Elka Klein

title.none: Hames, Art of Conversion (Elka Klein)

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.013 02.03.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elka Klein, University of Cincinnati,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Hames, Harvey J. The Art of Conversion: Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century. The Medieval Mediterranean: Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 400 - 1453. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000. Pp. xiv,334. ISBN: 9004117156.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.13

Hames, Harvey J. The Art of Conversion: Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century. The Medieval Mediterranean: Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 400 - 1453. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000. Pp. xiv,334. ISBN: 9004117156.

Reviewed by:

Elka Klein
University of Cincinnati

This book represents something of a tour de force; it is an interesting work which can be read with profit by specialists in several fields as well as by novices. At one level, although the title gives no hint of it, this is a book about the thought of Ramon Llull. For those (like myself) who are not experts in the vast corpus of Lullian scholarship, it provides a good introduction to important aspects of Llull's work, in particular his Trinitarian thought, his concept of dignities and his approach to conversion. At the same time, it provides an excellent introduction to the Jewish intellectual world of the thirteenth century, and in particular to the relations between philosophy and Kabbalah, topics often discussed in copious narrow and technical studies, and often in terms which are not accessible to those who do not read Hebrew; for example, it provides in passing one of the most lucid presentations of the Maimonidean controversies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in English. It also provides an interesting contribution to important debates on Jewish-Christian relations and on the relationship between learned and so-called popular thought and religion. It is a rare work, in that it draws in an extremely learned fashion from both Jewish and Christian sources, not to mention the voluminous secondary literature on Llull, on Kabbalah, on Christian missionizing, and on Jewish-Christian relations, to name but a few areas. Few scholars have the ability to deal with both Latin and Hebrew works at the level which Hames brings to his analysis.

In addition to offering something for the novice in all of the above-mentioned areas, Hames makes an important and convincing argument with which specialists on both sides of the scholarly divide will have to reckon. Hames argues that Llull's thought should be seen in the context of Catalan and Provencal kabbalistic thought. Direct influence of Judaism on Llull has been discounted by previous scholars, according to Hames, because scholars have assumed that Llull could only have been exposed to Jewish thought through texts to which it was unlikely that he had access. Yet, as Hames points out, in the thirteenth century, kabbalistic ideas were being disseminated beyond the scholarly elite within the Jewish community, as an antidote to a brand of rationalist philosophy whose influence derived from Maimonides's writings. Thus, although Llull was no expert in Kabbalah, he was familiar with the basic categories of kabbalistic thought common among kabbalists in the Crown of Aragon, in particular with the sefirotic system which kabbalists used to describe internal relations within the Godhead.

Hames makes this argument in chapters devoted first to currents in the Jewish intellectual world of the thirteenth century (chapter 1), and to evidence for Llull's awareness of Kabbalah (chapter 3). In between (chapter 2), he addresses Llull's attitude to Jews. He surveys Llull's many comments about Jews, as well as his portrayals of debates with Jews, both real and fictitious, arguing that Llull's views must be understood in the context of what he was trying to accomplish at a particular moment, and that this explains the coexistence in Llull's thought of apparently contradictory impulses -- negative views about Jews and practical tolerance of very open debate. In terms of debate, he distinguishes between Llull's approach and that of many of his missionizing contemporaries, in particular his conviction that to debate -- and convert -- the Jews, it was necessary to understand the world in their terms. While the friars were perfecting the use of Jewish texts, Llull understood the limitations of this appeal to authority, and developed a method of his own.

These introductory chapters lay the foundation for the central chapter of the book (chapter 4) which illustrates aspects of Llull's approach to conversion by means of an extended discussion of the development of Llull's Trinitarian thought, with particular attention to the correlations between Llull's approach to the internal dynamics of the Trinity and the kabbalistic doctrine of the sefirot. Hames uses this detailed analysis to argue that Llull's approach to the Trinity was designed to be convincing to a particular subset of Jews, those familiar with Catalan Kabbalah. He concludes the book with an analysis of writings by the Barcelona rabbi Solomon Adret, which he argues are a direct response to Llull's conversionary tactics (chapter 5).

As I mentioned at the outset, this book offers a valuable contribution to several bodies of scholarship. Apart from the light it sheds on Llull's thought specifically, it makes a significant contribution to debates on Jewish-Christian relations. Although part of Hames argument is that Llull is atypical of his contemporaries -- something it is hard to contest -- his analysis of Llull's approach to conversion of the Jews helps to contextualize the work of Robert Chazan, Jeremy Cohen and David Berger, all of whom have worked on more mainstream missionizing. Its argument about the type of access which Llull had to Catalan Kabbalah offers new light on a much less studied question: the relationship between popular and learned thought.

If there are weaknesses in this book, they come in occasionally strained arguments about particular contacts between Llull and various Jewish scholars (for example, page 145ff). The strength of Hames's argument about the kabbalistic influence on Llull is that he does not need to prove such direct contacts, and his attempts to do so notwithstanding are somewhat of a distraction. Yet these occasional minor lapses do not detract from what is otherwise an interesting, thought-provoking and persuasive book.