Jewish Responses to Buddhism in German Culture (1890-1940)


Sebastian Musch

PhD defended at: 

Institute for Jewish Studies Heidelberg


This dissertation examines the responses of Jewish thinkers to the influx of Buddhism into German culture, from 1890 until 1940. Drawing upon myriad sources, including philosophical treatises, novels, essays, diaries and letters, the book studies how the interaction between Judaism and Buddhism shaped the identity of the German Jewry.
How is Buddhism related to Jewishness? How could one embrace Buddhism and still retain a sense of Jewish identity? Was Buddhism inimical to Judaism? Or was this not a conflict at all? Could one’s Jewishness lead to Buddhism, or vice versa? These questions are addressed in the writings of some of the best-known German-Jewish intellectuals. This book provides the first overview of their responses to Buddhism. In addition to dealing with a new research subject, this study is also theoretically innovative. It underlines the inherent hybridity of German Jews’ self-understanding and answers questions regarding the identity construction of German Jews in light of postcolonial theories proposed by Paul Gilroy, Aamir Mufti and Homi Bhabha.

Historical Background

In the 1890s, Buddhism gathered momentum in German thought and began to be considered a religion comparable to Christianity and Judaism. Famously, Arthur Schopenhauer declared himself a ‘Buddhaist’ in 1856, but only in the 1890s was the time ripe for a figure like Theodor Schultz, a senior Prussian state employee, to avow himself a Buddhist and publish books such as Der Buddhismus als Religion der Zukunft (Buddhism as the Religion of the Future) in 1894. Often, the idea that Buddhism was the religion of the future was connected with an anti-Semitic message: the Jews had pushed Europe towards an almost inevitable decline and only Buddhism could save it. This did not hinder the fervent embrace of Buddhism by the (bourgeois) public. Professor of Indology Leopold von Schroeder jubilantly stated in 1899 that ‘every newspaper wants an essay, every club wants to have a lecture about the Buddha’. In 1916, a bibliography (which was, by admission of the author, incomplete) of available German titles on Buddhism already listed more than 2,500 entries. Thus, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Buddhism was suddenly transformed from an obscure topic of interest that excited only a few misfits and lonesome scholars to a fashionable subject that left its mark on the writings of the foremost authors of the period. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is the most famous example, but Rainer Maria Rilke, Alfred Döblin, Thomas Mann, Berthold Brecht, Fritz Mauthner, Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig and many more integrated Buddhist ideas into their writings.
After the rise of homegrown German Buddhism from obscurity to a cultural phenomenon, it began to decline with the ascent of the Nazi regime. Subsequently, the bevy of those interested in Buddhism was dispersed. Only a few (including Lion Feuchtwanger, to whom a subchapter is dedicated) dared to connect a Buddhist message to political shifts. Others argued that National Socialism and Buddhism shared common ideas, exemplified by their joint usage of the swastika. The anti-Semitic undercurrent that had plagued German Buddhism from its inception was now plainly visible. Intellectually meager as this undercurrent was, the eventual disappearance of this national socialist variety of German Buddhism during the 1930s was hardly noticed outside of the circle of its most ardent followers. The Second World War marked the ultimate end of Germans’ fascination with Buddhism.
The three main chapters of this book follow the three stages of Buddhism in Germany, i.e., its rise, zenith, and fall, and situate Jewish responses in their respective contexts.

Chapter Synopsis

Chapter 1, "Introduction – Buddhism and German-Jewish Orientalism", provides an overview of the history of Germans’ reception of Buddhism from Romanticism until the beginning of the twentieth century. In this context, the author discusses literature on German Orientalism and the extent to which contemporary research on postcolonial theory can or cannot be useful in exploring German Jews’ reaction to Buddhism.

Chapter 2, "The Buddha, the Rabbis, and the Philosophers: Rejections and Defenses", departs from what the author has dubbed ‘Buddha-Jesus Literature’, the large corpus of works that discusses possible links between Buddha and Jesus, or Buddhism and Christianity. This discourse, which was immensely popular between 1890 and 1914, produced hundreds of articles and books and was noticed by Jewish rabbis and philosophers. Often, it was seen as a tool for delegitimizing Judaism; thus, the concurrent arrival of Buddhism in German mainstream culture was perceived as a threat. The author shows how rabbis, community leaders and philosophers warned against Buddhism or how a negative perception of Buddhism was imbued in their work. Famous thinkers like Theodor Lessing, Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Baeck and Martin Buber are featured alongside lesser-known figures.

The focus of Chapter 3, "The Bridgebuilders – Jewishness between Asia and Europe", shifts to novelists and journalists, including some of the magnificoes of German–Jewish literature, and their appraisal of Buddhism. The author discusses Lion Feuchtwanger, Paul Cohen-Portheim, Jakob Wassermann and Walter Hasenclever and their ideas on Buddhism and Jewishness. These writers exhibited an exoticist fascination with Buddhism, India and China, or the East more generally. Some wrote explicitly Buddhist works, while others implicitly incorporated elements of Buddhist thought into their oeuvre, which often went undetected by their audience and/or critics. Even though they frequently distanced themselves from their Jewish upbringings, they nevertheless retained some level of Jewish identity. Buddhism was appealing because it was perceived as a philosophy and not as a religion. The author examines this intersection between Buddhism and Jewishness and how concepts of Jewishness aligned with the perception of Buddhism.

Chapter 4, "The Assimilation and Dissimilation of a Jewish Buddhist – Walter Tausk’s Contested Identities", presents a microbiography of Walter Tausk, who adopted Buddhism as a religion after his experience as a soldier in the First World War. Using his published writings and unpublished diaries, the author follows the evolution of his stance towards Buddhism and Judaism, as well as towards his own Jewishness. By examining more personal elements than in the earlier chapters, the author highlights questions that the previous chapters, which focus more on the public perception of Buddhism, did not openly address. The author analyzes Tausk’s struggle to find a place between Buddhism and his Jewishness in the 1920s and his persecution as a Jew during the 1930s.

Chapter 5, "Conclusion – Towards the Study of Jewish-Buddhist Relations", addresses several issues in the literature on the interaction of Buddhism and Judaism, both in a German context and beyond. Specifically, the author explores the limitations and challenges faced when applying lessons from the German-Jewish response to Buddhism beyond that narrow historical and geographical framework. The chapter ends with a call for the establishment of Jewish-Buddhist studies, to which this work will provide the first contribution.

So far, no study has addressed the reaction of the German Jewry to Buddhism in this period or beyond. Due to its interdisciplinary nature, the dissertation has ramifications for diverse fields, including Jewish studies, German studies, Buddhist studies, Asian studies, religious studies and postcolonial theory. Cutting across literary studies, cultural studies and intellectual history, it offers valuable insights for all three disciplines.
Further, the dissertation increases awareness of the new field of Jewish-Buddhist studies. It is the author’s goal to provide an access point for further inquiries and to help the nascent field of Jewish-Buddhist studies.