(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2072 words.)