Last Weekend’s Foundation for Jewish Studies Retreat with Professor David Ruderman – My Recap

The four lectures given by Professor David Ruderman at the Foundation of Jewish Studies’ Labor Day weekend retreat were each, in its own way, very interesting.  The title of the overall program was “Four Moments in the History of Jewish-Christian Interactions and their Meaning for Contemporary Jews”, and each session dealt with a period of history where the Jewish-Christian relations aren’t the first thing that comes to mind.

Ruderman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, and has previously taught at Yale and the University of Maryland.  His delivery is both clear and engaging, and his expertise and knowledge apparent.  He is accessible and down to earth.

A short description of his four presentations follows:

Session 1.  “Jews, Christians and the Kabbalah in Renaissance Italy” (Sixteenth century).  His main subjects were Renaissance scholars Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, Renaissance humanists who were interested not only in recovering old Greek and Roman knowledge, but also ancient Hebrew knowledge, something you don’t think of when you think of the Renaissance.  A lot of this interest, he said, came from the concept of “Ancient Theology”, or the thought that all religions are exponents of a series of general truths, and if you look back at the wisdom literature of one religion, you will find truths that you can use to help you understand your own religion, even if it is a different one.  They also thought that the Jews were too parochial and if you could bring Jewish scholars into contact with Christian scholars, you could bring Jews closer to Christianity.  But to retrieve this Ancient Theology, you could not read the old material literally, but rather poetically or metaphorically.  For this reason, the Renaissance scholars turned to Jewish mysticism, largely found in the study of Kabbalah.  One problem is that the bedrock text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, was not an ancient text, as they then thought, but a product of the Middle Ages.  But, with this misinterpretation, Pico thought that, to understand Christianity, you needed to understand Kabbalah, so he turned to Raimondo da Moncada (one of his many names), a Sicilian rabbi and convert to Christianity who translated works from Hebrew into Latin for Pico (but who, according to Ruderman, manipulated his translations so that they said what Pico wanted to hear) and Jochanan Alemanno, another rabbi.

Things then worked backwards.  With the study of Kabbalah becoming common in some Christian circles, Jews of the time began to began to study Kabbalah as well (with some dissenting from this path, such as Leon Modena), and some of the ideas of Pico and Ficino began to creep into Jewish thinking, particularly with the respect to bringing some Platonic thinking into Jewish thought.  One of the exponents of this was Leon Ebreo (born Yehuda Abravanel, son of Isaac), who wrote a book “Dialogues of Love”, clearly a Jewish book but with an Ancient Theology flavor – a universal book, and one found later in the library of Spinoza.  Meanwhile Pico did such things as to take a Hebrew word, find all the other words you can make of this word (the word was B’reshit) and put these words in such an order that you would start with the concept of God and work down to man, passing through the stage of Son of God.  Although based on a Hebrew word, and a kabbalistic methodology, it had no meaning for Jews.  But in the meantime, a Jew, Abraham Yagel, wrote a book about God, which was set Dante-like where he ascended to heaven in a dream.  This was a Jewish book – but not written with Jewish parochialism, but rather as an exemplar of Ancient Theology, open to all people.

The second session was titled:  “Islam, Christianity and the Bizarre Jewish Messiah, Shabbtai Zvi” (17th century).  Although he did not concentrate on the general situation in the mid-17th century, it was an unusual time.  Messianic fervor existed throughout the Jewish world (and with regard to a second coming of Jesus, the Christian).  Rumor had it that the Messiah was going to appear in the year 1666.  And the decade before, the Chemitski Cossack uprising murdered at least 100,000 Jews in Poland and the Ukraine.  The Jews were ready for something.

And that something turned out to be a Turkish Jew, born in Smyrna (now Izmir), named Shabbtai Zvi, who proclaimed himself the Messiah (with a little help from his media-savvy friends), but eventually converted to Islam and soon died.  For many, the question of how Shabbtai could have converted has always been a mystery.  But apparently not to Ruderman, who talked a lot in this session about what he termed “mixed identities”, people who claimed affiliation with more than one group, much like the Jews for Jesus do today, although for many this is the ultimate sin and the ultimate form of heresy.  In fact, he said, there were some who thought that the Messiah had to join another group, such as Islam, to proceed down to the utmost depths, before he could fulfill his mission.  Thus, for some, apparently Shabbtai’s conversion was proof of his being the Messiah, not the opposite.  And perhaps, like some of the Conversos in Spain, Shabbtai, although he converted to Islam, may have also thought of himself as remaining Jewish.

Shabbtai left Turkey for Egypt and then Gaza, where he met Nathan of Gaza, his publicist, who took advantage of advances in printing to publish all sorts of pamphlets that were spread through out Europe.  Even after Shabbtai’s death, many of his followers remained his followers, some moving to Palestine, some also converting to Islam but maintaining a mixed Islamo-Jewish identity to this day (the Dolmeh in Turkey) and some falling under the spell of still different pseudo-messianic figures, the best known of whom is Jacob Frank (Frank maintaining he was the new embodiment of Shabbtai, and who converted to Christianity, but was excommunicated by the Church).

The foremost historian of the Shabbtai movement was the famous Gershom Scholem.  His analysis starts with Isaac Luria and his kabbalistic followers in Palestine, in Safed, and the Lurianic theory that the world was God’s creation but that the creation was shattered, with divine sparks hidden everywhere, it being man’s responsibility to reassemble them to redeem the world from its present state.  He claimed that Shabbtai was influenced by Lurianic ideas, and that by converting to Islam, Shabbtai believed he was going to the realm of evil to find and reclaim the broken shards.

The response to the breadth of the Shabbtai movement, said Ruderman, was to help bring about what we now know as the rigid orthodoxy of some Jewish movements.  The rabbinical response was to create distinct boundaries which Jews could not traverse, and to set forth increasingly restrictive laws to make sure that the boundaries were respected.

But Ruderman talked a lot about mixed identities and what led to the mingling of religious traditions.  He talked about the Converso phenomenon in Spain, where up to 1/3 of the Jews had converted to Christianity by the mid-1400s under a great deal of church and social pressure, and that it was this conversion rate which, in part, led to the decision to expel the non-converted Jews in 1492.  Clearly, a large number of the converted Jews were converted to Christianity in name only, and others who may have thought themselves fully converted at one time found themselves at a later time adopting, or re-adopting, some of their former rituals and habits.  If you remove the non-converted Jews, the thinking went, the converts would no longer be in contact with living Jews, and would have no one encouraging or assisting them in their backsliding.

Over the next century, many converted Jews who remained in Spain and Portugal (combined into one empire in 1580) decided to leave and regain their Jewish identities.  They went to France, to Amsterdam, to the Ottoman Empire and to the New World.  But most of these Jews did not fully adopt the customs of traditional Judaism, or have the ability or desire to be the strict followers of rabbinic Judaism.  They, on the other hand, had mixed identities, proclaiming themselves Jewish and adopting those customs with which they were knowledgeable and comfortable.  They were the first “Jews by Choice”, in effect, and perhaps the first Modern Jews.  In spite of the well known attempts of the official Jewish community of Amsterdam to foster a boundaried orthodoxy (most famous incident of course being the excommunication of Spinoza), for the most part they did not succeed in stamping out an increasing variety of observances and incidents of obvious individualism.

This does not meant that there weren’t further organized struggles to change important aspects of traditional Jewish thought.  One 18th century rabbi (named Hayom?) posited a God with three aspects, building from kabbalistic teaching.  He became very controversial, the Christians loved him, and many Jews called him a Shabbtian, although he never mentioned Shabbtai Zvi.  Then there was Marco Luzzatto, an 18th century Italian kabbalist, who said that he could speak directly to God, and he downplayed the rabbis as authorities, gaining him also accusations of heresy.  And finally there was the major dispute between Rabbis Emden and Eibeshitz, both important rabbis.  But Emden accused Eibeshitz of being a Shabbtian.  While history for a long time blamed Emden for casting unfair aspersions at his rabbinic rival, but now it has turned out that Eibeshitz was in fact a Shabbtian, and his son converted to Christianity.

Finally, it is interesting that the year of Shabbtai’s appearance as messiah was 1666, and that this is the same year that Spinoza was excommunicated.  Their similarities?  Both separated from Judaism, dismissed rabbinics, but had a mixed identity, holding onto some facets of their Jewish backgrounds, irrespective of what else they were doing or going through.

I did ask one question, that being – what was the role of the messiah in the eyes of Shabbtai’s followers?  What did they expect would happen, especially after the conversion or after his death?  Ruderman’s answer is that the messiah was anticipated to effect major changes.  Exactly what those changes would be……….was not known.

Ruderman’s third lecture was on a different topic – the study of the Talmud, and especially the Mishnah, by Christian theologians in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  Its title was “A Christian Must Study Mishnah – Christian Rabbinism in 18th century England”. He started with William Wotton, who made the first English translation of the Mishnah .  He spoke of Moses Marcus (grandson of Gluckel of Hameln, early female Jewish writer), raised in England and sen to English boarding schools, a convert to Christianity who apparently made his living teaching the Hebrew bible to Christians.

But apparently studying the Bible was not enough for the English – they wanted instruction in rabbinical writings and in Jewish law, so the Christians became interested in the Mishnah.  (Ruderman pointed out that, at the same time, Mishnah studying was also expanding among Jews across Europe, including the Maharal in Prague and among the Hasidim in Sfat (where the Mishnah was memorized and recited aloud for mystical purposes), and that this overall trend was helped immensely by the spread of printing, with the Mishnah having been printed in 1492 in Naples, 1549 in Venice and 1614 in Prague.  (These versions did not include the Gamara, the other part of the Talmud.)

This brought us to Manassah ben Israel, the Dutch rabbi, who was so influential in persuading Oliver Cromwell to let Jews back into England.  He was a teacher and many of his students were Christian.  He published a version of the Mishnah in Hebrew, but with vowel markings, thus enabling him to more easily use it as a teaching tool for Christians.  The book was financed by Christians and apparently organized somewhat differently than a traditional Mishnah, into a format based on canon law.  Other versions were published at about the same time.  One was translated into Latin.  Another, published in Amsterdam, had commentary both from Jewish and from Christian sources.

The rationale was that Christianity could only be understood if you understood its Jewish base.  And the Jewish base was viewed, of course, as leading to the coming of Jesus.  So, if you look at items in the Jewish writing that you can interpret to support Christian dogma, that’s what you do.  And if you have quotes that don’t take you where you want to go, you assume that there was a mistake in the language of the Bible, that at some time in the past the original language had been corrupted.  (There is no basis for this belief.)

These Christian students also looked closely at the writing of Josephus, at Islamic texts, and even at the Samaritan version of the Bible.  They were quite learned, had extensive libraries.  They discounted some church rituals as being based on erroneous information and they were very much against Christian anti-Semitism.

By the late 18th century, this intensive study seemed to lessen and, for the first time in a while, and particularly in France with Voltaire and Diderot, simple uneducated antisemitism took over.

The fourth and final lecture was titled “A Missionary, a Meshumad (Apostate) and a Maskil (Enlightener): the Revival of the Jewish Christian Debate in the 19th Century”.  This talk was based on Ruderman’s current research and was admittedly not as well organized as the other other three.  It was a work in process.

He spoke of missionaries as being the first colonialists, the first imperialists, and he discussed the London Society Promoting Christianity to the Jews.  He spoke of the first Christian Zionists.  He talked about the first London Reform synagogue, established in 1846 (the first traditional synagogue was opened in 1702, Bevis Marks in London).

He told the story of one Alexander McCaul, a London Christian missionary who studies Judaism, became a Judeophile, spoke Hebrew and Yiddish at home, lived in Warsaw for a number of years, studied Talmud.  Following his time in Warsaw, he went back to England and became a professor of religion at Kings College.  While there he had Jewish students, started a publishing company for Jewish did convert some Jews to Christianity (including a rather odd case, one Schwartzberg who never changed his Jewish dress, and another one, Stanislas Hoga, who converted to Christianity but continued to faithfully observe Jewish law.)

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