Introduction - Alan D. Corré

Preliminary Considerations

Is Buxtorf's Synagoga Judaica an anti-Semitic text? My first answer would be: No. My alternative answer would be: How could it be otherwise? I start with this apparent paradox, rather than with more pedestrian details about its author and composition, because the question is bound to arise immediately in the mind of the reader, who is entitled to a reasoned and dispassionate answer. Let me address first my initial response. In my view, it is not fair to compare the rhetoric of Buxtorf's time, centuries ago, with the rhetoric of present-day America. Some years ago, I had occasion to browse through the library of Concordia College, a Lutheran seminary in Milwaukee. It had a large collection of old books on theology, mostly in German, and I was initially shocked, astonished, dismayed, at the kind of vituperation that existed between one Christian group and another. Jews were not involved; this was a no-prisoners-taken confrontation between Catholics and reformers. Such was the character of argumentation not so long ago; it has its echo in the kind of display of force and certainty which may yet be viewed in the rantings of opponents in a World Wrestling Federation match on television prior to their fisticuffs and physical violence. Its antithesis is seen in the "lovefest" which took place in the year 2000 during the second presidential debate. Yet, strangely, most viewers feel a sense of unease at such courtesy and eagerness to agree wherever possible. They have the feeling that each combatant would not be totally desolated if some untoward act of misfortune occurred to his opponent, whether real or contrived, which effectively knocked the other man out of the race. In short, when the stakes are very high, human beings become very combative, and will use less than honest means - witness the Olympic Games - to achieve their quite possibly laudable goals.

The continued existence of the Jews as a living, sometimes prosperous, entity constituted a problem for the Christians. The Jews' Law of Moses had been superseded; perceived as a punishment for their sinfulness, it no longer needed to place its heavy yoke upon them, yet they stubbornly persisted in observing its many restrictions and injunctions. Luther was convinced that while the Church was in its "Babylonish captivity" to Rome, the Jews might be excused from a desire to attach themselves to it. Now that he had purified it from its dross, they no longer had a valid excuse, yet they persisted in their pertinaciousness, and he was ready to attack them accordingly. King Alphonse the Wise of Spain followed perhaps the most reasonable course: he decreed protection for the Jews, because in their lowly and desolate state they unwittingly attest to the truth of the Christian religion, and this is their real function. Their eyes are veiled from the truth, but it is undeniable that they possess the Book; and even though they understand it not, they display it publicly to those who do understand. In these terms, Buxtorf's rhetoric against the Jews is relatively mild, even though he has no doubts as to its rectitude. Most often, he expresses a real or feigned sympathy for the Jews and their sad plight, mentioning their sighs and desolation. Such an attitude has persisted until our own day. My mother-in-law, who attended a Catholic school in Gibraltar, told me that on one occasion a priest visited her classroom and began to ask the children questions about doctrine. At one point the priest addressed a question to her. She froze, and did not know how to respond. The teacher intervened and said: "Father, you cannot ask her. She is Jewish." "¡Ah! pobrecita," said the priest. "Poor little thing." Buxtorf lived a long time ago, and we can hardly single him out for criticism for attitudes that have remained prevalent in our own day. As James Baldwin said once of the white man: "He is a prisoner of his history."

As to my second point, one must realise that Buxtorf was taking a substantial risk in submitting the Jews and their unchristian belief to such close scrutiny. The individual who takes an interest in some subject which is uncomfortable for the mass of his society must bear at least the suspicion that there is a hidden agenda in his supposedly academic interest, and that he may have some leanings towards the subject which is such a source of fascination for him. Now in Catholic, Lutheran and Muslim circles alike, the public disavowal of the elements of the dominant faith was a fast track to execution. Occasionally, in Muslim lands, a Christian would feel called upon to publicly insult the Islamic faith and thereby invite Christian martyrdom. The Muslim authorities were happy to assist him in this endeavor with a swift stroke of the sword. Jews did not provoke martyrdom in this way. Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) declared that such misguided enthusiasm was actually sinful, and tantamount to suicide, which was a major crime. In any case, Buxtorf needed urgently to establish his Christian orthodoxy, and this he did by constantly attacking or deriding the views and actions which he described in such exquisite detail. In his very first chapter he quotes a Jew who expresses a totally negative view of a fundamental Christian principle, namely the efficacy of vicarious atonement. The Jew declares that everyone must shift for himself in this respect, and clearly feels comfortable in expressing such a view to Buxtorf openly and with a salty metaphor. Very occasionally, Buxtorf even confesses to a grudging admiration for the lowly Jew, noting that Jewish devotion may sometimes, disgracefully, exceed that of Christians. It may be noted that the Latin translation is considerably more scornful of Jews than the original German version, replacing for example, the fact that Jews sleep late on the Sabbath recorded in neutral fashion in the German version, with the note that they "snore" until late. One is tempted to suggest that the translator had to increase the volume of invective in order to establish his own orthodoxy.

The Author

The author of the Synagoga Judaica, or, as it was called in the original German version, Juden-schül, (Jews' School) was Johannes Buxtorf, or Buxdorf, (1564-1629) a man of great erudition who served as Professor of Hebrew at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and was succeeded in that position by his son, who bore the same name. Buxtorf had read widely not only in the Hebrew Bible, but in the rabbinic writings and Yiddish literature also. His great library, well perused, found its way into the Basel Public Library at the beginning of the eighteenth century. He composed a lexicon of Rabbinic Hebrew and abbreviations, which, despite its shortcomings, served as a pioneering source in the field for many years. In his time Jews were not permitted to reside in Basel, but he obtained special permission for a couple of Jewish assistants to live there. It is notable that his frequent transliterations of Hebrew phrases are invariably in the Ashkenazi pronunciation, of the German/Polish Jews, and this indicates the degree to which he was dependent on Ashkenazic Jews as informants and aides. He invariably translates Hebrew phrases, usually quite accurately, which in itself is no small task given the technical nature of rabbinic language. While the main text is in the Gothic script which was in use for writing German and some other languages until around 1940, his Hebrew transliterations, often indicating the typically Ashkenazic pronunciation with the stress on the penultimate syllable (a feature probably borrowed from Germanic) are in Roman script. He also carefully documents the source of biblical translations by a marginal note. In general I indicate his biblical references by a smaller type, and his quotations in Roman script by italics. Note that Buxtorf uses the chapter and verse divisions of the Hebrew Bible, which differ slightly from those used in many English Bibles, particularly in Psalms. Occasionally when Buxtorf has given the chapter and not the verse, I have added it. In the Table of Contents I have marked each chapter with a single word to indicate its contents. The author's full chapter heading will be found at the beginning of each chapter.

The Value of Buxtorf's Testimony

Buxtorf's observations of Jewish practice in Germany at the beginning of the seventeenth century are an invaluable source for the practice of Judaism, as it appeared to an admittedly biased, yet quite well informed, observer. His evidence as to Jewish belief is perhaps less reliable, since in Judaism belief is in any case a much more slippery and uncertain entity. Jews saw no great need to reconcile, for example, the conflicting views that are found in rabbinic sources on resurrection and the life of the world to come. The Jew was measured by his deeds, far more than by his thoughts or opinions, despite the fact that Spinoza was condemned for his evil opinions as well as his evil deeds. Buxtorf's use of the term synagogue is itself an indication of his distance from typical Jewish thinking. In Christianity the term "church" can mean both the physical building of stone, or bricks and mortar, in which worship is carried out, as well as the mystical abstraction which is beloved of Christ, and which places substantial moral imperatives on its adherents. Jews did not use the term "synagogue" in the second sense, but this is precisely the way that Buxtorf is using it in the title of his book. Medieval Christian art generally pictured this "Synagoga" as a beautiful young woman, carrying a snapped staff of authority, and having her eyes veiled from the truth, in contrast to "Ecclesia" a male figure in military dress symbolizing the Church Triumphant. In Hebrew beth keneseth "house of assembly, synagogue" refers only to a physical building; the nearest one can get to Buxtorf's meaning is with an expression like keneseth Israel "the Congregation of Israel," but even this is not quite right because it usually connotes actual people, except perhaps in kabbalistic concepts where it serves as the last of the divine emanations. Occasionally Buxtorf uses the word Kirche, church, when he is refering to the synagogue, especially when he refers to the separate areas in the synagogue reserved for men and women. Whatever thoughts or suspicions may have resided in Buxtorf's breast, we can be grateful to him for his graphic, and generally reasonably fair picture of Ashkenazi Jewry in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, not too long before the seminal views of a John Locke, or the exercise of Dr. Guillotine's humane invention, changed their situation for ever.

Up to the present day, Jews refer to the synagogue as "school," Yiddish Shul, and I often retain the latter word in the translation to render Buxtorf's Schul. The historic fact is that the Jewish House of Assembly served more hours of the day as a House of Study, or school, than as a House of Prayer. My colleague and friend Professor Gerhard Rauscher drew my attention to the German proverbial phrase Es geht zu, wie in einer Jüdenschule "There are goings-on there like in a Jüdenschul" to indicate a high degree of noise. The phrase is obsolescent, because it is no longer politically correct to use expressions which reflect negatively on Jews. Ashkenazic (German-Polish) synagogues are traditionally noisy; this reflects their dual use as a house of study where loud study was acceptable, and, in fact, encouraged. The late Reverend Ephraim Levine, noted for his acerbic wit, is reported to have reproved a talker in a London Reform synagogue (which has a church-like decorum) by saying to him: "Please be quiet. You are not in shul now."

Midrash and Gematria

Midrash is the rabbinic method of exposition of Scripture. It is also applied to books, such as the Midrash Rabba which contain such expositions. It is best explained by an example. In Deuteronomy 25.18 we read how Amalek "… surprised you on the march…" The rabbis understood full well that the Hebrew verb is the root qrh which means "to happen upon." But they offer an alternative rendering, connecting it with the word qar "cold," suggesting that Amalek "chilled you." They compare it to a foolish man who jumps into a bath of boiling water. He himself is scalded, but he cools the water for others. In other words, the Amalekites caused the Israelites to lose their reputation of being invincible. Buxtorf has little patience for this type of exposition, and often denigrates it. Hardly surprising, since the Christian reformers insisted on a plain, simple meaning of the text, without churchly encrustations. They wanted to be able to read Scripture for themselves in its plain meaning, unembellished by supposedly authoritative expositions. This is Buxtorf's comment in chapter eight:

Although the Rabbis know that the words of the prophet have a different meaning, just the same it is thought of as masterly to interpret the scripture in such a subtle way.

Gematria is another method of rabbinic exposition, and this similarly met with a chilly reception from Buxtorf. Unlike Latin, in which only half a dozen letters have a numerical meaning (I=1; V=5 etc.,) each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value, and so every word of Scripture has a numerical value also. This makes it possible to adduce parallels between various passages that share a numerical value. Buxtorf quotes various examples, but is unable to see the poetic imagination that often lies beneath such insights. Isidore Epstein in his foreword to the translation of Midrash Rabba by H. Freedman and Maurice Simon (London:Soncino Press, 1939) writes as follows:

[The] sweet and potent influences [of the Midrash] have… been all-pervasive. Not only has it ever served as an inexhaustible source of inspiration to teacher and preacher, but it has also enriched the literature and the liturgy of the Jew and his very life. Charged with messages, infinite in variety, which age cannot wither nor custom stale, the Midrash has ever proved an unfailing spring with the power to refreshen and renew, sustain and strengthen the Jew athirst for the word of the Living God. Whether in joy or sorrow, storm or sunshine, it never failed to yield the right message of moral sustenance and help…

The reader may wish to consult the translation, and judge for him or herself between Buxtorf and Epstein. An interesting insight into the influence of Midrash on modern literary criticism may be found in Susan A. Handelman, The Slayers of Moses, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1982.)


Since I have not been able to see every volume noted here, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this list.


I wish to thank Mrs. Theresa Tarjan who prepared draft translations of the early chapters of this book, on which I have drawn freely, and Mrs. Bernice Baron for lending me a copy of the volume from her late husband's library. Rabbi Baron was the founder of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, to whom I express my gratitude for their support of this, and indeed all, my endeavors. I am very grateful to Mrs. Zona Selensky, who typed up a first draft in machine readable form, which I converted for the World Wide Web. Endlich, verbindlichen Dank schulde ich Herrn Professor Buxtorf. He has taught me many things about Jewish lore of which I was unaware.

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Alan D. Corré
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, June 25, 2001

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