Leopold Zunz (Hebrew/Yiddish: יום טוב ליפמן צונץ—Yom Tov Lipmann Tzuntz; 10 August 1794 – 17 March 1886) 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, and 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.
He wrote precise philological studies but also impassioned speeches on the Jewish nation and history that had an influence on later Jewish historians. Zunz wrote in 1855
"If there are ranks in suffering, Israel takes precedence of all the nations; if the duration of sorrows and the patience with which they are borne ennoble, the Jews can challenge the aristocracy of every land; if a literature is called rich in the possession of a few classic tragedies—what shall we say to a National Tragedy lasting for fifteen hundred years, in which the poets and the actors were also the heroes?"
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.
In 1832 appeared "the most important Jewish book published in the 19th century." This was Zunz's Gottesdienstliche Vorträge der Juden, i.e. a history of the Sermon. It lays down principles for the investigation of the Rabbinic exegesis (Midrash) and of the siddur (prayer-book of the synagogue). This book raised Zunz to the supreme position among Jewish scholars. In 1845 appeared his Zur Geschichte und Literatur, in which he threw light on the literary and social history of the Jews. He had visited the British Museum in 1846, and this confirmed him in his plan for his third book, Synagogale Poesie des Mittelalters (1855). It was from this book that George Eliot translated the following opening of a chapter of Daniel Deronda: "If there are ranks in suffering, Israel takes precedence of all the nations...". After its publication Zunz again visited England, and in 1859 issued his Ritus. In this he gives a masterly survey of synagogal rites. His last great book was his Literaturgeschichte der synagogalen Poesie (1865). A supplement appeared in 1867.
Besides these works, Zunz published a new translation of the Bible, and wrote many essays which were afterwards collected as Gesammelte Schriften.
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