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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(1749 – 1832)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer. As a boy, Goethe acquired a thorough knowledge of Luther’s translation of the Bible, which left its mark on his conversation, letters, and literary work. Among his youthful projects were a “biblical, prose-epic poem” Joseph and several dramatic pieces on biblical subjects (Isabel, Ruth, Selima, Der Thronfolger Pharaos), none of which has been passed on to us; only fragments of the tragedy Belsazar, written in alexandrine verse, have survived.

Goethe also mentions, among “youthful sins” which he condemned to the fire, a work inspired by the history of Samson. His notebooks show him wrestling with the Hebrew alphabet and with the Judeo-German dialect (Judendeutsch) which he heard on visits to the Judengasse of his native Frankfurt. He records how, on one such occasion, when part of the ghetto burned down, he helped to quench the flames while other youngsters jeered at the hapless Jews.

Goethe even planned a novel in which seven brothers and sisters were to correspond in seven languages, including Judendeutsch; a surviving Judenpredigt written in that dialect has been dated to 1768. In 1771, he reviewed Isachar Falkensohn Behr’s Gedichte eines polnischen Juden. He thought very highly of the poetic quality of the Hebrew bible; his own translation of the Song of Songs (1775) proves his knowledge of the original text.

Goethe’s Faust has almost 200 passages containing biblical parallels, beginning with the “Prologue in Heaven,” for which the first chapters of Job served as a model, and ending with the final scene of Faust’s death, which was inspired by the biblical and talmudic accounts of the death of Moses. In the explanatory prose parts of his late collection of poems West-östlicher Divan he integrated an extensive study on Israel in der Wüste, which deals with the role of Moses and the Israelite people.

After he moved to Weimar in 1775, Goethe’s social life brought him into contact with many Jewish and converted Jewish intellectuals and artists, including Heinrich Heine, who did not impress him, and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, whom he loved. Goethe allowed the artist Moritz Oppenheim to paint his portrait and to illustrate his poetic idyll Hermannund Dorothea (1798).

He opposed legislation aimed at liberalizing the position of Jews in German society. In general, however, contemporary Judaism did not play a major role in his work. Goethe’s many Jewish biographers include Albert Bielschowsky, Ludwig Geiger, Richard Moritz Meyer, Eduard Engel, Georg Simmel, Emil Ludwig, Friedrich Gundolf, Georg Brandes, Richard Friedenthal and Hans Mayer.


L. Deutschlaender, Goethe und das Alte Testament (1923), incl. bibl.; H. Teweles, Goethe und die Juden (1925); G. Janzer, Goethe und die Bibel (1929), incl. bibl.; M. Waldman, Goethe and the Jews (1934); R. Eberhard, Goethe und das Alte Testament (1935), incl. bibl.; A. Spire, in: E.J. Finbert (ed.), Aspects du génie d’Israël (1950), 183–99. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: W. Barner, “150 Jahre nach seinem Tod: Goethe und die Juden,” in: BBI, 63 (1982), 75–82; A. Muschg, “Mehr Licht für ein Aergernis. Goethe und die Juden,” in: FAZ, Nr. 223 (Sept. 26, 1987); N. Oellers, “Goethe und Schiller in ihrem Verhaeltnis zum Judentum,” in: H.O. Horch und H. Denkler (eds), Conditio Judaica. Judentum, Antisemitismus und deutschrsprachige Literatur vom 18. Jh. bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg. Part 1 (1988), 108–30; W. Barner, Von Rahel Varnhagen bis Friedrich Gundolf. Juden als deutsche Goethe-Verehrer (1992); F.R. Lachman, “Was das Judentum dazu sagt: Goethe u. das Judentum,” in: Aufbau, America’s only German-Jewish publication, 58:7 (1992), 17, 20; G. Hartung, “Goethe und die Juden,” in: Weimarer Beiträge, 40 (1994), 398–416; K. Feilchenfeldt, “Goethe im Kreis seiner Berliner Verehrergemeinde 1793–1832,” in: C. Perels (ed.), “Ein Dichter hatte uns alle geweckt”: Goethe und die literarische Romantik (1999), 201–14. J. Stenzel and O. Hoeher, “Die Verschrobenheit eines veralteten Unsinns. Goethes‚ Judenpredigt,” in: JBDFDH (2000), 1–26; A. Weber (ed.), “Außerdem waren sie ja auch Menschen.” Goethes Begegnung mit Juden und dem Judentum (2000).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Public Domain.