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Leopold Zunz Edit Profile

educator , historian

Leopold Zunz was the founder of academic Judaic Studies (Wissenschaft des Judentums), the critical investigation of Jewish literature, hymnology and ritual. Zunz's historical investigations and contemporary writings had an important influence on contemporary Judaism.


Leopold Zunz was born at Detmold, the son of Talmud scholar Immanuel Menachem Zunz (1759-1802) and Hendel Behrens (1773-1809), the daughter of Dov Beer, an assistant cantor of the Detmold community.


The year following his birth his family moved to Hamburg, where, as a young boy, he began learning Hebrew grammar, the Pentateuch, and the Talmud. His father, who was his first teacher, died in July 1802, when Zunz was not quite eight years old. He subsequently gained admission to the Jewish "free school" (Freischule) founded by Philipp Samson, in Wolfenbüttel. Departing from home in July 1803, he saw his mother for the last time (she died in 1809 during his years in Wolfenbüttel). A turning point in Zunz's development came in 1807, when Samuel Meyer Ehrenberg (de), a reform-minded educator, took over the directorship of the Samson School. Ehrenberg reorganized the curriculum, introducing, alongside traditional learning, new subjects such as religion, history, geography, French, and German; he became Zunz's mentor, and they remained friends until Ehrenberg's death in 1853.

He settled in Berlin in 1815, studying at the University of Berlin and obtaining a doctorate from the University of Halle.


He was ordained by the Hungarian rabbi Aaron Chorin, an early supporter of religious reform, and served for two years teaching and giving sermons in the Beer reformed synagogue in Berlin. He found the career uncongenial, and in 1840 he was appointed director of a Lehrerseminar, a post which relieved him from pecuniary troubles. Zunz was always interested in politics, and in 1848 addressed many public meetings. In 1850 he resigned his headship of the Teachers' Seminary, and was awarded a pension. Throughout his early and married life he was the champion of Jewish rights, and he did not withdraw from public affairs until 1874, the year of the death of his wife Adelheid Beermann, whom he had married in 1822.

Together with other young men, among them the poet Heinrich Heine, Zunz founded the Verein für Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden (The Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews) alongside Joel Abraham List, Isaac Marcus Jost, and Eduard Gans in Berlin in 1819. In 1823, Zunz became the editor of the Zeitschrift für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums (Journal for the Science of Judaism). The ideals of this Verein were not destined to bear religious fruit, but the "Science of Judaism" survived. Zunz "took no large share in Jewish reform", but never lost faith in the regenerating power of "science" as applied to the traditions and literary legacies of the ages. He influenced Judaism from the study rather than from the pulpit.

Although affiliated with the Reform movement, Zunz appeared to show little sympathy for it, though this has been attributed to his disdain for ecclesiastical ambition and fears that rabbinical autocracy would result from the Reform crusade. Further, Isidore Singer and Emil Hirsch have stated that "the point of (Geiger's) protest against Reform was directed against Samuel Holdheim and the position maintained by this leader as an autonomous rabbi." Later in life Zunz went so far as to refer to rabbis as soothsayers and quacks.

The violent outcry raised against the Talmud by some of the principal spirits of the Reform party was repugnant to Zunz's historic sense. Zunz himself was temperamentally inclined to assign a determinative potency to sentiment, this explaining his tender reverence for ceremonial usages. Although Zunz kept to the Jewish ritual practises, he understood them as symbols (see among others his meditation on tefillin, reprinted in "Gesammelte Schriften," ii. 172-176). This contrasts with the traditional view of the validity of divine ordinances according to which the faithful are bound to observe without inquiry into their meaning. His position accordingly approached that of the symbolists among the reformers who insisted that symbols had their function, provided their suggestive significance was spontaneously comprehensible. He emphasized most strongly the need of a moral regeneration of the Jews.

In 1840 he became director of the Berlin Jewish Teachers' Seminary.

He was friendly with the traditional Enlightenment figure Nachman Krochmal whose Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman (Lemberg, 1851), was edited, according to the author's last will, by his friend Leopold Zunz.

Zunz died in Berlin in 1886.