Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"Spiritual Feminism" and Christian Hebraism: Women and the Study of Hebrew in Seventeenth Century Europe

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"Spiritual Feminism" and Christian Hebraism: Women and the Study of Hebrew in Seventeenth Century Europe

Article excerpt


As Raphael Loewe noted in his authoritative survey, the first step in the study of Christian Hebraism is the identification and evaluation of the approximately 1500 scholars of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries who contributed to the emerging Christian survey and assessment of Jewish languages and texts. "Only then can a conceptualization and analysis of the phenomenon take place." (1) In the quarter century since Loewe wrote this exhortation, a new body of scholarship on Christian Hebraism has emerged. None of these studies has focused on the subject of this paper: the participation of women in Hebraism's larger scholarly project. In the discussion that follows, I will explore this previously undescribed phenomenon and offer an interpretation of its significance.


Recent scholarship on Christian Hebraism, including Frank Manuel's The Broken Staff. Judaism through Christian Eyes (1992), has occasioned a re-evaluation of the Hebraist enterprise. Manuel has called for a reassessment of the relative importance of Hebrew studies in the Renaissance and Baroque periods: "The 'third culture,' the Hebrew, which alongside the Greek and the Latin was once an ornament of the trilingual gentlemen scholar, deserves a more prominent place in the history of western thought than has been accorded to it." (2)

Other scholars, including Gershom Scholem and his students, have examined the impact of Christian Kabbalism on the European intellectual tradition. Renaissance figures such as Pico dells Mirandola, in their search for unified intellectual systems, saw the Hebrew language as the key to those systems. Johann Reuchlin, first and foremost among the earl Hebraists, saw his Hebrew research as the way to demonstrate that the "Christian truth" was embedded in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. His book, De verbo mirifico [The Wonder-Working Word], (1494), struggled to prove that Jesus' Hebrew name was embedded in the tetragrammaton. His De arte cabalistica [On the Art of Kabbalah], (1517), used gematrfa, Hebrew numerology, to advance Christian Hebraist claims about Christological material in the Old Testament. As Gershom Scholem noted, Christian students of the Jewish mystical tradition developed a view of Kabbalah as "a body of secrets that held sacred meaning for Christians." Christian Kabbalists assumed that Kabbalistic texts were pre-Christian and that Jewish Kabbalists, including those who wrote in the Christian era, were Christians unaware of their own Christianity. Jewish texts were thought to be encoded messages of Christian beliefs, among them the mystery of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the nature of redemption. (3)

While all Christian Kabbalists studied Hebrew, not all Hebraists were students of Jewish mysticism; many scorned it as obscurantist and muddled. Thus there was some overlap between the Hebraists and Kabbalists, but it was only partial. Within Christian Hebraism a precise philological approach developed, an approach that rejected fanciful mystical interpretations of language.


The influence of Humanism brought considerable change to the educational systems of virtually all European countries. Boys were the main beneficiaries of these changes, which included schooling in the texts of classical antiquity, but girls were also to benefit from the new pedagogical theories. The Humanists' demand that "women be acknowledged as individual personalities equal with men," led to the assertion that women should be given an adequate education. (4) The intellectual currents stirred by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation also advanced the cause of women's education, though those changes were limited at first to social and political elites. in their attempt to weaken the Protestant opposition, the Bishops of the Counter-Reformation made the education of the young a priority and emphasized that the education of girls should be commensurate with that of boys. …

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