Renaissance Men

By Adina M. Yoffie
Monday, November 5, 2012

Hugo Grotius. Isaac Abravanel. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. These are not names normally mentioned in the same breath, but taken together, their experiences with and thoughts regarding interfaith encounters are instructive. We are prompted by a fascinating new volume, Hebraic Aspects of the Renaissance: Sources and Encounters, to consider the complexities, successes, and failures of the enterprise of Jewish-Christian encounter. The book, despite its many strengths, is a reminder that in the Renaissance and today, such encounter remains hobbled by its formal, often academic nature and lack of connection to most members of either religious community. 

Hebraic Aspects, in fact, is intended primarily for academics—it is the product of an academic conference held in Haifa in May, 2009, and five of its 14 essays are in French—but it also presents fascinating material for the non-specialist.  One section of the book deals with Kabbalah and mysticism, and another, longer one, with philosophy and the humanities.  The book’s editors—Ilana Zinguer, Abraham Melamed, and Zur Shalev—and its individual contributors offer a variety of detailed case studies exploring, according to Shalev, the “complex interactions of Jewish and Hebraic culture with the Christian Renaissance world.” They paint a colorful, often surprising picture of the extent to which Jews ventured into humanist and print culture, determined to make a contribution to the overwhelmingly Christian scholarly discourse.

They often succeeded. Essays by Daniel Stein-Kokin and Arthur Eyffinger note that Christian humanists, such as Giles of Viterbo (1469?-1532) and the Dutchman Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), often read Jewish sacred texts, most prominently the Bible and its rabbinic commentaries but also kabbalistic works. These Christians incorporated some aspects of Jewish tradition into their scholarly writings, even when those traditions were incompatible with or even contradicted Christian thought on the same issues.

Cédric Cohen Skalli presents an example of a largely positive Jewish scholarly response to Renaissance culture—specifically, the writings of statesman and scholar Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508), who demonstrated his “cultural integration” by writing treatises in Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian. His topics included the nature of love, a subject of particular interest to a learned Christian audience.

Yet the reader can hardly miss the irony of the real and threatened violence that shadowed these scholarly undertakings. When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Abravanel’s “cultural integration” did not save him. An essay by Annie Molinié and Béatrice Perez describes the evolution of Spanish "pure blood" laws in the 15th and 16th centuries. The 16th century, when Christian humanism flourished, nevertheless saw a wave of Jewish expulsions, including expulsion from much of what is now Germany, and the establishment of the Venetian ghettos. It is possibly unintentional but nevertheless telling that the collection ends with a provocative essay addressing the connection between scholarship on the Renaissance and Fascism in Mussolini’s Italy. Author David Baum reminds his readers that many of the scholars on whose work Renaissance scholarship was—and, to some degree, continues to be—built, were Fascists, “bigots and racists,” and that racialized anti-Semitism was an intrinsic part of Italian Fascism after 1938.

After the Holocaust, Jewish-Christian relations underwent a dramatic change. Christian theologians and churches reconsidered old prejudices. They sought face-to-face partnerships with Jews, including Jewish-Christian dialogue groups. Jewish leaders were at first hesitant, but most accepted. A notable exception was the leading postwar Modern Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. In a 1964 essay, titled “Confrontation,” he rejected the possibility of productive dialogue on any but practical issues, such as common citizenship and joint participation in the political process. Even the best-intentioned agreement to enter into religious dialogue, he said, would indicate that Jews were ready to “revise historical attitudes” and “trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith.” Soloveitchik’s view no longer prevails among the Modern Orthodox. In August, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a Rosh Yeshiva at Soloveitchik's own Yeshiva University, received harsh criticism from fellow Jews for questioning the wisdom of Jewish dialogue with the Catholic Church.

There is little doubt that Jewish-Christian relations have been friendlier in the past half-century than ever before. Jews and Christians work together on social justice projects and scholarly explorations of each other’s faiths. On October 18, the Jewish Theological Seminary held a gala event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.  The speaker focused on Nostra Aetate, the Council document that revolutionized Jewish-Catholic relations by condemning anti-Semitism, rejecting charges of deicide, and emphasizing the common religious patrimony of Christians and Jews.

It is no surprise that Renaissance cultural encounters between Christians and Jews, occurring amid frequent separation and persecution, produced little substantial change. Even today, however, Jewish-Christian dialogue is trouble-plagued. What is the problem now?

Part of it, of course, is Israel. This year, just before an annual Jewish-Protestant roundtable to promote dialogue on Israel, 15 mainline Protestant leaders wrote to urge Congress to reconsider American military aid to the Jewish state. The roundtable was canceled after Jewish leaders, political liberals and conservatives alike, pulled out.

But another problem, easier to remedy, is the needlessly formalized, academic nature of today’s Jewish-Christian dialogue. Consider the roundtable above, a typical case: a self-appointed Jewish group meets with a self-appointed Christian group once a year. If it goes well, most Jews and Christians, having no connection with either group, will not hear about it. The participants will agree on another meeting next year, with similar results. And if it goes badly, at least one Jewish participant will likely go to the Jewish press. The resulting coverage will frustrate the Christians who attended the meeting and alert the Jews who did not—and who probably would not have known about it otherwise.

In another common scenario, Jewish and Christian academics, theologians or not, hold a conference—or write a book, or both—about evolving ideas on the Jewish Jesus or the future of Jewish-Christian relations. These scholars often genuinely wish to expand each other’s horizons for the good of both religious communities. But how many people outside academia read their writings or attend their conferences? Even if rabbis, priests, or ministers attend, do they share the results with congregants in an accessible way?

Now, as in the Renaissance, lay and non-academic Jews and Christians are often unaware of interfaith encounters meant to improve relations between the two communities. They do not select—and may not even agree with—their representatives. (A 2009 survey found that many more Presbyterian laypeople than clergy thought it important for America to remain closely tied to Israel.) Now, as then, “encounter” frequently takes place in academe, in language inaccessible to non-scholars of both faiths. It is too late to heal the Jewish-Christian relations of the Renaissance, but knowing that these dilemmas persist today may help produce more productive future encounters.

Adina M. Yoffie holds a Ph.D. in European History from Harvard University.  She is a writer and teacher living in New York City.

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