Heinrich Graetz

A historian of Judaism with a deep faith in tradition.

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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.

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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.