On September 7, 1891, the man who wrote the first standard history of the Jewish people died. Heinrich Graetz had a vast and comprehensive knowledge of Jewish texts and was a master of narrative prose, so that even those who disagreed with his conclusions – and there were many – were obligated to pay attention to him. To this day, his work still serves as a measure of comparison for people in the field.
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Tzvi Hirsh Graetz was born on October 31, 1817, in the small town of Xions (today called Ksiaz Wielkopolski, Poland). His father was a butcher. Graetz had a firm grounding in religious subjects, studying both in Zerkov and at a yeshiva in Wolstein, while at the same time pursuing his own program of secular studies. This was at a time when Jews in Europe were contending with the challenge of reconciling their tradition with the world of Western science and thought that was opening up to them on the Continent.
In Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Graetz found a figure who could serve as a guide in negotiating the space between the two worlds. Hirsch invited him to live and study with him at his home in Oldenburg.
Ultimately, Hirsch became disappointed in Graetz’s openness to the critical approach to Jewish texts then on the ascent, even though Graetz remained punctilious about Jewish observance throughout his life, and even though he never questioned the traditional view of the authorship of the Five Books of Moses.
Graetz left Oldenburg in 1840, and two years later was accepted for study at Breslau University, though as a Jew he could not receive his doctorate there. That was instead granted by the University of Jena, in central Germany.
Eventually, Graetz – who was very critical of the nascent Reform Judaism – found his place at the Jewish Theological Seminary founded by Rabbi Zechariah Frankel in Breslau, which was something of a progenitor of the Conservative movement. He began teaching there in 1853, and remained at Breslau until the end of his life. That’s also the year Graetz published the first of the volumes of his “History of the Jews from Oldest Times to the Present.” It was actually volume four of what would eventually be 11 volumes in German, but Graetz only completed the first three volumes, which dealt with the biblical and Second Temple periods – after he visited the Land of Israel – in 1872.
On his return from Palestine, Graetz joined the proto-Zionist Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement, and also took a great interest in other organizations, such as the Alliance Israelite Universelle, that were dealing with educational and social problems facing Jews in the Diaspora. For these sins, he was perceived as a Jewish nationalist, and attacked for it, both by German anti-Semites and other Jews.
Graetz was both intellectually bold and opinionated. He speculated freely about the authorship of the Prophets and the Writings; he rejected the idea of a personal messiah, instead seeing the Jews as a people with a messianic mission for humanity. He dismissed Jewish mysticism, partly because he had successfully proved that the Zohar, the central text of kabbala, was written much later than the time when Shimon bar Yochai, its traditional author, lived. He also allowed himself literary license that historians would not permit themselves today: for example, in the opening line of his History’s first volume: “On a bright morning in spring, nomadic tribes penetrated into Israel.”
It was Graetz whom Salo W. Baron, one of the great general Jewish historians of the 20th century, criticized for his “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” But Graetz was the pioneer, and his contribution to what was then a new field of study was undeniably seminal. And his “History of the Jews” was translated into many languages and continues to be read.
Heinrich Graetz died while visiting his son Leo, a physicist who lived in Munich. He was buried in Breslau.