Wissenschaft des Judentums: Jewish Studies and the Shaping of Jewish Identity

Moritz Steinschneider writing at his desk

The Bohemian Hebraist Moritz Steinschneider writing at his desk, date unknown.

In the early 19th century, a group of Jewish scholars in Berlin began to apply historical and critical methods to the study of Jews and Judaism, calling their new field the “Wissenschaft des Judentums” or “science of Judaism.” They and their followers would produce thousands of works ranging from linguistic analyses of ancient sources to literary studies of symbolism in the Hebrew bible to evaluations of archeological finds in the Levant.

As this exhibit shows, this scholarly enterprise was no mere academic exercise. Rather, it was directly motivated by the desire for the civil rights still denied Jews in Europe at the time. Moreover, the Wissenschaft would become the forum in which most of the competing visions for how Jews should exist within the larger society and how they should practice Judaism were articulated and advanced.

Using books, photographs, and objects, from the LBI Library, Archives, and Art Collections, this exhibit traces the fascinating threads that connect the Wissenschaft to various aspects of Jewish identity and practice over a period spanning from its precursors in the 18th century to the present day. It is divided into the following sections:

Legacy of the Haskalah—The Jewish Enlightenment
The philosopher Moses Mendelsohn died in the 18th century, but his idea that Jews could and should achieve civil rights by pursuing secular education was taken up by the founders of the Verein für die Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden. The founders of this organization, Leopold Zunz, Eduard Gans, and Heinrich Heine among them, believed that a critical study of Jewish texts was essential for establishing a positive identity for Jews within the larger society and gaining admission to institutions that were still beyond their reach, especially the university.

From Breslau to New York—The Conservative movement
The roots of the conservative movement can be traced directly to the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau. Zacharias Frankel, the first director of the Seminary, advocated the idea of “positive-historical Judaism” which was based on the assumption that traditional Jewish law and practice were positive elements that should be combined with a historical and critical reading of Jewish law as well as the past. It discusses the careers of Solomon Schechter, who discovered the Cairo Genizah and brought the JTS to America, and Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of JTS.

The Roots of Reform
The Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums was established in 1872 as an institution of higher learning in Berlin. Although it wasn’t affiliated with any specific Jewish denomination, many of its alumni and early faculty members (Abraham Geiger, Leo Baeck, Ismar Elbogen) were associated with the Reform movement, which gained major ground in the US because of progressive European rabbis, including Max Lilienthal and David Einhorn, who were considered too radical to find positions in Germany left for the U.S.

This section presents Jewish scholars in a variety of disciplines and eras whose work was influenced by the ideas of Wissenschaft and includes prominent Jewish intellectuals, including Leopold Zunz, Nahman Krochmal, Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and many others.

Orthodoxy—Dissent and Accommodation
Although many more tradition-oriented Jewish leaders rejected the entire premise of the Wissenschaft because, in their view, it undermined the sacred nature of Jewish scripture and alienated Jews from their religion, others found room for some of its precepts. In particular, openness toward secular education and the introduction of vernacular (German) sermons were hallmarks of the Modern Orthodox movement which had roots in the Wissenschaft. Esriel Hildesheimer established a rabbinical seminary in Berlin in 1873, where modern Orthodox Jews received an education until the Seminary was closed in 1938 by the Nazis.

Civil Rights
The quest for equal civil rights permeated the lives of Jews throughout the 19th century, From Gabriel Riesser, an attorney and politician, to Ferdinand Lassalle, a labor movement leader, advocates for civil rights took inspiration from the Wissenschaft in unexpected ways.

This section looks at how the Haskalah’s principle that Jews could benefit from secular education but remain Jews was refined and implemented through the Wissenschaft. It especially focuses on how the demand for equal education opportunities for women spurred various feminist movements. From Henriette Goldschmidt’s General German Women’s Association, founded 1865 in Leipzig, to the Jüdischer Frauenbund (Jewish Women’s League) in the 20th century arose from a demand for education for women.

The exhibit closes with a graphical map of the hundreds of academic Jewish Studies programs around the world, all of which can trace their lineage back to those scholars in 19th-century Germany who believed that a deeper critical understanding of Judaism would lead to a better world for Jews.

LBI News No. 96 — Fall 2014


In this issue, LBI announces the digitization of nearly 100 rare periodicals, Josef Joffe considers the “Golden Age of German Jewry.” Plus, a selection of highlights from LBI Collections related to WWI.

WWI Art—Hermann Struck’s portraits of Muslim POWs

Raupratta Chan, Punjabi, 1916, Etching by Hermann Struck.

As empires clung to their supremacy and nationalist movements advanced an opposing vision of the link between ethnicity and state, troop movements and migrations brought people from across the globe into contact with one another. Artists like Hermann Struck, a Zionist and orthodox Jew from Berlin, turned an ethnographic lens on various groups of “exotic”…

WWI Photographs—Bernhard Bardach, an Austrian military surgeon

A German cavalry regiment (Uhlanen))

Bernhard Bardach was a 48-year-old career medical officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army when war broke out. He served on the Eastern and Western fronts, but he was able to spend much of his time during the war painting, writing extensive diaries, and taking over 900 remarkable photographs which have been digitized by LBI. Bernhard Bardach…

WWI Memoirs—Helmut Freund, a physician from Berlin

A page from Helmut Freund's Memoir

About 300 memoirs in LBI collections describe the experiences of Jewish soldiers in the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, from ordinary infantrymen to celebrated pilots to physicians and Jewish field chaplains. Helmut Freund was born around 1896 in Berlin and served as an auxiliary physician in the German Army. Like many highly assimilated, middle-class German Jews…

WWI Correspondence—Karl Henschel, a Volunteer from Berlin

Karl Henschel Collection, AR 6433

During the first year of the war, German soldiers sent six million letters every day, and received another 8.5 million. Soldiers’ letters were almost immediately instrumentalized to shape public perceptions about the war, and the publication of letters quickly became an important way of memorializing the fallen, who came in unprecedented numbers. Among the first…

Gerald Westheimer Career Development Fellows

Moritz Steinschneider

Thanks to the generosity of Professor Gerald Westheimer, LBI has supported fellowships for scholars who are early in their careers to pursue research on the social, cultural, and academic aspects of the life of Jews in German-speaking countries between the time of Moses Mendelssohn and the Third Reich and its aftermath. LBI is proud to…

Josef Joffe on the “Golden Age” of German-speaking Jewry

Josef Joffe. Photo by Vera Tammen

Josef Joffe is the editor of Germany’s largest weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, and one of the most influential voices on international affairs today. On December 3, 2014, he will deliver the 57th annual Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture and accept the Leo Baeck Medal. His Lecture will be titled, The Golden Age of German Jewry, 1871…

From Gleiwitz to Shanghai, Digitized Periodicals offer Snapshots of Jewish Life

A selection of periodicals digitized by Leo Baeck Institute

The LBI Library is pleased to announce that about 60 new periodicals are already available online through DigiBaeck and Internet Archive, with about 40 further periodicals in process. Among the rare items now available are 20th -century newsletters from various Jewish communities in Germany, Austria, and other German-speaking areas. Other highlights include publications from German-Jewish…

LBI Partners with Genealogists to Focus on “Family Matters”

The first issue of Jüdische Familienforschung, LBI Library, B184.

In the first of a series of measures aimed at improving access to its collections for family historians, LBI recently partnered with a group of German-Jewish genealogists to digitize Jüdische Familienforschung (Jewish Family Research), a genealogical journal published in Germany between 1924 and 1938. Funding was provided by the “German-Jewish Special Interest Group” (GerSIG), which…