Jews, Attitudes Toward

views updated


JEWS, ATTITUDES TOWARD. A number of the most important shifts in European Christian treatment of Jews overlap with the early modern period but transcend its chronological boundaries. For instance, the Jewish expulsions from western and southern Europe had already begun in the thirteenth century, would peak at the end of the fifteenth, and begin to peter out only toward the end of the sixteenth century. Or, to cite another case, decisive shifts in Jewish legal status, ones rooted in the processes of early modern European state building, persisted well into the nineteenth century, not just in eastern Europe but in many parts of western and central Europe too. Furthermore, some of the distinct patterns marking how intellectuals perceived Jews or Judaism cannot be fitted into a discrete "early modern" category either. For example, the Christian Hebraist movement (Christian scholarly inquiry into post-biblical Jewish texts in Hebrew or cognate languages), though it certainly climaxed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, began as early as the thirteenth century. In the meantime, popular notions about and images of Jews (to the extent that they were distinct from elite ones) appear to have changed relatively little between the late Middle Ages and the modern era. Finally, since Jews lived in different regions of Europe, there was little simultaneity in terms of their status, treatment, or relationships with non-Jews. The ritual murder trials that began to die out in late-sixteenth-century Germany, for instance, reemerged with a vengeance in seventeenth-century Poland.

These caveats aside, the early modern label is an apt one in at least one major respect: the period 14501750 effectively traces the years during which Renaissance humanism came to exert a profound effect on Christian perceptions of Jews and Judaism and then declined in influence. Humanism became the source of a great variety of disparate approaches to Judaismfrom Christian cabala to "mercantilist philo-Semitism." One might say that humanism became the single most important new factor influencing intellectual perceptions of Jews during this era, until it was itself eventually superceded by the equally decisive ideologies of the Enlightenment.


Appropriately enough, the first domain that felt the impact of humanism was the scholarly world. Christian Hebraism did not dictate a uniform attitude toward Jews or Judaism, but it often entailed a paradoxical one. Hebraists justified their interest in Judaism by asserting that only through the Christian scholar's mastery of Jewish texts could he hope to persuade Jews of the Gospels' saving truth. This was essentially the conviction underlying the medieval Pugio Fidei of Raymond Martini (c. 1220after1284), which attempted to expose the proofs of Christ's messianic identity that Martini believed were secreted in early rabbinic works, such as the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 c.e.).

When Christian Hebraism fell under the influence of Renaissance humanism, it perpetuated this syllogistic presumption. But now the missionary aim had to compete with another element that had been absent from the polemical writings of medieval Dominican scholars. This was the belief that a true (that is, Christological) understanding of rabbinic texts would serve not only to convert Jews but also to enlighten Christians. In other words, rabbinic literature contained information about God that was not available from the New Testament itselfa remarkable humanist gloss on the patristic justification for tolerating Jews as unwitting witnesses to scriptural truth. Such a conception reflected a number of factors: the general humanist regard for antiquity and its languages (Hebrew included), the instrumentality of the studia humanitatis to a genuine Christian piety, and the belief in the existence of an esoteric body of divine wisdom (including the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras, Plato, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Moses) that had been lost to medieval Christians but preserved by Jews. This so-called prisca theologica contained not only doctrinal truths regarding the inner life of the divinity and its relation to the cosmos, the soul, and the natural world, but also coded information that would enable man to access divine secrets and harness their theurgic and magical power.

All of these elementshumanist, Hebraist, and hermeticconverged in the arguments put forward to Pope Leo X (reigned 15131521) in 1512 by the Christian Hebraist, Johannes Reuchlin (14551522). By this time, the "Battle of the Books" was in full swing, with Reuchlin and his humanist allies arrayed against the convert Johann Pfefferkorn (14691522), who with Dominican support had sought to suppress the Talmud and other rabbinic works as a prerequisite for bringing about the mass apostasy of the Jews. Reuchlin too was interested in Jewish conversion, but it is more accurate to say that he believed in conversion as a mode of reconciliation, one in which the ancient wisdom recovered through humanist scholarship would redefine Christianity and make it faithful to its original creed. In this "truer" Christianity, the cabala would come to play a decisive role, for as Reuchlin informed the pope, cabala was the axis around which both Hebraic and Hellenistic wisdom revolved.

Yet Reuchlin, building on the earlier Christian cabala of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (14631494), represented only a minority tendency within humanism generally and Hebraism in particular. Most humanists were not Hebraists and evinced only a modest enthusiasm for Hebrew studies (witness the case of Erasmus himself). And the majority of that minority known to us as Christian Hebraists eschewed the hermetic speculations of the Christian cabalists in favor of more stolid fare: biblical exegesis undertaken with the aid of medieval Jewish grammarians and commentators whose theological "blindness" was seen to be partly compensated for by their relatively greater Hebraic competence.

Christian Hebraism came to thrive during a period when the Hebrew print industry (driven more by Jewish than Christian consumption) had come into its own, with centers emerging in Venice, Salonika (Thessaloniki), Istanbul, Cracow, Prague, Alsace, and Bavaria by the 1550s. The availability of Bibles adorned with Hebrew commentaries by such medieval luminaries as Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac), Abraham Ibn Ezra, and David Kimhi made the "Jewish" Bible accessible to an ever-widening circle of Christians.

Yet one of the contradictory effects of this expansion was the progressive (if never complete) decline of face-to-face contacts between rabbinic and Christian Hebraic scholars. Leading sixteenth-century Hebraists like Egidio da Viterbo, Guillaume Postel, Sebastian Münster, and Paul Fagius had all benefited from studies with a Jewish teacher (in fact, all of them were students of the same teacher, Rabbi Elias Levita [14681549]). But once Hebraic learning became institutionalized through universities, and once an array of grammars, primers, bibliographies, and translations became available, Christian Hebraists would come to feel less of a need for rabbinic tutelage. Many became convinced they had surpassed their Jewish contemporaries (if not predecessors) as Hebrew philologists and linguists and had made Scripture their own. One might say that mastery of Hebrew thus made possible a second Christian appropriation of the Old Testament. In this light, and aside from the important though ambiguous case of Jewish apostates, Christian Hebraism did not in the long run bring Jews and Christians into appreciably greater proximity. Lacking Reuchlin's ecumenical vision, the aims of rabbinic Jews and Christian Hebraists (one or two joint millenarian adventures aside) revealed themselves to be disparate and incommensurate.


The birthplaces of humanist Hebraism and Christian cabalalate fifteenth-century Italy and Germanywere also the two locales west of the Oder that still contained pockets of Jews. Germany and Italy constituted partial exceptions to the pattern of expulsions that by 1500 had erased the licit Jewish presence from England, France, and Iberia. What differentiated these two "countries" was that neither had produced a unified state capable of carrying out comprehensive expulsion policies. Even so, from the late fourteenth through the first half of the sixteenth centuries, German Jews endured waves of local persecutions and banishments, while Italian Jews underwent similar if less bloody ordeals between the 1490s and the 1560s.

While no single cause accounted for all of these expulsions, social and religious factors were fore-most. Rulers generally favored a Jewish presence for fiscal reasons, yet governmental encroachment on the prerogatives of the estates (quasi-feudal corporate groups, such as nobility or burghers) through Jewish tax farming or money lending led to popular demands for the Jews' removal. In the imperial cities of late-fifteenth-century Germany, urban commercial decline and guild domination of municipal government made the Jews direct objects of contention between city councils, which were vying to restore judicial independence, and the emperor, who was ready to pawn such rights to the local nobility or patriciate in his relentless pursuit of cash. In this setting, an imperial concession permitting the expulsion of the Jewish population would be regarded by the local burghers as a triumph for the cause of urban Christian freedom.

In Italy as in Germany, hostility to Jews was rooted in forms of social conflict that became inseparable from and aggravated by religious antagonism. Jews, many of them migrants from the south or refugees from France and Germany, had become a principal source of credit in small towns scattered throughout the papal states, Tuscany, Ferrara, Modena, and Mantua. But with the decline of local handicrafts industries, the policy of relegating banking functions to Jews came under intense fire from Franciscans, who clamored to replace the infidel usurers with interest-free or low-interest banks (Monti di Pietà). As in the German case, here too the struggle against Jewish economic power made ample use of blood libel accusations, charges that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christians (usually children) for the purpose of ritually consuming their blood. Such accusations (most notably in Trent, 1475) helped to bring about local expulsions, with the result that Jews increasingly sought the protection of powerful urban oligarchs like the Este, Gonzaga, and Medici.


How did the Reformation affect phenomena such as blood libel accusations and expulsions that were already manifest when it emerged? Clearly, the Jews' demographic situation in the German lands was not profoundly altered by the Reformation, which arrived after two centuries of attrition had already taken a profound toll. In Wittenberg, where no Jews could reside, Martin Luther (14831546) waited in vain for a mass conversion to his restored apostolic creed (as he reasoned, given the choice between popery and Judaism, he too would have remained a Jew). What did gradually change, as historian R. Po-chia Hsia has argued, was that the reformers' systematic campaign against saintly cults, relics, and salvational "works" inadvertently undercut the association between Jews and demonic practices, such as host desecration and black magic (if not in the public mind, then at least in the juridical processes responsible for translating accusations into legal actions). This factor appears to have reduced the quantity and efficacy of blood libel trials in central Europe, even as the frequency of the charge climbed in Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania.

Such a shift is clearly apparent in the debate over the blood libel between Johann Eck (14861543), Luther's lifelong antagonist, and the Nuremberg Evangelical Andreas Osiander (14981552). It is true that neither participant exactly typified the respective attitudes of the Catholic and Protestant camps. Since the thirteenth century, popes and emperors had consistently denounced the ritual murder charge, while in the sixteenth century any number of Protestant divines subscribed to it. But Osiander's systematic refutation of the blood libel, his careful demolition of accompanying biological myths regarding Jews (for example, the Jews' supposed physiological need for Christian blood, as attested to by Eck), and his insistence that blood libel charges often reflected an effort to cover up Christians' crimes by leveling charges against their economic competitors, represented a milestone in the Protestant demystification of belief.

Though Luther himself denounced Osiander's anonymously published pamphlet, his own 1543 anti-Jewish polemic (On the Jews and Their Lies), while appearing to endorse each and every fantastic claim that had been leveled against Jews since the late Middle Ages, in fact shifted the locus of Jewish criminality from the supernatural to the social psychological plane. "They have been bloodthirsty bloodhounds and murderers of all Christendom for more than fourteen hundred years in their intentions and would undoubtedly prefer to be such with their deeds." Here Luther implied that the Jews' hatred was entirely mortal, if no less dangerous, inveterate, and infernal for that. Indeed, there was nothing secret or concealed about their conniving, he maintained. The proof of it could be found in the prayers they uttered daily for the arrival of an avenging messiah and in the usury they practiced, which enabled these "lazy rogues" to "idle away their time, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat."

Luther's diatribe had little immediate impact on Jewish status; Jews were already excluded from Saxony and other regions where he enjoyed influence. Nor did his tract become doctrinal for the Evangelical Church as a whole: it was denounced by Osiander, derided by Philipp Melanchthon (14971560), and downplayed by most of the other reformers. Still, its echoes are apparent in later guild documents, in Christian Hebraist compilations of Jewish ritual "curiosities," and even in the anti-emancipation propaganda of post-Napoleonic German nationalists. Luther's characterization of Jews as a faux nobility, reifying their status as descendents of the chosen Hebrews in order to legitimate their usurious economic exploitation of German laborers, reverberated in a society intensely riven by social and economic divisions.


If most of the Reformation's repercussions for Jews were inadvertent and indirect, the Counter-Reformation's shift in attitudes appears as something of a delayed reaction. The relaxed spirit of Renaissance papal policy toward Jews, permissive of Hebraist-rabbinic contacts and opposed, on both doctrinal and pragmatic grounds, to inquisitorial harassment of relapsed Iberian New Christian refugees in Italy, persisted through the 1540s. But Julius III (reigned 15501555), though continuing to tolerate the Judaizing New Christian merchants settled in the port of Ancona, could not withstand the mounting pressure to extend church censorship to Jewish as well as heretical Christian texts. In 1553, through the impetus of Cardinal Giovanni Pietro Caraffa (14761559), possession of the Talmud became prohibited and its volumes were incinerated in cities under papal domination.

The Counter-Reformation managed to resolve the church's longstanding ambivalence toward the Talmud: on the one hand, as a blasphemous, anti-Christian, and anthropomorphic abomination, and on the other, as a backhanded rabbinic attestation to Christian truth (and therefore a useful missionary tool). Even Hebraists like Pico and Reuchlin approved the Talmud less in its own right than as a repository of exegetical techniques deployed in cabala. But by mid-century the church had rendered its verdict: the Talmud was an obstacleperhaps the main oneto Jewish conversion. When Caraffa succeeded to the throne of St. Peter as Paul IV (reigned 15551559), he determined to either convert the Jews or take decisive measures to prevent them from corrupting Christians (both the pope and Luther lived in dread of Jewish proselytizing). In fact, both of these ends would be pursued through the same policies. Thirteenth-century mandates such as the "Jewish badge" would now be restored and the Jews' segregation from Christians fully enforcedexcluding, of course, their obligatory attendance at Christian sermons. If this degree of separation proved too utopian to be realized in its entirety, it still extended well beyond the medieval precedents, many of which had been poorly enforced and none of which had entailed the creation of walled ghettos (the impossibly congested mandatory Jewish residential quarters, surrounded by a wall with gates locked at night). Despite momentary reversals by some of Paul IV's successors, this Counter-Reformation papal Jewish policy of segregation and repression persisted through the late nineteenth century. Though it qualitatively increased the number of converts, like Luther's Reformation it failed to win over the bulk of the Jewish population. Instead papal Jewish policy resolved itself into a stalemate (or war of attrition) with its erstwhile Jewish adversary, and through the perpetuation of the ghetto appeared to render Jewish-Christian relations frozen in time.


One might go further and assert that the institution of the ghetto facilitated the partial revival of Italian Jewry between the late sixteenth and the mid-seventeenth centuries. In a period when Sephardic Jews came to play an increasingly prominent role in Mediterranean and Atlantic trade, any device that made possible a Jewish presence in one locale had the potential to feed its expansion into another. Twenty-three ghettos were established in northern Italy between 1555 and 1779, and with the economic shift of sixteenth-century Italian Jews from predominance in money lending to concentration in international trade, justifications could readily be found for employing new groups of Jews, even relapsed "New Christians," to fertilize local exchange. As Counter-Reformation pressures mounted, Italian rulers rationalized their invitations to settle foreign Jews by emphasizing the contribution they would make to the commonweal. In 1593 Ferdinand I de' Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, advertised his "worthy motives" and "hope to benefit all Italy, Our subjects and especially the poor" when he accorded generous privileges to "Levantine" Jewish merchants who consented to populate his new port city of Livorno.

Economic benefit, whether rooted in trade, credit, tax farming, or estate management, had long functioned as a sine qua non for the Jews' presence within various quarters of Christendomwitness the justification offered in 1086 by Bishop Rudiger, who, by attracting Jewish merchants to Speyer, intended "that the glory of our town would be augmented a thousand fold." What proved unique to the circumstances of late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century western and central Europe, however, was that Jews had been absent from these territories for generations or sometimes centuries. This had the effect of weakening the estates' resistance to the small-scale readmission of Jews, so long as this resettlement could be justified as fulfilling only certain limited and targeted economic duties that no other group could. Although exercised by the very fact of a renewed Jewish presence, guilds won assurances that Jews would traffic solely in commodities already excluded from regulation. It was no small irony, then, that such new goods in which the Jewish merchants specializedincluding tobacco, sugar, and coffee from the New Worldwere among the era's most profitable.

Still, this detailed specification within governmental privileges of the exact purview of Jewish settlement and the precise limits of their commerce marked the period when absolutist government came to impose itself as the ultimate arbiter of permissible Jewish activity. What could better express the seventeenth-century apotheosis (or distortion) of humanist raison d'état than the baroque manner in which absolutism translated limited resettlement privileges into tortuous and seemingly arbitrary "Jews' Regulations"? Frederick II's 1750 Revised General Code (Revidiertes Generalprivilegium und Reglement), to cite a classic example, reveals the bind in which the absolutist state found itself. It was caught between, on the one hand, its impulse to incorporate Jews into ever more homogenous categories of subject status (a process likewise driven by the state's increasing importation of Roman law), and on the other, its institutional loyalty to the functionalist and mercantilist rationales that had made a renewed Jewish presence possible in the first place. Although there were improvements in Jewish status in the second half of the eighteenth century (for example, the abolition of the onerous Leibzoll, 'toll'), it took the cataclysm of the French Revolution to eventually cut this Gordian knot.


In Calvinist Holland and Puritan England, economic and Hebraist rationales for Jewish toleration combined to create an atmosphere that was distinctive from the claustrophobic regulatory regimes of Lutheran and imperial Germany or the ghettos of Catholic Italy. The Jewish community of Amsterdam had been founded by the immigration of Iberian New Christians, many of whom eventually openly reverted to Judaism. It was one of these former New Christians, Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel (16041657), who made a famous appeal to Oliver Cromwell, shrewdly combining mercantilist and messianic arguments on behalf of a Jewish restoration to England. Proclaiming that "the opinion of many Christians and mine doe concurre herein" that Jews will be restored to their ancient homeland only after being first restored to England, Manasseh made Jewish readmission dependent upon English recognition of the spiritual and worldly benefits Albion would accrue from the presence of a skillful population of Jewish "merchandizers."

Such arguments found a receptive audience within a segment of the Puritan and remonstrant communities of mid-seventeenth-century England and Holland. Calvinism, though at its inception an unlikely impetus to Jewish-Christian rapprochement, did exhibit at least one promising trait: a rejectionas the historian Salo Baron once put itof "Pauline antinomianism in favor of Old Testament legalism." Yet this relative fondness for biblical law was in itself no assurance of philo-Semitism. Also required was a type of millenarian conviction entirely lacking in the patristic heritage, namely, the expectation that the prophesied conversion of the Jews would occur only through their restoration to the Holy Land. This factor theoretically made feasible what had never before been even conceivable: the possibility that two chosen peoples could coexista national Protestant one and a resuscitated Jewish one. As the widow Johanna Cartwright and her nephew Ebenezer put it in their 1649 petition to the Puritan general Thomas Lord Fairfax, "this Nation of England, with the inhabitants of the Netherland, shall be the first and readiest to transport Izraells Sons and Daughters in their Ships to the Land promised to their fore-Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for an everlasting Inheritance." Truly, this was as close to a revival of Reuchlin's grand vision as any latter-day and millenarian version of Hebraism was likely to come.


But philo-Semitism is a relative term; there were, in fact, few "unconditional" philo-Semites in early modern Europe. A prejudice in favor of the Jews necessarily came with certain strings attached to it, whether it was the wealth that would be generated by the Jews' commerce or the millennium that would be inaugurated by their conversion. Philo-Semitism of this variety flowered in mid-seventeenth-century Holland and England but remained dormant through much of the eighteenth century. In this period weariness with Puritanism and all forms of "enthusiasm"including not just Quakers but Jewish followers of the apostate messiah, Shabbetai Tzevi (also Sabbatai Sevi) (16261676), as wellwent hand in hand with the ascent of a more "polite and commercial" Britain. Similarly, Holland's loss of successive wars and overseas markets to England augured economic hard times, a fact that could not help but dull the mercantile sheen of Amsterdam Jewry. Even so, and without minimizing the widespread enmity manifested toward Catholicism or the occasional flare-ups of anti-Semitic invective, Augustan England justly earned the sort of reputation for religious toleration in the eighteenth century that the Dutch had enjoyed in the seventeenth.

This nondoctrinal adherence to toleration, hard fought for but comfortably worn, was one of the features that Voltaire, ensconced in London between 1726 and 1729, found most attractive about English life. Yet despite their embrace of toleration and condemnations of anti-Jewish violence, Voltaire and other philosophes, like most of the deists before them, evinced a deep hostility to Judaism itself, one that reflected the spirit of the criticism they leveled at, or perhaps to diverted to, the Old Testament. This had important repercussions for eighteenth-century Jews. In premodern Europe, Jews were essentially defined by their religion. Converts might be cruelly reminded of the "Jewish malice still in their hearts," but the specimen of the secular Jew was still unknown. Humanism, short of actually converting the Jew, was not interested in abstracting him from his Judaism. Enlightenment ideology changed that. The philosophes held that the Jew was redeemable only to the extent that he distanced himself from Talmudic Judaism, without at the same time necessarily succumbing to Christianity. "As you are a Jew remain so, but be a philosopher!" Voltaire counseled the Sephardic Jew, Isaac de Pinto. Christian Wilhelm von Dohm (17511820), in his influential Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (On the civic improvement of the Jews), put it somewhat differently: the Jew is capable of enjoying civic equality, Dohm insisted, but only to the extent that he regards himself as "more man than Jew."

In eighteenth-century Enlightenment circles, the termination of religious hatred of Jews was therefore thought to require not just Christian toleration of the practice of Judaism, but paradoxically, the Jews' own partial detachment from a faith widely regarded as a primary source of religious intolerance. The Jew's vices, his materialism, chauvinism, and greedthough in themselves universally acknowledgedwere seen not as biologically determined traits but rather as by-products of the narrowness of the Jewish creed. While not at all synonymous with popular anti-Semitism, this secularist antipathy to Judaism would prove readily compatible with it. For when the Jews' behavioral characteristics refused to fade with the reform or even abandonment of the ancestral faith, the mystery of how Jews could exist without Judaism seemed to demand a solution. Modern anti-Semitism, a product of the nineteenth century, arose to fill precisely that need.

See also Cabala ; Conversos ; Ghetto ; Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) ; Jews, Expulsion of (Spain ; Portugal) ; Jews and Judaism ; Messianism, Jewish ; Reformation, Protestant ; Reformations in Eastern Europe: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox ; Toleration .


Baron, Salo W. "John Calvin and the Jews." In Essential Papers on Judaism and Christianity in Conflict: From Late Antiquity to the Reformation, edited by Jeremy Cohen. New York, 1991.

Coudert, Allison P. "Seventeenth-Century Christian Hebraists: Philosemites or Antisemites?" In Judaeo-Christian Intellectual Culture in the Seventeenth Century, edited by Allison P. Coudert, Sarah Hutton, Richard Popkin, and George M. Weiner. Dordrecht, 2003.

Dan, Joseph, ed. The Christian Kabbalah: Jewish Mystical Books and Their Christian Interpreters: A Symposium. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

Ettinger, Shmuel. "The Beginnings of the Change in the Attitude of European Society towards the Jews." In Studies in History, Scripta Hierosolymitana, vol. 7, edited by Alexander Fuks and Israel Halpern, pp. 193217. Jerusalem, 1961.

. "Jews and Judaism in the Eyes of the English Deists of the Eighteenth Century" (Hebrew). In Zion, xxix/ 34, pp. 182207. Jerusalem, 1964.

Hsia, R. Po-chia. The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany. New Haven, 1988.

Luther, Martin. Works. Vols. 45 and 47. Edited by Helmut T. Lehman. Philadelphia, 19551986.

Manuel, Frank E. The Broken Staff: Judaism through Christian Eyes. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Menasseh ben Israel. Menasseh ben Israel's Mission to Oliver Cromwell. Edited by Lucien Wolf. London, 1901.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul, and Jehuda Reinharz, eds. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. 2nd ed. New York, 1995.

Peuckert, Will-Erich. "Ritualmorde." In Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, edited by Hanns Bächtold-Stäubli and E. Hoffmann-Krayer, vol. 7, pp. 727735. Berlin and Leipzig, 19271942.

Stow, Kenneth. "The Burning of the Talmud in 1553, in Light of Sixteenth-Century Catholic Attitudes toward the Talmud." In Essential Papers on Judaism and Christianity in Conflict: From Late Antiquity to the Reformation, edited by Jeremy Cohen. New York, 1991.

Jonathan Karp