The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Orphic Sounds, Exilic Mythology, and the Spirit of the Jewish Nation in Wissenschaft des Judentums

While one of the main aims of Wissenschaft des Judentums was to gain Jewish literature and the discipline of Jewish literary studies an equal place within world literature, the treatment of Psalms by leading proponents of WdJ diverged from the treatment of other poetic biblical corpuses, such as the Song of Songs, in deploying a mythological rather than scientific discourse framed in popular genres intended for a Jewish readership. The paper explores the mythical role ascribed to Psalms as a locus of Jewish national consciousness in writings by Leopold Zunz published between the 1830s and the 1870s, and Heinrich Graetz, whose translation of Psalms with a critical commentary was published in the early 1880s, in a pocket-size format for domestic use and in a scholarly edition. It demonstrates how by drawing on mythological images of national origins in pre-exilic existence using the language of German Romanticism, the two scholars fashioned the foremost poetic corpus of Jewish liturgy that more than any other transcends the boundaries of Exile, as the supreme expression of Judaism’s national collective spirit.

A close reading of these writings on Psalms, the paper suggests, reveals a focus not on textual aspects but on embodied spiritual, aesthetic, performative practices, individual and congregational, that rendered psalm singing constitutive ofnational-historical Jewish consciousness and subjectivity. Thus, linking a mythical past with a modern civic present, and Jewish tradition with German Romantic conceptualization of national origins, offered Jews a model for retaining a strong sense of national patrimony despite integration into German culture and society. The paper shows that for Zunz and Graetz, recourse to national-historical myths of the Jewish people inscribed and preserved in imagined sounds and visual images traditionally associated with the psalms negotiated a distinct national Jewish identity within German Jews’ reality of the emancipation era.