The Critical Study of Jewish History

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The academic study of Judaism, including the modern, critical study of Jewish history, began in 19th century Germany. Early 19th-century German society afforded history a new and prominent role. The spirit of the age, romantic nationalism, argued that the forces of history and tradition were dominating factors in human behavior. Historian Howard Sachar explains, “To understand any belief or ideal, any custom or institution, one had merely to examine its gradual growth from primitive beginnings to its present form. The validity of any institution or idea was no longer to be measured by its reasonableness or utility, but rather by its origin and history.” In this manner, the 19th century became the age of historical investigation.

Modern historical investigation introduced the methodology of science to history. In an effort to discover “what really happened”--to separate fact from fiction--historians were expected to collect and analyze their sources objectively. The results, reasoned scholars, would dispel ignorance and promote understanding of people, cultures and institutions.

The birth of modern historical method coincided with a period of conservatism and mounting anti-semitism in Germany. During this period, maskilim (followers of the Jewish enlightenment movement) questioned why large segments of Christian society continued to display hostility toward them despite the fact that they had acquired knowledge of European culture and adopted its manners and behavior.

One group of maskilim reasoned that this continued hostility resulted from European society’s ignorance of Judaism’s history and its contribution to European culture. In order to present the treasures of Jewish creativity to the non-Jewish world, these Jews, mostly university students, founded a group dedicated to raising Jewish scholarship from obscurity to science, called the Society for Culture and Science among the Jews (Wissenschaft des Judenthums) in 1819.

Leopold Zunz was a founder and leader of the Society. Zunz was a Jewish orphan who received a traditional religious education and taught himself secular subjects by reading German books. Begging and borrowing, he managed to attend the University of Berlin where he was exposed to German ideas of history and science. He ultimately received a doctorate at the University of Halle and thereafter made his living as a rabbi and Sunday School teacher for various Reform congregations. Zunz lead the Society in the attempt to master all the material incorporated into Jewish literature, to arrange it according to its historical development, and to relate it to world literature.

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