Rabbi Wolff’s Danish Knighthood!
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.