Heine: Father of Secular Judaism


Heinrich Heine, the great poet of 19th-century German romanticism, has always been a most controversial figure. A Jew self-converted to Protestant Christianity, heavily influenced by French culture, and sharply critical of the semi-feudal Germany of his own time, Heine was rejected by German Jews and Christians alike. Heine played no small role in forging this polemic: his biting sarcasm was bestowed upon friends and enemies alike.

Heine had a flair for making enemies, as dramatic as his genius for composing poetry in the lyric vein—verses that made him, justly, the idol of millions of readers. As an essayist, literary critic, political analyst, arts and theater journalist, philosopher and music connoisseur, Heine bequeathed his singular prophetic vision to the German literary scene. He foresaw a Communist revolution that would sweep away the profoundly stratified German body politic, and that subsequently would fall victim to its own excesses.

Well aware of the present penchant for romanticizing the twilight of the Gothic, pre-Christian past, Heine glimpsed the possibility of the return of a savage power—later reincarnated in the Nazi regime.

During his lifetime and posthumously, Heine suffered the slings and arrows of antisemitism. The Nazis tried to erase him from German history, but the popularity of his song, the “Lorelei,” was too great; though in the end, it was attributed to an anonymous source.

Whenever the Jewish intellectual contribution to world culture is discussed, Heine’s own Judaism comes in for questioning. Whenever the thorny question of Jewish identity is raised, Heine’s name is bandied about interminably. A book published in Israel [in 2000] has enriched this lively give and take. Written by the journalist Yigal Lossin, Heine: The Double Life rings true in its multifaceted analysis of the complex poet. Lossin, whose passion for Heine inspired the composition of the work, availed himself of such Heine experts as Hugo Bieber, J. Sammons, and S.S. Prawer. The result, according to a review in Ha’aretz, was delightful in its amiable style and fluidity, one of the most overwhelming successes in the sphere of Israeli non-fiction.

Do What I Say, not What I Do

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) was born into a well-to-do business family. His mother, Piera van Geldern, envisioned a great future for her offspring, and sent young Heinrich to a Roman Catholic finishing school. Despite his mother’s assimilationist tendencies, the family’s own Jewish tradition was quite strong, exerting a strong influence on Heine’s life. His uncle, the rich Hamburg banker Salomon Heine (the family patriarch, as it were), supported Heine financially from the cradle to the grave. This gross dependency inevitably led to a love-hate relationship, and periodic explosions were the rule between the two. In Heine’s youth, his uncle set him up in a business framework that ended, as was to be expected, in total bankruptcy.

When Heine was a much older man, his uncle cynically observed that if Heine had been able to support himself, he would never have needed literature. Though Heine considered himself a steadfast opponent of society’s hypocrisy, he frequently submitted, albeit unwillingly, to norms that he inwardly rejected. Studying law as his parents desired, he managed to complete his degree. Of course, he never practiced litigation. Heine was a revolutionary who foresaw the dark side of the revolution, a German who feared the uglier aspects of the German character. Though an enemy of institutionalized religion, he made sure to be married in a Parisian Catholic church; while proclaiming the delights of hedonism and free love, the woman he married was a near-illiterate Paris merchant, and their life together was the height of “middle-class” existence.  He did all this while preaching the ideas of Jewish pride, and decrying the servile attitude of Jews who converted to Christianity for social advancement. Heine was the epitome of self-contradiction: converting was exactly what he did.

A vocal critic of organized Jewish community life, Heine was emphatic in his condemnation of the more reactionary aspects of Jewish faith. He clashed with the fanaticism of Orthodox sects, while simultaneously opposing the crass opportunism of the upwardly mobile assimilationists. Of all the elements in Heine’s life that shaped his Judaism most clearly, his membership in “The Jewish Society for Science and Culture,” in his youth, had the greatest impact upon him.

No less important, however, was his return to Judaism following his own apostasy, in his later years of illness and paralysis. It would be fitting indeed to remember Heine’s celebrated response to a friend who inquired about the poet’s desire to re-join the Jewish people: “There is no need to return, for in fact I have never left.”

Heine’s welter of internal contradictions aside, the opinions of cultural historians and literary critics regarding him are even more bewildering. Yigal Lossin brings us the judgment of Isaac Deutscher, who considers Heine one of the “Jewish non-Jews” like Trotsky, Rosa Luxembourg, Freud, Spinoza, and Marx. For Max Nordau, Heine was one of the great prophets and legislators of the Jewish people: Nordau, in his famed speech before the first Zionist Congress, saw Heine—together with Spinoza—as one of the great Jewish thinkers, no less than Rambam, Yehudah Halevy, Hillel, Philo of Alexandria, and Ibn Gabirol.

For Lossin, Heine is a forerunner of what would become, in the century following his death, the mainstream of the Jewish people: the Jew who identified with his people, culture and history, but not with the religion.

Lossin reminds us that Heine believed, 70 years prior to Ahad Ha’am, that Jews of Eastern Europe were freer than those of the emancipated West, and that 80 years before Chaim Nachman Bialik, Heine upheld the necessity of Jewish self-defense; and that before Tchernikovsky, Heine extolled the notion of wreaking vengeance upon the enemies of Israel. Even the Reformists came in for their share of the blame: Heine took an aversion to their readiness to abjure their own roots in exchange for citizen’s rights.

Inadvertent Proto-Zionist

Paradoxically, Lossin views Heine as a species of Proto-Zionist thinker, although the biographer is careful to mention that Heine himself never referred to the land of Israel as a solution to the problems of the Jewish people. Due to Heine’s harsh appraisal of Orthodox Judaism’s excessive spirituality, Lossin sees him as a model for subsequent thinkers like Berdichevsky, Tchernikovsky, and the Canaanite literati of the 1950s. 

In most vital chapters of the book, which Lossin trenchantly call “Third Class Jew,” the author precisely defines Heine’s Judaism: “What is the nature of this Judaism to which Heine never returned because, by his own declaration, he never abandoned it? In our own time we would see this as free, nationalistic and secular. It is the choice that has liberated so many Jews who live in this time of ‘God is dead,’ and who cannot identify with either with either the Orthodox or Reform interpretations of their religion. It is Judaism of another type, which does not obligate its followers to comply with its precepts or even to adhere to its faith; its basis is, quite simply: feeling.”

Lossin’s observations make sense. Heine, in his manner of being, preceded millions of contemporary Jews who refuse to confine their Judaism to rigid theological straitjackets. Belonging and cultural identity take precedence here over questions of metaphysics: a historical community, with great traditions, forged in the continuum of more than 4,000 years, is the patrimony of Jews like Heine.

Hence, the relevance of Lossin’s book is increased. For one thing, it provides an up-to-date vision of one of Western history’s most controversial figures, with relevance to both Jewish polemics and universal literary criticism. Secondly, it gives context to the growth of Jewish secularism, proving once and for all that secularism and assimilation are in no way compatible (as certain voices would insist). Instead, secularism is seen as a logical outgrowth of the philosophy of Emancipation, a positive form of Jewish identification from Heine’s period to our own day.

This essay is reprinted with permission from Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought (Center for Cultural Judaism, 2005-2006), and with permission from the author. For further reading please click here.