Leopold Zunz: Creativity in Adversity

Leopold Zunz: Creativity in Adversity

Leopold Zunz: Creativity in Adversity

Leopold Zunz: Creativity in Adversity


In 1818, with a single essay of vast scope and stunning detail, Leopold Zunz launched the turn to history in modern Judaism. Despite unending setbacks, he persevered for more than five decades to produce a body of enduring scholarship that would inspire young Jews streaming into German universities and alter forever the understanding of Judaism. By the time of his death in 1886, his vision and labor had given rise to a historical discourse and intellectual movement that devolved into vibrant sub-fields as it expanded to other geographic centers of Jewish life.

Yet Zunz was a part-time scholar, at best, in search of employment that would leave him time to study. In addition to his pioneering scholarship, he was as deeply engaged in ending the political tutelage of German Christians as the civil disabilities of German Jews. And to his credit, these commitments did not come at the expense of his loyalty to the Jewish community, which he was ever ready to serve.

Zunz once quipped that "those who have read my books are far from knowing me." To complement his books, Zunz left behind a treasure trove of notes, letters and papers, documents that the distinguished scholar of German Jewish culture, Ismar Schorsch, has zealously utilized to write this, the first full-fledged biography of a remarkable man.


In 1818 in a booklet of some fifty pages, Leopold Zunz announced his discovery of an unknown and uninhabited continent which modern Jews were soon destined to apprehend. a few hardy contemporaries in other sectors of Europe had already caught sight of a crag or shoreline of that continent, but Zunz was surely the first to see and sense the full expanse of its vast and variegated contours. and like other great explorers, Zunz would return time and again to map its terrain and unearth its treasures. No less astonishing, Zunz sailed without benefit of a fleet or a well-funded expedition. His single-handed effort and radical achievement, which would henceforth make history the homeland of Jewish self-perception and public discourse, welled up from an acute sense of historical consciousness, an almost fanatical commitment to get the facts straight, and an extraordinary medley of talents and tools. Spanning nearly a century of bitter turmoil, Zunz’s life of triumph and suffering, passion and pathos, scholarly seclusion and political activism has long deserved a biography in the round.

Without the remarkable survival of Zunz’s papers, however, that desideratum would be beyond our reach. Zunz threw out practically nothing that bore his name or handwriting or in which he may have been involved. Though often brief and intermittent, his diary is extensive for some of his seminal decades, and his continental network of correspondents yields a trove of letters and often a précis of Zunz’s response that constitutes, as Zunz well knew, a skeleton history of the movement he inspired. At his death in 1886, his papers were transferred to the Zunz Foundation (Stiftung) in Berlin, which had been created in 1864 on the occasion of Zunz’s seventieth birthday to provide him and his soul mate, Adelheid, with a modest pension for their twilight years.

One of the earliest scholars to avail himself of that precious repository was Solomon Schechter, who at the invitation of Claude G. Montefiore had left Germany for England in 1882 and five years later published the first . . .

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