Since the 1820s, the science of Judaism became an influential factor, at first particularly in the German-speaking world, where it appeared with an authoritative claim as a new interpretive model of Jewish religion, history, and culture, which it sought to open up with the methodological tools of philology, historiography, and philosophy. The genesis and development of a Jewish scholarship oriented toward academic standards marked a paradigm shift from the interpretive traditions of the pre-modern era, in which Judaism had presented itself as a system of action conveying meaning based on an eternally valid divine self-communication.
The project sets out from the observation that Jewish scholarship, notwithstanding its ambitions emphatically critical regarding tradition, did not develop as a “secular discipline to be pursued independently of Jewish ties,” but rather presented itself in the course of the second third of the century primarily as an academic discipline bound to a particular denomination, in which the open-ended striving for knowledge remained in a constant state of tension with the systematic-normative demands of the religious community. Insofar as the Jewish religion designated both the objective and the subjective frame of reference of the “science of Judaism,” this scholarship did not aim at an antiquarian survey of the past, but defined itself as an interest-driven “Jewish theology,” as a positive science of the Jewish faith in history and the present, which took up the crisis in religious orientation of a minority increasingly confronted with the challenges of modernity. If the science of Judaism testified to the productive participation of Jews in general scientific endeavors, which admittedly had to unfold largely outside of universities operated under state supervision, the generation of knowledge also aimed, not least of all, at a defensive modernization of Jewish religion, which as a civic denomination demanded its place in society.