Matthias B. Lehmann

title.none: Bell, Jews in the Early Modern World (Matthias B. Lehmann)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.014 08.04.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Matthias B. Lehmann, Indiana University, Bloomington,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Bell, Dean Phillip. Jews in the Early Modern World. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007. Pp. xv, 301. $29.95 $79 978-0-7425-4517-5. ISBN: $29.95978-0-7425-4518-2 978-0-7425-4518-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.14

Bell, Dean Phillip. Jews in the Early Modern World. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007. Pp. xv, 301. $29.95 $79 978-0-7425-4517-5. ISBN: $29.95978-0-7425-4518-2 978-0-7425-4518-2.

Reviewed by:

Matthias B. Lehmann
Indiana University, Bloomington

Dean Bell, a professor of Jewish history at Chicago's Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, has written a much-needed textbook on what is now commonly referred to as the "early modern" period of Jewish history. For a long time, from the beginnings of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (or critical study of Judaism) that developed in Germany in the early nineteenth century to historians writing through the 1970s, Jewish history since antiquity had been divided into a "medieval" and a "modern" period, with the turning point identified by some around 1700, by others as the French Revolution. The debate over when to begin the modern period in Jewish history was laid to rest with Michael Meyer's brief but influential article "Where does the modern period of Jewish history begin?" (1975). It was only more recently, in particular since Jonathan Israel's ground-breaking work European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism (1985), that the idea of a transitional "early modern" period in Jewish history came to be widely accepted. If the course offerings on Jewish history in many of North America's universities are an indication, it is now a well-established practice to divide Jewish history into medieval, early modern, and modern periods. In my own institution there is a course on Jewish history "from Expulsion to Revolution," i.e. from 1492 to 1789, whereas Dean Bell, apparently influenced by John Bossy's Christianity in the West (1985), which he cites in his introduction, defines "early modern" as the period between 1400 and 1700. The factors which, according to Bell, defined this period in Jewish history include "globalization, population growth, increased social stratification, economic development, the location of and challenge to authority...and increasing cultural interaction," both between different Jewish cultures and between Jews and the majority cultures that surrounded them (242).

Bell's study is explicitly presented as a textbook for students ("You have just purchased--or most likely been forced to purchase--this book," he begins his introductory chapter [1]), and thus does not claim to make an original contribution to the study of early modern Jewish history. It raises, however, the question of how we tell Jewish history (early modern or of any other period) in a postmodern age--at a time when, as Moshe Rosman has pointed out recently, the "multicultural narrative" has emerged as the dominant model of postmodern Jewish historiography. Bell is certainly aware of how the meta-narrative that we choose shapes the history we write, and his introduction provides a useful overview problematizing the periodization of history in general, and of Jewish history in particular. He also makes clear from the outset that "what defined someone as a Jew could be a complicated question," and reminds his readers that "Jews' experiences could be wide-ranging and diverse" and that "they are impossible to understand without reference to the broader non-Jewish societies in which the Jews themselves lived and traveled" (1). What Bell tries to do, then, is to forego a "grand narrative" of Jewish history as was common in textbooks of an earlier period, and he tries to do so by organizing his book thematically rather than chronologically. It seems to me, however, that this approach ultimately backfires and that, while eschewing a linear narrative about "the Jews," his account in the end leaves us with the impression that, diverse or not, there was a common Jewish experience in the early modern period. At the same time, though, we are left without a sense of what holds this history together and, because Bell avoids a chronological narrative, we get little sense of historical change and the period seems strangely static for what is called an age of transition.

The book is divided into five main chapters, beginning with a chapter on the "Medieval Context" which aims to identify the situation of the Jews on the eve of the early modern period and is divided into a section on Jews in medieval Christian society and in the medieval Islamic world. What is odd is that Bell defines the medieval period almost exclusively by its Christian and Muslim contexts without addressing at all the spread of rabbinic Judaism in the early medieval period. It is as if rabbinic Judaism, based on the Talmudic tradition, is already taken for granted at the beginning of Bell's Middle Ages around 500 when, as historians of late antiquity and rabbinic culture have pointed out, the medieval context is crucial for our understanding of how rabbinic, Talmudic Judaism became normative. The following chapter deals with "Settlement and Demography," which certainly is a useful way of beginning the survey and which conforms to Bell's emphasis on the demographic shifts (mass migrations, population growth) as characteristic of the early modern period in Jewish history. While Bell acknowledges, though, that demographic data are problematic for this period, he ends up presenting a long list of population data eclectically culled from historical studies as much as from early modern travelogues and chronicles.

The remaining chapters are entitled "Community and Social Life," "Identity: Religion and Culture," and, finally, "Relations with the Other." Bell presents an impressive amount of information and addresses questions as diverse as patterns of community governance and the role of the rabbinate; the impact of printing and Jewish education; legal codification and the rise of Kabbalah; social deviance and intellectual dissent; regional variation and Jewish- gentile acculturation; and, finally, the impact of external developments such as the Reformation, the Thirty-Years War, and anti- Jewish prejudice. Unlike many older textbooks on Jewish history his account also includes references to "ethnic" diversity within the Jewish community (for example, Portuguese Jews and Ashkenazim in Hamburg), as well as to Jewish women (though the perspective of gender is by no means pervasive), and to class and social conflict within the Jewish community (including discussions of poverty and crime). The strength of Bell's work as a textbook lies in the vast material that he makes available and it will likely become a useful teaching resource on that account.

There are, however, some serious problems with Bell's decision to present his material thematically, rather than as a chronological narrative (as Jonathan Israel did in his work) or as a series of cases studies of different Jewish cultures (as in the path-breaking collection edited by David Biale, Cultures of the Jews). Bell's approach illustrates the dilemma of writing Jewish history from multiple perspectives and, at the same time, trying to posit a coherent Jewish experience. Rather than privileging one particular Jewish experience (for example, that of German Jews or of Ashkenazim-- as previous accounts have tended to do) the reader of Bell's book encounters Jews in Amsterdam, Damascus, Cracow and Recife side by side. But since they are all taken out of context, the staggering plurality of Jewish experiences emerges not so much as a diversity of Jewish cultures as a vast, and somewhat raw, collection of data. The multiplicity of contexts, which are never fully explored, leads necessarily to imbalances (as when the rather peculiar case of Amsterdam is the only example discussed in a short section on "the basis of Jewish and non-Jewish relations" [191-3]) as well as to rather vague statements that leave more open than they explain: "Anti- Jewish persecutions could be planned, but they might also be relatively spontaneous. They could erupt in almost any context" (220). It would have been useful to flesh this out by providing a couple of case studies; as it stands, this sentence is unlikely to convey a clear sense of the factors behind and dynamics of anti-Jewish violence in the early modern period.

There are practical shortcomings of the thematic approach, though, that present just as serious a problem for a textbook. Since Bell decides to arrange his material thematically and not chronologically, important events are introduced late in the book (we learn about the Spanish Inquisition on p. 223), but conversos appear, of course, throughout the book; the opening chapter makes passing reference to the expulsion from Spain which, as a topic of inquiry, is taken up again only on p. 221. The decision to forego a chronological narrative leads to the account being repetitive because certain events or figures need to be introduced in various places; at other times events or terms are taken for granted until they are explained more fully at a later point in the book. There is a reference to the Fettmilch uprising of 1614 in Chapter 2 (in the discussion of population numbers from Frankfurt), we hear that the Jews of Frankfurt established a Purim-like holiday after the rebellion led by Fettmilch was defeated (in Chapter 4), and only in Chapter 5 (on Jewish-gentile relations) are we finally told that there was, in fact, a Fettmilch uprising in Frankfurt during which 262 Jews were killed, but at that point the author omits the date because we were provided with that information some 170 pages earlier. In Chapter 4, to give another example, we hear of opposition to "the Shulhan Arukh as well as the works of Moses Isserles" (151), and a page later there is a reference to "Moses Isserles (1525/1530-1572), whom we met in our discussion of the Shulhan Arukh"--but there is nothing on what Moses Isserles actually did (or wrote), and nothing on his role in the spread of the Shulhan Arukh in the Ashkenazic world.

The book includes a useful glossary at the end which will certainly help students navigate this dense work. But important oversights are probably inevitable given the vast scope of the material presented. Bell mentions, for example, that "Islam developed with the written teachings of the prophet and was complemented by oral sayings and traditions known as hadith," but whereas the students learn about the term hadith no reference to the term Quran is to be found (26). The ghetto of Venice is said to have included Ashkenazic, Ponentine and Levantine Jews--but what Ponentine and Levantine Jews were is never explained (45). At other times, terminology is vague and misleading. For example, in Chapter 4 we hear that "Custom was of particular importance in early modern Judaism. Custom could be local, regional, national, ethnic, or even familial" (144). What "national" as opposed to "ethnic" or "regional" is supposed to mean for early modern Jews is never spelled out--and, in fact, it seems Bell uses these terms interchangeably.

Bell's account is generally quite up to date with the historiography. Again, given the scope of the project it is inevitable that there should be some shortcomings. For example, we are told that, in the Ottoman Empire, "Jews frequented Muslim courts when there were cases between Jews and non-Jews regarding civil law and commercial needs. Cases between Jews, however, were banned from non-Jewish courts" (108)--when, as Yaron Ben-Naeh, Ruth Lamdan and others have demonstrated, Ottoman Jews had recourse to the Islamic courts quite often in cases involving conflicts among Jews. The bibliography and suggestions for further readings are extremely useful, if by no means exhaustive. Conceived as a textbook the readings are generally in English, though one wonders why Bell chose to include works in German in his general bibliography but no historical studies in Hebrew.

In sum, Bell's account of the early modern period in Jewish history provides a useful resource for teaching, though it remains to be seen whether it will be able to replace more focused narrative accounts such as Jonathan Israel's European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism (which is, to be sure, primarily a work of scholarship, but one which is of great use in the classroom as well). Its thematic structure certainly presents its own problems, and ultimately one will have to balance the wealth of material which is offered in Bell's textbook against the shortcomings that are created by the lack of a chronological framework.