Nina Caputo

title.none: Shepkaru, Jewish Martyrs (Nina Caputo)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.021 08.10.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Nina Caputo, University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Shepkaru, Shmuel. Jewish Martyrs in the Pagan and Christian Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp.. $70.00 0-521-84281-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.21

Shepkaru, Shmuel. Jewish Martyrs in the Pagan and Christian Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp.. $70.00 0-521-84281-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Nina Caputo
University of Florida

The dramatic Hebrew accounts of Jewish self-sacrifice during the first crusade have generated a thriving and at times contentious body of scholarship. Written in a highly stylized chronicle style, these narratives of Jewish martyrdom have challenged many modern critics to reexamine the nature of Jewish historical memory of religious and political conflict in the diaspora and the sources that preserve it. Jewish Martyrs in the Pagan and Christian Worlds by Shmuel Shepkaru offers a sweeping survey of Jewish responses to persecution, both literary and active. Like many of the scholarly monographs recently published on the Jewish response to the Crusades, Shepkaru's work tackles the representation of and motivations for Jewish martyrdom, as well as the cultural significance and meaning of the act and its literary depiction. He argues that martyrdom entered the Jewish lexicon of ritual responses to historical pressures as a response to the encounter with Christianity as a strong political and religious force. Self-immolation, he suggests, was transformed from an idealized act reserved only for the most pious and learned to a mode of behavior available to--and expected of--all Jews who found themselves confronted with the possibility of forced conversion. This argument is not entirely new: Jeremy Cohen argued in Sanctifying the Name of God: Jews, Martyrs and Jewish Memory (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), for example, that the Jewish encounter with Western Christendom provided a rich palette of symbols and figures which Jews used to reinterpret the Christian narrative of sanctity and success in the Crusades. But Shepkaru adds to this body of scholarship by locating the point of origin for active Jewish martyrdom in early medieval Byzantium; from there he traces a direct line of continuity to Jews of medieval France and Germany.

In Jewish Martyrs, Shepkaru concerns himself with more than a millennium of history--from the biblical period through modernity-- though nearly half of the book focuses on the high middle ages and the Crusades. That his interest in the early period has grown from a fascination with the Northern European medieval sources is apparent in the structure of the book and its method. The questions posed early in the book have been formulated to reveal the cultural, religious, and literary origins of the medieval impulse to memorialize those who fell as victims in interfaith struggle as martyrs: To what degree was martyrdom an organic part of Jewish culture? What role has martyrdom played in Jewish culture and religion throughout history? Was there a biblical precedent for the idealization of self-sacrifice in the name of God or the covenant? How did Jewish intellectual elites reconcile the glorification of self-immolation with rabbinic texts and traditions, which instead tend to advocate the observance of daily life practices for all but the elite as the preferred method of worshipping God?

Shepkaru traces a chain of tradition from biblical "mythic martyrs" to the modern period through a set of common tropes that he suggests are emblematic in the literature of Jewish martyrdom. The first chapter explores biblical typologies of voluntary self- immolation, focusing on the books of Daniel and I and 2 Maccabees. These biblical examples provide the model Shepkaru uses to trace changes in Jewish responses to persecution caused by historical and cultural contingencies. Religious conflict or persecution evoked responses that emphasized Jews' absolute trust in God, and particularly the promise that sacrifice would be rewarded. He suggests that active self-sacrifice became a heroic ideal only in the Roman Christian context. In chapters two and three he argues that late second temple and rabbinic traditions of martyrdom present those who submit to martyrdom as members of a spiritual elite who willingly sacrificed themselves in the face of extreme challenges to their ability to live according to the law. The fact that submission, rather than active, self-inflicted martyrdom was celebrated in these sources is significant. The form of voluntary self-sacrifice represented in early texts, Shepkaru suggests, was not presented to the reader as a model intended to be emulated by most Jews, but rather as confirmation that those deemed worthy would be rewarded with redemption in the hereafter, based on their behavior and devotion prior to death.

The cornerstone of Shepkaru's argument lies in chapter four, where he argues that a radical shift occurred in the way Jews responded to and represented religious persecution under Byzantine rule. The sixth through eleventh centuries saw a turn towards idealizing active "self destructive martyrdom" (133). He credits two seemingly contradictory forces with influencing this change in the way that Jews confronted cultural and political challenges. On the one hand, prolonged contact with a Christian culture that valorized self-immolation as the proper response to religious subjugation or persecution enabled Jews to assimilate this value. And on the other hand, Jews' close association with heretics who were willing to martyr themselves had a strong impact on the way Jews responded to persecution. This idealization of self-sacrifice, which breached the traditional legal prohibition against suicide, rather than passive acceptance of persecution, laid the foundation for a mode of response that became relatively common in medieval Ashkenaz (i.e. France and Germany).

The remainder of Jewish Martyrs explores the development and transformation of Jewish responses to religious persecution in medieval and modern Ashkenaz. Shepkaru makes the case for the direct influence of Italian Byzantine Judaism on Jewish culture in Northern Europe, first in medieval France and then in Germany. French Jewry embraced an ideology of active qiddush ha-shem--sanctification of God's name through self-sacrifice--which interpreted radical persecution and the resulting opportunity for (or necessity of) martyrdom as evidence of divine favor. This view of recent history helped chroniclers and leaders to "explain why this self-perceived righteous community was so severely punished" (168). Some of Shepkaru's most original and insightful work is contained in the two chapters dedicated to the themes and style of Hebrew Crusade accounts. [1] Many of the biblical and rabbinic tropes addressed in the early pages of the book reappear in the twelfth-century Crusade accounts in altered form. Here, self-immolation emerges as a pietistic and moral example to which all members of the beleaguered Jewish community conformed: mothers sacrificed children, husbands sacrificed wives, community leaders provoked Crusaders to murder them in order to snatch heavenly favors from their persecutors. Shepkaru demonstrates that the same narrative and behavioral models were formalized over the course of the later middle ages.

This is an impressive, ambitious study. It is a densely argued and heavily documented synthetic work that engages an extremely diverse and complex set of sources--Jewish, Roman, and Christian--while at the same time maintaining an attention to the sources' narrative detail. And Shepkaru's attention to the multifaceted dangers of the Jew and Jewish communities in the Christian imagination adds a very interesting dimension to the significance of the martyr ideal in medieval Jewish culture. Yet, as can often be the case with ambitious work, this book's success is mixed. Shepkaru's conceptualization of Jewish history seems uncomfortably situated between two alternative meta-narratives: one which approaches Jewish culture, literature, and thought in local terms and views change as fundamental to the content of Jewish culture; and the other which posits that the core of Jewish culture and tradition was established in late antiquity and understands change to be essentially superficial. Had Shepkaru limited the scope of his study to the First Crusade and its aftermath, for example, the impact of this historiographic disjuncture would have been minimal. But since this is a synthetic work, the author seems compelled at times to work too hard to preserve the linearity of the history of Jewish martyrdom. In just one of many examples, Shepkaru relies on a sort of historical determinism to provide a smooth narrative transition from late antiquity to the Byzantine context: "European Jews were destined to enter such conflicts and put the rabbinic rules...on martyrdom into practice" (106).

A similar methodological disjuncture is evident in Shepkaru's approach to some of his sources. Throughout this book the author is attentive to the literary artifice employed in depicting the emotionally--and, in the Jewish context, legally--charged acts leading to martyrdom. However, implicit in this argument is the assumption that real acts of self-immolation were part of the medieval Ashkenazic experience and culture. Here again, the fact that this is a synthetic work amplifies the problem. Because Shepkaru supports his arguments with a diverse set of sources--from Jewish and Christian legal writings to chronicles, sermons, and hagiography--his reader would have benefited from a precise and sustained discussion of questions related to authorship, audience, or genre of each text.

One final note on the production of this work: Cambridge University Press would have done the author and the reader a great favor by carefully editing this volume. Though I am usually loath to note printing errors in book reviews, the ubiquity of typographic errors and imprecise or awkward sentences both distracts the reader and threatens to compromise the contribution this book makes.

-------- Notes:

1. These chapters offer an expanded version of the close readings of the Crusade texts published previously in journal articles: Shmuel Shepkaru, "Death Twice Over: Dualism of Metaphor and Realia in 12th-century Hebrew Crusading Accounts," Jewish Quarterly Review 93, 1-2 (2002) 217-256; Shepkaru, "To Die for God: Martyrs' Heaven in Hebrew and Latin Crusade Narratives," Speculum 77, 2 (2002) 311-341; and Shepkaru, "From after Death to Afterlife: Martyrdom and its Recompense," AJS Review 24, 1 (1999) 1-44.