A historian of Judaism with a deep faith in tradition.
"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.