STRANGER THAN FICTION: Solomon on the River Thames

Of Humber would complain, I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews. ( Andrew Marvel , 1650 )

Convinced that Armageddon was at hand, the God-fearing Christians of the seventeenth-century turned to embrace the persecuted Jews- until the dream of millennium had faded. …

Philo-semitism. Of course, since Pharoah discovered the talents of Joseph, there has always been “interested” philo-semitism. Throughout history, rulers and landlords have constantly needed liquid cash and found themselves rich only in solid land and distant, uncollected revenues. The jews, forbidden to own land or afraid to invest in a commodity which they could not carry with them on their next exodus, specialized in liquidity. So, throughout the Middle-Ages, Christian and Moslem rulers employed Jewish treasurers and financiers and protected them against pogroms.

Author : REMBRANDT HARMENSZOON VAN RIJN Date :c. 1665 Technique :Oil on canvas, 121,5 x 166,5 cm Type :portrait Form :painting Location :Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (on loan)

In fifteenth-century Spain they became the real aristocracy. If, in the end, they were expelled from both countries, that was because kings found it prudent to yield to popular pressure. But this philo-semitism of economic interest, this love of kings for “King’s Jews,” is obviously quite different from a disinterested movement of philo-semitism.

There is another kind of philo-Semitism which has also appeared from time to time. In times of jealous orthodoxy, of “closed societies” , human thought has sometimes been liberated by “outsiders” who are free, or forced, to cross thse heavly fortified intellectual frontiers. So in the Middle Ages it was Jews who conveyed Arabic science into Christian thought. It was Jews also-converted Jews who had never fallen under the full sway of Christian doctrine- who loosened the oppressive religion of Renaissance Spain. Continually, in such times, adventurous men trusted themselves to Jewish guides. But even this philo-Semitism, though more intellectual than that of Pharaoh, is not quite disinterested….

---Abraham Teaching Astrology to the Egyptians c. 1665 Oil on canvas, 276 x 370 cm Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice The subject, fairly rare in seventeenth-century paining, was described by Josephus in his Early History of the Jews. The episode relates that Abraham came to know God not through reading the Scriptures but by studying the stars.---

“He was a real person. Jesus, but he wasn’t like God, and we don’t believe he is God.” Slowly, Ozzie was explaining Rabbi Binder’s position to Itzie, who had been absent from Hebrew School the previous afternoon.

“The Catholics,” Itzie said helpfully

8220;they believe in Jesus Christ, that he’s God.” Itzie Lieberman used “the Catholics” in its broadest sense–to include the Protestants.

Ozzie received Itzie’s remark with a tiny head bob, as though it were a footnote, and went on. “His mother was Mary, and his father probably was Joseph,” Ozzie said. “But the New Testament says his real father was God. ”

“His real father?”

“Yeah,” Ozzie said, “that’s the big thing, his father’s supposed to be God.”


“That’s what Rabbi Binder says, that it’s impossible–”

“Sure it’s impossible. That stuff’s all bull. To have a baby you gotta get laid,” Itzie theologized. “Mary hadda get laid.” ( Philip Roth, The Conversion of the Jews )

…There was a movement that occurred during one generation, roughly between 1630 and 1660, mainly, but not exclusively in Protestant countries. It culminated in Oliver Cromwell’s readmission of the Jews to England after an exile of 350 years. And it was not inspired by financial need or even by intellectual advantage: it sprang from a genuine, if somewhat crack-brained , cult of the Jews.

Rembrandt. Old Jewish Man

Of course, there are always people who think that no movement is disinterested. There were people then, like Bishop Burnet and King Charles II , and there have been people since, like German sociologist Werner Sombart, who suppose that Cromwell courted the Jews because he needed their financial support. But in fact, this is likely untrue. There was not a Jew among the financiers of the English puritan republic. In fact, economic reasons were advanced against, not for, their readmission since it was said their rivalry would damage English merchants. The arguments used in their favor were religious, mystical, even messianic, the reflection of ideas which were not only English but European.

What was the source of those ideas? Scholars, examining the philo-semite literature of the day, deduced their separate tributaries. There was the puritan study of the Old Testament, the new interest in Hebrew studies, the new belief in religious toleration. But agreement on these issues does not solve the problem. New movements are not caused merely by adding up current ideas but by some force which sweeps them together and along. What force made them move? The experience may have been the Thirty Years War, or rather, the earlier part of it: the Protestant bebacle of the 1620′s. The streams which, in those tempestuous days, were churned together were the springs of millenary doctrine quietly bubbling in universities and parsonages throughout Europe.

"Rembrandt took the Hebrew inscription from a book by his printer, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. However, Rembrandt obviously knew no Hebrew, since the words "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin," inscribed by a mysterious hand appearing out of nowhere, are written vertically rather than horizontally. The exact meaning of the phrase is disputed, but generally it is interpreted as a warning to the Babylonian king Balthazar, or Belshazzar, that his days were weighed and numbered. And, indeed, the king was killed by his Persian enemies the night of his celebratory banquet." WSJ

All over Europe, and particularly Protestant Europe, for a whole generation, scholars and clergymen had been seeking to squeeze out new truths out of the mysteries of the Bible, and to illustrate them by the new events both on earth and in the skies. By such methods they had already worked out the order of future events, identified the symbols of the Apocalypse, pinpointed the millennium, calculated the number of the Beast. The men who did this were often harmless armchair clergymen who nowadays would be sitting in their clubs solving cross word puzzles; others of them distinguished scientists, mathematicians, educators.

“…What Ozzie wanted to know was always different. The first time he had wanted to know how Rabbi Binder could call the Jews “The Chosen People” if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal. Rabbi Binder tried to distinguish for him between political equality and spiritual legitimacy, but what Ozzie wanted to know, he insisted vehemently, was different. That was the first time his mother had to come.

Then there was the plane crash. Fifty-eight people had been killed in a plane crash at La Guardia. In studying a casualty list in the newspaper his mother had discovered among the list of those dead eight Jewish names (his grandmother had nine but she counted Miller as a Jewish name); because of the eight she said the plane crash was “a tragedy.” During free-discussion time on Wednesday Ozzie had brought to Rabbi Binder’s attention this matter of “some of his relations” always picking out the Jewish names. Rabbi Binder had begun to explain cultural unity and some other things when Ozzie stood up at his seat and said that what he wanted to know was different. Rabbi Binder insisted that he sit down and it was then that Ozzie shouted that he wished all fifty-eight were Jews. That was the second time his mother came.

“And he kept explaining about Jesus being historical, and so I kept asking him. No kidding, Itz, he was trying to make me look stupid.”… ( Philip Roth, The Conversion of the Jews )

They certainly did not think they were launching a movement. They wrote in Latin, and often were not translated until after their death. Their ideas circulated quietly, often in a vulgarized form, in country houses and colleges, or were quoted with respect in pulpits. Then, suddenly, in the 1620′s these academic prophecies assumed a grim topicality. The disasters which they had announced seemed at hand.

The 1620′s were years of economic depression and ideological war that molded for life, a whole generation, holding them together by the bond of a deep and terrible shared experience. All over Europe, the lights of Protestant Christendom were going out; to a man like Cromwell, there was an apparently irresistible advance of the ideological enemy, Catholicism; all resistance was overpowered and the dull harsh machinery of spiritual reconquest moved on.

Surely, Protestants thought, this was the Armageddon which scripture had once darkly prophesied and scholarship now clearly deduced. Had not Thomas Brightman, the founder of the new “science” of prophecy, stated thirty years before  that ” there is an immeasurable gulf full of miseries already prepared, and that we do stand on the very brink of it”? The consolation was that Brightman had promised, after Armageddon, the millennium. By 1650, he wrote, the ultimate triumph of Christ would be made possible by that essential preliminary, the conversion of the Jews.

All through the early years of that great war, European Protestants saw the unfolding of the new cosmology. Every year brought new details to confirm it. And meanwhile its prophets were scattered and their doctrines more widely disseminated. As during WWII Europe was full of displaced , fugitive intellectuals preaching and sometimes revising their “scientific” prophecies. As they fled from one precarious stop to another, they broadcast their doctrines, and their doctrines seemed at the time, horribly plausible.

Moreover, as they fled, these men could not fail to discover another race of men who, like themselves, were both zealous and persecuted. In the merchant cities of the Baltic and the North Sea, in the ghettos of Eastern Europe, the Protestant millenarists found fellow victims of persecution fumbling with like zeal through the same holy writ and discovering the similar promise of a Messiah. What the European Protestants, “the people of God,” were experiencing in their own lives, the Jews, that other chosen people, had experienced throughout their whole history.

Under the pressure of common beliefs and common disasters, a new bond was formed between Hebrews and Hebraists, cabalists and chiliasts. In the hour of despair many of them decided to pool their scriptures and amalgamate their Messiahs. Out of this fusion under pressure and at high temperatures the mysical philo-Semitism of the European Protestants was born.

ROME – On Good Friday, two days before Easter, a prayer titled “Let us Pray for the Conversion of the Jews” was recited in Latin by traditionalist Catholic congregations in Italy, plus 16 sections of the Society of Saint Pius.

The ultra-conservative society, whose excommunication was lifted by Pope Benedict XVI last year, has yet to be fully reintegrated into the Catholic Church, because of its refusal to accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In 2007, in an effort to bring the traditionalist elements of the Church back into the fold, Benedict issued a “Motu Proprio” declaration allowing wider use of the 1962, pre-Vatican II Roman Missal containing this prayer, which was previously restricted to small groups. Three years ago only 30 Italian churches were affected by that decision, as opposed to the 118 that regularly use the liturgy today.

The word “conversion,” however, was not supposed to have been part of the title of this traditionalist Good Friday prayer. The official text, personally revised by the pope after Israel’s Chief Rabbinate expressed concerns regarding its content, was circulated in a note by Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, in February 2008, bearing a new official title – “Oremus et pro Iudaeis,” or “Let us Pray for the Jews.” However, quite unexpectedly, that title has been changed to “Let us Pray for the Conversion of the Jews” in the brand new luxury re-edition of the missal currently flying off the shelves in Vatican bookstores.

“The love of the Hebrews for their country
was not only patriotism but also piety,
and was cherished and nurtured by daily rites
until, like their hatred of other nations,
it was absolutely perverse ~
as it very well might be,
considering that they were
a peculiar people and entirely apart from the rest.

Such daily reprobation naturally gave rise
to a lasting hatred,
deeply implanted in the heart:
for of all hatred,
none is more deep and tenacious
than that which springs from
extreme devoutness or piety,
and is itself cherished as pious.”
~ BARUCH SPINOZA 17th Century Philosopher
(Tractatus theologico-politicus)

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