contributor.author: John Victor Tolan

title.none: Epstein, Dreams of Subversion (Tolan)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.019 99.02.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Victor Tolan, Université De Nantes, JVTolan@aol.com

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Epstein, Marc Michael. Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1997. Pp. xix, 180. $40.00. ISBN: 0-271-01605-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.19

Epstein, Marc Michael. Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1997. Pp. xix, 180. $40.00. ISBN: 0-271-01605-1.

Reviewed by:

John Victor Tolan
Université De Nantes
JVTolan@aol.com

Exegesis, for Origen, is like hunting: one stalks silently through the forest of scripture until one sees something move, then swiftly pursues his game until he captures it. Marc Epstein adopts this hunting metaphor to describe his own expedition in the groves of medieval Jewish manuscripts. He proves himself to be a expert hunter and deftly displays a fascinating catch.

Animals provide the subject matter of this fascinating study. Across the margins of medieval Hebrew manuscripts, and on the walls and ceilings of synagogues in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century central Europe, cavorts a rich menagerie: hares, dogs, storks, eagles, elephants, dragons, stags, lions, camels, unicorns. These images are stylistically quite similar to those of contemporary Christian art. This has led most earlier commentators on these images to dismiss them as merely derivative and decorative. This, shows Epstein, will not do: when one culture adopts the visual vocabulary of another, it does not blindly reproduce it; rather it adapts it into a new nexus of meaning. Nearly identical images can be given very different meanings. And to call images "decorative" is as unhelpful as to call a Chanson de Geste "entertaining": obviously, the image is meant to please the eye and the epic to entertain, but that does not mean that they are not ideologically charged. This ideological meaning behind the animal images is the object of Epstein's hunt.

Let us look at the example of "the Elusive Hare," Epstein's second chapter. Hares are non-Kosher, yet hunters and dogs pursue hares across the margins of many Hebrew manuscripts. Several illuminations of the blessing of Jacob by Isaac (Gen. 27) depict Esau returning from the hunt with a dead hare slung across his back. This image underlines the standard Jewish exegesis that Esau was impure, and that Jacob, not Esau, was the true spiritual descendant of Isaac and of Abraham. The image also gives us a clue to interpreting the seemingly "decorative" scenes of hare hunts. For Esau the hunter is often associated by Jewish exegetes with the nation of Edom, the Christians. Moreover, several medieval authors, notably Yehudah HaLevi, describe the relations between Christian Rome and captive Israel in hunting metaphors: God willed the lion to pursue the deer and the hare, but he gave the latter the swiftness and cleverness to escape. The hunted animal (which is variously hare, stag, or even unicorn) is pursued by hunter, dogs, lion. In this context, the images cease to be merely "decorative" and are recharged with meaning. The hunters are at times portrayed as ugly, demonic characters, just as Jews are often portrayed as ugly and deformed in medieval Christian art. The hare, sly, swift, ever listening with his long ears, was a negative figure in Christian symbolism, applied both to Jews and homosexuals; here it is transformed into a positive (if subversive) symbol charged with both defiance and hope: in many of these hare hunts, the hares, though pursued, are uncaught. What's more, some marginal images show a reversal of the normal hare hunt: hares enthroned being served by dogs or hunters, hitting dogs with sticks, etc. The Jews, like the hares, will some day dominate their now- powerful oppressors.

With the same careful analysis of texts and images, Epstein tracks the elephant as it becomes a symbol for the Torah. Here again we see an adaptation and transformation of a Christian image: several Christian bestiaries recount how a large elephant (the Torah) leans on a tree and falls and can only be lifted up through the agency of a small elephant (Christ). The tweltfh- century Karaite polemicist Yehudah Hadassi transforms this story into an anti- Rabbanite one: the elephants who lean on trees are the Rabbanites who depend on oral tradition and fall to the ground when it proves unsteady: no small elephant comes to lift them up, instead hunters come to tie them up and drag them away. In biblical manuscript illuminations and in seventeenth-century synagogues, elephants are given prominent positions which suggest that they are identified with the solidity and constancy of the Torah. In a fable by Berechiah HaNakdan, a hunter tries unsuccessfully to kill a powerful elephant; finally he captures it with the aid of his companions. Riding his elephant by night, he terrorizes the inhabitants of a nearby village who flee, thinking they have seen a demon on his horse; the hunter and his companions plunder the abandoned village. The hunter subsequently offers to rid the village of the demon that is plaguing them if they let him keep half his plundered booty. The villagers agree and the hunter lives on in wealth and happiness; the narrator praises him for his righteousness. Through a skilled careful reading of this text, Epstein shows that the savvy reader is meant to read a coded message between the lines; the hunter and his companions, like Esau, represent Christendom. They try to kill the elephant (Torah) but it is too powerful, so they steal it. They use their new command of Torah to terrorize the villagers (Jews) and steal their (intellectual) treasures, subsequently returning half of them (the teachings of the Oral Law). The praise of their righteousness is ironic: the Christians think they are worthy of praise for this intellectual plundering of the Law.

These two symbols, elephant and hare, express the anger and frustration of a community in exile, persecuted and despised by Edom, awaiting their promised redemption. These messages are coded, subversive. When the agents of the late eighteenth-century Austrian Empress Maria Theresa visited the synagogue of Hodorov, they would be pleased to see the imperial eagle emblazoned on the ceiling, an apparently humble expression of the Jewish community's allegiance to the Empress. The eagle, however, clutches two live hares in its talons; the message to the shrewd Jewish observer is clear: the empress is persecuting Israel, but Israel is still alive.

These coded symbols of defiant hope developed in thirteenth- and fourteenth- century Europe as anti-Jewish sentiment, legislation and violence became increasingly prevalent. Epstein justly evokes this context, but here a broader reading in recent secondary works would have been helpful, notably those of Gilbert Dahan, in particular his Les Intellectuels chrétiens et les Juifs au moyen âge (Paris, 1990); and H. Schreckenberg, Die Christlichen Adversus-Judaeos Texte (11.-13. Jh.) mit einer Ikonographie des Judenthemas bis zum 4. Laterankonzil (Frankfurt, 1991). Alongside these "coded" subversive text and images are more overtly hostile polemical texts about Jesus and Christianity, such as those analyzed by Jean-Pierre Osier in his L'Evangile du ghetto: la légende juive de Jésus du IIe au Xe siècle (Paris, 1984, also missing from Epstein's bibliography). What (if any) are the relations between the overt and the covert hostility? Do the two coexist throughout the middle ages? Or does the covert subversive strategy emerge in response to increasing Christian scrutiny and condemnation of Jewish texts (notably the Talmud)?

Epstein's study is a welcome addition to the history of Jewish-Christian relations, to the study of Hebrew manuscripts, and to the study of the iconographic expression of medieval ideologies. I look forward to the next feast offered by this hunter of images.