A recent biography by Ismar Schorsch is devoted to Leopold Zunz (1794-1886), the German Jew who almost singlehandedly founded the field of academic Jewish studies. In his review, Michah Gottlieb considers Zunz’s legacy:
Zunz’s conviction that Jewish-studies scholarship was meant to impact life was borne out by the fact that within his lifetime Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox seminaries in Germany and America made Jewish studies an important component of the training of modern rabbis. This remains true, but the place of Jewish studies in modern Jewish life is by no means secure. Ultra-Orthodoxy, which largely rejects academic Jewish studies, is the fastest-growing Jewish group worldwide, while Reform, Conservative, and, arguably, Modern Orthodox Judaism remain demographically stagnant or in decline, and the prospects for Jewish secularism in America are, to say no more, unclear. Does the work of . . . Zunz’s heirs . . . matter to contemporary Judaism and Jewish life?
Concerns about Jewish studies are not new. In Zunz’s own lifetime, the neo-Orthodox ideologue Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that historicizing Jewish texts, ideas, or rituals alienated contemporary Jews from them by making them seem foreign, outdated, and all too human. When modern Jewish denominations sought to establish themselves in the shadow of tradition-bound Judaism, scholarship’s capacity to legitimate religious reform clearly served an important function. But what of today, when few Jews outside Orthodoxy feel a robust sense of obligation to Torah law? It is far from clear that historical scholarship addresses the key issues confronting the liberal denominations of Judaism.
In Zunz’s time, Jewish studies was also an important tool for refuting anti-Judaism and legitimating Jewish civil rights. But this no longer seems relevant in America or Europe where, whatever prejudice may still exist, Jewish civil equality is largely taken for granted. (The place of Jewish studies in Israel is very different, though no less problematic.)