In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Wissenschaft des Judentums

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Primary Source Editions and Translations
  • Protagonists
  • Beginnings
  • Ideals, Values, and Visions
  • Spaces
  • Practices

Jewish Studies Wissenschaft des Judentums
Amos Bitzan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0157


Scholars once translated Wissenschaft des Judentums as “Science of Judaism.” Because of the gap between the 19th-century German concept of Wissenschaft and current Anglo-American conceptions of science, however, most specialists prefer translations such as the “academic study of Judaism,” “the scholarly study of Jews and Judaism,” and “critical Jewish scholarship”—or employing the original German phrase. As used by historians today, Wissenschaft des Judentums (henceforth WdJ) refers to the publications, research practices, institutions, and networks of 19th- and early-20th-century Jewish scholars who applied the methods and ideals of academic disciplines such as philology and history to the study of Jews and Judaism. WdJ scholars studied all periods of the Jewish past and large parts of the vast literature of Jewish legal, liturgical, philosophical, scientific, and other texts known then. They produced knowledge and forms of knowing that transformed or competed with earlier models of Jewish learning and self-understanding. Their research also challenged Christian, especially Protestant, conceptions of post-biblical Judaism, although they were less successful in effecting significant changes in attitudes on this front. Most scholars date the beginning of WdJ to 1818, when Leopold Zunz (b. 1794–d. 1886 published “Etwas über die rabbinische Litteratur” (Something on Rabbinic Literature), later seen as the founding manifesto of WdJ. Most WdJ scholars studied at German universities or at rabbinical seminaries staffed by instructors educated there (e.g., the Breslau Theological Seminary and the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary). They wrote primarily in German. Key figures included Zunz, Isaak Markus Jost (b. 1793– d. 1860), Zacharias Frankel (b. 1801– d. 1875), Abraham Geiger (b. 1810– d. 1874), Moritz Steinschneider (b. 1816– d. 1907), Heinrich Graetz (b. 1817– d. 1891; see the Oxford Bibliographies article Heinrich Graetz), David Kaufmann (b. 1852– d. 1899), and Ismar Elbogen (b. 1874– d. 1943). WdJ in the sense described here ended during the Nazi onslaught in the 1930s and 1940s, although its research findings and some individuals of its last generation survived World War II. “Wissenschaft des Judentums” as a phrase first entered wider circulation on the cover of the Zeitschrift für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums (1822–1823), a journal edited by Zunz, and in an essay by Immanuel Wolf (b. 1799– d. 1847) titled “On the Concept of a Wissenschaft des Judentums,” which appeared in its first issue. Some WdJ scholars called their field of study and practice “jüdische Wissenschaft” (Jewish Wissenschaft). Today, researchers usually categorize the contemporaneous Hebrew-language writings of philologically oriented Galician and Italian scholars separately from WdJ as “ḥokhmat yisrael” (Science of Judaism/the Jews); confusingly, that phrase has also long been used in Hebrew to denote German-language WdJ.

General Overviews

No comprehensive book-length history of WdJ in its entirety exists. The first historical treatments of WdJ were written by scholars connected to it. Although a highly partisan account, Graetz 1870 attempted to capture the intellectual, cultural, and social circumstances that produced WdJ. For more recent and balanced general overviews, readers should consult the concise article Schorsch 1994 and the very thorough treatment in Wilhelm 1967. Dinur 2007 is a bit dated but contains references to older Hebrew-language scholarship. The handbook entry Schulte 2001 gives a clear overview of the subject but provides no documentation or bibliography. Brenner 2010 is the best general overview of Jewish historical writing in the modern period, and therefore frequently discusses WdJ. For overviews of the state of research on Wissenschaft des Judentums thus far, see Johnston 2013 and Krone and Thulin 2013. Johnston 2013 assesses ideas behind particular representations of Wissenschaft des Judentums in the literature. Krone and Thulin 2013 presents a systematic analysis of the entire historiography on the subject. One of the problems in writing a comprehensive history of WdJ and in presenting a general overview lies in the massive and technical corpus of scholarly writings, as well as correspondence, that must be analyzed by the would-be author. Furthermore, the scholars continue to seek the spatial, temporal, and other limits of what qualifies as WdJ. For example, there is debate about whether the Hebrew-language writings of Galician and Italian scholars, such as Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport (“ShIR,” b. 1790–d. 1867) and Shmuel David Luzzatto (“ShaDaL,” b. 1800–d. 1865), neither of whom were university-educated, could be considered part of WdJ. Most of the secondary literature today refers to them as belonging to a connected but different network called ḥokhmat yisrael (see Introduction). Likewise, scholars debate the relationship to WdJ of research carried out by 19th-century Jewish scholars in France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the Russian Empire, and the United States. That is not to mention the proliferation of Yiddish-language social scientific research on Jews during the interwar period, especially in the Soviet Union and in the Polish Republic, as well as the Hebrew-language historical and philological work produced in British Mandate Palestine/Eretz Yisrael. Krone and Thulin 2013 suggest that these various scholars and research efforts did constitute a transnational linked movement, but that it is better conceived in the plural as “Wissenschaften des Judentums” to reflect its diversity.

  • Brenner, Michael. Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History. Translated by Steven Rendall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    Not exclusively concerned with WdJ, but chapters 1 and 2 deal with several WdJ historians and histories, surveying major themes and analyzing their connections to political and religious debates of the 19th century.

  • Dinur, Benzion. “Wissenschaft des Judentums.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica. Edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 105–114. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2007.

    Save for an expanded bibliography, this is an unrevised version of an article that appeared in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica in 1972. It can still be profitably consulted for an overview and is useful for its references to early Hebrew-language literature on WdJ.

  • Graetz, Heinrich. Geschichte der Juden: Vom Beginn der Mendelssohn’schen Zeit 1750 bis in die neueste Zeit 1848. 1st ed. Vol. 11. 11 vols. Leipzig: Robert Friese, 1870.

    Graetz analyzed the lives and works of key WdJ figures and reconstructed their intellectual influences and spiritual ambitions. He ranged across geographic borders and at least implicitly connected Wissenschaft des Judentums in Prussia to activity in Galicia and Italy. See particularly Chapter 9: 437–447; Chapter 10: 448–508; Chapters 11–12, passim.

  • Johnston, Elizabeth E. “Reading Science in Early Writings of Leopold Zunz and Rifa`a Rafi` al-Tahtawi: On Beginnings of the ‘Wissenschaft des Judentums’ and the ‘Nahda.’.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 2013.

    Although unpublished and concerned specifically with Zunz, this dissertation provides an excellent summary of the ways in which WdJ has been defined in the literature, and it presents several penetrating critiques and questions, in “Chapter 1: The Wissenschaft des Judentums: Emancipation, Assimilation, Revolt,” 16–57.

  • Krone, Kerstin von der, and Mirjam Thulin. “Wissenschaft in Context: A Research Essay on the Wissenschaft des Judentums.” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 58.1 (2013): 249–280.

    DOI: 10.1093/leobaeck/ybt010

    The best and most thorough review of the English- and German-language research on WdJ up to 2013, which simultaneously provides an overview of the phenomenon. The authors focus on the literature that deals with German-language WdJ but provide useful pointers to more expansive perspectives on the subject.

  • Schorsch, Ismar. “Jewish Studies from 1818–1919.” In From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism. By Ismar Schorsch, 345–359. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994.

    Its foremost historian narrates and analyzes the story of WdJ from its beginnings to its end. Insists on the importance of the original German intellectual context, but also extends the gaze to other locations (Russia, England, and the United States).

  • Schulte, Christoph. “Die Wissenschaft des Judentums.” In Handbuch zur Geschichte der Juden in Europa. Vol. 2. Edited by Julius H. Schoeps and Hiltrud Wallenborn, 268–284. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 2001.

    Very concise and readable overview of WdJ’s beginnings, values, and institutions, but without references.

  • Wilhelm, Kurt. “Zur Einführung in die Wissenschaft des Judentums.” In Wissenschaft des Judentums im deutschen Sprachbereich: Ein Querschnitt. Vol. 1. Edited by Kurt Wilhelm, 3–58. Tübingen, Germany: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1967.

    A thorough and precise overview of the major writings of key WdJ scholars and the movement’s various moments of institutionalization, proceeding chronologically and analyzing what was most significant in each generation. It is especially valuable for its synopses of the sources and references to the older literature.

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