centrality of messianism.
Buber’s philosophy took shape from a critical perspective of modernity. History, progress, and reason no longer governed his thinking, allowing his dialogical philosophy to intertwine the sacred and the profane. He rejected the halachic way of life and traditional, heteronomic belief in the divine transmission of the law. For Buber, true religiosity exists within social frameworks, where relationships are based not on utility but on authentic interactions with other people, nature, and the divine. Similarly, Franz Rosenzweig shared with many of their contemporaries a certain cultural pessimism, as when he looked to the tragic hero of Greek drama to illustrate the basic nature of the human living in isolation and self-containment, culminating in their self-destruction. Living unrelated to others and essentially speechless, they are able to trust only in themselves.66 In his Star of Redemption (1921), he explored revelation, dialogue, and love as the central themes of the book. Like Buber, Rosenzweig sought to break with both the Enlightenment legacy of rationalism, Hegel’s philosophy of history, and traditional forms of religiosity. In the Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig conceded to Nietzsche’s realization of the disenchanted world, but affirmed a post-Nietzschean form of religion, since to envision God in a traditional fashion had become to him unfeasible.67 Knowing God was predicated on the acceptance of his absence and Star invokes a God that had yet not manifested himself and had remained hidden in traditional religiosity as well as in modern rational philosophy and theology. He too explicitly placed Jews outside the temporal world of history.
For both Buber and Rosenzweig, thinking about religion served to criticize modernity’s false promise of progress and its secularizing posture. To them, religiosity provided an alternative model for modernity as much as Gershom Scholem imploded modern rational Jewish theology by rewriting the history of the Jewish mystical tradition. Like Walter Benjamin, Scholem saw in Franz Kafka’s protagonists attempts to gain access to the “castle” or the “the law” metaphors for the inaccessible divine.68 Yet regardless of the impossibility of access that would undermine the true transcendence quality of the divine, the castle or law exists and even the life away from it remains shaped by realization of its existence.
Most assuredly, these twentieth-century Jewish philosophers resisted secularization, but the concept had never been an enduring and particular attractive choice to Jewish scholars and philosophers. In the debates over emancipation and assimilation, secularization had threatened to undermine any sense of a particular Jewish culture. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Jews as harbingers of secularization featured prominently in modern anti-Semitism, while the widely shared identification of secularization with socialism further discredited secularization for many Jewish intellectuals during the Kaiserreich.69 What divided these philosophers from their nineteenth-century precursors emerged out of their critical perspective upon modernity and their faltering faith in modernity’s progress. It was the Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss who most pointedly asked if historicism does not also have a history in order to enlightened the fault lines of modern philosophy’s concealment of undisclosed religious concepts.70 To assert an irreducible quality of religion served twentieth-century Jewish thinkers to criticize modernity’s universal claims. Hence, modern Jewish thought did not emerge in opposition to religious traditions, but out of its constant engagement with sacred texts and religious ideas. In that respect, the twentieth-century represented not a break, but offered a novel form of adaptation of religious traditions to and continued to expose the limits of modernity and secularization.