Commentary Magazine

An Autobiography, by Solomon Maimon; and The Rabbi of Bacherach: A Fragment, by Heinrich Heine

The Threshold of Emancipation

An Autobiography.
By Solomon Maimon.
Edited, with an epilogue, by Moses Hadas. New York, Schocken Books, 1947. (Schocken Library, No. 5.) 116 pp. $1.50.

The Rabbi of Bacherach: A Fragment.
By Heinrich Heine.
Translated by E. B. Ashton. With selections from Heine’s letters and an epilogue by Erich Loewenthal. New York, Schocken Books, 1947. (Schocken Library, No. 4.) 93 pp. $1.50.


Solomon Maimon writes in his autobiography: “Had I been urged in that direction I would have become a great, though not an accurate painter, i.e., have been able to sketch the out-lines of a picture easily, without having the patience to work out its minute details.”

His career foundered, not on the difficulties the German Jews of the late 18th century met on their road to emancipation, but on obstacles inside himself. His contemporaries met him halfway on several occasions. Immanuel Kant accepted his book on transcendental philosophy as the work of a disciple. His the work of Moses Mendelssohn there was forming a group of enlightened Jews who would have been well equipped to recognize and assist Maimon, however little he fitted the Mendelssohnian idea of a sage.



Maimon was undone by accident, by the “malice of the insensate,” by misunderstanding, by the vicissitudes of life, and by drink. But what really killed him was not circumstance, but inner discord.

When he came to Germany from Lithuania (from the chaos of a Polish Jewry that had just gone through the hell of Chmielnicki’s pogroms and the Heidemak persecutions, and whose soul Hasidism—which left Maimon untouched—had begun to transform) he was already the head of a family. He left his family behind, feeling that he was not responsible to the actualities of life. He acknowledged only one authority: truth, for whose sake he was willing to run amuck.

Maimon’s fanaticism, however, admitted of curb and reflection. He not only pursued truth doggedly, but he looked on at the chase—hunts-man and quarry, spectator and critic, all in one. He was not only a thinker, but the mime of a thinker. He was not only honest to an almost intolerable degree, but at the same time a cynical mocker of all truth. He was not only meticulously modest, but also so vain that his modesty was like the grimace with which a man disfigured by nature consoles himself for the ugliness of his image in the mirror.



The documents of Maimon’s case can be found in his own history of his life. Some important fragments appeared in 1792 under the title “Fragments of Ben Josua’s Autobiography,” in a magazine of experimental psychology edited by Karl Philipp Moritz. Moritz wrote the following introduction: “This autobiography . . . will be of interest to all who want to understand how the intellectual faculty develops under the most difficult circumstances, and how the thirst for knowledge will overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles.”

What raises Solomon Maimon’s autobiography far above the didactic praise of Professor Moritz is its wholly disinterested contemplation of the author’s own life as a matter worthy of study. Maimon’s memoirs are much closer to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground than to Goethe’s Werther. Actually Maimon’s prose is without echoes or models. It is determined neither by history nor by the precepts of religion. It acknowledges no other ethics than that which had led Maimon to philosophy as the great light of life. It knows no shame, and nothing of the veil spread over it by the spirit: artistic form.

The description he gives of his life is neither confession nor self-justification, but a bald, factual report. Severed from his tradition and never accepted, at best tolerated, by the culture for which he hankered, he was free from all conventions. In this roving rabbi, this beggar from conviction and pride, there burned an unquenchable thirst for truth that placed his amoral life under the law of a higher morality. Since it was he himself who accused himself, those depths of existence were opened to him that lead to contemplation. Since it was he himself who defended himself, he managed to see through all the evasions he took refuge in. And since, finally, it was he himself who pronounced judgment, he was able to cancel the truth, to which he was pledged and to which he had sacrificed his life, by a derisive laugh at mankind. His book is an essential contribution to the comedy of man face to face with himself.

To make the emancipation of the German Jews possible, Mendelssohn had undertaken to represent Judaism in his own respectable image. In this way, he had made himself persona grata with his hosts. Solomon Maimon, on the other hand, was an eternal enfant perdu, and his book attests to the eventual bankruptcy of all those efforts which had brought about a rapprochement between Mendelssohn and his time, between Germanism and Judaism in the 18th century.



A generation later the Jews stepped over the threshold of emancipation. Heine’s fragment of a novel, The Rabbi of Bacherach (projected in 1832, if not earlier), is no masterpiece, not even a truncated one. It was planned as a genre picture with dramatic highlights, to depict Jewish life in the late Middle Ages along the Rhine and in Spain: persecution and faith, tradition and conversion, venerable custom, ferment—all in casual juxtaposition, partly an evocation of mood, partly a prose ballad.

But here, too, as in Maimon’s memoirs, the dispute between the author and his milieu emerges as the central theme behind the impressionist hodge-podge. Only, instead of the quest for truth, we find the quest for expediency, instead of the laugh of derision a casual irony. The narrative of the Rabbi is as subjective as Maimon’s account of his own life. But the reporting, creating ego has lost weight, has become threadbare and wholly questionable. The seclusion of the ghetto from which Maimon came had preserved in him the seriousness and intensity of the Middle Ages. With Heine we are entirely in the modern era. The human personality is about to dissolve, to disguise itself and hide behind wings and décor; in Maimon it is still undissembled.

But the claim made by the milieu on the individual had also weakened. The walls of the ghetto had fallen, not only because the spirit of the new era had broken through them, but because the old order, which they represented, had begun to crack of its own accord. Belief in human responsibility had lost its intensity. The era of emancipation was over, the era of assimilation was beginning.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.