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  • What We See When We Read:Hirschfeld on Steinschneider
  • Irene E. Zwiep (bio)

We've all been there. You have been asked to write a review, your expertise (and, let's be frank, your aspirations) forbade you to decline, but it is turning out rather a bore. The author is an established name in the field, with several classics to his name when you were still learning how to read. The book, too, is vintage in every sense of the word: the method solid but no longer new, the results valid but lacking the power to surprise. Skipping the critique is not an option—this is the guy's swan song and cannot be ignored. So what is it going to be: a quick and painless kill, or the more cowardly route of condemning with faint praise?

The reviewer in question was Hartwig Hirschfeld (1854–1934), alumnus of the universities of Berlin and Paris and teaching comparative Semitics at Jews' College and University College London.1 The object of his learned attention was Die arabische Literatur der Juden. Ein Beitrag zur Literaturgeschichte der Araber (The Arabic literature of the Jews: A contribution to the literary history of the Arabs). It had been published in 1902 by Moritz Steinschneider, then eighty-six years old and retired headmaster of an Orthodox girls' school in Berlin, but above all a self-made bibliographer.2 Together with Leopold Zunz he was considered a founding father of what was known as the Wissenschaft des Judentums. Both had worked hard to convince the world of the Jewish contribution to Western civilization. Yet where Zunz had chosen the running narrative to drive home his point, Steinschneider preferred the fragmentary catalogue format. No politics, no rhetoric, but raw, naked data, laid out for the reader to see and judge. But was the art of bibliography really as apolitical as Steinschneider's entries suggested? [End Page 603]

Hirschfeld's review was more than an encounter between an aging pioneer and a younger specialist safely resting on the shoulders of giants. It marked a paradigm change in the study of Jewish literature, brought on by the discovery of the Cairo Geniza and, not unrelated, by a shift in scholarly gravity from the European continent to the Anglo-Saxon West and its colonies. "The greatest gift of the Orient," was how Solomon Schechter dubbed the Geniza, praising its power to reinvigorate Jewish scholarship just when the past seemed exhausted by the Wissenschaft's relentless digging. "Verily," he wrote in 1910, with these new treasures within reach, "the life of the student is once more worth living."3

Steinschneider's work, by contrast, was patently ante Genizam. His Arabische Literatur was a fine specimen of sustained, incremental scholarship, but it failed to take note of the collection which, as Hirschfeld rightly observed, had "change[d] the aspect of Jewish Arabic literature completely."4 Painfully oblivious to this recent Gestalt switch, Steinschneider's entries suddenly appeared old-school and, for a scholar of his rigor and reputation, sorely partial and incomplete.

By overtly trying to sugar the pill, Hirschfeld managed to make his critique sound even worse. He congratulated Professor (always overprize the victim!) Steinschneider on this "event of unusual importance," expressing the hope that his "mental as well as physical powers may remain undiminished for many a year to come" (p. 408). His most recent book perhaps was "one of the smaller fruits, [yet it was] the ripest and the richest and as full of fine things as the proverbial pomegranate" (p. 409). It was a work "to be studied rather than criticized," to be supplemented, at best, "in such points as may be reaped from the harvest of the Genizah" (p. 411). In Hirschfeld's hands, however, those supplements soon became outright corrections of Steinschneider's identifications, attributions, lacunae (Maimonides' autographs, for example), and blind spots (the Karaite library). It was a case of Kuhnian model drift veering toward scientific revolution: for Hirschfeld, the German Wissenschaft had passed its sell-by date.

What we see when we read Steinschneider is his scholarship, not the politics that loomed behind the factual façade. Even today, students go to Steinschneider for information...