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Leopold Zunz

(1794—1886)


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German historian of Judaism (1794–1886). Zunz is rightly considered to be the foremost figure, if not the founder, of the Jüdische Wissenschaft movement, in which Judaism is studied by the historical–critical method (and see HISTORY, FRANKEL, KROCHMAL, and RAPOPORT). Zunz received his early education at the Samson School in Wolfenbüttel, where the principal of the school referred to the young boy of 11 as a ‘genius’. He settled in Berlin in 1815, studying at the University of Berlin and obtaining a doctorate from the University of Halle. Together with other young men, among them the poet Heinrich Heine, Zunz founded in Berlin in 1819 the Verein für Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden. In 1823 Zunz became the editor of the Zeitschrift für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, in which he published a biography of Rashi in the new, scientific mode.

Zunz's major achievement, published in 1832, is his Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden historisch entwickelt. The work is a completely objective study of Jewish preaching throughout the ages and is, in fact, a pioneering effort of lasting significance to describe the evolution of Midrash as a whole. Yet, typical of Zunz's lifelong concern with politics, it had the aim of convincing the German authorities not to ban Jewish preaching in the vernacular as an innovation (these authorities were always suspicious of innovations which might lead to rebellion). Zunz demonstrated not only that preaching had been an art in Judaism from the Rabbinic period but that the sermon was not infrequently in the vernacular. Zunz's Namen der Juden was written, at the behest of the Jewish community, when a royal decree ordered that Jews should not use German first names. Zunz demonstrated, again in a completely objective study, that Jews had used foreign names from an early period. Critics of the Jüdische Wissenschaft movement have maintained that its practitioners, with one eye on the effect of their researches on the Gentile world, were never really objective. Zunz, at least, showed that it was possible for a great scholar to pursue his researches in a completely objective manner while frankly acknowledging that he had an axe to grind in the process. Zunz was objective, too, in his biblical studies. At first these were on the later books of the Bible, but later on he espoused the full critical methodology with regard to the Pentateuch as well (see BIBLICAL CRITICISM).

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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