Heinrich Graetz

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Simon Dubnow

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German Jewish historian (1817–91). Graetz received a traditional Jewish education in his youth but read widely in private works of general learning and early on was obliged to grapple with the problem of religious belief arising out of the conflict in his mind between traditional beliefs and the new ideas. Graetz was assisted in his struggle by the famous neo-Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch became Graetz's mentor for a time but eventually the two became estranged, partly because Hirsch was dissatisfied with Graetz's standards of Jewish observance but mainly because Graetz's historical approach to Judaism was not to the Orthodox master's dogmatic taste.

Graetz's fame rests on his monumental History of the Jews. Drawing on sources in many languages and building on the researches of the Jüdische Wissenschaft school, Graetz surveys in the work Jewish history from the earliest times down to his own day, presenting it all in systematic fashion together, in the original German edition, with learned footnotes in which he gives his sources. Graetz emerges as an objective historian but one with a profound belief in God and in the contribution of the Jewish people in realizing the divine will. Graetz's emphasis, and here he differs from the later Jewish historian, Dubnow, is on Jewish spirituality as expressed in literary sources and on the spiritual strivings of the Jewish people as the essential feature of their political and social life. There is very little social history in the work and hardly any use of archival material.

Despite the legitimate criticisms by later scholars of Graetz's History, the book retains its importance as a pioneering work of modern Jewish historiography and for the proud advocacy of the importance of Judaism to the world at large. In the memoir of Graetz contributed by Dr Phillip Bloch to the English translation of the History of the Jews, the anecdote is told of a meeting between Graetz and the great Leopold Zunz. Graetz was introduced as a scholar who was about to publish a Jewish history. ‘Another history of the Jews?’ Zunz pointedly asked. ‘Another history,’ was Graetz's retort, ‘but this time a Jewish history.’

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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