The ability of the Jews to recover from misfortune is one of the impressive wonders of history, part of that heroic resilience which man in general has shown after the catastrophes of life.
Segregation was not the worst indignity; they were happier and safer with one another than amid the hostile crowd. Poverty they could bear, since they had known it for centuries, and it was not their prerogative; indeed, they were more likely to be proud of their occasional wealth than conscious of their immemorial indigence. The unkindest cut of all, however motived, was the badge or distinguishing garment that marked them off as the despised and rejected of men. The great historian of the Jews writes bitterly:
The Jew-badge was an invitation to the gamin to insult the wearers and to bespatter them with mud; it was a suggestion to stupid mobs to fall upon them, to maltreat them, and even to kill them; and it afforded the higher class an opportunity to ostracize the Jews, to plunder them, or to exile them. Worse than this outward dishonor was the influence of the badge on the Jews themselves. They became more and more accustomed to their ignominious position, and lost all feeling of self-respect. They neglected their outward appearance.... . They became more and more careless of their speech, because they were not admitted to cultured circles, and in their own midst they could make themselves understood by means of a jargon. They lost all taste and sense of beauty, and to some extent became despicable, as their enemies desired them to be.73
This is exaggerated and too general; many Jews retained their pride, some gloried in the splendor of their dress; we hear again and again of Jewish girls renowned for their beauty; and the Jüdisch, which in the sixteenth century evolved as a jargon of German with Slavic and Hebraic borrowings, was developing a vigorous and varied literature even as Graetz wrote his History of the Jews. But in any case the supreme crime of those centuries was the deliberate degradation of an entire people, the merciless murder of the soul.
Part and basis of the crime was the exclusion of the Jews from almost all occupations but commerce and finance. For reasons already summarized,74 and because a tithe of agricultural produce was demanded by the Church, Jews more and more withdrew from cultivation of the soil; and finally they were forbidden to own land.75 Since they were not admitted to the guilds (which were formally Christian religious organizations), they could not rise in the manufacturing world, and their mercantile operations were hedged in with Christian monopolies. By and large, in their dealings with Christians, they found themselves limited to petty industry, trade, and moneylending. In some regions they were forbidden to sell to Christians anything but secondhand goods. After the thirteenth century they lost their invidious pre-eminence in finance. But their fluid capital, their international languages, their international connections through scattered relatives, enabled them to achieve a high place in the foreign commerce of the Christian states. So prominent was the Jewish role that those countries which excluded them lost, and those that received them gained, in the volume of their international trade. This was one—not the main—reason why Spain and Portugal declined while Holland rose, and why Antwerp yielded commercial leadership to Amsterdam.
It was a saving consolation that the Jews, in their internal affairs, could be ruled by their own laws and customs, their own rabbis and synagogue councils. As in Islam, so in Jewry, religion, law, and morality were inextricably one; religion was held to be coextensive with life. In 1310 Rabbi Jakob ben Asher formulated Jewish law, ritual, and morality in Arabaah Turim (Four Rows); this replaced the Mishna Torah (1170) of Maimonides with a code in which all the legislation of the Talmud and the rulings of the Geonim were made obligatory on all Jews everywhere. The Turim became the accepted guide for rabbinical law and judgment till 1565.
The disasters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries disrupted the social organization of the Jews. The rabbis, like the priests, suffered a high mortality in the Black Death. Persecutions, expulsions, and a fugitive life almost put an end to Jewish law. The Sephardic Jews found it difficult to accept the language and customs of the Jewish communities which offered to absorb them; they set up their own synagogues, kept their own Spanish or Portuguese speech; and in many cities there were separate congregations of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, or German Jews, each with its own rabbi, customs, charities, and jealousies.76 In this crisis the Jewish family saved the Jewish people; the mutual devotion of parents and children, brothers and sisters, provided a haven of stability and security. These centuries of disorder in Jewish mores ended when Rabbi Joseph Karo issued from Safed his Shulchan Aruch (Venice, 1564–65); in this Table in Order the religion, law, and customs of the Jews were once more codified. But as Karo based his code chiefly on Spanish Judaism, the Hebrews of Germany and Poland felt that he had paid too little attention to their own traditions and interpretations of the Law; Rabbi Moses Isserles of Cracow added to the Table in Order his Mapath ha-Shulchan (A Cloth for the Table, 1571), which formulated the Askenazi variations on Karo’s mostly Sephardic code. With this emendation the Shulchan Aruch remained till our own time the Justinian and Blackstone of orthodox Jews. To say of a Jew that he obeyed all the precepts of theShulchan Aruch was the summit of Jewish praise.
Since all formulations of Jewish law were based on the Talmud, we can—or can we?—imagine the trepidation with which the Jews followed the vicissitudes of their second holy book. In its literary and less authoritative section—the Haggada—there were some passages that ridiculed certain Christian beliefs. Converts from Judaism paved their way into Christian acceptance by denouncing these passages, and calling for the suppression of the entire Talmud. Despite such movements, culminating in the attack of Pfefferkorn on Reuchlin, Leo X encouraged the first printing of the Talmud (Venice, 1520); but Julius III signalized the passing of the Renaissance by ordering the Inquisition to burn all copies to be found in Italy (1553). Jewish homes were invaded; thousands of copies were seized; there were bonfires of Jewish books in Rome, Bologna, Ravenna, Ferrara, Padua, Venice, and Mantua; Milan, however, refused to obey the incendiary decree.77 Committees of Jews pleaded with the Pope to rescind his edict; he procrastinated while the volumes burned; but Pius IV ruled that the Talmud might be published after submitting to censorship. Thereafter the Jews censured their own publications.78
The Zohar, text of Jewish Cabalism, survived uninjured because some Catholic scholars thought they found in it proofs of the divinity of Christ. The Zohar had been written shortly before 1295 as one of a series of mystical works transmitting the Cabala or “secret tradition” of Jews who took refuge from poverty, persecution, and befuddlement in contemplating the divine and esoteric symbolism of numbers, letters, backward reading of words, the Ineffable Name of Yahveh, and so on. Sorrowing Jews gathered in private groups to seek, by fasting, weeping, ascetic austerities, and Cabalistic interpretations, some novel revelation, above all as to the coming of the Messiah who would redeem Israel from all its griefs.
Those who have tried to feel the unprecedented depth of racial suffering which the Jews experienced in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, can understand such forgivable escapes into consolatory mysticism, and the repeated deception of the desperate Jews by belief that the Messiah had actually come. In 1524 a young and handsome Arabian Jew, calling himself David Reubeni, rode on a white horse through Rome to the Vatican, and presented himself to Clement VII as brother and envoy of a Jewish king whom he described as reigning in Arabia over the old Hebrew tribe of Reuben. His king, said David, had 300,000 soldiers, with insufficient arms; if the Pope and the European princes would provide the weapons, the tribe would drive the Moslems out of Palestine. Clement was interested, and treated David with all the courtesies due to an ambassador. The Jews of Rome were pleased to see a Jew so honored; they supplied David with the means to keep high diplomatic state; and when an invitation came to him from John III of Portugal, he sailed in a ship with a numerous retinue and under a Jewish flag.
John III was so taken with his proposals that he suspended the persecution of the Marranos. The Jews of Portugal, most of them baptized against their will, became half-hysterical with joy, and many proclaimed their belief that David was the Messiah. Diogo Pires, a converted Jew who had become secretary to the King, had himself circumcised to prove his Judaism; he changed his name to Solomon Molcho, made his way to Turkey, and announced that Reubeni was the forerunner of the Messiah, who himself would arrive in 1540. Reubeni had made no claims to be either Messiah or forerunner; he was a visionary impostor who wanted money, ships, and arms. The flight of Pires-Molcho aroused King John’s suspicions; he bade Reubeni depart; David left, was stranded on the coast of Spain, and was arrested by the Inquisition. Charles V, apparently to please Clement, ordered him released. Reubeni went to Venice (1530), and proposed to the Senate that it should arm the Jews of Europe for an attack upon the Turks.
Meanwhile Molcho came to Ancona. received a passport from the Pope. rode across Italy, and preached Judaism fervently in Rome. When the Inquisition sought to arrest him as a relapsed Converso, Clement rescued him and sent him safely out of the city. Although Molcho had now lost faith in Reubeni, he joined him in a rash mission to Ratisbon, where they petitioned Charles to arm the Marranos against Islam. Charles had them arrested, and brought them with him to Mantua. There Molcho was sentenced to be burned. At the last moment he was offered an Imperial pardon if he would return to Christianity; he refused, and welcomed martyrdom (1532). Reubeni was sent to Spain, was imprisoned by the Inquisition, and died about 1536, apparently by poisoning. The brokenhearted Jews of Europe crept back into their ghettoes, their mysticism, and their despair.