M.G. Piety

Rabbi Wolff’s Danish Knighthood!

In Kierkegaard and the Jews on May 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm

It’s been a while since I’ve put up a post. That’s what teaching does, it eats up one’s time, if one does it well anyway. Still I am now only a few pages away from finishing the 100-page-long chapter of Tudvad’s book Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkeaard og Jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) that deals with the theological treatment of Jews and Judaism. The first part of the chapter focuses on the views of 19th-century Christian theologians, with occasional references to Luther and a few other earlier theologians.  (I’m a philosopher rather than a theologian, so I was shocked to learn just how rabidly anti-Semitic Luther was. His views were so extreme, they look more like a kind of mental illness than the sort of character flaw under which we would normally classify bigotry). The second part of the chapter deals with Kierkegaard’s own views. My plan is to make two separate posts, one on the first part of the chapter and another on the second part.

In the meantime, however, I thought I would relate an interesting little story the appears near the end of the chapter about Abraham Alexander Wolff, the chief rabbi of Denmark during the middle to later part of the nineteenth century. Wolff, as you will see if you click on the link to his entry in the online Jewish Encyclopedia, was a talented and prolific scholar and writer. He was also an extraordinarily important figure in the history of Danish Jewry. He was a progressive thinker who is credited with improving relations between Jews and Christians. He was honored for his work with the prestigious Order of the Dannebrog. That is, he was given a knighthood by the Danish king.

That’s when the trouble started. The official sign of this order was a cross which Wolff wore on public occasions, but which he apparently removed before entering the synagogue. This, according to Tudvad, “offended a certain Joseph Perstein, who therefore on the 24th of April 1855 published an article in Kjøbenhavns Adressecomptoirs Efterretninger, or as it was called back then–Adresseavisen, where he demanded of Wolff that he explain why” he did this. Perlstein claimed that one of the requirements of the Order of the Dannebro was that one should be a Christian. A crucifix, he claimed further, ought to be offensive to any Jew, hence he demanded that Wolff either give up his knighthood or his Judaism!

Sad eh, that relations between Jews and Christians had reached the point where what had originally been a sect of Judaism had come in the minds of both Jews and Christians to represent its diametrical opposition. That certainly wasn’t Jesus’ intention, not, in any case, according to contemporary historical scholarship.

More later…

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  1. I agree that it’s a sad commentary–but not too surprising, considering the divisions among Christians, or the animosity between the Jews and other Semitic peoples. As for Luther, wasn’t it pretty well established that he was a nut case when he threw his inkwell at the Devil?

    • I didn’t know he threw his inkwell at the devil. That is pretty nutty. But then lots of religious figures have been nutty without being pathologically nasty.

      M.G. Piety Department of English and Philosophy Drexel University 3250-60 Chestnut Street Philadelphia, PA 19104 Phone: 215-895-2879

      Website: http://www.mgpiety.com

      Blog: http://pietyonkierkegaard.com

    • OK, I’m a Luther fan and I have to take the bitter with the sweet. Yes, Luther was an anti-semite. One of his major character flaws was that he was a very kind man in person, but put a pen in his hand and shut the study door and he would become a danger to himself and others. Luther believe that the reason the Jews continued to be Jews was that they were discriminated against. They were not allowed to own land. So, of course, they did usury. But give them land, make them farmers like everybody else and they’ll convert to Christianity. It didn’t work. Also, some Jews, seeing him being friendly thought he might be ripe to be converted to Judaism. He lost his mind. Also, as he was the last monk to leave, he and his wife took over the monastery and turned into a student hostel. So, every night (there was no such thing as alcoholism in the Middle Ages: people needed whatever distraction they could get. The emperor (Charles V, I think) drank a gallon of wine with dinner each night) after supper he would sit with his student and get drunk (his wife ran a brewery out of their basement) while they took notes! He made his worst remarks, not just anti-semitism, during these drinking bouts.
      About his throwing the inkpot: he did that while he was holed up in Wartburg Castle hiding from the imperial stormtroopers and, just for fun, doing the first translation of the Greek New Testament into German. Since his words form the heart of the libretto of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (my favorite piece of music) I’m glad he did it.

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    • Thanks for your kind words about the blog. I believe the RSS feed is the only way to subscribe. I don’t know that much about the actual set up of the site. I have a few subscribers though and have had not complaints yet, so I think the RSS feed must work pretty well. Let me know if you have any problems with it. Thanks again!

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