"To Touch a Jew"

The following quote is from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who preached the Second Crusade in 1146.

“Anyone who touches a Jew to take his life, is as touching Jesus himself.”

The citation is provided by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, who was thirteen years old when he witnessed massacres in Jewish communities during the preaching of the crusade. The fiend responsible for the pograms was a monk named Radulf — one of Bernard’s own pupils — who commanded people to “avenge Christ first, the crucified one, upon his enemies who stand right before you [the Jews]; and then only, go to fight against the Muslims.” To which Bernard countered as above. The full quote given by the rabbi is as follows:

“It is good that you march against the Muslims, but anyone who touches a Jew to take his life, is as touching Jesus himself. Radulf, my pupil, who said that the Jews should be destroyed, did not speak correctly. For it is written about them in the book of Psalms, ‘Slay them not, lest my people forget.'” [Psalm 59:11]

The rabbi emphasizes that the Jewish community hadn’t investigated whether or not Bernard received a bribe to defend the Jewish people in this way, but in any case, the quote is rather stunning. Anyone who kills a Jew is as killing Christ. In effect, this inverts Jewish guilt, foisting blame for Jesus’ death onto misguided Christians. The real “Christ-killers” aren’t Jews, but those who harm Jews.

It’s odd to hear sentiments like this coming from a medieval Christian, especially one who advocated crusade. In the New Testament itself, only Paul comes close to approaching such a positive estimate of Israel (in Romans). Historians have no reason to doubt that Bernard spoke as reported by the rabbi, for he wrote the following in Epistolae:

“The Jews are not to be persecuted, nor killed, nor even forced to flee. ‘God,’ says the church, ‘says, “Slay not my enemies, lest my people forget.”‘ [Psalm 59:11] Alive, the Jews are signs to us, a continual reminder of the Lord’s passion. Because of this they were scattered into every nation, so that while they are paying the just penalty of such a crime they may be witnesses to our redemption. Therefore the church, speaking in that psalm, added: ‘Scatter them by thy power; and bring them down, O Lord our shield.’ [Psalm 59:11] So it happened: they were scattered and brought low everywhere, enduring harsh captivity under Christian princes. But ‘at evening let them return’ [Psalm 59:14] and in time there shall be respite for them.”

Somewhat like Paul, Bernard was a supersessionist who became an aggressive defender of Jewish prerogative in the face of anti-Semitism.

No one wants to be an apologist for anything to do with the crusades. But when considered next to someone like Martin Luther, whose ravings might have inspired Hitler, the abbot of Clairvaux begins to appear “saintly” indeed.

Bibliography

Hallam, Elizabeth (editor): Chronicles of the Crusades: Eyewitness Accounts of the Wars Between Christianity and Islam. For Rabbi Ephraim’s testimony see pp 126-127.

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2 thoughts on “"To Touch a Jew"

  1. Interesting insights. Thank-you.Incidentally, I don’t mind being an apologist for a great many things related to the crusades. The negative aspects of the crusads have been unjustly amplified and the threat of Islamic aggression to which they were a response minimized.

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