Wednesday, December 31, 2008

AJS Conference Day Two Session Two (Early Modern Messianism(s): Context, Confluence, and Discourse

Rebekka Voss (Harvard University)
"Topsy-Turvy World's End: The Lost Tribes in Apocalyptic Scenarios from Sixteenth-Century Germany"

Jews saw the Ten Lost Tribes as redeemers who would save them from the Christians. This is in keeping with the theme of revenge which so permeates Ashkenazic thought. Christians saw the Ten Lost Tribes as serving the Anti Christ. (See Andrew Gow's the Red Jews) In the early modern period the Ten Lost Tribes were a major political and military force, to be reckoned with, in the minds of both Jews and Christians in Europe. In 1523 we have pamphlets in Germany talking about the tribes being on the march with 600,000 soldiers. It was at this moment in time that Reubeni appeared and offered Christians a solution to their problem. The Ten Lost Tribes would help them take the Holy Land. What is interesting to note is that, despite the differences between Jews and Christians, the Ten Lost Tribes plays a role in their common culture. Jews and Christians exchange information between each other relating to sightings of the tribes and are used as sources by the other. Jews took on the legend of the Red Jews, that there was this vast army of Jews from the Ten Lost Tribes ready to descend upon Europe, as a counter counter story. Each side claimed the Jacob side in the Jacob/Esau narrative. For Christians red refers to Edom (in reference to Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of lentiles) For Jews red referred to King David who had red hair. The Yiddish version of the legend talks about the Ten Lost Tribes as David taking on the Christian Goliath.


Anne Oravetz Albert (University of Pennsylvania)
"The Religio-Political Jew: Post-Sabbatian Political Thought in Daniel Levi de Barrios and Abraham Pereyra"

The Sabbatean movement meant a lot of different things to different people. We see an example of two Amsterdam Jews who engage in a shift towards a Jewish politics, to see Jews as political beings. Both of these Jews were ex conversos familiar with Catholic political thought. Abraham Pereyra talks about the need to govern with more piety. His Mirror of the World talks about the value of prudence in classical and Jewish sources. He attacks secularizers who follow Machiavelli and try to take religion out of politics. (For a discussion of the role of Machiavelli in early modern Catholic political thought see Robert Bireley's the Counter-Reformation Prince.) Daniel Levi Barrios, a converso poet, talks about how Jewish exile lead to better Jewish forms of government with the ultimate example being the Jewish community of Amsterdam. (Ruth Wisse's Jews and Power is an interesting example of a modern scholar who seems to follow a very similar line of thinking. Wisse talks about Jewish exilic political thought as being centered on creating and maintaining a community without recourse to physical force.) Barrios wavers back and forth on the merits of a monarchy versus that of a democracy. (A line of political discourse founded in Aristotle's Politics.) The mamad is the ideal type of government. Barrios uses various symbols to put the mamad within the context of creation.

(This presentation, as with the first, are closely related to the research I am doing now. I wrote a paper on Reubeni and his use of his status as an ambassador from the Ten Lost Tribes to create a mobile state around himself. This going to be part of my larger dissertation on the politics of Jewish Messianism, an issue this second paper so nicely confronted.)

Pawel Maciejko (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

(The original title of Maciejko's presenation was going to be "Messinaism and Exile in the Works of Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschutz." Maciejko, though, decided to speak on Eibeschutz's Sabbatean son, Wolf Eibeschutz.)

On Christmas eve in 1758 Wolf Eibeschutz told the people in the synagogue that he was in that instead of following the traditional Jewish Christmas eve practice of playing cards. (There is a custom amongst certain Jews not to study Torah on Christmas eve because on this night the klipot, the dark powers, reign supreme and anything good done would just go to serve the forces of evil.) Instead Eibeschutz declared that he would destroy the power of the klipot by playing his harp. The people saw a flame in the sky, which Eibeschutz declared was the sechina descending. Like Eibeschutz, Jacob Frank, in Poland, was trying to unite the Sabbatean community behind him. The Frankists had just lost their protector. Frank was pushing for conversion to Christianity which he would do in 1759. Like Eibeschutz, Frank also used this "flame" in the sky, which was in fact Halley's comet.

The eighteenth century was a golden age of charlatanism, which Eibeschutz and Frank are examples of. The eighteenth century was a time in which there developed a major knowledge gap; those who were on the more knowledgeable side could easily use their knowledge to dupe those who were not. Both Eibeschutz and Frank knew about the expected appearance of Halley's comet from reading European newspapers.

The concept of a false messiah is a contradiction in terms. Frank should not be viewed as a messiah at all. He was simply part of a wide circle of charlatans active in Europe at the time and formed an actual community. There is little messianism in Frank. He does not offer redemption. Instead there is this world and eternal life.

(Even if you are involved in Jewish studies you have probably not yet heard of Pawel Maciejko. I first met him last May when he came to Ohio state for a conference. Just remember that you heard about him here first. This guy is brilliant and a talented speaker and he will be a dominant figure in the field in the decades to come.

One could challenge Maciejko over the eighteenth century being the age of charlatanism. The sixteenth century had David Reubeni and Natalie Zemon Davis' Martin Guerre case. Maciejko responded to this that the eighteenth century was different in that you have an actual community of charlatans who are in contact with each other.

Elisheva Carlebach was chairing the session and challenged him over his refusal to use the terms false and failed messiahs. So they got into an interesting back and forth on this matter. I asked him point blank if in creating the narrative of Jewish Messianism, such as Harris Lenowitz's Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights, if he would take Frank out. He said yes. Since I am planning on including a chapter on Frank in my dissertation on political messianism, I am going to have to be responding to Maciejko; this should be interesting.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

AJS Conference Day Two Session One (Studies in Mystical Experience and Identity)

Pinchas Giller (American Jewish University)
"Kabbalah and Meditation"

Can we speak of a Kabbalistic meditation? This concept seems to be rooted more in modern interests than in traditional source material. When we speak of meditation we mean something very specific. It involves specific uses of the body and mental states. Contemplation is not the same thing as meditation. Kabbalistic prayer is not easily reconciled with meditation. Cleaving to God is not becoming one with him. Jews tend to work with a transitive model of prayer, engaging in rites directed at a given object, in this case a monotheistic God. The closest thing to meditation in the Kabbalistic tradition is Abraham Abulafia. Abulafia's teaching do involve breathing exercises and body positions in order to achieve a spiritual result. But Kabbalah never developed a methodological school with a living tradition. Abulafia's tradition was lost and failed to achieve any wide influence. Where meditation does come into play in Judaism is the Sufi inspired tradition of Bahya ibn Pakuda and Abraham Maimonides.

(Giller and Menachem Kallus got into a debate about certain technical issues involving Hindu-Buddhist meditation traditions, which went completely over my head. I did recognize one of the terms they were using, chakra, from having watched Naruto. I take it as a bad sign if I am getting my knowledge of Eastern meditation from Japanese anime.

It struck me as interesting how important Eastern thought has become for Kabbalah studies. I recognize that this is a legitimate line of scholarly inquiry. As a historian, though, I am more inclined to focus on narrative questions such as who, what, when, where any why as opposed to methodological questions; I am not concerned with defining the nature of mysticism as something spanning time, space and cultures. I know that medieval and early modern Kabbalists were not talking to Hindus and Buddhists. Muslim Sufis, and Christian mystics is another story entirely and therefore of interest. In this respect I guess I come down into the camp of Gershom Scholem and not Moshe Idel.)


Menachem Emanuel Kallus (Haifa University)
"On a Purported Copy of the Cosmographic Diagrams of R. Hayim Vital"

(Dr. Goldish had me read some of Kallus' work so I had become a fan and was really looking foward to hear him speak. Unfortunately his presention went right over me. Therefore I am not going to even make the attempt to summerize what he said. )


Igor Victor Turov (National University, Kievo Mogilyanska Akademiya)
"Attitude of the Founders of Hasidism to Gentiles"

In general Hasidic attitutudes toward gentiles are quite negative. Gentiles are physically and spiritually dangerous. That being said you do have certain streams of Hasidic thought that, in a strange sense, are positive. For example, Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk talks about admiring the beauty of the gentiles. The Besht makes a treaty with Carpathian bandits; he would pray for them and in return they would not attack Jews. At the root of this "positive" view of gentiles is the notion that God concealed himself amongst the gentiles and that by interacting with gentiles one released the divine sparks trapped within them.

(This brought to mind an essay my Kallus which talks about a sort of "parasitic" Kabbalism where you can have someone so wicked that there is no hope of saving him. The Kabbalist sage would therefore take the little merit that this person had, leaving him completely with nothing, in order that some good should come of this merit.)

Pick Your Doubt: a Review of Doubt

I did not bother to read any reviews of Doubt before seeing it, though I had gotten the sense that it had received positive reviews. So I went in not knowing what it was about. Hollywood has not been known for producing highly nuanced films about the Catholic church or, for that matter, any other organized religion. Considering this I was expecting one of several simplistic plots. The pedophile priest molesting a boy in his care. The never doubting man of faith having his faith shaken, which opens his eyes to a more liberal way of seeing the world. There is always line of the charming and liberal character who shakes up an establishment hidebound by tradition and brings it into the modern age. (Sister Act anyone) We could also serve up a feminist tale of a brave nun challenging the patriarchal priesthood. This last plot line would work well with the first one as the patriarchal male priest could also be a child molester. In essence Doubt is all of these things or at least might be about them. This is the genius of this film, based on a play. It is wide open and one is free to see different things and different people are going to come away having watched different movies. Because of this there is no clear cut message to the film, no heroes or villains and as such it cannot be boiled down to some trite truism. This itself could easily have turned into just another exercise in post modernist storytelling where it not for the leading parts being played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams who each put in Oscar worthy performances. This is one of the best acted films ever made. The only thing I can think to compare it to is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The essential premise of the story concerns a conflict between Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a nun and the principle at a Catholic Middle School, and Father Brendan Flynn. Father Flynn is an easy going priest, well liked by the students at school. He gives the boys tips on asking girls to dance; if no one accepts than you become a priest. The conflict plays itself out before Sister James, who stands in for the audience as someone caught between the two sides. Sister Beauvier objects to Father Flynn’s attempted innovations. The year is 1964 and Father Flynn openly, in his sermons, talks about religious doubt as having some sort of existential value. (He could almost be a Catholic version of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.) He uses ball point pens, likes to put large amounts of sugar in his tea and wishes to stick in secular songs such as “Frosty the Snowman” into the Christmas pageant. In addition to this Sister Beauvier comes to take a critical eye to Father Flynn’s friendship with the school’s sole black student, Donald Muller, who also serves as an alter boy. There is no hard evidence against Father Flynn that he has done anything improper, but she pursues the matter based on her heartfelt faith in his guilt. And why should she not think like this? This is someone who has staked her life around something that she cannot prove but believes with absolute certainty in her heart. If it is enough for her to know in her heart that the Catholic church is the Truth than it should also be enough that she know in her heart that Father Flynn is a pedophile.

As I said before, different people will see different things in the film. The film that I saw was one in which Father Flynn is a closeted but celibate homosexual, who strayed at some point in his past. As such he is hiding something; something that, as this is 1964, if it were known would bring him down. Because of this he has had to leave a number of positions as he has clashed with others who have then gone digging into his past and have found hard proof as to his sexual orientation. Donald clearly is gay. The fact that both him and Father Flynn have this in common creates a bound between them and is why Father Flynn takes such an active interest in him. This is not a sexual relationship. Just because Father Flynn is gay it does mean that he is a pedophile. On the contrary Father Flynn is the sort of responsible adult who can help Donald navigate the issues that he is dealing with. This allows for everyone to win which is important for me since I came away liking all the characters. Sister Beauvier is right to be concerned and to have Father Flynn removed, but Father Flynn really is the wonderful person that he appears to be.

Monday, December 29, 2008

AJS Conference Day One Session Four (Reading the Medievals: Case Studies in Reception History)

Eric Lawee (York University)
“Scripturalization of Rashi’s Torah Commentary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Times”

Even though Rashi was not widely accepted in Spain initially and was not even mentioned by Ibn Daud, by the thirteenth century Rashi had a achieved an almost canonical status. We see a move to treat Rashi like the Talmud, a flawless source that most be analyzed line by line. Nachmonides, even though he himself criticized Rashi, played a large role in this by putting Rashi on the map as a major figure to contend with. This veneration of Rashi can be seen in both the rationalist and Kabbalistic streams of Jewish thought. Moshe ibn Gabbi attacks his philosophical opponents by labeling them as little foxes who attack Rashi. Sefer Hameshiv talks about Rashi having prophetic power and claims that his commentary was written with the help of an angel. On the flip side you have people like Isaac Campanton who, in his Darachi HaTalmud, states that the process of iyyun, in depth textual analysis, applies not just to the Talmud but to Rashi and Nachmonides as well. Two of Campanton’s students, Isaac de Leon and Isaac Aboab, wrote super commentaries on Rashi.

(Isaac Abarbanel’s teacher, Joseph Hayyun, was also a student of Campanton. It is interesting to note that Abarbanel does attack Rashi, though Rashi is certainly a key source for Abarbanel. I would see this as another example of how Abarbanel fits into an Nachmonidean line of Jewish thought.

Lawee is one of the world’s foremost experts on Abarbanel. I was even considering applying to York in order to work with him. We spoke on the phone and came to two conclusions; one, we got along very well and, two, York would not be a good fit for me. So this was actually the first time I ever met Lawee face to face. And I most say it was an honor.)


Yaacob Dweck (Princeton University)
“Leon Modena as Reader and as Read”

There is often a tension between the correct and the plurality of readings as in the case of Leon Modena’s understanding of the Zohar. Modena’s Ari Nahom has traditionally been read as an attack on the Zohar. Modena attacked Kabbalistic theology as being akin to Christianity. He also denied the traditional Rashbi authorship and placing Moshe de Leon as its author. In other places in his writing, Modena laments on how easily available Kabbalistic texts have become and that anyone can purchase them and pretend to be a scholar. This has been Modena’s reputation down to modern times. In truth though, there is actually more to Modena. He praised the Zohar for its language and style. He even used it in his sermons. Modena had no objection to the Zohar as long it was simply treated as a medieval commentary on the Bible and not as a canonical text on Jewish theology and law.

Modena was directly targeted by a member of the Luzzatto circle in his defense of the Zohar. This shows that Ari Nahom was influential and did circulate even though it was not printed until the nineteenth century. Contrary to the Elizabeth Eisenstein model, print did not simply eliminate manuscripts. An active manuscript culture continued to exist for centuries.

(Matt Goldish is a big fan of Modena and it has rubbed off to some extent on me as well. This was an excellent lecture. It comes out of Dweck’s dissertation, which he recently finished. I am looking forward to reading it when it gets published.)


Daniel B. Schwartz (George Washington University)
“A New Guide? The ‘Modern Maimonides’ Motif in the Maskilic Reception of Spinoza”

Who was the first modern Jew, Benedict Spinoza or Moses Mendelssohn? This question assumes that modern equals secular and that these figures can be viewed as secular. Even with Spinoza that is not so simple. In a sense it is justifiable to talk about Spinoza as the first modern Jew in that he filled that script and served as a usable past for many maskilim. In Maskilic literature Spinoza is often placed alongside Maimonides. This is strange since Spinoza attacked Maimonides. Though one could make the case that Spinoza started off as a Maimonidean and that Maimonides continued to play a significant role, in some sense, in his thought. Maimonides is important for Spinoza because he played an important role in how Spinoza was read by Maskilim. The idea of Maimonides acted as an interpretive framework for understanding Spinoza. Spinoza becomes a second coming of Maimonides.


Devorah Schoenfeld (St. Mary’s College Maryland)
“Who Asks the Question? Rashi’s Constructed and Constructing Readers”

Does Rashi serve to teach Bible or teach Midrash? Different early commentators took different approaches. This can actually be seen in the different manuscripts we have of Rashi’s commentary. We have examples of copyists who take away the line by line element of Rashi, removing Rashi’s commentary from its direct interaction with the biblical text. An example of this can be seen in the variant versions of Rashi’s explanation for the binding of Isaac. In some versions instead of Satan accusing Abraham, like in Genesis Rabbah, it is divine judgment. We also have texts that talk about God testing Abraham in order to perfect him; this takes the text in a very different direction than Genesis Rabbah.

AJS Conference Day One Session Three (Jewish and Christian Learning During the High Middle Ages: Parallels and Points of Contact)

Ephraim Kanarfogel (Yeshiva University)
“Tosafists, Cathedral Masters, and Their Critics”

We see a contrast between Tosafists and Spanish rabbis; in general Tosafists are not expected to have had the sort of cultural contacts that we see in Spain. That being said, as Ephraim Urbach argued, the Tosafists were influenced by Christian dialectics. This was largely the result, not of reading texts, but simply from hearing preachers on the street. For example Peter Abelard talks about hearing a learned Jew speak. Even the narrative of the debate between the adherents of dialectic and their opponents is very similar to what we see with Christians. It all just happens a generation later.

In the Christian world we see in a shift in the eleventh century from the monastery schools to Cathedral schools. At the center of this was dialectic. The monastery schools were not interested in dialectic. Their method focused simply on the gathering and processing of vast quantities of material, without putting texts against each other. The Cathedral schools, such as Chartres, were built around dialectic. Not only that but they operated around given masters. Their prestige was not dependent upon the local but on who taught there.

The use of dialectic often brought charges of theological unorthodoxy. The dialectician Anselm of Laon talked about two wills of God; God allowing human beings to do something, even that which is evil, and God actually wishing for something to be done. Anselm was attacked by Rupert of Deutz, who saw this sort of theological hair splitting as having nothing to do with Faith, but simply as a matter of masters being interesting in their own glory. Similarly Bernard of Clairvaux attacked Peter Abelard. According to Bernard one should flee to the Cathedral schools to “cities of refuge.” One could learn more from the woods and the forests. Bernard was not against dialectics per se, in fact he made use of it. He was simply against what he saw as some of the abuses of it.

This conflict over dialectic finds its parallel amongst Jews. The Tosafist academies were based around a given master and not a local. Tosafist dialectics came under a similar line of attack. For example the Hasidai Ashkenaz saw dialectic simply as a means for a given individual to gain an inflated name for himself. Interestingly enough, they refer to Christian dialectics. The sort of more nuanced critique of dialectic exemplified by Bernard finds its parallel in Elijah of Paris, who also attacked the abuses of dialectic even as he proved willing to use its methods himself.


Daniel J. Lasker (Ben Gurion University of the Negev)
“Jewish Knowledge of Christianity in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries”

How would a Jew learn about Christianity? A medieval Jew did not have the sort of resources that modern scholars take for granted in pursuing their own research. Ironically enough, Jews living in the Muslim world would have had more of an opportunity to engage Christians in an open dialogue and therefore probably had a better understanding of it. Ashkenazic Jews, as a rule, did not have these sorts of opportunities. For example the Christianity that Rashi confronts in his work is a product of Midrash and not of the contemporary Christian culture around him. The exception to this were Jews who consciously set out to refute Christian theology. Jacob b. Reuben’s knowledge of Christianity came from his dialogue with a priest. This priest even lent him the works of Augustine, Paul, and Jerome, which Jacob was able to read in Latin. Moses b. Solomon was also someone who read Christian literature. He even urges his fellow Jews to familiarize themselves with non Hebrew languages, i.e. Latin, in order to deal with Christians. This sort of familiarity with Christianity and ability to directly engage Christian sources must be seen as atypical.


Sharon Koren (HUC-JIR)
“Echoes of the Eve/Mary Dichotomy in the Zohar”

Gershom Scholem focused on connections between Kabbalah and heretical Christianity. He never dealt with orthodox Christianity. We see in the Zohar a counter ideology to the Christian adoration of Mary and the doctrine of her immaculate conception. As other scholars have noted there is the Sechina, which is feminine. Beyond this, though, we see the biblical matriarch Sarah used in ways that parallel the Christian view of Mary. Mary is the counter to Eve. Eve sinned through her disobedience and brought death to the world. Mary, through her act of obedience, restores mankind to the life that Eve lost for them. The Zohar talks about Abraham and Sarah’s descent to Egypt as a descent into the forces of darkness, the Sitrah Acher. By doing this, and overcoming the obstacles they face there, they succeed where Adam and Noah failed. Eve was polluted by the serpent. Sarah, by remaining undefiled in Egypt, achieved a tikkun for Eve’s sin. Abraham and Sarah are the Sephira of Hesed, which acts a ritual bath and is protected from the forces of judgment.

The Zoharic circle gained their understanding of Marian devotion from the Christian world around them, seeing it on displayed on churches. They felt a need to respond to it. This is accomplished by brining in Sarah as the true exemplar of Marian salvation.

(Looking around AJS you see a wide variety of characters who seem to transcend the usual Jewish categories. Dr. Koren is an example of this. Judging at least from how she was dressed at the conference, she looks Orthodox; that is until you see on her name tag that she is with Hebrew Union College. I do not know her, but I imagine there is some sort of story behind all of this.

I most say I particularly liked Dr. Koren’s lecture. It went beyond simply pointing out a similarity to what we see in Christianity. She considers the process of how a Christian idea got into Judaism. She also considers the why; why were Jews so open to a given Christian idea? This gives her a narrative to work with.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

AJS Conference Day One Session Two (Interreligious Hostility in Medieval and Early Modern Times Part II)

(Part I)

Flora Cassen (University of Vermont)
“The Jewish Badge in Renaissance Italy: The Iconic O, the Yellow Hat, and the Paradoxes of Distinctive Sign Legislation”

This is an analysis of the use of Jewish badges from the perspective of semiotics. We have many different examples of Jewish badges from the Middle Ages, a blue strip, tablet of law, red badge and the O. A Jewish badge could serve as an icon or a symbol. An icon resembles the thing it is meant to be related to while a symbol has an arbitrary relationship to its object. We have the example of a transition in various states in Northern Italy at the end of the fifteenth century from an O badge to yellow hats. The O can be seen as an icon. Either it can refer to the Jewish cry of suffering, him being counted as a zero within the community of men or it can refer to the zero productivity of his usury. The color yellow is a symbol. It was meant to show cowardice and shame, but this is something fairly arbitrary. The advantage of yellow hats was that it could easily be seen as opposed to the O badge, which was quite small and could easily escape notice. In both cases these objects were meant to create boundaries between Jew and gentile. What we have here is a tension between theory and practice. The O badge was something more theoretical while the yellow hat had little theory but was effective in practice.



Emily Rose (Johns Hopkins University)
“Distinctions without Much Difference? Ritual Murder, Blood Libel, and the Need to Classify”

This presentation was an attack on the late Gavin Langmuir for his distinctions between ritual murder and blood libel and anti Judaism and anti Semitism. In truth these distinctions have nothing to do with the way medieval people thought and merely serve modern needs.
Langmuir’s distinctions have become common place within academic literature.

According to Langmuir the early ritual murder charges, such as the case of William of Norwich, were different than the blood libel, which we first see only in Fulda in 1235. In the case of ritual murder the charge is that the Jews murder a Christian child in order to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus. This has nothing to do with the Jews needing blood or of them using blood for the Passover matzot. The blood libel only came later and it is something different; Jews are charged with being demonic creatures that drink blood. This leads to the distinction between anti Judaism and anti Semitism. Christian anti Judaism simply pegs Jews as blasphemers, heretics and even as Christ killers. This is different from the darker anti Semitism which places Jews as demonic beings outside the pale of the human race; thus Jews are not human beings and are, by their very nature, evil. (Langmuir talked about “chimerical” anti Semitism; Jews being accused of committing crimes that no one could have seen them commit and go beyond reason.)

Langmuir’s work came out of Cecil Roth, who in the 1930s, argued for the distinction between English anti Semitism and German anti Semitism. This had to do with Nazi era apologetics and not the Middle Ages. Roth was trying to distinguish English culture, with its more “gentlemanly” anti Semitism, from the murderous anti Semitism of German culture. This was perfectly okay with English anti Semites who wanted to distinguish their social anti Semitism from Nazi anti Semitism.

Langmuir had his own apologetic interests. As a Christian he wished to distinguish the Church and Christianity from anti Semitism. The most extreme acts of violence against Jews become the product simply of popular medieval culture and had nothing intrinsically to do with Christianity. In truth there one medieval culture, Christianity, that covered all of Western Europe. Anti Semitism comes out of this culture and it lead to the persecution of Jews.

(This was a well done presentation, but I would strongly disagree with it. At times historians have to make distinctions that may not have been readily apparent to those living during the time period. There is nothing wrong with this just as long as one willing to keep these distinctions as theoretical models and recognizes that the reality on the ground might have been more complex. It is important to talk about ritual murder as something different from a blood libel. It is also important to distinguish between hatred of Judaism as a religion and hatred of Jews as a race. It is for this reason that most historians are not comfortable using the term anti Semitism outside of the context of modern race based anti Semitism. For everything else anti Judaism is really a far more useful term.

I am sorry about this but there is not one medieval culture. England is not France. Northern France is not Provence, which is not Germany. These places are different with different social and political realities on the ground. The fact that Jews were newcomers to England, who came with the Norman conquest, is relevant. The expansion of the French monarchy is relevant. The political collapse of the Holy Roman Empire at the end of the thirteenth century is relevant. You cannot do medieval history without recognizing these issues.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

AJS Conference Day One Session Two (Interreligious Hostility in Medieval and Early Modern Times Part I)

(In the interests of space I have divided this post up.)

Yaacov Deutsch (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
“When ropes he pulls, with rubbish he’s full:’ Anti-Christian Curses in the Medieval and Early Modern Period”

The title refers for to the church bell ringer. It actual rhymes nicely in Hebrew. Church bells represented Christianity in the public sphere. This is an example of a Jewish hidden discourse, where Jews amongst themselves would curse Christians. We should not think of medieval Jews as being resigned to their situation. Jews had a highly developed discourse to mock Christianity. Jesus is referred to as a bastard. This Toldot Yeshu tradition not only rejects the gospel account it also reverses it. We see churches referred to as tiflah, unimportant or worthless. This plays on the similarity to the Hebrew word for prayer, tifilah. The church is a house of worthless prayers. We have an example of an Ashkenazic prayer, said at circumcisions, about the hoped for destruction of Christendom. The ritual of circumcision itself therefore takes on its own polemic and becomes a means to distinguish those who are part of the covenant and those who are not, mainly Christians. We should take the claims of Jewish converts to Christianity seriously when they talk about Jews putting anti Christian meanings to various rituals; these claims are often supported by Jewish sources. (See Elisheva Carlebach's Divided Souls) The rise of works on Judaism by converted Jews led to a major shift as Christians became increasingly aware of this anti Christian discourse. An example of this is Martin Luther, who dramatically changed his opinion about Jews soon after reading Toldot Yeshu and Anton Margaritha's work.

(I challenged Deutsch over Toldot Yeshu. Christians all of a sudden discovered Toldot Yeshu in the sixteenth century? Agobard of Lyon already was complaining about it in the ninth century. Deutsch’s response was that after Agobard there not much done about Toldot Yeshu until the sixteenth century when it finally reached print. So fine I am willing to accept a rise in interest in Toldot Yeshu. It also plausible that Luther was influenced by Toldot Yeshu. I still do not buy into the notion that there is remarkable shift in Jewish-Christian relations or that it was brought about by exposes on Judaism written by converted Jews. What is really so different here from say Nicholas Donin in the thirteenth century complaining about anti Christian passages in the Talmud?

There was someone in the audience who went absolutely ballistic at Deutsch, accusing him of blaming Jews for Christian anti Semitism. What Deutsch is arguing is very similar to what Israel Yuval did with ritual murder charges. Christians are reacting to a very real anti Christian sentiment among Jews and make the logical conclusion. If Jews are willing to kill their own children in their hatred of Christianity how much more so would they be willing to kill Christian children. Yuval was also attacked for seeming to blame Jews for anti Semitism. In fairness to both Deutsch and Yuval, neither of them are blaming Jews. What they are doing is trying to get past the model of rabid Christians out to murder Jews who are completely passive; there is a give and take here. )


Miriam Bodian (Touro College)
“The New Polemical Arguments of an Inquisition Prisoner: The Case of Isaac de Castro Tartas”

Isaac de Castro Tartes lived in quite a number of places during his short life. He was born into a converse family in seventeenth century Spain. His family fled to France when he was a child, where he attended a Jesuit school. They then joined the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Isaac went to Dutch Brazil, but then crossed over to the Portuguese side where he was caught, apparently with a pair of tiffilin in his possession, and sent back to Portugal as a Judaizer. He was eventually burned at the stake in Lisbon. Isaac argues with his Inquisitors. He has a triumphant view of Jewish exile, even claiming, strangely enough, that Jews outnumber Christians. Despite everything that has happened to them, Jews have flourished and have become rich; Jews even bring prosperity to what ever nation they reside in. Leaving aside straight anti Christian polemics, Isaac does not directly attack the Church or paint Christians as being beyond salvation. Isaac points out that one does not have to be Jewish in order to be saved and that one can be saved through the seven Noachide laws. These laws are based in reason and are the basis for natural law. Using his Jesuit training, Isaac confronts the charge that he is a Judaizing Christian. There is no proof that he was ever baptized; he certainly has no memory of it. Even if he was baptized he never consented to it. If his parents had him baptized they, as converses, clearly did not mean it. Anyway he did not confirm his baptism when he became of age so it should not count. The inquisitors counter this by pointing out that amongst Jews circumcision is done to children and it makes them Jews for life. Isaac also tries to paint himself as someone following his consciousness. He is following a law given by God and has not done any specific action that can be defined as a sin in Church law. He should be free to choose from any established religion. Isaac can be seen as an example of a shift in seventeenth century thought. He emphasizes personal autonomy and the authority of reason and natural law.

(Here is an example of a legitimate Jew ending up in the hands of the Inquisition. Most converso cases were people with little real connection to Judaism and better classified as heretical Catholics. What is interesting about Isaac is that even his defense of Judaism is rooted in Christian thinking. This is a renegade Catholic who embraced Judaism.)

(To be continued …)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

AJS Conference Day One Session One (Patronage, Trust, and Agency: Networks of European Jewry)

(Synopses of lectures based on my notes. As always all mistakes are mine.)


Francesca Bregoli (University of Oxford)
“Livornese Hebrew Printing, Patronage, and Jewish Intellectual Networks in the Eighteenth Century”

This paper focused on the relationships between R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) and R. Yehuda Ayash to their patrons, who made it possible for their books to be published, particularly by being able to provide access to books. There was no capitalist printing until the nineteenth century; before this printing was done through patronage. When we think of patronage we are used to thinking of either the Feudal model or the Renaissance model; we need to consider an alternative, one that is not hierarchal but is the result of a mutual relationship. One did not choose to engage in patronage. There is a give and take. The patron is a member of a political elite. He is not able to devote himself to study. He hires a rabbi in his stead. This explains the common theme that we see in dedications were the patron is described as a scholar, knowledgeable in all the human and divine sciences. In affect the patron is made the author and the author is put in the background. This goes against the traditional model of Sephardic merchants being irreligious. (To me this just sounds like Sephardic merchants imbibing the Catholic values of the surrounding Italian society; one can get an “indulgence” by being a patron of the faith. You do not need to be religious. The clergy can be religious for you.) Azulai and Ayash were already established figures so they would have been courted by patrons, wishing to support them in their publishing endeavors.

(The models of patronage that occurred to me as possible influences were those amongst Jews in Andalusian Spain and in the general society in Renaissance Italy. I asked Francesca about this and she responded that she was actually thinking in terms of the situation in Poland with merchants supporting Hasidic rabbis.)


Cornelia Aust (University of Pennsylvania)
“Jewish Commercial Networks in Central Europe: Trade, Trust, and Bankruptcy”

This paper dealt with the networks of Jews as military suppliers for European armies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Historians have traditionally viewed networks as static and have taken them for granted. We need to consider the position of the merchant and the ability to access commodities. Bills of exchange acted as currency. This relies on a system of trust; fake bills were quite common. In order to succeed under such circumstances one required carefully placed people in different places. Networks built around families are quite useful. An example is the situation in czarist Russia. Merchants were a privileged cast of Jews; this status could be passed down to only one child. This was something useful, but it had to be used strategically; which child gets the official status and how does one place the child to best take advantage of it?

Francois Guesnet (University College London)
“Jewish Political Networks and the Pogroms of 1881-82; Indentifying Agents, Objects, Motivations”

This paper was about the mechanisms for spreading reports on the pogroms of 1881-82 in Russia to the outside world. The czarist government tried to clamp down on reports, but such reports did reach the outside world and ignited international protest. Three major Jewish political networks passed on information, though they were operating from essentially the same sources. This makes a lot of the information problematic. The point of such political action was to send letters abroad to arouse European protest with exaggerated accounts. This also served to delegitimize those within the Jewish community who still advocated negotiating with the Czar.


Matthias B. Lehmann (Indiana University)
“Response”

The study of modern Jewish history tends to focus on the nation state narrative and the major issues of emancipation and assimilation. Talking about networks served to go beyond these issues. The networks discussed here cross international lines so we cannot deal with them state by state. These networks also are not related to religious observance or even conversion to Christianity. Networks are dynamic that happen rather then simply are.

Monday, December 22, 2008

AJS Conference

Here I am at the Association for Jewish Studies Conference (AJS) in Washington DC; a three day gathering devoted to Jewish Studies. It has been wonderful on many different levels for someone with my interests. I cannot think of many of places where I can accidentally run into people whom I know based on having read and admired their books. For example I was sitting in a lecture and I turned to the person sitting next to me and I see on his name tag Marc Saperstein. I also got to talk to Lawrence Fine and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. I have posted on both of these people in the past. (See here and here.) I even got to trade barbs over the History Channel with Lawrence Schiffman. Apparently he was just interviewed for a program on the Garden of Eden by a person who was trying to ask him for a geographic location. I also got to touch base with some old professors of mine from Yeshiva University such as Louis Feldman, Elisheva Carlebach, Steven Fine and Ephraim Kanarfogel. Finally there was the pleasure of running into old friends from various places. I even ran into an ex girlfriend. She did not cheat on me, lie to me, steal from me or do anything calculated to put me in a dangerous depression state so this was actually a good meeting. We left on good terms. She is now happily married and I wish her the best. I got to meet a blogging friend, Baruch Pelta, in the flesh.

While this was a vast conference and I was not able to be everywhere at once, I will be posting one the various lectures I attended. Obviously this reflects those things that interest me, mainly medieval and early modern Jewish history as it relates to philosophy, Kabbalah or messianism.
More to come so stay tuned.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Trail of Joseph

I had an idea once for a play about the brothers of Joseph discussing his fate, holding a “trial.” It would be Twelve Angry Men meets the Bible. Taking a leaf from rabbinic literature I do not view the brothers as simply hateful jealous people. On the contrary they are decent rational individuals and I take their side, at least up to a point.

The play would be in two acts. The first act would center on the brothers expecting Joseph’s arrival and finding themselves contemplating what to do about what they all agree is a real menace. This conversation takes the frightful turn toward murder as the brothers find themselves faced with the indisputable logic that if all they believe about Joseph is true than killing him because something reasonable and maybe the only reasonable thing. The act would end with the capture of Joseph and Reuben’s stop gap measure to have him simply thrown into a pit. The second act would be the brothers continuing their debate, which has now moved from simple theory to the real practical world and they are going to have to make a decision. The end being that Judah proposes that they sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt and trick their father Jacob into thinking he was eaten by a wild animal.

While the figure of Joseph looms over the play, he would hardly, if at all, be physically on stage and would not be the main character. Joseph simply is the big other out there that the characters on set, the brothers, are faced with; the one thing that unites them and makes them a community is that they are all in opposition to Joseph. The main characters of the play would be Reuben, Simon, Levi and Judah. They represent different power structures and different religious visions that come into conflict.

Reuben is the establishment figure. He is the eldest and naturally expects to be the leader. And why not: he is a decent person, who no one has any real cause to dislike. The problem is that he has no real plan beyond the status quo. As the situation with Joseph will make painfully obvious to everyone, he is incapable of offering a vision to follow or of solving the practical problem they are faced with. This puts his position at risk as others see him as vulnerable and begin to contemplate other solutions, particularly as represented by Simon and Levi and Judah.

Simon and Levi mark the second major position. They are allied in their opposition to Reuben and are the ones pushing for Joseph to be killed. While they are very different characters, they represent two sides of the same coin. Simon is a man of action. He is physically very imposing. Though he is not an intellectual, and often appears to his brothers to be rather crude, he is a lot more aware than he lets on. The brains and, maybe more importantly, the mouth in this alliance is Levi. He is an imposing intellectual force with a golden tongue that none of the other brothers can match. His world is undergirded by a firmly held belief that they are the chosen ones to build the Kingdom of God. Considering the cosmic importance of the task, anything or anyone that becomes an obstacle most be eliminated. To falter or show mercy is to demonstrate a lack of faith and commit an act of heresy. Despite Levi’s seemingly rigid worldview, he is willing to make some accommodations to practicality. For example in order to remove his least favorite person, Joseph, Levi will gladly deal with his second least favorite person, Judah.

Judah is the most worldly of the brothers. Levi might accuse him of abandoning the faith for his willingness to work with Canaanite merchants, but Judah sees himself as simply pursuing Abraham’s religious vision to its logical conclusion. This may all seem to be a power struggle between Reuben and Levi with Reuben being completely outmatched. Levi may think that he is simply getting Judah’s help to eliminate Joseph and take power from Reuben, but Judah knows better. In the end it will be shown that only he has what it takes to keep this family together.

I never got around to doing this project; maybe someday I will give it a shot.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

General Exams IV: Orals

Yesterday I came to the final part of my general exams, the oral section. Orals consists of being put in a room with all four professors on your committee and for two hours they get to ask you whatever they feel like. I would describe the experience of having orals with Dr. Matt Goldish, Dr. Daniel Frank, Dr. Robert Davis and Dr. Daniel Hobbins as being in the center of a free-wheeling conversation with four people who are way smarter than you, but are being very nice about it. Most of it was a blur to me. I passed so I guess I did a good job. Here is my attempt to present my orals based on what I can remember.

I started off with a brief introduction, where I gave a survey of my intellectual development as a historian up to this point. History has been a major part of my life since I was in second grade. The area of history that interested me has changed from time to time. In middle school I was a big Civil War buff. Later, in high school, I moved to World War II and the Russian Revolution. Going into college I was convinced that I wanted to do nineteenth century European political history. Then I came under the influence of Prof. Louis Feldman, the classics professor at Yeshiva University. I guess I turned to the medieval and early modern periods as a compromise between being a modernist and a classicist. This turn nicely dovetailed with another interest of mine from high school, the biblical commentary of Isaac Abarbanel. Abarbanel proved to be the main subject of most of the papers I wrote while I did my MA at Revel. When I came to Ohio State I intended to do a dissertation on Abarbanel, focused on a close textual reading of his work. Either I was going to work on the issue of his relationship to Kabbalah or his relationship to Maimonides. Dr. Goldish nixed both of these options, insisting that whatever I did, it should be more than just textual analysis and involve myself in examining the general context of whatever I wrote. In this regard Dr. Goldish has been a tremendous influence on me. For Dr. Goldish the major thematic in dealing with European Jewry is always how what we see with Jews is part of some larger trend that encompasses Christians as well. (His book, the Sabbatean Prophets, is a good example of this.) My fondest moments with him remain, sitting in his office talking about various Christian mystics and how they compare to what we find in Judaism. That should give you and idea of the sort of thinker he is.

The first to go was Dr. Hobbins. We started by talking about the issue of female mystics, which was one of the papers I wrote in the written exam. He noted that when I first came to him about preparing a reading list we talked about doing something about medieval universities. This topic disappeared and the reading list was taken over by Christian female mystics. He asked me if I thought that any consensus had been reached as to the nature of Christian female mysticism and if so what. I responded that the big issue that everyone seems to come up against is whose voice are we dealing with in the texts, the female visionary or her male priest. We next talked about discretio spirituum, particularly as it involved Dr. Hobbins’ dissertation topic, the early fifteenth century French theologian Jean Gerson. I supported Rosalynn Voaden’s contention that this whole process of discretion spirituum was a discourse that could be used to ones benefit depending on ones ability to play to the politics of the situation, not all that different from knowing how to handle Inquisition censorship in the early modern period. This brought Dr. Davis into the fray and we ended up talking about Richard Kagan, who he once studied with, and his work Lucrecia of Leon. In her case it was her blaming her priest and painting herself an innocent, ignorant girl and her priest saying that she duped him. Dr. Hobbins next went to the issue of the fourteenth century Scientific Revolution. Norman Cantor advocated that position; Hobbins was interested in knowing who else held this. I pointed to Charles Homer Haskins and the classic example of someone who put the Scientific Revolution into the Middle Ages. There is also the example of Amos Funkenstein, Dr. Goldish’s late mentor, who saw there being a direct continuity between the late Middle Ages and the early Enlightenment. Underlying all this was Dr. Hobbins’ interest in the late Middle Ages as not being an era of decline. (An issue that I had wisely taken a supportive stance on in the written part of the exam.) I ended up having to defend the notion that astrology presupposed a mechanized view of the universe in light of the fact that astrology did not all of a sudden enter Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. I explained that this is a latent sort of issue. There is that element to astrology, waiting for someone to bother to use it. The other thing is, and this I should have been more forceful on, is that it is precisely in the early modern period that astrology becomes a major issue.

Dr. Davis, for his turn, opened by asking me about the difference between the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We had some difficulty getting on the same page with this question. I assumed that he talking about periodization, something with little intrinsic meaning. We break times into given periods to suit our own convenience. The point that he was trying to make, which eventually came out, was that, yes, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries many of the things we are used to associating with the Middle Ages and many of the things we are used to associating with the Renaissance are going on at the same time so we have the Middle Ages and the Renaissance going on simultaneously. He then when on to the topic of Jacob Burckhardt and civic ritual, which I discussed in the written exam. Dr. Davis, noting with a smile that Burckhardt was a free gift since he was not on my reading list, wanted to know how, in light of the very structured nature of civic rituals in the Italian city states, one could see this as promoting individualism. This line of questioning put me in a difficult situation since I do not support Burckhardt. Dr. Davis then went to the issue of the introduction of Greek into Italy during the fifteenth century. He managed to trip me up a bit here since my knowledge of the whole process is a bit vague. We next got onto the topic of magic, particularly within the context of the scholarship of Keith Thomas, Francis Yates and Stuart Clark. Here I got jumped by Dr. Frank for blithely remarking that Jews were not all that different from Christians. He managed to really back me into a corner on this since our sources when it comes to Jewish magic are basically all point to rabbinic magicians and not to lay magicians and we do not have an internal Jewish literature on Jews engaging in black magic.

Dr. Frank and Dr. Goldish led the final round of discussions. I was expecting Dr. Frank to bring up Karaites since I spent a good chunk of this past quarter in his office studying about them. He did not bother. Instead he asked me about comparing the Jewish reaction to Islamic culture as opposed to Christian culture. One of the major issues is the fact that Jews in the Islamic world were fluent in Arabic while Jews in the Christian world were, by and large, not using Latin. This got me going on about my memories of Dr. Haym Soloveitchik’s class and him attacking Yitzchak Baer; “he turns himself over backwards to show how Rashi knew a word of Latin.” This led to a general discussion of Christian influences on Jews and I ended up talking about Baer’s argument that the Hasidai Ashkenaz were influenced by the Franciscans. Of course Dr. Soloveitchik hates this essay as well. (There is a funny story that I did not mention; those familiar with Dr. Soloveitchik might appreciate this. I asked Dr. Soloveitchik where Baer got the idea that Hasidai Ashkenaz were interested in animals just like the Franciscans were. He turned on me and said: “there is one person (Baer) who knows and he is upstairs. There is one reference in the entire Sefer Hasidim.”) Dr. Goldish next asked me about the issue of conversos, which I had written about and were there any other major historiographical issues besides for the one that I wrote about, whether they were actually practicing Judaism or not. I brought up Richard Popkin, Dr. Goldish’s other mentor, who argued that conversos played a major role in the rise of skepticism within European thought. I could not come up with anyone who actually disagree with Popkin so that was a dead end.

So that ended my orals. They sent me out of the room for a few minutes before Dr. Goldish invited me back in and congratulated me on becoming an ABD (All But Dissertation.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Orson Scott Card’s Failure to Make the Case for Traditional Marriage against Robert A. Heinlein

In a recent interview on National Review, Orson Scott Card responded to comparisons between him and Robert A. Heinlein particularly in regards to Ender’s Game and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Both of these novels are works of military science fiction that deal with wars set in a future world against giant insect like creatures. According to Card, while he has read a number of Heinlein’s novels, he has never read Starship Troopers and decided never to read it when he was told of the similarity to Ender’s Game. Card goes on to point out that his and Heinlein’s politics could not be further apart; Heinlein was a libertarian while he is an ardent communitarian.

I take it as a given that Card is familiar with a certain aspect of Heinlein’s work connected to his libertarianism that, while it does not appear in Starship Troopers, permeates almost everything else he wrote. I speak of course about Heinlein’s advocacy for polyandrous relationships and group marriage. For example in the Moon is a Harsh Mistress the colonists on the Moon take to group marriage as a practical solution to their situation. They have far more men than women so instead of forcing most of the male population to be celibate (funny that the issue of homosexuality is never raised) every woman has multiple husbands. While the more puritanical citizens of Earth look askance at such behavior, the Moon colonists have embraced this alternative lifestyle and fight to maintain it. Whatever one may think of Heinlein’s ideas, there is no question that he was a brilliant man and one of the truly great visionary writers of the twentieth century. His views cannot merely be cast aside and ignored.

In Ender in Exile, Card’s recently published sequel to Ender’s Game, Card sets up a very similar situation with the soldiers now turned colonists on the former bugger world now named Shakespeare. There is a shortage of women, something that will not be rectified for decades to come when the first batch of colonists arrive. The acting governor of Shakespeare, Vitaly Kolmogorov, makes the very un-Heinlein like decision to maintain monogamy. He has all the women distributed in marriage by lottery, with a little cheating on the side to cover certain particular situations. All men who do not win out in this lottery are forced, in theory at least, into a life of celibacy. In its own way Card’s decision to defend monogamy under such extreme conditions is equally as radical as Heinlein’s willingness to abandon it.

Card puts a human face, Sel Menach, to the situation and then turns him into his mouth-piece. Sel nobly turns down his assistant, Afraima, who comes onto him. (As a side point of interest, I should mention that both of these characters happen to be Jewish.) Not only does Sel turn her down he also asks that he either be allowed to quit or to have her fired so that she would no longer serve as a temptation. This whole bit is a remarkably lousy piece of writing that serves no purpose in furthering the book other than to foreshadow an equally lousy scene later on in the book when Ender has to keep his own teenage hormones in check.

I have no problem with Card arguing for traditional social values. Particularly in this present climate we need every voice we can get. And Card has generally been one of the more effective voices out there. It is precisely because of the situation we are in today, though, that we need something better than: “Monogamy has been proven, over and over, to be the optimum social arrangement. It’s not about genes, it’s about children – they have to grow up into the society we want them to maintain.” (Pg. 104) What exactly is so great about monogamy and when has it been proven over and over to be the best to the extent that one would make such a sacrifice when Heinlein offers such a tempting solution?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

General Exam III: Jewish History (Part IV)

[For the final part of the exam I was given two texts to analyze. One was from Jacob Marcus’ Jew in the Medieval World and the other was from Gershon Cohen’s translation of Ibn Daud’s Book of Tradition.]

Text #1: (Modena)

This text comes from Leon Modena’s autobiography, Hay’ye Yehudah; it deals with the printing of his Historia de gli riti hebraici and how he nearly ran afoul of the Inquisition over it. This text is a useful example of the complexities of Jewish-Christian relations in the early modern period, particularly within the context of the age of the printing press and the split between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Modena was someone in regular contact with Christians and engaged in friendly scholarly discussions with them. Historia was written at the behest, we believe, of Henry Wotten, the English ambassador to Venice, and was meant to be given to James I of England. In this book Modena gives an overview of Jewish laws and practices. In large respect he was responding to Johann Buxtorf the elder’s Synagoa Judaica. Modena wrote the Historia in 1616. He later, in 1635, gave this same book to a French-Christian Hebraist named Giacomo Gaffarel. Gaffarel then went and published the book on his own initiative. This created a problem for Modena in that there was material in the book that violated Catholic censorship policies. While the Historia was just a manuscript, one that was also written for a Protestants to boot, this was not a problem. Now, though, that Gaffarel had printed the book, Modena found himself to be an inadvertent promoter of “heresy.” The problem was quickly and painlessly solved. Modena explained the matter to the local inquisitor, who proved to be quite sympathetic and understanding. It turns out that even this was not necessary as Gaffarel did not publish the manuscript as is but, on his own initiative, removed the potentially objectionable material.
This story illustrates something about Catholic censorship. This whole incident happened only a few years after Galileo was put on trial for the Dialogues. Galileo’s real crime was not that he was a heliocentrist, but that he failed to adhere to the letter of the original ban on him writing on the issue and, more importantly, he managed to antagonize Pope Urban VIII. One could get away with a lot during the seventeenth century, inquisition censors or no inquisition censors, as long as one knew how to adhere to the letter of the letter of law and avoided antagonizing any of the wrong people. Publishing books was a political game and one was perfectly safe as long as they knew how to play the game. Galileo was not very adept at this game and suffered the consequences; Modena could play the game and was perfectly safe.

A word should be said here about Christian Hebraism; there are quite a few Christians in this story that are interested in Jews and Judaism and some of them are fairly knowledgeable. This had nothing to do with Christians thinking about converting to Judaism; though, as the case of Peter Spaeth illustrates, this did happen on occasion. Rather this early modern Christian Hebraism was rooted in the search for the prisca theologia, the original theology, which lay behind much of early modern thought. The premise was that humanity had fallen away from the truths of antiquity and that these sources could be recovered by a close examination of the sources. One of the major manifestations of this was the interest in “magical” texts such as the Hermetic corpus, thought to date from the time of Moses, and the Zohar. Another manifestation was a renewed emphasis on the bible and reading it outside of the shadow of the Vulgate and the medieval Catholic tradition. Protestantism was a product of this movement. Protestants in particular were interested, in this period, in forming contacts with Jews and Jewish sources because they believed that, while the Jews may have corrupted their own sources, a critical analysis, in light of Christian truths, of such material would allow one to uncover the original true “Christian” religion behind it.

This whole incident is a good illustration of how interrelated Jewish history is with the happenings within the general society. Jews in Europe did not live in a different world from Christians. The printing press, the Catholic Church’s post-Tridentine censorship, the struggle with Protestantism affected someone like Leon Modena just as it affected Galileo.

Text #2: (Ibn Daud)

This text in Ibn Daud’s Book of Tradition, deals with the story of the four captives. According to this story four rabbis were captured by pirates and ransomed respectively by the communities of Fostat, Qairawan and Cordova. These rabbis stayed in these given communities and set up communities. Ibn Daud uses this story to explain how it came to pass that the authority possessed by the Babylonian Gaonate passed to Spain. This story is useful, though not in its most obvious sense. The story is clearly a legend and cannot be accepted as historical fact. That being said this story is an excellent example of the telling and use of legends. As such, while this story tells us nothing of use about the origins of the Spanish Jewish community, it is very useful in understanding Ibn Daud and by extension Andalusian Jewry.

The story of the four captives serves as a convenient foundation story. It gives a clear cut, dramatic story that points to a given conclusion. It clearly fits into the overarching narrative of the Book of Tradition. The main purpose of the Book of Tradition is the defense of the rabbinic tradition, particularly in the face of Karaite critic, and the establishment of Andalusia as the center of Jewish life and Torah authority. As such the story is just too convenient to be taken at face value as a historical event.

Within the story itself there is micro narrative that is highly suspicious. We are told that that the captain wanted to violate the wife of one of the captives, R. Moses. She asks him if she would be allowed to throw herself overboard to drown; would such an action bar her from the future resurrection of the dead. R. Moses responds by quoting the verse: “I will bring them back from Bashan; I will bring them back from the depths of the sea.” The wife accepted this and drowned herself. The problem with this story is that it is lifted straight out of the Talmud. In the Talmud the story is that there are two boats sailing to Rome with Jewish captives, one with four hundred boys and another with four hundred girls. Fearing for their chastity, the girls ask the boys if they would be forfeiting their place in the future resurrection by jumping overboard. The boys reply by the same verse. The girls follow this advice and jump. The boys then follow the example themselves and also commit martyrdom. So here in the four captives story we have the same scenario, woman on a boat with her virtue threatened, with the exact same conversation and the exact same verse quoted. What is one supposed to believe; that R. Moses and his wife played out the Talmudic story, apparently unaware of the precedent, or someone lifted the story from the Talmud and used it for the four captives story.

The ending of the whole narrative is also simply too convenient and too much to type to be believed. We are told that R. Moses and R. Hanok arrive in Cordova. They go to the central synagogue and sit in the back; everyone just assumes they are simple beggars. While they are sitting there, the leading rabbi, R. Nathan the Pious, is unable to give the correct explanation in a matter of law. R. Moses and Hanok come forward, deus ex machina, and solve the problem. R. Nathan the Pious is so amazed by these two scholars that he steps down and acknowledges their authority. This is the sort of thing that only happens in legends. In real life, revolutions in authority do not happen overnight; the opposition fights with every last breath and goes to its grave kicking, screaming and denouncing the interlopers, who stole what was rightfully theirs.

General Exam III: Jewish History (Part III)

What are some of the major historiographical debates concerning the conversos of the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries? Who are the historians who have participated in these debates? Explain which side you take in each debate and why.

The year 1391 saw a wave of anti-Jewish riots engulf the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. This was followed by an intensive and well organized missionary campaign, with apostate Jews such as Paul of Burgos and Joshua Halorki playing prominent roles. The highlight of this missionary campaign was a public disputation at Tortosa, hosted by the Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII. These events utterly demoralized the Jewish community. It is believed that over the course of these two decades upwards of one third of the Jewish community converted to Christianity, creating a new social group in Spain, the conversos or New Christians.

The Christian populace viewed these New Christians with suspicion and as being, in a sense, a greater threat then Jews. Medieval society possessed an elaborate system designed to keep Jews in their place. Conversos, though, as Christians did not live under the traditional strictures that bound Jews. By converting to Christianity, these conversos now could take up high government positions, marry into noble families and even to enter the Church and become priests. In response to this problem, Old Christians developed, over the course of the fifteenth century, a series of mechanisms to keep conversos down, such as a theory of racial identity and purity of blood (limpieza de sangre). This can be seen most clearly in a series of ordinances passed in the city of Toledo in 1449. These ordinances placed restrictions on all those descended from converted Jews and banned them from holding certain offices. Furthermore opponents of conversos accused them of being crypto-Jews or marranos. These accusations culminated in the creation of the Spanish Inquisition, whose purpose was to root out those who practiced “Judaizing” heresies.

In 1492, the monarchs of Castile and Aragon, Isabella and Ferdinand, attempted to solve the converso problem by simply expelling all Jews from their dominions. The thought was that the continued presence of a Jewish community served as a negative influence on the conversos; remove the negative influence and the conversos would submerge into the general Christian society. Clearly a reasonable assumption, the problem, though, was that since they offered Jews a choice to convert instead of leaving and even went so far as to allow those Jews who left the chance to come back, embrace Catholicism and regain their property. (An offer that many Jews took the Crown up on.) This created a whole new round of conversos, thus putting everything back to square one. The Spanish Crown had to use the Inquisition to root out Judaizers, a process that would color the Spanish cultural landscape for centuries.

A similar situation, though, as we shall see later, with important differences, played itself out in Portugal. Many of the Jews who fled Spain in 1492 went to Portugal. In 1497 King Manuel forcibly baptized them, thus creating a new converso community. After a few decades Portugal found itself in the same situation as Spain; it had this large population of former Jews and their descendents with serious questions hanging over their doxy. To solve this problem Portugal followed the Spanish lead and instituted an Inquisition of its own to root out Judaizers. And as with Spain, this process went on for centuries.

Throughout the following centuries conversos continued to leave Spain and particularly Portugal. In fact Portuguese became a byword for converso amongst Europeans. Many of these conversos joined established Jewish communities in Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Others went to places such as France and England where, even though Jews were banned, there was no Inquisition and so as long as one did not do anything too obvious one could live in safety. Finally there were conversos who established their own Jewish communities. The most prominent of these was the Amsterdam community in Holland. Thus making themselves, once again a factor in the Jewish world.

The Jewish community in dealing with these conversos was, ironically enough, faced with the exact same problem as the Spanish Inquisition; were these conversos Jews or were they Christians? Just as there was a first act for Spain, when they had to deal with conversos alongside a Jewish community in the fifteenth century, and a second act, when they had they had to deal with conversos without a Jewish community in a post 1492 Spain, so to there are two acts in the story of how the Jewish community dealt with conversos, the fifteenth century and post 1492. Each of these two phases has to be treated separately.

The problem of the conversos has been passed down to modern academic scholarship, which has struggled where to fit conversos and to answer the basic question of to what extent were the charges against conversos true; was there at any point a significant population of conversos secretly practicing Judaism. The two major figures in this debate are Yitzchak Baer, who assumed that the conversos were, by and large practicing Jews, and Benzion Netanyahu, who argues that this was all a myth creating by their Old Christian opponents.[1]

Yitzchak Baer relied on Inquisition material and was willing to lend credence to it. For Baer, obviously, the Inquisition’s charges were hardly negative. Baer embraces the conversos. The conversos were secret Jews and as such they are part of the Jewish people and of the Jewish destiny. The funny thing about Baer is that he believed that that the Jews who converted in the aftermath of 1391 were Averroists, who did not really believe in Judaism. Once they became Christians they continued to practice their Averroist Judaism. So the Church found themselves dealing with a group of heretical Christians made up of what had once been heretical Jews.
Benzion Netanyahu, first in The Marranos of Spain and later in The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, advances the revisionist claim that the conversos, were by and large, believing Christians not any different from Old Christians. Ironically enough, Netanyahu basis this undermining of a Jewish legend completely on Jewish sources. Netanyahu’s argument is that, unlike the Inquisition sources which treat conversos as Judaizers, rabbinic sources particularly once we get past the events of 1391 are almost unanimous in their negative attitude toward conversos, viewing them as Christian apostates. In fact Jews cheered the creation of the Inquisition and willingly cooperated with them, even to the point of making up charges against conversos.

An example of a case that Netanyahu puts a lot of emphasis on is that of Profiat Duran and his friend. Both Duran and the friend converted under duress during the violence of 1391. They planned to travel to the Holy Land to do penance. Later, though, the friend reneged on these plans; even though he had originally converted under duress, he had since come to sincerely believe in Christianity. Duran devotes his satirical polemic, Do Not be Like Your Forefathers, to mocking this former friend of his. Netanyahu loves this story because it illustrates how even the original generation of conversos were hardly the loyal defenders of Judaism that myth would have it.

This begs the question, why the Inquisition; if there were no Judaizing conversos, particularly once we get past the early fifteenth century, why was the Spanish Inquisition formed? Netanyahu devotes Origins of the Inquisition to answering this question. For Netanyahu the Spanish Inquisition was the product of a decades long racial campaign by Old Christians to eliminate the conversos. The claim that conversos were secretly practicing Judaism was a lie made up in order to justify murdering off conversos and maintaining the racial purity of Spain. What is really radical about this theory is that Netanyahu has effectively rewritten fifteenth century Christian anti-Judaism as very modern sounding anti Semitism. Netanyahu’s fifteenth century Spain is almost identical to early twentieth century Germany. You have a large population of highly assimilated Jews who want nothing more than to leave their heritage behind and be accepted by the general populace. They are stopped, though, by a racial anti Semitism, that sees them as a threat not because of their Jewish beliefs, they have none to speak of, but because of their racial heritage.

Netanyahu’s views remain controversial. His main supporter is Norman Roth whose Conversos, Inquisition the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain is a history of fifteenth century conversos, consciously told outside the context of Judaism. Roth’s conversos are Christians and part of Christian society. Outside the field of Jewish history, Netanyahu has gained the gained the support of Henry Kamen, one of the leading scholars on early modern Spain. Kamen’s discussion of the Jewish situation in his book, The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision, comes straight out of Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has gained quite a number of opponents, particularly Gershon Cohen and Yosef Yerushalmi. Cohen attacked Netanyahu’s use of rabbinic sources. For example he argued that rabbis were inclined to treat conversos as gentiles simply as a matter of halachic convenience. Saying that conversos were gentiles solves a number of problems, particularly those relating to marriage and divorce. For example if a converso women were to abandon her converso husband without a divorce, and declare herself to be a Jew she could still be allowed to remarry despite never getting a divorce; since she was not living as a Jew her original marriage was never valid in the first place.

Yerushalmi, in From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto: Isaac Cardoso: A Study in Seventeenth- Century Marranism and Jewish Apologetics, does not directly come out in defense of the conversos Jewishness. What he is particularly interested in, though, is taking the Portuguese conversos out of Netanyahu’s model. These Jews were forcibly converted and were never given any sort of choice. Moreover these Jews had already fled Spain, abandoning their homes and possessions. Also, even after their conversion, they managed to go nearly forty years without having to deal with an inquisition.[2] This allowed them to build some sort of Jewish community. It is not a coincidence that almost all of the conversos leaving Iberia and joining the Jewish community were Portuguese. For example the main subject of Yerushalmi’s book, Isaac Cardoso, and his brother, Abraham Cardoso were of Portuguese descent.

I believe that it is important to transcend the issue of whether conversos were really Jews or Christians. I agree with Netanyahu that while many of the original conversos converted to Christianity out of fear and continued to practice Judaism secretly either in their hearts or in actual practice, the later generations of conversos were distanced from the Jewish community and therefore cannot be viewed as part of it. The Jewish community did not recognize them as Jews and so therefore it would not be appropriate to talk about secret Jews. That being said I am not about to pass on the Inquisition and assume that it was simply the product of a racist conspiracy. I assume that many if not most of the people who went through the Inquisition were not good Catholics and were guilty of something. Considering that the vast majority of the people that the Spanish Inquisition focused its attention on were descended from Jews it only makes sense that there would be a Jewish influence at work and the heresy involved would have a certain Judaic flavoring to it. Of course bad Catholic does not mean good Jew or even a Jew at all. Just as bad Jew does not mean good Catholic. The problem with having rabbinic sources face off against Inquisition sources is that they are talking at cross purposes with each other and mean very different things by Jew and Christian.

The fact that you had Christians with Judaic practices or even heterodox Catholics raises an interesting question as to why this was even important. Christianity has a long history of tolerating the native practices of recently converted people and it has even been willing to wink at their heterodoxies. (What are Easter and Christmas but pagan practices that were brought into Christianity by converts?) A useful parallel is the situation in the New World. Beyond getting natives to commit to the act of baptism there was little done to eliminate their traditional pagan practices and beliefs. Native Americans were specifically exempted from the Inquisition. Even today much of the Catholicism practiced in South America is a syncretist Catholicism far removed from Orthodox Catholicism. So the question is if the Spanish and Portuguese were so willing to turn the other way and ignore the native keeping an idol in his hut why did they care if a converso lit candles in his house Friday night, taught his children Hebrew phrases or believed in the continued relevance of Mosaic Law? Just the Church tolerated the development of a syncretist Catholicism amongst Native Americans it could have fairly easily tolerated a Judaic syncretist Catholicism among Spanish Catholics of Jewish descent. Of course Muslims were in the same situation so it cannot simply be a matter of anti-Semitism.

[1] Before I continue there is something I should make very clear. There is a long heroic mythology about conversos describing them as striving to maintain their Judaism under extreme situations. This myth is exemplified in Marcus Lehmann’s novel Family y Arguilar, written during the nineteenth century. Family y Arguilar features a family of conversos secretly leading a full blown traditionally Jewish lifestyle with an underground Jewish community in seventeenth century Spain. As far as everyone is concerned these sorts of conversos are a myth. No one is trying to claim that such people actually existed.
[2] The conversos did undergo a major attack in Lisbon in 1506. This is the subject of another book by Yerushalmi.

(To be continued ...)

General Exam III: Jewish History (Part II)

Here are the questions that I did respond to.

Trace developments in the Church’s relationship with Jews during the twelfth to fifteenth centuries in Western Europe. Your answer should make reference to legislation, polemics, and divisions within Christian society. Please refer to the relevant contemporary scholarship.

Traditionally the Church has had a complicated relationship with Jews. On the one hand Christianity developed in polemical opposition to Judaism, thus making Judaism the big Other, on the other hand Christianity came out of Judaism and Jews play an important role in the process of salvation. An example of this struggle can be seen in the witness doctrine of St. Augustine. According to St. Augustine, Jews needed to continue to exist as they serve a dual purpose for Christians. Jews testify to the truth of the Old Testament, which prefigures the New Testament. If it were not for the Jews pagans might claim that Christians made up the Old Testament and the prophecies contained within it. The other purpose that Jews serve is that their suffering and exile testifies to their punishment for rejecting Jesus. The witness doctrine, particularly as codified by Gregory the Great, created a dichotomy in regards to Jews. On the one hand Jews were to be protected, unlike pagans and heretics, but on the other hand Jews were to be kept in a low status. For example, while Gregory allowed Jews to maintain synagogues, Jews were not supposed to be allowed to build new synagogues and their synagogues were not supposed to outshine churches.

It is useful to contrast Pope Gregory the Great’s view on Jews at the end of the sixth century with that of Pope Innocent III in the early thirteenth century. The context which Innocent III wrote was remarkably different from that of Pope Gregory. The Church was taking a far greater interest into internal Jewish affairs and was failing to protect Jews from a populace that was heavily influenced by the Church’s anti-Jewish rhetoric. I would like to analyze specific events, laws and polemics connected to Jewish Christian relations within the context of the witness doctrine and discuss some possible explanations offered by scholars as to why the Church protection of Jews, as exemplified by the witness doctrine, stopped being effective.

In dealing with medieval Jewish Christian relations it is very easy to fall into the trap of Joshua Trachtenberg’s Devil and the Jews and see Christian anti-Semitism as a static inevitable result of Christian doctrine. The Jews rejected the “obvious” truth of Christianity. The Jews must know the truth. Only the Devil could know the truth and still reject it. Therefore Jews must be in league with the Devil. Since the Jews are in league with the Devil they must be devoted to doing such things as reenacting the crucifixion by torturing the Host or murdering innocent Christian children. It would seem only logical that Jews would be plotting to bring down Christendom with the dark magical arts that the Devil taught them. The problem with this view is that it assumes that Christians held to a static view of Jews. It does not take into account differences say in the twelfth century or in the sixteenth century. Trachtenberg assumes that once Christians, by the twelfth century, fully developed this satanic image of the Jew it remained static essentially all the way up to Nazi Germany. Furthermore Trachtenberg does not take into account why this view developed when it did; why the twelfth and thirteenth centuries?

It is an accepted fact that the bottom dropped out from underneath the Jews in Western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1096 you had the Crusades and the massacre of Jews in the Rhineland, but this was mob violence. Jews were still protected, both by the Church and by the secular authorities. Things begin to change from here. In the twelfth century the Church began to take an interest in Jewish money lending. We see the letters of Peter the Venerable to Louis VII denouncing Jewish money lending and arguing that the Jews be made to pay for the Second Crusade. Even at this time, though, Church leaders such as Bernard of Clairvaux went out of their way to make sure that Jews were protected. In 1144 we see the first ritual murder charges in Norwich England. By the end of the century this charge had spread to France and to Germany. In the thirteenth century the ritual murder charge morphed into the far deadlier blood libel, that Jews needed blood. The first expulsion was carried out by Philip Augustus in 1182. This was rescinded and only covered a small area, greater Paris more or less, but would be a precedent for things to come.

The situation became really bad for Jews during the thirteenth centuries. Jews come face to face with full blown blood libels and desecration of the Host charges. They were subjected to an intense missionizing campaign and the assault on the Talmud that came its wake; the Talmud was burnt in Paris in 1242. Later in Spain we see the Dominican efforts that resulted in the Barcelona debate of 1263 and Raymond Martini’s Pugio Fidei. Jews were expelled from England in 1290. They are briefly expelled from France in 1306; they are allowed back in a few years latter only to be finally expelled in 1394 but for all intents and purposes medieval French culture ends with 1306. There were large scale massacres, possibly even worse than the Crusades, in Germany, effectively bringing an end to that community as well. The situation for Jewish communities in Iberia held out for longer but the situation collapsed in 1391. Then in 1492 they were expelled. (More on this in the next essay.)

R. I Moore’s theory is that this downturn in Jewish fortunes in Western Europe was connected, one, to the general persecution of other marginal groups such as heretics and lepers and, two, that the source for this persecution was the rising clerical and merchant classes, which saw Jews as unwanted competition. In essence Moore sees this new persecution as being intimately connected to the twelfth century humanist and economic revolutions. What Moore suggests has a number of radical implications. Moore removes the Church from its traditional role as the villain in this narrative and makes them irrelevant bystanders. By locating the Christian turn toward the persecution of others within the context of the twelfth century Renaissance, Moore attacks the social progress leads to greater levels of tolerance narrative. In a certain respect what he does to the twelfth century Renaissance is similar to what Arthur Hertzberg did to the French Enlightenment in The French Enlightenment and the Jews. The other thing that Moore does is that, by putting anti-Judaism within the context of Muslims, heretics and lepers, he effectively eliminates the concept of anti-Judaism. If Jews are being persecuted alongside other groups and for the same reasons than the fact that they were Jews ceases to be relevant.

There are a number of other works of scholarship that come to mind to compare Moore to. Dominique Iogna-Prat’s Order & Exclusion: Cluny and Christiandom Face Heresy, Judaism, and Islam (1000-1150) takes a very similar line to Moore. Focusing on the thought of Peter the Venerable, Iogna-Prat builds a case for a major shift amongst Christian thinkers toward viewing society as a whole as a Christian society; one that was actively in a struggle with opposing forces, particularly Islam. Because of this the Church all of a sudden began to take an interest in Jews and heretics within the borders of Christendom and began to see them as a problem. Like Moore, Iogna-Prat sees the persecution of Jews as an extension of the move against heretics and other dissidents. Unlike Moore, Iogna-Prat directly connects this shift to the Church. Like Moore, Iogna-Prat’s discussion of anti-Judaism eliminates the Jewish element. Peter the Venerable is not interested in Jews as Jews. There is an interesting irony here; this turn for the worse is precisely related to a willingness to stop thinking of Jews as being in their own category and to start treating Jews just like everyone else. The fact that Jews were now just like everyone else meant that now the fact that Jews were practicing usury and blaspheming Christianity was all of a sudden relevant and a matter of Church interest.

David Nirenberg, in Communities of Violence, parallels Moore, though differs from him in certain key respects. Like Moore, Nirenberg assumes that Christian persecution of Jews was not inevitable and that it originated somewhere. Like Moore, Nirenberg looks to social causes of anti-Judaism and places it within the context of the persecution of other groups, thus eliminating the Jewish context of it. [1] Nirenberg is more radical than Moore in that he places anti Jewish activities into a context of a “tolerant,” “inclusive” society. Nirenberg focuses on a number of specific issues relating toward northern Spain in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. This is different than Moore who is more interested in the larger narrative issues.

An example of Nirenberg’s dealing with anti Judaism is his discussion of legislation meant to ban Jews from using the services of Christian prostitutes and from sleeping with Christian women. Nirenberg sees this as coming out of a situation in which Jews did interact with Christians and were part of the Christian public space. The fact that Jews were in the Christian public space posed a theological problem for Christians so measures had to be taken in order to keep Jews in their place even as Jews were still in the public sphere and could not be removed from it. I do admit that certain elements in this line of argument strike me as a bit too post modernist, particularly when he starts talking about how the prostitute’s body represents the public space open to all and that the Jew, by penetrating the prostitute’s body, was seen as violating this space. Nevertheless, in general, I do find his discussion of Jewish “coexistence” with Christians and Muslims to be quite effective.

Jeremy Cohen, in his Friars and the Jews, argues that the key players in this shift against Jews were the newly formed mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. These groups, so Cohen argues, turned away from the Augustinian witness doctrine which had traditionally protected Jews. The reason for this was the apocalyptic tendency that underlay much of Dominican and Franciscan thought. The assumption was the witness doctrine was something that was only supposed to apply during the time between the two comings; now that the end of days was it hand the witness doctrine no longer applied. Without the witness doctrine Jews become sitting targets for persecution.

Cohen is particularly interested in the attacks on the Talmud the trial of the Talmud in 1240, the Barcelona debate in 1263 and Raymond Martini’s Pugio Fidei. The Dominicans in particular took a leading role in these actions. Pope Gregory IX’s attempt to ban the Talmud marks the first time that the Church itself had directly attempted to interfere in an internal Jewish matter. This, according to Cohen, meant that the Church no longer the right of Jews to practice their own religion unmolested under the protection of the Church as a sacred cow.

Cohen’s thesis has been challenged by Robert Chazan. Chazan denies that there was any fundamental shift in Christian theology. What he does see is a change in tactics, particularly with the introduction of the anti Talmud campaign. The Church’s decision to go after the Talmud, for Chazan, was a pragmatic decision. Since no Christian dogmas rested on the issue, any debate on the Talmud would be a matter of whether the Christian won or failed to win; there was no way to lose. Chazan makes a big deal over the fact that in Nachmonides’ account of the 1263 Barcelona debate, which he assumes is a literally construction with little to do with the actual historical event, Nachmonides wishes to dodge precisely this issue. Nachmonides keeps on taking the discussion away from the Talmud and toward more traditional lines of debate that focused on Christian dogma.

This move against the Talmud, for Chazan, has very little to do with the Dominicans. The interest that the Dominicans showed in the Talmud in the thirteenth century had its precedent in the work of Peter Alphonsi and Peter the Venerable in the twelfth century. So for Chazan there really is nothing revolutionary about happens to the Talmud in the thirteenth century; it is all a continuation from what was going on before.

Guido Kisch’s Jews in Medieval Germany, written during the 1940s, deals with Jews from the perspective of their status in various German law codes, particularly the thirteenth century Sachenspiegel. His essential argument is that the introduction of Roman law into Germany, during the twelfth century, marked a downturn for Jews, because it specifically singled them out. No longer were Jews simply residents of the cities that they lived in; now they were in a special legal category all of their own. Kisch in particular goes after the concept of servi camerae, that Jews were the slaves of the crown. While this notion justified the involvement of the crown in the protection of Jews, Kisch sees this, in the long run, setting the stage for crown being able to dispose of Jews as it saw fit.

As one can see Jewish Christian relations in the Middle Ages was a complicated matter. There is more here than bigoted fanatical Christians persecuting helpless Jews. The Church was often not the main culprit in all of this. Even when we talk about Church’s anti Judaism it is important to consider what elements of the Church was at work; whether we are dealing with popular Christianity, the Church hierarchy or any of the monastic orders. If we are to face the collapse of the Jewish relations we also have to consider the day to day coexistence which frames the context of that collapse.

[1] To be fair to both Moore and Nirenberg, neither of them are trying to completely remove the Judaic element from anti Jewish violence. Nor are they saying that there are no differences in dealing with different groups. What they are arguing is that we can point to certain common causes for violence against different groups and that therefore this violence must be understood within a larger context beyond that of any one group.

[I was asked a similar question on the medieval exam, but ended up not choosing it. So I guess it worked out for the best; I got to write it for this exam.]

General Exam III: Jewish History (Part I)

The general exam for my major, Jewish history, was longer than my two minors. I had forty eight hours and five thousand words as opposed to twenty four hours and twenty five hundred words. The exam was written by Dr. Matt Goldish and Dr. Daniel Frank. I was given four questions from which I had to choose two. I also was given two documents to analyze. I must say they were awfully nice to me. Here are the questions I did not do.

Explain Gershom Scholem’s thesis concerning messianism from the Spanish Expulsion through the Frankist movement. Who has criticized his thesis, and with what arguments?

[This question is essentially about one part of the major Gershom Scholem versus Moshe Idel debate on Jewish mysticism, which I have made occasional reference to in this blog. Part of Scholem’s narrative is that the expulsion of 1492 brought about a major shift in Jewish thought in that the magnitude of the tragedy forced the Jews who left to account for what happened on a theological plane. The result was the creation of a new form of Kabbalah which emphasized the themes of exile and redemption. The ultimate product of this school of Kabbalah was Isaac Luria. Lurianic Kabbalah was based on a cosmic narrative of a divine exile and redemption. The act of creating the world brought the “breaking of the vessels” which caused this great damage to the sephirot. Furthermore part of the divine light became ensnared by the dark powers, the klipot. It is up to man to bring about the cosmic redemption by bringing about the repair of the sephirot and the redemption of the divine light from the power of the klipot.

Lurianic Kabbalah brought about, what in Scholem’s opinion was the key turning point of early modern Jewish history, the messianic movement of Sabbatai Sevi. Sabbatai Sevi’s theology was a direct product of Lurianic Kabbalah and a logical consequence of it. The Sabbateans justified Sabbatai Sevi’s erratic behavior, violation of Jewish law and even his apostasy by arguing that Sabbatai was simply fulfilling his role as the messiah and redeeming the spiritual world by descending into the power of darkness. Scholem assumed that, by the mid seventeenth century, Lurianic Kabbalah had taken over the Jewish world. Scholem uses this to explain the success of the Sabbatian movement, which was unique amongst Jewish messianic movements in that it was able to gain followers not just in one area but amongst Jews across the world.

Scholem saw the Sabbatian movement as spawning many later movements that would affect Judaism and the world. Scholem pointed to the Frankist movement, a Sabbatian offshoot in Poland, as having a direct affect on the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and other liberation movements of the nineteenth century. Scholem saw Sabbatianism as laying the groundwork for the Reform movement, by undermining rabbinic authority and creating a non halachic Judaism. Finally, and probably most controversially, Scholem saw Hasidism as a Sabbatean movement.

Idel rejects this narrative. He argues that redemptive Kabbalah had its roots before 1492 and that the expulsion had no real affect on Jewish thought. Idel challenges Scholem to find people who were Kabbalists, exiles from Spain and were involved in Messianism. According to Idel the only person who fits into this category was R. Abraham b. Eliezer ha-Levi. Idel distances Luria from the expulsion. He was not Sephardic and he was born decades after the expulsion. Idel also minimizes the importance of Lurianic Kabbalah, arguing that it only became a major factor after Sabbatai. Finally Idel rejects the major prominence that Scholem gave to Sabbatianism and does not make it the progenitor of modern Judaism.]

Discuss the evolution of Karaite attitudes toward Rabbinic literature and thought during the medieval period. Please illustrate your answer with specific examples.

[This question clearly came from Dr. Frank. In essence he wanted me to throw back at him what we have been studying together in the private reading course I had with him this past quarter.]

(To be continued …)