George Eliot and Umberto Eco were smitten with Isaac Casaubon, perhaps Renaissance Europe’s leading man of letters, both writing novels inspired by him. It’s obvious why: he was a bibliophile whose love for the classics, literature and art were matched only by the influence he once held: a revered scholar in France, an advisor to King James in England.
In their new biography "I have always loved the Holy Tongue": Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship, Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg–both eminent scholars themselves, Grafton at Princeton, Weinberg at Oxford–recount a lesser-known story: Casaubon (1559–1614) revered the Hebrew bible. Moreover, his writings based on his reading of Jewish texts were so powerful that they even threatened to undermine the Catholic church. Perhaps also, they even led him to save a Jewish life.
In this excellent review of the book, Allan Nadler argues that Casaubon’s affinity for Jacob Barnet, a Jewish Italian talmudist who taught Casaubon Hebrew, led Casaubon to argue for clemency in Barnet’s subsquent arrest. In a case that evokes Shylock, Barnet was allowed to travel to teach at Oxford only on the condition that be baptised as soon as he got there. Barnet agreed, but reneged once he arrived, refusing the conversion. Consquently, he was thrown in jail.
"It was then," Nadler writes, "that Casaubon wrote the first of several letters to the Oxford dons and other clerical friends, pleading clemency for the man he affectionately called ‘our rabbi’ and begging them ‘not to whip him forward in his rush to doom.’"
In their book,Grafton and Weinberg caution against reading too much philosemitism in Casaubon’s case. After all, like most Christian scholars of Hebrew, he read the Hebrew bible not to better understand Jews but to better understand Christ. Tellingly, it was Casaubon’s historicism–his want to understand Jesus in his proper time and place–that made him so dangerous to the Catholic church.
A Protestant, Casaubon attacked the Vatican for its insistence that the Jews killed Christ. He used Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah to make this point, arguing that Christ’s crucifixion was standard practice of the time, not a divine symbol, and that Jesus lived his entire life as a Jew. Even more provocative, Casaubon argued that Jesus was buried according to Jewish custom. If that sounds strident even now, it only highlights how radical it was then.
In any event, Grafton and Weinberg write, despite "acquiring knowledge . . . of biblical, rabbinic, and medieval Hebrew literature, Casaubon does not appear to evince any real sympathy for Jews." Nadler gives a more generous interpretation, suggesting that Casaubon defended Barnet because his appreciation of Jewish religion. But the passage he quotes in Casaubon’s defense isn’t exactly inspiring; Casaubon wrote to Barnet’s imprisoners that the Talmudist was "brought up entirely on texts that contain dreadful blasphemies against our Savior, . . . the fact that he did not wish to become a Christian is not, in my opinion, a crime punishable by law."
It is not the kind of moral argument that speaks through the ages, but it worked. Barnet lived.