Menu JTA Search

Goethe and the Jews

Download PDF for this date

To be continued

The following is the first of a series of illuminating articles revealing Goethe’s lively interest in Jewry and things Yiddish, based upon excerpts from “Goethe and the Jews,” (G. P. Putman’s Sons, publishers), by Dr. Mark Waldman of the College of the City of New York. The author, who is a distinguished teacher, scholar and lecturer, has won high praise for his literary contributions and research on Goethe from Professor Carl F. Schreiber, head of the Germanic Department at Yale University and head of the Goethe Symposium, to which Professor Waldman’s contribution was adjudged outstanding.


In his despair at the futility of knowledge to attain happiness, Faust, i.e., Goethe—(for Goethe and Faust are identical)—cries out in ringing tones: “Habe nun, ach! Philosophie, Juristerei and Medizin …” The subjects philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, and theology enumerated in this passage form a mere fractional part of the multifarious disciplines which the uncanny intellect of Goethe embraced. There was nothing too small, nothing too big, which Goethe’s insatiable spirit did not attempt to traverse. Astronomy, architecture, botany, zoology, physics, chemistry, jurisprudence, medicine, theology, philosophy, and numerous other branches within the range of human knowledge his gigantic mind sought to penetrate and acquire. Even the occult pseudo-sciences like cabbala and alchemy did not escape his scrutiny. He attempted to delve into the very depths of the spiritual and the mysterious and lift the veil of the unknown.


At the tender age of eight, i.e., in 1757, when other children, even in our modern age, are still tyros, barely out of the slough of the primer, he had already engaged in serious exercises based upon Biblical themes. A number of his early labors have been preserved for us in his labores juveniles (a manuscript consisting of a number of notebooks now the property of the Frankfort library). Some of them contain coherent exercises, evidently the gist of what had been discussed in church, which the precocious lad utilized as a topic in his linguistic penmanship-practices. We find: “Cain who was of an evil disposition strangled his brother. And why did he strangle him? Because his works were evil and those of his brother just. We know that we have come from death into life, for we love our brothers. Whoever does not love his own brother, remaineth in death.” Others consist of passages from Ben Sirah, Proverbs, and Isaiah, Ben Sirah predominating. The passages were apparently committed to memory. One of the several extracts from Ben Sirah, Chapter 51, reads: “Purchase wisdom because you can have it without money. And bend your neck under its yoke and let yourself be pulled; it is found near at hand. Look at me, for a short while I have had labor and travail and have found great consolation. Accept the teaching like a great treasure of silver and keep it like a large heap of gold.” These exercises were submitted for marks in competition with others. They were rated, it seems, chiefly on the merit of their penmanship. He received but once the rating No. 1; he was rated as low as 17.


From Proverbs there are only two selections extant, one of which taken from Chapter 15 reads as follows: “Indolence causes sleep and a slothful soul will suffer hunger. He who observeth the commandment preserveth his own life; whoever despises His way will die. He who has compassion with the poor lendeth to the Lord; he will repay him with goodness. Chastise thy son while there is hope; but do not let thy soul be moved to kill him.” There are only three verses culled from Isaiah, Chapter 3. 10, 11, 12; “Preach of the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they will eat the fruits of their labor. Woe unto the wicked for they are evil; and they will be rewarded as they merit. Children are the oppressors of my people, and women rule over them. My people, thy comforts lead thee astray, and destroy the path upon which thou oughtest to walk.” There is also a verse from Hosea, Chapter 6. 1. “Come let us return unto the Lord, for He hath torn us, but He will also heal us; He hath smitten us and He will bind up our wounds.” What lends this citation such importance is that it is written in four languages, in four columns in juxtaposition. German, French, Latin and Greek. The purpose is evident. His father, who was partly teacher, but chiefly superviser and guide, considered the Bible apparently an excellent means for the acquisition of foreign languages, a method later successfully employed by the famous excavator Schliemann. Moreover, the stern imperial councilor, who was extremely methodical in all his modes of life, apparently was influenced by the educator Commenius, whose pedagogical motto was: “Language must be learned through language, not through grammar.” Goethe always harbored an unquenchable hatred for formal grammar and poked fun at it in one of his poems.


The Bible not merely influenced to a large extent the contents of Goethe’s prose and poetry, but often the form of his poetry, a fact not generally known. Goethe wrote four exquisite poems in the Hebraic meter: “Song of the spirits above the waters, Bounds of Humanity, Ganymede, and Promethus.” In these poems he adopted the poetic form of Psalms 111 and 112.

Goethe seems ho have been familiar not only with the poetry of the Jews but also with their music. While in Rome in 1788 he had found a collection of fifty Psalms in Italian verse set to music at the beginning of the eighteenth century by a certain Venetian, Nobile Benedetto Marcello. In March of the same year he writes from Rome: “In many he used the intonation of the Jews, partly Spanish, partly German as a motif….”

Two years later he visits a Jewish cemetery in Venice. Though he does not tell us the purpose, we can easily surmise what it was. He no doubt wished to decipher the inscriptions on the tombstones. He undoubtedly failed. This may account for his failure to reveal his motive.

However, he does mention an interesting incident connected with this visit. “By a strange lucky chance in that Goetz [Goethe’s servant and secretary] picked up in jest a piece of an animal skull on the Jewish cemetery, making a joke out of it, as though wishing to present me with a Jew’s head, I advanced a great step in the explanation of the animal structure….” Thus writes Goethe to the wife of Herder from Venice in May, 1790.


Three decades later, while attending his annual cure in Karlsbad, he made an excursion to the city of Eger in order to view the architecture and the Hebrew inscription of a very ancient synagogue which had been converted into a Christian chapel and later abandoned. To his great chagrin the old Hebrew inscription could no longer be deciphered. Even a learned Jew, who was journeying through the town, failed in his efforts. Goethe believed the failure of deciphering was due to the ambiguity inherent in the numbers employed for designating the year, as well as the people. “The same ambiguity which makes uncertain the numbers of the year as well as numbers fixing people used by the ancient Hebrews, is also prevalent here (the inscription). This forces us to desist from further investigations.”

The structure of the synagogue “reminded him of the good old times of the old German architecture.” Councilor Gruener, who was his guide, is said to have told Goethe on this occasion of the frightful massacre which the fanatic Christians caused among the Jews of that town in the fourteenth century. “I was anxious to learn Goethe’s opinion of the Jews. Whatever I might say he remained lost in the contemplation of the ancient inscription and expressed himself only vaguely in regard to the Jews.” The councilor, by the way, was not a Jew.

To be continued

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund