Wissenschaft des Judenthums

The new academic study of Judaism examined Jewish religion from the scholarly perspectives of theology, literature, and history.

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The following article considers the motivations and machinations of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums (Science of Judaism) movement. Wissenschaft was founded by a group of enlightened Jewish scholars who reasoned that the continuance of anti-semitism after emancipation resulted from European society’s ignorance of Judaism’s history and its contribution to European culture. Thus, Wissenschaft scholarship was often as much about emancipating Jews as it was emancipating Jewish history. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

“Jewish Science” [is] the German name for the historical-critical school which arose in the first half of the nineteenth century, and whose main practitioners were Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger and Zachariah Frankel in Germany; Samuel David Luzzatto in Italy; Nahman Krohmal and Solomon Judah Rappaport in Galicia. Wissenschaft des Judenthums was not a consciously organized movement. Rather, a number of traditionally educated Jews who became familiar with the languages of Western European culture resolved independently, though in close communication with one another, to investigate by these new methods the classical sources of Judaism.

The aim of Wissenschaft des Judenthums was to demonstrate how the Jewish religion, literature and philosophy had developed in response to the different civilizations with which Jews had come into contact through the ages. [An early] aim of the movement was to establish correct texts by comparing current texts with those found in libraries open to Jews for the first time. [Going beyond] the piecemeal treatment typical of [this] older approach, texts were [later] studied as a whole and set in their proper period [as part of a critical/historical ("scientific") method of study].The Greek and Latin classics were studied for comparative purposes in order to shed light on the talmudic sources; Arabic and Islamic thought [for] a better understanding of the medieval Jewish works; the ancient Semitic tongues for a keener appreciation of the Bible and its background; and, above all, world history for the purpose of showing how Jewish history formed part of general historical trends.

Indeed, the whole movement can be said to be have called attention to the fact that Judaism, like all human institutions, has had a history and did not simply drop down from heaven to be transmitted without change from generation to generation. New questions were asked. What does the text really mean? Why does it say what it says and why just at that particular time? Does the text represent normative Jewish thinking or is it peripheral or contradicted by other texts and if so, what has caused the difference?

The movement undoubtedly had in part an apologetic aim, at first, in which the Wissenschaft scholars sought to show that Judaism, too, is normal and “respectable” in having a history, a literature, and a philosophy like other cultures, and that the great men of the Jewish past were not mere cyphers or irrational isolationists but creatures of flesh and blood responsive to the world around them. Yet the followers of the movement did try to study their sources as objectively as possible, paving the way for the use of the new methodology in higher institutions of Jewish learning and in learned journals in which articles of impeccable scholarship appeared.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.