Friday, November 12, 2010

Lazar Gulkowitsch

Last summer, at the international SBL in Tartu, Estonia, I went to a really interesting presentation by Anu Pöldsam of the University of Tartu. She presented on Lazar Gulkowitsch, who had had a chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Tartu from 1934 to 1941 (when he was killed by the Nazis). I finally wrote up my notes of her talk.
She started by talking about the historical situation in Estonia at the time. Estonia became an independent nation after WWI. In 1924 Estonia granted rights to minorities for independent status, and in 1926 cultural autonomy was granted to the Jewish community in Estonia.

In 1929 a society to promote Jewish Studies was established at Tartu University. The first goal was to educate Jews, but it got support from the theological faculty, the rector of Tartu University, and from other Jewish scholars outside the university.

In 1934 a chair, supported by the Jewish community, was established in Philosophy at the University of Tartu. Lazar Gulkowitsch was appointed to the position.

Lazar Gulkowitsch was a scholar who followed the methods and philosophy of the Wissenschaft des Judentums. For his position at Tartu, he was recommended by Christian scholars in Germany.

He was born in 1898 in Shirin (Belorus) and studied at the Mir Yeshiva. In 1919 he studied at the University of Königsberg, where he received his Ph.D. He worked on Kabbalah for his thesis. In 1924 he was invited to Leipzig, where he lectured on Hebrew and Aramaic studies. He also continued to study at Leipzig. In 1927 he received his habilitation in Hasidism. In 1932 he was named a professor of Judaism at Leipzig, but in 1933 he was dismissed because of the Nazi racial laws.

In 1934 he went to Tartu. There were 25 students there from Estonia and Latvia. Some rabbinical students came as well for a Ph.D. in Hebrew literature. He gave guest lectures in the United States and Sweden after he got Estonian citizenship in 1937.

In 1941 he was killed by the Nazis (after the Nazi invasion in the summer of that year). He had many publications and five unpublished manuscripts. (One of his published books was Der Hasid).

In 1938 he wrote about his scholarly program. He was interested in the history of ideas – rational and mystical approaches, with an emphasis on language. He was a philologist, also interested in the philosophy of language and culture. He wrote on the formation of abstract terms in Hebrew. The term חסיד was among the central terms of Jewish culture. He covered its appearance in all aspects of Jewish literature. He thoroughly researched Hasidism, relying on texts. Discussed the peak, the ideal of Hasidism. He studied cultural-hasidic phenomena and the sociological structure of Hasidism. He had a holistic approach to it – history, language, culture, and social sciences.

Why was he forgotten?
Gershom Scholem discussed Gulkowitsch in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. He found his approach too rational (Scholem was very critical of the rationalistic Wissenschaft des Judentums). But Scholem didn’t know Gulkowitsch’s later work in Tartu, because Gulkowitsch was isolated in Tartu until 1937 (when he gained Estonian citizenship and could then leave the country to give lectures elsewhere). He had almost no audience in Estonia. There was a lack of research resources because of financial difficulties. Also a shift from focus on the essence of Judaism to emphasis on the Jew and his life.

He might have tried to find a position in Leningrad before the German invasion. There is a story that he went to the train station with his family to go to the Soviet Union at the last moment, but then turned back and didn’t go.
I just did a Google search for Gulkowitsch and turned up an interesting article about him, written by another scholar at the University of Tartu - Urmas Nommik, in a journal called Trames: Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences (2006), which is published at Tartu. It can be read via Google Books at Trames. The title of the article is "Lazar Gulkowitsch: Relations between the Rational and the Mystical."

The abstract for another article on Gulkowitsch in the journal Akadeemia 7/2008 can be found at a website called Eurozine. This article was written by Isidor Levin.

In 2007 there was a conference on Gulkowitsch at the University of Tartu entitled: "Jewish Studies in Tartu: Lazar Gulkowitsch and his Seminarium Litterarum Judaearum Tartuensis (a Memory for the Future)." A short description of the subject of the conference:
More than 70 years are past, since Lazar Gulkowitsch, having studied and worked in Koenigsberg and Leipzig, driven out of Leipzig in 1933, came to Tartu and began to build up his institute for Jewish Studies. When only few years were granted for this institution - it was closed by the Soviet authorities and Gulkowitsch himself was executed soon after the occupation of Tartu by Nazis. It has still its special place in the history of not only the University of Tartu, but also of the Jewish Studies. We have to remind this work and make it fruitful for the future, we have to discuss, how this work begun by Gulkowitsch and his students can be carried on today.

No comments:

Post a Comment