In his opening chapter of From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 Jacob Katz introduces readers to Johann Andreas Eisenmenger, a late seventeenth century intellectual whom he identifies as setting out the blueprint for the survival of antisemitism beyond the Christian era of the Middle Ages. Katz points out that, ironically, just as the European world was beginning to slough off the domination of Church, superstitions and ignorant prejudices and to move at last in the direction of rationalism and secularism, to a time when states were beginning to grant citizenship and basic rights to Jews, antisemitic attitudes among both elites and the public appeared to take a vicious turn for the worse.
The explanation, Katz believes, must include a focus on historical heritage:
A heavy hereditary burden, going back to the Middle Ages and ancient times, has loomed over the relationship between the Jew and the non-Jewish world. This heritage was partly accountable for the enmity that broke out just when one might have expected it to have been eradicated by the change in historic circumstances. . . . .
Fate decreed that a certain Christian writer, Johann Andreas Eisenmenger, should have arisen at just that moment in the history of anti-Semitism and concentrated the tradition of medieval anti- Jewish doctrines in his great work Entdecktes Judenthum. (Katz 1980, p.13 – The title Entdecktes Judenthum translates as “Judaism Uncovered”.)
One would expect the Age of Reason and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment would rid the world of the scourge of racism.
However, rationalism did not bridge the schism, but succeeded only in changing its character, and so the denunciations of Eisenmenger did not drop out of sight for more than a brief period. They kept coming up, and his book nourished the anti-Semitic movement directly and indirectly at all stages of its development. . . (p. 14, bolding mine in all quotations)
My interest in reading Katz was to further understand the history and nature of modern antisemitism but his discussion of Eisenmenger’s book pulled me right back to so many anti-Islamic writings I have across on the web. The approach, the method and assumptions with which Eisenmenger “identified” the reasons for the “untrustworthy” and even “murderous” nature of the Jews were exactly the same as the way many fearful people today find reasons to fear Muslims as “untrustworthy” and even “murderous” at heart by studying their religious writings.
The title, “Judaism Uncovered,” discloses its purpose: Eisenmenger claimed to expose the secrets hidden in the books of the Jews and thereby uncover their true image. His book was impressive both on account of its size—some 2,120 pages in two volumes—and its tremendous erudition. Eisenmenger was well versed in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. He quotes from about two hundred books: legal works (Halakhoth), homiletics, cabala and philosophy, popular ethical works, polemics against both Christianity and Islam. In short, Eisenmenger was acquainted with all the literature a Jewish scholar of standing would have known. He had learned to use these books partly through contacts with Jewish scholars in Frankfurt and Amsterdam…. However, Eisenmenger surpassed his predecessors in his mastery of the sources and his ability to interpret them tendentiously. Contrary to accusations that have been made against him, he does not falsify his sources. He quotes them in full and translates them literally into German. Nevertheless, Eisenmenger’s presentation of the beliefs and opinions of the Jews reveals an image of Jewish thought that is a far cry from the actual attitudes of those Jews who studied and lived by that same literature he uses. (p. 14)
Yes, that’s exactly what certain anti-Islamic hate literature does: quotes the Qur’an and Sunnah and Hadith to “prove” that Muslims today are taught to lie and seek the deaths of unbelievers.
Above all, Eisenmenger wants to point out to the Jews the folly and blasphemy of the beliefs and opinions expressed in their writings and the immorality of their laws, especially those laws determining behavior toward Gentiles. Indeed, the description Eisenmenger gives as he presents the fundamental beliefs and laws of the Jews leads one to the conclusion that Judaism is a combination of foolish beliefs and wicked laws. In the sphere of theology, he accuses the Jews of gross anthropomorphism and distortion of the divine attributes; in the ethical sphere he attacks them for condoning deceit, theft, and even murder of non-Jews. The question is how did Eisenmenger arrive at so darkly a negative picture of Judaism while quoting its sources unadulteratedly? (p. 15)
That is the question, indeed. And in principle relevant today not only to antisemitism.
Katz discusses at some length why it is important to understand the complexity of different types of Jewish writings and how Jewish scholars have engaged with them, interpreted them, disregarded and added new interpretations to them, over the centuries.
In order to understand Eisenmenger’s method, we must first examine the nature of the Jewish sources and the exegetical system by which the Jewish community understood them. In the course of its long history, the Jewish tradition adopted diverse methods in attempts to express the divine essence in a way that all could grasp: mythical images, metaphorical expressions, and anthropomorphic descriptions. . . . These elements stemmed both from the thought of individuals, on the one hand, and from popular creativity, on the other. . . . Opposing opinions are often presented on the same subjects, sometimes as a controversy between contemporaries and sometimes as the result of conflicts that came about with the change of conditions. . . . The whole corpus of this tradition was sanctified by later generations who ignored the difference between early and late or between that which was derived from the teaching of the sages and that which evolved from popular sources. That is not to say that every point in the tradition exerted an equal influence. . . . Sometimes explicitly and at other times unconsciously, laws were rejected and views were abandoned if they clashed with positions that had meanwhile been formed. . . . . (p. 15)
I have attempted to challenge authors of Islamophobic tracts to ask Muslims themselves what they believe instead of assuming they know what they believe (or what they should believe!) on the basis of what they (the Islamophobic authors) read in the Qur’an or Hadith. Sometimes they reply that they wouldn’t trust a Muslim to answer honestly because their sacred writings teach them to lie to unbelievers. Just like Eisenmenger wrote about the Jews for the same reason: not talking to Jews but reading the Talmud.
There is an obvious difference between a literal reading of ancient religious texts and the interpretations and belief systems of Jews in modern times:
For this reason, the study of the writings of the Jews alone could not reveal what part of the legal and intellectual tradition was valid for later generations. Indeed, many sections of their books and even entire chapters were no longer regarded as valid and binding—not literally, at any rate. Dialectic and homiletic exegesis enabled those who grew up on Jewish sources to maintain the sanctity of the entire tradition on principle, despite the astounding laws and bizarre legends that were included. The Mishnah and the Talmud did not serve as guides for the daily behavior of the Jews, but as books for study. For guidance in daily life, the Jew relied on what he had been taught by his parents and teachers and on recent legal codes that adapted the requirements of the law to contemporary conditions and dominant ethical views. (pp. 16f)
All reading is an interpretation (even a literal reading is an interpretation), and Eisenmenger brought his own interpretative framework to the Jewish writings.
Here Katz zeroes in on the critical point. Jewish scholars reading their texts read them through the opinions and beliefs of right and wrong that they had been taught by their parents and peers; Eisenmenger, in contrast, read the same texts through the ignorant bigotry about Jews that he had been taught by his own Christian society. Both readers sought to justify their preconceptions in the same texts: the Jewish readers sought to justify the views of right and wrong they had been taught from infancy; Eisenmenger sought to justify his hostile view of the Jews.
The historical approach consciously ignores whatever later generations read into the earlier sources, seeking only the original meaning intended by the writers. On the surface, Eisenmenger did likewise, casting aside the interpretations accepted by his contemporary Jews in his quest to reconstruct the world of Judaism by studying the sources themselves. . . . The Jewish scholar of the seventeenth century accepted the opinions prevalent among the Jews regarding right and wrong, true and false, the permitted and the prohibited—and sought to justify those opinions in the sources; Eisenmenger accepted the opinions about Jews prevalent in the hostile Christian society and was guided by them in his study of the same sources. (p. 17)
Eisenmenger’s main concern was to show how impossibly dishonest and even murderous Jews were — not by biology or race per se, but as a direct product of their religious beliefs:
However, Eisenmenger attacks Judaism principally for its attitude toward other religions and their adherents. The point of this attack is to show that the Jews are commanded by their religion to abuse that which is sacred to all other religions, and above all that which is sacred to Christianity. The Jewish tradition prohibits robbery, deceit, and even murder only in relations between Jews, while the property and even the life of the Christian are as good as outlawed. If that is the tenor of the tradition into which Jews are initiated from childhood, one should not be surprised by their actual behavior should they be found abusing articles of Christian worship, that is, desecrating the host, or be caught in deceit, robbery, or even murder. (p. 18)
And from there it only went downhill. Any false rumour was believed and added to tales that were in some cases no doubt true. All adherents of the religious belief system were condemned.
Grounds for dehumanizing Jews were not biological but religious.
Eisenmenger’s point of departure was the belief that the Jews were habitually robbing and murdering their Christian neighbors. He believed the tales of ritual murder, of the desecration of the host and the like, regardless of whether they stemmed from folklore or from medieval chroniclers who failed to distinguish between fact and fancy. He supported his belief with Jewish texts saying that the Jews were commanded by their religion to commit the very crimes he accused them of. In his attempt to make this point, Eisenmenger drives his interpretation to the height of absurdity. In every case where he found such expressions as “deserves death”—for example, “a Gentile who observes the Sabbath deserves death,” “a Gentile who studies the Torah deserves death,” he explained them as requiring a death penalty to be imposed by human hands, while in Talmudic usage such language is no more than a severe condemnation. (p. 19)
Anyone who knows a little about Muslims themselves knows that attempts to understand them by means of simply reading the Qur’an are of limited value. Similarly those more knowledgeable of Jews were not misled by Eisenmenger’s book (there were attempts in courts to prevent its publication for a time) . . .
To anyone who is knowledgeable in traditional Jewish literature, Eisenmenger’s interpretations read like a parody of both the legal and homiletic literature. He would recognize the mortar and the bricks of which a familiar structure is built, but he would find the various parts of the structure arranged and connected to each other so arbitrarily as to defy identification. It is otherwise, of course, for the reader who is unfamiliar with that literature: he may fall for Eisenmenger’s conclusions, not knowing that they are no more than the very assumptions that preceded the writer’s examination of the material. He may accept the image of the Jews as a community of superstitious fools, hostile to those around them and despising whatever is holy to their neighbors. Completely unscrupulous in their behavior toward the stranger outside their community, therefore they cheat and wrong those who have business contacts with them, and this they do by command of their religion. If they are brought to court, their oaths are not to be trusted because they regard lying under oath of little consequence when their fellow litigant is a non-Jew. Their loyalty to the state is no more than lip service; and, in fact, they violate the law with impunity and are willing to betray their king and serve his enemies as spies and secret agents. The Jew cannot even be trusted in matters of life and death, and Christians who take treatment from a Jewish doctor endanger their lives. Eisenmenger fully believed the reports, in Christian chronicles and folk tales alike, that many a child had died at Jewish hands in order to satisfy ritual needs. Eisenmenger tried to gain the reader’s confidence by quoting chapter and verse demonstrating that the absolutely unethical behavior of the Jew derived from that decadent source of his religion, the Talmud and Rabbinical literature. (p. 20)
We know the long term consequences of these sorts of views. And if such views could be fueled by baseless rumours how much more easily will Islamophobic attitudes take hold where Islamic-related genuine terrorist acts take place all too frequently?
Sometimes truths (or half-truths) can be deployed to tell the vilest lies:
As mentioned above, Eisenmenger neither forged his sources nor pulled his accusations out of thin air. There was a nucleus of truth in all his claims: the Jews lived in a world of legendary or mythical concepts, of ethical duality—following different standards of morality in their internal and external relationships—and they dreamed with imaginative speculation of their future in the time of the Messiah. Similar claims, however, could have been made against the Christian as well. One critic, a Christian theologian himself, said rightly that using Eisenmenger’s method, an Entdecktes Christenthum could have easily been written. The fact is, however, that no such book was ever produced, and the picture of horror drawn from Judaism in Eisenmenger’s book has no Christian parallel. That a Christian Entdecktes was not published is hardly an accident. Christianity, the majority religion and the royal religion in Europe, enjoyed governmental protection, and no book like Eisenmenger’s could have been published in condemnation of it. Judaism, on the contrary, was the religion of an ostracized and defenseless minority, whose only protection was granted by the grace of kings or bought by the influence of some court Jew. Such doubtful props gave support in one place only to fail in another. (p. 21)
And so history continues to rhyme.
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