1794: The Visionary Who Created the 'Science of Judaism' Is Born

Leopold Zunz thought if the goyim knew more about the Jews, 'harmonious' relations would ensue.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Leopold Zunz, a painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim
Leopold Zunz, a painting by Moritz Daniel OppenheimCredit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

August 10, 1794, is the birthdate of Leopold Zunz, the scholar of Jewish culture and advocate for Jewish rights who conceived of concept of the “scientific” study of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums), and did so much to make it into an academic discipline. Zunz was a revolutionary, who not only helped bring the Jewish people into the modern age, but also did so much to introduce Jewish culture and lore to the rest of civilization.

Leopold Zunz (his Hebrew name was Yom-Tov Lippmann) was born in the town of Detmold, in what is today northwest Germany. His father, Mendl Emanuel Zunz, came from a long line of Hebrew scholars, and himself was a teacher until illness forced him to give it up. He died in 1802. Leopold’s mother, the former Hendel Behrens, died in 1809.

That must have been some satire

Late in life, Zunz recalled that he had begun his study of Talmud at the age of 5. At the same time, he noted that, “One of the first melodies I do remember is the Marseillaise. The first pictures I can remember are the portraits of Bonaparte, Nelson, and [Russian military hero Alexander] Suvarov that hung on the walls of our living room.”

After his father’s death, Zunz studied at the Samson Free School, in nearby Wolfenbuettel, where he distinguished himself by writing a satire about the school that his teachers ended up burning.

That didn’t prevent him, however, from becoming the first Jew accepted to the town’s academic gymnasium, in 1809.

In 1815, Zunz moved to Berlin, where he began studying mathematics, classics and history. He received a doctorate in law six years later, at the University of Halle. He also received rabbinical ordination from the early reformer Aaron Chorin.

Despite all his training, Zunz had to struggle to make ends meet most of his life, although he and his wife, Adelheid Beermann (whom he married in 1822), had no children. For several years (1821-23), he was an assistant rabbi at the Beer synagogue, in Berlin, and from 1826 to 1830, he taught at the Jewish Community School in that city. He also was a longtime editor and satirical writer for a German newspaper.

What is a Jew, for everyone else

Following the anti-Jewish “Hep-Hep” riots of 1819, which spread violently to a number of German cities, Zunz and several intellectual colleagues became convinced of the need to explain the Jews to their fellow Germans. Together with Eduard Gans, Moses Moser and Heinrich Heine, among others, they formed the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews, to attempt, “through culture and education,” as Zunz expressed it, “to bring the Jews into harmonious relations with the age and the nations in which they live."

Although the Society disbanded soon after, in 1824, Zunz was just getting started. His 1818 article “On Rabbinic Literature” offered a survey of post-biblical rabbinic literature, which at the time was completely unknown in non-Jewish academic circles, where it was assumed that Jewish culture had stopped developing at the end of the biblical period. As the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia described it, the article was “a plea for the recognition of Judaism and its literature in university research and teaching.”

The following year, Zunz published “The Organization of the Israelites in Germany,” an article in which he sketched out his vision of reform in the community. This included an appeal to the state not to relate to rabbis as the Jews’ sole representatives.

He went further, calling the German state on its only partial emancipation of its Jewish citizens. He didn’t want special privileges or “disabilities” for Jews: he believed they deserved equality, and their institutions government support. He made his case in part by emphasizing the contribution Jewish culture to the development of Europe.

Zunz sympathized with the revolutionary movement of 1848, and argued that political loyalty to the state did not contradict loyalty to Judaism. In the decades following the revolution, he even was elected several times to the Prussian Parliament.

After the death of his beloved wife Adelheid, in 1874, Zunz lost much of his enthusiasm for life, and he slowed down in his work. He died on March 18, 1886, in Berlin, at the age of 81.