Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Devil and the Jews

Joshua Trachtenberg’s The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism examines medieval Christian images of Jews and of “the Jew”. The book was first published in 1943, and the shadow of Hitler’s megacidal hate looms over the book, as the author makes clear in his preface.

Noting that use of stereotypes of Jews as figures of abuse was still part of the world-view of children (I can remember ‘Jew’ being a term of miserly abuse in the schoolyard), Rabbi Trachtenberg makes an observation that applies way beyond his subject:
… the lie is a more potent weapon, skillfully wielded, than the bare and simple truth … For the lie can be molded to match the “will to believe”; the truth is made of less malleable stuff (p.xiv).
One need only to consider the endless production of conspiracy theories—so easy to produce, rather more effort to debunk—to see the truth in this observation. Nor does it only apply to lies, in the sense of deliberate untruth. Plenty of myths and misconceptions are believed because they conform to what people want to believe.

Trachtenberg is firmly of the view that materialist explanations of Jew-hatred are inadequate, citing Maurice Samuel’s The Great Hatred as showing it as a psychological-cultural phenomenon.

The question Trachtenberg seeks to answer is stated in the first sentence of the Introduction:
Why are Jews so cordially hated—and feared? By what mysterious legerdemain can a weak, defenseless minority be invested in the public eye with the awesome attributes of omnipotence? How is it that men believe of Jews what common sense would forbid them to believe of anyone else? … No lie is too petty, or too silly, or too big to work its calculated effect. (p.1)
The answer lies in a particular, long, history.

Jew-hatred extends beyond Christianity, both predating it and occurring outside Christendom. It is a particular, demonological intensity of Jew-hatred that comes from medieval Christendom. Trachtenberg notes that there were effectively “two Churches”. The official hierarchy which:
… officially excoriated the Jews while extending them the promise of protection
and what the lesser clergy and laity did. Whatever the nuances:
… the practical consequences of Christian principle are justly attributable to “the Church” (p.7).
Not least because the framings with which Jews were conceived were most emphatically Christian.

The book is divided into three parts: The “Demonic” Jew, The Jew as Sorcerer, The Jew as Heretic. The first Part explores the association of Jews with Satan and the diabolic. For just as Satan was the enemy of God, so Jews were framed as the enemy of mankind (and of God): the association was thus “natural”.
While Christian polemics against Jews date back to the beginning of the Christian era, they became particularly intense from the period of the Crusades onwards: a period of a resurgence of Muslim aggression, the rise of mass heresies and social unrest; with a Church that saw itself as threatened from within and without as it strived to maintain the sacerdotal unity of God’s people (p.11). In this context of stress and urgent concern for Christian strength and unity, an intense hatred against “the Jew” was generated; a fantastic (yet clearly seriously believed) projection of ill-nature such that every charge was somehow plausible.

A ubiquitous, and projected, framing
One of the fundamental principles was:
Medieval Christendom was so firmly convinced of the incontestable truth of its own tradition and teaching that it could conceive of no rival truth … there is overwhelming evidence that the Catholic world believed that the Jew himself recognized the truth of Christian doctrine! (p.15)
That, of course, meant Jewish failure to embrace Christianity was a willful failure, which required maleficent explanation. (A notion by no means absent from our own time—see all the invective against “climate deniers”.)

Many of the accusations against the Jews rested on the belief that the Jews accepted the truth of Christian doctrine (for example, the significance of the host due to transubstantiation). While Church leaders from Jerome to Luther denounced the Jewish “refusal” to agree with the “obvious” Christian interpretations of the Scriptures they shared. The enemies of Jesus in the Gospels were the Jews and the devil: so it became natural to associate them in what became a staple construction of Christian thought about Jews (Pp20-1). Jews became associated with the Antichrist (it was often asserted that the Antichrist would be a Jew: just as in our time, it is alleged that the Antichrist will be homosexual). Jews became associated with physical features of diabolic significance—horns (either pictorially or as markers on their apparel), tails (carefully hidden), a distinctive odour.

Having delineated this diabolic association in Part One, Part Two explores the (therefore natural and reinforcing) association of Jews with occult power. Jews were frequently held to produce many sorcerers. The discovery by Christian Europe of the Kabbalah was then interpreted accordingly, reinforcing the prior conception. Jewish doctors were often held to owe their success to occult powers. Jews were also held to be poisoners.

Popular plays and literature relayed and reinforced these notions. So stories that previously had no Jewish character—or might even have Jewish victims—such as the usurer requiring a pound of flesh—became a stock instance of Jewish villainy (p.106).

How completely the accusations against Jews rested on Christian framings—and had nothing to do with what Jews actually believed—is particularly powerfully conveyed by accusations of desecration of the host (and its use for occult purposes):
The absurdity of attributing to Jews an acceptance and utilization of this most un-Jewish of dogmas never occurred to their accusers. Transubstantiation had been proclaimed a true belief by the Church, therefore it must be believed by all men; how they responded to that belief was something else (p.110).
Living in pervasively Christian societies, the Christian message proclaimed in stone, art and preaching, underpinning the laws and institutions of society (indeed, much law was Church law, via Church courts) the Jews stood exposed as the only “holdouts” to be understood in terms of this omnipresent Christian framing of just about everything.

The situation of climate sceptics in a contemporary society pervaded by a sense of climate catastrophism is vaguely analogous—including accusation of malefic motivation, since legitimate dissent from “obvious” truth is ruled out. But it does not really replicate the intensity of the isolation and anathematisation of Jews in medieval Christendom. (Islam had a set place within its framework—that of dhimmi—for Jews, a place Jews shared with Christians and so did not suffer the same benighted uniqueness: that Jews, and for that matter heretic and schismatic Christians, were better off under Muslim rule can be see by the migration flows—from Christendom to Islam, almost never in the other direction.)

One accusation that fitted naturally into the pattern of Christian projections onto the Jews, but actually predated Christianity, was that of ritual murder. It seems to have arisen during Jewish-Hellenic tensions under the Seleucids (p.126) and was also levied against peoples other than Jews. In medieval Christendom, it became a standard accusation against Jews and other “diabolic” forces. This was one set of accusations the Popes repeatedly refused to countenance, regularly denouncing it (Pp134ff). (A certain Papal scepticism was also apparent in various specific incidents of anti-Jewish frenzy.) But the accusations lived on, becoming folklore in parts of Germany and the Balkans into the C20th (p.139). One of the themes of the book is that accusations against the Jews never die, they just get recycled and recast.

A related, recurring, accusation, was the Jewish use (and even recommendation) of human blood for medicinal and other occult purposes. As with other accusations, converted Jews were often sources (they would be sure ways to ingratiate oneself with one’s new religious community) but follow a pattern that was old (dating back to the Hellenistic slanders mentioned above) and persisting to the C20th. Yet no set of accusation shows more strongly how it is the framings of the accusers—not any beliefs or practises of Jews—that matter, given it is hard to conceive of any group more careful and restrictive about blood than practicing Jews. But, as Rabbi Trachtenberg writes:
That such use of human parts, and especially of blood, was inherently abhorrent and inconceivable to the Jew, for magic or medicine or any other purpose, is of no significance here (p.143).
Quite. In understanding patterns of hate, it is the beliefs, framings and needs of the haters that matter, not the hated.

Having gone through so much calumny against the Jews, setting out its patterns, in Parts One and Two, at the beginning of Part Three, Jew as Heretic, Trachtenberg points out that Christian-Jewish relations from the fall of the Western Empire until about the C11th were generally quite good (Pp159ff). This was a Europe that was not yet fully Christianised.

So Jews and Christians shared a tradition and scriptures of monotheist revelation in contrast to surrounding paganism. With the vanquishing of paganism, that left the Jews alone as the only overt non-Christians. Suddenly, similarities were no longer salient, only differences. (The rise of non-religious and anti-religious philosophies in modern times has, of course, reversed this: hence the modern use of ‘Judaeo-Christian’. Indeed, some analyses of modern anti-Semitism see it as, in part, a covert or “first-stage” attack on Christianity—since if everything “Jewish” is tainted and wicked, that would include a religion wholly founded by Jews.)

The theological Jew
By the C11th, several trends coincided. The rise of a feudal structure worsened the legal situation of Jews (who had no natural “place” in it and were forbidden to bear arms), the rise of a Christian merchant class reduced their economic value and meant they had Christian competitors, the Crusading impulse encouraged violence against non-Christians (of whom Jews were the only locally-available targets) as well as other strictures against them. But this was all framed by a Church that was now the only source of religious authority and whose doctrines increasingly pervaded popular consciousness. Which meant insertion into popular culture the notion of
the theological Jew.

This strikes me as a key point: that official ideology put Jews in a very particular theological role. A role determined by the framings of Christian theory, not the actual beliefs and practise of Jews.

Not that Jews were or are the only group to which this has been done. One can equally talk of the notion of the theological queer, one that still resonates in our own time.

Sometimes, they even intersect. Jews were so far outside the realm of the “properly” human that having sex with a Jew was sometimes treated as form of bestiality and at least one Parisian man (and his Jewish de facto wife by whom he had several children) were burnt alive for “sodomy”: that is, sex outside its proper purpose and “natural” categories for, in the words of the chronicler who covered the case:
… since coition with a Jewess is precisely the same as if a man should copulate with a dog (p.187).
When one reads that Christian Jew-hatred was not “true” anti-Semitism since it was “only” against their beliefs, incidents such as this give the lie to such apologia. As does the way accusations, practices and beliefs were projected onto Jews that, not only had nothing to do with Judaism as a belief-system or practice, but actively contradicted both.

The concept of the theological Jew was first developed early in the Christian era and included a denial of Jewish “ownership” of the Church (as the body of believers) before Jesus (p.162). Trachtenberg expresses the tension of Church policy well:
… the paradox of Christian policy towards Jews. Bitterly condemned and excoriated, they were yet to be tolerated on humanitarian grounds, and indeed preserved on theological grounds, as living testimony to the truth of Christian teaching. Yet the impulse to punish the hated and to convert by all means the unregenerate constantly warred against the moral and dogmatic scruples which, at best, animated only a small minority of the more highly placed and responsible clergy (p.164).
The tension in Church thinking was nicely illustrated by Pope Innocent III in 1199:
Although the Jewish perfidy is in every way worthy of condemnation, nevertheless, they are not to be severely oppressed by the faithful (p.165)
“Non-severe” oppression is clearly fine: indeed, Innocent III sponsored highly oppressive legislation against Jews. That the Popes issued repeated statements against violence against Jews simply demonstrated the natural implication of the Churchly condemnation and denunciation of Jews. If one declares a group profoundly problematic—indeed, hateful to God—it is sheer hypocrisy to piously denounce the predictable consequences of that. The “charity” which one holds appropriate to those whose existence your own framing has made problematic is the sort of “charity” which should be shoved where the sun don’t shine: it certainly gives no moral credit, it merely limits the degree of moral failure.

The “restrained” attitude of the higher clergy and official doctrine was more than counterbalanced by that of the lesser clergy:
But popes, kings, nobility, bishops, all had little influence over the populace, which had at long last swallowed the theological conception of the Jew whole, and minus the accompanying theological sophistry. The greatest direct influence upon the people was exerted by the lesser clergy, both secular and monastic, who were, if anything, in advance of their flock in ignorance, fanatical piety and superstition. Nor was the clergy particularly responsive to the will of the hierarchy, even in more vital matters of doctrine and practice. The first massacres of Jews were directly inspired by clerical preaching, and the murderous bands were sometimes led by priests (p.166).
In other words, what really counted was the moral dynamics, not the niceties of doctrine. The moral dynamics were that Jews were declared by Church doctrine to be hateful to God, the populace were told to be servants of God and the lesser clergy were the “gatekeepers of righteousness”. That combination was all that was required.

Particularly as:
The Church employed the term Jew as all-inclusive, embracing the entire people, past, present and future (p.167).
An effect made particularly severe given that the principle of corporate responsibility was something of a medieval commonplace.

Trachtenberg holds the First Crusade to be the crucial turning point in the situation of the Jews. Its support of violence against non-Christians led the Jews particularly vulnerable, since they were the only non-Christians locally to hand: massacres of Jews followed. They were, after all, the “Christ-killers”, as centuries of Church doctrine and preaching had declared.

Not only did the vanquishing of paganism make Jewish-Christian differences salient (rather than their similarities), rising secular power threatened Church authority, rising literacy encouraged heresy, advancing Islam threatened Christendom from without and the restless energy of a rising commercial society added its destabilising influence to the mix—by spreading ideas, lay literacy, social tensions and increased funding of secular authority. The Jews—as they had during the Christianisation of the Empire and were to again during the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution—provided a splendid “useful enemy” to unite people against under the banner of the Church. One’s role as “gatekeepers of righteousness” is so much more effective if righteousness has a clear enemy.

It is hardly surprising that anti-heresy propaganda was redoubled, that the Inquisition was founded and the Jews would be early and continual victims of both. Heretics were inspired by the Devil and were the enemies of God, Church and Christian belief. Jews were inspired by the inspired by the Devil and were enemies of God, Church and Christian belief, so obviously Jews were heretics! A tradition of classing Jews as heretics began in this period and continued for centuries: Luther, for example, declared the baptism of Jews to be a “return to their natural religion” (p.175).

Church theory demurred, of course, since Jews were not, and never had been, Christians so could not be heretics. But, as per normal, the moral dynamics overrode the niceties of doctrine (p.176).

Sometimes, Jews made their own situation worse. In 1232, an orthodox Jewish group in Montpellier enlisted Dominican assistance in suppressing the ideas of Maimonedes, asking them to proceed against Jewish heretics in the same way that, as agents of the Inquisition, they proceeded against Christian heretics. Through this opened door came much more restrictive Church control of Jewish publication, leading to the burning of thousands of Jewish books: a campaign against the Talmud in particular was unleashed that continue to the modern era (Pp178-9).

Inquisitorial powers were used against Jews in response to the various standard anti-Jewish accusations, leading to burnings of Jews at the stake: the power and procedures of the Inquisition making guilty verdicts somewhat more likely. As part of the process of publicly identifying the enemies of the Church, this period also saw the introduction of compulsory “Jew badges” (p.180).

One of the marks of this campaign of hate was something that has been a staple of Jew-hatred—the claim that Jews are full of hate (Pp181ff). ‘Projection’ I believe psychologists call it. Jews were presumed to be the allies of any outside enemies of Christendom, since they hated Christian and Christianity so (p.183): another staple accusation of Jew-hatred.

Being cast as enemies of the Christian community, it was presumed that Jews were eager conspirators with enemies of Christendom, or merely of “Christians like us”. Such notions were not entirely baseless: Jews did assist the Zoroastrian Persians and later the Muslims against the Eastern Romans and the Muslims against the Visigothic kingdom. But since the Eastern Roman Empire and the Visigothic Kingdom had been highly persecutory in their treatment of Jews, this was hardly to be wondered at. But that the Jews might have legitimate complaints was ruled out of consideration and the accusations—following the logic of their underlying moral dynamic—operated way beyond actual evidence. Hence followers of Simon de Montfort despoiled the Jews of London on the grounds they were plotting with the royalists (p.184). Enemies were constantly put in the same category as Jews or labelled as Jews: thus, Lutherans were accused of being Jews (p.186).

This was particularly ludicrous as Luther’s reaction to the Jews was much the same as Muhammad’s and the early Church: confident (even arrogant) expectation that they would recognise his ideas as completing their own tradition followed by excoriation when they (clearly, entirely wilfully) failed to do so (p.217). (Though Luther did not go as far as Muhammad’s killing the men of two Jewish tribes and selling their women and children into slavery.) But, as ever, the accusations represented manifestations of the framings of the accusers: not the beliefs and practices of the hated.

The issue of usury displayed with particular force the way Christian framings got the Jews coming and going. Church doctrine banned Christian practice of usury. This, for a while, gave Jews a commercial advantage in moneylending: doing something that was both useful and condemned. With the rise of Christian competitors, Jews lost their utility, gained Christian competitors eager to squeeze them out but retained the damning association with the added burden of providing Christian rulers a quick way to liquidate debts by liquidating their creditors. Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews was a boon to the royal exchequer: a process not confined to Jews but which regularly included them (p.189).

For Jews suffered the particular taint of usury. Once usury was also associated with heresy by the Church (in a 1257 bull by Pope Alexander IV), it reinforced the taint of heresy on the Jews (p.191). Christian usury even became treated as a form of “Judaizing” (Pp191-2). Usury became diabolic, reinforcing the notion of Jews as the people of the Devil (Pp192ff).

Heresies came and went, crushed (until the Reformation) by the Inquisition and the efforts of the preaching orders (who typically also ran the Inquisition). The enduring Jew suffered the enduring taint of heresy (p.196). With the rise of the campaign against sorcery and witchcraft, Jews as people of the Devil gained further entrenchment. Heresy was regarded as the work of the Devil, since only such maleficent origins could explain turning away from the obvious truth of the Faith (p.199). Sorcery was also the work of the Devil. By natural association, witchcraft became a form of heresy. (Trachtenberg briefly wanders off into Margaret Murray’s fantasies [Pp201ff], but that still had some scholarly credence at the time.) With the Jews, as the people of the Devil, becoming heretics, sorcerers, usurers: the embodiment of all the negative qualities that the Church’s framings of rejection created. The result was that:
The mythical Jew, outlined by early Christian theology and ultimately puffed out to impossible proportions, supplanted the real Jew in the medieval mind, until the real Jew to all intents and purposes ceased to exist. The only Jew who the medieval Christian recognized was a figment of the imagination (p.216)
A framing that the Reformation gave no respite from: Luther being an enthusiastic proponent of Jew-hatred.

All of which, of course, prepared the ground for the fictitious Jew of more modern anti-Semitism. Trachtenberg concludes by briefly pointing out that the rise of anti-Christian anti-Semitism provided no relief, since it just recast the myth of the demonic Jew—motivated by a lust for power, gold and hate for Gentiles—in new language with a new “demonology” of international finance and international communism. Indeed, (though Trachtenberg does not make this point) it was made worse since its “scientific” basis meant that the Christian path for Jewish redemption (conversion) was no longer open.

Trachtenberg’s book is a study of hatred, with Jews figuring almost entirely as victims. But, in a sense, that is entirely fair enough since nothing actual Jews actually did or believed even remotely justified the level and forms of demonization that was heaped upon them. Indeed, the disconnect between the reality of Judaism and Jews from the hateful framings projected upon them is the heart of the phenomenon Trachtenberg analyses. Which means Trachtenberg’s study illuminates rather more than just the travails of the Jews.

One of the enduring problems in Holocaust studies is that Jews were not the only victims of Nazi social purification-by-slaughter. Nor have the Nazis been the only regime to engage in such purification-by-slaughter. Nor was the Nazi policy as systematic as has often been implied or alleged.

And yet, the history of Jew-hatred in Christendom remains deeply revealing about the processes of demonization: of how people-as-they-are become submerged by framings of people-as-they-are-imagined-to-be. Of how such framings need to be understood in terms of the premises and situations of the framers, with those so framed being projected into those framings. How the will-to-believe trumps how the hated actually are. But beings of common humanity cannot fulfil the role such framings require, so of course they have to be re-imagined. If they are re-imagined enough, the reality of them can disappear entirely. And then, they can perform any role those wishing them to want: including demonic things in human form whose elimination is “necessary”.

The Holocaust was not inevitable: but the long history of massacres of Jews demonstrate just where the Christian framings of “the Jew” naturally led. Where all such demonizations risk ending up. The history of Christian demonization of Jews that Trachtenberg conveys with such scholarly passion in The Devil and the Jews remains a profoundly cautionary tale precisely because it is not even remotely the only such tale.


  1. This is an excellent synopsis.

    I just recently read The Devil and the Jews, in part because I had become intrigued by the manner in which the Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice consistently likened Shylock, the Jew, to the Devil. I had intuited that this was not a metaphor but a common belief of the era, and Trachtenberg confirmed that intuition.

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