Karin Schutjer. Goethe and Judaism: The Troubled Inheritance of Modern Literature

Karin Schutjer. Goethe and Judaism: The Troubled Inheritance of Modern Literature. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015. 245p. ISBN 9780810131668. $34.95 (paperback).

In this book Karin Schutjer offers a comprehensive analysis of Goethe’s approach to Judaism. The monograph is divided into five chapters that assess the author’s life-long interest in the religion and demonstrate the impact Jewish religious and intellectual culture had on Goethe’s own artistic development. The overall intention is to map Goethe’s treatment of Judaism onto his life, firstly onto his autobiography, then onto the evolution of his thought from the 1770s until his death in 1832. This is achieved by aligning several broad themes shared by Goethe’s thought and the principal writings of Judaism: persecution and itinerancy, nationhood, book culture, the ethics of the covenant and the notion of a promised land. Schutjer conducts a close reading of select texts from Goethe’s large literary corpus (Hermann and Dorothea, “Von Deutscher Baukunst,” Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, Faust I and II, to mention some of the titles used) to make these points and to substantiate the assertion that there was indeed extensive and repeat appropriation of Jewish source material in the German author’s work.

Throughout her study Schutjer is aware of the twofold risks of reading the theme of Judaism into Goethe’s work: i) that she may overlook other pertinent influences; and ii) the extensive, contradictory nature of Goethe’s oeuvre exceeding any single-themed interpretation. This means that these risks are ultimately minimized here, but not completely avoided. For instance, there is a lack of contextualization of Judaism in relation to Goethe’s broader interest in Near-Eastern, ie., semitic culture and literature, such as in his West-östlicher Divan, even as Schutjer offers an excellent analysis of its supplementary essay “Israel in der Wüste,” which is included in the appendage to this collection of lyrical poems. There is a tendency elsewhere in the study to reduce key figures in Goethe’s writing to their Hebrew counterparts, as Faust is thus a bit too insistently likened to a Moses figure.

In a work of this nature the inevitable questions arise as to the existence and extent of the author’s own anti-semitism (compare it to the polemics surrounding Voltaire and his Jewish caricatures or Hume and his explicit racism). Schutjer does not want to create an apologetic study of her subject’s work, nor does she presume that Goethe, as author, should be spared from this type of critical historical scrutiny. Such questions, which are necessarily nuanced and problematic, are handled skilfully and intelligently in this book, as they are contextualized in both historical and ethical terms. It is also rightly not where the critic’s attention dwells. Instead, in her analyses Schutjer summarizes existing scholarship on the matter, providing a thorough overview of this long-standing debate in Goethe scholarship, offering a comprehensive bibliography that can be used to gain an independent understanding of this matter.

Ultimately, the book is a convincing and thoroughly researched examination of the intellectual overlaps between Goethe’s work and the key themes of Judaism. One of the joys of the book is not only rediscovering less-studied works by Goethe (the Volksbuch project, for example), but also seeing how their Judaic topoï open up new readings of the more famous texts (Faust I & II). It persuasively exposes the constructive and subtle interplay that existed between Goethe’s writing and the Hebrew tradition. The book, in a sense, tells us how much Goethe differentiated, consciously or otherwise, between the sometimes fraught Biblical heritage of the Old and New Testaments, that is, how much Christianity is defined in contradistinction to its Judaic roots. It shows how productive this intellectual realization was for Goethe, as a leading author and thinker of his age, and how it inspired him to conceptualize innovative ways of developing his own literature.

Renata Schellenberg
Mount Allison University