The term righteous gentile doesn’t always mean one thing only. To some of us, we are accustomed to hearing the term refer to one who embraces the Noahide commandments. But among Jews it is perhaps more often used to refer to a person who has exhibited uncommon service to the Jewish people such as those who protected Jews from the Nazis during the holocaust. It is this latter category that I intend to focus on. I want to talk about the activities of a man who rendered an invaluable service to the Jewish people at a time when they were almost completely powerless, humanly speaking. It is likely that he prevented the deaths of countless Jews by thwarting the efforts of those who were their mortal enemies.
A brief review view of history
In order to effectively tell this story, I must give you a capsulated view of the history of the Mid East and Europe that began with the fall of the Roman Empire. The empire had been the sustainer of western civilization for nearly a millennium. Law and order, peace and war, highways and commerce, coinage and banking, education and learning – the infrastructure of society all emanated from Rome. When Rome finally succumbed to the onslaught of the barbarian Visigoths, civilization went with it. Isolated kingdoms sprung up, but the people had little contact with their rulers. A feudal system subjugated the surfs to their landowners in their dismal manorial society. Contact with the outside world was almost non existent. With the loss of education, conditions only worsened and the civilized world descended into a dark state of depression that we speak of today as the dark ages.
Surprisingly, the force which first acted to lift this darkness was Islamic society. When Islam was in it’s youth and spreading rapidly across Asia, Africa and into parts of Europe, a golden age came upon the Islamic world, a time of prosperity, and tolerance, and the pursuit of learning. Islamic scholars searched the remains of the great libraries to rediscover the works of the ancient Greek and Roman scientists and philosophers. It was a great time of inquiry and education and enlightenment.
The great antagonist of Islam in that time, however, was Christianity. In the time of the crusades, the power of the Islamic empires was beaten back by the Christian crusaders. It was at this time that the Catholic Church really cam into it’s power. The popes of the church were kingmakers for all of Europe. Though kings seemed to have civil authority, it was the church which backed them and kept the people in control by its religious authority. The church inherited a civilization from Islam, which had acquired a taste for the knowledge and teaching of the ancients. There would be no way to put that genie back in the bottle. So the church struggled to control the environment of education. Priests and monks became educators, directing the path of learning in ways that would not wrest power from the church.
But that was to prove to be a loosing battle in the coming centuries. The first university had been created in Bologna in the 11th century. It was an independent learning institution that was basically controlled by the students themselves. They set their own cirriculum to the dismay of the church. Many more universities were springing up. The church worked hard to gain control of the universities and they were largely successful. Soon, teaching was firmly in the hands of the Dominicans. The curriculum, using the ancient Greek and Roman texts was strictly interpreted through the eyes of the Church. Eventually the universities were first and foremost religious institutions. In time, the might of the Catholic Church became overbearing, controlling every aspect of people’s lives. Every child was required by the state to be baptized into the church. His education was overseen by the church. It was required to participate in all the ritual and observance of the church.
Move foreward in time to the early part of the 16th century. It was the height of the Inquisition. The Jews had been expelled from Spain only a few years earlier. They had migrated hastily into any other country that would grant them entry, and a place to live, however uneasy their existence. The Catholic Church exercised it’s oppressive power not only over Jews, but Muslims and finally over the growing protestant threat. It had power to seize property, to imprison, interrogate, to torture and to kill anyone who would not submit to it and accept its faith. But, perhaps worst of all, it had the power to control the minds of the populace by suppressing all thought and education that might be in conflict with their dogma. It had the power to seize and burn books, to destroy the very culture of those who were determined to be offenders. The inquisitors suppressed scientific investigation when it was believed to undermine the holy Catholic faith. It was during this very period that Galileo Galelei was undergoing his ordeal at the hands of the Inquisitors, because of his discovery that the earth was not the center of the solar system.
There is one other characteristic of those times, which I must explain before I get into our story. How did the populace get its news? There was of course no radio or TV. The age of printing had only just begun. The concept of a newspaper was almost a century away. So communication was crude. Official notices and announcements were posted in public places. Aside from standing on the streetcorner and making a speech to passersby, the practice of publishing pamphlets to raise awareness or to express one’s views was very common. Pamphlets were usually no more than four small pages and usually expounded only one subject. Subject matter ranged from stories of adventure to accounts of battles to incredulous tales and yellow journalism. Yet an eager public gobbled them up. They were especially popular at fairs and festivals. There was no less demand for these crude publications than for the National Enquirer in our times. This is the world in which our story occurs.
One of their own
Ironically, the worst enemy of the Jews at that time was one of their own, a man named John (sometimes known as Joseph) Pfefferkorn. A man of questionable character, he had converted to Catholicism to escape the penalty for a theft. He was not well educated and had only a limited acquaintance with Jewish literature. Sensing an opportunity to use his association with the Jews, the Dominican monks of Cologne, received him into their community with great honor. He was quite flattered by the attention he received. Certainly it was more than he could ever have hoped to achieve among his own people, given his ignorance of learning.
At that time head of the Dominicans was Jacob Hochstrater, the judge of the Inquisition. He was a great fanatic and the mortal enemy of the Jews. His associates in that office were Arnold Tangersky and Arthurin Gracia. They were bent on the destruction of Judaism and the forced conversion of all Jews. They had entrusted the task of writing a pamphlet against Judaism to a Jewish apostate named Victor Karbensky in the year I504. He was to bring a number of accusations against the Jews and place the blame on the Talmud. He manufactured charges of persecution of apostates at the hands of the Jews. He charged that even the poorest and most criminal of the Jews endure all manner of hardships rather than embrace Christianity. He concludes: “All this is due to the Talmud, which is the source of all evil, and which the Jews hold in greater reverence than the ten commandments of God.”
To the disappointment of the Dominican monks, this pamphlet failed to be effective. So they asked Pfefferkom to write a better one. In response he wrote a pamphlet called the Wamungsspiegel (The Mirror of Waming). He pretended to be a friend of the Jewish people, and desired to introduce Christianity among them for their own good. He urged that they clearly deny the charges of blood libel. These were false accusations that the Jews used the blood of Christian children in their sacrifices. He also urged his Christian brethren not to persecute the Jews; because, he said, the Jews are also, in a way, human beings. But in the midst of this friendly presentation he suggests that the Talmud be taken by force from the Jews because it was believed to be the source of their obstinacy.
He claimed that the reasons that prevent the Jews from becoming Christian were:
2. That they are not compelled to attend Christian Churches.
3. Because they honor the Talmud.
In his treatise he appealed to his co-religionists and to the rulers to remove the first two causes, and he advised the government to take the Talmud from the Jews and burn it.
This pamphlet also proved to be unsuccessful because the rulers of the people well understood the methods of the Dominicans. They knew that the Dominicans, being judges of the inquisition possessed the power of declaring the books harmless. Then they could return them to the Jews for a consideration. It was their habit to enrich themselves regardless of principle.
So quickly Pfefferkorn wrote another pamphlet. This time the tone was harsher. This time his theme focused solely on their religious books as the cause of the hatred of the Jews for Christianity. He wrote also a third pamphlet on the subject of Jewish history. Comically he contradicted what he had written in his first pamphlet. He said plainly that every Jew considers it a good deed to mock or even to kill a Christian. ” It is the duty of the people,” he said, ” to ask permission of the rulers to take from the Jews all their books except the Bible, “They should also cancel all the debts of Christians owed to the Jews, and Jewish children should be taken away from their parents to be educated in the Catholic religion. He concluded his work this way:
” Whoever afflicts the Jews is doing the will of God, and who seeks their benefit will incur damnation.”
Although the religious hatred of the times of the Crusades was then far from extinguished, Pfefferkorn’s pamphlets did not find favor with the rulers. The chief reason was that it was from the Jews that they could exact enormous taxes. They were loathe to disturb the source of their wealth. Neither did they want to compel them to embrace Christianity because most of the Christians disliked Jewish apostates; they well knew that in most instances they did not accept Christianity through belief in the religion, but from more worldly reasons. In addition, all the Jews of Germany, especially the Jewish physicians of the rulers, did all in their power to prevent Pefferkorn’s advice from being carried into execution. Many Christians were convinced that Pfefferkom was simply bad at heart, a flatterer, and that his principal motive was self-enrichment.
Therefore Pfefferkorn wrote a yet a fourth pamphlet, hammering hard on the theme of totally wiping out the Talmud and expelling or enslaving the Jews. His pamphlet was this time translated into Latin and German, and sent to all the rulers of the Europe. The Dominicans, who were ramping up their campaign against the Jews, approached the sister of the Emperor Maximilian, Princess Kunigunde, who was a nun in a Dominican convent at Munich, to intercede with the Emperor in behalf of Pfefferkom. They eulogized Pfefferkom, telling her of his knowledge of Jewish life and of his good character, and urged her to confide in him. Reluctantly, she agreed to give a copy of the pamphlet to the emperor, who was then at war in Italy. As a result of all this, Pfefferkom at once set out for Italy, and succeeded in obtaining from the emperor a decree that all the Jews of Germany should yield up their books, to be reviewed by him. If any book contained anything relating to Christianity, it should be destroyed. He was granted the power to call to his assistance, in each city, a priest and two of the civic rulers. The Jews were warned under severe penalty not to resist the royal command.
Pfefferkorn, with the party of inquisitors in tow, first visited Magdeburg, a city whose rabbis who were renowned throughout the Jewish world. The Jews resorted to every device to prevent the surrender of their literary treasures. But these books, and even their Bibles, were taken away. Every Jew was compelled to surrender his entire store of religious books.
There were however many Gentile scholars, who did not approve of Pfefferkom’s conduct. They actually assisted the Jews by testifying before the emperor that Pfefferkom was ignorant on many subjects, and that he wrongfully seized books containing no allusions to Christianity. They also referred to the privileges accorded to the Jews, by previous emperors and popes, to worship in their own way. Archbishop Uriel, then Elector of Mayence, became enraged at Pfefferkom’s action. He summoned him to the city of Aschaffenburg, and informed him that the emperor’s decree was in opposition to the law of the land, because it made him prosecutor, witness, judge, and executor in one; He said that anyone who disregarded the emperor’s decree would be guilty of no crime. He fined Pfefferkorn and insisted that he have the emperor to alter the mandate to conform with the law. Pfefferkom had no choice but to agree to do so. The Dominicans of Cologne advised him to find a prominent Gentile who would actively interest himself in the matter.
So this is the setting in which the Jews found themselves in dire straits and in danger of loosing their entire body of literature and their livelihood and perhaps their lives. What they needed was a learned non-Jew, a fair minded scholar, one who was impeccable in his intellect and reputation, to champion their cause. He was about to appear on the scene. They could not have imagined that the Dominicans themselves would choose the man who would turn out to be their champion.
A reluctant protagonist
At it happened, the Dominicans found a scholar who was very popular and respected all over the world. His name was John Ruechlin. The Dominicans urged Pfefferkom to get a letter from Reuchlin for the emperor. His reputation as a scholar and his popularity, in addition to his benevolent heart would bear heavily on the emperor. Reuchlin was the first Christian scholar to devote himself especially to the study of Hebrew. He also published the first Hebrew grammar to aid in the study of Hebrew. He was assisted by Count Pick de Marsundella, who opened up to him the study of Jewish mysticism. Reuchlin’s desire for study grew deeper. He drove himself to become a master of Hebrew. He formed the acquaintance of Jacob Laanson, a Jewish physician at the Court of Frederick III, who taught him further knowledge of the language. There he came in contact with many Jewish scholars. He eventually attained such skill that he wrote a book wherein he praised Hebrew to be the best of all languages. He claimed in this work that the dogmas and rites of false religions were due to the ignorance of Hebrew, and to the misconception of the meaning of significant Hebrew terms. As for the Kabbala, he ranked this study with any other branch of learning, and stated that he himself was far from understanding thoroughly its sublime mysteries.
Afterwards, when he became the Ambassador of the Elector Palatine to the Court of Pope Alexander VI, he made the acquaintance of the physician Obadiah Eipminah, the renowned commentator on the Mishna. Reuchlin, by now a celebrated German scholar, whose discourses in Italian were greatly admired by the Italians themselves, was humbly and eagerly asking this learned Jew to be his teacher of Hebrew literature. Indeed, It was always his habit, when he came in contact with learned Jews, to obtain some useful knowledge from them.
Now make no mistake. Reuchlin was still a Christian and he remained so till his death. It is not surprising that he was not entirely free from prejudice against those of the Jewish faith, especially early in his career. In some of his earlier letters he expressed views similar to his peers in regard to the Jewish people. But he was ultimately a fair, broad-minded, and objective man and he was uncontrollably drawn to the study of Hebrew literature and the Jewish point of view. One can see in his career a progression moving steadily away from prejudice against the Jews and toward the enlightenment of Judaism. Though he did not seek to be the advocate of the Jews, the events of the times drew him into that position. It could be said that he was only goaded into the defence of the Jews by personal attacks. But in the end he did the right thing.
The Dominicans and their lackey chose Reuchlin to be their advocate. They relied on him because his thorough knowledge of Hebrew literature would be respected by all the rulers of Germany. But Reuchlin, not caring for the tone of their proposition, declined to take an active part in the matter, although he at first thought it was good to destroy all books written against Christianity. He felt that the emperor’s decree was basically unjust and unsound, and he doubted that it could be executed.
The Dominicans were disappointed in the refusal of Reuchlin but they pressed ahead anyway. Against all odds, Pfefferkom finally succeeded in persuading the emperor to ignore the petitions of the Jews. He issued a new decree, giving Pfefferkorn the power to deprive the Jews of their books. This time the emperor commissioned Archbishop Uriel to carry out the decree. He also ordered him to seek, and to follow the advice of the German universities of Cologne, Maence, Erfurt and Heidelberg, and also to take as counsel Reuchlin, and Victor Karbensky, the apostate Jew and Hochstrater (who could read no Hebrew).
The Jews ordered to give up their books
So Archbishop Uriel commanded the director of the University of Mayence, Herman Hess, to visit all the cities of Germany, and to remove all the Jewish books. Hess did so. He traveled through Germany accompanied by Pfefferkom; and in Frankfort alone he gathered fifteen hundred manuscripts (printed books were as yet rare). He did the same in Worms, Lorch, Birgin, Lamuven, Mayen and Dertz
The Jews on the other hand were scrambling to prevent the loss of their priceless books. They secured testimonials from prominent Gentiles, and sent a committee to the emperor to petition him to prevent these attacks their religion. They offered proof that their books contained nothing against Christian communities. They brought forward the privileges granted to them by former emperors and popes, enabling them to worship their God with out the interference of the Church or State. Their case was so impressive that the emperor vacillated once more. He commanded that the books should be returned to their owners. The Jews were now clearly on top of this political tug of war since thereby not only were they granted possession of their books but a peaceful residence in Catholic countries as well.
However, the Dominicans and Pfefferkom were by no means ready to give up. An incident occurred at that time which was to their advantage and they quickly seized upon it to blame it on the Jews. Some sacred vessels were stolen from a Christian church by a Gentile. He was arrested and claimed that he had sold them to the Jews. Little real evidence was needed to prompt a new round of persecution of all the Jews by the Bishop of Brandenburg. About the same time a rumor spread that the Jews had killed a Christian child in the performance of their religious rites. This same bishop ordered the accused Jews to Berlin, and thirty-eight of them were tortured and burned at the stake.
The Dominicans made opportune use of these events to stir up sentiment among people of Germany against the Jewish people. They approached the emperor’s sister, Kunigunde, to whom they portrayed these occurrences direly. They blamed the Talmud as the inspiration of the evil teachings of the Jews. They claimed that the latest command of the emperor represented clear danger to Catholicism. They impressed on her that she was the only one who could save Catholicism from injury.
Their next attempt at damage control was to try to find favor in the eyes of the people who protested against this persecution. To this end a new pamphlet was published, in Pfefferkorn’s name, dedicated to the Emperor Maximilian, praising him for his zeal for the Catholic religion. This pamphlet said that the Christians were not properly concerned about the activity of the Jews against Catholicism. Again they focused on the Talmud as the source of the teachings which prevented the Jews from embracing Christianity. They proclaimed that it was vital for all Christians to get behind the movement to persuade the emperor to once again deprive the Jews of their books. They also pointed out that the emperors’ sister was fully behind this effort. Then they went so far as to state that any Jewish apostate who had supported his fellow Jews in this had only become Christian for unworthy reasons rather that because of genuine belief in the holy trinity. Further they said that all Christians who defended the Jews should be treated as heretics.
Whereupon the Princess Kunigunde presenting herself before the emperor. She begged him on her knees to grant the request of the Dominicans. The emperor was tiring of this tug of war, so he again ordered Archbishop Uriel to hasten to seek the advice of several German universities, and especially to get the opinion of Reuchlin, Karbensky and Hochstrater, and to bring him their report, in order to justly decide whether or not the Talmud should be destroyed.
The answers of the German universities were quite predictable. The theological faculty of Mayence replied simply that not only were the Talmud and all rabbinical books full of falsehoods and heresies, although they admitted that the faculty themselves were ignorant of the Talmud and Hebrew. They even went so far as to question the Hebrew Bible as not altogether free from error on points of Christian doctrine. The faculty recommended, therefore, that the books be reviewed by Christian scholars, and if anything be found contrary to Christian belief it should be burned.
The University of Erfurt answered in like manner, but the Faculty of Heidelberg advised the emperor to select a committee from the faculties of all the universities of Germany to judge the Talmud and all Jewish literature, and let their decision be final.
Reuchlin, well aware of the implications of this request, took his time to prepare his response. After three months his answer was composed, and delivered to the emperor. He was careful to be fair and objective. He came down decidedly against Pfefferkorn. He approached the question academically and methodically, drawing on his now considerable knowledge of the entire spectrum of Jewish literature. He excluded the Bible from his answer since no one wished to destroy it. He divided the rest into six classes:
1. poetry, fable and satire;
3. sermons, songs and prayers;
4. philosophy and science;
5. the Talmud, and
” In the first class,” he said “are to be found books which deny or criticize the Christian religion “. These books were obscure. He only had knowledge of two such books. He pointed out that the Rabbis themselves prohibit the possession of them by Jews and place severe penalities upon any one who reads them.” He recommended therefore “that this class of books should be destroyed without scruple.”
The second class of books, he stated, contain nothing harmful to Christianity. He said it would be a great mistake to destroy these commentaries because they contain much of value to Christians in the interpretation of the Scriptures. He pointed out that many Gentile scholars could not fathom the depths of meaning of the Bible, because of their insufficient knowledge of Hebrew. They relied solely on Christian commentaries rather than seeking understanding from writers who understood the original language.
“The third class of sermons, songs and prayers, had been permitted by emperors and popes in the past in connection with the privilege the Jews were granted of unmolested worship. He argued that it would be an injustice to deprive the Jews of them.
In regard to the Talmud, he placed it on an even par with books of the same class in Latin, Greek or German. He confessed that it was to him a sealed book, but he pointed out that those who are passing judgment upon it have even less understanding of it’s real nature or its history. Yet they talk as if they understand clearly all that it contains. He compared such people to those who would criticize algebra while they are totally ignorant of the fundamentals of arithmetic. He said the fear expressed that the Talmud might injure Christianity is absurd. Nothing can withstand the proofs that are found in the Bible. If the Talmud really were as bad as they affirm, he reasoned, then our ancestors, who were much more religious, would long ago have put an end to its existence.”
At this point he interjected a blunt disparagement of Pfefferkom, claiming that his motives were unworthy and uninformed, and this request should not be given consideration. ” Moreover”, he claimed, “if we would but study the Talmud we would not destroy it, but rather encourage the Jews to hold it in still greater reverence and study it the more assiduously. He said further that there are copies not alone in Germany, but also in Italy and Turkey, where many colleges for its study exist.” He argued that the Talmud was too widespread to destroy. They would never be able to annihilate it entirely? Such action would be a major breach of faith as it would abrogate the privileges granted to them by former emperors and popes.”
Regarding the sixth class, the Kabbala, he praised it in the highest terms, and cited recent history in which Count Pick de Mirandella induced Pope Sixtus VI to study it. The pope discovered in it so much in support of Christianity that he translated Kabbalistic books into Latin.
Reuchlin concluded that to deprive the Jews of their books could only be likened to a duke challenging a knight to combat and then taking away his weapons. He advised that German rulers who wanted the Jews to embrace Christianity should establish in all the German universities chairs for the study of the Hebrew language. Then they could convince the Jews, by proofs from their own Bible, of the truths of Christianity.
He then returned to the subject of Jewish apostates, although avoiding mention of Pfefferkorn by name. He said the advice of apostates is of no value because they are conflicted and they have abandoned Judaism. Such individuals are not even worthy Christians.
He concluded that the Jews have been citizens of Germany for three hundred years and should be protected by the law. It would be ridiculous to adjudge them heretics, for they were not born Christians, but have been Jews from a time before Christianity.
The Dominicans get a peek at Reuchlin’s letter
Reuchlin sent his answer under seal to Archbishop Uriel. Somehow, however, its contents became known to Pfefferkorn before it reached the emperor. He and the Dominicans were greatly upset by it. They were aware of the high regard that the emperor had for Reuchlin. They knew it would be difficult to overcome Reuchlins testimony, They resolved to do something to weaken the effect of this answer on the emperor and the public. Curiously, in their haste to forestall Reuchlin they did not consider the risk to themselves in making public his answer before it reached the emperor. A pamphlet was issued entitled ” Handspiegel,” in Pfefferkorn’s name, attacking what they felt were the weak points in Reuchlin’s answer. They verbally abused him, claiming that he was ignorant and he was advancing a ridiculous theory while misrepresenting it to the public. They attacked his knowledge of Hebrew and charged that others had written his Hebrew Grammar. How could he possibly then advise the emperor in matters of which he himself is ignorant? They implied that he was being paid by them to uphold their interests. They resurrected a letter that he had written in his younger and less open-minded years criticizing the Jews thus claiming to show how duplicitous he truly was.
Reuchlin was well respected in Germany, so this pamphlet attracted much attention. Many went on fair days to Frankfort-on-the-Main to purchase the pamphlet from Pfefferkom. Reuchlin himself was astonished at his impertinence, and offended at the attack on his honor. He took his complaint to the emperor, who was incensed at Pfefferkorns actions. He acquiesced to Reuchlin in that he would take away the authority to revise the Jewish books from Pfefferkorn and give it to the Bishop of Augsburg.
But unfortunately, the emperor was deeply occupied with matters of state so he didn’t follow through. Soon a second fair was held at Frankfort, and Pfefferkom was there hoping to distribute his remaining pamphlets among the people. Reuchlin was now taking the matter quite personally. He decided he must respond because of his wounded honor.
Reuchlin defends his honor
He composed a work entitled Augenspiegel. He talked of the irony that a Jewish apostate should endeavor to destroy the Talmud. He told the public how Pfefferkorn had come to him, asking for his opinion to be given to the emperor, and how by despicable means he became aware of the contents of his answer to the emperor. Pfferkorn had then turned on him and began to attack his character. He pointed out thirty-four lies in Pfefferkrn’s pamphlet. He said that he still held out hope that he could face Pfefferkorn in court. He charged that Pfefferkorn deserved the sentence of death for inciting the people against the Jews. He denied the charge that he had received money from the Jews. He presented many proofs to show that the Dominicans and Pfefferkom merely intended to stain his name. He further proved that he himself had written the Hebrew grammar. The main accusation against Reuchlin was that he had learned Hebrew from a Jew. He replied that Christianitv did not forbid Christians from having dealings with, or learning from, Jews, especially since this was often productive of good in the conversion of the Jews.
Reuchlin’s pamphlet was distributed at the fair and was sold in large quantities to the people. It totally surpassed the distrubution of Pfefferkorn’s pamphlet. It is likely that the Jews launched a campaign to buy Reuchlin’s Augenspeigel and to do their utmost to spread it among the people. At that time a preacher named Peter Mayer, of Frankfort-on-the-Main, became angered at Reuchlin’s pamphlet and exclaimed that it ought to be burned at the stake. He succeeded in obtaining the sanction of the Archbishop of Mayence to prohibit its sale. But Reuchlin received support from an unlikely source. The priests of Mayence, who were all friendly to Reuchlin, approached the archbishop on his behalf and persuaded him to recall the prohibition. Soon all Germany was in possession of copies of the work, and Reuchlin received many congratulatory letters.
However, the strife was far from over. What followed was a year’s long tug of war for the favor of the emperor in this matter. One side would take action followed by a counteraction from the other side. In all this the Emperor Maxmillian vacillated. It was as if he just wanted the controversy to go away and so would agree to anything.
His enemies did everything they could to discredit Reuchlin. Paul Mayer, having failed to suppress Reuchlin’s pamphlet, announced that Pfefferkom would lecture on the subject of Reuchlin’s books in the Catholic Church during the coming holidays. Pfefferkorn, not being a priest, was unable to speak from the pulpit. Instead he lectured in the hall of the church in the popular jargon, holding a cross in his hand. The focus of his lecture was that the Jews should be persecuted unless they accepted Christianity. This was the first time in the history of the church that a Jew had stood in the corridor of a church with a cross in his hand and preached against the Jews.
The Dominicans Declare Reuchlin’s Augenspiegel Heretical.
The monks meanwhile gave Reuchlin’s work to Arnold Tangersky to be examined. Not surpisingly, being himself a Dominican, he denounced it as heretical. The Dominican Ulrich of Stemheim, wrote a letter to Reuchlin, in which, speaking as a friend, he says: “The scholars of Cologne are not yet united in their opinion as to what should be done with your work. Some of them maintain that it should be burned; others say the author should be punished; and still others are stronger in condemnation of it.”
Reuchlin realized that he may have crossed the line into danger. He understood full well that if the Dominicans openly declared against him, he would be in great peril, since at that time their power was supreme and they were feared even by the emperor himself. So Reuchlin hastened to write a letter to Tangersky, and he modified his previous statements. He said he judged the Talmud, not as a theologian, but as a layman, and he could not know that the scholars of Cologne would disagree with him.
He also stated that he had not intended to cast blame on any one in his pamphlet, and besought Tangersky to show him his errors in the Augenspiegel and not condemn him before doing so. He wrote a different kind of letter to his teacher, Koln, asking him to intercede to explain his words to the faculty so that they would see the truth and not blame him unjustly. He blamed Hockstrater, the head of the Dominicans, for having written the pamphlet under Pfefferkom’s name.
He finally received together two letters, one from the Cologne students and the other from Koln. The faculty predictably scolded him for interfering in a quarrel which did not concern him, preventing the emperor from performing a meritorious act in suppressing the Jewish books. This fact and the writing the Augenspiegel, showed that he inclined to Judaism, and therefore it was their duty to punish him severely. They could not, however, refuse the request of Arnold Tangersky and of Koln to defer punishment until he was given opportunity to write a second pamphlet, retracting all his words in defence of the Talmud and in blame of Pfefferkom.
Koln then wrote him a condescending letter saying that he should feel grateful to him for inducing the faculty to withhold his sentence and for pacifying the Dominicans. He reminded him of the danger which hovered over him, and advised him to hasten and repair his error by another pamphlet, contradicting all his previous statements. He did not, however, mention Reuchlins charge that the pamphlet Handspiegel was from the pen of Hochstrater.
Reuchlin responds to the charge of heresy
Reuchlin managed to answer his enemies carefully in two letters. First he tactfully thanked them for their intercession in his behalf, but claimed that as a married man he could not be counted among theologians, and therefore knew very little of the teachings of faith. He also cited proofs showing that he was not a lacky of Judaism or the Jews. Nevertheless he refused to contradict the statements contained in his first pamphlet. On the contrary, he reiterated them, but asserted his willingness to write a commentary on his Augenspiegel, explaining any ambiguous passages therein. He again insisted that they point out to him the passages for which they accused him of heresy. Only then could he either defend his assertions or confess that he was in error and revoke them.
The Dominicans grew impatient. They commanded him to stop the circulation of his pamphlet; and to contradict all he had previously said. In addition they counseled him to restore his good name by showing himself to be a good Christian and a persecutor of the Jews and their literature. If he refused to do this, they warned, he would stand trial before the judges of the Inquisition.
Koln also wrote him again, saying that but for this (Koln’s) pleading, Reuchlin’s pamphlet would long before have been burned and he would have been brought before the Inquisition. He again urged him to respect the command of the faculty, and that he could do nothing more for him .
Reuchlin risks all
Reuchlin saw that this process was going nowhere. He now determined that he would confront his foes with everything he had. The time for tact and diplomacy was over. He replied that he could not stop the circulation of his work as it was no longer his property but that of the publisher. He had no control over it. All he could do was to write an explanation of any doubtful passages.
He wrote pointedly to Koln, his pretending friend, saying, “If you prevented the faculty from burning my work, it is they who should be grateful for preventing them from doing wrong. As for me, you have done me no service.” He said further that he had no fear of a challenge to the Dominicans, because he had many friends and defenders who were men of prominence and power in Germany. It was the Dominicans who were now in trouble. They had failed to consider how the people would judge them if they sided with a Jewish apostate against a born Christian and a firm believer in Christianity. He accused that Pfefferkorn would even convert to Mohammedanism if their were money in it. The Dominicans, he continued, turn a blind eye to the great many sins of this apostate while they to seek to accuse him of trivialities. He also said that writers of history would brand the entire faculty with shame, but that he would be remembered as a martyr for the truth.
Reuchlin then kept his promise of writing a commentary to his Augenspiegel, but in doing so he simply fanned the flames. The Dominicans were enraged. Tangersky wrote a pamphlet which he dedicated to the emperor, and which contained the following “In his pamphlet one can see that he favors the Jews, and in keeping with this he has written sentences which border closely on heresies.” It concludes by saying that it is undoubtedly necessary to put the Talmud to the stake. The ever fickle Emperor Maxmillian, who had defended Reuchlin in the past , now turned against him. He commanded that Reuchlin’s pamphlet and commentary should not be circulated.
The Public Supports Reuchlin
The Elector of Mayence, acting in conjunction with the Archbishop of Cologne, displayed this order on the churches, and threatened the public with excommunication if they did not return Reuchlin’s pamphlet to the churches. But the public ignored the order. Reuchlin’s friends were too numerous, and spread across the land, whereas the Dominicans had few sincere supporters. They especially despised Hochstrater, the head of the order and of the Inquisition.
Pfefferkom again entered the fray with a new pamphlet, entitled Brandspiegel, again accusing Reuchlin, of being a man who had forsaken the church for Jewish bribes. He said that the Jews ought to be persecuted without pity, and incited the people to plunder them and devote the spoils to convents and hospitals, This was to be Pfefferkom’s last pamphlet, he was now growing weary of the fight. It was turning out to be counterproductive for him.
Reuchlin wrote another pamphlet called The Defender, this time under a pseudonym. It stated ” If any one asserts that Reuchlin did not, in the Jewish controversy, conduct himself as a true and upright Christian, he utters a falsehood.” It attacked all the Cologne scholars, but especially Arthur Gracia and Jacob Hochstrater. It asserted that the real reason that the Dominicans want to judge the Jews by the Inquisition, that will fill their pockets with the gold and silver of the Jews.
He addressed the following eloquent remark to Arnold Tangersky. ” It is true I am the protector of the Jews. I protect them against false accusations.
The Jews are citizens of Germany and entitled to the same protection of the law as Gremany’s other citizens. This assertion will excite their enemies and mine. But I say and repeat again, the Jews are our brothers -brothers to Arnold, brothers to the Dominicans, brothers to all the theologians. The fathers of the Church long ago made a this clear.”
In answer to the assertion of the Dominicans that he changed what he had written in his former letter. He answered that he had been prejudiced against the Jews until he was convinced of his error.
The assertion that Jewish prayers maintain that all Catholic rulers should be put to death he refuted by quoting a Mishna: ” Thou shalt pray for the peace of the kingdom wherever thou abidest. ”
The emperor commands an end to the strife
Reuchlin sent this pamphlet to the emperor, who received it favorably. But as usual he vacillated as to what course to pursue, because of the complex questions involved. At first he assured Reuchlin of protection against the attacks of the Dominicans. But then his father-confessor, an enemy to Reuchlin, spoke in favor of the Dominicans, and the emperor again prohibited the circulation of Reuchlin’s work. But finally, in exasperation, he commanded both parties to cease their strife. The imperial decree, however, went unheeded by the Dominicans. Hochstrater, the head of the Inquisition, summoned Reuchlin to appear within six days before the judges of Mayence to answer charges of heresy and of defending the Jews. This summons was couched in language of insolence. Reuchlin did not appear at the trial, but sent a deputy.
Hochstrater opened the trial. He was certain that the trial would be in his control because he served as both prosecutor and a judge, a very questionable position legally. He presented opinions of the German universities. The University of Loewen had replied that the pamphlet should be burned. Cologne replied that the pamphlet was misleading and it showed clear leanings to heresy; the University of Erfurt gave a similar answer. Those of Heidelberg and Mayence alone did not respond.
Hochstrater recited a long list of grave accusations against Reuchlin, and gave it to his colleagues of the court, calling upon them to adjudge the defendant guilty and order his pamphlet to be burned.
Reuchlin’s deputy protested that Hochstrdter had no right to be prosecutor and judge in one, especially since he was known to be Reuchlin’s bitterest enemy. There was nothing fair in this proceeding. Seeing that this protest was ignored, however, he walked out of the court. Hochstrater was now in an awkward position. He thought it would be very unpopular if he were to sentence one who was not present. So he posted notices on church doors, requiring Reuchlin’s deputy to appear before the court. He also ordered the public, on the pain of excommunication, to return the copies of the Augenspiegel to the judges of the Inquisition. Reuchlin’s defeat was seemingly imminent. But the friends of Reuchlin had to be reckoned with. The people of the better class of the city openly grumbled against Hochstrater’s proclamation. Support from an unexpected quarter also appeared. The archbishop’s colleagues urged that the trial be delayed, since Reuchlin or his deputies had not undergone examination.
Archbishop Uriel again comes to the rescue
The trial was postponed for two weeks. Hochstrater thought that Reuchlin would be ashamed to appear in person as a defendant and that he could be declared guilty by default. But Reuchlin did appear in person. This time he was flanked by two powerful allies, the counsellor of the Duke of Wurttemberg, and that of the Duke of Mayence. The counselors tried to reconcile the two parties. Hochstrater refused to listen to overtures of peace and angrily ordered the judges to do their duty. The judges began to write down their judgment. But suddenly a rider approached bearing a letter from Archbishop Uriel and presented it directly to the astonished judges. It was read aloud to the assembled people. The message was an order from the Archbishop to postpone the trial for one month. He threatened that if this command were disobeyed he would declare it a mistrial and dissolve the court. The Dominicans left the court to sound of laughter and derision of the people. There was much rejoicing among the Jews that day because their fate very much depended on this trial.
Reuchlin Appeals to the Pope
But Reuchlin knew that he could not rest because of the postponement. He knew that the Dominicans would hound him until they defeated him. He determined, therefore, to appeal to the decision of Pope Leo X. He knew also that the Dominicans would bribe the papal advisers to persuade him to order the trial to be held in Cologne. He must prevent this at all costs. He wrote a letter in Hebrew to the pope’s physician, Bangett Delakes, asking for his influence to prevent this. Pope Leo was at that time heavily involved in other serious matters and had no time to deal with this issue, so he directed the bishops of Speyer and Worms to try the issue.
Reuchlin and Augenspiegel exhonerated
They appointed a committee to investigate and report on the matter. The committee, even though fearful of the Dominicans, conducted their investigation fairly and thouroughly. After the investigation they pronounced the pamphlet Augenspiegel free from any heresy, and further that Reuchlin had no leanings towards Judaism or the Jews. They therefore permitted its circulation. They also put some teeth into their decision by ordering Hochstrater, on the pain of confinement in a monastery, to pay to 300 gulden to compensate Reuchlin for the costs of the trial, on penalty of excommunication if he disobeyed the order.
But Hochstrdter then appealed to the pope for an impartial trial, prepared to make liberal use of the wealth of the Dominicans. Reuchlin was a poor man. They believed he could not afford the expense and would ultimately capitulate. He also sent Reuchlin’s Augenspiegel to the University of Paris, regarded as the greatest university of the time, urging it to condemn the pamphlet. He appealed to all of Reuchlin’s opponents and all who were zealous for the welfare of the Catholic Church to unite against him.
Reuchlin’s friends were not idle during this time. Fully realizing the extent of the evil power exerted by the Dominicans throughout the world, they banded together with a body of Catholics called ” Humanists ” who sought the reformation of the Church. United in this cause of Reuchlin’s they called themselves “Reuchlinists.” While the opposing party adopted the name ” Amoldists.” These names became prominent in the public mind just before Luther began the Reformation.
Reuchlin was garnering support from in impressive body of German scholars, particularly Hermann von Busche, Creates Rinbianes, and the sagacious Ulrich von Hutten. Many of the rulers also aligned with Reuchlin, among them the Duke Ulrich of Wurttemberg and all his family, Count Halfenstein of Augsburg, Count von Guemor of Patriz, Welsen, Pirkameier, Neitiger, as well as many Italian priests. One in particular was, Eggodia de Viterba, the General of the Augustinians, who loved the Hebrew literature and was at that time engaged in translating the”Zohar.”
Viterba said in his letter to Reuchlin: “You have saved the books which have spread light all over the world for centuries, and if they were lost, darkness would ensue. And in supporting you, we shield not you but religion; and not the Talmud, but the community of Christ.”
The strife spread all over Germany. Soon Reuchlinists or Amoldists were to be found in every city. , The contest became more intense every day, and although the victory was presently with Reuchlin, he was still anxious as to Hochstrater’s appeal to Rome, where he had great influence. Reuchlin’s friends therefore advised him to publish all the letters he had received from all parts of Germany and Italy, to persuade the pope of his character. Among these letters was one from the Emperor Frederick praising Reuchlin in glowing terms and testifying that he was held in honor and repect by the father of the pope, Lorenzo de Medici.
These efforts of Reuchlin’s friends brought about the appointment by the people of Cardinal Gremama, a lover of rabbinical literature and Kabbala, as investigator and judge of the quarrel. The Cardinal summoned Reuchlin and Hochstrdter to appear in Rome. As Reuchlin was very old by this time, he was allowed to send a deputy. Hochstrdter, however, appeared in person with all his ostentatiousness. Reuchlin however was confident, as he had many friends at Rome. Even the Emperor Maximilian interceded for him with the pope. Among his other defenders was the emperor’s secretary, Wurke, Duke Ulrich of Wiirttemberg and the Elector of Saxony, and Frederick the IATise, who was later the chief supporter of Luther. Many bishops also defended him, notably those of Strassburg, of Constanz, and of Speyer, also numerous other churchmen.
Hochstrdter spent large sums of money hoping to procure the appointment of Cardinal Bemardine de Santa as assistant to the judge. The Reuchlinists were able to prevent this and Cardinal Pietro Ankenotini de Sant’ Isemblia was selected by the pope for this office. The pope’s committee forbade any discussion of the matter until the sentence of the judges of Rome was announced. But in a bold move the Dominicans ignored this order and public opinion. In the hope of influencing the pope they threatened to secede from the church and unite with the Hussites of Bohemia, should Reuchlin be victor at the trial.
The University of Paris was by this time privately in full accord with Reuchlin. Nevertheless, for purely worldly reasons, they felt compelled to render an unfavorable opinion of him and of his works, stating that the Augenspiegel contained heresy and should be burned, and that its author should be compelled to make full retraction. The Dominicans hastened to issue a pamphlet entitled Glocke detailing the opinion of the University of Paris. This move angered the Emperor and Hochstrdter was indicted by the Fiscal of the Emperor for this action. But the emperor’s sister, Kunigunde, again kept Hochstriter from imprisonment.
The Dominicans employed every means possible to delay the trial, so as to increase Reuchlin’s expenses. But Reuchlin’s friends represented to the public Hochstrater’s evil designs. At the same time appeared a collection of satirical letters entitled, From the Benighted People, containing confessions by Dominican monks of their evil deeds since the existence of the Order. These letters were quickly spread throughout the entire west of Europe. The loud protests of the Dominicans only served to increase their circulation. They were becoming a laughingstock of the public. Hochstrdter, fearing the growing popularity of Reuchlin’s cause, demanded that it be given to an intemational council. The pope, wary of placing himself between the two camps, resolved to place it before the Council of the Lateran and all Europe.
The matter dragged on for two more years. Reuchlin was becoming tired and discouraged. He feared that his friends would fall away from him before the quarrel could be brought to a close. Because of his age he feared that he could die before its settlement, and the Dominicans win the battle, and that his name would become a reproach. However, neither of these fears came to be. His friends did not weaken in their support of his cause, and he lived to see the matter closed.
The end of the matter, or is it?
Finally, on July 2, 1516, the result of the trial was announced at a session of the council, signed by Bishop Gregory Bengiani, as follows:
The pamphlet, Augenspiegel, contained no heresy. The decision declared that the error lay with the Paris University, and the other faculties that agreed with it. The Bishop of Malta added that Hochstrater, the judge of the Inquistion, ought to be indicted. Under Bengiani’s signature were written those of the other cardinals. The signature of the Dominican Cardinal, Sylvestei Priervis, was notably absent.
That should have been the end of the matter. However, the pope himself had not yet acknowledged the sentence, so Hochstrater begged the pope to delay the execution of the sentence for an indefinite period, hoping to bring the trial before another council. The pope responded angrily commanding the parties to terminate their quarrel and cease all discussion of the matter, thinking that a command from him would put an end to it. He was mistaken; the strife continued to grow and spread over Germany. Both factions were more than ever determined to continue.
Conditions were near a riot in some quarters. Hochstrdter returned from Rome to find his life in danger from threats by Reuchlinists. Only the efforts of Reuchlin himself prevented bloodshed. The Dominicans totally lost favor with the public. By now everyone knew of their corruption. But Dominican Peter Mayer lectured in all the great churches against Reuchlin and his party, abusing him in the vilest language. Finally, rhetoric turned to violence and the Dominicans killed some of the Reuchlinists. This immediately resulted in a rupture between the pope and the Dominicans.
A second volume of The Benighted letters appeared, painting the Dominicans in the blackest of colors. So angry was the populace that the Dominicans had to beg the pope to shield them from the wrath of the people. This time he listened to them, and prohibited the circulation of the pamphlet. But circulation persisted anyway. Pandoras box had been opened, as it were. The light of knowledge was beginning to spread over the world, and the satire was read by many priests and monks of other orders than the Dominicans. The Humanists distributed pamphlets and circulars against the Dominicans as well.
A new spirit alive – the spirit of protest
The rulers of the land were now mostly in support of the notion of reformation, thanks to Reuchlins popularity and this whole episode. After emperor Maximilian’s death, the strife became still more intense, and the topics of controversy were the Talmud, Reuchlin, Luther, and the Reformation. The rulers were almost entirely behind the idea of reformation. When the electors of Germany met to choose an emperor, they all sanctioned Reuchlin’s actions. Ulrich von Hutten persuaded the Imight, Franz von Eickingen, to separate himself from the Catholic Church and join Reuchlin and Luther.
Eickingen and his companion, Dalkery, along with many other friends of Reuchlin, demanded that Hochstrdter pay the sum of 111 gulden to Reuchlin to defray the costs of the trial at Speyer, and also to post bonds not to further molest Reuchlin. The Dominicans were fully aware that this command must be obeyed. Sadly, they were compelled to pay the above sum, but as the treasury of the government was empty, the sum did not go to Reuchlin, but to the government. Hochstrater was deposed from his post of judge of the Inquisition, and a committee of monks requested the pope to do all in his power to end the strife, and allow Reuchlin to live in peace, since he was a great scholar and a firm believer in Christianity.
The Pope Authorizes a New Edition of the Talmud
Henceforth the Pope looked upon the Talmud with favor, and he even persuaded Daniel Bamberg, a famous printer in Antwerp, to issue a complete edition for the first time in its history. So in the year I520, the Babylonian Talmud was printed with all the commentaries, in twelve volumes. It is from this all later editions have been copied.
Though Reuchlin distanced himself from the reformers, in his last years was compelled, like Luther, to leave his home and seek a place where he could live in peace. When Luther sent delegates to the prominent rulers of Germany, the pope was forced to excommunicate him. At the same time he once more prohibited Reuchlin’s works. But both the excommunication and prohibition were publicly burned by Luther in 1520. From this time on, Luther threw off the chains of the pope, and inaugurated the Reformation. And once more, Pfefferkom appeared with a new pamphlet against Reuchlin, but it was a total flop. He found that he was abused and derided from all quarters. History has nothing more to say of him.
As soon as the Reformation was well underway, Reuchlin was called to take the chair of Hebrew in the University of Tilbingen. He died in 1522, to the great sorrow of his admirers. Though he himself remained a lifelong catholic, Reuchlin was generally credited by the Reformers with being one of the initiators of the Reformation.
The back of the Dominicans power was now broken. They were completely discredited and their influence nullified. Never again would they wield the power of life and death over the people. There was a new spirit emerging among the people and the rulers of central Europe. The demand for religious freedom would grow to a fever pitch as the Reformation progressed. There were growing calls for an end to the oppression of the Church. John Reuchlin had defended the right of the Jews to their own worship. He had saved their religious literature. But it is clear that in doing so he had done an even greater service for all mankind. Because he championed truth and freedom, and an end to religious oppression, the world we live in is a better place.
It is always difficult to say what might have been. But, were it not for this uncommon man, our world today would undoubtedly have been very different. No one else in his time had the stature in the European scholarly community, to challenge the Dominicans in their bid to destroy the literature of the Jews. No one else could have popularized the study of Hebrew and the Talmud and made it accessible to all. If the church had succeeded, there is no doubt that they would have stepped up their oppression of the Jews until they destroyed them. The Jews would have never achieved the freedom to usher in their golden age of literature in the 17th century. Without the Talmud and other similar works, how much poorer would be the understanding of the Bible today, not only for Jews but for non Jews as well. The wealthy and influential Jews of our society – men of science, industry, and politics, who have made our nation great – would have no power or influence. How could Albert Einstein have managed to promote his revolutionary theories which forever changed our concept of physics. Surely he would have offended the church, if indeed he could have ever have achieved the intellectual prowess to cause anyone to listen to him. The tremendous advance of science since the 18th century might well have been suppressed by the same tactics that silenced Galileo. The power of the church over the minds and lives of the people would likely have continued unabated. The inquisition might still be with us today. Ours would have been a dark world indeed.
The reformation would probably never have gained enough momentum to succeed. The efforts of Luther, Erasmus, Calvin and Zwingli to challenge Catholic oppression might have come to naught. Educational freedom and freedom of religion may never have been achieved. Indeed, how could the United States have ever become a nation without the impetus and promise of freedom of religion.
One could well imagine that the church would have been manning the gas chambers alongside the Nazis during World War II, rather than just silently allowing it to happen. And if there were no United States, who would have had the military might to stop Hitler. We might well be living in a Nazi dominated world today were it not for John Reuchlin and others like him who stood up for truth and freedom, and who defended the Jewish people.
Never underestimate what a righteous gentile can do. He can change the world for all time.
(c) Copyright 2001 by Wayne Simpson
Distributed by Biblical Research Foundation, Sapulpa, OK
Reproduction and distribution are permitted provided this copyright notice remains on all copies.