Menasseh Ben Israel

Rabbi of Amsterdam

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Steven Nadler
Jewish Lives
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , August
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Steven Nadler’s monograph, Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam, provides an excellent introduction to a rabbi whose fascinating life as a first-rate scholar, diplomat, and theologian warrants examination. Written in an engaging narrative style, Nadler brings out aspects of Menasseh’s career not mentioned in the only other English biography on Menasseh, Cecil Roth’s A Life of Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi, Printer, and Diplomat (Jewish Publication Society, 1934). For example, the violence between Menasseh’s father and his first wife in Lisbon (9) is brought to the English reader for the first time. As such, this book represents a long overdue reappraisal of the life of one who “for much of the seventeenth century, [was] the most famous Jew in the world” (4).

One of the book’s strengths is that Nadler analyzes the full range of Menasseh’s interactions with gentiles. Indeed, he does not focus solely on the philo-Semites but also on anti-Semites such as Gisbertus Voetius (47). Moreover, Nadler is highly conversant with the political and theological forces at work, notably with his references to the impact of the Arminian-Calvinist controversy in the Dutch Reformed Church upon Menasseh (30-33). Indeed, Nadler’s strong grasp of the Dutch Second Reformation is clear throughout and he contrasts the tensions within the Dutch Church with the pioneering nature of Menasseh’s “ecumenical efforts and conciliatory attitude toward Christian doctrines” (3). 

By devoting a whole chapter to the Conciliador, Nadler rightly emphasizes the importance of Menasseh’s three-volume compendium of reconciliations to perceived Bible inconsistencies. Nadler offers little analysis of the text in detail, but as the Conciliador runs to over 600 pages such an analysis would merit another book entirely. Published in 1632, 1641, and 1651, Nadler notes how the third volume reflects the influence of Menasseh’s conversations with Millenarians upon his thoughts as Messianic themes are more prominent (146) in the final section. This observation reflects the fact that Jewish-Christian relations are rightly central to Nadler’s historiography: he effectively contextualizes Menasseh within a small Jewish community surrounded by Christians. 

Similarly, the chapter devoted to The Hope of Israel (1650) makes a brief allusion to Menasseh’s famous treatise of Messianic hope which he dedicated to the English Parliament, before proceeding to chart Menasseh’s time in England between 1655 and 1657. As such, this serves as a great introduction to Menasseh as a diplomat.

Additionally, Nadler revisits an old debate by advocating a revisionist approach to the role and genuineness of the intentions of philo-Semites in the period. Nadler documents Menasseh’s relations with John Dury, Nathaniel Homes, Samuel Hartlib, Henry Jessey, and Thomas Throwgood in detail yet concludes that it is “very misleading” (136) to label them “philo-Semites.” Such a view will surely draw a response from scholars who may see Nadler as critical of the Dutch and English Millenarians who gave the Jews relative peace in Holland and advocated the same in England ahead of the Whitehall Conference in 1656 and Cromwell’s unofficial readmission of the Jews. Indeed, while Nadler demonstrates a strong grasp of the currents of thought prevalent within the Arminian-Calvinist debate in Holland, and fits Menasseh within the backdrop of a community battling between orthodoxy and heterodoxy with Spinoza soon to arrive on the scene, he fails to explore the eschatological beliefs of these Millenarians and shows little evidence of understanding the distinctive nature of their beliefs, for example, that the Jews have not been replaced by the Church and that Israel will be the preeminent nation during the Millennium.

Furthermore, at times Nadler has a rather uncritical approach to his sources and often relies on secondary literature to substantiate his historical claims. For example, he writes that Menasseh, when he was in England in 1655-56, “even dined with Cromwell at his home” (208), yet this is only supported in the endnotes by a reference to Thomas Pococke’s translation of De Termino Vitae, The Term of Life, which dates from 1700 and gives no references for this event. Similarly, Nadler refers to Menasseh meeting “the Cambridge philosopher Ralph Cudworth” and the reports supported by Popkin and Katz that Menasseh “angered Cudworth by giving him some Jewish anti-Christian literature” (209). Nadler engages with Popkin’s claims in his endnote, stating that Popkin “provides no evidence for these reports, and it would seem to have been both an impudent thing to do and contrary to Menasseh’s character” (265). However, that such critical engagement with existing scholarship is relegated to the endnotes is disappointing for a scholarly work.

Nadler makes a significant and well-reasoned contribution to the field in his Appendix in which he reassesses claims that there was a deep friendship between Menasseh and Rembrandt. Nadler unmasks these myths, even those proposed by scholars who pioneered studies on Menasseh ben Israel, such as Cecil Roth, who wrote of “the affection which existed between him [Rembrandt] and the Jewish rabbi” (A Life of Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi, Printer, and Diplomat, 169). Nadler paints such an engaging picture of the “tolerant and cosmopolitan atmosphere of seventeenth-century Holland” (222) that it is only natural that we opine a friendship between Rembrandt and Menasseh, although Nadler correctly points out that no conclusive evidence can be given to support this.

Overall, Nadler’s argument that Menasseh was both a bridge-builder to the Christian community and divisive within the Jewish community is carefully substantiated. The book’s success is the way in which it arouses the reader’s interest to explore Menasseh’s writings. Moreover, it is a rich summary of important aspects of intellectual history during a fascinating period and constitutes the perfect introduction for anyone unacquainted with this endearing Dutch rabbi. Additionally, Nadler illustrates that religious history can be written in a literary style that pulls the reader in and is far from just dry and technical. For this Nadler is to be highly commended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lawrence Rabone is a doctoral student in Jewish/Christian Studies at the University of Manchester.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven Nadler, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is the author of several books, including Rembrandt’s Jews and Spinoza: A Life, winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award. He is William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He lives in Madison, WI.


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