Oriental studies at the Academic High School
Johann Gottfried Gurlitt – reformer, pragmatist, scientist, teacher
The Semitic languages’ loss of significance
Secularization of Oriental studies
The Universal Importance of the Semitic Languages
The separation of Oriental and Occidental philology and philosophy
Gurlitt’s Orientalization of Judaism
Oriental Studies was always represented among the four, later six, endowed professorships at the Academic High School Akademisches Gymnasium. The field was above all understood to consist of Christian-influenced Hebrew studies, but it also contained embryonic forms of comparative Semitic philology and the study of Islam. In the 18th and into the 19th century, engagement with the “languages of the Orient” was seen as a field of knowledge auxiliary to Christian theology. Many important 20th-century Orientalists were also Protestant theologians. The humanistically-influenced Bible study that decisively shaped the profile of the Academic High School Akademisches Gymnasium in the 17th and 18th centuries, became increasingly obsolete in the course of the Enlightenment. Academic high schools were considered outmoded in the 19th century and often dissolved or downgraded to ordinary schools. The Hamburg Academic High School Akademisches Gymnasium did not put a stop to this development.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Johan Gottfried Gurlitt did not sink to anti-Jewish utterances during his time as professor and rector of the Academic High School Akademisches Gymnasium. In fact, under his leadership, Jewish students were accepted for the first time. In the context of the gradual civil emancipation of the Jewish population in German-speaking lands since the late 18th century, this measure was up-to-date. The Jewish population of Hamburg briefly achieved full civil rights with the French occupation of the city between 1811 and 1814; after the occupation ended, however, the Council of Hamburg immediately reversed this. Not until 1849 was Jewish emancipation implemented in the Hansa City. In 1860 it was given constitutional status. In this context, Gurlitt may confidently be considered a reformer, although the opening of the school to this new target group simultaneously served a purely pragmatic purpose, the replenishment of waning student numbers. Further measures, by which Gurlitt hoped to stop the decline of the Academic High School Akademisches Gymnasium as a component of higher education in the Hansa City, were organizational reforms, salary raises for professors, and a modernization of the curriculum (pp. 6-8). The reform of the traditional profile of the school also included a reworking of the curriculum and teaching methods, as Gurlitt laid out in the Foreword, using his own field as an example (pp. 9ff). Although, at this stage his dedication to Oriental languages was not particularly popular with the students at the school. In the reports from the course catalogue for the 1810-1811 school year concerning Gurlitt’s sessions on the “lyric anthology of the Hebrews” (i. e., Psalms) and the Book of Job in the school year 1809-1810, only one student seems to have taken the course (p. 17). As a scholar Gurlitt’s research interests in classical philology embraced a broader view, that is, Latin and Greek as well as Hebrew, Arabic, and other Semitic languages. As an Orientalist his goal was wholly conventional, to clarify obscure passages in the Old Testament. His special interest in this regard was the Psalms. In addition, he also taught Greek philosophy and the New Testament.
In the Foreword to the course catalogue, Gurlitt laments the growing loss of significance for Oriental philologies in the educational canon of the era, especially with regard to the Hebrew language. As the basis for this development, he identified the decreasing importance of knowledge of the Hebrew language for the church service in a number of German states, the priority given to Greek and Latin philology among “schoolmen,” and the separation of classical philology from the study of Oriental languages. With some annoyance, Gurlitt remarked that a few of his colleagues at the Academic High School Akademisches Gymnasium thought the study of Hebrew completely unnecessary (p. 13).
Gurlitt is an interesting figure in the transition of Oriental Studies from an auxiliary field of Christian theology to a stand-alone modern discipline; on one hand, he stood for a Christian-influenced Hebrew studies in the traditional sense, as it had been established in the 17th and 18th centuries at the Academic High School Akademisches Gymnasium, on the other hand, he sought to legitimize it in a new increasingly secularizing environment. Only a profound knowledge of the Hebrew language, Gurlitt said, would make it possible to understand the deep meaning of the Bible, as well as to discover the “the goldmines of Hebrew language and literature” (p. 14). Reading Herder’s “The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry“ (1782) was not sufficient to this end. The fact that Gurlitt connects Bible study to the study of Hebrew poetry referenced not only Herder’s specific influence, but also that of the progressive desacralization of biblical texts in the course of the Enlightenment.
To this end Gurlitt postulated that Hebrew, Arabic, and other Semitic languages ought not simply be aids to traditional biblical scholarship, but rather a necessary component of classical philology, which was becoming a leading discipline of the 19th century: “The Greek and Latin philologist must possess a general knowledge of the languages and literature of the Orient, in order to account for the ancient Greek poets’ intentions, assumptions, and modes of expression in Higher Antiquity. Moreover, the scholar of linguistics, that is, of grammar in general, the history of human language, its origins and progress, and the gradual development of grammar, […] requires the scientific knowledge of at least one Semitic language that the human race, scarcely grown out of its Asian cradle, haltingly spoke” (p. 12). With that Gurlitt insisted on the universal historical importance of the Hebrew language which he placed in an evolutionary process with Latin and Greek. At the same time, however, he implied a line of connection between Jewish civilization, which he emphatically described as “Asiatic,” and the high cultures of Rome and Greece that his contemporaries so valued.
With such a valuation Gurlitt could scarcely meet with undivided agreement, for, in the early 19th century, Greek and Roman antiquity were considered the roots of western modernity and were most rigorously delimited from Judaism and the “Orient” in general. For example, Christian Petersen, who in 1828, after Gurlitt’s death, came to the Academic High School Akademisches Gymnasium as a classical philologist, published a collection of essays which dealt with the historical genesis of Greek philosophy and the differences of opinion of various schools of thought concerning this. Nowhere does he speak of a connection to Oriental languages, not even to Arab philosophy or its reception of ancient philosophy. Instead, Petersen contested the notion that Ionian philosophy had anything to do with the eastern “Doctrine of Emanation” or that it was influenced by ancient Babylonian religion.
As relatively progressive as Gurlitt’s theses may sound in this context, there emerges in his Foreword the Enlightenment’s teleological notion of an established universal historical phased development that culminated in a European modernity shaped by Christianity. The “Orient” and Hebrew, as well as the other Semitic languages, were conceived of by enlightened intellectuals like Gurlitt to be the cradle of humanity, the archive of the childhood of human civilization. In this manner, Judaism was Orientalized becoming a precursor to the European modernity, similar to the way Christian dogma spoke of the “replacement” of Judaism by Christianity. Precisely in this thinking, there existed points of contact to the antisemitic dimension of the Enlightenment, whereby complete assimilation was presented as the precondition for the civil equality of the Jewish population.
A century later, a similar approach was represented by another important educational reformer, Carl Heinrich Becker, a professor at the Hamburg Colonial Institute. Becker located Islam and the history of Muslim societies in the framework of world history, as he anticipated it; he went beyond the widespread conceptions of that time which spoke of essentially self-contained “cultural circles” in that he saw the Islamic “Other” as an heir to late Antiquity and therefore declared it to be a relative – if also a somewhat backward one – to the superior European Civilization. Among the liberal intellectuals during the course of the long 19th century, Jews and Muslims had two things in common: both religions were connoted as Oriental, and both, essential but deficient, were downgraded to forerunners of the Christianity-shaped European modernity.
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Achim Rohde, Dr. phil., born 1969, is scientific coordinator at the Academy for Islam in Science and Society at the Goethe-University Frankfurt. His focus of research: modern and contemporary history of the Near and Middle East, history of Orientalism in Germany.
Achim Rohde, Hebrew Language Studies between Christian Theology and the Enlightenment. The Academic High School in Hamburg (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, October 19, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-52.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].