The Founder of Jewish Studies

Leopold Zunz: Creativity in Adversity

by Ismar Schorsch

University of Pennsylvania Press, 344 pp., $65

In December 2018 more than a thousand Jewish studies scholars will gather in Boston to attend the 50th annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS). At the gathering it will surely be noted that 2018 marks not just the 50th anniversary of AJS but also the 200th anniversary of the field. In 1818, a 23-year-old university student named Leopold Zunz published a 30-page essay with the modest title “On Rabbinic Literature.” 

Zunz could never have dreamed of his impact. A year after publishing “On Rabbinic Literature” he cofounded the Society for the Culture and Scientific Study of the Jews (Verein für Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden), establishing the first Jewish studies research institute and the first Jewish studies journal. Although only three issues of the journal were published, and within four and a half years the society had disbanded, Zunz always regarded it as a great, almost messianic project. In 1839, he wrote a friend that “the Verein survived 39X40 days, and those days in which Gans, Moser, Heine, Zunz and Rubo, ignoring their own welfare, devoted themselves wholly to the interests of their people—were they not more comely than our own day with its heartless self-centeredness?” Part of the “self-centeredness” to which he referred was the opportunistic conversion to Christianity of his erstwhile comrades-in-arms the poet Heinrich Heine and Eduard Gans. Gans, who had been president of the society and a leading student of Hegel, was appointed associate professor of law at the University of Berlin promptly after his conversion. 

Portrait of Leopold Zunz, age 49

Portrait of Leopold Zunz, age 49, by Gustav Heidenreich. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel and Professor Haggai Ben Shammai, Academic Director of the National Library of Israel.)

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About the Author

Michah Gottlieb is associate professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at NYU. His forthcoming book, The Jewish Reformation: Bible Translation and the Fracture of German Jewry, will appear next year.


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