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Oskar Goldberg. Der mythische Experimentalwissenschaftler. Ein verdrangtes Kapitel judischer Geschichte.

Manfred Voigts, Ein vergrangtes Kapitel judischer Geschichte. Berlin: Agora, 1992. 375 pp.

Those few individuals familiar with the name Oskar Goldberg are likely to belong to one of two (sometimes intersecting) groups. One group is constituted by readers of Gershom Scholem, the eminent twentieth century expert on Jewish mysticism. The other group is made up of Thomas Mann scholars who recognize Goldberg as the contemporary historical figure upon whom Mann drew in creating Dr. Chaim Breisacher in his novel Dr. Faustus. Both Scholem and Mann portray Goldberg in highly unflattering terms. Scholem saw this prolific scholar, advocates of missionary Judaism, and radical anti-Zionist as a brilliant but insane pseudo-scientist. Mann, who was greatly indebted to Goldberg for the theological perspectives he introduced in his Joseph novels, portrays Goldberg (in the guise of Breisacher) as a repulsive, eccentric Bible scholar, whose interpretation of the Pentateuch makes him appear to be a Jewish fascist. Manfred Voigts' study--the first book-length monograph devoted to Goldberg--provides a corrective to these one-sided views. It also offers a welcome overview of Goldberg's life and works (as well as those of his small coterie of disciples). He shows Goldberg to be a profound and original thinker without covering up the dark side caricatured by Mann, namely, his megalomania and complete intolerance of divergent viewpoints within the community of Jewish scholars.

Goldberg's egotism could be extreme; Voigts indicates that this "mythic experimental scientist came perilously close to blaming the Jews for the Holocaust when he suggested Jewish assimilationist tendencies and embrace of "Enlightenment" thought (Goldberg traces this latter tendency all the way back to Maimonedes) were the principal causes of international anti-Semitism. But Voigts shows that Goldberg was strongly anti-nationalist, respectful of and quite knowledgeable about myth and mysticism in what we would term today "third-world cultures," and a fundamental opponent of National Socialism and its geopolitical tendencies. Goldberg himself saw geopolitics in its positive form as transnational in its scope, as "den `transzendental-politischen Akt' des Wunders" (263).

Goldberg was born (1885) and educated in Berlin, and was influenced in his early Talmudic explorations by the Expressionist movement which constituted such an important part of this city's cultural life in the first years of the twentieth century. His first major work, Die funf Bucher Mosis ein Zahlengebaude (1908), attempts a new, numerically-based interpretation of the Pentateuch, reflecting already Goldberg's lifelong attempt to ground his mystical theological speculations in a scientific objectivity. He attempts to prove that the mathematical properties of the Hebrew language point to the Pentateuch's divine inspiration, even (indeed especially) those passages which seem to be arithmetically incongruous and therefore held to be proof that the Pentateuch was a purely human creation. His most original and influential work (Thomas Mann apparently read it three times), Die Wirklichkeit der Hebraer (1925), attempts to refute the assumption that Judaism simply turned away from polytheism and introduced monotheism to the world. Goldberg rejects the notion that Urhebraic idolatry was replaced by Abraham's introduction of a single God who formed a covenant with the Jewish people. Instead, he believes the entire Pentateuch is informed by a dialectical opposition between "das System der Vielheit der Elohim," and "Elohim IHWH," neither all-powerful nor omnipresent, who would overcome the cycle of life and death introduced by the system. In order to do so, this pre-worldly God needs human assistance in the form of cultic ritual. "Elohim IHWH" must therefore become the national God of one people. Only thus can this God reattain His universal pre-worldly status and eliminate biological circularity, indeed, biology itself. In most of his subsequent works Goldberg devoted himself to admonishing the Jews for abandoning cultic ritual and pursuing mundane activities. He argues for a return to Biblical practices and a rejection of the "Enlightened"Judaism characteristic of Maimonedes and most subsequent Orthodox Jewish theologians. He particularly abhorred modern Judaism's disinclination towards proselytizing, and sought to inspire a "Missionerendes Hebraertum." After he fled to America from France in 1941, Goldberg led a many-faceted life, writing on supernatural occurrences, becoming involved with various medical societies, and trying to promote his religious views. He returned to Europe after the war and died in Nice in 1952.

Voigts' book is lucid and convincing. He is to be commended for his painstaking archival research, his judicious sifting of largely unexamined "NachlaB" materials to discover documents relevant to such a groundbreaking and comprehensive introduction. The only weakness of the book is the occasional abruptness of its transitions. Though Voigts defends the temporal confusion of his study on the ground that there are large gaps in Goldberg's biographic records (11), it still comes as a complete shock when we find the devout, Orthodox and not yet terribly unconventional young man, suddenly and without explanation, in the mountains of Tibet, engaging in meditation, reciting a mantra, and experiencing supersensory, paranormal events! But on balance, this study is well-organized and easy to follow.

One of Goldberg's most devoted and scholarly disciples was Erich Unger, and Unger's engagement with Goldberg's work constitutes a significant element of this monograph. It is thus not surprising that Voigts has also devoted himself to the task of editing a collection of Unger's short works, written between 1909 and 1931. The title of this collection (which includes some previously unpublished material), Vom Expressionismus zum Mythos des Hebraertums, reflects both the impact of Expressionism on Unger and Goldberg and their attempt to articulate the mythic component of early Judaism. Most of the earliest writings appearing in this collection were first published in Der Sturm, one of Germany's foremost Expressionist journals, and they include both critical essays and dramatic sketches. Unger's affinity to Expressionist thought is reflected in his interpretation of Nietzschean pathos as the violent overcoming of the forms of pure cognition and the self-negating tendencies of the human will. Nietzsche's life-philosophy is interpreted as an externalization of unconscious will-generated thoughts. His work thus stands out as the antipode to Kantian systematic philosophy, opposed by Unger (and other Expressionists) for its abstract rigor and its tendency to insistently question its own observations. Nietzsche's thought represents for Unger the sublation of the strict distinction between conscious and subconscious cognition. The Expressionist inclination to conflate these two realms (and thus to obliterate both linear temporality and conventional perceptions of spatiality) is evident in such brief fictional efforts, included by Voigts in this collection, as "Vorwort zu einem Roman" (1912). But Unger's emphasis on concrete reality in its phenomenal resistance to abstract systematic thought remained consistent. He expresses the belief that all political ideology is contradicted by the resistance of the material and economic motives which drive society and which constitute "der eigentliche und letzte Grund der chaotischen Gemeinschaft" (71).

There is even a theological, metaphysical basis for the universal chaos which abides in that foundational locus where "philosophers of the spirit" would impose their systems, namely, the "Nullpunkt" at the core of all antithetical extremes. This "Schopferische Indifferenz" (both Unger's positive review of the thusly-titled book by Salomo Friedlander and his later defense of this work in opposition to Friedlander's own subsequent Kantian tendencies are reprinted here) can only be counteracted by the "playful" mediation of a conciliating subject, and the evocation of completeness through the "totality of the possible." Like Goldberg, Unger believed spirit could only oppose phenomenal chaos by juxtaposing "the possible" in its plenitude to fragmentary reality. In the longest essay of the book, "Der Universalismus des Hebraertums" (1929/30), Unger defends Goldberg's Die Wirklichkeit der Hebraer against Scholem's veiled criticism of this work as a modern manifestation of Sabbatinic messianism by contrasting Goldberg's comprehensiveness and elucidation of structural totality with the of Cabbalistic thought as expressed in the theology of Sabbatinism. While Cabbalism never transcends such a disconnected theological approach, Unger believes Goldberg shows how ancient Hebrew ritual is a symptom of ancient Hebrew universalism, the concrete method by which to achieve "die Ausdehnung moglicher Steigerung auf das Ganze der biologischen Wirklichkeit" (136, Unger's italics). Unger accuses Scholem of hiding behind the mask of unprejudiced objectivity while eliding his own systematic position and the real priorities of his essay "Die Theologie des Sabbatianismus im Lichte Abraham Cardosos," to which Unger's essay is an oppositional reply. Goldberg's drive towards the evocation of religious totality is made to stand in contrast to Scholem's alleged duplicity and lack of historical sensibility. The telos of forging a living totality from the antitheses between the universal and the particular, between unity and multiplicity (this latter sublation is seen to be the achievement of myth) is also evident in such pieces as "Mythos und Wirklichkeit" (1928) and "Der Krieg" (1915/ 16).

This collection of nineteen essays is preceded by a useful foreword, in which Voigts provides a brief summary of the evolution of Unger's thoughts and describes his productive, although largely conflictual, relationship with Scholem und Walter Benjamin. Goldberg's and Unger's important but neglected role in inspiring the trajectory of their often oppositional thought, as well as that of other well-known early twentieth century German/Jewish writers such as Rosenzweig and Buber, is also a significant topic in Voigts' Goldberg monograph. Given this influence, and given the originality and fresh insights of Goldberg and Unger in their own right, Voigts deserves praise, as both editor and intellectual biographer, for helping to overcome their undeserved neglect.
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Author:Pizer, John
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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