“Mennonites and the Jews in the early Modern Era” – September 20, 2015

Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.

Open with asking what makes 1492 so important?

Beginning of a new era. The kicking out of the Jews from Spain. The final blow. Jewish scholar, Jonathan Israel says that “the catastrophes of the century 1470 – 1570, and above all the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the greatest single disaster to descend upon the Jews between the destruction of the second Temple and Hitler’s holocaust, transmitted shock waves to the furthest reaches of the Jewish world.”

Two options. Either Jews could convert and become Conversos

Or they could flee.

Exclusion and Expulsion developed after the massacre of Jews in Vienna in 1421. Soon they were expulsed from Linz, cologne (1424), Augsburg (1439), Bavaria (1442 and 1450), and Moravia (1454). Beginning of the anti-Jewish agitation. However, the real mass exodus of Jews from western and central Europe began in the later fifteenth century.

However, the Inquisition was installed in Spain and 1481 and in 1492, all Jews who refused baptism were kicked out In Portugal this continued in 1498, were 70,000 Jews were forced to be baptism in Portugal. However, more than 100,000 refused and fled to Italy, Northern Africa, and the Levant.

[The conquest of Granada in 1492, the last Spanish city under Muslim rule, signified the completion of the Reconquista. In the same year, the ruling couple Isabella I (1451–1504)  and Ferdinand II (1452–1526)  ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. The Spanish expulsion edict also extended to Southern Italy and Sicily. The only alternative to flight was conversion to Christianity.]

In Germany, we find instances where Jews were accused of murdering children to use their blood for ritual purposes. For example, in Trent, Jews were seized, tortured, and burned at the stake. The expulsions from Switzerland and Germany reached their peak in the 1490’s where there were numerous riots against them.

By 1570’s, Jews had been cleared from every major German secular territory except Hesse, and from every major imperial free city minus Frankfurt.

Jews were the scapegoats for everything! The black plague, etc.

We think Mennonites had it bad. Over 200,000 were forced to be baptized. Thousands were killed. Tens of Thousands had to flee their home. And we think Mennonites had it bad! Again everything centered on one thing. Baptism. Would the Jews be willing to be baptized. This was the entry world into the European world.

Mennonites come around some 30ish years later, these experiences still fresh in peoples mind. And here we had people undercutting the practice of baptism.

No surprising that sometimes they got lumped together! Jesuit priest, Joannes Schroter, “O dear people, you hate the Jews as enemies of Christ and so should you hate their offspring, the Mennonites!” It is clear that schroter wanted to stir up popular indignation against minorities. We also find orthodox Lutheran clergymen campaigning similar things from the pulpit. Fairly famous prayer from the early 18th century: “Keep us by your Word, O Lord, and deflect the murderous intentions of the Quakers, Mennonites, Jews and Turks, who desire to dethrone your Son, Jesus Christ.”

Ever since seminary, I’ve had this vague notion that the Jews and the Mennonites are more connected than we typically realize. That we might be able to learn a bit about one, when we study the other. However, I’ve never had time to really learn Jewish history.

Then about two years ago, some of my favorite authors released a book called Altai, the sequel to Q. In it we read a story about …. That peaked my interest once again.

So I entered the sabbatical with two questions which facilitated much of my experience and yet were not at the forefront. There are a few other related questions which I didn’t either have the time nor the information to begin processing.

What information can we find about any interactions Jews and Mennonites had together. Did persecuted people ever band together. The common motiff, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Did friendships form?

And the second and more interesting question, what, if anything, can the Jewish experience in the early modern world tell us about life on the ground for Mennonite communities? Can we find parallel structures in Mennonite and Jewish history and society?

So when I started to make a list of possible places to include in my sabbatical, there were a few places that I knew I couldn’t miss. Munster. Thuringia. Switzerland. South Germany. But other than that, I decided to try to select cities that had a substantial Jewish population as well as a Mennonite one. Which isn’t too hard to do, because typically the cities that welcomed the Mennonites/Anabaptists were the same cities that welcomed other prosecuted peoples. The Jews found refugee in these areas and much like the Mennonites slowly started to integrate themselves into these societies. This is why I went to places like Worms, which had the second largest Jewish population outside of Frankfurt in Germany. Strasbourg, Emden, Hamburg, Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Frisia. All had a significant Jewish population as well as a fairly large Mennonite one. There are many others which I didnt make it too. Like Moravia, Danzig, etc. I couldn’t go everywhere sadly.

Let’s answer the first question, first.

What information can we find about any interactions Jews and Mennonites had together. Did persecuted people ever band together. The common motiff, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Did friendships form?

Fairly quickly, it became clear that for the most part, the answer is no. There seem to have been few significant contacts between the two groups. For the most part, Mennonites and Jews, though they lived next door to one another, remained segregated from one another. They had different theologies, different religious offices, different ceremonies, different places of worship, different family connections and an awareness of belonging to different traditions.

Why did friendships not form more regularly? At least for the early Anabaptists and Mennonites, one of the main things which separated them centered around money. Mennonites vigorously opposed the use of any interest. Most early Anabaptists insisted that it was a sin to receive a usurious loan as well as to lend at interest. Jakob Strauss for example argued that in usury the devil murdered the souls both of lender and of borrower. Similarly, the governments of Bern, Zurich, and St Gallen all accused the Anabaptists of being misguided because “they hold and say that no Christian, if he really wants to be a Christian, may either give or receive interest or income on a sum of capital.” In a few weeks we are going to talk about early Anabaptist economics, and we will get into this more then. However, most Jews, even those who were engaged in selling wine, animals, or were involved in medicine, were also moneylenders. It was a despised job, one that Jews frequently had to take on to survive.

But I did find a few exceptions. Some more speculative than others. I do still have a hunch that there were more social relationships between Jews and Mennonites than we might think. However the ways they interacted daily as neighbors has escaped historical preservation, leaving on traces behind.

One of the more interesting interactions can be found in Worms in 1527. In 1527, Hans Denck and Ludwig Hatzler translated the first German translation of the Hebrew text, in the city of Worms. It is now known as the Worms Prophets. What is so interesting is the location of the translation. In the 16th century, Worms had the second biggest Jewish population in all of Germany, behind frankfurt. And a recent study has shown it likely that Jews aided them in this translation and guided them to Rabbinic biblical scholarship. Even Martin Luther criticized that this translation was influenced too much by the Jews!

Another odd group that we don’t know very much about is a small Anabaptist network known as the sabbatarians. The sabbatarians would fall under the category of the excluded Anabaptists which will be the focus of our last session. What we do know about the sabbatarians is that their communities tended to form near towns and cities that had a strong Jewish presence. The reason for this is uncertain. Was part of their mission to convert the Jews? Were this communities full of Jewish converts, conversos?

As you might be able to guess, the Sabbatarians strongly adhered to the sabbath, the Jewish sabbath. They maintained that Saturday and not Sunday was the day that Christians should worship. Instead of seeing the sermon on the mount as the center of Scriptures, these Anabaptists structured their life together around the Ten Commandments. These Anabaptists believed in capital punishment against those who violated the Decalogue. And they insisted that the New Testament does not supersede the validity of the moral law of the Old Testament. They also served in magisterial offices and were also known as the sword bearers. These Anabaptists lived mainly in Moravia and northern Hungary.

And then there are a few instances of people like Jan Theunisz, a distiller, innkeeper, printer, and linguist from Amsterdam. Jan is a fairly interesting guy because he also operated a famous tavern and dancing hall called Menniste Bruyloft. Who says Mennonites don’t dance!

Theunisz in 1610 was a witness to the visit of the Moroccan deputation to Holland commissioned by the Muslim king, Mulay Zaydan to conclude trade and diplomatic negotiations with the Dutch republic. Among the delegation was Zatan’s secretary, Abd Al-Aziz, who quickly became friends with Theunisz. Theunisz even invited Al-Aziz to come live with him and for the next four months, he did. The conversed in Arabic and even drafted a treatise together on the nature of Christ.

From what we know of Theunisz, he enjoyed making friendships with other minority groups. He taught Hebrew at the Amsterdam Academy and was one of the best known printers of Hebrew books. He strongly advocated for tolerance towards Jews, Muslims, Conversion and Moriscos. And he called for all religious groups to avoid using slander and pressure when seeking to convince others of errors in their religion.

However, exceptions do not make a rule. And just as often do we find Mennonites using Jews as a scapegoating vehicle, hoping to get Lutheran and Catholics off their backs by directing them to another. Similarly when the Quakers were trying to proselytize the Mennonites in Hamburg, and after a few Mennonites did convert, their pastor, Geeritt Roosen told the Quaker missionaries to spend more time among the Reformed, Catholics, Lutherans, and above all, the Jews. For these groups are more sinful than the Mennonites.”

This brings me to my second guiding question, this is the one I spent much more time wrestling with

What, if anything, can the Jewish experience in the early modern world tell us about life on the ground for Mennonite communities? Can we find parallel structures in Mennonite and Jewish history and society?

To this question, I think the answer is a resounding YES. I firmly believe that one of the best ways to understand Mennonite culture and history is by entering into Jewish history. The parallel structures and experiences are numerous. However, it should be noted that they don’t always line up perfectly, Judaism is after all an ancient tradition!

There are two ways of seeing the connections between the two. The first is by looking at the timeline. The period of widespread persecution ends at about the same time for the Jews and the Mennonites in Western Europe, in the 1570’s. By this time, it became clear that the religious wars were not going to yield a clear decision. Religious skepticism rose. Violent persecution began to be questioned.

Michael Driedger states it best: “The sixteenth century was a period of sudden and traumatic reorientation of Jewish and Christian cultures. Jewish and Anabaptist contemporaries suffered and reacted in similar ways to similar pressures. Many began searching for safer territories in which to practice their nonconformist beliefs, while others adopted Nicodemian strategies.

Then you can argue that the 1570’s until the end of the 30 year war was a time of transition for most Jewish and Mennonite communities. It now becomes easier for both to find territories in which to settle and establish roots. It is during this period that the Mennonites start to become less radical. Mennonites stopped being interested in changing the world according to the biblical model. This is when the Mennonites and the Jews start forming communities in the same places (Northern Germany, the Netherlands, Eastern Europe). For the most part they kept to themselves and just tried to not rock the boat.

Then you can argue that after the 30 year war marks a time of partial reintegration back into European society. This partial reintegration seems to be connected. For example in Germany in the Rhineland and the Palatinate, rulers invited both Mennonites and Jews to settle in this region. They were invited to do different jobs, but for the same reason.  The 30 year war had completely ravished this area. Repopulation was a serious concern. Mennonites were invited to farm. Jews were invited to help restore trade and to establish manufacturing industries. They settled in similar areas.

In the Netherlands, this was a time of relative prosperity for both the Jews and the Mennonites. The rich elite developed trade networks over long distances. Due to their wealth, limited toleration was the norm. Both became social and political conformists in order to preserve the stability of community life.

However, timelines only tell you so much about the connections. The reality is that early Mennonite history is radically singular, diverse, and heterogeneous. There are very little common features that seem to link communities together. Often, it seems best to reconstruct Mennonite history on a microlevel.

That is where this book is immensely helpful. In this book, he considers five elements that help us to understand Jewish cultural experience. These categories help him begin to speak about a connected early modern Jewish culture. The five elements that he comes up with (mobility, communal cohesiveness, with a raise in lay leadership, knowledge explosion due to the printing press and the sheer number of Jewish printers, blurred religious identities, and lastly the crisis of rabbinic authority).

Of these elements, I believe the first four correlate really well with the Mennonite experience. Maybe if Mennonites had been around for thousands of years before there would have been a crisis of authority as well. However, Mennonites cared little for religious authority, which is similar to the Jews of this period.

I don’t have time to outline all of these areas. However, Mennonites on the move was a theme for the entire early modern period. Dislocation happened during the early years due to persection. However, afterwards, dislocation continued at a rabid rate due to work, there were lot of Mennonite merchants and sailors, due to marriage, it was quite frequent for Mennonites to marry other Mennonites from far away communities. Relatives lived far away.

The centers of mobility were typically the same for both communities. Amsterdam was a center, Emden, Hamburg, Danzig. Amsterdam was the first major seminary for both communities as well. Both communities regularly mobilized money to address emergencies taking place elsewhere.

Quoting Ruderman (42)

2 Communal cohesion. Leadership was very similar between the two. Pastors had very little power in both communities. In most communities, the power centered on the few wealthy families in the community. They served on the most important boards, over and over and over again. Merchants had more power than rabbis and pastors in Mennonite communities. Communities also went to great lengths to appease the cities, and their leadership and worked hard to keep the rest of the community in line.

Mingled identities. It was typical for both Mennonites and Jews to switch allegiances multiple times during one’s lifetime. Jews would switch between Jewish and catholic. Mennonites between Mennoniet and whoever was in power. Sometimes this was a tool for safety, other times this was done for economic advancement. Both had a great fluidity built into the religious structure. No one seemed to care to much if you switched back and forth. Mennonites would welcome you back. Both were also quite open to marrying outside the community, at least in the earlier periods. Both also were Nicodemeans. They acted one way, while believing another.

There are a number of other interesting parallels between the two groups. Let me highlight one. Disciplinary sanction was crucial to both the Jewish life and Mennonite life during this period. Jews had three different types of sanctions. Expulsion was the rarest, and it was most often used against bankrupt believers. And from what I read about expulsion in the Mennonite community in Hamburg, this is true for them as well. Bankruptcy was by far the most prominent reason for one to get kicked out of the Mennonite community there, with adultery being second.