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  • Revisiting the History of Modern Jewish Scholarship:A Bicentennial Perspective
  • David N. Myers

The two hundredth anniversary of the founding programmatic statement of modern Jewish studies, Leopold Zunz's "Etwas uber die rabbinische Literatur" from 1818, is an invitation to reflect on the extraordinary growth and evolution of the field. It is hard not to be impressed by the scope of Zunz's manifesto or by his boldness in envisaging a new scholarly undertaking that would satisfy the high professional standards of Wissenschaft. With preternatural confidence, the young twenty-three-year-old Zunz drew a sweeping map of the field, imagining a vast range of disciplinary and thematic approaches to the study of Jewish literature, culture, and history in the postbiblical period.

The unstable political conditions of Zunz's day, punctuated by a rising tide of anti-Jewish expression and violence, and the absence of any enduring institutional framework to support Jewish studies, make his foresight all the more impressive. There is indeed something of the clairvoyant in the 1818 essay, and yet his prognosticating talents did abandon him in at least one regard. Zunz famously predicted that there would be fewer Hebrew books a century later than in his day. The rise of Zionism and the modern Hebrew movement guaranteed the failure of that prediction. The State of Israel would go on to develop the densest concentration of scholarly talent and institutional support in the world.

In another regard, Zunz could not have imagined, for all his precocious vision, how far and wide Jewish studies would have developed. He could not have imagined the acceptance of the field in hundreds of colleges and universities in North America nor less its arrival to China. Nor could he have predicted the sheer number of scholars or range of topics represented at a meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies or World Congress of Jewish Studies. And for all the expansiveness of his manifesto, he could not have imagined the diverse array of men and women, Jews and increasingly non-Jews, engaged in Jewish studies today.

It is in recognition of Zunz, the scholarly movement that he helped [End Page 331] spawn, and the immense growth of the field over the past two hundred years that we devote this issue of JQR to a retrospective on modern Jewish historical scholarship. The importance of the topic lies not only in the scholarly results generated. Modern Jewish scholarship is also a telling mirror onto the societies in which it is rooted. It is this dual allure that has made the topic such a rich and popular one in recent decades. The current moment offers us an opportunity to revisit old themes and explore new ones.

The first part of the issue is devoted to Wissenschaft des Judentums, the German-based project of critical Jewish studies that counted Zunz among its founders. The issue opens with George Kohler's "Yehuda Halevi's Kuzari and the Wissenschaft des Judentums (1840–1865)." It is a commonplace assumption that Wissenschaft scholars, as part of their own quest to gain acceptance in Germany, deeply venerated the rationalist tradition associated with Maimonides in the twelfth century. In fact, Kohler argues, Wissenschaft scholars evinced a surprising amount of sympathy for Maimonides' theological foil, the early twelfth-century Yehuda Halevi. Even more surprisingly, this sympathy for Halevi crossed known denominational boundary lines, extending from Liberal to Orthodox.

Among those who rediscovered and identified with the protoromanticist tendencies of Halevi was Heinrich Graetz, the most prominent of nineteenth-century Jewish historians, who merits two essays in this issue. The first, by Alexandra Zirkle, explores Graetz's effort to liberate Jewish historical scholarship from the clutches of Christian supersessionism. Zirkle shows how Graetz blended voices and genres in his work, using exegesis to make key historical points. Recent scholarship has tended to ignore the importance of Graetz's exegesis, but Zirkle suggests that it was key to his historical effort, contra Christian scholarship, to assert a deep connection between pre-exilic Israel and post-exilic Jewish culture.

As a companion to Zirkle, Ismar Schorsch offers a detailed examination of Graetz's biblical scholarship, to which he devoted much of his energies in the...


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