Commentary Magazine

Philosemitismus im Barock, by Hans Joachim Schoeps

Philosemitismus im Barock; Religions- und Geistes-geschichtliche Untersuchungen.
by Hans Joachim Schoeps.
J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen (Germany). 216 pp.


We know more than enough about the centuries-long history of anti-Semitism. It ought therefore to be a particularly welcome relief to become acquainted with some philo-Semites of the 17th century whose existence has hitherto been obscure even to learned historians of that period. However, as Professor Schoeps himself warns, we must not expect too much from this somewhat motley group of enthusiasts. Some of them were in contact with the theosophic movement inspired by Jakob Boehme, which was, in many respects, the most significant religious trend of thought of the time. Unfortunately, none of these philo-Semites had anything like the power of vision and the depth of emotion and thought that distinguished Boehme among hundreds of other religious ecstatics, German, Dutch, English, and Scandinavian, in his “movement.”

The most rational—in fact a comparatively skeptical mind—among the six philo-Semites whom we meet in Professor Schoeps’s book is a Frenchman, Isaac de la Peyrère. Born a Calvinist in Bordeaux in 1596, and later converted to Catholicism, La Peyrère was in all probability a Mariano, which might suffice without anything else to explain his love of Jews and Judaism. In some humorous contemporary verses he is called a Jew by birth who could afford to change from Protestantism to Catholicism because he did not believe avowedly in any religion.

A popular writer on Iceland and Greenland, an officer in the French army, where he distinguished himself by bravery, and a diplomat in the service of the Prince de Condé, the many-sided La Peyrère maintained in his Systems Theohgicum—anonymously published in one volume with his Prae-Adamitae in 1655—that God, having created previous men simply by his word, created Adam, the ancestor of the Jews, out of earth by his own hand. In an appendix La Peyrère addresses the Jews as “sons of God” and expresses his own desire to become a member of this “holy, chosen nation.” And in his Du Rappel des Juifs, in 1643, he went so far as to “prove” from Scriptures that the young King of France, Louis XIV, bearing the “lily” of the Song of Songs in his coat of arms, would help to reestablish the Jewish state in Palestine. Later on, in 1658, his Epistola ad Philotimum ascribed a similar role to Pope Alexander VII; and in a manuscript Des Juifs Elus, Rejetés et Rapelés of 1673, even after having abandoned his thesis on the Pre-Adamites since 1658—he still insisted that his Zionist predictions would come true. La Peyrère died in 1676.



Paul Felgenhauer, who was born in 1593 and died some time after 1660, the son of a Protestant pastor in Bohemia, wrote a pamphlet against La Peyrère’s Prae-Adamitae. But he, too, believed in an imminent coming of the Messiah and the return of all Jews (including the Ten Lost Tribes) to Palestine. As a clergyman he used unleavened bread in Communion and advocated union between Christians and Jews on the basis of their common belief in the God of Abraham. For him, Jesus was completely divine, and did not share human nature; in other words, he agreed with Judaism to the extent that he rejected the possibility of any human being having a share of divine nature.

A Swedish army officer, Anders Pedersson Kempe (1622-1689), exhorts the Jews to read the New Testament and to reject all post-Biblical rabbinic teachings, but in a book, Israels erfreuliche Botschafft (1688), he too asserts the approach of a Messiah who would rebuild Palestine for the Jews in Kempe’s own lifetime. Even more fantastic in his ideas was a Dane, Oliger Paulli (1644-1714), who considered himself the forerunner of the Messiah and the “Nordic Apostle of the Jews,” a “union between Maimonides and Paul.” In a flood of letters to the kings of Denmark, England, Sweden, and Prussia, the Dauphin of France, and the Emperor of Austria, he implored them to put their armies at the disposal of the Jews and lead that people back to their ancient home. He prophesied that all the Christian nations would soon make annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles; and he invited all Christians to celebrate Passover with the Jews.

Another Dane, Jens Pedersen Gedelöche, who died in 1729, went even further and bound himself to observe the whole of Jewish ritual law. After death his body was exhumed from the Christian churchyard in which it had been buried, but the Jews, too, dug it up when it was consigned to their cemetery, and buried it outside. A German, Johann Peter Spaeth (about 1642-1701), author of an attack on Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-politicus, finally became a Jewish convert, called himself “Moses Germanus,” and was even circumcised a few years before his death in 1697.



Philo-Judaism rather than philo-Semitism might be a more appropriate term for the kind of ideas all these visionaries, with the exception of La Peyrère, professed. For an understanding of Jews as contemporaries and for a Gentile protest against the social and personal oppression under which they then lived in Europe one has to wait until the 18th century, for such men as Daines Barrington and Jeremy Bentham, both of them British jurists, and the great German, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Professor Schoeps himself cannot deny that the philo-Semitism of his six heroes exhausts itself on the whole in the belief in the early coming of a Jewish Messiah. This idea was certainly an important component of Judaism in the 17th century, as it has been at all times, but these philo-Semites had little to say about the inner meaning of this very Jewish hope and the contrast it made with the Christian belief that our thoroughly unredeemed world had already been saved by Jesus.

In any case, Judaism and Jews have certainly stood through the centuries for something much more than simple belief in a Messiah yet to come. And for that matter, it is also my opinion that Judaism can never be limited to belief in any specific articles of faith, whatever their nature.



There is no doubt but that by appealing to the emotional and figurative meanings of religious symbols, religion risks sacrificing precision in its insights. But if religion tried to avoid this risk, which is involved in its mission, it would no longer remain religion but become false pride in a knowledge that can never be true, verifiable human knowledge.

In accordance with certain tendencies of our time, Professor Schoeps seems to me to overrate the cognitive meaning of religious dogmas and underrate their symbolic import. He can therefore attribute to some of his philo-Semites much greater religious significance than I would be able to grant. Nevertheless, historians of Judaism and of the 17th century owe him a definite debt of gratitude for these studies, and for the almost equally interesting material that makes up the second half of his book; his monograph on the Jewish convert, “Rabbi” Johan Kemper; his account of rabbinic studies in Sweden between 1676-1750; and all his other references to Judaica in Swedish literature during the 17th and 18th centuries.



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