Although called a`Judaizer" and considered by many to be a secret Jew, van Helmont described himself as a "Seeker," who, for all his wanderings across Europe during his long life, remained intensely curious. Not many octogenarians plan, as van Helmont did, to travel to India to consult the Brahmins in the hope of obtaining new and better answers to life's great existential questions.
Spath's conversion was very different from what van Helmont would have wanted or expected, for to quote one of the Inquisition's charges against him, "Occasionally he was heard to say that anyone is able to be saved in his own faith according to his own inner light and the light of conscience. (1)
Spath grew up in Augsburg, a first hand witness to the economic devastation caused by the Thirty Years' War and the embittered religious divisions left in its wake. As the son of a shoemaker, Spath was forced at an early age to make his own living, and he became a tutor. His first extended contacts with Protestants came when he tutored a young Italian boy, and the Protestant family with whom the boy was lodging challenged Spath to defend his Catholic faith. as a result of these debates he at some point went to Tubingen, where he converted to Lutheranism. The exact date of his conversion is uncertain. but it occurred when he was an adult.
His new-found faith was not, however, to the liking of orthodox Lutherans, for he favored the mystical works of Boehme and Weigel, a leaning shared by the Lutheran Superintendent in Augsburg, Gottlieb Spitzle or Theophilus Spizelius (1639-91), who became a close friend and admirer."
In 1680 Spath wrote a work in the spirit of Boehme entitled Iretaypatpia Theologico philosophico-aeligmata, which so captivated Spitzel that he recommended Spath to influential Protestants in Strassbourg, where he obtained another position with an apothecary named Greim, attended lectures at the university, and did some preaching. At his point in his life Spath's piety and enthusiasm was so strong that he described himself as a "second Luther."
Things nevertheless came to such a point that Spath regretted his conversion, claiming that one should remain in the faith into which one was born. But before reconverting to Catholicism, he determined to consult Friedrich Breckling, the outspoken and divisive leader of the spiritualist, and chiliastic "left wing" Lutherans in Amsterdam. Breckling himself had decried "the Babel of today's Christianity," which he described as "a refuge of night owls, dragons, hedgehogs, wolves, basilisks, otters, sorcerers, ghosts [Feldgeister], whores, and living devils." ("Das Babel der heutigen Christenheit is eine Behausung voller Nachteulen. Drachen, Igel, Wo1fe, Basilisken, Ottern, Zauberer, Feldgeister, Huren und lebendiger Teufel" cited in Samter, `Johann Peter Speath", p.185)
Spath wanted to understand how Breckling could remain a Lutheran given such a situation. He apparently received no help from Breckling, whom he referred to in his letter to Frau Petersen as "that irascible spirit" ("Der grimmigen Geister") and later derided as an "old squabbler" ("alte Zanker").
In 1683 Spath reconverted to Catholicism.` However, his doubts about Catholicism did not vanish with his re-conversion. They only increased as he became more familiar with the writings of such mystical and radical sects as the Mennonites and anti-Trinitarian Socinians.
It is at this point in his life, or perhaps some time earlier, that he came under the influence of Francis Mercury van Helmont and moved to Sulzbach to help in the printing and publication of the Kabbala deuudata. The exact dates of Spath's residence in Sulzbach are unkown. But it had to be sometime between 1676 and 1684 because the first two parts of' the Aahbala denudata were published in 1677 and 1678 and the second volume in 1684.
The exact events are unclear again, but for some years before his official conversion to Judaism in 1696, Spath resided in Amsterdam, where he assumed the name Moses Germanus. After being initially rebuffed by the leaders of the Portuguese synagogue, Spath was officially converted and circumcised.
The most complete account of Spath's life and conversion is found in Johann Jacob Schudt's monumental four volume work entitled Jiidische A1erwurdigkeiten, or Jewish Peculiarities,`-" which was published in Frankfurt and Leipzig in 1714. Schudt is a good example of a Christian Hebraist whose very knowledge of Jews and Judaism make his attitude towards Jews problematic. While he is aware, as uneducated Christians were not, of the kind of historical discrimination practiced against the Jews and the way this forced them into trade and money-lending, he still has to look for deeper motives to explain why Jews engage in the business practices they do. And these motives, in Schudt's opinion, can only lie in the peculiar and innate character of Jews.
It also includes Schudt's fear that Christians will convert to Judaism if the Jews are not effectively silenced and prohibited from proselytizing is a constant theme in the work of many other Christians and Christian Hebraists as well.
Here the Christian Kabbalah was singled out as especially dangerous and enticing in this regard because it was thought to undermine Christianity by presenting Judaism in a positive light. This was the view of Frederich Christian Bucher. a Lutheran who took great interest in Spath's conversion, going so far as to publish the letter written by Spath (under his Jewish name Moses Germanus to Frau Petersen. In his annotations to this letter Bucher attributes Spath's conversion to his exposure to the Kabbalah, which he claims penetrated into Lutheran Pietism through Spencr, who was for a period a close friend of van Hclmont. Biicher's indictment of Spener, and by way of Spener, the Kabbalah, is worthwhile quoting at some length because it reveals the unsettling effect that biblical criticism and the recovery of Jewish and pagan sources were having on Christian beliefs. Bucher targets philological studies as especially detrimental to a true understanding of scripture, and reiterates Luther's claim that scripture is self-explanatory and decries the fact that theologians resort to traditions like the Kabbalah to explicate Christian texts:
I might well ask a theologian whether holy scripture is not in itself a light to explain its own terms and words and build in us useful and necessary teachings about the natural things God wishes to reveal. Otherwise, where shall one find the explanation? Perhaps in the Rabbinic Cabbala? That is without doubt the heinielion and precious treasure that D. Spener craves: because after I examined his Platonism I could easily imagine that above all other philosophies he liked the mystical theology of the Jews, which is called Kabbalah, although it would be better to call it a Cabale of Egyptian, Zoroastrian, and Pythagorean garbage, through which the devilish teachings of the pagans were not only introduced into the Jewish Church before the time of Christ but also later into the Christian Church. We have sufficient evidence of this not only in Reuchlin's De Verbo Miri ico and De Arte Cabbalistica but in the devotional book of Henry More about the cabbalistic catechism and a few other mystical books of the Rabbis, in which he points out with ample evidence the very close relationship of Jewish teachings with Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy.
Bucher does not think it a coincidence that the Pietists became active at the very time the first volume of the Kabbala denudata was published (1677). In his view the interest Pietists showed in the Kabbalah was directly responsible for Spath's lamentable conversion: "... one clearly sees what little fruit Pietists have gathered from Plato's bee garden and that because of it one of the most zealous Pietists was seduced into renouncing the Christian religion and taking up the Jewish seal."
Schudt and other Christians felt offended by a letter Bucher published(Schudt.,Jfdische Alerkvurdigkeiten, I: 273):
The letter which he wrote to Herr Dr. Petersen's wife, describing his apostasy, was published by Herr Bucher in quarto in Danzig in 1699. I initially intended to insert it here, ~ but with good reason I omitted it on account of the infuriating statements about Christ spewed out by this villain for fear that they might give the wrong idea to those with weak faith.... Herr Bucher was greatly suspected for printing this godless letter in Danzig and for allowing it to circulate in Saxony, since it happened both in Danzig and in other places that not only were various people led astray from Christianity by it but also had it in mind to deny the Christian religion. But those people were rightfully helped again by other pious Christians and given a stronger foundation [for their beliefs] It should also be mentioned that in many places, such as the Holy Roman Empire where Spath was born and lived for the greater portion of his life, the conversion of a Christian to Judaism was a crime punishable by death.
The traditional view of the Renaissance and Reformation as periods of philosemitism has been qualified in recent years as scholars have increasingly revealed the very real limits to this phenomenon. together with the increasing hostility to Jews and Judaism.
But the attempt to distinguish between anti-Judaism and antisemitism, has been undermined by the work or Heiko Oberman, Jerome Friedman, Jonathan Israel and Po-Chia Hsia. In the view of these scholars the enthusiasm of Renaissance Christians for Hebraica. characteristic of Pico delta Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin, was first dampened by the Reuchlin-Pfderkorn controversy and then fundamentally distorted by the conflicts of the Reformation period.
By the mid-sixteenth century judaizing" became an all-too-convenient, pejorative epithet for Catholics in their fight against Protestants and for Protestants in their fight against each other. With the reaffirmation of the Vulgate as divinely inspired at the Council of Trent, the Catholic interest in Hebraica, which had always been less than the Protestant, diminished even further. The popular Catholic revival of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries further encouraged antisemitic sentiments by resuscitating charges of blood libel, which had largely been discredited. In such a situation the embattled Christian Hebraists who were left jumped on the bandwagon of antisemitism to prove that they were good Christians because they hated Jews like everyone else. (Heiko Oberman. The Roots of AntiSenutron in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, trans., 1984: Jerome Friedman, The Clost Ancient Testimony: Sixteenth-Century (,hostian-Hebraica in the Age of Renaissance Nostalgia ,1983: Jonathan Israel. European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1985; Po-chia Hsia, The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany , 1988', Miriam Yardeni, Anti-Jewish Mentalities in Early .Modern Europe 1990;: Ruth Mcllinkoff, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Vorthern European Art of the Late Middle Ages. 2 vols, 1993; R. Po-chia Hsia and Hartmut I,ehmann (eds.), In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentle Relations in Late iledieoal and Early: Modern Germany, 1995):
This fact alone suggests that the characterization of the seventeenth-century, and indeed of the Renaissance and Reformation periods as a whole, as philosemitic is problematic. Nonetheless, some scholars argue that the antagonism between Christians in the post-Reformation era was so great that it deflected Christian hatred from the Jews and led to a lessening of tension and antagonism between the two groups." Unfortunately the reservoirs of hate seem to have been limitless, and while attitudes towards the Jews may have been "disenchanted," to use R. Po Chia Hsia's phrase, and stripped of their magical and sacramental character,'" new forms of anti-Semitism emerged predicated on overtly racial stereotypes. The revival of charges of ritual murder and the image of Jews as vampires "sucking" Christian dry with their usurious practices clearly illustrate that the practice of demonizing Jews continued. In fact, there is a great deal to suggest that the antisemitism of the early modern period was even worse than that of the Middle Ages; and nowhere was this more obvious than in those areas which roughly encompass modern-day Germany, especially among Lutherans.
The virulence of Lutheran antisemitism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been emphasized by historians. R. Po-chia Hsia gives the example of the Lutheran Pastor, George Schwartz, whose denunciations of Jews were even more violent than Luther's. In his diatribe Judett Feind, Schwartz resurrects all the old charges against the Jews host desecration, ritual murder, and well-poisoning and he makes it clear that Jews can never be anything else but Jews. The promise of Galatians 3:28 is null and void in their case:
A Jew is a Jew, baptized or circumcised, for all I care. Even if they are of diverse origins, they belong to a guild. They all serve one god, whom Christ named Mammon. Who in the end with his servants, will go to the Devil's oven."(Cited in R. Po-chia Hsia, "The Usurious Jew: Economic Structure and Religious Representations in an Anti-Semitic Discourse," In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile relations in late rnedieval and early modern Germany, 169.)
A prime example of the way the fortunes of war and politics can interfere with the beliefs and affiliations of individuals occurred in the territory of Sulzbach, where Spath came to work on the Kabbala denudata.
By the time Spath arrived in Sulzbach, the Prince, Christian August, had proclaimed an unusual and widely disliked policy of religious toleration, going so far as to decree that the major denominations were required to share existing church facilities and divide Church offices and resources between them. Before this time the citizens had been forced to change their religion from Lutheranism to Catholicism and back again several times as a political battle for the control of the territories was fought between Christian August, who had been baptized a Lutheran, and his fiercely intolerant Catholic. cousin, Philipp Wilhelm of Neubutg. (For a thorough discussion of Christian August's difficult relationship with his cousin, see Volker \Vappmann, Durdzbruch tur Tolerant: Die Religzonspolitik des I'hlggrafen Christian August von Sultbach, 1622-1708, 1995).
Christian August's tolerant policy, which he enacted after he gained full sovereignty over the Sulzbach territories, sprang from his own deeply held ecumenical views. These, in turn, had emerged from the spiritual crisis he experienced as a relatively young man (which caused him to convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism) and from his subsequent immersion in the Kabbalah.
Thus Sulzbach was perhaps the only place where true philosemitism flourished, for here Jews were accepted as Jews, not simply as possible converts.-" Conversion was not an issue among the Kabbalists at Sulzbach because they firmly believed that the Kabbalah provided the means for uniting every kind of Christian with every kind of Jew, Moslem, and Pagan in a single, universal religion.
It was in this atmosphere that Spath gained the positive attitude towards Jews that eventually led to his conversion. Christian August's policy towards the Jews was highly unusual for a ruler of the time. Not only did he encourage the immigration of ,Jews into the Sulzbach territories, but he protected the Jews who came and never made his protection a means of extortion, as did so many other Christian rulers. The Christian Hebraist Johann Christoph Wagenscil made special mention of Christian August's dismissal of the charge of ritual murder as an outright lie and his threat to punish any subject who spread such rumors: After the rumor started for the second time in his territory, in 1682 and 1692, that the Jews had hanged Christian children, a rumor which was investigated and found to be totally false, he also had official proclamations nailed .p everywhere to the effect that his subjects and inhabitants were strictly admonished under pain of mandatory corporal punishment not to believe this aforementioned vain fiction and lying rumor, much less to spread it further or to command or allow their children, servants or tenants to speak of it, let alone to verbally attack a Jew or ask, or allow, someone to attack a Jew because of these rumors.
The fact that so many Christians continued to believe Jews capable of murdering innocent children was an important factor in Spath's conversion to Judaism. Another point is that Judaism and Christianity were both profoundly influenced by Neoplatonism, which described creation in terms of emanation from "The One" and encouraged the idea that this emanation occurred through triads or "Trinities." In explaining how The One became the many and a reason for conversion in both directions.
It was Plotinus who introduced the concept of the three Hypostases, a Greek term interpreted as meaning "origin," "substance," "real nature" or "first principle." According to Plotinus' formulation in The Enneads, the first of these Hypostases was The One (to hen), the second, Intellect or Mind (Nous) and the third, Soul (pyche) (Enneads 5. 1.) While Plotinus saw these as three separated entities, each one emanating from the previous one, Proclus tended to abolish any absolute distinction between them and "telescope" them into one. Christians were happy to see prefigurations of the Trinity in these triadic formulations (Proclus was especially helpful in this respect), and, indeed, it has been suggested that neoplatonic philosophy helped Christian theologians formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. Such triads made their way into Judaism and Islam through the infiltration of neoplatonic ideas, thus opening the way for Trinitarian interpretations of these rival religions by proselytizing Christians.
Moses Germanus' fury at this perceived desecration of authentic Jewish texts relishes the thought of Knorr, who had died seven years before, rotting in his grave, forever barred from the face of God as he added in his letter to van Helmont:
The reason that I pour out my heart to you is the so-called Hecatomb or hundred panegyrics that you explained to me at that time in Frankfurt with the printed page in hand and, while doing so, dictated marginalia to me, which I have enjoyed for so many years and which finally appeared in von Rosenroth's Neuen Helicon and which I excessively recommended to others.
In Moses Germanus' opinion all of the kabbalistic works produced by Knorr and van Helmont deserved censure because they are either fabrications largely derived from pagan philosophy or vain and blasphemous speculations based on misinterpretations of Jewish tradition. He draws on the opinions of various experts to question the accuracy of the biblical text and he ridicules various pagan philosophies and even the work of Boehme, which he had previously revered, for asserting that the one, true God could suddenly become many. He ends his letter with the same mixture of obsequiousness and censure he displayed earlier. He begs van Helmont not "to push him away" but at the same time adjures him to "banish, tear up and burn" the Kabbala denudata as well as a number of his other books.
In his book Spinoza im Judenthums, Johann Georg Wachter made the claim that Moses Germanus did not convert to "real" Judaism but to a disguised form of Spinozism as a result of van Helmont's influence and the mistaken assumption that Spinoza's philosophy was the closest thing possible to the Kabbalah. But Wachter was wrong, in his final letter to van Helmont, Moses Germanus repudiated the Kabbalah in the form presented by Knorr and van Helmont.
He also repudiated Spinoza for his betrayal of the Jewish belief in human free will and for his conviction that reason, not revelation, was the source of all knowledge.
Here he was influenced however by Christian Hebraists, for drawing on the work of Johannes Leusdens (1624-99), Professor of Middle Eastern languages at the University of Utrecht (and one of his correspondents), Moses Germanus in fact dismissed the Christian Church as an invention from the period of Constantine. Moses Germanus also realized that all the signs Jesus mentioned concerning the imminent Apocalypse were modeled on accounts of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE." He also argued that the author of the Book of Revelation interpreted the destruction of' the temple as the beginning of the millennium.' In taking these positions Moses Germanus anticipated many modern scholars who claim that early Christianity represented a special form of Jewish eschatology.
Eventually, Spath considered van Helmont as an "old pagan," because Spath had absorbed the historical critique to such an extent that he came to view the Lurianic Kabbalah as a late doctrine, corrupted by Platonism.
F.M. van Helmont (1614-98)
Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont was the son of the great Flemish iatrochemist, Jan Baptista van Helmont. Like his father, he practised chemical medicine and wrote on religious, philosophical and medical topics. He is especially notable for his belief in the power of the imagination to heal or harm, a doctrine that was consonant with both Galenic and Neoplatonic ideas about the body, but which fitted ill with the rising iatromechanism of his time. He was associated with the Quakers during his time in England, and with Anne, Viscountess Conway, at whose house he lived.
Among his intellectual efforts was the aim of reforming Christianity, by combining it with the Jewish Kabbala. Believing, on scriptural authority, that the millennium would not come until the Jews had been converted, he hoped that a "Kabbalized version of Christianity" would make that conversion possible, and would also end those discords which Greek philosophy had generated among Christians themselves. He was opposed in this by the Cambridge Platonist, Henry More.