Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Johannes Reuchlin

(1455 – 1522)

Johannes Reuchlin (Capnio, or Phorcensis was a German and Hebraist; one of the architects of the Christian Kabbalah and famous as the defender of the Talmud and Jewish scholarship against the attacks of Johannes *Pfefferkorn and the "obscurantists." Born in Pforzheim, Baden, Reuchlin served Duke Eberhard of Wuerttemberg and Elector Philip of the Palatinate, was ennobled by Emperor Frederick III in 1492, and later served as a member of the Swabian League's supreme court (1502–13). One of the leading Greek scholars of his day, Reuchlin first tried to study Hebrew in Paris (1473) and is said to have learned the Hebrew alphabet from a Jew named Calman in 1486. Another of his early teachers is thought to have been the convert Flavius *Mithridates.

After a visit to the famous library of J. *Trithemius at Sponheim (1496), Reuchlin turned his attention to Hebrew linguistics, publishing De rudimentis Hebraicis (Pforzheim, 1506), comprising a lexicon and a students' guide to Hebrew grammar (based mainly on the work of David Kimḥi), which was oddly printed from right to left. Although Reuchlin's younger colleague, Conrad *Pellicanus, had published a brief, crude Hebrew grammar in 1504, the Rudimenta was in fact the real pioneering work of its kind by a Christian scholar. However, Reuchlin's De accentibus et orthographia linguae hebraicae (Haguenau, 1518) showed many improvements. Apart from various works of general humanistic scholarship, Reuchlin also published an annotated Hebrew text and Latin translation of seven penitential Psalms (Tuebingen, 1512), and a Latin version of Jehoseph *Ezobi's Ka'arat Kesef (ibid., 1512). Reuchlin's last public appointments were to the chairs of Greek and Hebrew at the University of Ingolstadt (1520–21) and of Hebrew at Tuebingen (1521–22). His lectures drew vast numbers of students and his pupils included the Hebraists Johann *Forster, Sebastian *Muenster, and Philipp *Melanchthon.

"Battle of the Books"

Reuchlin's attitude toward the Jews was, at first at least, far more ambiguous than it was toward Jewish scholarship. Despite his friendship with his Jewish teachers and a few other Jews, he initially shared the prejudices of his age and social class. Thus, while (in the prefatory dedication to his Rudimenta) he expressed his fear that the expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492) and other lands might adversely affect Hebrew studies, he showed little sympathy for the unfortunate Jews themselves who – until their conversion – remained in "the devil's captivity." This approach also characterized his Tuetsch Missive warumb die Juden so lang im Ellend sind (Pforzheim, 1505). Unlike Erasmus, however, Reuchlin had no strong personal bias against the Jews.

When, early in 1510, Reuchlin was visited by the apostate ex-butcher Johannes Pfefferkorn and was asked to assist in the confiscation and destruction of Hebrew books, he demurred, only to be drawn unwillingly into the affair by the imperial decree setting up a commission to deal with the problem. Although he felt a greater sense of outrage over the suppression of kabbalistic literature, Reuchlin refused to condemn the Talmud and, unlike most of his contemporaries, he would not agree to damn what he himself did not thoroughly know and understand. His reaction was characteristic: "The Talmud was not composed for every blackguard to trample with unwashed feet and then to say that he knew all of it." Only frankly anti-Christian works such as the *Toledot Yeshu were, in Reuchlin's opinion, liable to condemnation. Pfefferkorn and his backers, notably Jacob *Hoogstraaten and the Cologne Dominicans, accepted the challenge and, during the next decade, the "Battle of the Books" intermittently raged throughout Germany and in scholarly Christian circles further afield. Pfefferkorn's abusive and slanderous Handspiegel wider und gegen die Juden (1511) was answered by Reuchlin's Augenspiegel; Wahrhafftige Entschuldigung gegen und wider ains getaufften Juden genant Pfefferkorn … unwahrhaftigs Schmachbuechlin (Tuebingen, 1511) and supplemented by Ain clare verstentnus in tuetsch uff Doctor Johannsen Reuechlins Ratschlag von den Judenbuechern (ibid., 1512). When Hoogstraaten leveled a charge of heresy against the Augenspiegel and its author, Reuchlin appealed to Pope Leo X and, in a famous letter, sought the good offices of the papal physician, Bonet de *Lattes, a professing Jew, in terms reminiscent of the Book of Esther (1513). It may well be as a result of this appeal that Reuchlin stood trial not before Hoogstraaten at Cologne but before the bishop of Speyer, who acquitted him in 1514. This particular episode was more in the tradition of the Italian than of the German Renaissance.

Leo X called a temporary halt to the conflict in 1516, but the battle was resumed when Reuchlin's publication of the Clarorum virorum Epistolae Latinae, Graecae, et Hebraicae … ad J. Reuchlin (ibid., 1514), which contained a list of eminent German scholars who supported him, brought a curious response. An apparent rejoinder appeared, entitled Epistolae obscurorum virorum (1515, 15174), the total effect of which was to ridicule Reuchlin's opponents, the "obscurantists" (Dunkelmaenner), and bring their cause into utter disrepute. The first edition of this celebrated satire was mainly the work of Crotus Rubianus, and the two editions brought out in 1517 largely showed the hand of another of Reuchlin's allies, Ulrich von Hutten. One of the most advanced claims made by Reuchlin in the course of this battle was that the Jews be accorded proper treatment as "members of the Empire and imperial burghers." So far as the Jews themselves were concerned, victory had been achieved when Hebrew books were saved from the flames; but for the humanist intelligentsia the fight was not yet at an end. Pietro Columna *Galatinus published his De arcanis catholicae veritatis (Ortona, 1518) ostensibly as an anti-Jewish polemic, but its printer was Gershom *Soncino and it was, to a far greater extent, a Christian kabbalist's protest on Reuchlin's behalf. The latter's De arte Cabalistica (Haguenau, 1517) ended with a letter to Leo X regarding the Augenspiegel and this provoked Hoogstraaten's reply, Destructio Cabale … (Cologne, 1519), which in turn drew an answer from Paulus *Ricius. Reuchlin's own final contribution to the "Battle of the Books" was his Dialogus an Judaeorum libri Thalmud sint potius supprimendi quam tenendi … (Cologne, 1519).

Reuchlin's militant supporter, Franz von Sickingen, secured the deposition of Hoogstraaten and the silencing of the Dominicans in 1520, but in the same year Leo X, appalled by the gathering storm of the Reformation, decided the case against Reuchlin, all of whose works were subsequently placed on the Index. This was the supreme irony for, throughout the controversy, which had set Franciscans against Dominicans, Austria against France, and most of the humanists against the erudite reactionaries, Reuchlin had remained a loyal Catholic; and the *Reformation which the "Battle of the Books" had hastened, and in which Reuchlin's own nephew, Melanchthon, was to play a prominent part, evoked only bitterness and hostility from the weary, but unvanquished, Hebraist of Pforzheim.


L. Geiger, Johann Reuchlin; Sein Leben und seine Werke (1871); idem, Johann Reuchlins Briefwechsel (1875); H. Heidenheimer, in: MGWJ, 53 (1909), 17ff.; G.H. Box, in: E.R. Bevan and C. Singer (eds.), The Legacy of Israel (1927), 319–23 and index; G. Scholem, Die Erforschung der Kabbala von Reuchlin bis zur Gegenwart (1969); idem, Bibliographia Kabbalistica (1933), 126f.; idem, Ursprung und Anfaenge der Kabbala (1962), 275n., 375, 389; J.L. Blau, The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance (1944), 41ff.; J. Benzing, Bibliographie der Schriften Johannes Reuchlins im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert (1955); M. Krebs (ed.), Johannes Reuchlin, 14551522; Festgabe seiner Vaterstadt Pforzheim zur 500. Wiederkehr seines Geburtstages (1955); J. Litvin, in: Jewish Quarterly (= J. Sonntag (ed.), Caravan (1962), 32–44); F. Secret, Le Zôhar c hez les Kabbalistes Chrétiens de la Renaissance (19642), index; idem, Les Kabbalistes Chrétiens de la Renaissance (1964), 44–72 and index; J.R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World (1938), 159–64; G. Kisch, Zasius und Reuchlin (1961); J. Reucblin, Gutachten ueber das juedische Schrifttum, ed. by A. Leinz and V. Dessauer (1965); Baron, Social2, 13 (1969), 182–91, 197f.; H.H. Ben-Sasson, The Reformation in Contemporary Jewish Eyes (1970) = PIASH, 4 no. 12 (1970); M. Brod, Johannes Reuchlin und sein Kampf (1965).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.