Heinrich Graetz

A historian of Judaism with a deep faith in tradition.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Heinrich Graetz was a German Jewish historian (1812-91). Graetz received a traditional Jewish education in his youth but read widely in private works of general learning and early on was obliged to grapple with the problem of religious belief arising out of the conflict in his mind between traditional beliefs and the new ideas. Graetz was assisted in his struggle by the famous neo-Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch became Graetz's mentor for a time but eventually the two became estranged, partly because Hirsch was dissatisfied with Graetz's standards of Jewish observance (when Graetz married, Hirsch observed with displeasure that the young wife did not cover her hair in the manner of Orthodox Jewish matrons) but mainly because Graetz's historical approach to Judaism was not to the Orthodox master's dogmatic taste. 

Establishing a Career

Graetz, at one time, had an ambition to become an Orthodox Rabbi but neither the congregation where he delivered his trial sermon nor Graetz himself believed that he possessed the necessary ability to assume such a role, in that he was a fine writer but a poor speaker. Instead, Graetz decided to pursue an academic career. He studied for his Ph.D. at Breslau University, presenting his thesis on the relationship between Gnosticism and Judaism at the University of Jena. Graetz found a kindred spirit in Zechariah Frankel, the founder of the Breslau school in which the historical approach to Judaism predominated but was wedded to a deep respect for the Jewish tradition. After occupying a number of teaching positions, Graetz was appointed lecturer in Jewish History and Bible at Frankel's Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau.

heinrich graetzGraetz was a biblical scholar in the critical mode. He had no hesitation in putting forward untraditional views regarding the dating of some of the biblical books but, as in the Breslau school generally, adopted the completely traditional view on the authorship of the Pentateuch.

In Graetz and in other members of the school, including Frankel himself, biblical criticism, then in its infancy, was allowed its head with regard to the rest of the Bible and the critical approach was certainly pursued with regard to Rabbinic literature, but a halt was called when it came to the holy of holies, the Pentateuch. This dichotomy was to haunt traditionalist historians well into the twentieth century. Graetz's historical and critical studies did not affect his Orthopraxy, as this stance came to be called. To the end of his life Graetz was opposed to the Reform movement and remained a strictly observant Jew. It is reported that when Graetz visited London, he was invited to read the Haftarah at the Great Synagogue and read it with his own critical emendations of the text. Yet, it was observed, when he left the synagogue he tied his handkerchief around his wrist in order to avoid carrying it in the public domain on the Sabbath.

A New Perspective on History

Graetz's fame rests on his monumental History of the Jews. Drawing on sources in many languages and building on the researches of the Jüdische Wissenschaft school, Graetz surveys in the work Jewish history from the earliest times down to his own day, presenting it all in systematic fashion together, in the original German edition, with learned footnotes in which he gives his sources. Graetz emerges as an objective historian but one with a profound belief in God and in the contribution of the Jewish people in realizing the divine will. Graetz's emphasis, and here he differs from the later Jewish historian, Dubnow, is on Jewish spirituality as expressed in literary sources and on the spiritual strivings of the Jewish people as the essential feature of their political and social life. There is very little social history in the work and hardly any use of archival material.

Graetz's overall view of Judaism and the role of the Jewish people is best conveyed in an essay entitled "The Significance of Judaism for the Present and the Future," published, towards the end of his life, in the year 1889 as the opening essay of the first issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review, edited by Israel Abrahams and C. G. Montefiore.

Here Graetz's rationalism is well to the fore. He is unhappy, for instance, about the term "faith" as applied to Judaism since such a term, for him, denotes acceptance of an inconceivable miraculous fact. He quotes with approval [French historian Ernest] Renan's aphorism that Judaism is "a minimum of religion," which Graetz finds illustrated in Micah's "What doth the Lord require of thee? Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God" (Micah 6:8) and in the Talmudic ruling that martyrdom is demanded of the Jew only when an attempt is made to force him to worship idols or commit adultery, incest, or murder.

In all this Graetz sees the essence of Judaism as containing two elements, the ethical and the religious, each possessing a positive and a negative side. The ethical includes in its positive side, love of mankind, benevolence, humility, justice, and in its negative aspects, respect for human life, care against unchastity, subdual of selfishness and the beast in man, holiness in deed and thought. The religious element in its negative aspects includes the prohibition of worshiping a transient being as God and to consider all idolatry as vain and to reject it entirely. The positive side is to regard the highest Being as one and unique, to worship it as the Godhead and the essence of all ethical perfection.

Graetz claims that in this union of the ethical and the religious consists the unique character of Judaism, and this doctrine of ethical monotheism has lost none of its significance. The elaborate rituals of Judaism are, of course, required but these were intended to surround ideals themselves of an ethereal nature. Unfortunately, he remarks, owing to the tragic course of history, the ritual has developed into a fungoid growth which overlays the ideals. Graetz's rationalistic views are pervasive in his History of the Jews which, for all his profound belief in God, is very weak on the question of Jewish dogmas.

"The Book of Lies"

Graetz's rationalistic approach is particularly evident in his treatment of the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism for which he seems to have had a blind spot. Typical of his approach is his treatment of the Zohar, the supreme work of the Kabbalah. By means of careful scholarship, Graetz demonstrates that the Zohar could not have been written, as the Kabbalists claim, by the second-century Palestinian teacher, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai. The true author of the book is the man who claimed to have "discovered" the work, Moses de Leon, in the thirteenth century.

Modern scholarship, thanks to the researches of Gershom Scholem, has accepted Graetz's argument. That Moses de Leon is the author would not have led Graetz to call the Zohar "the book of lies" were he not convinced, on other grounds, that the Kabbalah is nonsense. He does not appear to have had any appreciation that a pseudepigraphic work [a work written by one author but attributed to another] is not "false" on that account and he fails to see what many have seen, that one does not have to swallow the Kabbalah whole in order to recognize the many religious insights it contains. Similarly, with regard to Hasidism, Graetz sees this mystical, revivalist movement, solely as a superstition.

Despite the legitimate criticisms by later scholars of Graetz's History, the book retains its importance as a pioneering work of modern Jewish historiography and for the proud advocacy of the importance of Judaism to the world at large. In the memoir of Graetz contributed by Dr. Phillip Bloch to the English translation of the History of the Jews, the anecdote is told of a meeting between Graetz and the great Leopold Zunz. Graetz was introduced as a scholar who was about to publish a Jewish history. "Another history of the Jews?" Zunz politely asked. "Another history," was Graetz's retort, "but this time a Jewish history."

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

Please consider making a donation today.

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.