Modern Jewish History - Maurice Harris

The End of the Middle Ages

General Survey.

The story of the Jew from the sixteenth century, to be told in this concluding volume, is not as tragic as his history in the Middle Ages. The gleams of the Inquisition fires have died down. Massacres are far rarer, though there will be some. Europe turned the corner with the Reformation and the Printing Press. Where there is persecution at all, it is by oppressive legislation rather than by slaughter. The Jews still experience a Dark Age, somewhat of their own making; but we shall see it followed by an era of emancipation both political and religious.

As the world to-day presents different degrees of civilization, so the status of the Jews varies with their environment. The Orient, in spots, still depicts the suppression of the individual, characteristic of antiquity. Eastern Europe was largely mediaeval in its attitude towards the Jew, certainly till the World War's close. The West alone shows the freedom of modernity. But we shall see, in all lands, that social prejudice persists even when legal disability is removed.

We saw the Jews expelled from England in 1290, from France finally in 1394, from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1557, from German states and separate localities at various times. On the other hand we saw them settling in Poland in the eleventh century, in Turkey and in South America in the sixteenth. We shall now witness their settlement in Holland, their re-settlement in England, their gradual entrance or re-entrance into most lands, and their large immigration to the United States.


Not only the map, but also the spirit of Europe changed in the fifteenth century. The Absolute Church and the "Holy Roman Empire" were steadily disintegrating, both as facts and as beliefs. Italy had led the way in a new attitude towards the world, a fuller freedom, a joy of living. The Renaissance — the rebirth of literature, art and science — was one of its expressions. To this the Medicis of Florence contributed a large share.

The revival of learning awakened a new appreciation for the classics of antiquity hitherto stigmatised as "pagan." In this feeling of greater freedom in thought and outlook men broke away from the thraldom of old notions of the world as a place of hopeless sin and ceased to regard its culture with suspicion. The term Humanism is given to the new spirit. It was applied technically to the revived interest in Greek and Latin writings, — litterae humaniores — i.e., the literature that dealt with man rather than with God. So it stood in contrast to the old scholasticism and the writings of the monks that dealt with God rather than with man.

But in its larger sense it not only concerned literature, but every sphere of human activity. It practically asserted — as against the old tyrannies of Church and of State — man's right to know and to be.

In science it led to new discovery and invention. In government it rung the knell of the old despotisms. In Christianity it brough the Reformation. This wave of light did not reach all lands at the same time. Italy led the advance in literature and art; Germany in religious reform; France in political freedom.

The new awakening reached Israel accidentally; that is if there are any accidents in history. Let us say, rather "All chance, — direction that thou canst not see." About the year 1500 an ignorant apostate named Pfefferkorn was used by the Dominican Order to vilify and ultimately destroy the Talmud. Such things had been done before, in France; why not again? The monks forgot two things: first, that it is not always safe to repeat an experiment, and secondly, that it was two hundred and fifty years since twenty-four carloads of Talmuds had been burnt in Paris. The world had advanced since then.

The Jews dared to protest. This only brought new pamphlets of abuse from the Dominicans through Pfefferkorn urging their expulsion from Germany. He obtained from Emperor Maximilian permission to examine all books in Jewish possession and to confiscate those he deemed injurious. But here even the local archbishop intervened. It was not to be such plain sailing as in the "good old days." Both sides now appealed to the Emperor and a great German scholar, John Reuchlin, was chosen to investigate the charges against Jewish books. Little did the Dominicans realize that in the choice of this noble-hearted Christian — a great Humanist — not only would their immediate purpose be defeated, but new events would grow out of it that would shake up all Christendom and prepare the way for the modern era of freedom and light.


None better fitted than Reuchlin for this task. He was prominent in the Humanist Movement mentioned above. He was also a Hebrew scholar — one of the very few in the Christian world. Through the wavering of the Emperor and the intrigues of Pfefferkorn and his allies, the incident dragged; but through this very delay it came to be known to a widening circle and grew into a German and later into an international affair.

Reuchlin answered the question for which he had been engaged, "Was it advantageous to the Church to burn Jewish writings" with a decisive negative. He showed that Jewish commentaries were indispensable to the theologian. He further claimed that Jewish Kabala rather favored Church doctrine. As for the Talmud, the real bone of contention, he said most of its detractors were ignorant of it — therefore instead of burning, they should study it. Burning is no argument. He advised in conclusion that Hebrew professorships should be established in the universities.

Furthermore, in behalf of the Jews, he asserted that as subjects of the Holy Roman Empire they were entitled to its protection and that not being Christians, they could not be treated as heretics.

The astounded Dominicans issued a printed rejoinder, slandering Reuchlin and charging him with being bribed by Jews to defend the Talmud. But he, also availing himself of the printing press, wrote a vigorous rejoinder, thousands of copies of which were issued at the Frankfort Fair. The eyes of the people were opened to many things. A public opinion on religion began to find expression. The Dominicans might intrigue further to injure Reuchlin. the Talmud, and the Jews. They did. But their cause was lost. Pope Leo X., not a very good churchman, but a man of culture, ordered the Talmud to be printed instead of being burnt this time.

The Reformation.

Events were moving fast. The Reuchlin Humanists became an international party. The Talmud dropped out of the dispute but not till it had created a public opinion, prepared now to express itself on the fundamentals of Christianity. Cardinal Egidio wrote to Reuchlin, "We are not defending the Talmud but the Church."

The decline of Catholicism through the corruption of its clergy has been already dwelt upon in 'History of the Mediaeval Jews' and need not be dwelt on again. Huss had been burnt then. But it was as hard now to burn men as books. The Renaissance marked a general intellectual awakening. Thinkers were beginning to lose faith in some Romish doctrines, and also in the Pope's spiritual supremacy. In Italy it simply brought an era of negligent scepticism. But Germany was too earnest to rest in any such demoralizing position. The study of Hebrew and Greek, now fostered by the Humanists, was bringing a truer understanding of the Bible; and the new art of printing was bringing the Scriptures to the people at large. They could get their religion at first hand now and think out certain things for themselves.


Martin Luther next emerges as the most prominent figure in the Christian Reformation that ultimately followed. He translated the Bible into German aided by the commentaries of some Hebrew scholars; for it was a cardinal principle of the new teaching that not the Pope, but the Bible, was the infallible religious authority. With great bravery he defended his attitude at the Imperial Diet of Worms, but unlike poor Huss, he had powerful friends at court. Even then, it would have gone hard with him, had not Emperor and Pope been at odds. So that we find the Emperor defending Luther in order to thwart the Pope. Apart from that, times were riper for a change. Reformers all over Europe were annulling old church regulations, changing the form of worship and advocating the marriage of priests. Gradually this reformed Christianity that "protested" against Catholicism grew into a distinct and separate church — Protestantism. But this was not fully established in the countries in which we find it now, till bitter warfare had arisen that rent all Christendom. Even then through the rise of a new order called Jesuits, Catholicism regained much lost ground. But this was all later than Luther's day.

What was his attitude towards the Jews? At first, under Humanist influence, he was kindly, hoping now at last to convert them to Christianity under its improved form. So he says of their previous persecution:

"I would rather have been a pig than a Christian; they treated the Jews as if they were dogs, not men. The Jews are the best blood on earth through whom alone the Holy Spirit gave the Holy Scriptures to the world. My advice is that we treat them kindly — not driving them by force, prohibiting them from working amongst us and forcing them to be usurers."

But when in later years he found that this program did not bring them to the fold; that, on the contrary, the new movement having shaken the faith of some in the Trinity, Jews were even daring to convert such to Judaism, his rage knew no bounds. All the slanders against them he had denounced in others, he now voiced himself; and all the harsh treatment he had condemned in others, he himself now advocated. So the aged Luther, pestered by disease and disappointed at the slow progress of the movement in one direction and the daring rationalism of the extreme wing in another — vented all his bitterness on the Jews. He urged that their synagogues and houses be burnt, their books confiscated, their rabbis silenced. They should be driven into rough shelter, prohibited from travelling and their money taken from them to maintain their own apostates. They were to be forced to hard labor and to be treated without mercy.

These hard words were remembered against them in later days in Germany. So while Protestant lands became henceforth on the whole the havens of the Jews, the new Church instituted some restrictions and exclusions of its own.

The Reformation and the Jews.

Apart from the fostering of the study of Hebrew, the establishment of professorships in this language, and the translation of the Bible into all European tongues, the new movement but slightly affected the Jews. Just because Judaism had not suffered the corruption of the Church, so it could not now enjoy this healthy reaction. Yet it rather needed revival too, for the Jews were now passing through an era spiritually and poetically barren. Philosophy was banned and mysticism encouraged. Instead of learning that in unity is strength, the Jews were losing their opportunities by intense individualism; each little group maintaining its separate institutions instead of communally combining for great service. Religious education of women was more neglected than ever. There were no savage massacres now, but neither were there noble martyrdoms. It seemed as though it were easier for the Jew to die for his Faith than to live for it.

The change of the religious faith of half the Christian world was not achieved without bloodshed. The international wars that followed lasted thirty years. During the Thirty Years' War (from 1618 to the treaty of Westphalia, 1648), Jews suffered, of course: so did all classes, whether Protestants or Catholics. If some Jewish communities were destroyed, again others remained untouched. They might have been completely let alone, had they decided to hold passively aloof. But here and there their sympathies were generously aroused on behalf of friendly neighbors, leading them voluntarily to endanger themselves in a cause not their own. When it came to finding the "sinews" for this war both sides mulcted the Jews. But it was better to sacrifice treasure than blood.

Persecution by Legislation.

One of the latest instances of the old form of persecution occurred in 1614 before the Thirty Years War.

One Fettmilch in order to spite the authorities, made a raid on the Jewish quarter of Frankfort-on-the-Main. Its property was destroyed and about fourteen hundred souls forced into banishment. The next year, in spite the magistracy, Jews were expelled from Worms. The fact that in both instances to embarrass the government, malcontents must be cruel to the Jews with whom they had no quarrel, gave the insurgents small concern. Yet, in both places, the higher authorities brought back the Jews within a year of their expulsion. The Emperor hanged Fettmilch and fined the city of Frankfort. Law and order were beginning to prevail and a sense of justice to be recognized, even toward the Jew.

But though persecution by massacre was nigh over, persecution by legislation continued during the seventeenth century. Jews were admitted into the Mark of Brandenberg (later to become the great kingdom of Prussia), the time of stay was limited and the cost high. The official year of admission to Berlin was 1671. Hamburg had not yet opened its doors except to a few rich "Schutzjuden" i.e., under special protection of the head of the State, at a thousand marks annually. Others lived there like Maranos of old Spain. Local expulsions were not quite over and were here and there put into operation during a wave of fanaticism. Such an expulsion did occur in Vienna as late as 1670.

In other German states Jews were just tolerated and that was all. Their scattered communities, chiefly in Prague, Frankfort and Worms, had humilitating restrictions imposed upon them. So the outcome of the Reformation for the Jews, was a little disheartening.


The Reformation and the Hebrew Bible:—The study of the Hebrew Scriptures (called by the Church the "Old Testament") part cause and part consequence of the Reformation, led to some disturbing revelations. It was pointed out to despotic monarchies that the Old Testament made the people the source of power. The Hebrew prophets always championed the rights of the humble masses; while the words of the New Testament "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's," was taken as an endorsement of absolute monarchy.

Luther in his later intolerant stage, was chagrined that the Jewish Jubilee restoring the family homestead, (Leviticus xxv) and the Jewish anti-slavery laws (Exodus xxi) should win the approval of some of his own clergy.

Unitarianism:—The reading of the Bible now encouraged by the Protestant movement brought to the attention of some Christians that the Old Testament gave no sanction to the cardinal Christian doctrine of the Trinity; so a new Christian sect denying it arose who called themselves Unitarians. Jews should be reminded that the essential distinction between modern Judaism and Unitarianism cannot be too strongly emphasized. They differ historically, ceremonially and sentimentally. To the Unitarian, Jesus is still idealized above normal man. See sermons by American Rabbis — Harris, Vol. I. — Unitarianism and Judaism.

Elias Levita:—Levita was the founder of modern Hebrew grammar and was called to fill the Hebrew chair in France, the land that had. banished the Jews three times and had burned the literature he was now asked to teach! He was teacher of Cardinal Egidio. He thus writes of his pupil:

"I swear by my Creator that a certain Christian Cardinal Egidio, my pupil for ten years, came to me and kissed me, saying 'Blessed be the God of the universe who has brought thee hither. Now abide with me and be my teacher, and I shall be to thee as a father and support thee in my house and bear all thy wants.' Thus we took counsel together 'iron sharpening iron'. I imparted my spirit to him and learned from him excellent and valuable things that are in accordance with truth."

Luther based the translation of the Bible, not on the Latin translation called the Vulgate, accepted by the Catholic Church but on the original Hebrew. He was aided by notes taken from Rashi's Commentary.

The Jews contributed their share towards the general fostering of learning, in the establishment of great printing houses, from whose presses, general as well as Jewish classics were issued.

Protestantism:—In his three lectures on "Times of Erasmus and Luther" (Short Studies in Great Subjects) James Anthony Froude says:

"The Reformation broke the theological shackles with which most minds were fettered. It set them thinking and so gave birth to science. The Reformers also, without knowing what they were about, taught the lesson of religious toleration. They attempted to supersede one set of dogmas by another. They succeeded with half the world; they failed with the other half. In a little while it became apparent that good men without ceasing to be good, could think differently about theology; and that goodness therefore depended upon something else than the holding of orthodox opinions."

Court Jews, (Schutz-Juden):—This was a term applied to some wealthy men of large commercial interests whom the rulers in Germany and Austria of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made use of as their financial agents and purveyors in time of war. In a sense they are the historic successors of the Jewish state treasurers of earlier centuries. They were excused from wearing the badge and had greater freedom of residence than the rest of their brethren.

"Renaissance." Article Encyclopedia Brittanica, 9th edition, vol. xx. Read in particular from p. 388, the relation between Humanism and the Reformation.

"Reuchlin" and "Pfefferkorn," Hirsch,. Q. R., Vol. iv., and viii.

Lecky, History of European Morals, Vol. ii; p. 119. Emanuel Deutsch, The Talmud, J.P.S.A., pp. 13-16. "Bible Translations". E., Vol. iii. For a picture of the Fettmilch riots see Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. v.

Themes for Discussions:— (a) Why did the rise of Protestantism create a new attitude of the Christian toward Judaism? (b) Why did Reuchlin imagine that the Kabala favored Christian doctrine?