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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2072

Frank E. Manuel has broken new ground in the history of ideas. In The Broken Staff: Judaism Through Christian Eyes, Manuel, historian and professor emeritus at both Brandeis and New York universities, has taken up the task of writing a history of the Christian appraisal of Jewish thought. Anyone familiar with the history of anti-Jewish sentiment in Christian thought is aware that this is a difficult field in which to work without bias. Manuel’s extraordinary objectivity makes it appear to be easily within grasp—an achievement facilitated by his forthrightly secular perspective. Manuel displays abundant sympathy with both the strengths and novel contributions of Christian scholarship and the contributions of Jewish commentary and philosophy. His ability to travel easily between the world of books in both cultures gives the reader a sense of participating in the arena of accomplished cosmopolitan scholarship.

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This book is designed to overcome clichés held in Christian, Jewish, and secular- ist traditions concerning the relationship between Jewish and Christian intellectual history, which necessarily includes the relationship between scholars of both groups. As the title indicates, Christianity has had a varied record in its treatment of Jewish intellectual sources, sometimes condemning them as corrupt or superstitious, the work of the Antichrist, at other times praising them for their usefulness in understanding the Gospels or as aids in facilitating the conversion of Jews. Specifically Manuel’s title alludes to the notion that God’s covenant with the Jews was broken when they rejected the messiah. What value was therefore left in the study of Jewish wisdom was contested throughout Christian history, though Manuel focuses on the period from the sixteenth century through the twentieth century.

This is a history of Christian ideas about Jews and Judaism, and of the scholarship dealing with Jewish thought that circulated among the most literate in Christendom. Many of these same ideas were later to be found among secular scholars who, though critical of the Church, maintained medieval prejudices against the Jewish intellectual tradition, and in some instances, such as that of Voltaire, held Judeophobic attitudes that were significantly more vitriolic than those of the Churchmen.

One of the strengths of Manuel’s careful research is his refusal to engage in premature generalizations. Rejecting the categories of traditional Jewish historiography, which dichotomizes persons as either Judeophiles or Judeophobes, Manuel instead records the complex history of Jewish-Christian interaction, the nuances of which often defy received opinion. Johann Gottfried von Herder, for example, sang praises to the genius of early Hebrew poetry yet argued against the emancipation of Jews in Germany. Similarly, seventeenth century Christian Hebraists whose praise of Jewish scholarship and personal acquaintance with Jewish scholars led to significant respect and tolerance, nevertheless defended their research as instrumental to the Christian conversion effort.

Manuel’s precision and breadth allow him to review the question of how Christian scholars valued the Jewish tradition apart from mass-minded anti-Jewish sentiment. He steers away from analyzing popular hatreds because he is concerned with the world of books, and because extensive analysis of popular anti-Semitism already has been carried out by sociologists, psychoanalysts, and historians of mass movements. Manuel’s concern is with the analysis of, and the perceived significance of, the Jewish faith and its intellectual achievements in the minds of the best Christian or ex-Christian (secularist) scholars in the centuries under consideration.

Two questions underlie his assessment of European and American scholars. First, how much and how well did they know the vast corpus of Jewish intellectual history—the Talmud and the Mishna, and the diverse contributions of commentators, historians, and translators (of the rich scholarship of the medieval Arab world)? Second, to what uses did they put this learning? The first question concerns not only the amount of material known but also the degree of mastery of original and secondary languages necessary for sensitive access to the Jewish corpus. The second question, concerning the application of this knowledge by Christian and, later, secularist scholars, leads to the most interesting material in the book.

Examples of how knowledge of the Jewish corpus was put to use in different ways at different times can be found in the medieval and Reformation desire to know in order to convert; the sixteenth century’s search for the ideal polity; the seventeenth century’s apologetic quest for uncovering the original and thus divinely sanctioned form of political organization; the eighteenth century’s secularist attempt to undermine traditional Christianity by showing the barbarism and cruelty of its Jewish roots; and the eighteenth century’s deistic search for “natural religion.” Also illumined are the nineteenth century’s various attempts to arrive at a “pure science” of religion apart from religious and philosophical agendas—a program that included dubious racial theories and the equally dubious search for the “essence” of a religion, presumed to remain the same throughout the history of a religion; the nineteenth century’s secular attack on Jews under the aegis of Romanticism, exemplified by Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s depiction of Jews as a malignant growth threatening the purity of the Volk; the twentieth century’s attainment of a shared Jewish and Christian scholarship with an unprecedented degree of objectivity and an extraordinary variety of approaches; and, most significantly, the confessional acknowledgement by post-Holocaust Christianity of its participation in entrenched patterns of anti-Semitism, and its willingness to look at Jewish sources with fresh eyes.

Manuel’s overarching method is one deeply established today by historians; he does not ask how one religion differs from another but considers the full variety of opinion in each age, country, and denomination, including conflicts of assessment within each denomination. This leads away from the facile conclusion that Christianity as a whole has maintained this or that attitude, and enables the author to indicate how a tradition or subset of a tradition held at time x to positions x, y, or z. Lutherans are distinguished from Calvinists, Catholics from Protestants, and French Catholics from Spanish Catholics. The notion that religions have an unyielding essence that is above the vicissitudes of time is not only rejected, but also its history is traced from Montesquieu to Herder and on to Oswald Spengler.

An aspect of the history of religions routinely overlooked in scholarly works is the history of one religion’s life in the religious imagination of another. Although the images that religions hold of one another may or may not correspond to reality, such perceptions have enormous practical consequences for the way in which one religion treats another. Religions are as much about the history of projections as they are about empirical fact.

A number of the eleven chapters that make up The Broken Staff were first given as lectures and can be read as complete essays on their own merit. Researchers who wish to focus on specific topics will find this easy access invaluable. On the negative side, the organization of the volume leads to a degree of repetition; topics covered earlier are frequently summarized to set up a new progression. The reader might find this annoying, though it is a minor inconvenience. Another caveat is that readers of The Broken Staff must be prepared for voluminous references to works in their original languages in the main text. Manuel is a polyglot, and draws citations from several European languages to document his position. Happily for the average reader, he usually translates his sources.

In rediscovering the impact of Judaism on the thought of Western Christianity, Manuel tracks the evidence for influence, finding little in patristic or medieval times. The first dramatic appropriation begins with Pico della Mirandola’s search for Cabbalistic truth in the Renaissance, but leaves little permanent mark in Christian history. Some quiet scholarship existed even earlier in the writings of the Victorine monastics in France, who used material from medieval rabbinical interpreters such as Rashi of Troyes for their biblical glosses. Serious Hebraic scholarship developed in the sixteenth century, and by the seventeenth the complete scholar was assumed to be skilled in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

The flowering of Christian Hebraism in the seventeenth century brought into the Christian tradition the full range of Hebrew classical learning, though Christian scholars showed little interest in contemporary developments in Jewish intermural discussion. The eighteenth century, despite its philosophies of toleration that led to eventual Jewish emancipation and citizenship, displayed a great negative animus to the Jewish tradition. The attacks of deists and philosophers in search of “rational religion” were so hostile that they reduced the study of things Jewish to the study of superstition and immorality, and thus to irrelevance. In the new religion of reason, Judaism lost even the negative raison d’être granted by traditional Christianity, wherein the Jews existed as an eternal testimony to their rejection of Christ. Even a secular “saint” such as Immanuel Kant, whose works so heavily influenced Reform Judaism, did not support the emancipation of Jews into equal citizenship unless they were willing to espouse an ethic that mimicked his own; that is, Jews must renounce the rabbinical tradition and the Talmud as an entrance price.

The nineteenth century saw the ideal of a scientific study of religion, even though it rarely attained it. At the same time, Romantic notions concerning the essential nature of a “people” or ethnic group often led to absurd and politically biased depictions of the “Jewish spirit,” and at best to well-meant oversimplifications. Still, significant developments in history and ethnology opened up the study of Hebrew scripture and enabled it to be compared with other traditions, thus breaking down the sacrosanct status of scripture, a process begun in the eighteenth century but with limited ethnographic sophistication.

The twentieth century emerged with scientific historical research conducted by reform-minded Jews who had accepted the methods of inquiry established by the larger academic community and also the challenge of Protestant-developed biblical criticism. This led to a scholarship that has become transreligious and pluralist.

Any such summary of Manuel’s account of this complex Christian, Jewish, and secularist interaction is doomed to fail, however, for it is the richness of detail that distinguishes his study, giving authority to his challenge to widely held assumptions. The author is one of a growing number of scholars who deny the existence of a so-called “Judeo-Christian tradition,” an idea he traces to the writings of Ernst Renan in the nineteenth century. What instead has existed until recently is a Christian and secularist scholarship that has at times been influenced by Jewish thought, at other times not, and in most circumstances has reworked it to satisfy non-Jewish agendas.

Unlike many scholars, however, Manuel sees in the concept of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” a promise of mutual acceptance and appreciation. Modern scholarship has long since rejected the parent-child metaphor that for centuries was used to describe the Jewish-Christian relationship, a metaphor that most often found little of value in the Jewish tradition after the first century. In contemporary scholarship, early Christianity is understood as a Jewish sect, and the multiple bonds that connect Christianity with Essene, Hellenistic, Rabbinical, and Apocalyptic Judaism are explored with increasing depth. Gone is the notion that significant developments in Judaism stopped in the first century, or with the formation of the Talmud. In biblical research, in the study of early Christianity, in the study of each other’s history, scholarship in the two traditions has attained significant convergence.

The early discourse that existed between Christians and Jews in the first centuries of the common era has been reconnected. Although always existing in some small degree, even if only in the reading of Josephus or Maimonides, and building since the sixteenth century, in the contemporary era it has become most significant. In ending The Broken Staff the author allows himself a hope for the emergence of an ecumenical Jewish-Christian tradition that will exalt the Sermon on the Mount, the Psalms, the book of Job, and various prophets for their vision of mercy and righteousness.

This work not only will remain memorable for its pioneering scholarship but also is likely to become an indispensable resource for anyone concerned with issues surrounding Christian-Jewish dialogue. If one criterion for the success of a work is that a given field has changed because of it, it is relatively easy to predict the success of The Broken Staff.

Sources for Further Study


Boston Globe
. June 14, 1992, p. 43.

Choice. XXX, October, 1992, p. 318.

The New Republic. CCVI, June 1, 1992, p. 49.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, August 16, 1992, p. 21.

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