Leopold Zunz

A Pioneer of Jewish Studies with an agenda.

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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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