George Alexander Kohut.

David Kaufmann : An appreciation online

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Bn Appreciation





It was Leopold Zunz, whose keen prophetic insight
into the future of Jewish science is one of the rarest

c^ .phenomena in Hebrew literature, and whose estimate

of men and things had a force and a strength akin to

' inspiration, that predicted for David Kaufmann a

-^brilliant career. ^ David is picking pebbles to slay
1 Goliath," said he, by way of an epigram,, to a noted

^ scholar, who is keeping pace with the master in age
and wisdom, " and many a dilettante giant now blas-
pheming God, will fall at the well-directed aim of his

The prophecy was fulf^ed, for not only did he "fell
the Philistine," the strength of his arm unsheathed the
sword of the giant from its scabbard and forever cut
off the head of argument. He it was who had the
temerity to cope with Paul de Lagarde, the pseudo-
patriot and u polyglottenpriester," and in an exqui-
sitely written satire, steeped in learning, refuted the
former Botticher's chief contention that Jews were not
masters of German prose. It sufficed for this latter-
day David to hear his spiritual king assailed and
reviled, to hasten to the rescue of Zunz, and whilst
Zuckermandel cringed and cowered beneath the lash
to win a compliment for his edition of the Tossiphta
from an anti Semite, and Berliner's defense, however

valiant, all but proved the efficacy of the charge,
Kaufmann's vigorous style always pure and pictur-
esque and his wonderful fund of knowledge in every
branch of research, skilfully combined and tactfully
turned against his adversary, carried the day, and his
luminous expos6 of "Paul de Lagarde's Jiidische
Gelehrsamkeit " belongs to the classics of polemical
literature.* Nor did he confine his prowess to the com-
bating of unreasoned, if learned, prejudices of "Juden-
fresser." He challenged, barely four years ago, the
Orientalist Adalbert Merx, who has won a somewhat
precarious reputation as theologian and Semitist after
throwing off the yoke of the Torah, in a scathing
review published in the " Monatsschrift." Needless
to say, that after a critique such as Kaufmann wrote
of a volume of Semitic inscriptions issued by the luck-
less apostate, little room was left for further comment.
If there be such a thing as complete annihilation
before death, then the dismemberment of Merx's
scientific renown at the hands of this just, but ruth-
less opponent of learned shams was, indeed, a tragic

For he whose own work was so complete in every
detail as to call forth the undisguised admiration of
specialists could not brook bookish superficiality. I

* He broke a lance for Jewish theology with a member of the
Hungarian parliament and his essay, "Vom Juedischen Katechis-
mus," in answer to that gentleman's charges leave nothing more
to be said on the subject. On another occasion he made the
Court-preacher, Stocker, feel the sting of his spirited satire and
his logic easily vanquished this notorius Jew-baiter, who once
quoted Kaufmann's famous apology of Judaism his admirable
critique of Daniel Deronda, at an open session of the Reichstage,
in proof of Jewish audacity.

know not whether the comparison be deemed appro-
priate by those who knew the power of the man, but
here we have a Jewish Kipling, whose originality and
versatility are uuquestioned, and whose marvelous
erudition commands our homage. For who of all our
modern Hebraists including even Zunz and Graetz
had the wonderful power to combine varied talents
with such consummate skill as to win separate recogni-
tion for each of them ? Kaufmann was a poet, since
no one could so delightfully interpret the beauties of
Heller's " Hebraischen Melodien," the pathos of the
Piyutim, the swan-song of expiring martyrs (seeyC i.
his article on Moses Rimos in the " Steinschneider-
Festschrift,'' 1896), and the eloquence of long forgot-
ten epitaphs, without having a poetic temperament,
if not the poetic gift? And were not his masterly
prose- writings elegies in verse? The buoyancy and
enthusiasm with which he would dilate upon a riddle
of Ibn Ezra's, a letter of Isaac Aboab's, or a marginal
gloss in one of Graziano's books concerning stone-
lions carved at the gate of an Italian synagogue; the
avidity with which he would unravel an involved
thread in the fabric of Jewish genealogy, unearth a
tombstone of Heine's ancestors in Hungary and, with
perhaps a single clew to guide him, compile a fascinat-
ing volume of four hundred or more pages, crowded
with unknown or rediscovered facts and gleaming with
incidental side-lights of history, are all evidences of a
nature most tender and child-like, whose lingering
fondness for the past developed into a devotion posi-
tively touching for his people's future. It was, per-
haps, an instinctive inspiration which drove him from

his favorite philosophical and psychological studies to
take up a patient and unresting inquiry into the sour-
ces of Jewish history. He gave up the pioneer work
for which by nature and special qualifications he was
probably the most fit, and after producing a brilliant
essay on the " Theology of Hachya ibn Pakuda" the
Jewish Thomas a Kempis (see Dr. Hertz's essay on
him in the report of the Jewish Theological Seminary
for 56691899); an appreciation of u Jehuda Halevi n
which inspired Joseph Jacobs more than he would
admit and a huge volume on the " History of the
Doctrine of Divine Attributes in the Middle Ages,"
he devoted most of his time to writing special
monographs on Jewish history. And yet he could not
wholly emancipate himself from his almost divinely
intrusted mission that of collecting material for a
"History of Jewish Philosophy," which he, someday,
hoped to write. To this occasional return to his first
love in scientific thought, we owe some remarkable
essays and fragments, such as his fine psychology of
the senses in Jewish mediaeval literature (Die Sinne},
which is claimed by no less an authority than Prof.
Martin Schreiner of Berlin, to be his ripest produc-
tion; his discovery of the traces of Al-Batlajusi in
Jewish philosophy; his re-edition of several important
Hebrew tracts on logic and metaphysics, one of which
was recently issued under the auspices of the literary
society u Mekize Nirdamim" (one of whose projectors
and chief co-workers he was), in Berlin. So much has
been written on the philosophy of Maimonides that we
would imagine such a subject not easily susceptible of
original interpretation, and yet, the all -transcending

genius of Professor Kaufmann has given us in a mono-
graph of barely two dozen pdges, such a luminous
resume of the great thinker's system of thought, that
one must needs marvel how this gifted critic could
condense material enough for a bulky volume into such
a narrow compass. It is, withal, so clear and compre-
hensive, that we are rather inclined to follow him in-
stead of Munk or Frtedlander, whose renderings are
often ambiguous, and whose reasonings is more or
less involved. We are impelled to recite the sad
Scriptural dirge, "EcA noflu gibborim besoch hammil-
cAamaA,a.\a.s\ how have the mighty fallen in the very
midst of the battle !" For these solid blocks of marble
were cut from the quarries of his workshop, piece by
piece, and had not the patient sculptor's hand been
stayed while his grasp was still firm, we should have
had a monument great and enduring, chiseled with
the art of an Angelo, and filed with the literary grace of
a Mommsen. As it is, we have only a rough boulder,
and his Vorarbeiten remain to his followers as pictur-
esque fragments of a gigantic plan, whose consumma-
tion is left to another Kaufmann, blending the spirit of
the artist and the scholar.

A history of Jewish philosophy still remains one of
the pia desideria of literature, and whilst Samuel
Hirsh, Solomon Munk and M. Joel, have laid the cor-
ner-stone to a colossal edifice of Hebraic reasoning,
it was David Kaufmann, who supplied the most solid
building materials wherewith we are enabled to work
in the walls of time. Until his advent in the ranks of
scholarship the historic method was at best chaotic and
uncertain. Glittering generalizations and homiletic

commentaries on the masterpieces of early and medi-
aeval thinkers were the only Bausteine of the modern
school. Kaufmann inaugurated a new method of scien-
tific inquiry. He contended, in the first place, that in
order to understand the evolution of Jewish thought,
one must possess special qualifications, and above all,
a wise heart, pulsing with Jewish spirit, and beating
for the loftiest ideals of Hebrew genius. To him
the philosophy of Mosaic legislation was as attractive
and fascinating a study, as a chapter in the "Moreh,"
concerning the nature and function of prophecy. The
gnomic wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, and
of the apocyphal sayings of Ben Sirach fragments of
which were recently discovered, eliciting a brilliant
article from his pen appealed to him as vividly as the
Weltschmerz of Koheleth, or the epic of an inner life,
as revealed in Job. An early essay, written in his
teens on the philosophy of suffering as taught in the
most wonderful contemplative drama of the ages, may
be pointed to with pride as the product of an instinct
strong and sublime, and of a judgment unerring and
profound. The "Attributenlehre" was but the proem
to his new German rendering of the "Guide of the
Perplexed," a scholarly edition of which he had been
preparing for years. "Our modern guides of the
'Moreh' have only perplexed us" once said Stein-
schneider in one of his ingenious moods but with
Kaufmann as interpreter of the Cordovan sage, all diffi-
culties in textual criticism would have disappeared, for
he has shown us in one of his most remarkable essays,
"Maimonides in der Weltliteratur" (1897), what a
Guide he could be to the Perplexed. He maintained


almost dogmatically, that in the study of Jewish phil-
osophy, as well as in historical research, one must first
conduct special inquiry into the distinctive systems of
thought evolved by various logician ; and metaphysi-
cians of the middle ages, before summing up conclu-
sive results, and his doctor-thesis on "Saadja's Concep-
tion of the Divine Attributes," is a model speci men of his
scientific method. The fact that his swan-song is but
a refrain of his earlier melodies a posthumous disser-
tation on Solomon Ibn Gebirol's "Mekor Hayim" (Fans
f' itae) attuned to the flowing rhythm of his life-long
art, is but another evidence of his loyalty to the ideals,
he had set himself in those youthful days, when he
dreamt of the greatness of his people, and watched the
fires of his fancy flicker into flame.

Dr. A. S. Isaacs, who has the distinction of having
instructed Kaufrnann in English, in his admirable ap-
preciation of the great scholar's career, (Jewish Messen-
ger^ July a8th, 1899) gives the following estimate of
his worth: "I/ife and light were inseparable from
David Kaufrnann, whose genius roamed at will in all
literatures, with a versatility and thoroughness that
were proof of his genius. When I met him for the
first time in his early manhood, crowned with semin-
ary honors, it was his Jewish enthusiasm, no less than
his broad culture which made me feel, in the exultant
atmosphere of that day here was a young divinity, a
young Goethe of the Ghetto, even-poised, finely bal-
anced, full of ardent fancy, and dim prophetic longing,
keenly critical, and yet impassioned, teacher and
preacher, a Greek and a Hebrew, a recluse among his
books and a dreamer among men, a Moravian by birth,

and a cosmopolitan in spirit, impetuous and childlike,
a bundle of contradictions like most of us, but a man
of character and acquirements enough to begin a rev-
olution in Jewry that would restore and rebuild."

And this young Goethe of the Ghetto, this recluse
and dreamer, did actually bring about a revolution in
Jewry a revolution that restored and rebuilt along
the lines laid down by the pathfinder and pioneer of
Jewish science, Leopold Zunz founder of the " Wissen-
schaft des Judenthums." For David Kaufmann was
no mere antiquarian: He was a spirited bookman, not
a spiritless bookworm. He realized that there was no
POHS asinorum to cross, no royal road to learning.
He knew whereof consisted the function of the true
scholar: in work, diligent and laborious, unresting
and self-sacrificing. "Ohne Hast, ohne Rast" might
well have been his motto, for while his work showed
the patient, plodding, indefatigable student, it bore the
impress of the master, of the scientist, of the artist.
Nothing was produced in haste. What he wrote was
finished in the most minute detail, and there was a
touch of the sublime in many a preface wherein one
could read between the lines the soul-life of this gen-
ial Polyhistor. No one can persue his biographical fore-
word to Simon Heck's "Farailien Prag's" without be-
ing powerfully moved by the charm and pathos of his
account of the struggles of a student, and his self-im-
posed martyrdom. His reverence for scholarship; his
fealty to colleagues less talented and accomplished
than himself; his ready sympathy with the meanest
effort if honest to uplift Judaism and to promote its
usefulness; his generous endorsement of any deserving

literary scheme tending to enlarge human knowledge;
and more than all this, his good fellowship toward
all men, in every walk of life, and his readiness to en-
list in co-operation with every aspirant for fame, were
qualities so marked in his character, that we need not
wonder to hear of his illustrious friendships, that re-
mained strong and enduring to the end. A man of
such rare ideals, of such poetic buoyancy of tempera-
ment, childlike and profound, ardent and tender,
whose life pulsed with the highest purpose and was
enriched with the loftiest thought, may well be termed
the "Goethe of the Ghetto " How thankful must we
be that he too has found his "Wahlverwandschaften"
if not among living men, at least in the letters of the
dead, on papyrus and parchment, in tombs and
epitaphs, in the keen contact with long forgotten
minds, whose voices are heard in their graves. For
this is the sole recompense of such lives as his: the
delight of fingering the dusty folios of old; of opening
the books with seven seals and sweeping away the
conceits of hoary superstitions by the merest quiver of
the quill; of feeling the pulse of people, to fortune and
to fame unknown; of reinvesting with glory those
whom malice or envy and the unkindness of fate have
shorn of their halo; and of reinstating many a long-
deposed hero of the spirit, and many a striver for
righteousness in the esteem of posterity and in the
Walhalla of immortal fame. Nor was he grudging in
his praise. He meted out an over-generous meed of
appreciation and with almost infectious enthusiasm
paid tender and reverential homage to character and
intellect Broad and unbiassed, warm-hearted and sin-

cere, he would lay a laurel wreath gracefully on the
tomb of Jew and Gentile alike and those who have
read the two poetic tributes from his pen, must admit
that his panegyric of Franz Delitzsch (in the Jewish
Quarterly Review for 1890) was no less impassioned
than his eulogy on Graetz(in Brann's 'Jahrbuecher' for
1892). Both are masterpieces of prose-literature, such
as, artist as he was, came seldom from his pen. Can
we begrudge him the most fulsome praise, when he
lent such lustre to less illustrious names ? But for him,
many a noted personage would have lingered in ob-
scurity, or would perhaps have remained wholly undis-
covered to the end of time. The magic of his pen
conjured many a famous phantom from its ancient
frame and, before long, he would retouch with artistic
colors not only the outlines of the picture he would
sketch, but embellish it with silhouettes of contem-
poraries, so as to make the portrait more luminous and
the light more resplendent in the shadow. And what
a mighty host of Jewish celebrities did he marshal
forth from the annals of the pastl Within a decade,
upward of a score of distinguished names stepped out
from oblivion to answer the roll call of history: "Dove
Bartel Burmania," unearthed from Dutch archives at
the Hague; "Samson Wertheimer," court Jew and finan
cier, and his contemporary " Samuel Oppenheimer,"
both of whom served three Austrian Emperors
loyally, without reaping overmuch gratitude for their
diplomatic career and philanthropy; <l jair Chajim Bach-
arach," the erudite Rabbinical authority of the i7th
century, whose biography he wrote in English (Jewish
Quarterly Review \ vol. iii.) and German; "Dr. Israel


Conegliano," the secret emissary of the Venetian Re-
public during the war between Turkey and Venice a
wholly forgotten personage, whose history refutes the
Dreyfus affair by analogy the Von Geldern family,
from which Heine's mother sprang, traced back
to Austro- Hungary in the seventeenth century
in a volume of several hundred pages entitled
"Aus Heinrich. Heine's Ahnensaal"; "Gliickel von
Hammeln," whose pious and soulful memoirs depict
the inner life of the Jews in Germany in the seven-
teenth century, and incidentally vindicate a sacred
niche for the women of Israel in the pantheon of
Jewish history.

And this is not all. Manuscripts were copied, or
photographed, or acquired by purchase, which had
aught of historic or cultural import to the reverent
chronicler. With what patience and perseverance he
followed up the slightest clue to obtain such precious
material one may glean from the numerous acknow-
ledgments he never neglected to make cum laude in
his "Notes." And he had no private secretary; he per-
sonally conducted a vast correspondence with
scholars, publishers, booksellers, agents, and dealers
in antiquities the world over, and was untiring
in his efforts to secure copies of deeds and docu-
ments in various congregational archives ; of in-
scriptions in Spain and South Arabia; of tombstones
and epitaphs in every civilized town where Jews
had a history ; and he would restore and reconstruct
from fragments of blurred and worm-eaten parch-
ment or from squeezes made of Semitic archaeological
remains, a most brilliant historical narrative or


a long-lost chapter in epigraphy.* Blessed with
ample means, since his marriage to the daughter
ofSigmund Gomperz in Budapest a history of whose
family from the seventeenth century he prefixed to
the literary remains of his wife's grandfather he was
in a position to gratify every whim and indulge his
literary passion unhampered, for he had only spiritual
children to delight his heart. He was constantly
buying books and manuscripts, and despite the fact
that some chauvinistic legal clause did not permit the
transportation of the library from Italian soil, he pur-
chased the magnificent collection of documents and
incunabeln belonging to the late Chief Rabbi of
Parma, Marco Mortara, one of the choicest private
libraries on the continent.

Among the treasures which he delighted to show to
his friends was a wonderful set of four volumes in
folio, containing a transcript of Maiinonides' fad
ha-chsaka, each page in a different hand, with
superbly illuminated vignettes and other illustrations
a veritable triumph of Jewish art. I have seen
many remarkable documents in the Imperial Library
of Berlin, in the British Museum and in the Bodleian
"Library, but never such a fine specimen of Hebrew-
chirography. One of his most cherished projects was
to write a "Geschichte der Juedischen Kunst" a sub-
ject more familiar to him than to any living Jewish
scholar. In an Appendix to the recently published
" Haggada von Serajevo," edited by Schlosser and

* See the numerous essays on these subjects in the Revue des
Etudes Juives, where, among others, his learned papers on Jew-
ish and Christian Art may be consulted with profit.


Miiller(i898), he published an epoch-making study
on Jewish art, and proved that we had talented
draughtsmen and painters centuries ago, who made
invaluable contributions to art, as evidenced by
numerous illustrations in Hebrew and non-Hebrew
manuscripts. To further original research in this
direction he helped to found a Jewish Art Society in
Vienna, one of whose corresponding members he was.
(See my article on the subject in THE; AMERICAN
HEBREW, June 23d, 1899.)

It was in the summer of 1896 that I last saw Pro-
fessor Kaufmanu. He was then already a great
sufferer from a variety of complaints, induced by
overwork, and appeared to be on the verge of a col-
lapse. I shall never forget the cordial and almost
fatherly tenderness with which he received me. As
soon as my card was handed to him he rushed out
impetuously and, seizing me heartily by the arm,
fairly whirled me into his study. " Sholom Alech-
em !" cried he, in a stentorian voice, his face aglow
with pleasure, '' and so you have come at last to see
me too!" And suddenly his face clouded, and there
were tears in his voice as he spoke of one who was
evidently dear to his memory, as he was dear to my
heart. 4< Ihr armer, gottseeliger vater ist leider viel
zu fmh gestorben," said he, adding: 4> Kr hat sich
allerdingst durcb seine colossale Arbeiten zu Grunde
gerichtet !" With that he relapsed into a reminiscent
mood and spoke of his relations with my sainted
father ; of the efforts he had made to secure his ser-
vices in behalf of the Landesra-bbinerschule of Buda-
pest, just prior to his removal to America, and said


regretfully, how he would iniss his co-operation in the
Dictionary of neo-Hebraic literature, which he was
planning to edit, together with Dr. Heinrich Brody,
Professor Martin Schreiner and Professor M. Stein -
Schneider, of Berlin.

Glancing toward his writing desk, I noticed the
Festschrift, published in honor of the aforenamed
savant, by a score of his disciples, on the occasion of his
eightieth birthday, and I could not help a momentary
feeling of pride to see the volume open to my own
contribution a mere compilation of the writings of
the famous bibliographer and Orientalist. It is pleas-
ant to keep in touch with great men in this uncon-
scious way and then and there I vowed to myself that
he should see some of my inaturer work along the
lines of his own favorite studies. "Das ist eine griind-
liche Arbeit," said he, following my gaze; then sud-
denly lapsing into English, which he spoke with a
quaint accent, but without hesitation, he said: "Would
that some one did me a like service when I am
gone. A bibliography of a scholar's books is the
true index to his life. It is the most reliable of all
biographies. I have often been asked for data for ein
Lebensbild) and have invariably forwarded a list of
my publications instead. Biographies and autobio-
graphies are like interviews: You are always made to
say things against your will and feel impelled to repu-
diate them wheu published. I will not be as cruel
as Carlyle who made you feel that he had, as Heine
cleverly puts it, " a special talent for martyrdom"
and curse the man who wrote my biography, but I am
inclined to think him, of whom the biographer writes,


accursed. Besides, what right has the world to pry
into the inner life of an individual ?" i did not dare
tell him then that he himself had written such
biographies and that the lips of the dead, to quote a
touching Jewish tradition, moved in the grave in
gratitude lor the glowing words which flowed from
his pen, words which flow from his pen still. And
who knows but that his lips are trembling as I write
this tribute to his worth !

When I saw him he was in the midst of interesting
discoveries. That very day he had finished his ingeni-
ous essay on the "Chronicle of Achimaaz," which
appeared in the ' Monatsschnft," and an instructive
note on the same subject in the ' 'Byzantinian Maga-
zine " (German). He had two papers ready to be
mailed to the "Revue des Etudes Juives " where
some of hi-, finest historical work was published on
the Pisa family and on Jacob Alautino, about whom
Perles and Rieger have written at length. He had,
besides, in preparation seveial articles for the ''Jewish
Quarterly Review," for the Anglo-Jewish Historical
Society in whose publications his last historical
biography on the Chief Rabbi Ashkenazi (cf. ' Trans-
actions," vol. iii.), appeared for the monthly which
he edited conjointly with Prof. Brann, of Breslau and
such was his power of endurance that no sooner did


Online LibraryGeorge Alexander KohutDavid Kaufmann : An appreciation → online text (page 1 of 2)