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A Rich 1925 Novel about the Recurring Dilemmas of Jewish Existence

Reubeni, Prince of the Jews, by Kafka’s close friend Max Brod, reminds us of the perils of elevating utopianism over the responsibilities of politics.

Max Brod in 1959. ullstein bild via Getty Images

Max Brod in 1959. ullstein bild via Getty Images

Observation
Sept. 19 2016
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 


The longstanding American Jewish consensus on Israel lies under threat as polarizing splits divide supporters from opponents of various hues, some of whom justify their disaffection with appeals to the moral demands of Judaism. Within Israel itself, nationalists line up against universalists on questions of policy, politics, and Jewish destiny.

Where to find insight? Improbably enough, one source may lie in a 90-year-old German novel centered on the life of a 16th-century false messiah. First published in 1925, and in English translation three years later, Max Brod’s Reubeni, Prince of the Jews was a popular and much-praised historical novel in its day. As a meditation on the recurring dilemmas of Jewish politics and Jewish existence, then and now, it richly repays reading.

 

To the extent that his name is still familiar, Max Brod (1884-1968) is usually regarded as a lightweight companion to Franz Kafka, a close Prague friend who, before his death in 1924, left his unpublished manuscripts to Brod with instructions that they be destroyed. Declining to fulfill his friend’s mandate, Brod instead saw to the publication of the now-classic major works. A surviving remnant of his Kafka papers has only recently been turned over for custody to Israel’s national library.

In his own lifetime, far from being thought of as a lightweight, Brod was a prolific and internationally renowned writer, composer, and intellectual, being perhaps best known for his historical novels. In contrast to the solitude-seeking Kafka, Brod was also active both in Czech politics and in Jewish communal affairs. (As he confessed in a letter to his friend, “I have sensed God only as I have been involved in the world.”) Early on, and again unlike Kafka, he became a committed Zionist. Ultimately fleeing Europe for Palestine, he continued until his death to write, to compose music, and to contribute to the work of Israel’s Habimah theater company.

Kafka’s darkly gnostic temperament and unsettling modernist parables will never lose their power or their enduring relevance to any appreciation of the modern Jewish condition. Yet Brod’s work, and perhaps especially Reubeni—“through the cloud of the past resting on the present,” Stefan Zweig enthused about it, Brod had “darted a shaft of creative lightning”—has its own contribution to make to our understanding of that condition.

 

Published the year after Kafka’s death, Reubeni, Prince of the Jews re-imagines the life of a mysterious 16th-century messianic figure who called himself David Ha-Reuveni. From historical sources, including his own curious journal, we know that in 1523 Reuveni set sail from Alexandria and disembarked at Venice: a short, dark, Arabic-speaking wayfarer claiming to be the royal representative of a Jewish warrior principality in Arabia whose inhabitants descended from the biblical tribes of Reuben and Gad.

With all the pomp of a visiting head of state, Reuveni made his way, under the flag of his kingdom, to the papal court in Rome where he was received by Pope Clement VII. Over the course of the next months, he discussed with Clement his desire to obtain European armaments in order to make war against the Ottoman caliphate and liberate the Holy Land. The pope sent him on to the king of Portugal with a letter of support. But his arrival in Lisbon backfired, sparking a messianic uproar among the resident Iberian Jews who, having been forcibly converted to Christianity, now saw in Reuveni’s mission a promise of their own imminent redemption. Suspicion on the part of church and lay officials soon turned to outright hostility.

Expelled from Portugal, Reuveni, after further peregrinations and a prison term in France, became reunited with his Portuguese acolyte Diogo Pires, a young nobleman and son of conversos. Inspired by the royal Jewish visitor, Pires had renounced Christianity, circumcised himself, fled the country, and was now roaming Europe preaching salvation to Jews and Christians under his new name of Solomon Molcho.

In 1532 the two men sought an audience with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This was a provocation too many. They were arrested, and Molcho was burned at the stake. (Some of his followers would claim that he subsequently returned from the dead.) Reuveni, accused of fomenting heresy and sedition among the conversos, was thought to have disappeared or escaped, but Church records show that he, too, was subjected to the fires of the auto-da-fé in Spain a few years later.

 

Historians have long speculated about Reuveni’s true identity and origins, as well as the precise nature of his mission and the deceptions he employed in its course. It has been variously claimed that he hailed from Italy, Egypt, Iberia, or Ethiopia; that he saw his mission less in religious than in political-military terms, a kind of forerunner of modern secular Zionism; or, contrarily, that his messianic quest arose from religious fervor and was steeped in kabbalist symbolism.

Brod, for his part, imagines him as a Jew from Prague, facing the crises of 16th-century Jewish existence in ways clearly meant to parallel the challenges faced by Brod himself and his generation four centuries later. The opening scene sounds the novel’s keynote theme of the tension between political and moral demands. We encounter the future Reubeni as David Lemel, a ten-year-old Jewish boy living in Prague’s ghetto and forced to wear a yellow badge, his fellow Jews scrabbling for their livelihood under the constant threat of expulsion and violence.

Studying the Mishnah, David is fascinated by a commentary asserting that a Jew must serve God “with the good as with the evil instinct.” What can this mean, he wonders. Is there any positive value in sin? Can the evil instinct be turned to holy purpose? Troubled by such questions, he comes into the orbit of the ghetto’s freethinker, who is naively convinced that a European education is all that is needed to transform the Jewish condition. But David comes to question the value of cultural change without political power. Hearing reports of the great European kingdoms, he muses: “Perhaps those nations are so powerful and beloved of God . . . because they serve God—with their evil instincts also.”

The next stage in David’s political education is presided over by Monica, the daughter of a Christian blacksmith. Monica initiates David into sex, passion, and violence, into the world of the instincts and the pleasures of transgression. His erotic awakening provokes a critical reassessment of his fellow Jews. “We are not lacking in courage and self-sacrifice,” he thinks, watching Monica at work in her garden.

But—could we plunge into the damp soil like that? We are afraid of the fruitful earth, suspicious of everything that is tenacious and slow-moving and dark with the forces of production, the forces in which one has to believe without understanding them.

For Brod’s David, Jews are overly cerebral, analytical, verbose, suspicious of nature, eros, and death. Yet he is simultaneously appreciative of the Jewish capacity for discipline and strength—for a successful politics. Brod masterfully describes a Jewish community meeting in the shadow of the imminent expulsion of the Jews from Prague:

As the meeting went on it became evident that there were no actual parties. . . . [Rather] did each individual put forward his own as the only right solution, compared with which all the other schemes seemed to him negligible, misleading, even harmful, and calling for rigorous opposition. . . . Thus each one had his imaginary little throne from which to set the world to rights. Anything the others might say was treated with utter contempt. . . . All wanted to speak, none to listen.

Yet damning (and familiar) as is this portrayal of small-minded squabbling in the face of political urgency, the scene doesn’t end there. As the time comes for Minḥah, the afternoon prayer, suddenly David sees prudence, unity, purpose—the materials of statesmanship—and realizes he had misjudged his people: “the nation of ‘know-betters’ had become a nation worthy of the name. The Minḥah prayer had unified it.”

As Part One ends, it is Monica who ultimately saves the Jews of Prague—by sleeping with the local duke who had issued the degree of expulsion. It would appear that God can indeed be served with the evil impulse. Yet how much sin is too much? David himself, betrayed by Monica, exiled from his community, still desperate to find a solution to his own and his people’s perplexity, leaves Prague for “a coast from which ships sailed to the Holy Land and Arabia.”

 

In the second half of the novel, David, now returned to Europe from his Middle Eastern sojourn, arrives in Venice intent on applying his hard-won wisdom to the task of redeeming the Jews through a tough and disciplined politics while simultaneously inculcating in them a sturdy sense of national self-respect. As an impressed Pope Clement acknowledges upon realizing that Reubeni has come to ask not for charity but for weapons:

You have more ambition than one normally credits the Jews with. They generally cry for mercy or for justice. . . . You will have none of all that. And I quite understand. You want political and military influence. You want actuality, the actuality which has always ruled states.

It is only fitting, then, that, among the panoply of luminaries who cross David’s path, from Michelangelo to Martin Luther, he should also encounter Niccolò Machiavelli, the author of the modern political philosophy that David first intuited as a boy in the Prague ghetto. Although Brod’s fictional Machiavelli displays little of the real philosopher’s subtlety, he plays an important role as one of two significant foils to the Jewish prince and his mission.

Machiavelli views Reubeni as a fellow initiate into his system for dealing with the world-as-it-is rather than as it ought to be. He even sees through Reubeni’s imposture, which he praises as a necessary “invention to enable you to found a principality.” But Reubeni does not consider himself a disciple of Machiavelli, whose philosophy, for all its attractions, grates against his still very Jewish conscience. “The cold-bloodedness with which you say all this,” he says in response to Machiavelli’s embrace of necessity as a sufficient cause for action, “condemns your point of view.”

I can imagine a case when a man racked with pain and almost beside himself with despair might dare to do evil against his better judgment, with clenched teeth as it were, because there was no other way and because he was placed in such a position that he might serve God with both instincts, the good and the evil.

Nevertheless, he insists to the disappointed Machiavelli, such action “should only be a last expedient.”

The second foil is Molcho. As against the Machiavellian temptation to exalt political power as an end in itself, Reubeni’s disciple represents the no less fatal temptation to idealize a questionable moral purity. Captivated by the possibility of personal redemption, Molcho jettisons the strictly political ends of Reubeni’s project and so brings about its ruin. “I want nothing but to be burned upon the holy altar,” he eagerly proclaims at their first meeting, “a full and perfect sacrifice to the Eternal our God.” Molcho ultimately gets his wish, while Reubeni, who has been seduced by Molcho’s beauty as well as his fiery idealism, is imprisoned and condemned by the Inquisition in terms that recall Kafka’s The Trial ( published the same year as Reubeni): “The accused were told neither the nature of their indictment nor the names of their denouncers.”

 

Readers familiar with the cultural world of early-20th-century Central Europe, and in particular the Jewish intellectual circles that were home territory to Brod, will no doubt have picked up on certain contemporary resonances at work in this novel.

The notion of good achieved through evil, for example, may remind some readers of “Redemption through Sin,” a landmark 1936 essay about the apocalyptic and antinomian temptation by Gershom Scholem, the great historian of the kabbalah and a regular (if ambivalent) reader of Brod’s work. Similarly, the freethinker who tries to convince young David to place his faith in education and assimilation, a familiar type in real life, can also be encountered in memoirs like Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (1942) and fictional treatments like Arthur Schnitzler’s The Road into the Open (1908). Within years, that faith, which sustained so many European Jews, would founder catastrophically on the shoals of virulent modern anti-Semitism.

As for the critique of Judaism’s overemphasis on the cerebral and the analytical, and the implicit call for Jacob to learn the ways of Esau, they, too, were in the cultural air of the time, twinned in celebrations of the irrational, drawn from late romanticism and Nietzsche, and in self-critical programs for Jewish national renaissance. The same goes for Brod’s meditation, in his vignette of the Jewish community meeting, on the desperate hopes and dire risks of Jewish activism, particularly with regard to Zionism.

Finally, the homoerotic and destructive nature of David’s relationship with Molcho recalls Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), although Brod’s portrayal of Molcho likely owes more to his impressions of two Prague Jews: the writer Franz Werfel, whom Brod had championed until Werfel’s turn to political quietism and Christianity, and the less well-known but fascinating Georg (Jiri) Mordechai Langer, who left his middle-class family to join the ḥasidic court in Belz, tutored Kafka in Hebrew and Brod in Talmud and Jewish mysticism, and published openly homosexual Hebrew poetry as well as a highly idiosyncratic theory of Judaism titled Die Erotik der Kabbala.

But, in light of current communal turmoil over Israel and Jewish self-definition, the greatest significance of Brod’s novel for us today may lie elsewhere than in its literary-historical insights into debates agitating the Central European Jewish intelligentsia of the 1920s. To my mind, it lies instead in Brod’s cautionary portrayal of Molcho: a Jew for whom the raptures of private and public purity are all. If Brod’s “prince of the Jews” would qualify Machiavelli by making room within the Italian master’s realist politics for the burdens of individual conscience, Molcho fatally confuses the political enterprise itself with an idolatrous cult of the individual and his emotions.

Sadly, this brand of what we might call solipsistic messianism—the destructive fervor of the Jew who ostentatiously elevates a dreamy, self-regarding utopianism over the responsibilities of communal and national politics—is still very much with us.

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