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In No Man’s Land


The fifteenth-century Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola loved nothing more than buying books—the costlier and the more outlandish the better. He built up a splendid library in the palace at Mirandola, decorated with a fresco by Cosimo Tura that depicted the Persian sage Zoroaster and the Egyptian Hermes, as well as the Greek and Roman philosophers. And he firmly believed that his collecting was a philosophical enterprise. Since every major thinker offered readers a unique and valid slice of a vast, universal set of truths, each book represented one colorful tile in a magnificent, divinely ordained mosaic.

Whatever their provenance, whatever their content, none of Pico’s books excited him more than the Latin ones provided by his major informant on the Kabbalah and other Jewish subjects, Flavius Mithridates, a learned Jew from Sicily who had become a Christian. These renderings of Hebrew texts previously unknown in the West showed Pico that the Jews had once been—as their “old Talmud” clearly showed—Trinitarians, believers in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They also revealed that the name of Jesus, spelled in Hebrew, formed the secret core of the Kabbalistic tradition. If the Jews of Pico’s time denied the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus, they did so not because they sincerely believed in the integrity of their own tradition, but in order to spite the Christians whose church they knew they should join.

Flavius’s ancient texts sharply spiced the heady mixture of information and exhortation that Pico brewed in his so-called Oration on the Dignity of Man —the speech with which he planned to open a public disputation at Rome, to which he invited all the great scholars of Europe. Sadly, the texts were shaky. Flavius earned his living in a Christian world as an expert on Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. A sermon that he held in the papal curia on Good Friday, “although it lasted two hours, still pleased everyone, thanks to the variety of its contents and the sound of the Hebrew and Arabic words, which he pronounced like a native.” On that occasion too, Flavius had deftly welded genuine Jewish traditions and the inventions of medieval anti-Jewish polemicists into a form that the Christians wanted to hear.1 Though Pico was a pioneering Greek scholar and a clever student of the ancient Near East, he was completely taken in, and eagerly coughed up every payment Flavius demanded for these texts.2

This story harbors many ironies. When Pico set out to unlock the secrets of Jewish exegesis and tradition, he had to depend on Jewish informants, some of whom, though steeped in genuine Jewish traditions, told him what he wanted to hear. Nonetheless, he helped to spark one of the most radical intellectual movements of a radical age. In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many Christian scholars followed Pico’s lead. They decided that they could not master the sacred texts of their own religion, the Old and New Testaments, without taking into account the scholarship of the Jews who had transmitted and interpreted the Hebrew Bible. Christian scholars began to study Hebrew, usually working with Jewish or convert teachers. They printed editions of the Hebrew Old Testament and its ancient Aramaic translations, the Targums—even if one of them, Cardinal Xi-menes, described the Latin Vulgate text, which formed a central column between the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament, as resembling Christ, crucified between two thieves. And by doing so they opened and began to explore what the Israeli scholar Moshe Idel has called a “third library,” one as ancient and as precious as the libraries of the Greeks and the Romans—and one both newer and more central to Christian culture than the pagan ones, since it offered new insight into the origins of Christianity itself.

Christian scholars burst into the vast memory palace of the Jews at a time when it was dangerous to do so. Italian communes forced Jews to wear yellow stars; the Catholic kings expelled them from Iberia and southern Italy; and German cities staged ritual murder trials, their central testimony obtained by torture, in which Jews were condemned for killing Christian children to use their blood in the manufacture of matzoh. Powerful figures like Kunigunde, sister of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, called for the burning of Hebrew books. Converts and Christian experts competed to write ethnographies that exposed the superstitious and magical practices of Jews. Images of Jews whirling chickens around their heads or dropping their sins into running water decorated tracts, and confirmed the Jews’ collective reputation as a people immersed in magic. Only the boldest Christian scholars—above all the man whom Gershom Scholem revered as an imaginary ancestor, the jurist Johannes Reuchlin—actively defended the Jews’ right to keep their traditions, or described them as rich and profound. And even Reuchlin—like Pico—recast the Jewish mysteries he read about in Hebrew commentaries on the Bible to fit Christian needs, and hoped to see all Jews convert in the end to Christianity.3 Still, the opening of the Jewish tradition caused an intellectual earthquake, and the seismic tremors it sent out shook everything from the structures of theological education to the practice of natural philosophy. Isaac Newton was only the most famous of the several influential thinkers who found inspiration in the Kabbalah for their most radical ideas about nature and society.

Two generations ago, few students of European intellectual history paid much attention to the Jews. European scholars—so it seemed—had concentrated their interest and attention on Christian and classical writers and ideas. It was well known that the irascible Luther and other writers more renowned for their tolerance than Luther, like Erasmus and Voltaire, plunged their bent nibs into the Jews as often as they could manage. Others—like Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Bayle—elaborately discussed the Old Testament, usually in contexts where they also seemed to be scoring polemical points off fellow Christians. But Jewish influence on Christian culture and Christian responses to Jewish thought and practice both seemed subjects of local and specialized interest. Only occasionally did a scholar—usually a Jew—pursue what now seem obvious historical questions: for example, why the tolerance of the thinkers of the French Enlightenment slumbered when Jews were persecuted. And even scholars deeply schooled in Jewish learning, like the late Frank Manuel, paid relatively little attention to the intellectual collisions of Jews and Christians.

During the last forty years or so, however, all students of the European past have come to see the Western tradition as far less unified, its borders as far more labile, than they once realized. The study of Jewish history has blossomed. Specialists in the field like Scholem, Moshe Idel, Joseph Dan, Amos Funkenstein, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Josef Kaplan, Elisheva Carlebach, and David Ruderman have found a wide readership among students of European thought—and they, in turn, have realized that European thinkers took a passionate interest in the Kabbalah, the rituals of Jewish worship, and the textual status of the Hebrew Bible. Experts on Christian Europe like Brian Pullan, Natalie Zemon Davis, William Chester Jordan, R. Po-chi Hsia, and Jonathan Israel have turned their attention to Jewish communities and individuals living in the European world. A very few scholars, like the Israeli historian David Katz, know both worlds at first hand.4 Syntheses remain few and incomplete: one of the most stimulating is Frank Manuel’s The Broken Staff, written in the 1980s, when that great historian returned, as an old man, to the Hebrew studies of his youth. But no historian of European culture can now ignore the prominent roles that Jews have played, over the centuries, in both European life and the European imagination. Some of the most exciting recent books in European history—such as David Nirenberg’s Communities of Violence and Miri Rubin’s Gentile Tales—have traced the fault lines that separated Jewish and Christian communities and delicately recorded, from the sources, the shocks created when each community rubbed against the other.

For all the new light that scholars have thrown upon this once dark border region, central questions remain unsolved and obscure. How typical, for example, was Pico’s experience—deep, engaged, passionate, mediated, and sometimes spurious—of Christian contact with and thought about the Jews? How typical was Reuchlin’s more direct immersion in the sources? Did Christians invent imaginary Jews, their hereditary enemies within, as they invented other imaginary enemies, from Turks to cannibals, outside Europe? Or did they learn to see Jews whole? When, if ever, did Jews themselves find a voice within the European world? And what messages did they send to Christians?

Two recent books—both of them passionate, well informed, and eloquent—attack these problems in instructively different ways. Adam Sutcliffe, a pupil of the prolific and erudite historian Jonathan Israel, uses the role of Judaism in Enlightenment thought to develop his teacher’s thesis that the most radical shifts in modern European culture took place in the decades just before and after 1700. His wide-ranging study starts in the seventeenth-century heyday of polymathy, when Christian scholars exhausted themselves trying to establish an absolutely reliable text of the Bible and an absolutely rigorous, coherent approach to world history—achingly difficult enterprises to begin with, and made more so by the dizzying multiplication of new forms of evidence, as information about the Near East, the New World, China, and India filtered back to Europe. New versions of the Bible and new evidence about the antiquity of Eastern societies transmogrified the narrow, orderly mansions of history.

Traditional world chronicles laid out history as a neat sequence of names and dates that started with Adam and ended with the present. But the new accounts of the Americas and China broke time lines, defied traditions, and made the past a bizarre carnival fun-house. Its shocking mirrors dramatically magnified the Egyptian and Chinese traditions, making them look older and more profound than the Jewish one. These debates grew hotter as the seventeenth century wore on—especially, as Sutcliffe shows, when they moved from the studies in which grave and learned scholars wrote Latin folios for a few peers into the journals and coffeehouses of the time. Suddenly, women and Grub Street writers could read about and join in debates that had once been the province of the erudite. Gradually, he argues, the old Bar-oque disciplines like chronology lost their luster, and even their coherence.

Jewish tradition now became the object of sharp questions. Was it the source of all true knowledge about the origins of life, the universe, and everything else, as scholars had traditionally insisted? Or was it a parochial and self-serving body of stories that obscured the older and more vital civilizations whose culture and religion the Jews had rejected? Could the Calvinist thinker Isaac La Peyrère be right when he claimed that the bibli-cal story of Creation described not the origin of the Jews, but that of humanity itself, thousands of years before Jewish history began? Or the Catholic thinker Richard Simon, when he insisted that the Hebrew Scriptures had not been dictated by God, but assembled by fallible humans, long after the events they described? Neither man’s ideas were so novel as modern historians generally believe, as Noel Malcolm has shown in a brilliantly piece of scholarly detective work.5 Yet if earlier divines provided the tools with which La Peyrère and Simon went about their tentative work of demolition, others had declared every word—and every mark of punctuation—in the Bible to be the product of direct divine inspiration. But both men were denounced and their books condemned and rebutted. Yet even their opponents, like Bishop Bossuet, knew that they could no longer maintain with absolute confidence the old simple truths about history and tradition. The search for certainty in scholarship led only to controversy without end, as the vast constructs of the late humanists collapsed like the Old Stone Face.

  1. 1

    Flavius Mithridates, Sermo de Passione Domini, edited with an introduction and commentary by Chaim Wirszubski (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1963).

  2. 2

    See e.g. The Christian Kabbalah, edited by Joseph Dan (Harvard College Library, 1997); Stephen Burnett, From Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies: Johannes Buxtorf (1564–1629) and Hebrew Learning in the Seventeenth Century (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1996).

  3. 3

    See Johannes Reuchlin, Recommendation Whether to Confiscate, Destroy, and Burn All Jewish Books, translated, edited and with a foreword by Peter Wortsman; critical introduction by Elisheva Carlebach (Paulist Press, 2000).

  4. 4

    See Katz’s The Jews in the History of England, 1485–1850 (Clarendon Press, 1994), and his forthcoming study of the Bible in England.

  5. 5

    Noel Malcolm, “Hobbes, Ezra and the Bible: The History of a Subversive Idea,” in his Aspects of Hobbes (Clarendon Press, 2002), pp. 383–431.

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