Jews in the ‘Modern State’ of 1875

Jewry in the Modern State from August 25th, 1875

‘Jewry in the Modern State’ from August 25th, 1875

In August 1875, someone with the initials C.v.W. wrote a leading article in Vienna’s ‘Neue Freie Presse’ entitled ‘Jewry in the Modern State’. This came eight years after the December Constitution of Austria and five years after the unification constitution of the German Reich. The two constitutions offered full civil emancipation of Jews in both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Reich, though individual freedoms such as being able to marry non-Jews, teach and attend universities would be resisted by the established Christian churches and have to be fought in the courts over the following decade. Nevertheless, the constitutions offered the legal framework that made Jewish entitlement to full citizenship incontestable. The rapid rise of Jews through social ranks was obviously a point of discussion and as we know from the writings of Richard Wagner (and indeed Karl Marx), a cause of concern. When writing ‘Forbidden Music’ I quoted a number of sources that made the same points. C.v.W. pulls everything together in a single feuilleton while addressing the fears, concerns and futures of a distant age. Much of his article is offensive to modern readers, some of it may be theologically off-base (I’m no expert) and much is contradictory. He despairs at the end of his article the very constitutional advantages that have liberated Jews throughout the Habsburg realms. Still, like so much that one finds in these issues of die Neue Freie Presse, it is a snapshot of a different century and presents us with history as seen through the eyes of the age in which events were taking place. I’ve translated for those readers who are interested.

Hans Makart's portrait of Clotilde Beer

Hans Makart’s portrait of Clotilde Beer

“There it stands – right in front of us: ‘a flower from the orient transplanted to Europe’ – now an established part of our environment, yet remaining somehow exotic. It’s inwardly protected through historic rights and millennia of tradition, while outwardly, despite the abuse of being trampled upon, it busts into bloom as soon as the light of new freedoms is shone. Such growth results from the enlightened freedoms that are now an indisputable part of our public and civic existence. These are freedoms that the European heirs of decency and justice have won despite the barriers erected by established institutions. Yet what was it that gave Jewry its ability to survive for more than four thousand years as well as its ability to mix and merge with all of the diverse countries and cultures that their exile decreed? How has their passive tolerance of persecution and suppression resulted in their now being the freest of the free in our societies now based on trade and commerce? How have managed also to excel within the arts and sciences?”

The Gallia-Hamburger Family at the beginning of the 20th Century

The Gallia-Hamburger Family at the beginning of the 20th Century

“Is it because they are ‘believers’? This is not the right term. Jewry per se does not recognise any set belief. What Maimonides put together artificially is ultimately only the opinion of a scholar with little that is sufficiently binding that it could not be picked apart, point by point, by the great teachers of the synagogue or even the mighty Moses Mendelssohn. Even the first of the ten commandments : ‘I am the Lord your God’ – is only a statement of fact: God is the progenitor of all of the following commandments. This is done in the same manner as earthly rulers who state their titles before decreeing laws pronounced in their name. It is, however, by no means a commandment to hold to a specific religious dogma. Nevertheless, the belief in the singularity of God, the pure indivisible deity must remain the determining marker of Jewry. The wise of the world are free to explore the significance of this marker. Even pantheist ideas are offered pride of place in the most sacred of synagogue services. A catechism of confessional beliefs, however, is not required in order to be a Jew. One is a Jew if born to Jewish parents. As a result, even the lowest of the low and the worst of criminal non-believers must be condemned to remain a Jew. It is not circumcision that determines faith and belonging, but parentage. Ritual, ceremony and the Law may bind, but the intellectual spirit has always been free in Jewry. The excesses of rabbinical theology that often characterise the spirit of the Ghetto remains exotic contortions to modern Jewry; and it is with this that we come to one of the secrets to Jewish survival: intellectual freedom is what allows them to thrive in the invigorating light of our new age.”

An anti-Semitic postcard from the 19th century

An anti-Semitic postcard from the 19th century

[C.v.W. then recounts over another column (that I have not bothered to translate), an event taken from ‘Coningsby’, a novel by Benjamin Disraeli, in which the purity of race is described. Using Disraeli’s metaphor of farm horses vs. Arabian racehorses, he goes on to explain how Jewish isolation has led to Jews being the purest of all races living in Europe.]

Studying the Talmud by lamplight by Stanislaus Binder

Studying the Talmud by lamplight by Stanislaus Bender

“The unique construction of Judaism, as described above, meaning the combination of intellectual freedom in points of belief along with a commandment to carry out, or leave, what is humanly possible within the veritable avalanche of stipulations that buries the Ghetto, is unknown in Christianity or in either of the major Islamic variants. According to the strictest orthodox doctrine, a Jew has made a symbolic pledge to his people through the act of circumcision. It is possible that a man and woman can be joined together in matrimony according to the laws of Moses of Israel; that the dying receive absolution and made to hear ‘Shema Yisrael’ before being carried to his grave without even the requirement of a presiding rabbi or any other clergy. Judaism acknowledges no sacraments – neither, (since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), does it offer anointed priests, nor ‘shepherd of souls’ such as the cura animarum. Similar to some protestant faiths, it does not even require a member of its clergy or even a qualified religious scholar in any official capacity. If rabbis preach in the synagogue, or marry couples, this is as purely a civil duty and not a canonical requirement. The rabbi is neither more nor less than the community’s designated scholar who can address questions of ceremony and ritual to fretful members of the community. They are the wise judges in confused and complicated disputes. As far as his sermons are concerned, they are in even the most mediaeval communities, neither more nor less instructive in questions of dogma than could be offered by any other well-read scholar sat in the synagogue’s auditorium. Indeed, the community or its representatives decide questions of liturgy and its need of reform. [. . . .]”

Inside Vienna's Leopoldstädtertempel

Inside Vienna’s Leopoldstädtertempel

“Beyond race, the guarantee by dogma of unregulated freedom of thought, the lack of anointed priests or other obvious religious authority, there is yet another factor to Jewish spiritual and intellectual resilience: the prejudices and bigotry placed within its path. The boy at school who graduates into a profession, becoming a man whose social position is potentially held back compared with Christian colleagues, must produce double or treble his results. The omnipresent fear of prejudice over thousands of years of subjection has sharpened the reasoning of the Jewish mind and taught him that only through excessive industry and over-achievement, greater knowledge and ability, will he ever be accepted or allowed to progress. This sharpens his nerves and instincts, though this obviously applies only to those who are already blessed with talent and intelligence. In the honourable patriarchal lives of conservative Judaism, one rarely encounters the vices of drunkenness or gambling; instead, they have inherited an unquenchable ambition the likes of which their ancestors could never have foretold. The feeling that he must crash through the barriers in the way of his next goal, often results in him drastically overshooting his target. One therefore forgives him when he turns out to be the best in his class, passes his university rigorosum with the highest marks and over-achieves in his chosen field; but also, as many have negatively perceived, when he strikes out in search of titles and honours. Nor dare we mention the dizzying heights of Jewish millionaires, raised into the nobility with honorary baronies and end up on committees, boards and heads of major charities – all sat comfortably next to Christian nobility in their boxes at the opera. Indeed, the need for visible riches desired by many Jews is nothing more than an expression of unregulated ambition. This is the nature of a materialist world that judges someone’s value by ‘what they are worth’ – as the Englishman would say, when assessing wealth.”

Anti-Semitic postcard

Anti-Semitic postcard

“This pull in opposite directions also explains the political persuasions of most modern Jewry. Their sense of historic entitlement, stemming from (often misrepresented), religious laws, has resulted in most Jews adhering to conservative and monarchist views. This is not just because the synagogue teaches that the laws of kings is also religious law, but because the highest law of the land guaranteed in earlier times security and safety against the anger, antagonism and dissatisfaction of the mob. That a king is also often referred to as ‘the wise man’ in recollection of Solomon’s injunction to ‘Fear God and Kings and leave your rebelliousness’ became the modern Jew’s most heartfelt rule of survival. [. . . .] He who lives from trade and the skills of his profession requires peace and stability, and thus a strong hand in government. The civil rights acquired in recent years have loosened the chains that over hundreds of years were both humiliating and kept Jewish potential from developing for the greater good of society. This has resulted in the modern Jew being a natural liberal, with Jews everywhere, regardless of which country they inhabit, supporting the constitutional liberal-conservative coalition. This is certainly true in countries where a constitution guarantees full freedoms: In Germany, in England, in France and in Holland. Wherever public life is constitutionally anchored, Jews can be counted on as a country’s most loyal of patriots. That they spring from a different people than non-Jews is only an inconsequential hindrance and does not stop them from self-identifying fully with the nation amongst whom they live and for whom they are prepared to make any sacrifice demanded of the fatherland. This is certainly true here in Austria, especially in Bohemia and Polish Galicia, from where most of our country’s Jews hail. They are more loyal than their non-Jewish compatriots, as Slavs lack the humanist education that is typical of German speakers [Jews being German speakers in the Habsburg Slavic territories]. Slavs are thus inclined to be more viscerally anti-Semitic and would no doubt make life infinitely more difficult for their Jewish fellow citizens should they manage self-rule. Regardless of how poorly the Galician Jew may speak German, his practical instinct tells him that German is a world language and insists on it being the language spoken at home and in which to raise his children. It is of the greatest value for his civil life and for the future of his family – certainly far more so than Czech and Polish. They are not alone in fighting the Slavic tendencies within Bohemian and Galician schools and public institutions – even the smallest Jewish communities in Galicia have appealed to Vienna for help in their efforts to stop the spread of Polish and Czech; these pleas are all too easily ignored by those in authority. It is regrettable that a unifying act, especially for the more than 500,000 Jews who live in Galicia, is not seen as being a greater priority. Apart from the stupidity of certain Hassidic sects, the main priority of Galician Jewry is to become Austrian – as Austrian as fellow Jews in the Monarchy’s German speaking territories. This, however, is not allowed under the general tyranny of the constitution.”

Germany's Jewish Soldiers

Germany’s Jewish Soldiers

“Prejudice as well as goodwill, criticism as well as benevolent recognition of Jewry’s position in modern society, regardless of party allegiance, is a fact that is apparent to all. In that we attempt to clarify the elements that are bringing about this social change, we hope that we make our own modest contribution to understanding.”