Heinrich Graetz

A historian of Judaism with a deep faith in tradition.

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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.

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