Leopold Zunz’s estate is the centerpiece of the Leopold Zunz Archives. The rich corpus contains biographical documents of Zunz, his wife Adelheid Zunz, née Beer, and their families, as well as materials concerning Zunz’ social and political life, his activities in various organizations, numerous manuscripts and preliminary versions of his printed works, his comprehensive correspondence with friends and contemporary scholars, work on Zunz written and published by others, and a collection of Hebrew texts.
“When I turned five, I could sing the Draur Yikro by heart, and began to study Talmud. I learned Hebrew grammar, the Pentateuch, and the Jewish letters from my father. One of the first melodies I do remember is the Marseillaise. The first pictures I can remember are the portraits of Bonaparte, Nelson, and Suwarow that hung on the walls of our living room.”
These early childhood memories of Leopold (Yomtov Lipman) Zunz describe crucial motives that would influence him throughout his entire life: The study of Jewish sources, integration into the mainstream European culture, and the relentless struggle for freedom, liberation, and Jewish emancipation as part of the revolutionary movement of his time.
Zunz was born in the German town of Detmold in 1794. In 1815, after completing his schooling at the Samsonsche Freischule and the Gymnasium in Wolfenbüttel, he attended the University of Berlin, eventually receiving his doctorate from the University of Halle in 1821. Such influential Prussian academics as Friedrich August Wolf, August Boeckh, and Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette aroused Zunz’s remarkable interest in philology, paving the way for his scholarly, scientific, and intellectual activities.
Zunz’ famous article “Etwas über die rabbinische Litteratur” (“On Rabbinical Literature”), published in 1818, established the intellectual agenda of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (“Science of Judaism”), while adumbrating the main themes of his own future work as well. In the paper, we encounter the very first definition of Judaism as a Kulturvolk (“cultural nation”) and the first outline of Zunz’s universal concept of Judaism as a particular religion with its own specific background, history, and tradition. Even at this early stage of his academic career, Zunz mapped out his concept of the Wissenschaft des Judentums which he intended to serve as a medium for presenting, preserving, and transmitting the corpus of Jewish literary works. Zunz believed that only an academic approach to Jewish texts and a comprehensive and interdisciplinary academic framework would allow for the adequate study of Jewish themes and Judaism. Zunz would, however, fail in his lifelong struggle to establish a chair in Jewish studies in at least one German university.
The goal of his academic program was intrinsically linked to an appeal for political and religious reform. In his article “Die Organisation der Israeliten in Deutschland” (1819; “The Organization of the Israelites in Germany”), Zunz sketched out the reform that he had in mind. For the first time, someone would call upon the German states not to view rabbis as the sole representatives of the Jewish community. In the years to come, Zunz would work on the realization of his ideas in numerous distinct areas of the Jewish community: From 1821 to 1823 he held sermons in German at Beer’s Reformed Temple; between 1826–1830 he was the director of the Jewish Community School in Berlin; and between 1840–1850 the director of the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary in Berlin.
In 1832, Zunz published the first monograph written in the spirit of his new concept of the Wissenschaft des Judentums: Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden, historisch entwi¬ckelt (“History of the Jewish Sermon”). This included the first overview of Jewish literature, while lending support to numerous arguments in the defense of religious reform. Some years later, Zunz would dissociate himself from the reform movement and its ideas, and would criticize the distinction between the religious and the national. He cautioned against what he saw to be a devaluation of Jewish history, and predicted that the reform movement would soon “suicidally” self-destruct.
In 1845, Zunz published his book Zur Geschichte und Literatur (“About History and Literature”), and followed in 1855 with the first volume in a trilogy, Die synagogale Poesie des Mittelalters (“Synagogue Poetry in the Middle Ages”), which was followed in 1858 by a second volume, Der Ritus des synagogalen Gottesdienstes, geschichtlich ent¬wickelt (“History of the Synagogue Worship Rites”), and the third in 1865, Literaturgeschichte der synagogalen Poesie (“Literary History of Synagogue Poetry”). These works represent the Jewish people as a living organism and the synagogue as the medium that has continually reproduced its national consciousness and creativity. In the 1870s, Zunz’ interest mostly centered on critical Bible exegesis. Eventually he published several books in the field and a life long occupation came to a close. During this period, the Jewish scholar also travelled widely throughout Europe, visiting libraries and museums where he collected a vast amount of bibliographical information on manuscripts and rare books. These materials formed the basis for Zunz’s comprehensive bibliography, which is preserved in his archive.
Zunz was, however, not only a prodigious scholar but outstanding politician as well. In the 1840s, he identified more and more with liberal ideas and joined the democratic movement as a strong proponent of the pan-European revolution envisioned by the French revolutionaries of the 18th century. His political ideas were anchored in Jewish messianism, which he regarded as the central and unifying concept of Western culture. In contrast with his predecessors, he claimed that the state was obliged to guarantee the Jews full and unconditional civil rights, i.e. without calling upon the Jews to abandon their traditions and values. Zunz emphasized that there was no contradiction between political loyalty to the state and loyalty to Judaism. Between 1848 and 1870, Zunz was an active member of the liberal-democratic movement and was elected several times to serve as an elector in the Prussian Parliament. In his speeches and lectures, he made strong references to the unfulfilled revolutionary agenda of 1848; in his opinion, the revolution could only be regarded as complete when self-government has brought about a state of law all throughout Europe.
Zunz conversed and corresponded extensively with a wide range of contemporary intellectuals, among them his Gymnasium teacher from Wolfenbüttel, Samuel Meyer Ehrenberg, and several influential Jewish scholars, including Lazarus Bendavid, Abraham Geiger, David Kaufmann, Moritz Lazarus, Salomo Juda Rapoport, Samuel David Luzzatto, and Moritz Steinschneider. Zunz’s letters are a treasure trove for scholars who want to learn more about his rich personality, his personal life, and intellectual endeavors.
Zunz would never return to his research after the death of his wife Adelheid in 1874, and focused mainly on the edition of his unpublished writings until he died in Berlin in 1886.