09.02.06, Goldin, The Ways of Jewish Martyrdom.

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Susan L. Einbinder

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.006


Goldin, Simha. Yigal Levin, trans., C. Michael Copeland, ed.. The Ways of Jewish Martyrdom. Cursor Mundi, v. 2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. xvi, 399. ISBN: 978-2-503-52523-5.

Reviewed by:
Susan L. Einbinder
Hebrew Union College

The Ways of Jewish Martyrdom is the English-language version of the Hebrew 'Almot ahavukha, 'al-mot ahavukha (Dvir Press: Lod, Israel, 2002). The English text is virtually identical to the original, although a brief postscript acknowledges relevant scholarship to have appeared since the earlier version's publication. Enlisting a wealth of sources, the author attempts to explain the valorization of martyrdom as a cultural norm in medieval Jewish communities of Germany, France and England. Goldin moves from the early Christian era (the origins of Christian and Jewish martyrdom) to the mid-fourteenth century, asking how the Jewish "revolutionary norm" (270) of suicide-martyrdom was mediated through traditional texts, exegesis and rituals. It is an ambitious agenda, which yields mixed results.

Goldin's primary thesis is that beginning with anti-Jewish violence during the First Crusade, the rabbis of Ashkenaz (Germany), France, and England not only seized upon the image of the martyr as a cultural ideal but sought actively to translate ideal and image into a behavioral norm. The book's strongest sections undertake to explain the success of the martyrological ideal in these medieval communities by looking at the ways Jewish writers justified a largely unprecedented "norm of killing oneself and others" (163). Rabbinic legends about Roman era martyrs, medieval versions of Maccabean-period martyrs, and the biblical story of the 'akkedah, Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, became building blocks in this endeavor. So, too, cultic motifs in the literature redefined murder and suicide as acts of ritual piety, and lifecycle rituals (circumcision, a boy's initiation to learning) incorporated motifs of expiatory martyrdom and sacrifice.

These ideas are not new, but they are usefully assembled in this work for a broader than usual view. The book is laid out chronologically, with a preface and conclusion linking medieval to modern contexts: the preface opens in the Gulf War of 1991, with Scud (not "SKUD", ix) missiles raining upon Israel, and the concluding chapter invokes the Warsaw Ghetto and Israeli poet Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896-1981). These choices, Goldin tells us, signal his preference for an "emotive" rather than "analytical" approach (10). While empathy for one's subject matter is admirable, the reflexive analogizing of anti-Jewish persecutions past and less past, and their uneasy slippage into the politics of the present, embed obvious risks. Those risks are exacerbated by over-dependence on historians associated with the old "lachrymose" school of Jewish history.

Other methodological perplexities abound. Chief among them is the author's insistence on the reliability of martyrological chronicles and poetry as direct reflections of contemporary events. Recent scholarship has exercised more caution about assuming that literary descriptions of Jewish suicide-martyrdoms transparently mirror practice. Certainly, the surviving texts commemorate real and tragic episodes in medieval Jewish life, but they are literary works, not documentaries. As for the poetry, Goldin is right to claim that commemorative verse was an important tool in the "socialization" of medieval communities, although this was hardly his discovery. Nevertheless, the process of socialization did not necessarily drive entire communities to a universal embrace of suicide; the real picture was no less moving for being more complex. Goldin's sources are also a problem, as he relies almost exclusively on Habermann and other mid-twentieth century anthologizers. The manuscripts, their reception and transmission, would surely tell a richer and more complicated tale.

As Goldin claims, ritual moved textual motifs into the realm of "action" (313). Ritual also had the capacity to expose women and children to martyrocentric ideals and symbols. While Goldin devotes time to the question of female forced converts (a topos of medieval legal responsa that also demands a more sophisticated decoding than it receives) his approach to gender questions is lacking. Goldin assumes that the literature's relative inattention to women converts means simply that there were fewer of them, which he explains as "proof of the Jewish mother's faith and devotion" (114). Instead, one wishes he had acknowledged the limitations of contemporary conventions for portraying women, or the effect of restricted female mobility on conversion in medieval Jewish communities. [1]

Certainly, medieval Jewish communities, or at least their textually empowered members, embraced the figure of the martyr as a literary and cultural ideal. Goldin's "emotive" reading of the (Christian or Jewish) martyr's consequent "power" to "change reality" (261) remains open to challenge, however, at least in the realm of medieval Jewish experience: what reality did the death of a medieval Jew ever change? The status quo remained intact, and if anything, the stubborn resistance of the majority to conversion stiffened political and religious will against them. None of the evidence provided here suggests that the self-destruction of Jewish individuals or groups had any effect on Christian policy makers, secular or ecclesiastical, and Goldin offers no specific backing for this claim.

The Ways of Jewish Martyrdom includes a number of errors of fact. For instance, the Blois martyrdom did not include a crucifixion libel (193). French Jews expelled in 1306 could not flee to Gascony (219), which indeed expelled its own Jews in 1287. The Maharam could not have written his Book of Customs in the early fourteenth century as he was dead by the mid-1280s (240); Christians did not poison Jews (281). Curiously, the Black Death, described as the terminus point for this study, is largely ignored.

The publishers may wish to rethink their assertion that the volumes in this Cursor Mundi series, of which this book is apparently the second, are "copyedited to conform to the publisher's stylebook and to the best international academic standards in the field." There are numerous errors of style and grammar; of the publisher's editorial policy on commas, well, I shall say, no more. It is, of course, debatable whether a scholarly translator is obligated to clarify what the author obscured. Here, the translator's problems are compounded by citations of medieval texts, which are by definition heavily allusive, and whose meaning he, and sometimes the author, can miss.

For example, on p. 306, Goldin cites rabbinic praise for the fortitude of Jewish women who did not yield sexually to Christian captors even when they were forced to convert. Goldin's English text refers to "'polished girls'--under a sharpened sword, their mouths are innocent and their hearts prepared for Heaven." Goldin explains that "polished girls" describes the "sexual innocence of those forced into Christianity" (ibid). However, the word "polished" in this passage does not describe the young women but the sword; the adjective before "young women" is more accurately translated as "hewn" or "sculpted" (i.e., from stone). I would read the passage this way: "hewn from stone (i.e., firm, steadfast) young women--they were tempted with words instead of a polished sword, but their heart (or mind) was fixed on Heaven." Ephraim of Bonn's poem, cited on p. 333, does not describe God putting Abraham to the test like "a mighty king who stays till victorious," which would make no sense. Rather, the poet refers to God putting Abraham to the test as "a mighty king does a warrior who will persist until victory."

Goldin follows this excerpt with a long citation on pp. 334-35 from a commemorative lament by R. Yoel b. Isaac (d.1200). According to Goldin, R. Yoel's lament enlists the theme of the 'akkedah for an audience that could not "see the 'as if' side of sacrificing a ram instead of Isaac" because real "blood was being spilled." In Goldin's reading, the text is one of many that forcefully exhorted medieval Jews to emulate what they believed to be the real sacrifice of the biblical Isaac.

Yes, real blood was being spilled, and as Shalom Spiegel long ago demonstrated, medieval Jews drew horrifying consolation in the belief that Isaac's had been, too. But R. Yoel is not asking his listeners to emulate the patriarchs' deeds, as Goldin claims. Following Goldin's cues, the translator has produced this rendering of the poem's final stanza (335):

Accept the poor offering to take a soul As if he had sacrificed his soul without hesitation in his heart And the altar and gutter are too small to hold their blood So with this, the sin of Jacob is atoned.
I would translate the same stanza as follows:
He approves the poor man's [i.e., Abraham's] offering instead of a life, As if he had sincerely offered his [Isaac's] life. [2] The altar and [its] gutter are too small to hold their blood: So let Jacob's sin be atoned with this [instead].
Thus, in contrast to Goldin, I read the lament as a poignant appeal to God that enough blood has been shed, and no more should be required of Abraham and Isaac's descendants.

Goldin's closing pivots from medieval Europe to the Warsaw ghetto to Uri Zvi Greenberg--the ultra-right visionary of the early Statehood revisionists. It is a pivot that leaves us with an uneasy double link. First it binds the terrifying and inexplicable defiance "unto death" that is this book's medieval subject to the deaths of their descendants in Holocaust Europe. Second, it binds both medieval and modern victims to what the Warsaw rabbi calls "the Land of Israel which is beyond sanctification of God's Name"--presumably meaning that the Jewish state will never require dreadful acts of self-sacrifice as did the lands of Exile. Alas, this, too, has not exactly happened. The Greenberg excerpts include errors of basic grammar--al tir'unu is not "do not fear us" but "do not look at us" (360), and lo tokhleinu shum esh veshum yam be'omqo yetab'einu is not "No flame will devour it, and no sea will drown it in ite [sic] depth" but "No flame will consume us, and no sea will drown us in its depths" (361). But as with the medieval texts, the translation also exposes the extent to which the literary commemorations supposedly at the heart of Goldin's endeavor have not quite been permitted to speak for themselves. Prophet-like, Greenberg condemns to oblivion the evil nations who have killed their Jews; Goldin's excerpt concludes:

Like Sodom, like Assyria and Babylon...consumed by their own flame. Only in the books of the times, the quill will remember them. And on the blood-soaked pages of our laments, we will remember them--(361)
I translate the verses this way:
Like Sodom, like Assyria and Babylon...the flame of their own might will consume them. And only in history books will the pen leave their trace. And in the blood-soaked pages of our laments we will remember them--
A small difference, perhaps, but one with a twist. Does the pen "remember?" or does it inscribe what we are told to remember later? If Goldin had asked this question without anticipating the desired answer, this would have been a very different book.

-------- Notes:

1. Notably, Robert Stacey's study of the London domus for converts in late thirteenth-century England showed a majority of female residents. See Robert Stacey, "The Conversion of Jews to Christianity in Thirteenth-Century England," Speculum 67.2 (1992): 263-83.

2. See Jer: 17:9, where the idiom 'iquv halev means "hesitation." The heart is the seat of thought in biblical Hebrew. Thus, Abraham made the substitute offering as if he had offered his son's life without hesitation, which I render as "sincerely."

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Author Biography

Susan L. Einbinder

Hebrew Union College