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Learned Societies

Learned societies among Jews, whose prototypes existed in the talmudic period, flourished in the late Middle Ages and were particularly widespread in Eastern Europe even into the 20th century. They were conceived on a broad basis. Unlike societies formed during the 17th and 18th centuries such as the Académie Française and the Royal Society of London, which operated under royal or government sponsorship and support and consisted of a small, aristocratic element of the general population, Jewish learned societies were democratic and open to all. Workers, merchants, and businessmen joined together in their own localities and formed semiprivate organizations, often with their own dues, structure, and book of statutes, for the study of some aspect of traditional Jewish literature. Among the most common of these groups was the ḥevra shas (Talmud; see *Study).


With the advent of the 19th century and the achievement of civil equality, West European Jewry began a process of self-examination. Although there had been individuals earlier who applied critical methods to traditional study, such as *Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, and Naḥman *Krochmal, it was Moses *Mendelssohn who initiated new types of learned societies within the Jewish community. Beginning with Mendelssohn there was an increased interest in Hebrew and Bible study. In 1783 Isaac *Euchel established Ḥevrat Doreshei Leshon Ever (Society for the Proponents of the Hebrew Language) in *Koenigsberg, where, later that year, the first secular periodical in Hebrew, Ha-Me'assef, began its appearance. In 1819, reacting to riots, a group of young university students led by Leopold *Zunz, Edward *Gans, and Moses *Moser formed the Verein fuer Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden. Zunz, coining the term *Wissenschaft des Judentums ("Science of Judaism"), continued to research facets of Jewish literature after the society disbanded in 1824, and nearly all subsequent learned societies were indebted to him for initiating a systematic study of Judaism.


The greatest period of growth of the learned societies was during the second half of the 19th century, due to an increase in academic specialization along with an expanding teaching profession and a growing awareness of the social sciences. Within the Jewish community the cultural scholarly functions of the learned society were sometimes part of a larger organization. Thus, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, founded in 1860 with the goal of defending civil and religious liberties and alleviating disabilities of Jews, collected valuable demographic and ethnographic materials and sponsored scholarly publications in addition to its own house organs.

The Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of *Russia, founded in 1863, subsidized Jewish scholarly publications despite its russianization aims. Among its more notable journals was Yevreyskaya Biblioteka ("Jewish Library"), an annual begun in 1871 containing articles on the nature of the Jewish past and present. Another example of a society sponsored by a larger organization was the Historische Commission, established by the *Deutsch-Israelitischer Gemeindebund in 1885. The commission collected historical data on German Jewry and published the Zeitschrift fuer Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland (1887–92; reestablished by I. *Elbogen and A. *Freimann 1929–37).

Publishing Scholarly Works

Some societies were formed in response to a particular aspect of the learned society, such as the publishing of scholarly works. In 1864 the *Mekiẓe Nirdamim Society was established in Germany with the express purpose of publishing Hebrew works of Jewish classical literature, especially unpublished manuscripts. The society, which was transferred to Ereẓ Israel in 1934, had published about 100 books in all by 1970.

Attempts to organize a publishing society in the United States included the American Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia (1845) and another bearing the same name in 1873, both short-lived. In 1888 the *Jewish Publication Society of America was founded and by 1970 had published over 600 volumes. Among these works were an English translation of the Bible (1917, and a translation beginning in 1962) and the annual American Jewish Year Book starting in 1899. *Monatsschrift fuer Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums was a scholarly periodical founded by Zacharias *Frankel, published under different editors (including H. Graetz and I. Heinemann) and in different places, but primarily in Breslau. It was published consistently from 1851 until 1939, except for a short interlude in 1887–92. In 1904 the newly founded *Gesellschaft zur Foerderung der Wissenschaft des Judentums financed the publication of the journal. This same organization had undertaken to print a historical encyclopedia of German Jewry, Germania Judaica (vol. 1, 1934; vol, 2, 1968).

Germany was the scene of frequent attempts to establish learned societies. In 1841 M. Joel, S. Stern, and L. Zunz founded the Kulturverein, which tried to encourage investigation of contemporary problems by conducting essay contests. Many of its leaders were active in the Reform movement. In 1855 Ludwig Phillippson, along with Jost and A. *Jellinek, founded the Institut zur Foerderung der Israelitischen Literatur, which published over 80 works during its 18-year existence. The *Juedisch-Literarische Gesellschaft, established in 1902 in Frankfurt on the Main, was primarily interested in investigations into aspects of traditional Judaism.

The most important learned society in France, the *Société des Etudes Juives, was founded in 1880 by Zadoc Kahn, Isidore Loeb, and Theodore Reinach. The Société has concentrated on French Jewry, and over 100 volumes of its scholarly journal Revue des Études Juives have appeared, extending over 75 years, with a brief interruption during World War II. It has also published such basic works as H. *Gross's Gallia Judaica (1897) and Reinach's Textes.


In response to the need for proper research tools for the investigation of the Holocaust, the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine was established by Isaac *Schneersohn in France in 1943. The organization has encouraged scholars in individual research and has published numerous volumes, including the periodical Le Monde Juif (1946). Also devoted to Holocaust research is the Central Jewish Historical Society, founded in 1944 in Lublin by Philip Friedman, which moved to Warsaw in 1948 and became the *Jewish Historical Institute. Among the most notable books it published was Emanuel Ringelblum's Notits fun Varshever Geto (1952, fuller edition 1961–63). It also published the quarterly Bleter far Geshikhte. With the death of its director, Berl Mark, in 1967, and faced with increasing Polish Jewish emigration and government restrictions, the institute, despite its Marxist orientation, found it increasingly difficult to continue its work.

The end of the 19th century witnessed the birth of a learned society in England, the *Jewish Historical Society of England, founded in 1893 by Lucien Wolf, Albert Hyamson, Israel Abrahams, and Claude Montefiore. It has concentrated its efforts upon the history of the Jews in England and Anglo-Jewry throughout the world. Its scholarly periodicals are Transactions (from 1893) and Miscellanies (irregularly from 1925).

Though not strictly a learned society, the *Wiener Library and Institute for Contemporary History, established by Alfred *Wiener in 1934 in Amsterdam and moved to London in 1939, specializes in material relating to Nazism, antisemitism, and minority problems, as well as contemporary European history and the State of Israel. It publishes the Wiener Library Bulletin and is one of the sponsors of the Journal of Contemporary History.

In 1908 Maxim *Vinaver organized the Russian Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society in St. Petersburg and became its first president. Simon *Dubnow, the historian who had issued a call for such a society in 1891, became vice chairman of the society and served as editor of its scholarly journal Yevreyskaya Starina. Among the contributors were Meir *Balaban, Isaac (Ignacy) *Schiper, Moses *Schorr, and Mark *Wischnitzer.

Related Institutions in the United States

The 20th century witnessed two major demographic shifts within the Jewish community as the United States and Israel increasingly became the major centers of Jewish scholarly activity. The relative profusion of groups interested in various aspects of Jewish life denied the learned societies any exclusive claim to Wissenschaft des Judentums, especially on the contemporary scene. Educational institutions (e.g., Hebrew Union College) and professional societies, such as rabbinical organizations (e.g., Central Conference of American Rabbis), the Association of Jewish Libraries (founded 1966), and the National Council for Jewish Education (founded 1926) have engaged, in part, in activities similar to those of learned societies. They publish journals (Hebrew Union College Annual, Jewish Education, etc.) and share the camaraderie associated with such groups (e.g., Society of Jewish Bibliophiles, founded 1961). The sophistication of professional studies in the area of communal needs led to the early formation of the *National Conference of Jewish Communal Services (1898), which publishes the Journal of Jewish Communal Services.

Several research institutes are almost exclusively dedicated to the work of learned societies. Among these are the *YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, founded in Vilna in 1925 and moved to New York in 1940, which is a major source of research and information on modern Jewry. It has published most of its work in Yiddish. The *Leo Baeck Institute (founded 1959) serves as a research center for the history of the Jews in German-speaking countries from the enlightenment to the rise of Nazism and publishes a yearbook (from 1956). There are also libraries and archives which engage in scholarly research and publish journals (e.g., Studies in Bibliography and Booklore and American Jewish Archives, both of Hebrew Union College) although they do not constitute learned societies even in its broadest definition.

However, learned societies in the more classical form do exist. Among those in the United States are the *American Academy for Jewish Research and the *American Jewish Historical Society (founded 1892). The latter collects and publishes material relating to U.S. Jewry, issues the American Jewish Historical Society Quarterly, and has published individual monographs relating to the Jews in the United States. The *Conference on Jewish Social Studies (founded 1933) aims to promote a better understanding of the position of the Jews in the modern world through scientific research. Its scholarly journal is Jewish Social Studies.


Especially since its creation the State of Israel has become home to numerous learned societies, research institutes, and academies. The traditional patterns (e.g. ḥevra shas) have been infused with new life. Bible study groups flourish; the largest is the Israel Society for Biblical Research, which also publishes the Beth Mikra. There is hardly an area of research from archaeology to poetry to Zionism which is not under investigation by some institution, be it under governmental, university, or private auspices. Among those that were established prior to 1948 is the *Israel Exploration Society (founded 1913), which engages in excavations and related research into the history and geography of Israel. It publishes a quarterly in English, a Hebrew quarterly, Qadmoniot, and an annual, Eretz-Israel. The Historical Society of Israel (founded 1925) promotes the study of Jewish history. The Palestine Historical and Ethnographical Society, as it was originally called, issued a journal, Me'assef (6 vols.), and a quarterly, Zion, which began to appear regularly in 1935. In 1942 the Israel Folklore Society was founded with the aim of preserving Jewish folklore by recording customs, traditions, folk songs, tales, and proverbs of the various Jewish communities in the Diaspora. It publishes a Hebrew biannual journal, Yeda Am ("Folklore").

Several societies have received official government recognition since the establishment of the state. The *Academy of the Hebrew Language, founded at the turn of the century by Eliezer *Ben-Yehuda, was reestablished in 1953 by Knesset law. It studies the vocabulary, structure, and history of the Hebrew language and is the official authority for its development. Among the academy's publications is Leshonenu, a journal for the study of the Hebrew language and cognate subjects. Yad Vashem, formally established by the Knesset in 1953, publishes numerous studies relating to the Holocaust. Another academy established by the Knesset is the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (1961), which promotes work in these areas and brings together the most eminent Israel scholars.

Among the many institutes in Israel are the Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Talmud and Jewish Law (founded 1932) and the Institute for Research in Jewish Law (founded 1963), which are both concerned with responsa literature and the codification of Jewish law. The *Ben-Zvi Institute (founded 1948) sponsors research in the history of Jewish communities from the tenth century to the present, with primary interest in Oriental communities. Sefunot (starting 1956) is one of its most important publications. The Asher Barash Bio-Bibliographical Institute (founded 1951) gathers documentary material on Hebrew writers and aims at bibliographical registration of all Hebrew literature published since the Mendelssohn era. It publishes an annual anthology, Genazim (1961).

There are also many archives in Israel interested in preserving various aspects of Jewish life (see *Archives). The Israel Archives Association (founded 1956) was established to promote cooperation among them and to coordinate their activities. The Association for Jewish Demography and Statistics was established (1958) in cooperation with the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University to promote the collection, arrangement, and analysis of pertinent data relating to the demography of the Jewish people. The professionalization of Jewish scholarship, the sophistication of research tools, the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the birth of Israel have all given impetus to Juedische Wissenschaft in its broadest definition.


AJYB (1899– ), passim; Scientific and Technical Associations and Institutes in Israel (19662); Encyclopedia of Associations (1968); The Middle East and North Africa (1967/6814); The World of Learning (1968/6919); JE, 11 (1905), 421–3; A. Wein, in: Yad Vashem Studies, 7 (1970), 203–13.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.