Wissenschaft des Judentums (Scholarly Study of Judaism) names a method of study and a hundred-year trajectory of texts originating in the early -19th century, which ignited fierce debates on the meaning of “Judaism.” The first of several “returns to Judaism” after the Jewish Enlightenment (haskala), this movement aimed to make the history of Jewish life and religion available to a German Jewry that had been alienated, or so its founders argued, from traditional practices. Its historical method was controversial to the extent that, as a scholarly discipline based in reason, it was seen as drawing Judaism away from religious practices and beliefs. At the same time, scholars argued, only critical science could construct a safe haven within non-religious culture for the singularity of Judaism, without either effacing or exoticizing it. Reform Judaism was born within the movement, and Zionism reacted against it. Moreover, books produced by Wissenschaft scholars had an enormous popular impact in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To give one example: historian Heinrich Graetz’s 11-volume Geschichte der Juden von den Anfängen bis auf die Gegenwart (History of the Jews from the Beginnings to the Present) was quickly abridged and translated and appeared in Jewish living rooms across Europe for half a century.
Today materials from this important movement are hard to find. Foremost among the few archives of Wissenschaft materials is the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History in New York, which currently holds close to 8,000 of the approximately 11,000 major published volumes belonging to the movement. The collection was built volume by volume out of private libraries rescued by emigrants, from bookshops and auctions after the war, and through the work of more recent donors. Because so few copies of these books still exist, the main problem today is scarcity of access. Thus LBI is working with the Center and the University libraries in Frankfurt to create a comprehensive database of digitized Wissenschaft books, journal articles and archival materials that can be accessed by interested readers around the world.
LBI also has a special reason for developing and disseminating this collection of materials. Its first president, Rabbi Leo Baeck, was the last teacher in the movement’s last institution, the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, closed by the National Socialists in 1942.