April 26, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 15

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    In his latest work, Mendes-Flohr analyzes the dual identities of Jews in prewar Germany

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    Paul Mendes-Flohr, Professor of Modern Jewish Thought in the Divinity School

    “As denizens of a world with increasingly global horizons, we’ve come to inhabit personal identities that are as much the product of our own choosing as they are given to us by tradition,” said Paul Mendes-Flohr, Professor of Modern Jewish Thought in the Divinity School, whose recent work looks at how Jews in prewar Germany came to terms with the complexities of their multiple identities.

    “In our day, we have the prerogative to dress as we wish, live where we wish, to choose partners as we wish. We simply have many more options in the way we structure our identities than was traditionally so,” he continued. But at the same time this element of choice yields a greater sense of freedom, it also provides for a complicated set of affiliations and allegiances that are not always easy to navigate.

    According to Mendes-Flohr, German Jews also faced the painful challenge of living with divided cultural loyalties. Shortly before German anti-Semitism found its most devastating expression in the Holocaust, Jewish intellectuals in Germany were quietly celebrating the achievement of a subtle understanding of their dual identities. His recent book on the topic, German Jews: A Dual Identity (Yale, 1999), presents an illuminating analysis of the path that led toward that consciousness.

    Mendes-Flohr joined the Chicago faculty last year after teaching for 26 years at Hebrew University in Israel. He continues to direct the Franz Rosenzweig Center for German Jewish Literature and Cultural History. Together with Peter Sch”fer, he serves as the editor in chief of a 22-volume German edition of the collected works of Martin Buber.

    Richard Rosengarten, Dean and Associate Professor in the Divinity School, commented on Mendes-Flohr’s pre-eminence as a scholar of modern Jewish thought and intellectual history. “His work on Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig is valued internationally for its hallmark combination of historical nuance and philosophical lucidity,” he said.

    Mendes-Flohr’s scholarship is considered remarkable not only for its contributions to Jewish intellectual and cultural history, but also for its importance to broader contemporary discourse surrounding theories of identity. According to Eric Santner, the Harriet and Ulrich E. Meyer Professor of Modern European Jewish History and Chair of Germanic Studies, German Jews: A Dual Identity is quickly becoming a landmark in academic discussions of the ‘hybridity’ of cultural identities. “Paul Mendes-Flohr has not only borne witness, with utter precision and clarity, to a community destroyed at the point of its greatest creativity, he also has carried forward its legacy in a way that directly and profoundly bears on contemporary issues of cultural pluralism, citizenship and national identity,” Santner said.

    Mendes-Flohr sees this scholarship as an important way to maintain continuity with the myriad spiritual, cultural and intellectual traditions of a lost world. “The Holocaust annihilated about a third of the Jewish people, including about 80 percent of our teachers. The bedrock of Jewish learning and culture was literally thrashed upon by Hitler’s armies,” he explained. “Even though we’re citizens of a different world, as survivors, we have the feeling that we are obliged to do what we can to preserve a link to that era in our history.”

    For Mendes-Flohr, this has meant learning to look beyond the terror of genocide in order to recover a grasp of the vastly productive nature of the Jewish encounter with German enlightenment thought. “The Holocaust casts a dark shadow on German-Jewish history,” he explained. “Yet surveying that history from this perspective alone may becloud our appreciation of the nuanced terrain traveled by German Jews since Moses Mendelssohn took the first steps beyond the ghetto walls in the late 18th century to join enlightened Germans in the pursuit of shared human concerns.”

    German Jews: A Dual Identity begins with an account of how Jews in early-modern Germany were able to build a place for themselves within the world of German learned society through an inner dialogue with the concept of Bildung–the 18th-century ideal of self-cultivation articulated by Herder and Humboldt. Mendes-Flohr argues that German proponents of Bildung advanced an understanding of education as “an eternal, unending process of self-refinement and the enhancement of one’s humanity through a continuously deepening knowledge of the world.”

    Cosmopolitan in its scope and utopian in its aspirations, the culture of Bildung held sway among German intellectuals for only a brief period. As ethnic nationalism took root in German political thought during the 19th century, the idea of a universally inclusive civil society began to lose its currency. But even as the concept fell out of favor with most Germans, Jews continued to find value in it. Bildung provided a way to take part in German cultural life without effacing the traditional core of their identities. Mendes-Flohr points to German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s 1926 collection of essays, Zweistromland, “a land of two rivers,” as a powerful sign of the extent to which Jews in early 20th-century Germany had come to understand their identity as the product of both German enlightenment thought and Jewish religious and cultural heritage.

    Mendes-Flohr contends that the ethos of Bildung prized by Rosenzweig is still very much alive today. “It’s in the legacy of Hutchins here at the University,” he explained. “It’s in the idea of the great books–in the sense that our libraries are not constituted by an allegiance to a specific national culture or religious heritage, but that they are open to constantly being reshaped or expanded to make way for new perspectives.”

    According to Mendes-Flohr, on a metaphoric level, the organization of our personal library can tell much about our spiritual and intellectual universe. To illustrate the point, he described how Rosenzweig was known to keep his Jewish books apart from the other works that filled his library, yet housed them in a single collection with his works of German literature and ancient classics. “Mounted on separate shelves, they would maintain their distinctive, transcendent voice as they engaged the systems in other volumes,” Mendes-Flohr recounted.

    “What Rosenzweig sought was a dialogue between his Jewish self–grounded in the sacred reality of a Divine Covenant–and his worldly universe of culture,” he continued. “My little book deals with these questions. In some basic sense, it addresses the challenges of cultural pluralism, to all those who are beholden to some cosmopolitan ethos who wish at the same time to preserve the integrity of a particular cultural and religious voice.”