Heinrich Hirsch Graetz

The German historian and biblical exegete Heinrich Hirsch Graetz (1817-1891) wrote one of the great monuments of the Jewish Enlightenment, "History of the Jews."

Heinrich Graetz was born in the village of Xions in the Prussian province of Posen on Oct. 31, 1817. The Jewish communities of Germany at this time were seething with cultural conflicts and religious disputes. The emancipation of the Jews at the end of the 18th century, the influence of the Enlightenment on such figures as Moses Mendelssohn, and the establishment of public schools had begun to crack the ghetto walls. For some these movements were the forces of progress, for others they were a fearful threat to religious practice and traditional custom. These conflicts left their mark on Graetz's education and his career.

At Wollstein, where he was sent to study after his confirmation, Graetz followed the traditional Talmudic training. At the same time he taught himself Latin and French and read Euclid, the French and Latin classics, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Mendelssohn, J. C. F. von Schiller, and Heinrich Heine. His religious faith was soon shaken. Then one day he read a small book entitled Nineteen Letters, by Rabbi Hirsch of Oldenburg, an eloquent and scholarly defense of orthodoxy. In 1837 he resolved to go to Oldenburg to study with the author. Here he completed his Talmudic education.

In 1842 Graetz entered the University of Breslau, from which he received a doctoral degree in 1845. It was no help, however, in finding a position. Graetz was temperamentally ill-fitted for the rabbinate, and his theological position by now pleased neither the traditionalists nor the innovators. Finally, in 1853, he was named to the faculty of a newly founded rabbinical seminary at Breslau.

In the same year appeared the first volume of Graetz's History of the Jews. Though not the first attempt to write such a work, it was, as he said, the first "Jewish history of the Jews." When completed in 1876, it ran to 11 volumes. The theme of the work was "how the family of a petty sheik became the nucleus of a people; how this people was humiliated to the condition of a horde; how this horde was trained to become a nation of God through the law of self-sanctification and self-control; and how these teachings became breathed into it as its soul." Opposing the Christian view that Judaism completed its historic mission with the coming of Christ, Graetz insisted on the continuing vitality of the Jewish tradition through its many declines and revivals. Graetz wrote without the aid of detailed monographic studies and therefore often called upon his fantasy to fill in gaps of ignorance. He did not hesitate to voice his strong and sometimes unfavorable opinions of men and ideas. The work remains a vivid narrative and a classic in its field.

After completing the History, Graetz turned to biblical exegesis, publishing works on the Psalms, Jeremiah, and Proverbs. He projected a critical edition of the Bible but died before he could complete it, on Sept. 7, 1891.

Further Reading on Heinrich Hirsch Graetz

A sympathetic "Memoir" by his student Philip Bloch appears in the translation of Graetz's History of the Jews (6 vols., 1891-1898). Graetz is discussed in Salo W. Baron, History and Jewish Historians: Essays and Addresses (1964).

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