Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Scientific Study of Judaism


   There is in Berlin, Germany a Jewish college which is called Bethdeborah.

   This newly established institution seeks to continue the tradition of the “Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums” which was destroyed by the Nazi government of Germany in 1942.

     “Hochschule” does not mean “high school” in the American sense.  Instead it means “college” because it refers to studies which are on the college level. A German high school is called a gymnasium on the grounds that in ancient Greece only women attended such an institution. (gyn - woman).

    This College for the Science of Judaism was the outgrowth of the influence of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) on the German Jewish community. We discussed Mendelssohn in an earlier commentary on this site.

    Since the beginning of Jewish emancipation (emancipation - give out of hand) the German Jews had made numerous efforts to have Judaism introduced into the curriculum of German universities. This was not successful. No German university wanted to teach anything about Judaism.

    Therefore, it was decided at the end of the nineteenth century to establish an autonomous Jewish academic institution. The promoters of this idea wanted to do more than teach only theology for the purpose of training rabbis. They also sought to teach the origins, present condition and future of Jewish history, philosophy, jurisprudence and literature.

     Such a school was finally opened in Berlin in 1872. One of the founders of that school was Abraham Geiger, who had been active in establishing Reform Judaism. Also involved were David Cassel, Israel Lewy and Heyman Steinthal. These men were all so-called “intellectuals” and professors at the University of Berlin. It may be surprising to learn that there were Jewish professors in German higher education, yet, despite the anti-Judaism of the population as a whole, these exceptions did exist.

     This “Hochschule” engaged in free inquiry and research without any restrictions. The effort was to maintain, perpetuate and disseminate Judaism. No religious test for professors was instituted. Nevertheless, all of the faculty lived according to the Jewish tradition and all were fluent in Hebrew. The school was never dependent on any religious or public organization, party or profession. Therefore, the board was constantly engaged in raising money from wealthy contributors, sponsors of scholarly “chairs” and scholarships.

      The “Hochschule” developed slowly. At the beginning, in 1872, there were only 12 students, including four women. In 1921, there were 63 full time and 45 part-time students enrolled in the “Hochschule”. Many of these students had come  from the Eastern European countries, notably Poland. The largest contingent of these students had graduated from Yeshivoth  in the orthodox communities of their home countries. They came speaking Yiddish and learned German readily as the two languages are closely related.

    Evidently, these Eastern European students were far superior in knowledge of Judaism to the assimilated German Jews who attended there. Many of the German Jewish students came from homes in which Judaism had been abandoned for two generations. Therefore, these Geman Jews, although anxious to learn about Judaism, were handicapped by their lack of language skills in Hebrew since it was and is impossible to gain access to the Talmud, the Midrashim and most sources of Jewish knowledge without a good Hebrew background.

    In the year 1932, the school celebrated its 60th anniversary. At that time there were 155 full time students, including 27 women enrolled. There were also numerous auditors enrolled who studied Talmud, Midrash, Halacha, Hebrew, Philosophy, History or Homilitics.

   One of the professors at that time was Leo Baeck, who was also the chief exponent of German Reform Judaism.

    The “Hochschule” demanded that its full time students also enroll at the University of Berlin so as to insure their secular education. This demand led to numerous financial problems for those who could not afford the tuition at the University.

    During the years 1930-1933 the school had achieved so great a reputation that many non-Jews enrolled. This was particularly true of Christian clergy, who met once a month with the Jewish faculty and discussed Biblical and historical topics.

     After the middle of 1933, however, the school lost its substance since Hitler had been appointed “chancellor” of Germany in January of 1933. At first, the Nazis only reduced the school from a college to a training school. Then, after the racial laws were enforced in Germany in 1935 and Jews were deprived of their employment, many ex-professors and teachers congregated at that school. In 1938, in view of the “Kristallnacht” when all synagogues in Germany and Austria were burned down, large scale emigration and incarceration in concentration camps reduced that school to a skeleton of its erstwhile dimensions. Finally, in 1942 the school was closed as the last Jews were deported to death camps in the east.

   Now, an effort is being made to revitalize that school in Berlin. The small Jewish community there seeks to re-organize Jewish life in Germany. There are those who feel that we should avoid Germany and not reestablish ourselves there. Yet, such a debate is spurious since the fact is that Germany does once more have a mainly Russian Jewish community. Let us support them then and visit there and let those Jews know that they too are KLAL YISROEL, members of the Jewish community.

Shalom u’vracha.

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