Jewish Studies


by Dr. Ralph Graff

Dr. Graff, a native of University City/Clayton, has been in academic medicine since 1967, 24 years at Washington University with joint appointments in Surgery, Microbiology and Genetics and 28 years at St. Louis University as Professor of Surgery and Director of the Histocompatibility Laboratory. Dr. Graff was President of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel for three years in the early 1990s. Now an active member of Kol Rinah

In the 2nd decade of the 19th century, as a result of Napoleonic Emancipation, a group of 7 young Jewish Berlin intellectuals sought the opportunity to become part of the academic world as observant Jews. They envisioned the German community accepting Judaism as a respected religion and Jews learning to live as part of the German community. With the defeat of Napoleon, emancipation suffered a serious setback with a resurgence of anti-Semitism. Amid this foreboding atmosphere, they gathered in Berlin in 1819 to found a society which would subsequently be named the Verein fur Cultur und Wissenshaft der Judentum. “They stood at the cutting edge of the emancipation experiment, immersed in the best of German culture, alienated from traditional Judaism and vulnerable to the counter attack of the resurgent German right. From the outset they were determined to form a think tank which would unite the Jewish intelligentsia.” The positions taken by many of the members would prophesize future changes in Judaism, Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox.

The society was greatly influenced by two members of contrasting backgrounds and visions. Leopold Zunz was orphaned in infancy and educated in a decrepit Talmud school. When he was 13 years old, a progressive former student became Director. He proceeded to enrich the curriculum, taking a particular interest in Zunz, stimulating him to obtain a University education. As a graduate student, Zunz’s primary motive was generating respect for Judaism. In contrast, the goal of Eduard Gans, the son of a well to do Berlin banker and Court Jew and an aspiring academician was respectability of the Jewish people.

In his 1817 publication Etwas uber die rabbinische Literature, 23 year old Zunz lamented the degradation of Judaism in the Christian literature. “Rarely has the world been presented with more damaging, erroneous, and distorted views than on the subject of the Jewish religion. He continued ”to be able to recognize and separate what is old and useful, what is outmoded and detrimental, what is new and desirable, we must sensibly approach the study of a people and its history , both political and spiritual. But this is precisely what creates the greatest obstacle, that the matter of the Jews is handled like its literature. People tackle both with biased passion, assessing them either too low or too high.” In a 1819 paper Zunz attacked the rabbinate of the day, which he called “a decadent institution of ignorance, not to be confused with its Talmudic and medieval namesake”. He proposed that the Prussian government assemble a Sanhedrin, composed of learned Jews to deal with matters of halakhah, thus taking decisions out of the hands of the current Rabbinate that he despised.

Gans was endowed with a booming voice and more than a dash of organizing talent which appears to have provided the inspiration and drive for the society from the beginning. The youngest of the group and the only with a Doctorate, he would be the President for the thirty month life of the organization.

In addition to Zunz and Gans, the membership included Isaak Marcus Jost, a classmate of Zunz at the “decrepit Talmud school” who along with Joel Abraham List conducted small private schools, Joseph Hillmar and Moses Moser who were book keepers and Isaac Levin Auerbach, “a preacher in the German Synagogue of the wealthy and Naturalized”.

Because of its idealistic goals, the membership grew slowly. The Berlin chapter reached a membership of 25 and a Hamburg chapter with a membership of 23. The Berlin Chapter, which tried to meet weekly, rarely had more than 10 attendees and meetings were often canceled for a lack of a quorum. Gans gave three presidential addresses during the existence of the Verein, the final one reporting 42 meetings and 7 sessions of its scholarly Institute which produced a journal, Zeitschrift fur die Wissenshaft des Judentum, edited by Zunz.

In November 1819, Joel Abraham List hosted the first meeting of the Verein, challenging the group to articulate the character and nobility of Judaism, noting that in ages past, Jews had been held together by external circumstances-exclusion from society, persecution and a religion that stressed individual salvation in the afterlife. List contended that Judaism was a unique nation, not a temporal phenomenon, calling on his friends to dedicate themselves to the restoration of Jewish nationhood. Moser added that Judaism must not be modified to conform to a state religion. He called for a thorough study of the neglected and error-ridden history of the Jews in the Diaspora.
At the November 1819 meeting, Gans addressed the group on the topic “How can an improvement of the Jews be conceptualized?” He concluded that to improve meant to raise them to a universal standard bringing them into harmony with the values of the Nation in which they live, later stating “no revolution is more difficult than the overturning and recasting a state of mind”.

Gans gave his first Presidential address in October 1821 in which he concluded with a rousing call to all of the free and idealistic of German Jewry to join the ranks of the society. “I see in the close fraternization of such noble people, the approach of the messianic era, which only the common decadence of our generation has turned into a fairy tale.”

At the December 1821 meeting Auerbach pleaded that the Verein must work to stem the widespread defection from Judaism through “congenial instruction in the Mosaic religion.” Although the group agreed, there was no consensus as to how to proceed and no action was taken. In fact Gans objected to any action, taking the position that the purpose of the Verein was to curb the all-inclusiveness of Judaism.

Gans devoted his second presidential address to an analysis of reconciliation through dual loyalty. What the present offered Jewry was a chance to leave their state of quarantine and re-enter the civilized world, but at a price, the discarding of all otherness.

Gans’ third address of May 1823 addressed the mechanism by which transformation of Judaism was to be wrought. The mission of the Verein was to create a scholarship, free of the limited horizons of the current rabbinate, to discover a new form of cohesion to replace communal ancestral ties.

No one had greater reservations about Gans’ position that Heinrich Heine. Although he was not religious, he defended the value of Jewish history. Heine felt the travesty of dismantling a venerable religion down to a set of theological maxims. Emancipation on such terms was merely another form of servitude.

In 1821, the Verein formed a scholarly seminar series named Institute Fur die Wissenshaft des Judentums, led by Zunz. Membership was by invitation. Only a handful of Verein members actually belonged. The members were expected to prepare and present papers. During the course of its existence 25 papers were presented, including six by Zunz, six by Gans and five by Moser. A goodly number were published in the Institute’s Journal. While Zunz explored Hebrew sources, Gans’ used non-Jewish sources. In tandem they imbued the Journal with a solid balance of alternate modes of Jewish scholarship. Gans wrote of the status of Jewry in the Roman Empire, making a distinction between the pagan and Christian periods. In pagan Rome persecution derived from social tensions and not religious discrimination, friction engendered by Jewish allegiance to Jerusalem. In contrast, Christian Rome’s persecution was an instrument of religious coercion. In another essay, Gans described the benefits to be gained by studying Jewish law within the context of the Roman legal system, attempting to demonstrate the Roman influence on Talmudic law. The last essay was Zunz’z biography of Rashi. According to Zunz, the last 200 years had created a bogus Rashi, bereft of spirit and laden with nonsense. Zunz used only sources written by Rashi. He showed that Rashi was a product of the brilliant rabbinic culture of his time, in contrast to the ignorant rabbinate of Zunz’s time.

The last meeting of the Society took place in 1824. Fourteen months later, Gans turned over the records of the Society to Zunz with the note, “since I regard the society as being dissolved de facto, I also regard my Presidency as ended.” The eruption of anti-Semitism had driven the exposed intellectuals of the Verein to confront their secular aspirations with their religious loyalties. On the one hand, Gans and Heine left Judaism and on the other, Zunz persisted, contributing to modern day Judaism.

The Verein would have disappeared into oblivion had Zunz not persuaded Adolph Strodman, the biographer of Heinrich Heine that the history of the society deserved serious attention. “Its significance was not to be measured in terms of accomplishments but rather with reference to its foresight. Nearly every advance made by Jews in the scholarly, political and civil arenas had their roots in the activity of that society.”

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