Part III: Erasmus: The Character and Behaviour of Jews

What is the source of political bondage for Erasmus? For Jews, God is Melech al kol Haaretz, King over all the earth and even the universe. He is also the ultimate moral authority for all humanity. However, God for Jews is also mishpocha. He is family. He is Avinu malkenu, our Father, our King, our special friend. The righteous of all nations have a place in this world but Jews carry a special burden, just as sons and daughters have for their parents. Jews remain in bondage to God. Further, the weightiest commandment of all is that of parental piety: “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12). There is reciprocity involved. A Jewish father must circumcise his son. It is his task to redeem him (Exodus 13:15; Numbers: 18:16), to teach him Torah, to train him for his Bar Mitzvah so his son could assume the full obligations of the law as an adult, to teach him a trade or enroll him in a Beit Midrash, and, most importantly, get him a wife.

That is not how Erasmus perceived Jews. Erasmus disliked Jews even though there is no evidence that he personally knew any Jews or even met one. Though Erasmus believed in converting Jews to Christianity, he was wary lest, like the Marranos of Spain, they spread their repulsive practices into Christianity. However, contrary to the conviction of a few scholars, Erasmus was never a rabid antisemite like Martin Luther. But neither was he a philo-semite. Whereas Moses was Machiavelli’s greatest hero, Erasmus wrote: “I have a temperament such that I could love every Jew, if only he were well-mannered and friendly, and did not mouth blasphemy on Christ in my presence.” (30 January 1523)

Erasmus opposed the forced conversion of Jews and never regarded their “poor” influence as a threat. He condemned the Spanish Inquisition and the Jewish expulsion from Spain. Converts, Marranos, were to be treated with mercy, not suspicion. Erasmus’s attitude towards the Jews can best be uncovered through his extensive translations (nine volumes 1515-16) on Saint Jerome of the fourth century. Jerome was a virulent critic of the Christian Origen, famous for his allegorical or Jewish biblical interpretations. From Saint Jerome to Erasmus, for over a thousand years, to be “too Jewish” was a strong theme and basis for criticism in the Church. The Pelagian Christians were also denounced, but for denying both original sin and grace.

Saint Jerome, like Erasmus over a millennium later, was extremely critical of Jewish practices (circumcision, holy days) by both Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity, in fact, much more critical than Augustine who was relatively tolerant about practices while virulently dismissive of Jewish beliefs. Saint Jerome referred to Jewish houses of worship as synagogues of Satan and denounced wealthy Jews and their “love of useless things.” These criticisms were not nearly as nasty as Erasmus’ (and Jerome’s) condemnations of the indulgent lasciviousness of Rome. But Jerome and Erasmus especially disliked the way the traditions of men, especially Jews, invaded Christian practice.

Jerome was particularly wary of their deuterosis fantasies, the Jewish collection of early oral scriptural interpretations in the Talmud. For Jerome, as for Erasmus who followed his teaching, Jews were akin to adulterous women. Nevertheless, Christ still loved them even in their fallen state. Saint Jerome was the major source of what Erasmus ‘knew’ about Jews. Both men rebuked Jews for their practices and character (stiff-necked), often reviled them and contradicted their beliefs.

Those beliefs dictated behaviour. How the body behaved depended on intentions. Thus, the pursuit of fame and honour was not a valuable aspiration. Humility, reducing one’s sense of one’s own self-importance, was. Anything which contributed to the common good was. Hence, the logical conclusion was that all citizens should be involved in the governing of a polity. In contrast, in the Talmud, for Erasmus, the common good for all of humanity was displaced by the common good of Jews as the primary aspiration. And governance was restricted to a supposedly holy elite.

Erasmus lauded Machiavelli’s emphasis on good governance and responsibility for avoiding both civil and foreign wars. However, he was critical of his extolling preparation for fighting. Erasmus, using Stoic and Christian notions that all humans are brothers and sisters, excoriated war, as did his friend Thomas More. Resort to arms was not even to be used to support human values in one’s polity and certainly not in attacking foreign realms. This universal humanism stood in stark contrast to the just war theories of Augustine; war per se cannot be just. There are no good wars, not even military interventions of other polities to relieve the citizenry from oppression and strife. Using members of the polity as a citizen army was no better than using mercenaries.

In just war theory, whether of Augustine or of Jews, the weapons of war are critical in determining the justice of a war. In infantry war, the tools were maces, spears and bows and arrows. In our recent holiday of Lag Ba’Omer, there is a tradition that children go out into the fields and play with bows and arrows. A bow is curved like a rainbow. The Hebrew word for “rainbow” and for a bow is Keshet. The rainbow is called God’s bow. After the Great Flood, Noah saw a rainbow in the sky, the sign that God would never destroy the world again. The possession of bows and arrows and skills in archery were guarantees that the Jewish polity would never be destroyed again. Arms and self-protection were necessities. Though the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot is a period of mourning, on Lag Ba’Omer Israelis light huge bonfires and celebrate. Though self-defence is a theme, so is mutual respect. On Lag Ba’Omer, marriages once again take place. Treaties are signed.

In conflicts, as well as controversies of intellectuals, respect is held out for the person who corrects a mistake, but only if it is not done as a display of ego. Humility is not a requirement, but a focus on the error and the means to correct it is crucial. This is also the case in human conflict. There are always two kinds of weapons. Swords used in closed combat were regarded as required to combat evil. Swords were unforgiving. Bows and arrows, on the other hand, were used at a distance; the further back one pulled the string on the bow, the further the arrow went. The further one displaced one’s ego in a field of battle, the further the reach of your arms but also the better the chances of peace when ego was set aside. The weapon of choice was determined by the implacability of the enemy.

Erasmus would have none of this. War and its weapons were both sources of evil. And the mission of Jesus was to cast out evil, to cast out man’s natural disposition to defensiveness and embrace the birth of a new person out of the death of the old.

Rabbi Gamaliel I, son of Simon and grandson of Hillel, was credited with this parable of bows and arrows. He is the same rabbi who is mentioned in Acts 22:3 as having instructed Paul and taught him the importance of writing epistles to keep a far-flung community of belief united. He also initially exposed Paul to Hellenic thought. This was of no account for Erasmus. Evil was evil. Christians should have no truck with the devil. Yet Gamaliel, like Erasmus, introduced the study of Greek and its texts into a Jewish curriculum.

With respect to the tale of the bow and arrow, Erasmus also believed that in pedagogy, lessons should be taught with useful illustrations that impress themselves on the mind more than abstractions. He went even further. Children must be respected, not abused. Universal education was a right. In that, his teachings clearly followed the practices of Jews and he accepted the pedagogical doctrine of the vital union of knowledge and practice.  

But not quite. In Christian teaching, faith must precede real understanding. While in Jewish teaching, the understanding is that an individual learns in stages. “At five years old one is fit for the Scripture, at ten years for the Mishnah, at thirteen for the fulfilling of the commandments, at fifteen for the Talmud, at eighteen for the bride-chamber, at twenty for pursuing a calling, at thirty for authority, at forty for discernment, at fifty for counsel, at sixty to be an elder, at seventy for gray hairs, at eighty for special strength, at ninety for bowed back, and at a hundred a man is as one that has already died and passed away and ceased from the world.” (Mishnah, Aboth 5:21) Christian teaching, however, taught that there was a decisive moment in one’s education, the moment when a person accepts Christ as his saviour. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (II Corinthians: 5:17)

Who were the targets of the teachings of Erasmus? He claimed that they were the same as those of Jesus. Further, they had an identical purpose, to create a fellowship of faith rather than the national fellowship of the Jews. People were sheep who needed a shepherd. Moses had to learn the opposite, that people were not sheep but had their own varied motives and their own agendas. Moses had to learn how to persuade. On the other hand, Erasmus had been trained in a Brethren school. It believed in the education of everyone. That is why he was there. Further, if all could be educated, all could (and should?) participate in governance, or, at the very least, benefit from that governance.

Why were Jews not included in that conception of universality? Perhaps because Erasmus was a reformer but not a revolutionary. Ironically, revolutionaries emerge as more dangerous to Jews as we shall see. Reformers tolerate them, but omit them from their agendas. Erasmus envisioned a natural and immanent rather than transcendent order in the world, but he was not radical enough to include Jews in that immanent order. Further, even if they converted, they were distrusted lest they bring their Jewish practices with them.

But the world had both opened up and had been historicized. No longer could scholars read the world as if it were divorced from the immediacy of experience and the rootedness in time. The transcendental view of the cosmos had been discarded. That meant room had been made for Jews even if Erasmus did not hold the door open for them. Yet it was obvious that he shared a great deal in common with Jews – their sense of the wonder of life, the preciousness of the person right here on earth. Jews were curious. So was he. Jews were sceptical. So was he. Jews believed deeply in education. So did he.

However, the times were not ripe for either Jews or Erasmus. Catholics began to war with Protestants. Reconciliation was not at the forefront of the agendas of most people or the leaders of polities. For taking the middle way, Erasmus was distrusted by both Protestants and Catholics even though the Catholic Church bestowed upon him many honours, at least until his older years when he was widely condemned and his books were burned. Erasmus was welcomed in England, but long before the Jews were re-admitted. Their admission had to await the victory of the Puritans over the Anglicans as the former were more Jewish than the general run of Protestants and accepted freedom of conscience.  

What was the form of government Erasmus endorsed and how was it related to the rule of King David?

To be continued.

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