A Voice Against the Flames

In an age when the Taliban invoke religion to justify demolishing statues of Buddha, it is heartening to learn of a Catholic jurist who used all of his powers of argument to prevent the burning of Jewish books. Better still to learn that the legal text through which he accomplished this feat is now, for the first time, available in English.

The year was 1510, the place was Germany, and the jurist was Johannes Reuchlin, whose interest in classical philology and philosophy led him to study Hebrew and the Kaballah, the Jewish tradition of mysticism. Reuchlin, a committed Christian, nevertheless saw Judaism in general, and the Hebrew language in particular, as essential for understanding the origins of Christianity. He was not a neutral scholar. Reuchlin, like other Christians of his time, believed that it was his duty to show the Jews that they were in error and should embrace Christianity. In writings before this episode he had even shown a distaste for Jews. He did, however, come to believe that disputes with the Jews should be conducted on an intellectual plane devoid of force.


Both the Jews of Germany and Reuchlin lived in uneasy times. Prodded by Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Jewish convert to Christianity who vilified his former faith, and by some Dominicans eager to spread the Inquisition to German lands, Emperor Maximillian I of the Holy Roman Empire ordered Jewish books confiscated throughout his realm. If the worst happened—as in Paris and Rome in the 13th century—the books would be burned at the stake.

Confiscations began, and more than 2,000 volumes were seized in German cities. Jews asked the emperor to think again. Maximillian sought legal advice.

Reuchlin’s response, Recommendation Whether to Confiscate, Destroy and Burn All Jewish Books, published in its first English translation by the Paulist Press as part of its effort to stimulate dialogue between Christians and Jews, was the subject of a recent symposium at the Deutsches Haus of New York University. Among those present was the translator, Peter Wortsman, the son of Austrian Jewish refugees from Hitler.

Was Reuchlin a friend of the Jews or one who studied Judaism in order to subvert it? Was he a self-interested conservator of Jewish texts or a savior of Jewish communities? Was he a modern exponent of tolerance or something less? Such questions prompted multiple answers and earnest debates.

What made the day especially complex and rewarding was the relationship between Reuchlin’s era and his work. He lived in the shadow of the Inquisition and on the eve of the Reformation. In Recommendation, Reuchlin spoke in many voices. Understanding them requires that we listen to all of them.

Reuchlin the Christian is loyal to his religion and sure of its supremacy. He argues that the Talmud, the great collection of rabbinical writings, should be preserved to provide Christian thinkers with a worthy quarry, just as “a proud stag with a prodigious set of antlers” provides exquisite prey for a hunter.

Reuchlin the scholar seeks to preserve Jewish books because “the Jews are, in a certain sense, our Capsarii, cataloguers and librarians, who preserve for us those books from which we may derive proof of our Christian Faith.”

Reuchlin the author of a Hebrew grammar scorns those who advocate burning Jewish books but cannot even read the works they condemn. “If someone wished to write against the mathematicians and were himself ignorant in simple arithmetic or mathematics, he would be made a laughingstock.”

Reuchlin the jurist stacks his evidence in favor of tolerance and concludes that “we should not burn the Jews’ books.”

Reuchlin the humanist writes, “The Jew is as worthy in the eyes of our Lord God as am I.” Elsewhere in the Recommendation, he writes that if some find “annoyance” in the Talmud, “that is their own fault and not the fault of the book! Goats graze on bitter weeds and make sweet milk of it, and from the selfsame flower do honey bees derive their sweet honey and spiders their deadly poison. This is not the fault of the blossom or the flower, but rather the characteristic and nature of those creatures that feed on them.”

Reuchlin’s recommendation was that the books be spared and that Christians instead engage in a “logical and friendly discourse to gently lead the Jews into our camp.” German universities, he wrote, should hire lecturers to teach Hebrew. He also urged Jews to rent their books to Christians until they could produce their own Hebrew texts.

Reuchlin prevailed. The Jews’ books were returned to them. Josel of Rosheim, the politically astute spokesman for the Jews of the German Empire, pronounced the episode a double miracle. One, the Jews’ books were returned. Two, they were saved by a Christian.

Reuchlin fared less well within his own community. The publication of his Recommendation in 1511 ignited a controversy that would last for a decade. In a war of printed and spoken words, he was called a heretic and more. In 1514, the head of the Inquisition in Cologne ordered Reuchlin’s writings to be burned at the stake. Pope Leo X condemned Reuchlin’s works in 1520. Reuchlin, however, died a loyal Catholic in 1522 before the worst could happen.

Almost 500 years later, the Recommendation appears principled and expedient, tolerant and dogmatic. Reuchlin writes in the Recommendation as both a defender of his faith and as a modern man—searching and engaged in an endless debate. At his best, however—and this is where he speaks to us most forcefully in our own time—he is as willing to learn from his questions as from his certainties: “If there were no more outsiders—whether Jews or heathens—with whom we could wrestle over the meaning of the Holy Scripture, then we ourselves would clash with each other in our scholarly interpretations—for the mind never rests.”

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