In 1825, Heinrich Heine—then a twenty-eight-year-old German Jew—obtained his baptismal certificate, convinced that what he would later call “the admission ticket to European civilization” was a prerequisite to any future ambitions. But even as a Protestant he never found his hoped-for success in law or government, instead becoming one of the greatest poets of his day. Perhaps in keeping with his famously guarded attitude toward so many things, he also maintained an ambivalence toward his Jewish origins. In an essay on the poet, Joseph Epstein writes:
Heine’s contradictory spirit shows up in heightened form in his regard for his own Jewishness, which has been the subject of endless scholarly essays and a splendid 1986 book, S.S. Prawer’s Heine’s Jewish Comedy. Heine’s conversion may have been without true religious conviction or significance, but for him it was, in retrospect, not a negligible act. The need for it, implying the inferior standing of the Jews in Prussia, angered him. Heine was German and Jewish both, but his true religion was that which promised human freedom. . . .
Yet if . . . Heine, never engaged Judaism, neither did he ever quite give up on his Jewishness. Throughout his life Heine struggled with religion. As a young man in Germany, he was a member of a group that called itself the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews (Verein für Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden), which sought to preserve the Jewish heritage while joining it to modern science and Enlightenment values. He was less a champion of Judaism than a strong advocate for Jewish civil rights. Above all he hated anti-Semitism, which he described as that hatred of the Jews “on the part of the lower and higher rabble.” The subject, if not the theme, of many of his middle and late period poems is the world’s ignorance of anti-Semitism.
Heine despised the pressures of assimilation that Jews underwent to find acceptance in Germany. For all their backwardness, he found more to admire in the shtetl Jews of Poland than in the sadly assimilated but self-divided Jews of Germany, wearing the fashions of the day and quoting second-class writers, neither fully German nor fully Jewish. What Heine admired about the Polish Jews, and admired about Judaism generally, was that, unlike Greeks and Romans who clung to their soil, and other peoples whose fealty was to their princes, the Jews “always clung to the Law, to the abstract idea, . . . [to] the law as the highest principle,” the Bible their “portable fatherland.”
Yet, whatever his sympathies for his people, he could not give himself over entirely to Judaism: “It would be distasteful and mean if, as people say of me, I had ever been ashamed of being a Jew, but it would be equally ridiculous if I ever claimed to be one.” In his Confessions, he wrote that for years he failed to show his fellow Jews sufficient respect, blinded as he was by his partiality to Hellenic aestheticism: “I see now that the Greeks were only beautiful youths, but the Jews were always men, powerful, uncompromising men, not just in the days of old but right up to the present, despite eighteen centuries of persecution and misery.”