The Critical Study of Jewish History

Print this page Print this page

With such a huge task before them, it is not surprising that the Society ran out of energy in just a few years, but Zunz alone succeeded in realizing a major goal of the organization by cataloguing the lot of Jewish literature.

In his most famous work, Contributions to History and Literature, Zunz combed Jewish history to demonstrate that the Talmud, medieval poetry, homiletics, philosophy, and folklore all belonged to the realm of literature as they were authentic expressions of Jewish national life and thought. With the publication of this work in 1845, Zunz demonstrated that Jewish genius had not exhausted itself with the Bible as Christians had asserted. He revealed the wealth of the Jewish literary tradition.

Zunz attracted a group of followers, among them Mortiz Steinschneider, who devoted his life to Jewish scholarship. Steinschneider’s first book chronicled Jewish literature from the 8th to the 18th century. It was so well received that a year later he was called to Oxford to prepare a catalogue of Hebrew literature for the library there. Jewish scholarship had arrived!

In addition to Zunz and his group in Germany, other traditionally educated Jews who were interested in and familiar with Western European culture resolved to apply the new scholarly methods the classical sources of Judaism. Notable among these scholars were Samuel David Luzzatto, in Italy, and, in Galicia, Nahman Krohmal and Solomon Judah Rappaport.

The most famous Jewish historian to emerge during this period was Heinrich Graetz. His eleven volume History of the Jews would become the most widely read and consulted work in modern Jewish studies. It attracted much criticism, for although Graetz collected the facts in a scientific manner, his own ideas came through in his interpretation of the facts. His rare synthesis of scholarship and style popularized not only the history of the Jews but also the science of Judaism.

These first modern Jewish historians and the scholars who followed them faced issues both typical and unique in their efforts to record the Jewish past. Like all historians, Jewish historians must determine causality, create periodizaiton schemas (the division of history into identifiable periods), and take a stand on whether history is moving progressively toward a goal.

The job of the Jewish historian, however, is made more complex by the fact that their subject matter is, in the words of historian Michael Meyer “a protean entity--which seems to bear few if any constant characteristics and which for the far greater part of its history has been scattered without a land of its own.”

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.