People Of The Book:
Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition
By Dr. Henry Abramson
The bar mitzvah gift of choice for decades, Heinrich Graetz’s massive six-volume History of the Jews played a major role in the formation of Jewish identity at the end of the 19th century. Writing masterfully in literate German, Graetz completed 11 volumes between 1853 and 1875 which communicated a jolt of Jewish pride into the nation that dwells alone, followed by an equally striking anti-Semitic backlash that colored anti-Jewish rhetoric well into the Second World War.
Graetz’s work represented the first modern encyclopedic history of the Jewish people. Prior to his efforts, the main works on Jewish history were tendentious at best, often written uncritically with little awareness of sources and with an explicit agenda in mind. Jews, for the most part, composed poetic but inaccurate martyrologies, whereas Christian historians typically ignored post-biblical Jewish history as a quaint, highly irrelevant anomaly. Graetz’s academic schooling was limited and truncated, but, like many of the great Jewish minds of his time, he was a formidable autodidact who acquired the intellectual tools of the discipline through sheer determination and persistence.
Graetz came from a highly traditional Jewish background and was heavily influenced by the thought of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch, one of the principal architects of modern Jewish identity, argued that Judaism was easily capable of meeting the unprecedented social challenge of modernity, an idea that Graetz adopted with enthusiasm in the years that he spent living in his teacher’s home in Germany.
Graetz would ultimately become a member of the Wissenschaft des Judentums school, a movement that attempted to prove the viability of Jewish candidacy for equal citizenship by demonstrating how well Jews could jettison all “superstitious” elements, but he never abandoned his fundamental belief in the power of the Jewish spirit and he advocated forcefully against the Jewish self-hatred of his times.
For Graetz, the popular term Judenschmerz (“Jewish pain”), which referred to the existential angst suffered by Jews considering facile conversions to Christianity to gain social and economic advantage, was in itself shameful. Graetz declared that Jews must regard themselves as the proud inheritors of an awesome and mighty history, a history filled with magnificent triumphs of spirit and mind, a history that put to shame the far more modest experiences of every European nation, including the Germans.
Graetz’s energizing message of national pride influenced generations of Jewish readers, many of whom went on to become national leaders and thinkers. The German literary establishment, on the other hand, could not have been more offended by what some saw as a fundamental lack of appreciation for German hospitality to a despised people. The most prominent figure in the academic attack on Graetz was Heinrich von Treitschke, the leading German historian of his day.
Von Treitschke bitterly assaulted Graetz’s treatment of the many benefits that Jews brought to Western society–from the introduction of monotheism to the technological and medical advances of the 19th century–asserting instead that Jews had brought only harm and misery to the peoples in whose lands they sojourned. His intemperate attack became a slogan of the times: “Die Juden sind unser Ungluck, the Jews are our misfortune,” was readily adopted and eventually absorbed into Nazi propaganda.
On a scholarly level, Graetz’s work is not without its flaws. Indeed, stated with less venom, even von Treitschke’s critiques of The History of the Jews have some merit. For example, Graetz adopted, perhaps unconsciously, much of the prejudice German Jews had for so-called Ostjuden. His scholarship is marred by unsympathetic portrayals of chassidism, a movement that he saw as a superstitious outgrowth of spurious Kabbalistic influence on an uneducated population, and his portrayal of Jewish persecution was a prime example of what his 20th-century successor Salo Baron would style the lachrymose school of Jewish historiography.
Nevertheless, Graetz’s massive work exposed readers to a positive view of Jewish history and broadcast a message of hope and pride that nourished the minds of generations.
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.