The Huguenot Connection

By Allan Nadler
Monday, January 3, 2011

In the darkest hours of the Holocaust, the safest place for Jews in occupied Europe may have been the southern French hamlet of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Inspired by the town's Huguenot (that is, French-Protestant) pastor, the residents collaborated in the war's best-organized and largest-scale rescue operation, hiding and saving the lives of some 5,000 Jews.

The Huguenot connection was hardly an incidental detail in this story. Rather, it marked a high point in a long history of Huguenot affinity with the Jews, traceable to the origins of French Protestantism and ultimately to the biblically rooted theology of John Calvin, the "father" of Reform Protestantism.

The same connection illuminates the meaning of the life of Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), a Huguenot scholar who forms the subject of a magnificent new book, "I Have Always Loved the Holy Tongue". The co-authors of this work of detection and retrieval,beautifully written and illustrated with more than 40 manuscript reproductions, are the intellectual historian Anthony Grafton of Princeton and Joanna Weinberg, an expert on Renaissance Jewish letters at Oxford. Combing the world's great libraries, particularly the British Library where resides the lion's share of Casaubon's own collection, Grafton and Weinberg have pieced together and made coherent sense of the scholar's abundant if often barely legible marginal notes to the works of Hebraica and Judaica that he aggressively acquired and industriously studied. Their decipherment of these rich marginalia, together with the evidence of Casaubon's massive diaries and almost 3,000 letters, yields an eye-opening portrait of an enigmatic 16th-century classicist. It also exposes some of the earliest and deepest roots of the lasting Huguenot sympathy for the Jewish people.

Casaubon's immersion in Hebrew was a by-product of Christian Hebraism, itself an offshoot of Renaissance humanism, whose devotees included scholars, philosophers, theologians, and others. Yet his interest in matters Jewish often transcended that of his predecessors, and in many respects his Hebrew scholarship was rather unique. Why, then, was this pious French Protestant scholar, best remembered for his innovative researches into the Western Hermetic tradition, as well as his fierce polemics with Catholicism, so dedicated to mastering Hebrew and understanding its ancient and medieval texts?  

Along with other Protestant scholars of his day, Casaubon was convinced that the life of Jesus and the birth of Christianity could be properly appreciated only against the background of their Jewish origins. This conviction girded Casaubon's extensive criticisms of many foundational doctrines of the Catholic Church, which not only ignored but heaped scorn on the Hebrew Bible as it had been preserved by the Jews.

To the medieval Church, Jewish scribes and rabbinic scholars had willfully distorted the original biblical text in order to remove alleged prophecies regarding the advent of Jesus. Only the Latin Vulgate, as transcribed by Jerome and based largely on the Greek Septuagint, could be relied upon, and even then only as interpreted by the Church's bishops. Casaubon firmly rejected this doctrine, asserting that "it is not true that the Hebrews treacherously corrupted the sacred scriptures. They did not corrupt them before the birth of the Lord, for he never accused them of this crime. They did not corrupt them afterward."

Most importantly, Casaubon repudiated medieval Christianity's most damning, and most lasting, calumny against the Jews: namely, that they were collectively guilty of deicide. His conclusion to the contrary was rooted in his close study of the laws recorded in the Mishnah, which, he held, reflected the normative religious practices of the Jews of Jesus' time. He clinches his argument by citing the summary by Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), in his law code Mishneh Torah, of the death penalties meted out by the ancient Sanhedrin, among which the Roman cross does not figure. Maimonides, Grafton and Weinberg write, is "thus summoned as the supreme witness: the Jews did not crucify Jesus, and the cross was no Jewish form of capital punishment."

This, indeed, is but one of many examples of Casaubon's great reverence for Maimonides, whose Guide for the Perplexed he repeatedly refers to as a "divine work."  He relies on Maimonides in the course of refuting Catholic teachings about the burial of Jesus, insisting that just as Jesus lived as a Jew, so he was buried by his Jewish family and disciples in accordance with Jewish tradition. He similarly invokes the great medieval rabbi and philosopher to counter Catholic claims concerning the doctrine of apostolic succession. For the time in which Casaubon wrote, all this is nothing short of remarkable—as is his insistence, again on the corroborating authority of Maimonides, that one may pray to God in any language: a point of heated contention between Protestants and Catholics (the latter of whom insisted on the Church-sanctioned Latin mass and rejected vernacular prayer as worthless).

As a general principle, Casaubon was committed to critical philological and historical analysis of Jewish texts. Where other Christian Hebraists, from Pico della Mirandola to Johannes Reuchlin, believed in the supernatural nature of the Hebrew language, leading them to dabble in kabbalistic hermeneutics, Casuabon held all such activities in contempt: "The [Christian] Hebrew masters often not only waste their time, but actually make fools of themselves as they seek out the mysteries of the 'Holy Letters.'"

But his impatience with mysticism and dedication to rigorous scholarship by no means made him a Spinoza-like rationalist. To the contrary, Casaubon was a man of deep piety, in whose life daily prayer played a central role. And here too, as Grafton and Weinberg quite movingly illustrate, he leaned on Hebrew sources. His library included heavily annotated versions of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi prayer book as well as a Sephardi Mahzor for the High Holy Days. In the Calvinist manner, his prayers consisted largely of the recitation of Psalms in Calvin's own French translation, but he was able to refer comfortably by heart to the Hebrew original.

When it comes, finally, to Casaubon's attitude to the Jewish people, Grafton and Weinberg cautiously note that, despite his thirst for "acquiring knowledge . . . of biblical, rabbinic, and medieval Hebrew literature, Casaubon does not appear to evince any real sympathy for Jews." Actually, their own explorations suggest a more complex judgment. Although he came to know Judaism almost entirely from his study of the Hebrew classics, over time Casaubon developed what the authors nicely call a "three-dimensional understanding." This led him to examine compendia of Jewish religious customs known as Sifrei Minhagim as well as the comprehensive study of those customs by Johann Buxdorf, the period's greatest Christian student of Jewish life. It also led him to visit at least one synagogue service in Frankfurt and, toward the end of his life, to enter into a personal relationship with a living Jew.

With that story, Grafton and Weinberg conclude their book. In the spring of 1610, while doing research in Oxford's Bodleian library, Casaubon encountered Jacob Barnet, an Italian talmudist and classicist. His brief time at Oxford exploring rabbinic texts with Barnet's expert assistance proved so rewarding that Causabon took this illegal alien—for this was decades prior to the readmission of Jews to England—back to London with him. Over the next weeks as his houseguest, Barnet evidently helped Casaubon to decipher, if not quite to master, numerous talmudic and medieval sources.

Then the scene darkens. Distracted by his various duties to King James, his royal patron, Casaubon sent Barnet back to Oxford, where the priests and dons had long expected him to fulfill his assurances to them and undergo baptism. When, just prior to the ceremony, he balked and tried to escape, he was seized and placed in the university's prison, where he was treated miserably and rapidly deteriorated. It was then that Casaubon wrote the first of several letters to the Oxford dons and other clerical friends, pleading clemency for the man he affectionately called "our rabbi" and begging them "not to whip him forward in his rush to doom."

Casaubon did not excuse Barnet's deception. He did, however, offer a sympathetic explanation of his teacher's inability to abandon the beliefs and traditions of his people. Inasmuch, he wrote, as Barnet had been "brought up entirely on texts that contain dreadful blasphemies against our Savior, . . . the fact that he did not wish to become a Christian is not, in my opinion, a crime punishable by law." This was consistent with Casaubon's lifelong commitment to religious toleration, largely inspired by his own experience of persecution by the French Catholic authorities. In writing to the bishop of Oxford, he concluded on a personal note: "Although I detest [Barnet's] perfidy from the bottom of my heart, I cannot but feel some pity for him, given his great learning."

Thus did a decades-long immersion in Hebrew texts lead subtly and ineluctably to pity, compassion, and a sense of kinship. Casaubon almost certainly prayed to heaven for his teacher's release from imprisonment; and as for his entreaties to earthly powers, they finally resulted in Barnet's release and banishment from the British Isles. In a subsequent letter to Casaubon, Richard Kilbye, Oxford's and England's most distinguished Hebraist of the time, ruefully reflected:

It will be a long time before a Jew like him . . . reaches our shores. If only he had converted to Christianity, he could have been of help to many members of the university . . . . For no one can ever understand the Hebrew masters perfectly on his own, but one must use the help of a Jew.

On this last point, Casaubon would have fully agreed. Where he stood apart from the divines of Oxford, just as the pious Huguenot villagers of Chambon would stand apart from the large majority of Europe's Christians in World War II, was in his insistence on the Jews' right to be what they were. To this day, mutatis mutandis, that "three-dimensional understanding," and the impulse to act on it, remain as rare as ever.  

Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.

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