For thousands of years, both Jews and Christians have turned to the Bible as a means of resolving the many contradictions in their lives. In the 17th century, the Rabbi and diplomat Menasseh Ben Israel turned the tables: he wrote a book named “El Conciliador”, in which he attempted to resolve the contradictions within the Bible itself. This was a tremendous task whose target audience were “simple Jews”.
In “El Conciliador”, Menasseh Ben Israel addresses two potential audiences: Christian scholars and religious figures who are interested in gaining more knowledge about the Jewish faith, and the descendants of the Marranos in Spain and Portugal. The latter wished to return to their Jewish roots after many generations in which they (and their ancestors) were forced to live as Christians.
The book follows a consistent pattern: the author presents two contradictory Biblical verses, describes the precise contradiction he found in them (as the reader is not always sure what the contradiction is, or identified another contradiction instead), and then comes to “resolve” the contradiction: he makes use of both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, sometimes quotes luminaries such as Seneca or is abetted by Plato, thereby displaying extraordinary in-depth knowledge coupled with interpretive skills.
It is interesting to reveal that when Menasseh Ben Israel referred to Plato as an authority he did not hesitate to claim that the father of philosophy was directly influenced by the Jewish religion and that many of his conclusions are based on the Bible.
Like many of Menasseh Ben Israel’s endeavors, “El Conciliador” was crowned a tremendous success. The book was published over the years in a number of editions, and even translated into other European languages. The book established its author as an authority on Jewish holy sources, and earned him the title “Ambassador of the Jews”. In the wake of the book’s success, an extensive exchange of letters began between Menasseh Ben Israel and Christian scholars throughout the continent. It took over 200 years for “El Conciliador” to be translated into Hebrew.
Little is known about the life of “El Conciliador”’s translator into Hebrew, Mr. Rafael Kirchheim – the 19th century German-Jewish scholar. Even less is known about the reason he chose to translate “El Conciliador”. It is possible that as a Jew affiliated with the Reform movement, which attracted many German Jews in the 19th century, he saw the translation of “El Conciliador” as a project with personal and general-Jewish significance, especially when considering the period in which he was active.
After all, the century in which Kirchheim lived was the very century in which the unity which had previously characterized the Jewish people was irreparably ruptured, a century replete with novel Jewish figures: enlightened Jews fighting to reform education and the Jewish library; Hassidim searching for a new spiritual experience; Orthodox Jews struggling to maintain the status quo; and toward the end of this tumultuous century: Zionist pioneers.
Reminiscent of the author of the work he translated into Hebrew, Kirchheim’s translation teaches us a thing or two about his boldness. Kirchheim did not suffice with simply translating, he also wrote his comments (and often reservations) on “El Conciliador”’s conclusions alongside various paragraphs. In a certain paragraph, for example, the translator notes that “What the author writes in Rabban Gamliel’s name is a lie, and he said the opposite to his disciples”, and in a later place in the manuscript he notes that “His [Menasseh Ben Israel] words are the opposite and are not found without each other”.
It is unclear whether Kirchheim intended to publish his translation: the manuscript is full of erasures, amendments and internal glosses. Additionally, at the end of the manuscript, Kirchheim documents the names of the author’s family, the death of his father and his two wives over ten years apart. He does not forget to record his son and daughter’s births. When writing about his daughter, for example, Kirchheim writes “The 3rd of Adar 5601 [February 2, 1841] – was happy and joyful for me because my beloved daughter Mina was born”, three days later he added the heartbreaking words, “And died on the night of the 5th”.
You have no-doubt discerned that we are in the dark about most of the details surrounding the Ben Israel/Kirchheim manuscript. However, the most pressing question is undoubtedly: will resolving the many contradictions in the Bible bring about closeness between members of this tumultuous nation?