The Jews



IN his Flores Historiarum (1228) Roger Wendover told of an Armenian archbishop who, visiting the monastery of St. Albans early in the thirteenth century, was asked about the story that a Jew who had talked with Christ was still alive in the Near East. The archbishop assured the monks that the story was true. His attendant added that the archbishop had dined with this immortal only a short time before leaving Armenia; that the man’s name, Latin-wise, was Cartophilus; that when Jesus was leaving the tribunal of Pontius Pilate this Cartophilus struck the Lord in the back, saying, “Go faster”; and that Jesus said to him, “I go, but thou shalt tarry till I come.” Other Armenians, visiting St. Albans in 1252, repeated the tale. Popular fiction expanded it, varied the name of the wanderer, and told how, every hundred years or so, he fell into a grave illness and deep coma, from which he recovered as a youth with memories still fresh of the trial, death, and resurrection of Christ. The story sank out of record for a while, but reappeared in the sixteenth century; and excited Europeans claimed to have seen Ahasuerus—as der ewige Jude or le Juif errant was now called—at Hamburg (1547 and 1564), Vienna (1599),Lübeck (1601),Paris (1644),Newcastle (1790), finally in Utah (1868). The legend of the Wandering Jew was welcomed, in a Europe that was losing its faith, as a reassuring proof of the divinity and resurrection of Christ, and a fresh pledge of His second coming. For us the myth is a somber symbol of a people losing its homeland in the seventy-first year of the Christian era, wandering for eighteen centuries over four continents, and suffering repeated crucifixions, before regaining its ancient habitation in the unstable flux of our time.1

The Jews of the Dispersion found least misery under the sultans in Turkey and the popes in France and Italy. Jewish minorities lived safely in Constantinople, Salonika, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, and Moorish Spain. The Berbers gave them a reluctant toleration, yet Simon Duran led a flourishing settlement in Algeria. In Alexandria the Jewish community, as described by Rabbi Obadiah Bertinoro in 1488, lived well, drank too much wine, sat cross-legged on carpets like the Moslems, and removed their shoes before entering the synagogue or the home of a friend.2 German Jews finding refuge in Turkey wrote back to their relatives enthusiastic descriptions of the happy conditions enjoyed there by the Jews.3 In Palestine the Ottoman pasha allowed the Jews to build a synagogue on the slope of Mt. Zion. Some Western Jews made pilgrimages to Palestine, holding it good fortune to die in the Holy Land, and best of all in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless the center and zest of Jewish thought in this age were in the unforgiving West. There they were least unfortunate in enlightened Italy. In Naples they enjoyed the friendship of King Robert of Anjou. They prospered in Ancona, Ferrara, Padua, Venice, Verona, Mantua, Florence, Pisa, and other hives of the Renaissance. “Italy has many Jews,” said Erasmus in 1518; “Spain hardly any Christians.” 4 Commerce and finance were respected in Italy, and the Jews who served those necessities were valued as stimulating agents in the economy. The old requirement that Jews should wear a distinguishing badge or garment was generally ignored in the peninsula; well-to-do Jews dressed like the Italians of their class. Jewish youths attended the universities, and an increasing number of Christians studied Hebrew.

Occasionally some holy hater like St. John of Capistrano would excite his hearers to demand the full enforcement of all “blue law” canonical disabilities against the Jews; but though Capistrano was supported by Popes Eugenius IV and Nicholas V, the effect of his eloquence was transient in Italy. Another Franciscan friar, Bernardino of Feltre, attacked the Jews so vociferously that the civic authorities of Milan, Ferrara, and Venice ordered him to be silent or decamp. When a three-year-old child was found dead near the house of a Jew in Trent (1475), Bernardino proclaimed that the Jews had murdered it. The bishop had all the Jews in Trent imprisoned, and some, under duress of torture, said that they had slain the boy and drunk his blood as part of a Passover ritual All the Jews in Trent were burned to death. The corpse of “little Simon” was embalmed and displayed as a saintly relic; thousands of simple believers made pilgrimages to the new shrine; and the story of the alleged atrocity, spreading over the Alps into Germany, intensified antisemitic feeling there. The Venetian Senate denounced the tale as a pious fraud, and ordered the authorities within Venetian jurisdiction to protect the Jews. Two lawyers came from Padua to Trent to examine the evidence; they were nearly torn to pieces by the populace. Pope Sixtus IV was urged to canonize Simon, but he refused, and forbade honoring him as a saint;5 however, Simon was beatified in 1582.

In Rome the Jews for centuries enjoyed fairer conditions of life and liberty than anywhere else in Christendom, partly because the popes were usually men of culture, partly because the city was ruled and divided by Orsini and Colonna factions too busy fighting each other to spare hostility to others, and perhaps because the Romans were too close to the business side of Christianity to take their religion fanatically. There was as yet no ghetto in Rome; most of its Jews lived in the Septus Hebraicus on the left bank of the Tiber, but they did not have to; palaces of the Roman aristocracy rose amid Jewish dwellings, and synagogues near Christian churches.6 Some oppression remained: the Jews were taxed to support the athletic games, and were forced to send representatives to take part in them, half naked, against Jewish customs and tastes. Racial antagonism survived. Jews were caricatured on the Roman stage and in Carnival farces, but Jewesses were regularly presented as gentle and beautiful; note the contrast between Barabas and Abigail in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, and between Shylock and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice.

By and large the popes were as generous to the Jews as could be expected of men who honored Christ as the Messiah and resented the Jewish belief that the Messiah had not yet come. In establishing the Inquisition the popes exempted unconverted Jews from its jurisdiction; it could summon such Jews only for attacks on Christianity, or for attempts to convert a Christian to Judaism. “Jews who never ceased professing Judaism were, on the whole, left undisturbed”7 by the Church, though not by the state or the populace. Several popes issued bulls aiming to mitigate popular hostility. Pope Clement VI labored in this regard, and made papal Avignon a merciful haven for Jews fleeing from the predatory government of France.8 Martin V, in 1419, proclaimed to the Catholic world:

Whereas the Jews are made in the image of God, and a remnant will one day be saved, and whereas they have besought our protection: following in the footsteps of our predecessors, we command that they be not molested in their synagogues; that their laws, rights, and customs be not assailed; that they be not baptized by force, constrained to observe Christian festivals, nor to wear new badges, and that they be not hindered in their business relations with Christians.9

Eugenius IV and Nicholas, as we shall see, issued repressive legislation; but for the rest, says Graetz, “among the masters of Italy, the popes were most friendly to the Jews.”10 Several of them—Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X—ignoring old decrees, entrusted their lives to Jewish physicians. Contemporary Jewish writers celebrated gratefully the security enjoyed by their people under the Medici popes,11 and one of them called Clement VII “the gracious friend of Israel.”12 Says a learned Jewish historian:

This was the heyday of the Renaissance period, and a succession of cultured, polished, luxurious, worldly-wise popes in Rome regarded the promotion of culture as being as important a part of their function as the forwarding of the religious interests of the Catholic Church.... They tended, therefore, from the middle of the fifteenth century onward, to overlook inconvenient details of canon law and to show... a wide tolerance for those who were not Catholic. The Jewish loan-bankers constituted an integral part of the economic machinery of their dominions, while as broad-minded men of the world they appreciated the conversation of Jewish physicians and others with whom they came into contact. Hence the persecutory regulations that had been elaborated by the Fathers of the Church, and codified by the Third and Fourth Lateran Councils, were almost entirely neglected by them.... With this example before their eyes, the other Italian princes—the Medici of Florence, the Estensi of Ferrara, the Gonzaga of Mantua—acted in much the same fashion. Though they were disturbed by occasional interludes of violence or fanaticism—as for example when Savonarola obtained control of Florence in 1497—the Jews mixed with their neighbors and shared in their life to a degree that was almost unexampled. They played a distinct part in certain aspects of the Renaissance.... They mirrored it in their own lives and in their literary activities in the Hebrew tongue; they made important contributions to philosophy, music, and the theater; they were familiar figures in many of the Italian courts.13

Some once famous figures illustrate these bright days in the relations of Christians and Jews. Immanuel ben Solomon Haromi (i.e., of Rome) was born in the same year as Dante (1265), and became his friend. He was as much a Renaissance man as a loyal Jew could be: physician by profession, preacher, Biblical scholar, grammarian, scientist, man of wealth and affairs, poet, and “writer of frivolous songs that very often passed the bounds of decency.”14 A complete master of Hebrew, he introduced the sonnet form into that language; he almost rivaled the Italians in fluency and spirit, and not again before Heine would a Jewish poet show such talent for satire, such brilliance and wit. Perhaps Immanuel had imbibed some of the Averroist skepticism of the age; one of his poems expresses a distaste for heaven with all its virtuous people (he thought only ugly women were virtuous), and a preference for hell, where he expected to find the most tempting beauties of all time. In his old age he composed a weak imitation of Dante—Topheth we-Eden (Heaven and Paradise); in Judaism, as in Protestantism, there was no purgatory. More generous than Dante, Immanuel, following Rabbinical tradition, admitted into heaven all “the righteous of the nations of the world”;15 however, he condemned Aristotle to hell for teaching the eternity of the universe.

A similar spirit of lighthearted humor gave tang and verve to the writings of Kalonymos ben Kalonymos. King Robert of Naples, on a visit to Provence, noticed the young scholar of the Beautiful Name, and took him to Italy. At first Kalonymos was all for science and philosophy; he translated Aristotle, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Galen, al-Farabi, and Averroes into Hebrew, and wrote in a high ethical vein. But he found the gay mood of Naples easy to assimilate. When he moved to Rome he became a Jewish Horace, satirizing amiably the faults and foibles of Christians, Jews, and himself. He mourned that he had been born a man; had he been a woman he would not have had to pore over the Bible and the Talmud, or to learn the 613 precepts of the Law. His Purim Tractatemade fun of the Talmud, and the popularity of this satire among the Roman Jews suggests that they were not as pious as their more unhappy brethren in other lands.

The Renaissance revived not only Greek but Hebrew studies. Cardinal Egidio de Viterbo invited Elijah Levita from Germany to Rome (1509); for thirteen years the Jewish scholar lived in the Cardinal’s palace as an honored guest, teaching Egidio Hebrew, and receiving instruction in Greek. Through the efforts of Egidio, Reuchlin, and other Christian pupils of Jewish teachers, chairs of Hebrew were established in several Italian universities or academies. Elijah del Medigo, who taught Hebrew at Padua, was so highly regarded there, despite his refusal of conversion, that when a violent controversy broke out among the Christian students over a problem in scholarship the university authorities and the Venetian Senate appointed Del Medigo to arbitrate, which he did with such erudition and tact that all parties were satisfied. Pico della Mirandola invited him to teach Hebrew in Florence. There Elijah joined the humanist circle of the Medici, and we may still see him among the figures painted by Benozzo Gozzoli on the Medici palace walls. The scholar gave no encouragement to Pico’s notion of finding Christian dogmas in the Cabala; on the contrary, he ridiculed that apocalypse as a heap of stupefying absurdities.

North of the Alps the Jews were less fortunate than in Italy. They were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306, from Flanders in 1370. France recalled them in 1315 on condition of giving to the king two thirds of any money they might collect on loans made before their expulsion;16 when the royal profits on these operations ended the Jews were banished again (1321). They returned in time to be blamed for the Black Death, and were again exiled (1349). They were recalled (1360) to lend financial aid and skill in raising sums to ransom the captured French king from England. But in 1394 an Israelite converted to Christianity mysteriously disappeared; the Jews were accused of killing him; some tortured Jews confessed that they had advised the convert to return to Judaism; public opinion was inflamed, and Charles VI reluctantly ordered another banishment of the harassed race.

There was a substantial community of Jews in Prague. Some of them went to hear the sermons of Huss’s forerunner Milicz because he showed so much knowledge and appreciation of the Old Testament. Huss studied Hebrew, read Hebrew commentaries, and quoted Rashi and Maimonides. The Taborites who carried Huss’s reforms close to communism called themselves the Chosen People, and gave the names Edom, Moab, and Amalek to the German provinces against which they waged war. The Hussite armies, however, were not averse to killing Jews; when they captured Prague (1421) they gave them not the Mohammedan choice of conversion or taxation, but the simpler choice of apostasy or death.17

Of all the Christian states Poland was second only to Italy in hospitality to the Jews. In 1098, 1146, and 1196 many Jews migrated from Germany to Poland to avoid death at the hands of Crusaders. They were well received, and prospered; by 1207 some of them owned large estates. In 1264 King Boleslav the Pious gave them a charter of civil rights. After the Black Death more Germans moved to Poland, and were welcomed by the ruling aristocracy as a progressive economic ferment in a nation still lacking a middle class. Casimir III the Great (1333–70) confirmed and extended the rights of the Polish Jews, and the Grand Duke Vitovst guaranteed these rights to the Jews of Lithuania. But in 1407 a priest told his congregation at Cracow that Jews had killed a Christian boy and had gloated over his blood; the charge provoked a massacre. Casimir IV renewed and again enlarged the liberties of the Jews (1447); “we desire,” he said, “that the Jews, whom we wish to protect in our own interest as well as in the interest of the royal exchequer, should feel comforted in our beneficent reign.”18 The clergy denounced the King; Archbishop Olesnicki threatened him with hell-fire; and John of Capistrano, coming to Poland as papal legate, delivered incendiary speeches in the market place of Cracow (1453). When the King suffered defeat in war the cry arose that he had been punished by God for favoring infidels. As he needed the support of the clergy in further war, he rescinded his charter of Jewish liberties. Pogroms occurred in 1463 and 1494. Perhaps to prevent such attacks, the Jews of Cracow were thereafter required to live in a suburb, Kazimierz.

There, and in other Polish or Lithuanian centers, the Jews, overcoming all obstacles, grew in number and prosperity. Under Sigismund I their liberties were restored, except of residence; and they remained in favor with Sigismund II. In 1556 three Jews in the town of Sokhachev were charged with having stabbed a consecrated Host and made it bleed; they protested their innocence, but were burned at the stake by order of the bishop of Khelm. Sigismund II denounced the accusation as a “pious fraud” designed to prove to Jews and Protestants that the consecrated bread had really been changed into the body and blood of Christ. “I am shocked by this hideous villainy,” said the King; “nor am I sufficiently devoid of common sense as to believe that there could be any blood in the Host.”19 But with the death of this skeptical ruler (1572) the era of good feelings between the government and the Jews of Poland came to an end.

For a time the Jews lived peaceably in medieval Germany. They functioned actively along the great river avenues of trade, in the free cities and the ports; even archbishops asked Imperial permission to harbor Jews. By the Golden Bull (1355) the Emperor Charles IV shared with the Imperial electors the privilege of having Jews as servi camarae—servants of the chamber; i.e., the electors were empowered to receive Jews into their dominions, protect them, use them, and mulct them. In Germany, as in Italy, students eager to understand the Old Testament at first hand learned Hebrew; the conflict between Reuchlin and Pfefferkorn stimulated this study; and the first complete printing of the Talmud (1520) provided further impetus.

The influence of Judaism culminated in the Reformation. Theologically this was a reversion to the simpler creed and severer ethic of early Judaic Christianity. Protestant hostility to religious pictures and statuary was, of course, a return to the Semitic antipathy to “graven images”; some Protestant sects observed Saturday as the Sabbath; the rejection of “Mariolatry” and the worship of saints approached the strict monotheism of the Jews; and the new ministers, accepting sex and marriage, resembled the rabbis rather than the Catholic priests. Critics of the Reformers accused them of “Judaizing,” called them semi-Judaei, “half-Jews”;20 Carlstadt himself said that Melanchthon wanted to go back to Moses; Calvin included Judaizing among the deadly sins of Servetus, and the Spaniard admitted that his Hebrew studies had influenced him in questioning the trinitarian theology. Calvin’s rule in Geneva recalled the dominance of the priesthood in ancient Israel. Zwingli was denounced as a Judaizer because he studied Hebrew with Jews and based many of his sermons and commentaries on the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. He confessed himself enchanted by the Hebrew language:

I found the Holy Tongue beyond all belief cultivated, graceful, and dignified. Although it is poor in the number of words, yet its lack is not felt because it makes use of its store in so manifold a fashion. Indeed, I may dare to say that if one conceives its dignity and grace, no other language expresses so much with so few words and so powerful expressions; no language is so rich in many-sided and meaningful .... modes of imagery. No language so delights and quickens the human heart.21

Luther was not so enthusiastic. “How I hate people,” he complained, “who lug in so many languages as Zwingli does; he spoke Greek and Hebrew in the pulpit at Marburg.” 22 In the irritability of his senility Luther attacked the Jews as if he had never learned anything from them; no man is a hero to his debtor. In a pamphlet “Concerning the Jews and Their Lies” (1542) he discharged a volley of arguments against the Jews: that they had refused to accept Christ as God, that their age-long sufferings proved God’s hatred of them, that they were intruders in Christian lands, that they were insolent in their usurious prosperity, that the Talmud sanctioned the deception, robbery, and killing of Christians, that they poisoned springs and wells, and murdered Christian children to use their blood in Jewish rituals. We have seen, in studying his aging character, how he advised the Germans to burn down the homes of Jews, to close their synagogues and schools, to confiscate their wealth, to conscript their men and women to forced labor, and to give all Jews a choice between Christianity and having their tongues torn out. In a sermon delivered shortly before his death he added that Jewish physicians were deliberately poisoning Christians.23 These utterances helped to make Protestantism—so indebted to Judaism—more antisemitic than official Catholicism, though not more so than the Catholic populace. They influenced the Electors of Saxony and Brandenburg to expel the Jews from those territories.24 They set the tone in Germany for centuries, and prepared its people for genocidal holocausts.

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