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Jewish Studies in Germany

The discipline of “Judaistik” (Judaic Studies) is devoted to researching Judaism in all its historic expressions. Sometimes the term “Jewish civilization” is used to encompass its religious, cultural, philosophical, and literary history as well as Jewish history in general, from its origins to the present (including the Diaspora), and Hebrew philology (“Hebraic studies,” or “Hebraistik”). “Judaistik” in the German academic framework is a both philological and historical discipline, which integrates cultural and social scientific approaches as well as comparative ones (with regard to different religions).

Scholarly approaches ("Wissenshaft") to Judaism developed in the context of the Jewish emancipation in the 19th century as an attempt to establish Jewish academic self-reflexion in a framework of faculties of Jewish theology and to train rabbis within the German academy. After German universities rejected these efforts, the discipline found intellectual homes in rabbinical seminaries and institutions of higher Jewish religious education, such as the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau (1854-1938) and the “Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums” in Berlin (1872-1942), until these institutions were dissolved during the Nazi dictatorship. The Heidelberg “Hochschule für Jüdische Studien” (opened in 1979) and the Abraham Geiger Rabbinical College in Potsdam (founded in 1999) continue this tradition.

(From Wissenschaftsrat: Empfehlungen zur Weiterentwicklung von Theologien und religionsbezogenen Wissenschaften an deutschen Hochschulen, January 29, 2010, pp. 31f.)

 “Judaistik“ uses primarily philological approaches to Judaism, whereas “Jüdische Studien” (Jewish Studies) approaches it from the perspective of cultural history. Both disciplines research the 3,000 years of Jewish history and its present in their complex religious, cultural, intellectual, economic, and social aspects and relations. “Judaistik” and “Jüdische Studien” are secular disciplines; in some cases they are taught in Germany in the context of Christian theology.

“Jüdische Theologie” (Jewish Theology), in contrast, is a sectarian discipline, taught by Jewish professors and preparing students for professions in the Jewish clergy: rabbis and cantors. Therefore, the organized Jewish religious community is formally involved in the practical work of the discipline.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) illustrated the difference between the religiously committed discipline Jewish Theology and other types of Jewish studies by an example: “Jewish theology differs from other branches of Jewish learning in that its practicioners are personally committed to the truth they are seeking to explore. It is possible, for instance, to study Jewish history in a completely detached frame of mind. The historian of Jewish ideas or the Jewish people or Jewish institutions need have no wish to express Jewish values in his own life. He need not be a Jew at all. … While the historian asks what has happened in the Jewish past, the theologian asks the more personal question, what in traditional Jewish religion continues to shape my life as a Jew in the here and now? The historian uses his skills to demonstrate what Jews have believed. The theologian is embarked on the more difficult, but, if realized, more relevant, task of discovering what it is that a Jew can believe in the present.”

(Louis Jacob, A Jewish Theology. London, 1973)