• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    Brethren of Asia

    By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.

    Masonic history has become one of my passions and I have done a fair amount of writing on the subject. I cannot claim to have solved many or even any of the problems that surround the emergence of Freemasonry as we know it, though I am rather certain that the legends on which we have been brought, insisting that Scriptural ancients were all real figures in the craft, up are closer to dreams than to reality.

    It is more likely that speculative Freemasonry is a creation of the 18th century, probably deriving from Scotland, not England or continental Europe, and with little if any organic connection with the operative masons of the Middle Ages.

    But Masonry does not lack its pre-history, not necessarily located within the building trade but part of the age-old human fascination with schemes and secrets, cabals and conspiracies, plots and parties, bands and brotherhoods.

    The primary school playground was my first introduction to communes and clubs with their pledges of secrecy and loyalty, their rudimentary rituals and modes of recognition, their grandiose objectives and swashbuckling oaths and initiations. Nobody wanted to be left out, but some were, the criterion being somewhat racist and intolerant. In later years I was solemnly told that small children have no racist bias other than what they hear at home, but I don’t believe it. At five or six we were already thorough-going bigots, excluding others from our clubs on the basis of mere facial appearance without the slightest idea that they had minds, consciences and beliefs that were at least as genuine as ours.

    Time did not entirely cure us or our contemporaries of the prejudices of the playground, nor eradicate the feeling that it was good to have a group identity which often remained a secret that was not to be revealed to the uninitiated outsider.

    Back then to the pre-history of Freemasonry. Countless movements and brotherhoods, many quite impressive in their idealism and altruism, preceded the emergence of the craft. Some lasted for long periods. Some – like Jonah’s gourd in the Bible – “arose in a night and perished in a night”. Some were relatively respectable while they lasted; some were part of economic, political, social and philosophical revolutions. Many were torn asunder by dissension; countless breakaways took place, and these in turn also split apart in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination.

    No wonder that official Freemasonry developed a strict policy of non-recognition of fringe movements and even declined to approve a number of groups that adamantly declared that they were Masonic. The result is that Freemasons who contemplate attending a meeting of an Order outside formal Masonry are advised to seek the advice and guidance of their Grand Lodge.

    There are of course academic studies of some such movements, and I dare say that I could have tried to join the ranks of the researchers and writers who have worked on this theme.

    But I am afraid that I have allowed personal curiosity to impel me into the subject of this present paper – personal because a movement, however short-lived, that used Biblical and rabbinic terminology, based itself on Jewish mystical doctrines, had colourful Jewish figures in its leadership, and preceded the so-called Jewish Enlightenment, is bound to appeal to a Mason who is a rabbi.

    The Asiatic Brethren were known by several names, e.g. Knights and Brothers of Asia and “Asiatischen Brueder vom Rosenkreuz”. Asia was not meant in a strictly literal or geographical sense. This was a European order, introduced in Vienna with Berlin connections. Its members had little experience of the real Asia. It was a symbol of all that was distant and exotic.

    But the name Asia probably figured in the title of the order because of a New Testament passage, Revelation 1:11, which spoke of seven congregations or churches in Asia, symbolic of the spread of Christian teachings. Later, various legends developed around Asian groups cut off from the Christian mainstream after the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam.

    Probably an offshoot of and breakaway from the Rosicrucians (the Rose Cross or Rosenkreuz), the movement was one of many that sought the secrets of life and truth. What made them particularly interesting was the participation of both Jews and Christians with an eclectic amalgam of Jewish and Christian notions laced with colourful imagery and sexual symbolism. For the Jews it was a welcome expression of religious tolerance, however short-lived; the Christians – or at least some of them – also had proselytising thoughts of converting the Jews to Christianity and feared too much Jewish content or influence in their movement (Katz 1986:45).

    A word is necessary about the Rosicrucians. Said to have been founded in medieval Germany, the movement claimed to have begun as the circle of devotees of a certain Father Christian Rosenkreuz, though whether such a person existed is problematical. Some regard the name as a pseudonym of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the English philosopher and essayist. Esoteric doctrines concerning the natural and spiritual realm were advocated as the means of achieving a universal reformation of mankind. An attempt at linking the Rosy Cross and the early Masonic order is made by the Scottish poet/historian Henry Adamson in his “Muses’ Threnodie”, 1638, when he wrote:

    “We are Brethren of the Rosie Crosse:
    We have the Mason Word and second sight…”

    What is meant by the “Mason Word”? The idea may derive from John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word”. If the Christian Scriptures could speak of a Word, so could Freemasonry. The assumption was that Freemasonry also began with a Word.

    The idea that there was such a word is attested in Masonic literature but what the Word actually was has not been finally established. It must have signified an apprentice whose training had equipped him to work on his own, but the word is said to have been lost with the death of Hiram Abiff, the central event in the third degree ritual, so it is a substitute word which is whispered in the candidate’s ear. It complicates the story to discover that before about 1730 it was not the raising of Hiram Abiff that was enacted in the ritual but the attempt by the three sons of Noah to raise their father in order to discover his secrets.

    In the search for the original Mason Word it does not help us to analyse the substitute name, which has in any case suffered so greatly from often comical mispronunciations and misinterpretations. It is likely that, as with other key words in our ritual, the original Word was from Biblical Hebrew. Henry Adamson tantalises his readers by asserting, “We have the Mason Word”. If he is right in his claim, we wish he had substantiated it or hinted at the spelling of the Word. On the basis of ideas one hears around Masonic lodges it is possible that the Word is from a Hebrew root aleph-vav-nun with the meaning of “vigour”, or perhaps a root aleph-mem-vav-nun with the meaning of “craftsman”.

    There were many imitators and offshoots of Rosicrucianism, of which one is the order of Asiatic Brethren. Rosicrucianism, as the word “cross”, symbolic of the passion and death of Jesus, indicates, was a problem for Jews. “Rose” too, though it appears quite harmless, had strong theological connotations from the Middle Ages onwards as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, the “thornless rose” representing purity and beauty. St. Bernard called her “the rose of charity, the lily of chastity”, utilising the words of the Song of Songs 2:1. European folklore attached great importance to the “alchemical” or “mystic” rose, the culmination of humanity’s spiritual quest (Beresniak 2003:80).

    For Jews, the formation of the Asiatic Brethren was a means of reaching the non-Jewish world and finding a place in European society, a stepping-stone to Emancipation (Katz 1967). It is not without significance that two of the leading founders of the order were Jews and that the order included Jewish as well as Christian (and Muslim) ceremonies in its rituals. Like many such movements, it used quasi-Biblical and aristocratic titles such as prince, priest and Levite, and it added nine degrees to the standard three to make a total of twelve, equivalent to the twelve tribes of ancient Israel.

    Much more work needs, however, to be done on the traces of the order’s rituals, and we need to know whether any Muslims were involved. Apart from negative attitudes to Islam, were there any numbers of Muslims in the Austrian and German milieux in which the order operated?

    The movement came into being in the 1780s and survived for about a decade, though one of its publications continued until about 1810. It was spearheaded by Hans Carl von Ecker und Eckhofen (otherwise known as Carl Ferdinand von Boscamp). Gershom Scholem has shown that a Jew, Moses Dobroschka or Dobruska, was probably a co-founder (Scholem 1974:304).

    They attracted support from a motley group, never very large in numbers, that included monks with theosophical tendencies; European aristocrats; Enlightenment thinkers; and a sprinkling of wealthy Jews. Strange bedfellows, and the movement could not last – not simply because of the ups and downs of the movement for toleration of the Jews, but because within Judaism the order became part of an internal tug-of-war between mystical and rationalist ideologies, between esoteric and exoteric cultural currents.

    The Jewish secretary of the movement was Ephraim Joseph Hirschfeld (c. 1755-1820), the son of a synagogue cantor in Karlsruhe. He had a Jewish and general education and was a supporter of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement which urged Jews to involve themselves in wider cultural pursuits. Hirschfeld was the theoretician of the movement and went so far as to claim that its (i.e. his) writings were really ancient and were originally in Hebrew or Aramaic.

    About 1791 the movement declined, apparently because of a series of personality problems. Hirschfeld was a quarrelsome individual, sued who sued Ecker for a debt and was accused of threatening his life. Ecker in turn argued that Hirschfeld had introduced too much kabbalistic Jewish teaching into the order and expelled him. Then in mid-1791, Ecker died. Hirschfeld was released from the house arrest in which he had been placed but was not restored to his position; indeed he was accused of writing a polemic against the movement. Eventually he returned to Karlsruhe and later lived in Offenbach.

    Hirschfeld’s debts were paid by his co-religionist, Moses Dobroschka, who was an alchemist from a rabbinic family, a relative (cousin or nephew) of the messianic pretender Jacob Frank (1726-1791). Dobroschka introduced the movement to the German translations of Sabbatean writings which focussed on another messianic pretender, Sabbatai Zvi (1626-1676).

    When Dobroschka became (at least nominally) a Christian in 1775, he assumed the name Franz Thomas von Schoenfeld or Scheinfeld; he was also known as Junius Frey. In 1794, at the time of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, he was executed in France as a Jacobin radical; it was also said that he had spied for Austria.

    The Jews in the movement thus included followers of two pseudo-messiahs. A number of such individuals arose over the centuries, manipulating the minds of the masses when morale was low and only the yearning for redemption sustained the people’s spirits. Time after time a wave of immense enthusiasm led to bitter disillusionment. Sabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank were both eventually seen to have feet of clay (Scholem 1974: part 2 chapters 2-3; see also Endelman 1987). Sabbatai Zvi became a Muslim and Jacob Frank a Muslim and then a Christian, though their followers continued to believe in them and argued that their “conversions” were part of a deliberate strategy aimed at securing political support. Sabbateans and Frankists who joined supposedly idealistic movements such as the Asiatic Brethren presumably expected that they would help achieve what the Biblical prophets called “the end of days”, but it was a vain hope.

    A difficult problem for the Jews, as we have indicated, was the engagement of irreconcilable strands in Jewish thinking – on the one hand the esoteric, magic, sensual and often anti-intellectual mysticism of the Kabbalah (with a Christian version of which something will be said in a moment) and on the other the highly rational intellectuality of the Haskalah, which wanted no truck with irrationality or superstition and sought to introduce the norms of European secular culture into Jewish identity On the clash between the two forces see Mahler 1985 especially the Introduction).

    The presence of both forces within the Asiatic Brethren must have produced an eclectic soup which the few theoreticians could not handle (see Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages, 1961). But neither in the Asiatic Brethren nor, it must be said, in much of official Freemasonry, was there any rigorous reconciliation between competing elements within Judaism or even Christianity.

    Why then were Jews attracted to movements such as the Asiatic Brethren?

    Precisely because they had hitherto been barred from much of European culture. In Spain and some other places the Jewish contribution to civilisation was widespread and influential, but this was not the general picture. On the whole the Jew was an outsider, in a country but not of it. If an opportunity arose to be accepted and treated tolerantly it was not to be spurned. If a movement endeavoured to unite Jewish and Muslim tradition with Christian teaching it was to be encouraged. But was there a point beyond which Jews could not go? (Edelstein 1982:116-8).

    How far could they go along, for instance, with Christian Kabbalah? Attempting to bring the system of nature and the principles of geometry and language into one system echoing the Jewish Kabbalah, Christian kabbalists believed they could prove Jesus and the Trinity in kabbalistic fashion. But what were Jews to say when the kabbalistic idea of Adam Kadmon, primeval man, was said to prefigure Jesus? (Scholem 1974:200). Information about Kabbalah had entered Christian circles through a number of Jewish converts and then by means of Latin translations of the Zohar, the handbook of the Jewish mystics. The Asiatic Brethren tried to mix and match between the two systems, but it was an exciting exercise which could not last.


    Beresniak, Daniel, Symbols of Freemasonry, 2003
    Edelstein, Alan, An Unacknowledged Harmony: Philosemitism and the Survival of European Jewry, 1982
    Encyclopedia Judaica
    Endelman, Todd (ed.), Jewish Apostasy in the Modern World, 1987
    Katz, Jacob, “Freemasons and Jews”, in Jewish Journal of Sociology, 11:2 (1967)
    Katz, Jacob, Jewish Emancipation and Self-Emancipation, 1986
    Katz, Jacob, Jews and Freemasons in Europe 1723-1939, 1970
    Mahler, Raphael, Hasidism and Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, 1985
    Scholem, Gershom, Kabbalah, 1974

    For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.


    Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.

    Order the paperback or Kindle edition from Amazon or the paperback from The Book Depository to receive free shipping. Selections from the book can be previewed on Google Books.

    Comments are closed.