Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism

[Below is the full text of Solomon Schechter’s address, “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism”, delivered at the Judaean Banquet, given in honor of Dr. Kaufman Kohler, March 26, 1903. The text is from Seminary Address and Other Papers (Cincinnati: Ark Publishing, 1915), 35-39.]

My acquaintance with Dr. Kohler dates from the year 1901, when he did me the honor of paying me a visit at Cambridge, England. There is no scarcity in that ancient seat of learning, “full of sages and scribes,” of learned conversation. But the day with Dr. Kohler was one of the most delightful I have ever experienced in that place. The day was spent in roaming over the contents of the Genizah and in conversation. Our thoughts were turned to Judaism and the subjects which occupied our minds were all of a theological or historical nature. We probably differed in a good many points, and please God we shall differ in many more—but this did not prevent our short acquaintance from ripening at once into what might approach friendship. I felt that I was in the presence of a scholar and a seeker after truth. His is an intellect devoted entirely to what he considers the truth, and his is a heart deeply affected by every spiritual sensation which is in the air. He also delights to engage in what he considers the “Battles oo the Lord,” and Judaism has need for men of valor.

To speak more clearly: Since the so-called emancipation, the Jews of the civilized world have been lulled into a fancied security which events have not justified. It is true that through the revelation in the Dreyfus case, anti-Semitism of the vulgar sort has become odious, and no lady or gentleman dares now to use the old weapons of the times of Drumont and Stoecker. But the arch-enemy has entered upon a new phase, which Boerne might have called “the philosophic ‘Hep-Hep.’ ” And this is the more dangerous phase because it is of a spiritual kind, and thus means the “excision of the soul,” leaving us no hope for immortality. I remember when I used to come home from the Cheder, bleeding and crying from the wounds inflicted upon me by the Christian boys, my father used to say, “My child, we are in Galuth (exile), and we must submit to God’s will.” And he made me understand that this is only a passing stage in history, as we Jews belong to eternity, when God will comfort His people. Thus the pain was only physical, but my real suffering began later in life, when I emigrated from Roumania to so-called civilized countries and found there what I might call the Higher anti-Semitism, which burns the soul though it leaves the body unhurt. The genesis of this Higher anti-Semitism is partly, though not entirely—for a man like Kuenen belongs to an entirely different class—contemporaneous with the genesis of the so-called Higher criticism of the Bible. Wellhausen’s Prolegomena and History are teeming with aperçes full of venom against Judaism, and you cannot wonder that he was rewarded by one of the highest orders which the Prussian Government had to bestow. Afterwards Harnack entered the arena with his “Wesen des Christenthums,” in which he showed not so much his hatred as his ignorance of Judaism. But this Higher anti-Semitism has now reached its climax when every discovery of recent years is called to bear witness against us and to accuse us of spiritual larceny.

Some time ago I saw in one of the numerous sheets of this country a reference to the Hammurabi Code, concluding with the words, “this means a blow to Orthodoxy.” I hold no brief for Orthodoxy in this country or elsewhere. But, may I ask: Is there any wing in Judaism which is prepared to confirm the reproach of Carlyle, who, in one of his anti-Semitic fits, exclaimed, “The Jews are always dealing in old clothes; spiritual or material.” We are here between ourselves, so we may frankly make the confession that we did not invent the art of printing; we did not discover America, in spite of Kayserling; we did not inaugurate the French Revolution, in spite of some one else; we were not the first to utilize the power of steam or electricity, in spite of any future Kayserling. Our great claim to the gratitude of mankind is that we gave to the world the word of God, the Bible. We have stormed heaven to snatch down this heavenly gift, as the Paitanic expression is; we threw ourselves into the breach and covered it with our bodies against every attack; we allowed ourselves to be slain by hundreds and thousands rather than become unfaithful to it; and we bore witness to its truth and watched over its purity in the face of a hostile world. The Bible is our sole raison d’être, and it is just this which the Higher anti-Semitism is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims for the past, and leaving us without hope for the future.

Can any section among us afford to concede to this professorial and imperial anti-Semitism and confess “for a truth we and our ancestors have sinned'” we have lived on false pretenses and were the worst shams in the world? Forget not that we live in an historical age in which everybody must show his credentials from the past. The Bible is our patent of nobility granted to us by the Almighty God, and if we disown the Bible, leaving it to the tender mercies of a Wellhausen, Stade and Duhm, and other beautiful souls working away at diminishing the “nimbus of the Chosen Peope,” the world will disown us. There is no room in it for spiritual parvenus. But this intellectual persecution can only be fought by intellectual weapons and unless we make an effort to recover our Bible and to think out our theology for ourselves, we are irrevocably lost from both worlds. A mere protest in the pulpit or a vigorous editorial in a paper, or an amateur essay in a monthly, or even a special monograph will not help us. We have to create a really living, great literature, and do the same for the subjects of theology and the Bible that Europe has done for Jewish history and philology. It is in view of this fact that I hail Dr. Kohler’s election to the Presidency of the Hebrew Union College as a happy event in the annals of American Jewry; for under his guidance I am sure Cincinnati will, in good time, contribute its share to this great “battle of duty.” Some amiable persons predict jealousy and strife between the two colleges, and are already preparing to enjoy the fight as disinterested spectators. I am certain that they will prove false prophets, for the old dictum that the students of the Torah increase peace in the world, holds good also in our day. But let me say to you that this yearning after peace, on my part, is not to be taken as a sign of my entertaining any doubt as to the soundness of my theological position, or fear of a strenuous life. I am, as a rule, not given to mental squinting, nor have I ever shunned a fight. But I honor and admire Dr. Kohler too much to take up the position of an antagonist. Besides, you have probably heard the story of that Methodist parson who rebuked one of his parishioners who occasionally indulged in wife-beating, with the words: “How can you spend your time in fighting your wife, when you both should be fighting the devil?” In fact, I feel that we are standing now before a crisis which would stigmatize the indulgence in such a fight as treason to the cause of Judaism; we must gather our forces and fight the enemy; and Dr. Kohler, by his wide learning, contagious enthusiasm and noble character, is the right man in the right place to marshal a part of these forces, which may, by the blessing of God, help us to victory.

Schechter’s “philosophic Hep-Hep” refers to the Hep-Hep Riots of 1819 beginning in Würzburg and spreading to other areas. It was the most widespread Western European pogrom in modern times until the Holocaust, and was instigated by those opposing emancipation (i.e., an equality of civil rights) for the Jews.


  1. I suppose the novel-length treatment of this theme is Chaim Potok’s In the Beginning. At least, this address and that novel make good “inter-texts”.

  2. I am thankful for this address because it demonstrates that there were prominent Jewish scholars who viewed modern Bible criticism as academic anti-Semitism or as an intellectual pogrom.
    Christians often fail to realize their dependence on their Jewish/Hebrew soil for their existence. When I was in university I took a quick credit in religious studies. The dean introduced Judaism and told us how we should interpret Genesis. He denied Mosaic authorship, fed us JEPD (documentary hypothesis) and he taught the Tanakh was written post-exile. I asked several rabbis online their opinion on this before I confronted the dean. The Dean insisted that all Jews today deny Mosaic authorship. Then I bombed him good when I told him what the rabbis said. He never recovered for the entire class period. He asked if there were any Jews taking his class who could phone in to back up what he was saying (the class was also being televised to other locations.)
    I knew that before he discoursed on and mythologized Christianity, he first had to lay the foundation by trashing the historical reliability of the Tanakh. This experience led to my writing a book and finding Schechter’s essay. I would like to prove more clearly the German anti-Semitic connection in the development of modern Bible criticism, that it developed out of political motives rather than a respect for the Bible.

    1. I hope to read your book when it comes out. By the way, I am a Christian who also sense a biting anti-Semitism in the early higher critics of the Bible.

  3. Doug, you’ll absolutely have to read Anders Gerdmar’s excellent book on the development of modern Biblical criticism (I’ve posted on it several times on this blog): Roots of Theological Antisemitism. German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann (Brill, 2009) [on Amazon]. It’s exactly what you’re looking for. He traces the works of a number of authors and shows how it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the Academy would end up as it has, the personal plaything of liberal German Protestantism and its cronies. Anders also has a blog, which is very interesting! Happy reading!

    1. Also check out Benjamin Wiker and Scott Hahn, Politicizing the Bible (Herder and Herder, 2013).

  4. that was a good article…I, too, am a Christian, and have just learned how German anti-semitism led to higher criticism

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