Nina Caputo

title.none: Chazan, Fashioning Jewish Identity (Nina Caputo)

identifier.other: baj9928.0411.012 04.11.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Nina Caputo, University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Chazan, Robert. Fashioning Jewish Identity in Medieval Western Christendom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 379. $75.00 0-521-83184-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.11.12

Chazan, Robert. Fashioning Jewish Identity in Medieval Western Christendom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 379. $75.00 0-521-83184-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Nina Caputo
University of Florida

Fashioning Jewish Identity in Medieval Western Christendom by Robert Chazan traces the formation of an anti-Christian polemical literature that grappled with the texts shared by Judaism and Christianity as well as the doctrinal differences between the two. The twelfth century saw the rise of a Jewish polemical literature which engaged the central doctrines of Christianity in response to an increased effort on the part of Christians to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity. This literature was partially apologetic and partially aggressively critical of Christianity. Chazan argues that the self-conscious critical assessment of Judaism in comparison with Christianity was--as the title suggests--a gesture at reinforcing a cultural and interpretive divide between Christianity and Judaism.

Prior to the twelfth century, there was no methodologically sophisticated and systematic polemical discourse on Christianity in the corpus of Jewish literature. The closest approximation was a body of philosophical works evaluating the central theological tenets of Christianity and Islam written by Jews who lived among Muslims. But while works like Saadya Gaon's Book of Beliefs and Opinions subjected Christian theology to a concentrated interrogation, they do not reflect a direct engagement with Christians and Christian arguments contra Judaeus. Chazan shows that the polemical literature that emerged during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries combined two cultural and aesthetic objectives: it responded to an increasing challenge to Jewish religious autonomy by Christians and Christendom while at the same time the proponents of this polemical discourse employed a self-consciously critical and systematic exegetical approach to tradition and texts.

Chazan's study engages five Jewish leaders: Joseph Kimhi, Jacob ben Reuven, Meir bar Simon, David Kimhi, all from Narbonne, and Nahmanides, from Girona in the Crown of Aragon. All of these men wrote extensive polemical tracts in various genres. Each developed a unique style and focus, but as a group, they reflect a shifting understanding of Judaism and Christianity on the part of leading intellectuals and religious figures in the Jewish and Christian communities which emerged from the social, religious, political, and cultural context of southern France and northern Spain. A symbiosis between Jews and Christians that was not paralleled in northern Europe developed in the geo-political sphere on both sides of the Pyrenees. This cultural climate was aided by the development of philosophical discourse among Christians, the role Jews played in transmitting philosophy to the Latin West, and the formulation of the ideals and expectations of Christendom, on the one hand, and the relatively large communities of Jews and Muslims living in close proximity with Christians, on the other.

Chazan's analysis of medieval polemical literature is framed by a discussion of the doctrinal and textual differences that distinguished Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, focusing first on discourse that developed in Late Antiquity, beginning with the New Testament, then moving on to some of the church fathers. Chazan uses this 'backdrop' to introduce the central themes and points of contention in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, dating back to the earliest efforts on the part of Christians to distinguish themselves and their interpretations from Jews and Judaism. This treatment of the early Jewish-Christian debate is also intended to illustrate that the medieval intellectual, philosophical battle had roots in historical events and divisions in late antiquity. The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the development of this discourse in the writings of Joseph Kimhi, Jacob ben Reuben, Meir bar Simon, David Kimhi, and Nahmanides.

Chazan has organized the book thematically. Each section examines a broad theme and highlights the dominant terms of dispute, from the issue of Jesus as messiah, to biblical references to the messianic advent and their applicability to the case of Jesus. In the penultimate section, Chazan breaks from arguments framed by specific biblical texts to address the much smaller corpus of arguments guided by the Jewish polemicists' unprovoked assessment that Christian doctrines and practices offended Jewish conceptions of reasonable and correct practice.

Each thematic chapter culls the arguments and interpretations presented by the five polemicists. In those cases where the issue in question is not treated by one or more of the authors, Chazan addresses only those works that deal with that line of argument. Most challenging and threatening to the Jewish polemicists were Christian arguments rooted in historical evidence of Jewish degradation and suffering in the face of Christian political power and wealth. The responses formulated by the five polemicists, Chazan argues, reveal the profound difference in the way the two religious communities understood the role of God in history. "The Christian sense of history was thus--for our polemicists--misguided in its insistence that present circumstances are reflective of ultimate divine will. Present circumstances, for our Jewish polemicists, were part of pre-redemptive history. Only after redemption truly dawns would the relative place of Jews and Christians be clarified" (223).

Like much of Chazan's earlier work, this book attempts to understand Jewish-Christian relations through an examination of literature attesting to overt conflict or disjuncture between the two communities. This is a useful and important approach. The polemical texts at our disposal offer a rare opportunity to observe how the Jewish intellectual and religious leaders of the time imagined their own roles in conversation with their Christian counterparts. Even when the format and content of these conversations were clearly idealized, at times overtly fictionalized, the rhythm and tone of the exchange, the order in which issues are presented, and the degree to which the polemicists allowed personal emotion to enter their representations highlight the Jewish polemicists' sense of theological and intellectual superiority, on the one hand, and the degree to which Jews and Judaism were subjugated during the middle ages, on the other. Chazan is careful to point out that two separate forces drove the development of need for a clear Jewish response to Christianity: the challenge posed by a triumphalist claim, rooted in textual and historical examples, of Christian dominance over Judaism; and the contemporary challenge posed by activist efforts to convert Jews to Christianity.

With the specific regional focus, this book offers an important contribution to a discussion about the political and social conditions that developed on either side of the Pyrenees during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and proved a fertile ground for both heresy and concerted efforts to protect orthodoxy. Much recent literature on the Albigensian heresy stresses that the movement was a natural outgrowth of local native political, religious, and cultural practices. Chazan begins with similar assumptions about the Jews of that region. Unlike the Jewish communities of northern France and Germany, a significant number of Jews in the area surrounding the Pyrenees had migrated there from Muslim Spain or were descendents of migrants who joined communities that had been long established in Christian Europe. They brought with them an exegetical method infused with the assumptions of Aristotelian rationalism; many facilitated the transmission of Arab interpretation of Greek philosophy to Christian scholars. The culture that grew during the thirteenth century from this confluence of Jewish traditions, Chazan argues, made the leading intellectuals of the period well equipped to launch a methodical defense of Judaism in response to Christian attacks, and in turn, to subject some of the central tenets and texts of Christianity to systematic critique.

Some of the material examined in this book is already well known among general medievalists as well as scholars of Judaism (the Nahmanides' account of the Barcelona disputation, for example, was the subject of an earlier book by Chazan). However Fashioning Jewish Identity also brings extended excerpts from and detailed summaries of more obscure works, such as Nahmanides' Sefer ha-Ge'ulah (159-161 and 200-209) and Jacob be Reuben's Milhamot ha-Shem (265-277).

While the book as a whole makes an important contribution to the fields of medieval history, Jewish studies, and the history of Jewish-Christian relations, there are nevertheless some problems with the way Fashioning Jewish Identity was executed. The structure of the book--episodic treatments of the five exegetes' responses to specific topics, lines of argument, and textual references--is meant to underscore the degree of personal craft and style demonstrated in each author's engagement with Christian beliefs and interpretations. However, a reader who does not come to this book with significant prior knowledge of the polemical works by Joseph Kimhi, Jacob ben Reuben, Meir bar Simon, David Kimhi, and Nahmanides will find it very difficult to maintain a holistic view of the respective authors' interpretive methods and arguments. Chapter 4 offers an overview of each author's approach and some biographical information, but nearly every subsequent chapter addresses a broad sampling of the polemicists' treatments of narrowly defined issues. Only infrequently (Chapter 13, for example) does Chazan guide the reader to reflect on how the authors' treatment of specific issues forms part of a larger work.

It is similarly difficult to determine whether Chazan reads the five polemicists he examines in this book as a self-consciously unified front. A concerted effort to assess the degree to which (or whether) Jewish anti-Christian polemicists were also engaged in an internal dialog about how best to respond to Christian attacks would have markedly distinguished this work from Chazan's earlier studies (those dedicated to polemics, such as Daggers of Faith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) and Barcelona and Beyond (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), as well as his studies of the crusades) and from other synthetic works on Jewish polemics, including Hanne Trautner-Kromann's Shield and Sword: Jewish Polemics against Christianity and Christians in France and Spain from 1100-1500 (Tubingen: Mohr, 1993).