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352 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 13 illus., 1 map, notes, bibl., index

$34.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2835-1

Published: Spring 2004

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God's Sacred Tongue
Hebrew and the American Imagination

by Shalom L. Goldman

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Chapter One
Lost Tribes and Found Peoples

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans understood exploration and discovery in the New World in biblical and Hebraic terms. This is, in effect, the earliest chapter in our history of American Hebraism, a Hebraism shaped within the context of the European history of ideas. For the Americas were thought to hold "Hebrew secrets." With the news of the European discoveries of the Americas, Christians and Jews sought ways to contextualize these astounding discoveries. Not surprisingly, a biblical worldview provided the context to explain the wonders of this New World. While Christians could accept that continents might remain unknown or forgotten for long periods of time, the enigma of unknown or forgotten peoples was more difficult to fathom. Had the Bible not accounted for the origin and spread of all of humankind? Genesis, Chapter 10, represents the three sons of Noah as the ancestors of all who live on the earth. For centuries the common Western understanding of the origins of the earth's diverse and far-flung peoples was that Europeans were descendants of Japeth, Africans descendants of Ham, and Middle Easterners the children of Shem or Sem. (Hence the designation "Semitic"—first applied to a group of Middle Eastern languages, later specifically to Jews). The peoples of the Far East were variously assigned to one of the three sons.

But what of the peoples of the New World? To which son of Noah were they to be attributed? As historian of ideas Anthony Grafton noted: "The discovery of human beings in the Americas, after all, posed a hard question to scholars who believed that the world had a seamless and coherent history: where did they come from? Neither the Greeks, the Romans, nor the Jews had known of their existence. How, then, could Greco-Roman and Hebrew texts be complete and authoritative?"[1]

A ready-made solution to the enigma of the Native Americans was to link them to a people of biblical times who had long been lost to history: the "Ten Lost Tribes" of the Israelites. For many European scholars the biblical account was authoritative. Few disputed the accounts in the Book of Kings that chronicled the emergence of the Hebrew monarchies. In the tenth century B.C. the United Kingdom had divided into a Northern Kingdom, "Israel," made up of ten tribes, and a Southern Kingdom, "Judah," inhabited by the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The biblical account of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. concludes with this explanation of the fate of the kingdom's inhabitants: "In the ninth year of Hoshea the King of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and settled them in Khalah and on the Khabur, a river of Gozan, and in the Cities of the Medes" (II Kings 17:6). The fate of these tribes would remain an unsolved mystery that would inspire fabulists and theorists from ancient times to the present.

A century and a half after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the Babylonian armies destroyed the Southern Kingdom. Jerusalem was laid waste in 586 B.C. The exile to Babylon—the paradigmatic exile of the Jewish experience—followed. The Jewish sense of self was forged in this experience. As the Psalmist wrote, "By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion." For the exiled Judeans, who yearned for Zion, there was no inclination to remember the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom. The northern tribes were lost to history and to Jewish memory, their dispossession punishment for their sins of idolatry and wantonness. The Hebrew prophets spoke vaguely of a time when all the Tribes of Israel would be reunited; but this was in the End of Days. Ultimately, it was the fate of Judah that concerned the biblical narrator and later biblical commentators. Stories of the Lost Tribes only began to appeal to both Jewish and Christian audiences much later, during the medieval period.

As Christianity made the Old Testament its own, fusing it with the emerging New Testament, the historical fate of the Lost Tribes was divorced from the issue of ethnic identification that Jewish writers and readers had brought to it. The Lost Tribes now became part of Christian history, and the stories found a new audience. History as told in the Hebrew Bible now served as a "universal history." Even before the advent of Christianity, the Hebrew Bible, in Greek translation, had circulated throughout the Greek-speaking world. Greco-Roman and early Christian cultures developed an interest in the fate of the "lost" Israelites. Perhaps these lost peoples were living among them? Perhaps they peopled distant and inaccessible lands? Perhaps some Christians were themselves descended from the lost tribes? For Christians this curiosity would serve to link them to Old Testament Israel in both the physical sense and the spiritual sense.

With the spread of Christianity, speculation about the fate of these tribes became widespread. For many, Old Testament narrative was not only a moral teaching, but also a narrative of sacred history. While Catholic thinkers emphasized the allegorical in biblical history, the Reformation—with its focus on sola scriptura, scripture alone, as the key to truth—looked afresh at that history. In a book on the Lost Tribes one scholar noted, "No other subject seems to have had such fascination for the fanciful theorist."[2] Such theorizing began in earnest with the publication of reports of the European discoveries. While a variety of theories emerged, the "biblical origins" theory was the most popular. As Grafton points out, "In 1614 Sir Walter Raleigh's magnificent History of the World still dealt at length with exactly the same enterprise, that of tying the Indians to the biblical history of man."[3]

The Jewish-Indian Theory

For more than three centuries Americans have been fascinated with the attempt to "tie the Indians to the biblical history of man." Most of the adventurer-scholars portrayed in this book were engaged with proving, refuting, or reflecting upon this "biblical origins theory." Writing in the 1980s, intellectual historian Richard Popkin dubbed this notion "the Jewish-Indian theory." An American scholar of an earlier generation, Allen Godbey, compiled and analyzed many of the legends concerning the "true fate" of the Ten Lost Tribes of Ancient Israel. While Godbey's 1934 book focuses on the proliferation and acceptance of Lost Tribe theories, I treat those theories as part of the history of Christian Hebraism, the study of Hebrew and the Bible by premodern Christian scholars.

One of the more remarkable episodes in the history of speculation on the fate of the Lost Tribes occurred in seventeenth-century Holland. In 1644 Antonio Montezinos, a Spanish explorer of Jewish ancestry (he was also known as Aaron Levi), returned to Amsterdam from an extended journey in the interior of what is now Eastern Colombia. Testifying in front of Amsterdam's Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, Montezinos stated that he had met on his travels "the remnant of the Tribe of Reuben." A group of Indians in the mountains of the New World had spoken to him in an archaic Hebrew. As Montezinos put it, "They greeted me with the Shema Yisrael." The report that these people knew the words of the Jewish creed, words as old as the Book of Deuteronomy, convinced many who heard Montezinos's account that this tribe was Israelite in some form. A close look at Montezinos's account reveals that he implied only that some lost Jews lived among the Indians, not that all of the local Indians were Jews.

The news of this report spread quickly through European Jewish and Christian communities. The notion that the lost tribes had been "found" had a profound impact on millennialist thinking and politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For many Christians and Jews, finding the remnants of the Lost Tribes served as a sign that the end of time was approaching. From this point forward the ingathering of the exiles and their return to the Land of Israel became an integral part of both Jewish and Christian millennialist thought.[4]

The Jewish-Indian theory, though today associated with fringe groups, "catastrophists," and other practitioners of wild historical speculation, was once accepted by some of the most respected and authoritative members of English and American society. Like Christian Hebraism with which it is sometimes conflated, this theory had little or no relationship to the Jews of its time. The Ancient Israelites generally—and the Ten Northern Tribes more specifically—were the object of inventive speculation. But Christians speculated only about their fate, not the fate of the Jews. The history of the Southern Kingdom, the group from which the Jews had descended, was well known: the exile to Babylon in the sixth century B.C., the Return to Zion "seventy years" later, the Second Temple and the reestablishment of the Jewish commonwealth, and, finally, the destruction of Judea—and Jerusalem, its political and spiritual center—by the Romans in the first century A.D. From this Judean culture, both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerged. The meaning of Jewish history was, therefore, clear to Christians (and to Jews, in a different sense). But what of the meaning and the fate of the Ten Lost Tribes?

As so much of God's Sacred Tongue is devoted to writers who were engaged with this theory, we might ask what part did the study of Hebrew language and texts play in this heady mixture of scientific and theological speculation? Montezinos based his claims on the Columbian tribe's knowledge of Hebrew. Rabbi Joseph Hakohen had made a parallel suggestion earlier in his Hebrew-language Universal History of the Franks and the Ottomans. According to Rabbi Hakohen, the European discoverers of the New World found that "the Indians of the Americas were able to speak a little of the language of Ishmael." This story, which indicates that some Jewish scholars were interested in biblical explanations of New World discoveries, may have resulted from reports that Columbus's navigators attempted to speak Arabic to the Indians. To some readers it suggested much more: a "Semitic" origin for the American tribes. Christian and Jewish readers associated Arabic with its Middle Eastern origins. For Middle Eastern Jewish scholars Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic were languages that all exegetes and legalists had to know. Perhaps the American tribes, with their seemingly familiar language, were, in fact, of the children of Ishmael.[5]

That Columbus's navigators had a biblical orientation is not at all surprising, for Columbus himself was deeply imbued with a biblical worldview. Biblical passages, among them the accounts of King Solomon's voyages to Ophir, were among the ancient writings that convinced Columbus that he could reach Asia by sailing to the west. As the classicist James Romm noted, "Columbus saw himself taking part in a grand reenactment of a glorious moment in the biblical past; and such returns to early mythic patterns confirmed his belief that the ancient prophecies were being fulfilled and that history was at last reaching its end."[6]

In the realm of the history of ideas, Rabbi Menasseh's Hope of Israel proved the most important expression of the theory. Menasseh had heard Montezinos's testimony as to Israelites in America in 1644. In the late 1640s he wrote an essay on the larger issue of the Jewish role in history. Published in 1650 in Spanish, it soon appeared in Latin, Hebrew, English, and Dutch. "The English translation, Hope of Israel, excited minds on both sides of the Atlantic, with its most enduring legacy being its influence on early American ethnography and eschatology…. Not surprisingly, most readers saw what they wished to see in the Hope of Israel, rather than what Menasseh intended. Hope of Israel was an important piece of Jewish messianism primarily because of the notoriety Gentiles gave it."[7]

For some Christian readers Hope of Israel affirmed their expectation of the promise of the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. The Protestant Reformation had subverted the allegorical reading of Israel's fate. "Particularly among some of Calvin's followers, prophecies and statements dealing with Israel and Zion came to be understood at face value. Thus, the apostle Paul's promise that one day 'all Israel shall be saved' was taken literally as referring to scattered Jews and the Lost Tribes."[8] In Protestant America these promises would take on new meaning and force.

American Puritans, followers of Calvin, had a special affinity for the biblical and Hebraic, and this affinity survived in American culture after the decline of Puritan doctrine and political power. Thus, a process begun in the Reformation in which the Jewish content of Christianity was rediscovered and reevaluated found its culmination and fulfillment in an American setting. If we think of the first four Christian centuries as a period when Christianity distanced itself from Judaic texts and concepts, we might think of the past four centuries as a time when some Christian churches rediscovered Hebraic and rabbinic categories of thought and action. These rediscoveries, which enabled the emergence of both Christian Hebraism and Christian Zionism, did not necessarily bring about or translate into sympathy for the Jews. As we shall see in the following chapters, an unsettling ambivalence characterized early American Protestant attitudes toward Jews. As with other components of the Christian Hebraic endeavor, this too had its roots and parallels in English thought.

England, steeped in a biblical tradition that identified and correlated English history with Jewish history, was at the forefront of such speculation. As late as the mid-nineteenth century influential British aristocrats were influenced by such speculation and adopted a "British Israelite" ideology. Fanciful philology backed up their claims that the Anglo-Saxons were, in fact, the descendants of Israel. Was Brit-ish not a code for Hebrew "Brit," covenant, and "Ish," man? Thus, the English upper classes were the true children of the Old Testament covenant. Though this group later discredited itself with its reactionary politics and thinly veiled anti-Semitism, certain of its ideas still persist in the upper reaches of British society. For its outlandish idea rested on a firm British foundation, the coronation of the British monarch is replete with Old Testament language and ceremony. In the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed oil on the skin of the Queen as he recited this prayer: "And as Solomon was anointed King by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated over the peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern." Though this blessing and others in a similar biblical vein are generally understood as the assertion of a spiritual connection to biblical Israel, some insist on a biological connection between English royalty and the ancient Davidic kingship. Queen Victoria seems to have subscribed to this Davidic theory and had her male children circumcised by a Jewish ritual circumciser, a mohel. Both Edward VII, the duke of Windsor, and Charles, the current prince of Whales, were circumcised by a well-known London physician and mohel, Dr. Jacob Snowman.[9]

During an earlier period British colonialists in Asia had identified the Afghans and Pathans as lost Israelite tribes now found by their Christian brothers. This insight would be made to serve British missionary aims. Not only could it explain the intransigence of these warring tribes that resisted British incursion, but more importantly, it also provided British theorists with a scenario for the End Time that excluded American notions of specialness. For Sir William Jones and others "the millennial drama involved the true Christians of Europe locating the Afghan Lost Tribes, and so creating the final moments of history without need of any Americans, native or immigrant."[10]

European discoveries in the New World, and the dissemination of relatively accurate ethnographic information about the indigenous peoples of the Americas, led to the decline of these apocalyptic fantasies, but not to their demise. Among both Jews and Christians, variants of the Jewish-Indian theory continued to crop up throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the English-speaking world two elaborate statements of the theory were published in the eighteenth century: Lord Kingsborough's nine volume work The History of Mexico and Samuel Adair's ethnographic study of the American Indians.[11]

Adair was an English explorer who lived with the Native Americans of the southeastern colonies for close to forty years. His 1775 work, The History of the American Indians, is still valued today for its ethnographic insights into the lives of members of Native American tribes soon to be displaced. No longer taken seriously are Adair's emphatic claims that the tribes he lived among—the Cherokees, Creeks, and Chickasaws—were descended from Jews. Nevertheless, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this claim was debated at the highest levels of colonial and republican American life. As explained in the Prologue, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams discussed Adair's claims. Other prominent Americans, such as Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress and first director of the U.S. Mint, firmly endorsed Adair's claims. Those like Jefferson and Adams who rejected the theory had to contend with a considerable literature that claimed to find numerous similarities between Native American customs and those of the biblical Hebrews.

For the English colonists in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America, the appeal of the Jewish-Indian theory was considerable. It fit into an already articulated worldview of the Old Testament as the course book of world history. Historians of the European settlement of the Americas have thoroughly documented how colonial religious leaders were convinced that they were the instruments of a divine plan. The New World was a Promised Land in which the Europeans had arrived after much wandering and travail. Their leaders were seen in the mold of Moses and Aaron—intrepid spiritual figures and able spokesmen. While most Americans understood this Promised Land model as allegorical, some saw the settlement of the New World as the actual fulfillment of biblical promise.

The indigenous inhabitants of the New World—"pagan" in their behavior—could then be viewed in a number of ways. If they were "savages untouched by God's grace," they were condemned to perdition. This view—strengthened by theories that situated the Native Americans outside the category of "the descendants of Adam and Eve"—appealed to those who advocated harsh treatment of the American Indian tribes. In sharp contrast, one Spanish defender of the Indians, the seventeenth-century cleric Bartolome de las Casas, articulated a biblical theory that elevated the Native American tribes above their European conquerors. According to las Casas, the Indians were early descendants of Adam and Eve, who had wandered to remote areas of the earth. Separated from the great majority of humankind, they had not been corrupted by the evils of cities and civilizations. This separation preserved them in an Edenic innocence for the End Time, when they would rejoin a repentant humanity. These End Time ideas did not remain in the realm of the abstract. Like many other visionaries, this Spanish dissident attempted to create a new Eden. "Las Casas and his followers, who tried to create a millennial state in Guatemala without Spanish Conquistadors, introduced a supernatural element into theories about the Indians, namely that some of them had special properties that were crucial in providential times to come."[12]

For las Casas and his followers, the Indians were not of the lost Israelite tribes, rather they were descended from an earlier offshoot of the "Adamite" family tree. But Spanish America, as we have seen with Montezinos's deposition before Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, was also the scene of speculation that at least some of the Indians were lost Israelites. In The Hope of Israel, Menasseh, after weighing Montezinos's evidence and the reports of other European explorers, concluded that the great majority of indigenous Americans arrived there from Asia. It was possible, he said, "that the group encountered by Montezinos could be part of a lost tribe. This fits with other evidence that the fulfillment of God's Promise is at hand, and that we will witness the redemption of Israel. The Ten Tribes will emerge and return to join the other two (Judah and Benjamin) in Israel in the near future."[13] In the early decades of the eighteenth century, the Jewish-Indian theory was adopted by the eminent New England jurist Samuel Sewall. A colleague of his reported that Sewall would not support a war against the Indians, "not from mere humanity and compassion, but because he was inclined to think that they were part of the ancient people of God and that the tribes, by some means or other, had strolled into America."[14]

These ideas would reverberate in American culture two centuries later. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, America's "new religion" of the mid-nineteenth century, would consider the Middle Eastern origins of the Native Americans a matter not of speculation, but of certainty. The Book of Mormon tells of Israelites who came to the New World thousands of years ago. Some of their descendants were the New World Indians discovered by the Europeans. The church hierarchy still deems Mormons who challenge the historicity of this form of the Jewish-Indian theory heretics.[15]

The Original Language

While they did not agree on the multiplicity of claims for linguistic evidence of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Jewish and Christian thinkers did agree on one linguistic matter. For within the Jewish and Christian traditions the assumption that there was one original language is the legacy of the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel. When the survivors of the flood and their descendants haughtily set out to build a city with "a tower with its top in the sky" in an effort to make a name for themselves, "The whole world had the same language and the same words" (Genesis 11:1). God, as punishment for the effort to construct this tower, said, "Let us then go down and confound their speech, so that they shall not understand one another's talk. God dispersed them from over the whole earth, and they stopped building the city."

Medieval Jewish thinkers, when they engaged the question of humanity's original language, did not all agree that it was Hebrew. Some relied on an opinion expressed in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) that Adam spoke Aramaic in the Garden of Eden. Aramaic was therefore suggested as an earlier, and more sacred, "key to creation." But Hebrew as the original language became the accepted view of most Christian thinkers. St. Jerome, the most philologically sophisticated of the early church fathers, had articulated this concept in his commentaries of the Old Testament. Many later scholars affirmed Jerome's statement, and from the fourth century onwards, the idea of Hebrew as the "primeval" or original language has a long and illustrious history.[16]

Hebrew, because of its perceived "simplicity," was thought to be the most direct and concise of languages. The poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), building on traditions already transmitted over a millennium, used religious ideas familiar to his readers to remind them that Hebrew was the language of Adam, and that the first human word was "El, the word for God." As to why Jesus used Hebrew, and why Hebrew words (Hosanna, Sabaoth) were retained in the text of the New Testament, the great Italian poet offered an inventive Christian theological explanation. "This form of speech was inherited by the sons of Heber, and called Hebrew after him. It remained their peculiar possession after the confusion of the Tower of Babel, so that our Savior, who was their descendant in his humanity, might use a language of grace and not of confusion. The Hebrew language, then, was formed by the lips of those who were the first to speak."[17]

Though he does not state this directly, Dante is here evoking another powerful Christological concept: Jesus is a second Adam who will restore humankind from its fallen state. How fitting it is that the second Adam should speak in the tongue granted by God to the first Adam. Furthermore, Dante refers to the conundrum of the Jew's persistence in history—and their despised state in Christendom—with his phrase, "their descendant in his humanity." Spiritually, Jesus is the beginning of a new dispensation, one rejected long ago by the very people from whom he sprung. The language of that people, Hebrew, still retains its sanctity for Dante and his readers. The people first associated with that language are yet another matter. They may be despised, but their language is still honored through its "Christian" associations.

At issue here is the ambivalence inherent in Christian study of Hebrew, an ambivalence that springs from the love-hate tension in some Christian views of the Jewish people. The Jews were, at one and the same time, the people who produced Christ, and the enemies of that same Savior. They are both "the people of the Old Dispensation" and the "Murderers of God." The study of Hebrew, the ancient language of this people, evoked for many Christian scholars the same degree of ambivalence and love-hate tension that the study of Jewish ritual and texts did. On the theological plane the resolution of that tension as it applied to the Jews as a people was well nigh impossible. The Jews remained a mysterious presence in history. Hebrew—with its dual function as representative of the Jews and of Christian origins—offered intellectual grounds on which this incompatibility could be played out, if not resolved. For those Christian scholars and adventurers whose story is told in God's Sacred Tongue there was a constant tension between a powerful attraction to Hebrew and a guarded interest in Jewish practices and practitioners. We will see these forces surface again in the twentieth century encounter between various American Christian groups and the State of Israel.

Christian Hebraism

European ideas of Hebrew as the original language were an integral part of a larger tradition of Christian Hebraism, a tradition whose roots go all the way back to the first Christian centuries. St. Jerome, who so forcefully promoted the idea that Hebrew was the prima lingua, or first language of the human race, can be thought of as the first Christian Hebraist. To ensure the authenticity and accuracy of his translation of the books of the Bible into Latin, Jerome journeyed to Palestine, settling near Bethlehem. There, he studied with scholars both Jewish and Christian. Women participated as well in this Christian study of Hebrew, despite strict limitations on women's education and intellectual advancement. Two Roman noblewomen, Paula and Julia, accompanied Jerome to Palestine, where their wealth helped support his scholarly work. He, in turn, included them in his scholarly and religious projects and attested to their proficiency in the "sacred tongue."[18]

From the mid-fourth century when Jerome and his companions lived in Bethlehem, until the Reformation when Hebrew studies were revived, Hebrew studies were only of interest to a very small coterie of biblical exegetes. In medieval Europe the intricacies of the Hebrew language were of little interest to scholars. The Catholic Church saw itself as the "New Israel," replacing the language and culture of the "Old Israel"; the study of the language of the "Old Israel" held little fascination. There were periodic outbursts of interest in the study of Hebrew, most significantly in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England. But it is only with the Renaissance and the Reformation that we find a resurgence of the Christian study of "the sacred language." In the sixteenth century the Church's reformers invoked the concept of sola scriptura: only the text of the Bible was to be used as a source of religious authority. In this view, the closer we get to the original meaning of the Bible, the closer we are to God's intentions. In the endeavor of sola scriptura, as in the earlier study of Hebrew in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, England was to move to the forefront of Christian Hebraism. Scholars in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands also made significant contributions to an emerging discourse of Hebrew studies. In 1540, Henry VIII established the Regius Professorships in Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge. Knowledge of Hebrew became, in England as on the Continent, the mark of a truly educated person, one with access to the original texts of both the classics and the Bible. In Renaissance Europe, one often finds expressions of admiration for "the trilingual scholar" who was master of the three great languages of antiquity—Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. The "trilingual scholar" was often a woman. Networks of "learned ladies" were established in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Members of local political and religious aristocracies, these women formed an alternative to universities and academies that excluded women from higher education. Particularly in Germany, England, and the Low Countries, female Hebraists and Classicists created substitute structures in which they could study texts and engage biblical and post-biblical exegetical questions.[19]

As interest in Hebrew grew, Protestant scholars compiled dictionaries, grammars, and Hebrew chrestomathies, collections of passages from Judaic literature to aid students studying the language. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, these books were printed widely and used in colleges in Europe and in the new schools of the American colonies. Some Christian scholars in Europe availed themselves of Jewish informants. In Italy, for example, we find much Jewish-Christian scholarly cooperation. But in Germany and Poland mutual suspicion and wariness precluded any such collaborative efforts. The Jews were afraid of Christian missionary activity, while Christians who studied with Jewish scholars were likely to be accused of "Judaising tendencies."

Long before the English Crown established university chairs for the study of Hebrew and "other oriental languages," English Christianity developed a special affinity for the rhetoric of the Bible and its cadences. The notion that Hebrew was first among languages held special fascination for the English. The Venerable Bede, the eighth-century English churchman, was one of a number of early Christian writers who "evince a special fascination with the 'Veritas Hebraica': God's own chosen means of communication with the world." Thus, Bede declares, "Hebrew was the 'prima lingua'—the 'prime' or 'first language' of the human race. Later it was disrupted and dispersed at Babel as a punishment for still another sin of pride. And from that disruption there arose the current multiplicity of languages coexisting with Hebrew, Adam's original tongue."[20]

This English affinity for Hebrew texts and the Hebrew tongue helped set the stage for American Hebraist endeavors. Especially among the founders of the early American colleges, the Hebraist legacies of Oxford and Cambridge were formative influences. As we shall see in later chapters, instruction in Hebrew language and texts were at the core of the early American college curriculum.

Christian Kabbalism

Parallel to the larger traditions of Christian Hebraism, another European cultural tradition emerged: Christian Kabbalism. Many Renaissance-era Christian scholars and mystics sought the "secret doctrine" of the Jews. Jewish mystical traditions, expounded in the thirteenth-century Zohar and other esoteric texts, caught the attention of Christian seekers who eagerly sought confirmation of "the Christian truth" in the Jewish tradition. Knowledge of Hebrew, and of Aramaic—the language of the Zohar—was a prerequisite for these investigations; thus, we find some overlap between the Hebraists and the Kabbalists. While many Christian Hebraists sought Hebraic knowledge to proselytize the Jews, this impulse was not dominant among the practitioners of Christian Kabbalism. Many of them looked to common themes in both religious traditions. While this commonality was often more real than imagined, it did presage the development of a less hostile, more irenic view of the Jewish tradition.

The scholars and practitioners of Christian Kabbalism were influenced by the great Renaissance scholar Pico della Mirandola, who died in 1494. Pico was interested in the scholarly aspects of the Jewish mystical tradition, not in the value of Hebrew as a tool for anti-Judaic polemics. He did not seek to convince the Jews, through the evidence of their own sacred writings, to convert to Christianity. Rather, he sought to increase the body of newly discovered knowledge by integrating "hidden" Hebrew classics with the recently discovered and translated texts of the Greco-Roman world. Among these texts were many thought to be ancient, such as those of the Hermetic corpus. Pico set out to create a synthesis of the Hermetic and the kabbalistic. If the Jewish material confirmed and validated the mystical teachings alluded to in the classical texts, so much the better. That would lend an aura of the sacred to the secrets of classical texts, the teachings of which clashed with Christian doctrine and were therefore suspected of being profane. Frances Yates, whose mid-twentieth century works on Renaissance magic illuminated the cultural centrality of the occult, wrote: "The profound significance of Pico della Mirandola in the history of humanity can hardly be estimated. He it was who first formulated a new position for European man, man as Magus using both Magia and Kabbalah to act upon the world, to control his destiny by science."[21]

In his search for kabbalistic secrets, Pico, the wealthy, influential fifteenth-century count of Mirandola, had help from both Jews and Jewish apostates to Christianity. In his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man Pico summarizes his understanding of the Kabbalah and pointedly claims, "I saw in them not so much the Mosaic, as the Christian religion."[22] Pico felt that Hebrew would give students of the mystical path access to a hitherto-concealed "spiritual magic"—one that tapped the higher spiritual powers of the cosmos. This was the magic of the "practical kabbalah, which invokes angels, archangels, the ten sephiroth which are the names or powers of God, God himself, by means some of which are similar to other magical procedures but more particularly through the power of the sacred Hebrew language."[23]

Pico's "discovery" of the Kabbalah has to be viewed in the context of his application of the principles of allegorical interpretation. As the twentieth-century philosopher Ernst Cassirer put it, "Pico makes an unlimited, indeed we could say a hyperbolic, use of allegory." Cassirer, who sought in the fifteenth-century philosopher's work an affirmation of "the perennial philosophy, an enduring truth, in its main features immutable"—explained Pico's fascination with the Zohar in this way: "Neither in the Bible nor in any other sacred document is there for him a sentence we can understand in its proper literal sense. There is always needed a difficult interpretation to release the genuine, the mystic and spiritual sense from the literal one. And only when we have penetrated this meaning is the religious truth disclosed to us. For this reason the Kabbalah acquires for Pico a controlling and central significance. For it is the key that first truly unlocks the secrets of the divine nature."[24]

Pico's contact with Jewish scholars and apostates was facilitated by the historical circumstances of his time and place. Late-fifteenth-century Italy was the only country in Europe that welcomed Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition and expulsions. The Italian Humanists eagerly sought out the scholars among these Jews and New Christians. In this the Humanists risked the wrath of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, the members of which "preached frenzied sermons against unbelievers," particularly against the Jews.[25] But their need for authentic sources of information on Jewish matters overrode any scruples the Humanists may have had about associating with unbelievers.

Both the study of the Hebrew language and the study of Jewish mysticism had great influence in English intellectual life. The English cultural legacy, transmitted across the ocean to the American Zion, expressed itself in new ways on American shores. Throughout this examination of American Christian Hebraism, the search for the mystical truth from a Hebraic source is a constant theme. Two subjects of Part I, Harvard's Judah Monis and Yale's Ezra Stiles, studied kabbalistic texts. Kabbalism is also a previously unnoticed element in the writings of theologian Jonathan Edwards, and it informed the worldview of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet.

The American Colonies as Promised Land

In the minds of early American Protestant thinkers, Ancient Israel served as both a model for structuring a covenantal society and a warning of the consequences of failure to adhere to the divine covenant. Literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch, in his studies of typology in American culture, speaks of the "Puritan mythico-historiography" in which "the emigrants had fled England as from certain destruction. Behind them, they believed, lay the failure of European Protestantism—and before them, as their refuge, what they called 'wilderness', 'desert' … The New World, according to that image, was the modern counterpart of the wilderness through which Israel reached Canaan, of the desert where Christ overcame the tempter."[26] The arduous journey of those who left English shores for the New World only strengthened English affinity for the Bible's exhortations, cadences, and images. God had destined these pilgrims to pass through the wilderness to the new Promised Land so that they could create a new society based on biblical models.

America's English colonists saw themselves as a "chosen people" fleeing the pharaohs of Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. As one colonist wrote, "What shall we say of the singular providence of God bringing so many shiploads of His people, through so many dangers, as upon eagles' wings, with so much safety from year to year?" American religious dissidents, resentful of Puritan triumphalism, were known to satirize this identification with biblical Israel and use it in gentle jibes against the Boston clerical elite. Peter Folger, Benjamin Franklin's grandfather, agreed with his Rhode Island compatriot Roger Williams that the Old Testament had too great a hold on American religious thought. In 1676 he wrote, "New England they are like the Jews, as like as like can be."[27]

And like Jews throughout the Diaspora, New England's laity and clergy established schools that would perpetuate traditions of Hebrew learning. All ten of the colleges founded on American soil before the Revolution offered instruction in "Hebrew and the shemitish languages." Harvard, the first college established in the American colonies, was founded and led by clergymen—scholars whose own academic interests were centered on Hebrew language and textual study. These clergymen endeavored to perpetuate their intellectual legacy in what Cotton Mather dubbed "New England's Beit Midrash." While expertise in Hebrew was the province of early Harvard's intellectual leadership, the study of the Bible in English was at the core of New England's spiritual life.

For all of the early English settlers, whether they were settled in the North or the South, the Bible was the central text of religious and political discourse. Though few were familiar with "the sacred writ in its original tongue," all knew the Bible in its various English translations. These translations appeared in print from the 1530s onward and they had a profound effect on English religious and political life. The Authorized Version or King James Bible, soon to become the standard text, was completed in 1611, only nine years before the establishment of Plymouth Colony. More than twenty Christian Hebraists, many of them familiar with the classical Jewish commentaries, were among the group of scholars that produced the King James Bible. Some of these scholars had studied with Jewish informants. All of them were heirs to the recently reconsidered Christian ideas about Hebrew and the Bible, ideas that would enter the colonial American mainstream and from there help shape the self-concept of Americans during the early years of the Republic.


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