Tales of Assimilation & the Challenge of Faithful Resistance

This article first appeared in Touchstone, September/October 2009

Each family has its own story, but every one reflects the history of the world. My family’s tale is no exception. This narrative of two religious communities – German Jews and American Chrstians – is unique and yet typical. I hope it is also instructive.

Arthur and Rudolf

My own memory only stretches back to my grandfather, Rudolph Stahl, but the story really starts with Rudolph’s grandfather Moses.[1] Moritz, as he was known, was a modest and modestly successful potato and apple wholesaler in Friedberg, a small town north of Frankfurt with a relatively large and long-established Jewish community. Moritz, a practicing Jew, sent his son Arthur to a non-religious boarding school. In the spirit of the time and place – late 19th century imperial Germany – Arthur abandoned Judaism and became simply German. He established a successful law practice in Bad Nauheim, a then-new resort town down the road from Friedberg. Arthur had both Jewish and gentile clients.

Arthur’s wife Paula was from a Jewish family, but she was the only one of her siblings not to intermarry. Whether Arthur and Paula were truly Jewish is a good question. Neighbours presumably thought they were, but the couple neither practiced nor believed. Rudolph remembered his father describing “religious feeling” as an illusion. Arthur’s cult, if he had one, was culture: opera, renaissance art and Kantian philosophy.

Naturally enough, Arthur’s son Rudolph grew up to think of himself as a German – of Jewish ancestry, certainly, but first and foremost German. He had the appropriate tastes for a German of his social class: he enjoyed music and played the violin well; he loved Goethe and Schiller and later inherited his father’s taste for Kant. Unlike his father, he had a streak of German romanticism. He joined up with the Wandervogeln, a youth group whose chief activity was communing with Nature on overnight hikes through the countryside.

Rudolph’s romanticism was not extreme enough to keep him from following his father’s legal career. He eventually wrote a thesis discussing the legal responsibility of strangers to come to the aid of people in distress. Rudolph was interested in the broader philosophical question, particularly the Kantian notions of duty and free will, but it did not occur to him to see what Jewish Talmudic scholars had said on the topic.

Two responses to Anti-Semitism

Well before finishing legal training, however, Rudolph was drafted into the German army. He discovered his Judaism on the French front during the First World War. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but Rudolph’s first religious experience was more sociological than spiritual. The German government responded to anti-Semites’ claims that Jews were shirking their duty to the Fatherland by ordering a religious census. The Jews were separated out and mocked.

Anti-Semitism intensified after the War. Jews were expelled from the Wandervogeln. I remember my grandfather as an old man, still hurt and even surprised as he told of his ejection on the grounds of his “race”. This anti-Semitism eventually led Rudolph’s younger brother Hans to Zionism and emigration to Palestine – although never to believing or practicing Judaism.

Rudolph’s response was more intellectual and spiritual than his brother’s. He decided to explore the religion that came with the Jewish race. He studied Hebrew in Frankfurt and soon joined up with a group of Jewish intellectuals who wanted to construct a Judaism which both respected the religious heritage and fit with the modern world. The leaders of this “New Thinking” were Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber. Today, Buber is the more famous of the two, but in person Rosenzweig was the more inspirational. His complex book, The Star of Redemption (eventually translated into English by Rudolph’s nephew), found a distinct place for the Jews in the history of salvation. “Before God, then, Jew and Christian both labour at the same task. He cannot dispense with either … To us [Jews] he gave eternal life by kindling the fire of the Star of his truth in our hearts…”[2]

Finding Identities

My grandfather worked for a year at the Lehrhaus, Rosenzweig’s school for Jews who wanted to learn about their own – for most of them their lost – religion. The Lehrhaus experience was life-changing for many of those involved, including Rudolph. He met his future wife Hedwig there. More to the point of this essay, both Rudolph and Hedwig found a clear Jewish identity. The couple and their two children escaped Nazi Germany in 1937 and settled in New York, where they lived for more than half a century. Rudolph became an accountant, eventually setting up a successful private practice. Like his father, he had both Jewish and gentile clients.

My grandfather managed to be German, American and a more-or-less believing and part-practicing Jew. Of the three identities, I would say he was most German, a particularly cultured German. On hearing that I was reading Goethe’s Faust, he surprised me with a joyous recitation of a few dozen lines. He always said Shakespeare was better in the Schlegel translation, a copy of which he had brought from Germany. He was an accomplished amateur painter: landscapes in the style of Cezanne, followed in his old age with more abstract works under the influence of Emil Nolde, the German expressionist.

My grandparents’ Judaism was sincere, but they were unable to pass it on fully to their children. Their daughter, my mother, always identified with the Israeli cause and sometimes attended synagogue, more in her later years. Still, she saw no contradiction between her Judaism and the frequently repeated declaration that “man created God, not the other way around”. In turn, she was unable to establish a practicing Jewish household, slowed down by my father, who described himself as a “non-practicing, non-believing Orthodox Jew”. Judaism drifted out of the family.

The Modern Jewish Question

Arthur and Rudolph found different answers to the most fundamental question that faced Jews in pre-Nazi Germany: How is a Jew also supposed to be a German? Thanks to the Nazis, there are almost no German Jews left to ask this distinctly German question. However, Jews everywhere must still ask how they are supposed to live in a non-Jewish world – call it the Jewish Question.

The modern Jewish Question succeed a biblical one. Throughout the Old Testatment, the Jews were again and again tempted to assimilate with the non-Jewish peoples among whom they lived: Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, worshipers of Baal, Hellenising Seleucid kings. The biblical accounts stretch over something like a millennium, but in this fundamental respect they are all quite similar. Time and again, many of the Jews surrendered to the temptation, forsaking the revealed religion of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Time and time again, the Lord responded with frustration and anger, but also with forgiveness and love. God always gives his people another chance to be faithful.

The Bible presents only the Jewish arguments against assimilation. The assimilationists’ arguments are almost entirely lost. In contrast, all the German responses to the modern Jewish Question are well documented. German Jews were nothing if not articulate.

Kinds of Assimilation

Arthur’s answer was common in his generation. Like many children of the Enlightenment, he saw no value in his inherited religion, or in any religion that strayed beyond what Kant had called the “limits of reason”. Persuaded that the future belonged to nations and intellectual movements, not to religions, he wanted to assimilate completely into secular German society.

Some of Arthur’s fellow Jews went further, assimilating into Christian German society. They either converted to Christianity themselves or allowed the children of their religiously mixed marriages to be raised as Christians. To Orthodox Jews, such religious departures were simply updated versions of Biblical apostasies. For many of converts, however, the move was merely from non-believing membership of an ostracised religious group to equally non-believing membership of the dominant religious organisation. The desire to end anti-Semitism by taking away the “Semites” led the young Austrian Theodor Herzl to suggest a mass conversion of all Jews of the “final generation”.

Other Jews went less far than Arthur in rejecting their Jewishness. A few became Orthodox – keeping kosher, following the calendar of feasts and fasts. Many more tried to change their Judaism into something that did not stick out too much. Liberal Jews (the European equivalent of the American Reform movement) built synagogues which looked like churches, complete with organs and stained glass. Some Jews took up “Jewish mysticism”, but most chose to be cultural rather than religious Jews. The intellectuals among them, a high proportion, became scientists and professors, not Talmudic scholars (students of the arcane wrinkles of Jewish law). The New Thinking of Rosenzweig which so captivated Rudolph had a limited appeal. It was neither Jewish enough for the Jews nor non-Jewish enough for the Germans.

Another Jewish technique of assimilation was to create, or join up with, a belief-system which was not religious at all, let alone Jewish. Such secular religions did not appeal only to Jews, but it is surely no accident that both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, two founders of firmly anti-religious intellectual movements, were secularised Jews, like a disproportionate number of the true believers in their creeds.

Zionism is a variation of the same theme. It was created by Herzl after he decided (correctly, as it turned out) that anti-Semitism would pursue Jews even if they all converted. Zionism gloried in the same supposed Jewish racial identity that the anti-Semites despised. The movement was not exactly anti-religious, but its faith was more in the Jewish people than in the God of their ancestors. The Zionist cause attracted a few religious Jews, but most adherents were as non-religious as my great-uncle Hans.

Spiritually Unsatisfying

Did the assimilation of German Jews work? In social and economic terms, certainly, at least until the Nazis came to power. The emancipated and secular Jews of Germany flourished in many domains, from the arts to commerce. Even the destruction of the German Jews in the Nazi terror does not fully discredit the choice to assimilate. The Nazi experience has proven unique in modern history. In social and economic terms, assimilated Jews are now enormously successful almost everywhere in the world, including Germany.

Spiritually, however, all types of Jewish assimilation have been unsatisfactory. My grandfather was far from the only child of his generation to feel that a precious spiritual heritage had been “dribbled away”, as Franz Kafka complained to his father.[3] Jews have found it very difficult to be both Jewish and modern. In each generation, many Jews are pulled away from practice and belief by indifference and from their residual Jewish cultural identity by intermarriage. The memory of the Holocaust has hardly slowed down the process, although it has added a new variety of cultural Judaism: many Jews now identify themselves as members of a people specially chosen for persecution – by the hostile world, not by a God who probably does not exist.

Of course, Jews, however secular, are not exempt from the desire for transcendental meaning, for a tie to the divine, for religion. It is true that many Jews are resolutely unreligious. In this secular age the small voice of religious conscience is often unheard. However, a remarkable number of Jews have been willing to take on the burdens of Orthodox Jewish practice (frequent prayers, extensive dietary restrictions and extensive limits on activity on the Sabbath). More have turned to other religious ways – sometimes to a more or less Westernised Buddhism, sometimes to Christianity.

I am a member of the last group. I grew up a cultural Jew of the weakest sort, not even Jewish enough to have a bar mitzvah (a Jewish rite of early adolescence which is used as an occasion for a big party). Spiritually, I was homeless. As a teenager, I dabbled with mystical writers and accompanied a Jewish friend to a synagogue a few times. Later there was a flirtation with Marxism and even a few months of Freudian enthusiasm. I took solace of a somewhat spiritual sort in romantic passion and the beauties of art. Eventually, though, I found my way to the Catholic Church.

It took me some years to see how the traces of my Judaism tied in with my new religion, but eventually I realised that as a Christian, I could honestly say that I had become a believing Jew. Of course, Jews (the non-Christian sort) reject the claim that Jesus is the Messiah; if they did not, they would join me in the fulfilled Judaism that is Christianity. I deeply respect their rejection of my belief, but I reject the complaints from non-believing Jews that I am letting the side down by assimilating into Christianity. On the contrary, I believe that it is they who have assimilated into the dominant culture – secularism.

The Christian Question

The Jewish Question of my grandfather’s generation has a Christian counterpart. Believing Christians must ask how they should live in this non-Christian world. Like the Jews in the pre-Nazi German republic, they are a free but somewhat distrusted minority, facing a society which is indifferent when it is not hostile.

Most European Christians are painfully aware of this Christian Question. Americans may see less conflict, but their Christianity frequently yields to secular modernity. Churchgoers rarely stop to question such central secular beliefs as the crucial importance of material progress and the limited value of spiritual sacrifice. They mostly follow socially accepted secular practices in both small and large matters – from Sunday activities and immodesty in dress to premarital cohabitation, easy divorce and worldly ambitions.

Whether or not Christians are aware of their Question, their answers resemble those of the Jews. Some simply adopt the secular worldview, whether energetically and intentionally or merely through spiritual sloth. Others try to create a religious identity that is almost ethnic – of churchgoers for whom the God-part is almost optional. Yet others work on theology, trying to create an acceptably modern form of Christianity free of extensive moral and liturgical demands. Assimilation to secularism does not preclude “getting into” a light form of spirituality – westernised Eastern religions, New Age or nothing more than a vague cosmic sensitivity.

Intellectually and theologically, the Christian assimilation is more surprising than the Jewish, since Christians should be much better placed to deal with the Enlightenment’s challenge to religion. To stay Jewish requires a belief in the uniqueness of the Jewish position in the world, a creed which runs directly contrary to the modern ideal of universal brotherhood. In contrast, all are welcome in the New Israel of the Christian Church. Similarly, while much Jewish law is arbitrary and subject to Enlightenment criticism on grounds of irrationality, Christianity is founded on the “logos”, a divine rationality which encompasses all human reason. Neither universalism nor rationality, however, has been enough to keep many Christians from accompanying their Jewish brothers and sisters on the superficially alluring path to secularism.

Two Lessons to Learn

The ease with which Christians have fit into the Jewish patterns of assimilation should be alarming to those Christians who wish to stay true to their faith. Perhaps they can learn from the mistakes of what Pope John Paul II used to call their older brothers, the Jews. I would draw two lessons.

First, Christians must work hard to identify and resist the many seductive Baals of the age. The siren song of a reason that stands away from God may be as old as the serpent in Eden, but seems to sound particularly alluring in a scientific era. Then there are the various devious suggestions of ways to help – supposedly – Christianity thrive in a de-Churched world. For example, the suggestions that Christians emphasise their individual emotions and subjective understanding are not actually a validation of the divine image within but an excuse for rejecting the loving discipline of the Church. Similarly, a call to respect for other religious traditions turns out to be a denial of the uniqueness of Christian revelation.

Christians must also learn to resist the temptations of pseudo-religions. Just as Jews flocked to Marxism and Freudianism, Christians turn to nationalism (less more recently) or godless cults of happiness, comfort and experience. In a slightly more spiritual direction, the Christian love of life can be transmogrified almost insensibly into pure worldliness: doctors who promote a far-from-Christian dread of death and humanists who reform society on the presumption of a disbelief in eternity.

The second lesson is that resisting Baal is hard work. Too many Jews assimilated in order to avoid the embarrassment of being different. Christians living in a non-Christian society must be willing to be different. Indeed, for the sake of the gospel they should be willing to welcome the discomfort or even persecution that come with differences in practice and belief. The Christian need to be counter-cultural is a simple matter of logic. If Christian culture did not conflict in fundamental ways with the culture of the age, then the age would not be non-Christian.

Joyful Resistance

The Christian resistance should not be grim but joyful, a joy that rests solely on supernatural foundations. Ridicule and discrimination should be accepted as testimonies to a fidelity to the Good that is more valuable than social acceptability. The goal for Christians is not to live in harmony in isolation, but to stand out in virtue and values. The earliest Christians can provide examples. In the words of a second-century text: “[F]ollowing the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, [Christians] display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life…They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all.”[4] That call for a difficult, distinct and joyful Christian life may sound like hard work, but I believe that in our days anything less opens the door to the spiritual emptiness of assimilation. My great-grandfather walked through that door. Should I have great-grandchildren, I hope they can avoid that fate.

[1] The reflections in this article were fomented some years ago by a typescript of The Memoirs of Rudolph Stahl, an autobiography compiled by Benjamin Pollock in 1995. The cultural background is explained in Michael Brenner, The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1996). Some of the intellectual lines are traced in Leo Strauss’ 1962 preface to a reissue of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (originally 1965, Schocken Books, reprinted: University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1997)

[2] Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (translated by William Hallo, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1970) p. 415.

[3] Cited in Brenner, p. 3.

[4] Letter to Diognetus Chapter 5. Quoted from

Picture: The Face of Israel, Marc Chagall