The Quarrels of Others: On Anti-Semitism
“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,” Antonio wonders at the outset of The Merchant of Venice. What could seem more universal, more culturally neutral than melancholy? Yet if David Nirenberg’s argument in Anti-Judaism is correct, by Shakespeare’s time the negative associations of Judaism were so universal, and so close to the surface of Christian consciousness, that Antonio’s words immediately prompt the suspicion that he might be a Jew. Other characters soon echo the suggestion. His friend Salerio attributes Antonio’s mood to anxiety about the safety of the ships carrying his merchandise overseas, thus taxing him with excessive regard for his money; then, when Antonio repudiates the accusation, another friend, Gratiano, charges him with hypocrisy. Either way, Nirenberg writes, Antonio “appears to be, in the vocabulary of Christianity, a ‘Jew.’”
But he is not, which Salerio had promptly indicated to the groundlings by speculating that these anxieties might assail Antonio even in church. Antonio just as promptly denies the speculation. Nevertheless, Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, is struck by the resemblance when they meet: “How like a fawning publican he looks!” (In the Gospels, “publicans” are Jewish tax collectors.) Moreover, throughout the play, disconcerting similarities in outlook and demeanor between Antonio and Shylock float uneasily beneath their mutual loathing. “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” Portia wonders as she arrives at the Duke of Venice’s court for Antonio’s trial. Nor does the confusion threaten the two protagonists alone. Whether Bassanio’s love for Portia is more urgent than his need for her fortune, and Jessica herself a richer reward for Lorenzo than the chest of jewels without which her elopement is unthinkable, both pairs of lovers constantly mingle the language of love and money. The same goes for the rest of the cast of what Nirenberg expounds as “a drama of chronic conversion whose every participant—including playwright and viewer—moves suspended like a compass needle between Judaism and Christianity.”
Nirenberg’s penetrating analysis of Shakespeare’s Jewish question transcends the hackneyed one of whether play or playwright is anti-Semitic. On the contrary, the crucial argument of this learned and disquieting book is that hostility to Judaism was far too deeply and pervasively woven into the fabric of Western Christianity for the presence of actual Jews to be necessary to arouse anti-Semitism. Long before that, Jews had been perceived (notably in Egypt) as hostile to all other peoples, their laws and their gods—the auxiliaries of successive invaders and the willing instruments of their tyranny—although those perceptions did not amount to a coherent or universal stereotype. But the Christians’ earliest records, the Epistles of Paul, show how much they identified themselves and defined their beliefs in opposition to Judaism. For the followers of Jesus, his death and resurrection meant jettisoning all previous certainty: “Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” asked Paul. “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified.”
Even so, for those early followers, the tension between the obligations of descent from Abraham and the desire to extend the message beyond his descendants was not easily resolved. The Scriptures, as they were still meant for all, could not simply be abandoned; they had to be accommodated to the new, transcendent reality, interpreted to show, according to Luke, how “all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms concerning me.” A new science of hermeneutics was devised to ensure, as Humpty Dumpty put it (but Nirenberg does not), that “when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.” Thus the followers of Jesus went about interpreting their beliefs and arguing out their relationship—and that of their gentile as well as Jewish converts—to the law and its demands. “To the extent that Jews refused to surrender their ancestors, their lineage, and their scripture,” Nirenberg explains, “they could become emblematic of the particular, of stubborn adherence to the conditions of the flesh, enemies of the spirit, and of God.”
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The Jesus movement, searching in its early years among a far greater variety of writings and teachings than would eventually be canonized three centuries or so later, disputed its way through a host of issues, from whether its founder was man or god to whether women could be vested with spiritual authority. It also had to find ways to distinguish between true and false prophets. A real or alleged relationship to Jews and Judaism was one such test, easily invoked but hardly clear-cut. Those who thought Christ a human prophet, for instance, denying his incarnation and resurrection in the flesh, could readily be condemned as Judaizers. But so could those who, holding him divine, insisted that he had inhabited a fleshly body nonetheless.
The accusation was directed by Paul at critics who insisted on circumcision, which he saw as an obstacle to his conversion of the gentiles. In the following centuries, the charge was deployed with ever-growing agility and flexibility, until it became almost mandatory in any debate to represent one’s opponent as sharing in or defending the errors of the Jews. Jerome, who had “a notable hatred for the circumcised,” denounced as Judaizers those Christians who defended the decoration of churches with holy images by citing the model of the Temple in Jerusalem— and was himself accused of Judaizing by Rufinus of Aquileia for having impugned the sanctity of the Greek Scriptures by learning Hebrew to get better texts for his translation, which became the Latin Vulgate. Augustine of Hippo, whom the Manichaeans had called a Judaizer for accepting Christ’s incarnation when he converted to Christianity, also worried that Jerome’s use of Hebrew texts risked granting the Jews interpretive authority over the Christian Scriptures. That anxiety surfaced again in the twelfth century, when some sought to resolve textual discrepancies among their copies of the Old Testament with the help of the very same Jews whom others represented as emissaries of Satan.
The malleability of this rhetoric readily made Jews the victims in the quarrels of others. When pagans attacked Christians as being worse than Jews from the perspective of Roman civic values, Christians retaliated by claiming that in refusing to acknowledge Christ, Jews had failed to follow their own prophets—for which, said the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (165 CE), they had been justly punished by the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and permanent exile. The greatest and most durable division among Christians after the Council of Nicaea in 325 was between Catholics and the Arians, whose account of the Trinity, the Catholics argued, denied the divinity of Christ. Called on to preach against the Arians in Antioch, where they were particularly strong, St. John Chrysostom began by announcing that their error was essentially the same as that of the Jews. The eight sermons that followed, known as his Discourses Against the Jews, set new standards in the violence and comprehensiveness of its denunciation. The Jews were not only obstinate, literal-minded enemies of the spirit—willfully blind to divine revelation, devoted to the world and the lusts of the flesh—but also animals, “not fit for work” but “fit for killing,” their souls and their synagogues the dwelling places of demons. They had nothing to do with the disputes that brought Antioch to Chrysostom’s attention, but he made them surrogates for all who denied the divinity of Christ—pagans, Arians and heretics of every kind, who, in Tertullian’s phrase, “borrowed poison from the Jew.”