Leopold Zunz

A Pioneer of Jewish Studies with an agenda.

The following article demonstrates the intersection between scholarship and politics in Zunz’s work. It is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Leopold Zunz (1794-1886) was a German historian of Judaism. Zunz is rightly considered to be the foremost figure, if not the founder of the Wissenschaft movement, in which Judaism is studied by the historical-critical method. Zunz received his early education at the Samson School in Wolfenbuttel, where the principal of the school referred to the young boy of 11 as a “genius.” He settled in Berlin in 1815, studying at the University of Berlin and obtaining a doctorate from the University of Halle

Together with other young men, among them the poet Heinrich Heine, Zunz founded in Berlin in 1819 the Verein fur Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden [The Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews].  In 1823, Zunz became the editor of the Zeitschrift fur die Wissenschaft des Judenthums [Journal for the Science of Judaism], in which he published a biography of Rashi in the new, scientific mode, Unfortunately, neither the Verein nor the Zeitschrift lasted very long.

Leopold Zunz

In his personal life Zunz was possessed of a fiercely independent spirit, because of which he either relinquished or refused to accept various lucrative positions that were offered him, preferring to eke out a meager livelihood as a journalist and teacher. For a time he also received a stipend from the Berlin Jewish community. Toward the end of his long life his admirers provided the means to enable him to be financially completely secure.

Zunz was hardly an Orthodox Jew—he was ordained as a Rabbi by the early Reformer, Aaron Chorin, served for two years as preacher in the Reform New Synagogue in Berlin, and, it is reported, he used to write on the Sabbath—but he had a great love of the tradition, writing, for example, an essay on the high value of wearing tefillin [phylacteries].

There is an element of ambiguity in Zunz. He could write in 1855: “If there are ranks in suffering, Israel takes precedence of all the nations; if the duration of sorrows and the patience with which they are borne ennoble, the Jews can challenge the aristocracy of every land; if a literature is called rich in the possession of a few classic tragedies—what shall we say to a National Tragedy lasting for fifteen hundred years, in which the poets and the actors were also the heroes?”

Yet he seems to have little use for the Talmud and the Kabbalah and, at one time, was uncertain whether Judaism itself had a future. These facts are worthy of mention because Zunz’s religious struggles were typical of the angst of all the practitioners of the new movement, who had learned to see Judaism objectively and in the context of its historical development, so that, as someone has put it, their head was without but their heart within.

Zunz’s major achievement, published in 1832, is his Die Gottesdienstlichen Vortrage der Juden Historisch Entwickelt [The Sermons of the Jews]. The work is a completely objective study of Jewish preaching throughout the ages and is, in fact, a pioneering effort of lasting significance to describe the evolution of Midrash as a whole. Yet, typical of Zunz’s lifelong concern with politics, it had the aim of convincing the German authorities not to pan Jewish preaching in the vernacular as an innovation. (These authorities were always suspicious of innovations which might lead to rebellion.) Zunz demonstrated not only that preaching in the vernacular had been an art in Judaism from the Rabbinic period but that the sermon was not infrequently in the vernacular.

Zunz’s Namen der Juden [Jewish names] was written at the behest of the Jewish community, when a royal decree ordered that Jews should not use German first names. Zunz demonstrated, again in a completely objective study, that Jews had used foreign names from an early period.

Critics of the Wissenschaft movement have maintained that its practitioners, with one eye on the effect of their researches on the gentile world, were never really objective. Zunz, at least, showed that it was possible for a great scholar to pursue his researches in a completely objective manner while frankly acknowledging that he had an axe to grind in the process. Zunz was objective too, in his biblical studies. At first these were on the alter books of the Bible, but later on he espoused the full critical methodology with regard to the Pentateuch as well.

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