Jewish Studies programs around the world acknowledge the year 1818 as the founding moment of their discipline. That year, Leopold Zunz published his essay Etwas über die rabbinische Litteratur (“On Rabbinical Literature”), which launched the movement for a Wissenschaft des Judentums – a Science of Judaism.
Zunz established a secular and interdisciplinary method of scholarship to investigate Jewish history, culture, and life in all its forms. In contrast to traditional Jewish scholarship rooted in the study of religious texts, Wissenschaft meant applying the tools of history, archeology, and other modern sciences to the study of Jewish history and culture. Zunz’s methodology also amounted to an appeal for political and religious reform. By the time of his death in 1886, his work and vision had given rise to a discourse within Judaism that transformed Jewish practice; the Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox movements all have their roots in the Wissenschaft. The Wissenschaft also gave the fight for Jewish political emancipation its intellectual undergirding, and few scholars were more engaged in that fight than Zunz.
Learn more about Zunz's legacy and the Wissenschaft at our new exhibit, Leopold Zunz: Creativity and Revolution.