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Overview: Jews, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation


In the early stages of his break with Rome, Martin Luther seemed to make a stark break with prevalent attitudes about Jews. In a treatise written in 1523, he depicted the Jews as models of common sense- “If I had been a Jew and seen such oafs and numbskulls governing and teaching the Christian faith,” he wrote, “I would have rather become a sow than a Christian.” By using gentle persuasion, Luther argued the reformers might convince the Jews to accept conversion to a purified Christianity. But in the 1540s, Luther shifted to harsh attacks on the Jews, resorting to common late-medieval stereotypes. In fact, in his later career, his vision of how the Jews should be treated greatly exceeded in hostility anything ever proposed by the Roman Church, including a call to destroy synagogues and Jewish homes, to confiscate Jewish writings, to prohibit rabbis from teaching, to prohibit Jewish usury, and, eventually, to expel them. This violated both customary law and Roman church policy, which in principle protected the Jews’ right to practice Judaism in peace. True, not every reformer was as immoderate as Luther. But none of the major reformers produced a significantly new theological position vis-a-vis the Jews. They all held to the ancient doctrine that the Jews willfully and wickedly refused to accept the truth of the Gospels, even though the Church had demonstrated it to them.

The upheaval caused by the early Reformation also had negative practical consequences for the Jews. In the charged atmosphere that resulted, expulsions and persecutions became, if anything, more frequent in German lands. In the papal states and northern Italy, the upheaval of the Reformation also contributed to greater repression of the Jews. In the previous century and a half, popes, princes, and urban governments in Italy had tended to adopt a pragmatic attitude to the Jews, protecting their presence for the sake of the tax revenue they contributed. But in the 1550s, prompted by the various anxieties of the Reformation period, popes Julius III and Paul IV decreed several severe measures aimed at bringing about Jewish conversions. Three measures from this period did had far-reaching consequences- the requirement that Jews sell all real estate to Christians, the forced ghettoization of the Italian Jews, and the censorship of Hebrew books.

Yet in the long run, the Reformation set off processes with unanticipated consequences that improved the conditions of Jewish life. There was a shift in popular attitudes from one that had been promoted by the friars, a fearful, otherworldly perspective, to a more this-worldly, confident point of view. Jews lost much of their fantastic, demonic image in Christian eyes and assumed a more instrumental, utilitarian one. Partly, this change had roots in humanistic scholarship and Protestant Bible-reading. Given the Protestant encouragement of lay Bible reading, it is not surprising that Luther and many of the early reformers worked to promote Hebrew studies. Christian Hebraists became familiar with rabbinic exegesis, particularly through the commentaries of Rashi, Abraham ibn Ezra, and David Kimchi. Contact with Jewish interpretations eroded negative attitudes to the Jewish “carnal” reading of the Bible. This does not mean that Christian Hebraists looked upon Jews favorably. They often continued to loathe the Jews. But new possibilities for evaluating Judaism emerged.

A truly momentous change resulted from the wide dissemination of the Hebrew Bible itself, whether in Hebrew, Latin, or the vernacular. Before the Reformation, the Bible had been read mainly by a tiny minority of educated, Latin-trained clerics. With the advent of vernacular translations in print, with increasing numbers of educated lay people, and with the strong encouragement of lay Bible-reading by reformers, a radically different relationship developed between lay Christians and the Scripture of the Jews. Fathers who were now responsible for the religious life of the household integrated the Bible into domestic life; its reading became a form of sacred entertainment and folksy instruction, and its narratives took on the flavor of popular epic, with heroes and villains, love stories and war sagas. A striking indication of increasing Protestant identification with figures from the Hebrew Bible was the trend to name boys after Old Testament figures – Abraham, Daniel, Elias, Benjamin. Jewish law and custom also became more familiar. Bible-reading revealed the sources in Scripture for such prominent sights as mezuzot on the doorposts of Jewish homes and the booths built for the holiday of Sukkot. A market developed for engravings and books on the subject of Jewish ceremony.

The more human, realistic view of the Jews that thus emerged was reinforced by another current in Protestant life, namely the suppression of magical belief. As Keith Thomas has persuasively argued, the fierce Protestant propaganda campaign against the Roman Church, a campaign which targeted miracles, pilgrimages, and devotion to saints, had the effect of rendering magical practices ludicrous in the eyes of an ever-widening public. Popular fantasies persisted, to be sure, but a public that heaped scorn on “papist” fantasies was less likely to entertain demonic fantasies about the Jews.

But perhaps the single most consequential change for Jews put in motion by the Reformation had little to do with Jews per se. It had to do with the eventual recognition in Christian society that a divided Christendom was going to remain that way. In this environment, new ideas emerged about how religious authority should be exercised. Eventually societies emerged in which public authority refrained from punishing errors of conscience or otherwise applying coercion in matters of belief. This unanticipated consequence of the Reformation – the principle of separation of church and state – was a prerequisite for the emancipation of European Jewry in the modern period.

The Catholic Church and the Jews in the Aftermath of the Reformation

Perhaps due to the increasing bureaucratization of the Church and the Church’s anxieties over the Reformation, the Catholic Church began to pay closer attention to the Jews during the early modern period (as well as to “deviant” believers of all sorts). Troubled by the growing Jewish population in some places, and by the frequency of Jewish-Christian interaction, Church officials sought policy guidelines in earlier canon law, such as a segregation decree first issued in 1266-7 at the Council of Breslau “to protect the tender Christian shoot in Poland” – a decree that became part of canon law. In 1555, Pope Paul IV issued the bull Cum Nimis Absurdum, which formally established a ghetto in Rome (see above). The bull states that the pope was troubled by Jewish proximity to Christians and the prominence of Jews in cities- “They presume not only to dwell side by side with Christians and near their churches, with no distinct dress to separate them, but even to erect homes in more noble neighborhoods and streets of the cities, holdings, and territories where they dwell, as well as to buy and possess fixed property, and to have nurses, housemaids, and other hired Christian servants….” All this was in violation of the earlier church canons. The bull aimed to restore the ideal social order that centuries of Christian theologians imagined and sought to establish. It repeated forcefully earlier legislation, including the canon that “all Jews should live solely in one and the same location, or if that is not possible, in two or three or as many as are necessary, which are to be contiguous and separated completely from the dwellings of Christians. These places are to be designated by us in our city and by our magistrates in the other cities, holdings, and territories. They should have one entry and so, too, one exit.” It was this canon that served as the foundation for the policy of ghettoization in Italy.

Among other provisions of Cum Nimis Absurdum were restrictions on the number of synagogues, the requirement that Jews wear distinctive clothing or “some other obvious marking,” a prohibition against Jews working on Christian holidays, and a prohibition against Jews employing Christian wet nurses and doctors. These policies were easier to enforce in the Papal States, where the Pope had executive power, as well as elsewhere in Italy, where the papacy had influence. Beyond Italy, though, the provisions of the bull were largely ingnored. In Poland, for example, despite the efforts of Luigi Lippomano, the papal nuncio to Poland in the 1550s, ghettoization of the Jews was never proposed by Church authorities, since such a drastic measure would not have been supported by the king or the nobles.

In the Reformation period the Church also pursued a policy of book censorship that had serious repercussions for the Jews of Italy. To be sure, censorship of books was a natural development in the wake of the print revolution, and Jewish books were by no means the only targets of the censor. But the attack on the Talmud in Italy was particularly severe. The Roman Inquisition condemned this work and called for its public burning in 1553. In the months that followed, other Italian cities confiscated and burned copies of the Talmud. Pope Julius III reinforced the inquisitorial decree with the bull Cum sicut nuper in 1554. Eventually, however, a policy crystallized that required not the destruction of the Talmud, but the removal by censors of passages regarded as blasphemous or offensive to the Church. Hebrew books in general, but particularly the Talmud, were examined and offensive passages were deleted by censors who were often Jewish converts to Christianity.

In some Catholic countries, Christian officials’ fears of heresy and competition from Jews prompted a rise of publications of anti-Jewish literature and accusations against Jews of the host desecration and ritual murder, charges that almost disappear from Protestant areas during the early modern period. But the Church as an institution was also pragmatic. Many church leaders themselves engaged in business relations with Jews and employed them on their estates. This was especially the case in Poland. There was an inherent tension between the theory of segregation and the practical needs of the clergy. This tension can be seen in a furious bull issued in 1753 by Pope Benedict XIV against the bishops and other clergy in Poland, in which he harshly chastised them for their close relations with Jews.

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