Friday, July 09, 2010

Will you be my Hebrew pen pal? "Chana Miriam Shurman," a 17th century Christian Hebraist.

Moritz Steinschneider, who has been called "the father of Jewish bibliography," supposedly [1] quipped ראשית חכמה—ביבליוגרפיה. Whatever one thinks of the impious biblical parody (Psalms 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10) there can be no question that bibliography is immensely important in scholarship unless your scholarly path is to choose a few classics to which you always refer. Thus bibliographers are deserving of an enormous thank you.

Rabbi Shabbethai Bass (1641-1718), the author of one of the better known of the many supracommentaries on Rashi was also a bibliographer, and in truth he is really the father of Hebrew bibliography. (In its abridged form, עיקר שפתי חכמים, it may well be the most widely printed, if not most widely read such commentary of them all. In fact, in Artscroll's all-Hebrew edition of the Pentateuch, it was included as the classic accompaniment to the great master's commentary. Since a sparse Pentateuch for weekly reading is, in a sense, like a "desert island list" one can get a sense of how traditional, if not important, it was seen to include this work. It isn't every work that assumes a place alongside Targum Onkelos, Rashi [and Toldos Aharon].)

Bass was not the first to compile a Hebrew bibliographical list, but he was the first knowledgeable Jewish scholar to do so (outside of odds and ends, medieval bookseller catalogs and the like), using his knowledge and erudition to vastly outpace all earlier works which were compiled by Christian Hebraists (such as Bartolocci's Bibliotheca magna rabbinica of 1675). His book שפתי ישינים, printed in Amsterdam in 1680 lists well over 2000 titles. Here is a mention, from 1722, of the usefulness of his great work. It is translated from French:

It is surely interesting that he does not limit himself to seforim, that is Jewish, rabbinic works, but also includes a section called שער החיצון, or Outside the Canon, listing Hebrew works by Christian scholars. Below is the small introduction. You can also see the very first work he lists is an אבן גליון, or Evangelion, that is Elias Hutter's Hebrew translation of the New Testament Gospels.

Writes Bass: "Here are listed many works translated from Hebrew to Latin, and some which are written in both Hebrew and Latin. These authors are not Jewish. This shows the power of Hebrew, that all the nations exert themselves to learn and write works in the Holy Tongue, and to translate books from Hebrew into other languages. The wise will understand the great purpose of this chapter."

So it is that the acquisition of Hebrew by Christians was appreciated as notable by at least some Jewish scholars.

Anna Maria Schurman (1607-1678), depicted above in 1632, was a legend in her own time. Originally from Cologne, she lived in Utrecht in Holland, and quite naturally was a Calvinist. From a very young age she became accomplished in the major European languages, as well as Latin and Greek. She developed a propensity for scholarship, which was considered nothing short of astonishing in her time. As the best Latinist in town, Gisbert Voet (1588-1676), Rector of the University of Utrecht, invited her to write a Latin poem for the occasion of the opening of the University. As a result of this a friendship developed between them and he taught her Hebrew. From there she progressed to Aramaic and Syriac. Because of her scholarly prowess and intense curiosity Voet had a special booth built for her to audit lectures at the University.

She became acquainted with Rene Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") who enjoyed discussing scholarly topics with her, and sitting with her to listen to lectures. One time he entered the booth and saw she was reading the Bible in Hebrew. Descartes, a Catholic, asked her why she was wasting her time over something so unimportant? She gave some kind of answer about the supreme importance of the original Hebrew for understanding God's word. In reply, he remarked that he had thought as she did and even learned the language himself. When he tried to read the first chapter of Genesis dealing with creation, instead of comprehending God's great wisdom he just found it to be very incoherent. She was extremely upset by his flippant attitude toward the language which she considered to be of infinite importance, and her attitude toward him cooled considerably. She never invited him to join her in her booth again.

Another interesting anecdote concerns the time that Queen Christina of Sweden, having heard great things about her, visited her accompanied by Jesuit priests. Christina was fairly scholarly herself, and saw she was unable to baffle Anna Maria on any topic she posed to her. So she asked the Jesuits to ask her some tough questions about theology, and they also couldn't stump her. They were so surprised by her quickness and cleverness that—you can't make this stuff up—they told Queen Christina that she must be possessed by an evil spirit. Anna replied by laughing and agreeing that she was inspired by a spirit. The friendly visit concluded with Anna quickly painting the Queen's portrait for her.

Oh, she was also a talented artist. Below are several self-portraits made at age 25, 33 and 75 respectively:

In 1824 the periodical Bikure Ha-ittim published three of her Hebrew letters, as follows:

As you can see, Anna Maria Schurman signed her name חנה מרים שורמן, Chana (=Hannah) Miriam Shurman in Hebrew. Before I get to the content of the letters, it is interesting to note that she never married and as a chaste, pious woman she was often referred to as a "Maid" or even a "Virgin," (and you will see an example in Hebrew contemporary to her time below). It's interesting that in Bikure Ha-ittim she is referred to as עלמה חכמת לב, because while it is correct, if she was referred to as an עלמה by her contemporary Christians it was meant in the sense of virgin, a meaning which Jews do not accept as valid for that word. I think a case can be made that the editor unwittingly made a sloppy choice here.

The third of these letters is most interesting. Shurman was writing to a woman named Dorothea Moore (1613-1664) of Dublin and essentially requesting that she be her Hebrew pen pal. She praises Dorothea, telling her that wisdom is only to be found among English women in her now that Lady Jane Gray (גברת יוחנה גריה) and Queen Elizabeth (מלכה אלישבע) are dead. The other letters are to Andre Rivet, who was her mentor, and the aforementioned Gisbert Voet.

Where did Bikure Ha-ittim get these letters? They were included in an anthology of her writings in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French called Opuscula hebraea, latina, graeca, gallica, published in 1648, 1650 and 1652. Here is how they appear:

In the 1652 edition edited by Johannes Leusden a dedicatory inscription in Hebrew was included at the beginning. Here he calls her בתולת השם, a Virgin of God:

Below is yet another portrait included in this edition:

Interestingly, she eventually gave up humanist-philological studies and became a Christian mystic. What of her correspondence with Dorothea Moore? Her Opuscula also included a Latin letter. Below is an English translation from Women Writing Latin: From Roman Antiquity to Early Modern Europe:

[1] I can't verify this quote. Louis Jacobs was fond of repeating it in the name of his teacher, Dr. Siegfried Stein, who attributed it to Steinschneider.


  1. wow. your readship extends to china. i'm impressed.

    JE has a list of christian hebraists. she's on there. she is also referenced in the entry on jety wohllerner. thanks for posting more about her.

  2. JE has a list of *women* christian hebraists.

  3. "Lion of Zion" wow. your readship extends to china. i'm impressed."

    the .................... at the end is a link to a porn site!

  4. Utterly fascinating. Hebraist she may have been, but she still prefers 1 Peter 5:7 where a Jew would have referenced Psalms 55:23 (or 22, למנינם):

  5. LoZ, one of the wonderful things about Blogger's built in comments is the occasional spam. That's why some require captchas to comment. But for me that's a pain on other people's blogs, so I don't want to discourage commenting by requiring an additional layer (also why I don't require people to type in a name). So far I get relatively little spam, so I just delete it.

    Yitzhak, I should have mentioned the book "Anna van Schurman, artist, scholar, saint" (1909) by Una Pope-Hennessy which is where the anecdotes are contained. Very interesting woman, although I wish I knew more about her actual scholarship.

  6. Great post.
    One typo, I think:
    "Descartes, a Catholic, asked her why she was wasting his time over something so unimportant?"

    Was she wasting his time, or her time?

  7. Do you have any idea of the woman that the Ramchal refers to as a Christian who was knowledgable in the Kisvei Ari

  8. A very humbling post.

    Q. How does "Jane" turn into "Yochana"?


  9. Never mind. בתר דאיבעיה ליה הדר פשטיה.




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