Monday, February 28, 2011

A synopsis of Reuchlin's defense of the Talmud and condemnation of book-burning, with a special emphasis on his exegesis of the Birkhas Ha-minim.

In 1505 a Jew from Cologne named Pfefferkorn converted to Christianity along with his family. He, or according to some, others using his name, immediately began maligning Jews in pamphlets and books. In 1509 he obtained an order from the emperor Maximillian to confiscate and destroy all Hebrew books possessed by the Jews of Cologne and Frankfurt. Upon appeal from the Jews, the emperor agreed to stay the order until the issue could be examined, and in order to do this he solicited opinions from notable Christian scholars.

One of them, Johann Reuchlin, replied in a recommendation in which he concluded that only truly blasphemous Jewish books, such Toledot Yeshu, ought to be destroyed (and Reuchlin writes that even the Jews consider this book apocryphal; furthermore, to his knowledge only this book and one other Jewish book were really blasphemous). However, surely the vast majority of Jewish books contain no blasphemy, or if they do, only a tiny percentage.

What's more, argued Reuchlin, the fact is that no Christians in Germany were in a position to know if these books were actually blasphemous, since they cannot read them. Even Reuchlin, who was already a famous Hebrew scholar, acknowledged that he did not yet possess adequate knowledge of the Talmud. Thus far he had failed to procure a copy for himself, even though he was willing to pay a high price for one. Instead, he only possessed indirect knowledge of its contents based on Christian works written against it. He further argued that to his knowledge only one Jewish convert to Christianity actually possessed any Talmudic knowledge - excluding Pfefferkorn - and that particular convert, who was a rabbi, subsequently reverted to Judaism in Turkey. He points out that if someone wanted to write against mathematicians, but he himself didn't even know basic arithmetic, he would be laughed at.

To the objection that numerous Christian books against the Jews and the Talmud exist, some written by great Christian scholars, one might then argue that even if he personally doesn't know Jewish literature, since it is condemned by so many that he may rely on their negative judgment and adopt that position. Reuchlin responds that firstly, none of these books ever made an orderly case against it, and secondly, to blindly accept their judgment is to violate the common sense principle of listening to both sides of a story. In addition, it also violates canon law, which says that no one is obligated to accept the argument or opinion of any well known commentator, however pious a Christian, as if it were Holy Scripture or canon law itself. So at the very least, an impartial and fair inquiry is called for rather than wholesale comdemnation before the facts are known.

This line of argument, that it would be wrong to condemn a work that one did not understand, was only one of many that he lodged. Other arguments were legal ones, namely that the Jews are subjects of the Holy Roman Empire and entitled to legal protection. Furthermore, the law does not permit forsible confiscation of property. Reuchlin also poses an argument that might be familiar in a similar form from Jewish sources, namely that our ancestors did not ban or condemn these books to flames before, and surely we do not consider ourselves more pious than them.

Noting that besides Pfefferkorn himself, only one other writer had called for torching Jewish books directly, he applies Romans 10:2 to the both of them: they have a "zeal for God, but not according to knowledge." This is a nice bit of irony; the verse speaks of the Jews themselves.

Then, apparently not seriously believing that the attackers of the Talmud were really so pious in the first place, he explains why they never meant to consign the book to the flames: they are like hunters, who chase a deer as it runs through a wheat field, with only its antlers visible. The hunter knows that this isn't any contest. He will get his prey. But the fun is in the chase. He wouldn't be happy if someone were to throw a spear into the deer and kill it before he could hunt it. Similarly, the writers against the Talmud need the Talmud in order to attack it. Where would be their sport if it were burned and disappeared? He then audaciously writes that in reality the worse the Talmud is, all the more reason to preserve it, for it would greatly benefit students to hone their theology against it.

The Recommendation branches into many directions, directly refuting all manner of charges against Jewish literature, including that it is full of nonsense. Reuchlin writes that many ancient disciplines employed metaphor and allegory for quite reasonable concepts. For example, the ancients called wisdom "water." We ourselves call physical desire "harlot." In alchemy, metals are named for the planets. In fact, writes Reuchlin, reading books of alchemy would lead one who doesn't understand the terminology to think they were written by madmen, but these works are perfectly sensible to initiates. So why then isn't the Talmud accorded the same respect? It too is an ancient book and uses all manner of allegory and esoteric terms. In addition, have not the Christians preserved many ancient pre-Christian books that contain more absurdities and even more blaspemy, than the Talmud could possible have?

In any case, his Recommendation seems to have successfully staved off this attack on Jewish books, and the decree was rescinded. For his part, Reuchlin was accused of heresy and suffered a great deal personally for his position in a long controversy. Not surprisingly the 19th century Rabbi Yisrael Lipschutz of Danzig recalled him favorably for all time, in his commentary to Mishnah Avot 3:14 in a lengthy essay called אתם קרויין אדם. Here is his comment, followed by the title page of the 1845 publication:

One interesting digression in his pamphlet is his attempt to refute a calumny against Jewish liturgy on linguistic grounds. Pfefferkorn had written that the Birkhas Ha-minim prayer, which was then known by its initial word Ve-le-meshumadim, "Regarding the apostates," was a direct attack on Christians generally, and the Apostles specifically. Reuchlin considers such words an incendiary attack on the Jews, which could easily be used to incite ignorant people who don't know Hebrew. Here are his comments as they appear in his Augenspiegel, the work in which he published his Recommendation. What follows is the substance of his comments:

He writes that the prayer contains not one word relating to "Baptism" or "Apostles" or "Christians," or the "Roman Empire." The word in question, meshumad, means "to destroy," as in Proverbs 14:11 and Ezekiel 14:8. In this prayer the term means "those who destroy," and the meaning of the prayer is that the Jews are saying "Those who wish to destroy us, let him have no hope that his plot will succeed."

He then puts forth the following argument, which he may or may not have himself believed, which is that no one could possibly think this refers to Christians, since the Christians afford the Jews great freedom and no other people on earth welcomed the Jews as readily as the Christians. This is affirmed in canon and secular law. As I said, one wonders if he really believed this. He may well have, but if not then it is particularly ingenious, since he knew that no Christian leaders, secular or ecclesiastical, would have admitted or believed that they did not treat Jews well, and indeed that is what the law required. Reuchlin further points out that Jews all over the world recite the prayer, even if they live among Muslims or heathens. He writes that the Jews are hated and mistreated more by the heathens than by Christians, so how then could it really refer to Christians? The downfall of the Christians would not result in a happier situation for the Jews, and they know it.

He then analyzes other words in the prayer - "minim" means "all those who do not adhere to the true faith," i.e. Judaism. But, points out Reuchlin, on what basis can we say that this refers to us specifically and no one else? In other words, Reuchlin and all other Christians understand that the Jews believe their religion is the true faith, but that's not the point so long as they're not singling out Christians for attack. The third word, "oyev," or enemies, also cannot refer to us, Reuchlin writes, since as he mentioned earlier both Jews and Christians are fellow subjects of the same Emperor and enjoy the same rights and privileges. Finally, "malchut zedon" or "dominion of pride" does not refer to an earthly kingdom, the Holy Roman Empire, but is a metaphorical term.

Then Reuchlin goes on the attack: saying that as not one word of this prayer can be proven to refer to the apostles or Christians, he says that it is in fact an outrage that Pfefferkorn's calumny was permitted to be printed. All that's left then may be the suspicion that Jews secretly hate Christians in their heart, but who knows what is in a man's heart but the Creator of hearts? Not only that, but even if one Jew were to step forward and confess that this is what he thinks, he can only speak for himself.

Since what immediately follows the passage is so interesting, I'll review it here. Pfefferkorn had related the following damning charge against the Jews. When the Jews are being friendly and say "Welcome to you!" to a Christian (Seid wilkommen) they are in reality making a Hebrew pun and mean "Welcome, you devil!" In other words, Pfefferkorn was suggesting that they are punning on the German word seid and are saying "שֵׁד," or "devil." Reuchlin notes that "seid" is simply not "sched," and any fool can tell that the two words don't sound alike. Such a stupid charge isn't even worthy of the attention already given to it.

Toward the end of his Recommendation he refutes other charges made against the Jews. For example, to the charge that they wrote their literature only to oppose Christianity, he replies that they wrote it for themselves, which I guess is sort of a variant on the Jewish argument that Judaism really doesn't have a lot to say about Christianity even thought in the Christian scheme of things Christianity ought to be very important to Jews. On the contrary, goes the argument. It was Christianity which made Judaism important to Christians, but it doesn't follow that the reverse is true.

Another argument that he refutes is the charge that the reason why Jews do not convert in great numbers is because they are blinded by their own literature. Without rabbinic literature, perhaps they would all convert. Reuchlin maintains that the opposite is the case. It is precisely because of their literature, that if the Christians had capable spokesmen, they would convert. This is, I think, a variant of Maimonides' argument that Christianity is a religious improvement over paganism, for it puts non-Jews under the influence of the Bible. Reuchlin points out that Paul was a student of the rabbis, and this did not prevent him from becoming Christian. Furthermore, some of the greatest Christian scholars (whom he names) were converted Jews, and their Talmudic knowledge served them well.

Finally, he conjectures what could be the result if the Jews' literature were actually destroyed:
1. They might claim that the Christians are afraid of them. He gives the analogy of a duke who challenges a shepherd to a duel, but the duke takes away the shepherd's weapons first, while retaining his own.

2. Perhaps the Jews would create an even stranger literature which is even worse. Essentially, they could recreate the Talmud and tell their children whatever they want to what was in the now-lamented Talmud.

3. They could claim that Christians falsely quoted and misninterpreted the meaning of their literature, and nothing could be shown to prove the Christian position.

4. Forbidden fruit is particularly desirable. This would make the Jews crave their literature all the more, and many would go to Turkey to learn Talmud, and simply return back home with their Talmudic knowledge.

5. Moods and needs change. If the feeling today is to burn the books, what if in the future a need for them were felt? He gives the analogy of a certain Church council which required the Koran, and an example from Roman history where a certain king required a book which he had burned all but for the last three copies, and the result was that he had to pay an exorbitant price for it.

6. If the Jews lacked books, then how can Christians dispute them except on the basis of the Bible which, Reuchlin acknowledged, can be stretched to mean anything? Right now the Jews are limited by the interpretations and arguments of their ancestors, to which the Christians already know how to respond. But lacking the restraint of their books, what will prevent the Jews from endlessly devising interpretations? This would make debate fruitless.

7. Then a very interesting projection: lacking Jews to wrestle with over the meaning of Scripture, we will just argue with ourselves, since the mind never rests. We will awaken old disputes, such as, Was St. Paul married? - which are nonsense.

8. There aren't so many Jews in Germany. So what will be accomplished? There are loads of Jews in Italy and Turkey, and they will still have their books.

9. The Jews will succeed in hiding many books. They will become much more fervent and willing to die as martyrs, which is the natural result of such a persecution. To take the example from Christian history, when Roman emperors persecuted the Christians it may well have resulted in even more Christians, not less. Another historical example: when these persecutions went after books, many heretics wrote new books with pseudepigraphal titles, and the result was the multiplication of heresy and literature confusing the faithful. In his view, all these evils could come of confiscating and destroying the Jews' books.

Incidentally, in case you are wondering if Reuchlin didn't know, or pretended not to know, that meshumad - which is from "to destroy," as he wrote, meant "Apostate" to Jews, here is a Hebrew letter to a Jew, in which he refers to Pfefferkorn as "זה המשמומד כמו שאתם קוראים בלשונכם," or "This meshumad (apostate) as you call him in your language." In case you were wondering, Reuchlin signs הקטון בגוים יוחנניס רוחילין מפורצעם דוקטור "The humblest among the Gentiles, Johannes Reuchlin of Pforzheim, Doctor."

Reuchlin sent this letter to the Pope's doctor, a Provençal Jew named Mazal Tov, known as Bonetto, and it recounts his perspective of the affair. Below is the Hebrew letter as it was published in Gottlieb Friedländer's 1837 Beiträge zur Reformationsgeschichte, followed by an English translation, published in L. Loewe's 1841 translation of Yitzchak Baer Levinsohn's Efes Dammim (A series of conversations at Jerusalem between a patriarch of the Greek Church and a chief rabbi of the Jews, concerning the malicious charge against the Jews of using Christian blood).

Couple of short notes: Reuchlin's Recommendation was published, as mentioned, in his Augenspiegel. This book appeared in 1511. As you recall, he mentioned that he had not been able to personally obtain a copy of the Talmud yet, so he didn't really know what was in it except secondhand. In Dikduke Soferim volume 8 (on Megillah) a Latin letter of Reuchlin is referred to, in which he mentions that in 1512 he succeeded in obtaining a manuscript of the Talmud Yerushalmi.

Secondly, Augenspiegel means ophthalmoscope. Reuchlin used the symbol of eyeglasses on the title page, I suppose, because he meant that he strives to see things clearly.


  1. Thanks. I hope it is obvious to all what a brave man of intellectually integrity this was. I would hope that were the shoe on the other foot we too could produce such a person.

  2. This is an amazing post. One can easily see why Reuchlin got into trouble. His views would have been pretty unpopular in more impassioned circles.

  3. It's a good thing Reuchlin never heard me davven. I say וכל הנוצרים כרגע יאבדו, based on Geniza texts. (See the article by Ehrlich and Langer from, I think, HUCA.)

  4. With all due respect, MG, would you not find it offensive if adherents of other religions were to pray "ve-khol ha-yehudim ke-rega yovedu"? Your nusach, although it can claim a venerable pedigree, is at once too broad and too narrow. It singles out all adherents of one religion, including its Reuchlins, and excludes all of our enemies who adhere to religions other than that one. And if by "notsrim" you do not mean to include all present-day Christians, the term is subject to misunderstanding. Some things in the Geniza were nignaz for a good reason and should have remained so.

    Yes, this was an amazing post, and yes, I would hope that we could produce a Reuchlin if circumstances required it.

  5. I loved TY's list of righteous gentiles. In addition to Reuchlin, he's got Edward Jenner (inventor of the smallpox vaccine), Sir Francis Drake (who brought the potato to Europe), and Guttenberg.

  6. With all due respect, MG, would you not find it offensive if adherents of other religions were to pray "ve-khol ha-yehudim ke-rega yovedu"?

    The traditional Catholic liturgy on Good Friday basically does say that. And no, I don't find it particularly offensive -- מנהג אבותיהם בידיהם.

  7. Here is the traditional (pre-1955) Good Friday liturgy: "Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts... Almighty and eternal God, who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people..." Not a word about their physical destruction. I agree with you: let them pray what they want to (especially now that words such as "faithless" and "blindness" no longer appear). In return, I will not pray for their destruction either.

  8. Let me just echo everyone else: this was a really great post.
    Even though you posted it before the poll results post, I can tell that you really made an effort to translate and explain just a bit more.

  9. Maybe our "blindness" is that we pray for their physical destruction? In any event, for many religious people (even today, but more so in the past), physical destruction is less bad than seeing the "light" of the opposing religion -- hence the value of martyrdom.

    And finally, יאבדו could mean "will cease to exist (as Christians)". It's not nearly as unambiguously physical as the terms with which we curse the Roman Empire, later on in the brocho: ומלכות זדון מהרה תעקר ותשבר ותמגר.

    By the way, I wonder whether any Jews in Eretz Yisroel stopped saying this brocho when the Muslim armies conquered it from the Eastern Roman Empire.

  10. Excellent post.

    Agreed with Dan Klein.

    We need not speculate if we yids would be able to produce someone with the intellectual integrity of Reuchlin, for we have done so, many times. we have liberal jews who speak up in conservative circles, and - what takes even more courage today - we have conservative Jews who speak up in Liberal circles. I'm not saying these things are on a par with the singular efforts of Reuchlin, and the much narower social milieu in which he lived, but we can only work with what we've got.

  11. Regarding the "V'lammalshinim" bracha, HaKalir's piyyutim for Purim include a series of piyyutim about the downfall of Haman to be inserted into that bracha. HaKalir was no fan of Christianity, either.

    And MG, there's no way that "malchut zadon" refers to the Holy Roman Empire, because the bracha predates the Empire by many hundreds of years, the Empire was not synonymous with European Christendom, and the phrase is used in Sfardic congregations as well (at least on Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur).

  12. Another truly great post. I often enjoy your writing but fail to comment because I am nowhere in the league of those who can add to your content. But I noticed your wish, which I share as a blogger, to hear from my readers.

    I am struck by the asymmetry between Reuchlin's defense of the Talmud against book burning and the the current haredi vogue for banning books. Many of his arguments could be applied to them as well.

    How long before praise of Reuchlin will also be banned?

  13. Yerachmiel, comments don't need to be mechadesh anything. Anytime someone asks a question it is an opportunity to shed light on a new angle.

    You are indeed correct that his arguments are enlightened and liberal. From the perspective of the banners of his own time, they were promoting a pious activity and also trying to shield believers from being exposed to blasphemy. It is not enough to respond "But really we're right in out attitude toward books, and really the Church was wrong in its attitude toward the Talmud," because at the end of the day a repressed, burnt book is still repressed and burnt. Fortunately there was a Reuchlin who understood that it is simply wrong to destroy books you don't like.

    Regarding praise of Reuchlin, although I've never heard anyone condemn the Tiferes Yisrael on account of it, the fact that he does single him out is indicative of certain liberal tendencies in the author, and some did and do comdemn the Tiferes Yisrael on account of these tendencies. That he wrote one of the most clear and best perushim on Mishnayos? Doesn't matter. His hashkafos weren't 100% pure like ivory snow, and a dozen lines out of many thousands are objectionable, so let's protest against him and let's not learn the Tiferes Yisrael is a real attitude. For a taste of one angle in this controversy, see Leiman's "R. Israel Lipschutz and the Portrait of Moses Controversy," which you can download here.

    Incidentally, many who write on Reuchlin are quick to point out that he wasn't such a philosemite (in this very document Reuchlin has some harsh words for Jewish usurers) but I think that people make a mistake to magnify that point.



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