What sort of recognition has posterity accorded to one of the great scholars of Judaism, arguably the greatest of the nineteenth century? Sadly, Steinschneider’s contribution to the history of Jewish literature in all its aspects has gone virtually unnoticed outside a small circle of scholars. If he is remembered at all, it as a cold, antiquarian scholar who reportedly said that “the task of Jewish studies is to provide the remnants of Judaism with a decent burial.” This is the portrait, or better, caricature, of Steinschneider drawn by Gershom Scholem in his well-known diatribe against Wissenschaft published in 1945. Scholem, an ardent zionist, viewed Steinschneider and his mentor Zunz as “gravediggers” and “liquidators” of the Jewish national values that they considered no longer relevant after the advent of emancipation and liberalism. Scholem’s negative evaluation of Steinschneider’s scholarly motivation and outlook in no way implied a disparagement of the nineteenth-century scholar’s achievements. On the contrary, Scholem writes in the Hebrew edition of his memoir From Berlin to Jerusalem “Despite the enormous distance I felt from the men of the [Wissenchaft] group, I revered Steinschneider and pursued his works, major and minor, as well as off-prints of his articles, all of my life.” He also relates that as a university student, his familiarity with Steinschneider endeared him to his teacher, and later doktorvater, the great scholar of scholastic philosophy, Clemens Bäumker.
I come here not to praise Steinschneider, but rather to bury him more decently than did Scholem. To do so I will sketch a preliminary picture of his contribution to the ideology of Wissenschaft des Judentums that is less biased than the polemical one offered by Scholem. I say “preliminary” because Steinschneider made few theoretical statements on the subject of Wissenschaft. His views on that subject, like on so many others, must be gleaned from his voluminous writings and correspondence. For over a century articles on Steinschneider have begun with a call for a full-fledged intellectual biography of the man. That call has not yet been answered.
Steinschneider’s principal reflections on Wissenschaft are found in his short essay, Die Zukunft der jüdischen Wissenschaft, published in1869, a half-century after Zunz had issued his programmatic-statement on Etwas über die rabbinische Literatur. The science of Judaism during the last fifty years, writes Steinschneider, was motivated externally by the struggle for emancipation and internally by the desire for religious reform. Scholars thought that examining the Jewish achievements of the past would pave the way for greater acceptance of the Jews in the present, and would provide models and precedents for modernizing the religion. In recent years, a third motivation for Wissenschaft has been proposed, namely, the training of modern rabbis, and a modern rabbinical seminary in Breslau had been opened. But as important as these practical motivations were, they do not address other fundamental questions: “What about Jewish history and literature as a link and source of history and cultural history in general? Is it a part of theology? What will become of it if the universities, according to the Dutch example, leave theology as a practical science to the care of the various religious communities?” “Where and how should this academic study be conducted -- in Jewish communal institutions or in German universities? “Where will it find its support -- in the community or the government?”
Although Steinschneider’s expressed intent was merely to raise these questions, his personal opinions are not hard to infer from his article. The task of scholars of Judaism is to investigate their subject as objectively as possible, without ideological tendencies, and in its intellectual and historical context, i.e., as connected with other cultures. This sort of study can be conducted best only in universities, not in the faculty of theology, whose focus is narrowly religious, but in the faculty of philosophy, i.e., the humanities. Jewish religious seminaries, even modern ones, are primarily interested in the training of rabbis; they focus almost exclusively on areas of importance to Jewish theology, and their students and faculty are exclusively Jewish. Jewish studies within the framework of even the most enlightened seminary cannot be free and independent.
Who should support Wissenschaft? Steinschneider implies that this is an obligation for the state and not for the Jewish community, not only because of the general importance of exploring civilization’s past -- after all, the state supports scientific research into the pyramids and the ruins of Pompeii -- but because “the spirit that created the great works of Jewish literature is still alive in the citizens of their state.” This is an interesting argument which refutes, by the way, the view of Steinschneider as a curator of a dead or dying religion. For he seems to be implying that the state has a special obligation to support the research and teaching of subjects that inform the identity, even the group identity, of minorities within the state. In fact, there should be no difference in principle between minority and majority cultures. According to Steinschneider -- again, by implication -- as long as the state supports the education of Christian teachers of religion, it has the obligation to support Jewish teachers of religions, through supporting Jewish seminaries.
Certainly Steinschneider was aware that the likelihood of the German state supporting the teaching of Jewish history and literature in universities, much less Jewish religion in seminaries, was remote. In fact, not a single chair devoted to Jewish history or literature was established in German universities until well after World War II. He was also aware that private money -- Jewish, of course -- would have to be found to support academic Jewish studies. In a letter written to his friend, the historian Meyer Kayserling in 1876, in which he refused Kayserling’s offer of a position at the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary, he writes,
It seems to me that the task of our times is to prefer the endowment of untenured instructorships in Jewish history and literature in the philosophy faculties, thereby compelling the authorities to establish professorships and schools in which regular high school students can be prepared for the study of Jewish literature. We certainly do not want boarding schools in which bachurische clumsiness, impoliteness, and beggarliness is preserved and glossed-over.
The last statement reveals Steinschneider’s prejudices against the Eastern European yeshiva students who made up a good proportion of the students at the rabbinical seminaries. The aims of Wissenschaft required the proper preparation of students in high schools. For this Jewish donors had to be found.
In the same letter Steinschneider claims that his principled opposition to Jewish Studies outside the university did not conflict with his own association with the Veitel Heine Ephraimschen Leharanstalt (Beth ha-midrasch), the old school of the Berlin Jewish community. Steinschenider was a part-time lecturer for nearly fifty years for that institution, which counted Jews and Christians, including Paul Lagarde, Georg Hoffman, and Hermann Strack, among its students. The school was open to all, its faculty all had university doctorates, and it did not confer doctoral degrees. Steinschneider had declared publicly that he would resign were it to offer a single doctorate.
Steinschneider did not address a question that has remained with us to this very day, namely, why wealthy Jewish individuals would wish to endow instructorships in Jewish history and literature at German universities, where the return to the Jewish community was neither immediate nor guaranteed. Perhaps he thought that he could get others to share his own passion for the study of what he called the “international literature of the Jews,” e.g., works of philosophy, science, medicine, and belles-lettres. After all, his teaching had been supported, in part, by the Berlin Jewish community for half a century. And, to my knowledge, at this stage of his life he expressed neither pessimism nor apprehension about the future of the academic study of Judaism.
Nor is there any support, at least to my knowledge, for the strange idea that Steinschneider became progressively detached from Judaism culture or religion, or that he saw its inevitable assimilation into secular culture. Steinschneider remained throughout his adult life a liberal Jew whose ideals were those of the enlightenment and the revolution of 1848, in which he took part as a student. In the remarkable credo that makes up the Foreword to one of his last works, Die Arabische Literatur der Juden, he lashes out against those who use the insufficiency of reason, “this weapon of all kinds of unreason,” to justify “the forcing of myths in new clothes or of monstrosities of fantasy, let alone the clinging to institutions of fake authority or to obsolete customs.” Given that this line follows a reference to the zoologist Ernst Haeckel, it is clear that Steinschneider is taking aim against the myths of racial supremacies, which he felt had replaced the myth of religious supremacies. His reference to the “obsolete customs of religion” reaffirmed his decades-long abandonment of orthodoxy, nothing more.
But nothing in the Forward suggests a weakened commitment to Judaism per se, not even the claim that “it is the task of whoever feels entitled to lead the sum [of society] to stress what is common to the different circles of mankind, to point towards the ‘one Father of us all’ – towards what brings human beings nearer to each other.” Steinschneider expresses these sentiments in a book chronicling the Jewish literature that was dearest to his heart, that of the Jews living in Muslim lands. After characterizing Ashkenazic Jewish life as one of “segregation in government, trade and society; expulsion, inquisition, agitation, and persecution” and Ashkenazic Jews as possessing “a surplus of mental acumen, squandered in casuistic and hermeneutical quibbles, faith and superstition linked to each other like Siamese twins,” he writes in an intensely personal passage,
The historian likes to direct his attention to places where a human existence was granted to the tolerated subject, an existence in which his spirit was allowed to soar above and beyond the national barriers towards the highest existential questions. Such a person believed to have attained already on earth the ideal of human thought, the conjunction with the active intellect.
Steinschneider strongly identified with a literature that was not confined by the narrow parochialism of a national culture. He was under no illusion that such a literature was representative of Judaism, much less than it constituted its “essence.” With his unparalleled knowledge of Jewish books, he knew precisely what its place had been. But it was a literature with which he felt a strong personal affinity, and which reinforced the Jewishness of his commitment to liberalism and universalism, at a time when the growth of nationalism and antisemitism had made him pessimistic.
As for Steinschneider’s alleged comment that it is the task of scholars to provide the remnants of Judaism with a decent burial, it has not been found in his writings, but was attributed to him in a necrology published shortly after his death in the German zionist periodical Jüdische Rundschau by the young orientalist Gotthold Weil, who had recently been one of Steinschneider’s students. Weil had participated in the short-lived zionist “National-jüdische Verein der Hörer an der Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin,” which numbered among its members Arthur Biram, Judah Magnes, and Max Schloesinger. An active zionist leader in Germany, he later came to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after the Nazis dismissed him from his post as professor of oriental literature at the university of Frankfurt.
The context of Steinschneider’s reported comment is a discussion that Weil conducted with Steinschneider about the latter’s alleged proto-zionistic activity in his youth, when he supported Jewish colonization in Palestine as a possible solution for anti-Jewish discrimination in Germany. One imagines that this was a topic of considerable interest among Steinschneider’s zionist students, considering the elderly scholar’s open antagonism towards zionism. According to Weil, Steinschneider admitted to participating in a scheme in the1830’s to further the colonization of persecuted German Jews in Palestine. But he felt that the events of 1848 obviated the need for a separatist political solution to the Jewish problem. According to Steinschneider, Weil informs us, the history of the Jews had ceased in 1848 and that as a result, “the only task we have left is of giving the remains of Judaism a decent burial.” It is easy to see how political zionists like Weil and Scholem would see an offhand comment as an epitaph for Jewish people as a nation; according to Scholem, “a breath of the funereal did in fact cling to the atmosphere of this discipline for a century; occasionally there is something ghostlike about this literature.” They interpreted Steinschneider as holding that Jewish national existence was rendered obsolete by political emancipation, and that assimilation was inevitable and desirable.
But there is no indication from Steinschneider’s writings that the scholar felt that the end of Jewish history, or for that matter, the extinction of the Jews as a “nation” had occurred in 1848, or that it was inevitable or even desirable. True, political emancipation had at least in principle removed the necessity for the Jews to segregate themselves in their own land in order to escape persecution. But almost fifty years later Steinschneider would write that the Jews indeed constituted a nation,
in the original meaning of that word…united, at least thus far, by an ideal fatherland and Scripture reaching back into their remotest antiquity…We affirm, in fact, that the concept “Jewish” cannot be understood merely in terms of dogmas and rituals, but that the entire Jewish cultural evolution must be viewed as a mirror of the underlying religious and moral ideas and national convictions.
It was not the history of the Jews that ceased in 1848, according to Steinschneider, but the history of the Jews as an entity that required a political solution in its own state. He considered anti-Jewish discrimination not to be a Jewish problem but rather a human problem that should be solved within the confines of the modern liberal state.
What Steinschneider increasingly detested was the romanticism, sentimentality, and separatism that he found in nationalism in general and zionism in particular. Not a great admirer of nationalism to begin with -- according to Weil, he would occasionally say that “Nationalism is brutality; humanity is freedom and truth” -- he never missed an opportunity to show his despisal of romantic Jewish nationalism, even in the oddest of places. Thus in his great work on the Hebrew translations of the Middle Ages, while mentioning that Judah ha-Levy had been driven to emigrate to Palestine by a somewhat mystical -- another disparaging term for Steinschneider -- national sentiment, he adds in a footnote that the Hungarian scholar David Kauffman, “der Apologet von Daniel Deronda,” called such an attraction “realistic.” This was a disparaging reference to Kaufmann’s enthusiastic review of George Eliot’s proto-zionistic novel that Steinschneider had sharply criticized. The reference, completely out of place in a footnote on translations of Halevy, showed how passionate this supposedly cold, rationalist scholar could be on the subject of Jewish national revival.
Steinschneider’s ironic remark to his student Weil on the task of scholars of Wissenschaft is best seen within the context of his deeply rooted antipathy towards zionism, as well as his opposition towards tendentious scholarship of all sorts. The task of Jewish scholarship, he wished to say, is not to serve the interests of Jewish political interests, national or otherwise. “My intention,” he wrote in 1902 “is the most objective and historical portrayal possible, neither apologetically nor polemically painted, nor nationally or theologically prepared.” Steinschneider intended to produce an objective scholarship possible that avoids apologetics, polemics with Christians, nationalism, and theology. Given this antipathy, his comment to Weil was perhaps intended to preach the gospel of independent scholarship. Although his students may have thought that the task of Wissenschaft was to help revive the spirit of the nation, Steinschneider did not. Given his negative views of Graetz, it is not difficult to see how he would have viewed the excesses of the Jewish nationalist historians of the twentieth century.
But this explanation of Steinschneider’s comment seems inadequate. For there are many ways to emphasize the virtues of objective scholarship without using the image of death and burial. Why did he employ this particular phrase? Perhaps his remark should be read as an ironic appropriation of Samuel Raphael Hirsch’s attack on Wissenschaft des Judentums. Hirsch wrote that the scholars of Wissenshaft keep alive the memory of the old Judaism as it is carried to its grave; in another metaphor of death, he called Wissenschaft “the fine dust wafting from the stone coffins of moldering corpses.” Steinschneider was a master of the ironic retort. Perhaps he was saying to his student Weil, “Just as Hirsch and the orthodox have said, we are burial societies -- let’s at least make sure that the burial is an honorable one.”
On the other hand, Steinschneider may have been genuinely pessimistic about the future of the Jews in Germany, not because of assimilation, but because of the steep rise of antisemitism in the last two decades of the nineteenth-century. In 1893 he writes “The history of the daughter religions is a constant series of attempts to murder their own mother; if one of them ever succeeds, the crime will bring down the criminal.” Nine years later he commented dryly on a historical pamphlet written by a Prussian gymnasium teacher that calls on Germany to emulate the example of Spain and Portugal and expel its Jews. “The self-appointed historian wisely omits that the brutality of the mob was aroused not only by bull fights but by the live burnings of hundreds of Jews and apostates.” Steinschneider feared German nationalism, according to Weil. Perhaps he felt that the remains of Judaism deserved a decent burial because the Jews themselves were in for difficult times from antisemitism.
But these are mere speculations. It is futile to read too much into the sarcastic quip of an aged scholar, which, if reported accurately, was never intended for publication. Can there be anything more indecent than having this comment serve as the summation of Steinschneider’s attitude towards the academic study of Judaism, or the task of its scholars? It is not surprising that both neo-Orthodox Jews like Hirsch and secular Zionists like Scholem assigned to the practitioners of Wissenschaft the role of gravediggers of Jewish nationalism. If their visions of the Jewish nationalism were not only mutually exclusive but exhaustive, then it is a role that Steinschneider would have accepted willingly. But his vision of the Jewish nation was different from theirs.
It is ironic that in articulating the differences between the visions of Wissenschaft “now” and “then,” Scholem reaffirmed much of the vision of Steinschneider – not of Steinschneider the “gravedigger,” but of Steinschneider the advocate of an open, unapologetic, and untendentious scholarship that only a university-setting could enable. Steinschneider would indeed have been pleased with the establishment of centers of the academic study of Judaism, such as the Institute of Jewish Studies at Hebrew University, where, in Scholem’s words, “everyone is free to say and to each whatever corresponds to his scholarly opinion without being bound to any religious (or anti-religious) tendency.” After all, Steinschneider was the most consistent advocate of the idea that Jewish studies can only flourish in such an atmosphere. Scholem also reaffirmed Steinschneider’s distaste for nationalist history when he noted with regret that “the heritage of an apologetics in reverse, an apologetics which now, so to speak, has revised everything in terms of zionism, has produced notable examples in our scholarly work.” Steinschneider consistently opposed apologetic scholarship of all kind.
In sum, what connects the scholarship of Steinschneider and Scholem seems vastly to outweigh the differences, once we have adjusted the scale to allow for changing tastes and fashions in scholarship. The view of the Jewish people as a living and organic phenomenon was no doubt foundational in Scholem’s scholarly approach, but the growth in Jewish studies in the second half of the twentieth century had more to do with the sociology, economic abilities, and changing identities of the Jewish communities than with the growth of Jewish national consciousness. More to the point -- if the “antiquarian” scholarship of the nineteenth century had given way to the “scientific and empirical” scholarship of the twentieth – both of Scholem’s phrases seem a bit quaint today – the reason was not because of Jews had undergone a national revival, but because scholarly tastes and methods had changed. Steinschneider’s scholarly approach was no more “antiquarian” than that of contemporary orientalists like LeClerc, Wenrich, or Wüstenfeld; just as Scholem’s scholarly approach was shaped by his intellectual training and cultural context. One shouldn’t make judgments about the scholarship of a bygone age by using contemporary fashions as a yardstick. The presence of university-trained scholars in the history of medieval Jewish culture and history would have pleased Steinschneider greatly, even more so when he learned that some of the leading scholars are not Jewish. One suspects that here too Scholem would agree.
This post for the Seforim blog -- dedicated to Dan Rabinowitz's weekly shiur following hashkamah minyan at his local synagogue -- is based on my article, “Steinschneider’s ‘Decent Burial’: A Reassessment,” Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought Vol. I., ed., Howard Kreisel (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 2006), 239-251. Some of the correspondence has recently been published. See Briefwechsel mit seiner Verlobten Auguste Auerbach, 1845-1849: ein Beitrag zur jüdischen Wissenschaft und Emanzipation, eds., Marie Louise Steinschneider and Renate Heuer (Frankfurt/New York, 1995). The longest biographical treatment is still Alexander Marx, “Moritz Steinschneider,” in his Essays in Jewish Biography (Philadelphia, 1947), 112-184. Marx has a very useful bibliography on pp. 294-95. For a list of Steinschneider’s writings, see George Alexander Kohut, “Bibliography of the Writings of Professor Dr. Moritz Steinschneider,” in Festschrift zum Achtzigsten Geburtstage Moritz Steinschneider’s (Leipzig, 1896), v-xxxix. Steinschneider’s secretary, Adeline Goldberg, published additions to the bibliography in Zeitschrift fur hebräische Bibliographie 5 (1901): 189-91; 9 (1905): 90-92; 13 (1909): 94-95.
 Die Arabischen Überzetungen aus dem Griechischen (Leipzig, 1897) and Die Europäischen Übersetzungen aus dem Arabischen (Graz, 1956). See D. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbâsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries) (London/New York, 1998), p. 195: “There is as of yet no modern bibliographical survey of the Arabic translations of all the Greek philosophers; Steinschneider’s Die Arabischen Überzetungen aus dem Griechischen remains the only single treatment.”
 “Mi-tokh hirhurim al hokhmat yisrael” in Devarim be-go (Tel Aviv, 1975), pp. 385-405. This celebrated essay was published first in Luah ha-Arez and republished several times during Scholem’s lifetime. It has recently been translated into English by Jonathan Chipman as “Reflection on Modern Jewish Studies,” in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in our Time and Other Essays, ed. A. Shapira (Philadelphia and Jerusalem, 1997), pp. 51-71. Scholem, who planned to publish a similar critique in Walter Benjamin’s journal in the early 20’s, returned to the same issue several times during his career, notably in “Wissenchaft vom Judentum einst und jetzt”