(Not) Beyond Good and Evil: Will Herberg on Utopianism, Cynicism, and the Jewish Ethic


Will Herberg is a Jewish-American Theologian who is most noted for his book, published in 1955,  Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology.   His characterizations of American religious pluralism may be a little dated, but it is still discussed by scholars today.  But his first book, Judaism and Modern Man: An Interpretation of Jewish Religion, is lesser known and certainly deserves more attention than it has already received.  At first, I thought the book was rehearsing many of the ideas we find in the work of Julius Guttman and Leo Strauss on what makes Judaism…Jewish (in contrast to being Greek, Mythological, etc).  To be sure, although he doesn’t cite Guttman, Rosenzweig, Buber, and Strauss (which is a major drawback), we can hear many resonances.  I am interested in how he reinterprets their theological readings of Judaism.

But what interests me most is how his readings may or may not pertain to the schlemiel’s pursuit of goodness.  To be sure, one of Herberg’s major focuses in his book is what he calls the “Jewish ethic.”  What I find so interesting about his reading is the fact that he provides Ruth Wisse’s reading of the schlemiel (made in the early 70s) with a theological reflection.  In her reading of the schlemiel she claims that the schlemiel can only exist in a world that is neither fully optimistic (or utopian) nor fully skeptical (or cynical).  The schlemiel’s Jewishness, in her estimation, has to do with creating a tension between hope and skepticism.  This idea is what Herberg associates with a Jewish ethic.  Unlike Nietzsche’s call to go “beyond good and evil,” this ethic looks to preserve good and evil yet in a way that underscores the tenuous and complicated nature of good and evil in our society.  This, as a matter of course, says to Nietzsche: not so fast.  And this not so fast, so to speak, is at the core of the Jewish ethic and it seems to be at the core of what Ruth Wisse is getting at in her interpretation of the traditional schlemiel character.  The only difference, as I hope to show, is that Herberg’s theology is utterly serious and his discourse is far from comic; whereas the schlemiel works by way of comedy and indirection.   Both are reflections on Jewishness, but one is secular while the other is religious.

In a section entitled, “The Divine Imperative: The Absolute and the Relative,” Herberg looks into the meaning of Jewish ethics vis-à-vis the relation of the absolute to the relative.  Does Judaism have absolutes?  Can they be known and acted upon?

Writing for a Jewish-American audience, and recognizing the degree of influence of Christian ideas on the Jewish mind, Herberg begins the section with a discussion of the relationship of love to law.  For Herberg, law and justice are the “foundation of social existence”(106).  And love comes in to the picture by way of pointing out that the law must be kept but in a merciful manner.  He calls the appeal to mercy within the law as the “transcendence of law in love.”  Jews must go “beyond the letter of the law” not by rejecting it but by applying in the right manner.

Herberg rejects the antinomian claim that the law should be rejected in the name of love:

No responsible thinker will venture to foresee human conditions within history in which faith will be so perfectly realized in love that law can be dispensed with and all action take rise in spontaneous freedom.  (107)

But immediately following this, he redefines the “transcendence of law in love” in terms of an existential imperative:

The transcendence of law in love is the divine imperative that confronts every man in his relations with his fellow men but it is an imperative that only the most sentimental utopianism can identify with the realities of social life at any stage of history. (107)

As we can see from this quote, Herberg inserts a critique of utopianism in his definition of the “transcendence of law in love.”  He does this because he can see that utopianism, in its zeal, has an antinomian spirit.  To this end, he critiques not just utopianism but also its evil twin, cynicism.  For Herberg, all action is “contaminated.”  But this is no reason for total cynicism:

Activity of men in history, even in the pursuit of best ends, carries with it not only the promotion but also the violation of the highest imperatives of moral life. (109)

No one is pure: “Even the saint in his humility, does he not exalt himself in the pride of his humility?”(109).  These thoughts may give rise to cynicism which Herberg defines as such:

Cynicism denies that ideal imperatives, since they are impossible of actual enactment in life, can have any meaning or relevance to human existence. (110)

In response to this, he calls for a “realistic ethic” which must “know how to relate the ideal to reality without deceiving itself as to the actual distance between them.  It must know how to choose from among the evils without obliterating the distinction between good and evil”(110).

After making this claim, Herberg resorts to a kind of quasi-Kantian regulative ideal:

The absolute imperatives calling to perfection acquire their potency precisely through the fact that they transcend every actuality of existence.  They are regulative, not constitutive, principles of moral life; they cannot themselves be embodied in action but they operate as the dynamic power within it.  (110)

And these regulative ideals serve “as principles of criticism of existing conditions.  And they serve, next, as principles of guidance in the struggle for better conditions”(110).

Although this sounds quite familiar – vis-à-vis a kind of Marxist critique – however, Herberg draws the line when he says that we have to be very careful with our interpretation and application of these “principles.”   And, in the process, challenges the “utopian” view which invests too much in its critiques and aspirations.  The Jewish ethic is more skeptical than the utopian view but it is not cynical.  One must act, but how?

Herberg argues that the Jewish ethic gets deeply involved with the “relativities” of life. And it does so with a view to action based on quasi-principles.  Nonetheless, they “constitute transcendent principles of aspiration, criticism, and judgment”(112).   In other words, criticism and judgment are always on the horizon as is aspiration for getting it write (even in the face of possible failure).

However, at the very end of the chapter Herberg decides that it is more important to end with the existential note than the pragmatic one (which is not to say that he rejects pragmatism but that he is most interested in the “aspirational” aspect of the Jewish ethic).

He notes that at the core of all of this reflection on right, ethical action is a paradox and an existential dilemma and the only solution is a call to God for help:

The resolution of the heart-rending, existence shattering conflict between what we know we ought to do and that which in fact we do do is possible only on the religious level, on the level of repentance, grace, and forgiveness.  At this point, ethics transcends itself and returns to its religious source and origin.  (113)

Herberg ends with a prayer from the Jewish prayer book which basically points out that, at the end of the day, we should hold no certainties about how good we are:

Not because of our righteous acts do we lay our supplications before thee but because of thine abundant mercies. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness?

In the end, Herberg thinks that the preservation of the tension between the utopian and the cynic will bring Jews to another form of humility and sense of limitation that is religious.   On the other hand, the schlemiel also brings us to a similar sense of limitation, to the dilemma itself.  However, it brings us there by way of bitter-sweet comedy.

One can go on and will go on dealing with moral relativities, one will walk toward the good.  The Jewish sensibility, the moral sensibility, knows it must go on and perhaps, as Beckett says, fail better. But, still, it must go on and sketch out the limits of utopia and cynicism.  The ethic is, without a doubt, (not) beyond good and evil.

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part II


I ended the last blog entry by drawing a limit or threshold between Kafka’s conversation and Nietzsche’s singing.   To be sure, Kafka, at the end of his piece, wonders why his group of nobodies isn’t singing.  Their conversation in the mountains is “free” like the winds but it doesn’t break into song, while Nietzsche’s speech fuses with the “wind” and becomes song.  It is joyous song and approximates Zarathustra’s laughter in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – a laughter that laughs at – and elevates itself beyond – all suffering and tragedy “real or imagined.”

Kafka, however, sticks close to conversation and can’t take the leap because, as I suggested, Kafka’s comedy, the comedy of the schlemiel evinces a sad kind of laugther.  And, unlike Nietzsche, whose lover and companion is the wind, Kafka envisions several “nobodies” (several schlemiels) as companions.

The interesting thing about Kafka’s excursion in the mountains is that the speaker “envisions” his meeting with these schlemiels.  He doesn’t actually have such a meeting.  Taking on, so to speak, the schlemiel tradition from Kafka, Paul Celan – who translated Kafka’s “Excursion into the Mountains” into Romanian – has this conversation in his prose piece “Conversation in the Mountains.”

John Felstiner, in his book Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, suggests that Paul Celan may have been inspired by Kafka’s piece.  But he also suggests a few other “influences.”  I’d like to follow up all of his suggestions because, of them, Felstener follows only one thread which deals solely with the type of language used in this conversation.   And it is this reading which is in need of critique.

For Felstener, the way the Jews speak in Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” is thought of as evincing a kind of falleness and shame which eschews the comic in the name of the tragic.   While it is important to mention the possibility that Celan thought of a certain way of speaking as “fallen” and shameful, the fact of that matter is that this displaces the comic aspect of the conversation and misses the schlemiel that is at the core of it.

Before I address this reading, I’d like to lay out the influences brought together by Felstiner.  They are suggestive and can help us to understand his reading.

To begin with, Celan dedicated the text to a missed encounter with the thinker Theodor Adorno.  After reading Adorno’s Notes on Literature, Celan wanted to meet him.  But, as Felstener notes, Celan thought he was addressing Adorno as a Jew in the story (by the name of “Gross” – big – while Celan played the other Jew, “Klein” – small.  Upon hearing this, Adorno noted he was not Jewish; he had changed his name from his father’s Jewish name to his mother’s name.  And he was raised as a Catholic, not as a Jew.  Instead, Adorno suggested the Jew Celan was looking for was Gershom Scholem.   The point made by Felstener, which is his basic theme, is that Celan, when he originally wrote the piece, believed that since Adonro was a Jew, he would understand the character’s way of talking; namely, the Yiddish dialect.  (We will return to this below.)

Another influence may have been the bastardization of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (overman) by the Nazis.  He correctly notes that Celan wrote “Conversation in the Mountains” in Sils Maria where Nietzsche wrote must of his work (including the poem I cited in the last blog entry).  As evidence, he points out that Celan inscribed a copy of his story: “In memory of Sils Maria and Friedrich Nietzsche, who – as you know – wanted to have anti-Semites shot”(140)  Although he points this out, he takes it no further.

But was Celan looking to redeem the overman, as Felstiner suggests?  Do we see an overman in “Conversation in the Mountains?”  To the contrary, following the contrast I put forth above and in the last blog entry, I would argue that there is nothing resembling the overman in not just Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” but in Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” as well.   In fact, while Celan may respect Nietzsche’s anti anti-Semitism, he didn’t respect his overman.  The schlemiels he features in “Conversation in the Mountains” are the anti-thesis of the overman.  They are humble, comic, and their talk is not that of song.  Without a doubt, their speech doesn’t transcend suffering and tragedy as the laugh of Zarathustra does.  As I noted above and as I will note with Celan, it is speech that they share, not song.  Speech is the limit.

Another influence comes from Georg Buchner (1813-37).  Namely, his novella entitled Lenz.  According to Felstiner, the line that grabs Celan is “On the 20th of January Lenz went walking through the mountains.”  He gathers this from Celan’s “Meridian” speech where Celan notes that Lenz and his own “’little story’ with its ‘roundabout paths form thou to thou…paths on which language gets a voice, these are encounters.’”(140).

Building on the “thou” that he cites above, Felstiner brings in Martin Buber as another possible influence: “Above all, “Gesprach im Gebrig” owes to Martin Buber, whose philosophical writings and retellings of Hasidic tales Celan was reading during the late 1950s.”  Buber actually wrote a piece with a similar title: “Buber’s “Gesprach in den Bergen” (“Conversation in the Mountains,” 1913) expounds the I-thou encounter that concerned Celan”(140).

Felstiner goes on to say that the  “principles that underpin” Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” can be found in two lines he wrote on Buber’s I-Thou relation:

On his birthday in 1959, Celan bought a book about Buber and underscored his speech philosophy: “Creatures stand within the secret of Creation, of Speech…We can say thou, because thou is said to us.” And this: “Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou”(140).

The final influence Felstener names is the poet Osip Mandelshtam.  He notes that in Mandelshtam’s essay “On the Interlocutor,” Celan found the notion that poetry is the “search for an other and oneself”(141).  Citing, once again, the “Meridian” speech Felstener argues that Celan took Mandelshtam seriously since Celan says that, through language, he was “on the way” to himself.

The point of all of Felstiner’s notes on what may or may not have influenced Celan’s can be found in this last influence; namely, that Celan was looking to go through language “on the way” to himself.  And this is the point.  The language Celan wanted to go through, according to Felstiner, is Mausheln (the German Yiddish dialect that was thought, by cultured Germans and German Jews, to be shameful and, as the German word suggests, Mouselike).

In other words, by speaking in this manner, Celan was looking to leave it behind for real lanaguage.  To be sure, Felstiner likens the talk of the two main characters in “Conversation in the Mountains” to “babble” and says it is a “comedown’.  Citing Heidegger and Walter Benjamin’s words on pure language and inauthentic language (“everyday talk” as Heidegger says in Being and Time) Felstiner argues that Celan saw the two main characters as speaking inauthentically and in a “fallen” language (144-145):

The “babbling” of Celan’s Jews is a comedown – via the cataclysm that ruined Benjamin – from God Given speech.  This talk of theirs, its halting double back, dividing and divided against itself, like the self it speaks…Sometimes in the dialogue you catch the shrug behind it, elusive yet vital.  Celan said the “Gesprach” was “actually a Mauscheln” between him and Adorno – that is, a sort of jabber that Germans overhear between Jews, Mauscheln being an old slur coined from Moishe, Moses.

This elusive “shrug,” I would suggest, is the shrug of the schlemiel. For Felstiner, it has a negative valance.  To be sure, in the footnote to this passage Felstiner cites the work of Sander Gilman; namely, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews.  In this book, as in his book on Franz Kafka (Franz Kafka, The Jewish Patient), Gilman points out how Jews were ashamed of themselves and internalized hatred because of what the Germans regarded as their “secret language” (Yiddish).  The Yiddish dialect was, for many German Jews, a source of shame.  Taking this reading to heart, Felstiner argues that Celan was no different from many assimilated Jews who looked to eliminate all traces of Mausheln from their speech.  Therefore, for Felstiner, “Conversation in the Mountains,” is an attempt to move through Mausheln – a fallen language – to a pure language.

By making this reading, Felstiner gives Celan’s comic dialogue between two schlemiels a negative valence.  What I would like to suggest is that we read the comic dialogue in a less negative manner.  In fact, Celan, like Kafka, deeply identifies with this conversation not in the sense that he wants to leave it behind but in the sense that it is a way of relating to alterity.  Without this language, without this comic relationship between schlemiels, Jews would not know the limit (threshold) between conversation and song.

Why, after all, would Yiddish writers continually return to the schlemiel and his comic way of conversing? Did they do this because they despised Mausheln? What I would like to suggest is that, in a piece like “Conversation in the Mountains,” Celan didn’t despise his Yiddish roots as much as Felstiner would have us believe.

Fesltiner is correct to note that German was the preferred language in Romania.  And that it was Celan’s “mother tongue.”   However, Felstiner also notes that Celan knew Yiddish, Yiddish folklore, and humor as a child.  And notes that at one time he even defended Yiddish to classmates when they made fun of it saying that the classics were translated into Yiddish.  But, ultimately, Felstiner goes with the historical and cultural reading of the relationship of the German Jew to the Ostjude (Eastern European Jew) as informing the dialect play in Conversation.

Contrary to this, I’d suggest, as Julian Semilan and Sanda Agalidi do in the introduction to their translation to Paul Celan’s Romanian Poems that Celan looked to alter German with a “minor” language (for them his translation work in Romanian).  This, they claim, had some influence on his nuanced treatment of German.  And, most importantly, we should note that Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” was written after his stay in Romania following the Holocaust.

We can see from “Conversation in the Mountains,” that he respected and understood the foolish and wise ways of Yiddish folklore and that he used them to introduce a Jewish element into the German.  This comic play had a positive valance and puts an emphasis on Jewish particularity.  He had a sense of Yiddish ways of speaking and in “Conversation in the Mountains,” he spoke through them.  But he spoke not in order to transcend these ways but to, on the contrary, retain the limit between speech and song.  This limit is something that the schlemiel’s ways of speaking and gesturing marked.  The fact that speak and don’t sing, as in Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains,” marks this Jewish particularity which is acutely aware of suffering, history, and difference.

It is this kind of speech that lives on for Celan after the Holocaust.  It survives on the way to himself and the other.  It is not totally destroyed.  His way to himself and to the other, at least in “Conversation in the Mountains,” is by way of these two schlemiels: Klein and Gross.   In other words, the schlemiel and his ways of conversation are not things Celan wants to leave behind.  The schlemiel remains…speaking…of this…and of that….with a shrug that is, as Felstiner correctly notes “elusive and vital.”  But unlike Felstiner, I’d like to say that this “elusive and vital” shrug, this gesture, has a positive valence and works as much to preserve something Jewish while, at the same time, altering the German language.

(In the next blog entry, I will be making a close reading of Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” so as to show how it is a conversation of schlemiels – a conversation that carries on what Kafka had originally initiated in his “Excursion in the Mountains.”)