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Divine Justice

The hidden story of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Jewish opera

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Don Juan and the statue of the Commander, Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, circa 1830-1835 (Wikimedia Commons)
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The new production of Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera is well cast but marred by poor conducting

A rake seduces women and murders their male relatives with impunity until the statue of one of his victims invites him to supper and drags him to hell. It sounds silly, but for two centuries it was the most-favored plot device in Western literature. Don Juan was the invention of Tirso de Molina, a Spanish monk from a family of converted Jews. Concealed in its puppet-theater plot is a Jewish joke: Don Juan exists to prove by construction that a devout Christian can be a sociopath, and by extension, that the Christian world can be ruled by sociopaths. The Enlightenment’s most insidious attack on Catholic faith, then, came not from atheists like Voltaire, but from a Spanish monk with buried Jewish sensibilities.

A century and a half later, another converted Jew—Emmanuele Conegliano, known as Lorenzo da Ponte—reworked Tirso’s play as a libretto for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the result was an utterly unique work of art. It is pointless to argue about whether Don Giovanni is the best opera ever written, because it is a genre unto itself—the musical tragi-comedy, or “drama giocoso,” as Da Ponte put it. Mozart’s combination of tragic and comic elements turns the world inside out. From the first bars of the orchestra to the final note, we are unsure whether we should laugh, cry, or feel fear. If you don’t leave the theater confused, you haven’t been listening.

Mozart’s anti-hero seduced 2,065 women, his servant Leporello recounts in the celebrated Catalogue Aria. As a literary archetype, Don Juan’s conquests are just as prolific. One scholar lists 1,720 published variants on the theme since Tirso de Molina printed The Trickster of Seville in 1630, in the middle of the Thirty Years War. For the two centuries between Tirso and Byron’s eponymous epic poem, Don Juan bestrode the literary imagination like no other personage in history.

In a post-Christian world that has lost interest in the problem of sin and salvation, Don Juan is passé. By 1821, when Juan appears in Byron’s eponymous masterwork, Juan was on his farewell tour. E.T.A. Hoffman’s and Kierkegaard’s fascination with the subject is a response to Mozart’s astonishing music, not to the literary theme. Baudelaire’s poem “Don Juan in Hell” and Shaw’s intermezzo of the same title make Juan into a defiant hero. Desultory efforts to recast Don Juan as a Freudian case history still crop up from time to time, but lack conviction and much of an audience.

Juan held the audience of the 17th and 18th centuries in thrall, because he personified the Christian world’s foreboding about its own vulnerability. Tirso’s trickster poses an impossible paradox for the Christian concept of salvation: The story is not about eros, but evil. Christian society is founded on the premise that it requires “only one precept,” as St. Augustine put it: “Love, and do as you will.” Once humankind accepts the utterly unselfish love of Jesus Christ, Christianity asserts, the elaborate body of Jewish law becomes redundant, for Christian love will elicit the right behavior spontaneously.

The trouble, Tirso demonstrates, is that society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none. Don Juan is a predator inside the Christian world with no natural enemies. Juan enjoys murdering the male relatives of his female victims almost as much he enjoys seducing the women. To the extent that we can speak of Juan’s descendants in today’s fiction, they are not so much lovers but serial killers.

Tirso’s theological mousetrap had more than hypothetical importance for the audience of 1630, a dozen years into the Thirty Years War that would ruin the Spanish Empire and kill not quite half of central Europe’s population. His world was infested with sociopaths in positions of power, including Spain’s King Philip IV, one of whose bastards would eventually stage a coup against the legitimate heir to the Spanish throne. Philip makes an appearance in The Trickster of Seville, lightly disguised as the 14th-century king Alfonso XI, who also peopled the Spanish royal line with bastards.

It may not be a coincidence that Alfonso’s bastard son, Henry of Trastámara, incited Jew-hatred to overthrow his more tolerant half-brother, the legitimate heir Pedro I of Castile. Henry led the massacre of 12,000 Spanish Jews in Toledo on May 7, 1335. The Jews fought alongside Pedro in a prolonged civil war and suffered horribly after Henry won and beheaded his brother with the words: “Where is that son-of-a-whore Jew?”

We forget such things today, but in Tirso’s lifetime they were burned into living memory. Nearly a quarter of a million Jews lived in Spain in 1492, a tenth of the country’s population; given the choice of exile or baptism in that year, more than half chose to leave, but tens of thousands died en route. Jews dominated Spain’s literary elite, and those who stayed produced a disproportionate number of Spain’s writers in the Golden Age of the early 17th century, Tirso included. But the “new Christians” never fit in. To this day, families in Toledo distinguish between “new” and “old” Christians.

Tirso drives the paradox still deeper. The original Don Juan of the Spanish Golden Age is a believing Catholic, who has no doubt that repentance and forgiveness through the Church can save his soul: For that reason he can devote his youth to evil and repent sometime later. “You’re giving me plenty of time to pay up!” (“que largo me lo fíais”), he mocks whomever urges him to repent and save his soul. (A variant of The Trickster of Seville was published under the title Que largo me fíais, making clear that the play hinges on Juan’s twisted but orthodox theology).

Juan’s servant Catalinón (Leporello in Mozart) warns him that even a long life is short, and sin will be punished. “If you give me so much time to pay up,” Juan replies brightly, “let the tricks continue!” Besides, he adds, his father is the king’s favorite. Christianity, as Tirso observes, can produce a monster who does nothing but evil precisely because he believes in heaven, hell, and the sacraments of the Church. Tirso might have had Kohelet 8:11 in mind: “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” But Christian reliance on the Attribute of Mercy at the expense of the Attribute of Justice, as the theologian Michael Wyschogrod put it, frees Juan to formulate a sociopath’s theory of salvation.

That, incidentally, explains why modern-dress versions of Mozart’s opera fail so miserably. In today’s epoch of the hook-up, a serial seducer is not a monster, but only an annoyance. No one gets dragged down to hell anymore. Juan’s natural habitat is the twilight of faith, the point at which the Catholic world fought with the presentiment of its decline but held on all the more intently to its faith.

Tirso’s critique of Christianity follows the rabbinic reading. As the Rav Joseph Dov Solovietchik put it, “Subjective faith, lacking commands and laws, faith of the sort that Saul of Tarsus spoke about—even if it dresses itself up as the love of God and man—cannot stand fast if it contains no explicit commands to do good deeds, to fulfill specific commandments not always approved by rationality and culture.” In Don Juan, the Christian world saw its own susceptibility to chaos. That is why the European audience could not take its eyes off him for 200 years.

No writer portrayed this chaos and its theological sources more vividly than Tirso. The usual account of Don Juan and his 1,719 literary imitations reduces Tirso’s brilliant and complex play to a simple-minded morality lesson. Christian critics do not seem to grasp how great and enduring was the pain of the Spanish Jews; even worse, they evince a deaf ear for Jewish irony. “The Trickster” is a Jewish joke, and the critics don’t get it. The theologian David Bentley Hart, for example, wrote recently that “Juan was the greatest immoralist of European literature precisely because he served as the negative image of the moral convictions and capacities of his time and place, the exemplary contradiction of an entire and coherent vision of the good, whose story magically combined a certain nostalgia for fading cultural certitudes with a certain cynicism toward them.”

In fact, “The Trickster” is a Jewish practical joke of cosmic malevolence, a burlesque de profundis, a bitter laugh from the depths. I found a translation of Tirso in the public library 45 years ago, after learning of Da Ponte’s source from the liner notes in a recording of Mozart’s opera. Don Giovanni knocked me sideways as a 14-year-old. My secular home didn’t have a chumash. But Mozart’s opera stirred something in me, an awareness, perhaps, of the woeful inadequacy of the enlightened reading of the human condition. I saw every performance I could, pounded out the piano score, and scoured the literary sources for the libretto. Not until recently did it occur to me that between the notes, I was hearing the muffled anguish of the Spanish Jews.

The theme appealed to Mozart, whose musical genius uniquely enabled him to balance tragedy with raucous good humor. Just before the statue arrives at Giovanni’s palace, one of his rejected conquests, Donna Elvira, bursts in to beg him to change his evil ways. Giovanni mocks her, toasting women and good wine; Elvira pathetically tells him to stop; and Leporello mutters to himself comically that his master has a heart of stone. Except they are all doing this at the same time, in a trio in which each of three vocal lines contains a perfect characterization of the three contrasting emotions. There is nothing quite like this in all of opera.

Elvira departs, and we hear her scream off-stage. There is a knock at the door. Leporello answers it and warns his master in Lou Costello style, “Don’t go that way! There’s a man of stone! He’s going, ‘Ta, Ta, Ta’!” Giovanni ignores him. The statue (whom Giovanni had mockingly invited to supper in the previous scene) tells Giovanni that he must accept a return invitation. “Sorry, sorry, he has a previous engagement,” Leporello interrupts. We are deep into Mozart’s most tragic D minor, but even then the jokes keep coming.

Giovanni is dragged down to hell, and the rest of the cast appears to find that divine justice has done for their tormentor. Nobles, bourgeois, and peasants sing, “That’s the end of those who do ill!” and Da Ponte makes us understand that they are the same credulous fools whom Giovanni duped before.

We laugh at the assemblage of Giovanni’s victims: the domineering and bitter Donna Anna and her feckless fiancé Ottavio; the pathetically devoted Donna Elvira; the social-climbing peasant girl Zerlina and her doltish intended Masetto; and the cowardly, conniving servant Leporello. There is no question, though, that Mozart has written a tragedy—not Don Giovanni’s, but ours. Mozart’s best music is reserved for the human cost of Giovanni’s depredations. At the crux of the opera, Donna Anna suddenly recognizes Giovanni as the masked intruder who attempted to rape her (and possibly succeeded) and then killed her beloved father. A long dramatic recitative prepares Anna’s vengeance aria, “Or sai chi l’onore,” with Mozart’s tonal transformation mirroring Anna’s progression from recognition to fear and then to resolve. The dean of American music theorists, Carl Schachter, has published the authoritative analysis of this almost miraculous passage.

The supernatural resolution of the matter is a masterstroke of Brechtian alienation, a flamboyantly buffo set of sight gags, so at odds with the seriousness of the situation that it sets in relief the absurdity of the premise. If a supernatural intervention that silly is the only thing that will get rid of Don Juan, the not-so-subtle message is that Christendom is incapable of ridding itself of evil through its own efforts.

How did Tirso get away with this lampoon of Catholic soteriology? The apparent answer is that the Spanish Church was distracted by the Protestant menace. John Calvin proposed to solve the paradox of salvation by arguing that only a predestined elect would be saved. Don Juan is no Calvinist; he believes that his will is free to choose salvation, whenever he feels like it. The Inquisition checked the “free will” box and gave Tirso a pass. We may have no choice but to believe in free will, as Isaac Bashevis Singer joked, but Calvin’s concept of election lies closer to the Jewish point of view. Its logical consequence was to remove the elect from a world governed by sociopaths to a New Israel, namely America.

Tirso drew on folk tales in which a living person invites a dead man to dinner and perishes when the invitation is returned. But Juan is not an archetype of legend: He is a metaphysical construct unique to his time, and to the tragedy of the Spanish Jews. Don Juan has only one great antecedent in literature, in fact an ancestress, the procuress Celestina, the anti-heroine of Fernando de Rojas’ 1499 tragicomedy. Printed just seven years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by a converso attorney who represented his father-in-law before the Inquisition Court, De Rojas’ tragicomedy is a howl at heaven, a malediction on Christian Spain.

Whore and harpy, Celestina is perhaps the most frightful character ever to walk the Western stage. She is oblivious to danger and brilliantly manipulative. Next to her, Marlowe’s Barnabas and Shakespeare’s Iago, or even Goethe’s Mephistopheles, are mischievous schoolboys. Hired to help a young man seduce the socially superior girl he desires, Celestina sets events in motion that cause the death of the entire cast. As a genre, tragicomedy has its roots in antiquity—Plautus was the first to use the term—but in the modern world, the juxtaposition of bathetic and horrific elements begins with De Rojas’ gallows humor under the shadow of the Inquisition.

Celestina (the “Tragicomedy of Calixto and Melibea”) became the first blockbuster best-seller in Western literary history. By 1620 it had been performed in English; a full English translation was printed in 1631. Shakespeare and Marlowe drew on it. There are scenes in the drama whose grotesque humor no English dramatist has surpassed. It went through 30 Spanish editions during the 16th century alone, as well as translations into the major European languages, not to mention a 1505 Hebrew version of which only a few lines survive.

De Rojas’ procuress is a hellion who calls on the devil for help. Tirso’s Don Juan is more insidious. Don Juan is neither heretic nor hypocrite: He is a devout believer who has figured out that the system entitles him to be thoroughly evil for the interim. His existence points up the hypocrisy around him; because the Christian world cannot deal with this monster, it must accommodate him. Both Celestina and Don Juan haunted the literary imagination with the same subliminal message: Your world is badly made, and it will come to a horrible end.

Tirso de Molino wrote for a world where sociopaths wore the garb of nobility and clergy. The dueling masterminds of the Thirty Years War, Cardinal Richelieu and the Spanish Prime Minister Olivares, each believed that his country was divinely selected for God’s service and therefore could commit unspeakable acts on behalf of its national ambitions. But a new kind of sociopath was about to step on the world stage, and Mozart warns us of his approach. At the end of the opera’s first act, Don Giovanni welcomes a group of maskers to his palace (they are Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio in disguise). Da Ponte has Giovanni declare, “It’s open to everyone. Long live liberty!” Mozart does something unexpected: The whole cast breaks character and in martial fanfare singsViva la libertà!” Lurking behind the mask of liberty in the enlightened world was a capacity for evil perhaps greater than anything the traditional world had brought forward. This was in 1786, three years before the French Revolution. How did Mozart know?

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MethanP says:

I have rarely enjoyed an article more from
any source. Thankyou for an entertaining and educational piece.

Hm, a very good article, but as someone who has studied the works mentioned I’m not totally convinced. The central assumption that the author makes (that Tirso had a converso background) isn’t a fact, it’s a conjecture based on some of the literary circles in which he moved.

Some scholars produce lists of names of Spanish 17th c. authors supposedly of converso origin. Funny that conversos tried really hard to hide their origins, and it should be so easy to single them out 400 years later. Plus, they discover in them traces of a humor that is suspiciously like American, Ashkenazi, 20th-century Jewish humor.

So – good stuff about Don Juan, but not so much (in my opinion) concerning Tirso.

Earl Ganz says:

What was the old advertising slogan? You don’t have to be Jewish to eat Levy’s Rye Bread. Here’s a corollary. You don’t have
to be a converso to think like one. Or maybe we’re all conversos in our own way.

Isn’t it Barrabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Who’s Barnabas?

But a wonderfully thoughtful and provocative article.

David Goldman says:

A feuilleton essay is not the place to fight out scholarly issues, but there is a substantial body of scholarship supporting the view that Gabriel Tellez a/k/a Tirso de Molina came from a converso family. It is not a universally accepted view, but neither it is a new or controversial one. But there is no doubt at all about Fernando de Rojas, the author of La Celestina. What nailed the issue for me is the similarity in form (tragicomedy) and character between “Calixto y Malibea” and “El Burlador.”

L Jimenez says:

Interesting article. Just wondering if you were aware that a nineteenth-century version of the story–Don Juan Tenorio, by Spanish poet and playwright José Zorrilla–is traditionally performed throughout Spain on (or around) November 1 (All Saints’ Day).

David P Goldman says:

I know Zorilla’s play, which makes Juan into a more sympathetic Romantic hero. But I wasn’t aware of its All Saints Day performances. Thanks for the background.

G. Smiley says:

Two things:

1. It strikes me that the statue who drags Giovanni to hell is a variation on the golem of medieval Jewish legend.

2. I think you incorrectly characterize Don Juan as “devout.” To his contemporaries, his theology would have sounded a lot more like Protestant extremism than like orthodoxy. I imagine that — whatever his intent — Tirso would have been read by his contemporaries (and the Inquisition) as showing the logical real-world outworking of Protestant theology. There is a reason Protestants have historically condemned Catholicism’s “Jewish” emphasis on right behavior, and its willingness to use civil coercion to force such behavior.

Jeff G. says:

Mozart underlines the message in Giovanni’s anthem Viva la Libertad by bringing in three different bands and different vocal combinations, driving the opera into musical chaos to reflect the hero’s idea of liberty as a form of chaotic and egotistical freedom–only the accusatory entrance of Donna Anna brings the opera back to order.
I’ve been writing a history of the Spanish Jews for the past 6 years, and am working on the issue now of the conversos and art. I think the importance of the converso is as premature secularists–torn away from their old traditions while alienated from Christianity by Inquisition persecutions and purity of blood discriminatory laws. As secularists they formed the foundation for the greatest modern secular art form, the novel–starting with Celestina, but moving on to Lazarillo and Guzman de Alfarache–and whether Cervantes was also a converso is still an open question.

Ferdinand says:

I am not sure this article has any coherent point to make, other than to showcase the writer’s hostility to Christianity and especially to the European peoples. Goldman is ignorant of Christian theology, and the caricature presented here is on the same level as a Christian claiming that Judaism allows people to be evil by affording them loopholes: legalistic casuistry. See Merchant of Venice….

What’s the point of this article anyway? That law-based theologies like Old Testament Judaism, Talmudic Judaism, or Islam, are any better at punishing evil-doers than traditional Christianity was, or even than modern liberalism is? That they are less “sociopathic”? Are Islamic or Jewish societies so much more just than European Christian or modern liberal society? Where is the evidence for this? Do we know from experience that Jews, even Orthodox Jews, are more moral and just than traditional Christians? Is medieval Jewish Spain superior to medieval Venice or to modern Denmark in humanity, lawfulness, and justice? To address a claim Goldman explicitly makes, I ask, how are European leaders of the 16th-19th centuries any more “sociopathic” than the leaders of colonial America or modern or ancient Israel, or than legalistic Muslim or Jewish Spain?

The article really makes no sense because evil exists in all societies, it will never be “gotten rid of”; but Christian society was and is actually pretty good at punishing evil, and pretty law-abiding compared to others. As is the modern liberal state. This article is just a vehicle for anti-European and anti-Christian hostility. This writer often expresses his racial hatred of Europeans in these veiled ways.

Can you imagine if a Christian mag had published a similar criticism of Jewish theology by the way? Goldman knows very well that a traditional Christian would be excoriated if he tried to publish a Christian criticism of Judaism in, say First Things, where he is given space to write. This is nothing but vulgar shamelessness.

Patrick says:

Interesting piece, I admire Mr. Goldman’s writings and I don’t read any “racial hatred” into this essay, just a critique of Christianity. However, I don’t think the author gets the theology quite right. He writes, for example, “Christendom is incapable of ridding itself of evil through its own efforts.”

If by “its own efforts” he means through human action alone, then, yes, Christendom is so incapable. Has anyone ever claimed otherwise? Did Mr. Goldman miss the part in the New Testament where Jesus was executed? Christianity does not claim to offer heaven on earth, rather, it calls us to bear our own crosses in solidarity with Christ. “Now in fact all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12) Or (not to put too fine of a point on it), “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.'” (John 18:36)

Furthermore, Giovanni’s theology is not at all in conformity with Catholic orthodoxy. Just to take one line of approach, Catholics are required to attend weekly Mass. In order to present oneself for Mass, one must have made Confession. In order to make an efficacious Confession, one must repent sincerely. Therefore, Giovanni’s belief that he can simply do whatever he wants since he has plenty of time left, is a vile perversion of Catholicism, not at all orthodox.

P. Sydney Herbert says:

I saw the Metropolitan Opera production via HD on Oct. 29. This essay gives me something new to think about in reflecting on the opera.

Loved it. BTW, I don’t read Tablet as I would a scholarly magazine. This is entertainment with a pinch of scholarship, in this case several fascinating pinches. One quick query: Is it correct to call Voltaire an atheist? Anti-papist, yes, but nonetheless a believer in some sense.

David Goldman says:

To be clear: I am reporting Tirso’s (and by implication Da Ponte’s) views and noting their consistency with a classical Jewish critique of Catholic soteriology; I am not making theological assertions of my own. As for Ferdinand’s objection: I first read the quotation that I used from Joseph Dov Soloveitchik in First Things, in a review we published of his book “From There You Shall Seek.” Exactly this critique appeared in FT, while I was an editor there. In addition: the Calvinist critique runs parallel to the Jewish critique. The issue to be addressed is whether I misrepresented Tirso de Molina, de Rojas, da Ponte and others.

Ethan C. says:

So what, only Jews can satirize the “easy grace” Christian heresy? I guess Dante Aligheri must have been a secret Jew, what with his hole-full-of-Popes in the Inferno, and the story of Guido de Montefeltro’s false absolution.

But what do I know? Apparently us Christians have no way of sorting out sociopaths. Unlike the Jewish law, which was so effective that there isn’t a single sociopathic king recorded in the history of Israel or Judah.

David Goldman says:

Conversos also tend to take a rather dark view of things; I am thinking not just of de Rojas and Tirso, but also of Heinrich Heine (in particular “Atta Troll”).

I also wanted to point out to Ferdinand that First Things linked to the essay:

And I might add, in response to Ferdinand, that the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 really was a hideous episode in human history, in which two-fifths of the people of central Europe died, while the population of Castile declined by about a quarter and the Spanish Empire was ruined. So, yes: the density of sociopaths in power at the time Tirso wrote El Burlador really was something out of the ordinary.
I certainly make no claim that Jews in general are better people than Christians. But what separates Jews and Christians is a view of the best way to adhere to God’s will. After two thousand years of being told that Halakha is outmoded and superseded, it is reasonable for us to point out that questions can be raised about the efficacy of the alternative.

David A. says:

Very interesting article, above all very well written, but I must say -as somebody who studies the Don Juan plays and teaches courses on the character- that I do not agree with its conclusions, especially those dealing with the religious interpretation. In any case it was interesting and gave me food for thought.

Even were it inarguably true that Tirso’s intent was to write an anti-Christian play that at bottom was a “Jewish practical joke of cosmic malevolence,” no such intent played any part in the minds of either da Ponte or Mozart in the creation of _Don Giovanni_. They in fact went to curious lengths to keep the opera free of any Christian theological references whatsoever, and, needless to say, there’s not so much as a hint of anything Jewish. I make the former clear in a piece I wrote in 2005 titled “Giovanni And The Stone Guest” which piece can be read at the following URL:

That objection being lodged and notwithstanding, I found your piece an interesting and educational read and am glad to have had the opportunity to read it.


David P Goldman says:

Mr. Douglas, we shall never no for certain what was in Da Ponte’s mind, but the tragicomic tone–the continuous alteration of buffo and tragic elements–is the differentia specifica of Jewish humor inside the Christian world, and that is true from de Rojas to Heine. In tragedy and comedy, the world somehow finds its own ground. Issues are resolved. Tragicomedy has no resolution. Not to be disturbed by Don Giovanni (or Cosi) as opposed to Figaro, is not to have heard it. In this way the Jewish DNA going back to de Rojas and Tirso manifests itself in Da Ponte, and I cannot believe that Da Ponte did not manifest a Jewish sensibility.

David P Goldman says:

Ethan C., the founding of the United States of America was a Christian response to the failure of European civilization–a direct an immediate one, for the Pilgrim Fathers sailed for America in 1620 in the 2nd year of the 30 Years War, anticipating a Spanish invasion of the Netherlands (I tell the story in my new book “How Civilizations Die”). America is a Christian nation, but one founded by Christians drawn to Jewish principles rather than (as in the case of the Spanish) hostile to them. Evidently you missed my point about Calvin’s corrective. The Catholic Church today is the Church of Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger, not Torquemada; but such men came too late for Europe. For additional background see my essay on the Spanish Inquisition:

Ferdinand says:

D. Goldman, you seem to have missed my point. My point is precisely the one you concede: Christian publications like First Things give you space to write and link to your essays even when you make a mockery of their faith (I’m not a Christian btw). But they themselves would never publish a Christian attack on Judaism the way you published a Jewish attack on Christianity here, and you know that. You know that if any of them did that they would lose their jobs, etc.; but you take advantage of this situation to attack Christians, knowing they can’t defend themselves. This is why I called you shameless. And please don’t hide behind “Tirso said it.” You yourself say above,
“After two thousand years of being told that Halakha is outmoded and superseded, it is reasonable for us to point out that questions can be raised about the efficacy of the alternative.”
I know you have a chip on your shoulder and are motivated by feelings of envy and revenge over “the last 2000 years,” or because your grandfather wasn’t allowed into some social club, but right now Christians and Europeans (including secular white Americans) are being exceedingly gracious to the Jews so you might think about showing some gratitude and discretion and not go on attacking their religion in public or go on trying to settle scores over what happened in 1492.

Your only argument, that the 30 yrs’ war was so terribly destructive and that this proves Catholicism allows sociopathy is not good because you don’t compare this to other historical catastrophes where Catholicism was not involved. The causes of this war were not religious, by the way; the only really religious battle was the siege of Munster. Anyway, I think you will find conflicts just as bloody and destructive in the Islamic world, which is legalistic, like Judaism. You will also find it in the pagan, Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, and Jewish worlds, etc.; this article is just a front for another of your typical attacks on Europeans.

Ethan C. says:

Sure, David, but my general point is that just because Don Juan is a tragicomic critique of a certain Christian heresy, that doesn’t mean that it’s a Jewish critique that goes to the heart of Christianity — not even medieval European Christianity.

I’m a Reformed-ish Protestant myself, but you don’t have to be Calvinist to think Don Juan’s idea of forgiveness is way off. Like I said, Dante was saying the exact same thing in Italy 400 years earlier.

But even if you’re right about Da Ponte’s hidden message, the obvious rejoinder is to ask how well the Law worked for the Hebrews in keeping down the sociopaths.

Jerry Blaz says:

I found this view of Don Giovanni (Don Juan)to be both informative and insightful. I wish he had compared this rake to another rake of high social standing, the duke in “Rigoletto.” There is no descent into hell for the duke who is still singing of the fickleness of women while Rigoletto discovers that instead of the duke being done in by the assassin Rigoletto hired for that purpose, it is his own beloved daughter who was first seduced by the duke and then took his place as the assassin’s victim.

Carlo Lancellotti says:

A cursory reading of the RC Cathechism will convince you:

a) That there is plenty of rules and commandments, and that in fact, in no way God’s mercy detracts from his justice.

b) That somebody who refuses to repent because he thinks he can do it later is NOT justified, and that an insincere confession does not bring any absolution.

You should also reflects about Jesus’s comments that “those who love me are those who keep my commandments” and “I did not come to take one iota out of the law and the prophets” and that we must be “perfect.”

The list could go on and on…

David Goldman says:

That Christianity emphasizes the Attribute of Mercy rather than the Attribute of Justice is hardly a controversial statement.
I miss the parallel between Don Juan and Guido da Montefeltro. Guido took holy orders insincerely; Juan is entirely sincere, on the contrary. That is the paradox. The character closest to Juan in modern literature is Rose in Greene’s “Brighton Rock,” who will not take absolution so that she may be in Hell with Pinkie and comfort him. Like Juan, she is a metaphysical construct to serve the author’s heretical theology (Hans Urs v. Balthasar took Greene to task for this). Rose is Juan turned inside out: he doesn’t want to go Hell for his own evil reasons, and she wants to go to hell for her own good reasons. I doubt Greene thought about this, but it is at bottom the identical paradox.
And that, Ferdinand, should make clear why this is not a scurrilous attack on the next fellow’s religion: One can use the logical problems in quite a different way.
At the national level, Catholicism tolerated what my friend Russell Hittinger calls the “churches of earthly power.” See:
At the personal level, it tolerated a stylized procedure for salvation that allowed truly evil individuals (e.g. Richelieu and Olivares) to commit unspeakable acts for which they expected absolution at a later date. It was not the Church of Henri de Lubac or Karol Wojtyla or Joseph Ratzinger.

David Goldman says:

Mr. Lancelotti, you miss the paradox: Juan refuses to make an insincere confession, but fully intends to make a sincere confession at some future date. And there is nothing to prevent him from doing so. Tirso’s Juan is not a heretic, much less an atheist; he sincerely plans to repent sincerely, but sometime later. In Tirso’s “El Condenado por Desconfiado,” a pious hermit is damned because he does not believe that repentance is available at any moment (while a bandit is saved who repents at the last moment). This should make clear that in Tirso’s framework, Juan’s belief in repentance is itself a kind of justification! (See Henry Sullivan’s book “Tirso de Molina and the drama of the Counterreformation”). My editors wanted to keep the essay to readable length, but I reviewed the academic literature on the subject before drawing my conclusions.
And yes, theological paradox does not have to be Jewish, as Ethan C. observes (Bunuel’s “Voi Lactee” is full of such jokes and there is nothing Jewish about it, for example). The special circumstances of Tirso, though, persuade me beyond a reasonable doubt that a Jewish motivation is present.

Ethan C. says:

The parallel with Guido is that the Pope guaranteed him absolution for an evil act that he was about to commit. Turns out that absolution doesn’t work that way, and both Guido and that Pope are in hell for it.

So Christians like Dante knew that forgiveness doesn’t work like that according to orthodox Christianity. It isn’t a specifically Jewish critique.

Or to put it another way, I suspect that Christian theology is more Jewish than you’re giving it credit for being, even medieval European Christian theology.

Carlo Lancellotti says:

Mr. Goldman:

I noticed the formal paradox but, in all honesty, I could not understand how you can think that his later confession could ever count as “sincere.”

You seem to ascribe to Christianity as a whole a somewhat “Calvinist” (in the sense of “juridical”) soteriology. Catholics believe that there is such a thing as “spiritual health” which can be irremediably damaged by our choices and cannot be repaired by playing formal tricks such as conjuring up a dubious “sincere” confession.

Like other commenters, the essay gave me the impression that you are not only expressing a conjecture about Tirso, but that by and large you share in his diagnosis about the historical trajectory of Christianity. Is that the case?

David P. Goldman wrote: “Not to be disturbed by Don Giovanni (or Cosi) as opposed to Figaro, is not to have heard it. In this way the Jewish DNA going back to de Rojas and Tirso manifests itself in Da Ponte, and I cannot believe that Da Ponte did not manifest a Jewish sensibility.”

I make no argument for or against da Ponte having “a Jewish sensibility.” But _Don Giovanni_ is an opera, not a play, and in opera the composer, NOT the librettist, is the dramatist — especially this composer, a master dramatist, who had a long, one might even say notorious, record of insisting on having his own way with the texts of his operas and of bending his librettists’ will to his own. Whatever of da Ponte’s “Jewish sensibility” found its way into _Giovanni_ it was filtered through the decidedly non-Jewish sensibilities of the very Catholic Mozart before ending up in the finished work. Accordingly, and on the evidence of the work itself, what you claim for this opera is more than questionable and something of a tortuous stretch; ergo, my objection.


David P Goldman says:

Mr. Lancellotti,
America is a Christian nation, indeed the only industrial nation which still can be called Christian; and American (or at least Anglo-Saxon) Christian denominations are spreading very quickly through the world. Pentacostalism is the world’s fastest-growing denomination. The Christianity of Richelieu and Olivares is dead in Europe; the Christianity of the American founders which was historically Calvinist (from the Puritans to Lincoln, at least) remains a success. I am quite optimistic about Christianity. And I am also a great admirer of Benedict XVI about whom I have written extensively, and of the Ressourcement movement in general (although Hans Urs v. Balthasar would not like my take on Mozart!). Vatican II corrected many flaws in the Church, not least of which was the relationship with the Jews; another is the abandonment of earthly power. So I am optimistic about the Catholic Church as well, in the same way that Benedict is (the RCC will survive as a smaller entity).

David P Goldman says:

Mr. Lancelotti, if I could put the matter another way: I agree with Franz Rosenzweig that Christianity succeeds to the extent that it explicitly and consciously recognizes its Jewish foundation. A Christianity that persecutes the Jews must die, for it cannot be true to itself. That is to say, Christianity always must “Judaize” to some extent to succeed. The Calvinists did so explicitly, the American founders extravagantly. Now there is a Pope who reads the Gospels as Hebrew documents, as he made clear in his two-volume book “Jesus of Nazareth.” That is quite a change from the Spain of 1630.

Carlo Lancellotti says:

Mr. Goldman:

thank you for the clarification. I am certainly not interested in defending the “Christianity of Richelieu and Olivares,” if it ever existed. I am also not sure that the source of the problems of early modern Christianity was “dependence on conscience.” If anything it was the opposite: a moralistic and legalistic reduction of the Christian experience, shaped by the nominalistic theology of the late Middle Ages. I suppose your thesis could be reformulated as saying that Tirso’s Don Juan is a precursor of Hazard’s “crisis of the European conscience.” Whether the Jewish element plays a role, though, remains speculative.

David Goldman says:

Mr. Lancelotti,
It is true that the Jewish element cannot be established beyond the shadow of a doubt, but I consider it beyond reasonable doubt, supported by Tirso’s own family background and the precedent in “La Celestina,” as well as the setting in the court of Alfonso XI.

Ferdinand says:

Goldman, would First Things ever have a traditional Catholic writer publish a criticism of Jewish theology along the lines of your criticism of Christian theology here? For example, a reading of The Merchant of Venice that is parallel to your reading of Don Giovanni? We both know what the answer to that is.

The truth is that, as I said in my first post, the criticism of Christian theology presented here is a caricature, and intellectually equivalent to the traditional Christian charge that Judaism is hypocritical because it allows evil men to find justification for their behavior through legalistic casuistry, i.e., finding loopholes, and thereby going around the spirit of the law. I think that is a surer recipe for encouraging sociopathy than the Christian teachings of mercy, absolution, etc.;

You keep on harping on the evils of Richelieu but I ask you if his evils are not matched by the evils of other statesmen of various other religions, including legalistic Islam. Because if this is the case, your broader argument is quite meaningless. Maybe you are saying this was Tirso’s argument, and his perception of the Europe of his time. It is possible, then, that Tirso was a man of narrow intellectual horizons, and not well read in history or theology, and that his views may easily be dismissed. Obviously you don’t think that’s the case though, so you’d have to make his case for him.

Perhaps Jewish-Christian hostility in Spain had something to do with the role Jews had in Muslim Spain? I don’t know…just a guess. Maybe it was not a theological issue but a matter of political hostility. Is your own hostility to modern Swedes and WASPs really theological?

Anyway I read some of your other articles and the general meaning is always the same, you seem to be motivated by feelings of revenge and racial animus against the European peoples, but that’s a longer discussion. I wouldn’t have bothered to say anything here if it weren’t that I’ve seen you do this before.

Carlo Lancellotti says:

To your second comment: I don’t think Christianity can be true to itself by persecuting anybody. Otherwise I agree, Christianity cannot exist detached from its historical origin, which is Jewish. But that does not translate into a statement about “mercy vs. justice” or “conscience” vs. law.”It means, rather, that Christians should recognize that the very existence of the Jewish people is a paradigm of what the Church is: an event, not a doctrine.

Ferdinand says:

“I agree with Franz Rosenzweig that Christianity succeeds to the extent that it explicitly and consciously recognizes its Jewish foundation. A Christianity that persecutes the Jews must die, for it cannot be true to itself. That is to say, Christianity always must “Judaize” to some extent to succeed. The Calvinists did so explicitly, the American founders extravagantly. Now there is a Pope who reads the Gospels as Hebrew documents, as he made clear in his two-volume book “Jesus of Nazareth.” That is quite a change from the Spain of 1630.”

The foundation of Christianity is arguably the Old Testament, although I would argue that the ethical core of Christianity is quite opposed to the Old Testament, and comes from elsewhere. Even if one concedes that the foundation of Christianity is the Old Testament, this does not mean that its roots are “Jewish” in the sense you mean or that it must have a good relationship with modern Jews. Modern Jews follow Talmud, not the Old Testament, and rabbinical Judaism is not the faith of the Old Testament. Traditional Christians have always believed themselves to be the true Israel, and modern “Jews” to be impostors. See Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees. The Vatican today can’t maintain its traditional position for political reasons, but this is a sign of its weakness, not its return to any genuine roots. The idea that modern Christianity comes out of Talmudic teachings is historically spurious but you keep bringing it up because you know PC people won’t challenge you.

Your concern isn’t Christianity anyway. That’s a proxy for your racial animus against Europeans.

Carlo Lancellotti says:


here I would agree with Mr Goldman, because the core of Christianity is not “ethical.” It is the revelation of God in the person of a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. There is no way around that. Many years ago Pope Pius XI famously said that “we are all spiritual semites” and this remains true whatever we may think of the theological status of that fraction of the Jewish people who rejected Jesus’s claims.

David Goldman says:

You show your true colors by calling modern Jews “imposters” and denouncing the Vatican for abandoning its traditional position. If I am an imposter, why bandy words with me? And since you call me an imposter, this is my last communication with you. You may not be aware (as anyone who has read a bit about the Reformation does) that Luther, Calvin and the reformers knew the Talmud, and often cited rabbinic interpretations of the next. If you read Eric Nelson’s recent book “The Hebrew Republic,” you will note that John Milton quoted the Talmud in interpreting the Bible to reject monarchy.
And where did I display a “racial animus” towards Europeans? Some of my best friends are Europeans.

Ferdinand says:

I didn’t call you an impostor, I said that is the traditional Christian attitude toward Jews. Just like the Jewish attitude is that Christians are usurpers and idolaters, something Maimonides makes very clear. But I already told you I’m not Christian. What I disagree with is,

a) the historically false claim you make by implication, and by relying on the ignorance of well-meaning Christians, that modern Jews follow the faith of the OT. Modern and medieval Jews follow Talmud, which often goes against OT law. You are aware that the Jewish community in Spain gave the death penalty to Karaite Jews, correct? Do you think that was sociopathic by the way? Do you have to say anything about this? Anyway, today, in many of the best yeshivas even the best students are not acquainted with major figures from the OT. One could go at length about this, but any meaningful continuity claimed between modern Jews and the people of the OT is spurious.

b) your historically false claim that Talmud is the source of Christianity, when that is simply not the case. Neither Catholicism nor Eastern Orthodoxy nor primitive Christianity have a source in the Talmud. Scholars disagree about whether Milton had knowledge of rabbinic writings, by the way. As for Calvin and Luther…would you have modern Christians turn to Luther’s reading of the Talmud and his attitude toward Jews? That would be an interesting argument for you to make.

You chose anyway to answer my shorter reply to someone else, an irrelevant reply, as I am not Christian. Will answer the more relevant questions above from the 11:13 pm message? Would First Things publish a similar criticism of Judaism, based, say on the Merchant of Venice?

PS “And where did I display a “racial animus” towards Europeans? Some of my best friends are Europeans.”
—cute choice of excuse. I take it that you concede my point with a wink and that the joke will remain between us, yes?

Ferdinand says:

“here I would agree with Mr Goldman, because the core of Christianity is not “ethical.” It is the revelation of God in the person of a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. There is no way around that. Many years ago Pope Pius XI famously said that “we are all spiritual semites” and this remains true whatever we may think of the theological status of that fraction of the Jewish people who rejected Jesus’s claims.”

Lancellotti, modern Jews follow Talmud, not OT. See Matthew 15:6 and Mark 7:13 for what Jesus says RE the rabbis’ (Pharisees’) view of law. My point was similar to yours, traditional Christians have always believed themselves to be the true Israel, BUT they have never for once thought that the rabbinic Jews in their midst were rightful descendants of the OT or “elder brothers” or this other kind of historical nonsense that is peddled now for political reasons. “Judeo-Christianity” is a historical fabrication of the 20th century. And Goldman is using this doctrine as a means of slandering Europeans and those of European descent as cruel, sociopathic “pagans” (his code word in his other articles), who do not deserve to have their own nations, as you see him admit in a veiled way from his joke above in the reply to me.

In fine, he is driven by feelings of revenge and of envy over the achievements of European culture and his entire body of articles on these matters is an attempt to convince himself, and others, that Europe’s achievements are really because it was trying to be Jewish, not only by following the OT, but by trying to emulate actual rabbinic Jews. Tirso, Mendelssohn, etc., and other middling characters thus become the fountains of culture in his mind. The center of European civilization, you see, must have been somewhere outside of Minsk where Goldman’s ancestors lived selling vodka to peasants. Newton consulted rabbis who swung chickens over their heads before proceeding with his inquiries, etc., etc.

carlo lancellotti says:


while I will agree that Mr. Goldman’s synthesis of European history is oversimplified and driven by his own Judeo-centric convictions, it remains true that in Europe, since the Enlightenment, there has been an attempt to separate Christianity from its Jewish roots in order to “rationalize” it, and that it has been disastrous (in my opinion).

Regarding the role and significance of rabbinical Judaism per se, that’s a delicate problem that we should not try and discuss here.
Let us say its existence cannot just be dismissed as irrelevant to a Christian understanding of the history of salvation. Just read the 11 Chapter of the Letter to the Romans,
“As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers”

David Goldman says:

Revenge and envy? I, who have published both learned and popular articles on the great achievements of Christian musical culture? e.g.,
Ignoramuses like Ferdinand, who do not know the first thing about Europe’s cultural heritage, rage about the Jews. No wonder Europe is in trouble.

Ethan C. says:

Mr. Goldman,
I entirely agree with your statement that Christianity must attend to its Jewish roots or else perish. Perhaps I misconstrued your argument originally as being a criticism of Christianity in general rather than only a debased antinomian version of it.

While I agree that the Reformation did a lot of very necessary work to correct medieval Catholicism (much of which has since been acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church itself), my citation of Dante is to say that the same criticism that Tirso and the Reformers asserted can also be found in other, earlier medieval sources.

So if it’s a “Jewish” critique, it is such not in the sense of “non-Christian,” but in the sense of “non-Modern” or “non-Gnostic”.

However, I would also agree with Mr. Lancellotti that the critique itself is more directed against a mechanistic, juridical conception of justification rather than an over-emphasis on “conscience”. Which makes it an echo of the eternal Judeo-Christian critical tradition going back to the Prophets.

Ferdinand says:

You hate and fear Europeans, while admiring their past achievements. So you try to separate the latter from the former. What you are talking about is European musical culture, not “Christian” musical culture. Nestorian Christians weren’t composing that stuff; Mizrahi Jews didn’t have a “Mendelssohn”; he existed because he lived among civilized Europeans, not vice versa. Centuries of Christianity among various non-European peoples of the world somehow hasn’t raised their IQ and it didn’t make them discover the laws of physics, compose symphonies, become da Vinci, discover continents, go to the moon. Europeans were doing this stuff because it’s who they are for reasons that have nothing to do with Jews or with the OT. You need to come to terms with the fact that the cultural and scientific achievements you respect are the work of European races, not of Jews, and not of Christianity. You are engaged in an absurd project to “prove” that it was really second-rate writers like Tirso that were behind European cultural achievements. This is driven by envy and nothing more.

By the way I am of Jewish blood myself, though I have renounced this false religion and also the parochial tribalism that you embrace–and not for Christianity, an Oriental superstition. I’m not raging against the Jews, I’m tired of your racial hostility and envy against Europeans, including white Americans. They’re so nice and brainwashed now that they won’t defend themselves against this slander, so I’ll do it for them. Look to Yemeni Jews to see what we’d be..

What’s going on here is simple, it’s mainly Ostjude Americans from rude beginnings who came into some money and now want to give themselves a noble pedigree to go with it. “We was kings once,” etc. For some, it’s pretending that golem stories and the whole fetid shtetl world is something to be proud of. For you, it’s the rather more ridiculous pretense that Schumann had to consult the rabbi of Bialystok (or “Tirso”) before composing a symphony.

Lol … I was wondering when Ferdinand would get around to raving about his thoughts on the IQ’s of “non-European peoples”.

BTW, Yemenis, including but not limited to Yemeni Jews, are some of the most pleasant folks I have ever met.

G. Bachlund says:

Simply a thank you for a most interesting article, and set of exchanges which followed. What jolly good fun to consider such perspectives and possiblities through the lenses of decent scholarship. Our world needs more of this. Was not Mozart fortunate to have had this libretto? Was not da Ponte fortunate to have had Mozart? Are we not fortunate to have them both so many generations later? We need the stories, and we need their retelling in so many ways. Without the Western canon of arts and literature, the world would be a far more impoverished planet.

Your quote from another article, “Music cannot represent eternity—no human artifice can—but it can direct the mind’s ear to the border line at which eternity breaks into temporality” needs be learned by many musicians. Persevere and prosper, sir.

David Goldman says:

As I said, the Calvinist response to Catholic soteriology eliminates the “Que largo me lo fiais” paradox. In that regard, a friend points out a parallel Calvinist paradox, as in James Hogg’s “Justified Sinner”: if you know that you are member of the Elect, then you can get away with everything:
But that is less compelling, I think, than Tirso’s.

    northernobserver says:

    You hope so because that flaw would extend to all chosen congregations…

Ferdinand says:

“And where did I display a “racial animus” towards Europeans? Some of my best friends are Europeans.”
–David P. Goldman

OK everyone…do you understand why Goldman/”Spengler” is making this little joke? He thought it would be just between me and him, but it’s not hard to figure out.

When Goldman uses “pagan” in his articles he means racial Europeans. His conception of Judaism is entirely racial, but he thinks that whites aren’t entitled to similar national or tribal loyalties. “Christianity” and the Noahide crap he peddles are meant to replace that.

    RonL says:

     Actually, Spengler very much believes that indigenous Europeans have a right to nation states. You’ve never read him.

Latecomer to this thread, but I just have to say I’m impressed. I learned two things in this thread (as opposed to the actual article, that is):

1) The word Ostjude. Ooh, snap, a fancy word for those icky, poor, non-white Ashkenazi. I’ll have to remember that; it makes me sound both fancy and deluded at the same time, which is hard to do.

2) Confirmation that people who rant about how Jews are soulless, conscienceless lawyers (what, has law suddenly become contagious or something?) don’t actually know anything about Jews. Has this guy ever been to an American Shabbat service? I’ve been to practically every denomination over the years, from Chasid to Reconstructionist, Texas German to Old-style NYC to American Military, in both Hebrew and the vernacular of wherever I am, and the great thing is, IT DOESN’T MATTER; the services are always the same, always include the same basic prayers, and guess what, have the same reading from the Torah. We’ve been doing it for 2500 years, so I’m not sure how anyone could miss the fact Jews read what Christians call the Old Testament pretty intensely all the time…

Thanks for taking the time to talk about this particular, Im fervently about this and I appreciate learning this particular topic. Please, as you acquire info, please revise this website with increased information. Ive thought it was very helpful. There must be charging stations almost everywhere.

I got what you wish, thanks for swing up. Woh I am glad to see this website through google. Thanks For Share Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Jewish opera – Tablet Magazine.


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Divine Justice

The hidden story of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Jewish opera