The Medieval Review 11.05.08

Harkins, Franklin T. . Transforming Relations: Essays on Jews and Christians Throughout History in Honor of Michael A. Signer. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2010. Pp. 504. $50 ISBN 978-0-268-03090-2.

Reviewed by:

Daniel J. Lasker
lasker@bgu.ac.il

Michael A. Signer (1945-2009) was a scholar of the medieval Jewish- Christian encounter, specializing in twelfth-century biblical exegesis, and an active proponent of contemporary Jewish-Christian rapprochement. This volume was planned as a tribute to him while he was still alive but, unfortunately, came out only after his untimely passing. The articles invariably refer to Signer using the present tense, and the memorial nature of the book is expressed only in his portrait (ii), the preface (xi) and the acknowledgements (xxii). In light of the personal tone of many of the essays, the collection has the feel of an ongoing conversation with the honoree who, unfortunately, did not have the opportunity of reading or reacting to these tributes. The contributions, written by colleagues and friends who shared Signer's dual interests, are of high quality, making the book into a fitting memorial. A number of articles lovingly appreciate the honoree's life and work, such as Franklin T. Harkins's description of the "transformative work" of Signer (1-22), and Arnold J. Band's account of how Signer became a medievalist (25-33). The reader comes away not only with much new information, but also with a fine impression of an outstanding scholar-rabbi who added much to a greater understanding of the multiple interfaces between Judaism and Christianity.

The articles, reflecting the honoree's interests, are appropriately divided into two sections, a much longer one on medieval topics and a shorter one on contemporary issues. Signer's research in biblical exegesis centered upon two groups of twelfth-century exegetes, the Christians of the Parisian Victorine school and the Jewish pashtanim, the advocates of a literal or contextual reading of the Bible. The Victorines, Hugh, Richard and Andrew, were pioneers among Christian exegetes, incorporating, as they did, Jewish understandings of the Bible often in preference to traditional allegorical Christian renderings of the text. Much of their knowledge of Jewish exegesis was derived from contact with contemporaries such as Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), grandson of the pre-eminent Jewish exegete Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi). Since Signer controlled both Latin and Hebrew texts, he was able to analyze and interpret Jewish and the Christian works, enriching our understanding of Christian-Jewish intellectual cooperation in the Middle Ages and of the reception history of the Hebrew Bible.

The thirteen articles in the first part of this volume are mostly dedicated to the same exegetes who had intrigued Signer. It is striking, however, how few of the authors engage in the type of comparative study which had characterized the honoree, demonstrating how rare it is for one person to work with both Latin and the Hebrew sources. Thus, Grover A. Zinn discusses the use of Psalms in the Abbey of St. Victor (75-100); Dale M. Coulter analyzes the literal interpretation of the Victorines (101-124); and Boyd Taylor Coolman describes narrative and reason in Richard of St. Victor while Franklin T. Harkins devotes his contribution to Andrew of St. Victor and the Glossa ordinaria, specifically the commentaries on the Jacob and Esau narrative (150-178). Similarly, E. Ann Matter, Lesley Smith and Arjo Vanderjagt write about the medieval context of the legend of the "Wandering Jew" (224-240), Hugh of St. Cher (241-264) and Wessel Gansfort (265-284) respectively. None of these authors utilize original Hebrew texts. In contrast, Sara Japhet presents English translations of two Hebrew introductions to commentaries by Rashbam (205-223) without reference to Latin texts. David Novak (34-49) and Israel Jacob Yuval (50-74) are able to contrast Jewish and Christian doctrines and beliefs, but they do not deal with the medieval sources which were at the heart of Signer's research. Novak discusses Jewish and Christian understandings of the purpose of law, while Yuval presents his methodology for comparing New Testament and rabbinic sources, arguing against what he calls "parallelophobia."

Truly comparative perspectives based on both medieval Hebrew and Latin texts are offered only by Deborah L. Goodwin and Jeremy Cohen. The former shows how two leading medieval exegetes, the Jewish Rashbam and the Christian Peter Comestor (not a Victorine himself but an heir to the Victorines), handled the conundrum of Rebekah's favoring of Jacob in contrast to Isaac's preference of Esau (179-204). This question has two aspects: first, how could Rebekah and Jacob have disparate views of their children and who should be the appropriate heir to God's promise to Abraham; and second, in the context of the Jewish-Christian encounter, which of the twins represents the Church and which the Synagogue. Jeremy Cohen begins his article (285-309) with a sixteenth- century Jewish account of a Christian king who saves Jews from a blood libel, appropriating to himself the biblical verse, "The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers/dozes nor sleeps" (Ps. 121:4). This affords Cohen an opportunity of contextualizing the story in terms of the medieval blood libel accusations, Jewish and Christian interpretations of this verse from the Church Fathers to the early the sixteenth century, and the use of the imagery of divine sleep in Jewish- Christian polemics.

The contemporary section combines academic papers with articles which discuss various aspects of Jewish-Christian relations in our own day, again with much reference to Signer's own interfaith work. Of especial note are the references to Dabru Emet (Speak the Truth), a Jewish statement partially authored by Signer which offers a response to Christian attempts at rapprochement with Judaism. Composed by Signer and three other Jewish scholars (Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, who is also deceased; and David Novak and Peter Ochs, both of whom contributed to this volume), it was first published in 2000 and endorsed by many in the (mostly non-Orthodox) Jewish community. Dabru Emet seeks to find common ground between Jews and Christians in such areas as theology, attitudes towards scripture, the relation of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, morality, and joint social action. The statement also states that Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon and that the differences between Jews and Christians will not be settled until the final, divine redemption.

John T. Pawlikowski discusses the ramifications of Dabru Emet, questioning: "Can we speak of a theological bond between Christians and Jews?" He raises this question especially in terms of Dabru Emet's statement that Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book. Pawlinowski questions the ways in which this is true, and mentions Signer's own scholarship on Jewish and Christian biblical exegesis (385-404). David Fox Sandmel argues that the need for a new Jewish understanding of Christianity as expressed in Dabru Emet is also a function of what he calls "Christian reclamation of Judaism," and he provides a number of examples of this new phenomenon of Christian adoption of certain Jewish practices, such as the Passover seder (405-420). In contrast, Hanspeter Heinz warns of Catholic obstacles on the path of interreligious dialogue, such as the renewed sanctioning of the Tridentine rite (421-444).

The other essays in the contemporary section of this volume are devoted to specific topics in present-day Jewish-Christian relations. Peter von der Osten-Sacken offers the motto "To get to know, to understand, and to respect each other," authored by a Jewish chaplain in the nineteenth-century German army, as a guideline for how Jews and Christians might react to each other today (313-318). Angela Kim Harkins discusses the term "the people of God," so often used in the context of the Jewish-Christian encounter, and analyzes its scriptural background (319-339). David Ellenson reviews the evolution of the thinking of the late chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Hayim David Halevi, in terms of the status of Christians in Jewish law, showing how his later works are more accepting of Christianity (340-362). In one of the more intriguing contributions, Signer's close colleague, Peter Ochs, attempts to reconstruct what he feels is Signer's "theological philosophy of the plain sense" (363-384). Basing himself upon Signer's scholarship, Ochs believes that one can derive from it a "reparative hermeneutic" which would be useful in the Jewish-Christian encounter. It seems that Ochs wrote this piece in expectation of a response from his friend, but the paper will have to stand on its own.

This memorial volume concludes with a list of Michael A. Signer's publications, serving as testimony to how much he accomplished in his life and how his silenced voice is missed.