12.09.17, Kogman-Appel, A Mahzor from Worms

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Pamela Patton

The Medieval Review 12.09.17

Kogman-Appel, Katrin. A Mahzor from Worms: Art and Religion in a Medieval Jewish Community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 308. ISBN: 978-0-674-06454-6.

Reviewed by:
Pamela Patton
Southern Methodist University

A fruitful turn in recent manuscript studies has been toward close consideration of how the decoration of an individual manuscript intersected with the book's function for its particular viewers, patrons, or communities. Katrin Kogman-Appel's thoughtful and erudite study of the so-called Leipzig Mahzor (Leipzig, Universit├Ątsbibliothek, MS Voller 1002/I-II) illustrates the insight that such an approach can bring to a Hebrew manuscript that displays powerful ties to its distinctive Ashkenazi community. Using methods grounded in traditional art history but measurably indebted to cultural anthropology and religious studies, Kogman-Appel presents the Leipzig Mahzor as a ritual object whose decoration was indelibly imprinted by its creation ca. 1310 for the Jewish community of Worms, presenting the book's images as "reflections of a collective weave of [that] community's cultural associations" (2).

Critical to this claim is the author's demonstration that the Leipzig Mahzor was in fact produced in Worms, an important Jewish center that was home to the influential Jewish Pietist Eleazar ben Judah (d. 1232). Although the style of the manuscript traditionally has been ascribed to the Upper Rhine, the presence of texts peculiar to the liturgical rite of Worms provides convincing grounds for the localization of the book's production to that city. Given the specificity with which such texts became tied to the rites of individual communities, the mobility of artists within the Rhine region, and the acknowledged fallibility of stylistic analysis alone as a basis for attribution, this conclusion seems quite viable; it both drives and is reaffirmed by the subsequent analysis of the Leipzig Mahzor as the kind of "communal self-portrait" (38) at which Kogman-Appel's study aims.

This portrait is above all an ideological one, unveiling less the pragmatic details of Jewish life in early fourteenth-century Worms than the theological and cultural underpinnings of that life, and highlighting especially its roots in a strain of Pietist thinking that had emerged in that city and other Ashkenazi centers in the late twelfth century. Pietism seems to have left a lingering stamp on the Worms community in particular, where the writings of Eleazar ben Judah continued to be central to both liturgy and custom. It is the influence of Eleazar's work as well as the thinking of the intellectual circle surrounding him that Kogman-Appel seeks to trace in the illustrations on which her study focuses.

The book lays a careful foundation for such work. Following a brief general introduction, it opens with two longer chapters that introduce the manuscript and its religious and intellectual context. Chapter 1, "Facts About the Leipzig Mahzor," provides a substantive orientation to the manuscript, laying out what is and is not known about it (including a codicological analysis that establishes how an almost immediate reordering and rebinding of the manuscript, possibly in response to ritual needs, may obscure its original structure) and refining conclusions about its dating and attribution. Extensive discussion of the evidence for its liturgical affiliation with the Jewish community of Worms, based on the presence of specific piyyutim and other texts specific to the Worms rite, makes a strong case for locating the production of the book there, while a brief analysis of the book's decorative imagery reveals the complications inherent in attempting to localize its production predominantly on the basis of style.

Chapter Two prepares the way for understanding the Leipzig Mahzor's ritual role by recreating its place and function within the Jewish community of Worms, whose distinctive identity, like that of other Ashkenazi communities, found expression in part through the specific rites, texts, and customs that it brought to communal worship. Evoking a city whose fortunes, like those of other communities in the area, were simultaneously transformed by the social and economic expansions of the twelfth century and destabilized by increasing pressure from Christian rulers and the church, the chapter traces the influence of the Qalonymide Pietists, a distinctive group of Jewish thinkers who dominated religious scholarship in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, as shaping the values and practices of Worms. Chief among these figures was city's own Eleazar ben Judah, whose writing and persona appear to have remained a cultural anchor for the community long after the Pietist movement's decline.

The extent of Eleazar's imprint, and that of Pietism generally, is explored in the next four chapters. Each analyzes a select group of illustrations in the Leipzig Mahzor through the lens of one of Pietism's three central foci: the relationship of law and custom, ethics and morality, and mysticism. A sermon written by Eleazar for the Great Sabbath, introduced in Chapter Three, is presented as a framework for this understanding. The subsequent analysis extends well beyond Eleazar's text, drawing deeply on medieval evidence regarding Pietist thought and Ashkenazi religious practice, in concert with anthropological theories of ritual by such authors as Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner, in an effort to place the Mahzor and its decoration within the context of the rituals in which the book was actually used. Thus, the densely researched Chapter Four analyzes imagery in the Mahzor as reflecting the Pietist emphasis on custom, minhag, as complementary to law, halakhah. The depiction of a prayer- leader wrapped carefully in a talit at the opening of the Mahzor's congregational liturgy is presented as a synoptic reflection of specific developments in ritual practice associated with Pietist thought at the turn of the thirteenth century; likewise, two genre- like scenes of figures preparing the matzah and scalding dishes in preparation for Passover and an image of the "coming of age" ritual in which a boy is brought to his teacher to begin his education, all themes discussed in detail in Eleazar's writings, are analyzed as representations of communal responsibilities that were central to the functioning of the congregation as a sacred community.

Chapter Five analyzes how the Pietists' understanding of ethics and morality, specifically their views of the importance of penitence and martyrdom, infused two images in the Mahzor: one a depiction of scales suspended between the four beasts of Ezekiel's vision and the other an illustration of Abraham brought before Nimrod for destroying his father's idols. Although the first image resembles Christian images of the End Time in theme and iconographic detail, Kogman-Appel argues that specific details such as the scales' even balance and an expressive vignette of a hare chased by a hound draw on Pietist ideals about the importance of penitence and the need to achieve balance between sin and virtue. In the Abraham scene she perceives an exhortation of steadfastness in the face of martyrdom, a theme of growing importance in Ashkenazi religious scholarship since the attacks on Jewish communities along the Rhine in 1096, that was attuned to the uniquely nuanced view of the subject characteristic of the Pietists.

Chapter Six explores the potential links between three images in the Leipzig Mahzor and the mystical teachings so central to Pietist thought and practice, which after generations of oral transmission were committed to parchment by Eleazar ben Judah. Through this lens, the depiction of an enthroned couple referring to the Song of Songs at the opening of the liturgical poem yotser iti melavanon kallah might be read as a deeply layered personification of the community of Israel joining with the shekinah, the divine principle, as envisioned in Pietist thought; the panel with the scales discussed in Chapter Five is reframed as a vision of the Throne of Glory waiting to receive the penitent; and the prayer-leader introduced in Chapter Four returns to exemplify the crucial linkage between prayer and mystical experience. All three images, Kogman-Appel contends, would have functioned to remind the leader in whose hands the book reposed of the important mystical dimension to the system of religious thought espoused by the Pietists and their followers.

The book's approach to these arguments is methodical and judicious, exhaustive in exploring both contextual and visual evidence for its claims and appropriately cautious in demarcating the limits of how such evidence can be deployed. It acknowledges the challenge posed by the limited viewership of the manuscript's decoration, which likely was seen by few but the officiant and patron, and therefore turns from the traditional but largely unanswerable question of what the images would have said to those in its wider community to the more promising matter of what it says about them. It also copes well with a rather limited body of visual evidence, drawing thoughtfully on comparative works from both Jewish and Christian traditions to show how the Mahzor's imagery departed from the conventions of both to pursue its individualized and sometimes innovative iconography.

A Mahzor from Worms is above all an interdisciplinary book, and as such it demands a good deal of its reader. Its discussion of Ashkenazi religious scholarship and practices is deeply knowledgeable and quite specialized despite the author's efforts to provide background and a glossary of relevant terms. In its limited illustrations (21 in all) and close focus on fewer than a dozen of the manuscript's more extensive miniatures, such contextual arguments sometimes overshadow the engagement with visual evidence that remains the backbone of more traditional art historical studies. Yet Kogman- Appel's achievement lies precisely in her choice to deviate from that tradition. By eschewing the broad monographic model to study the Mahzor through the lens of ritual and with the goal of understanding the community that surrounds it, her book opens the way to a richer understanding not just of the manuscript's meaning and function, but also of the values and priorities of the people who commissioned produced, handled, read, saw, and heard it. In doing so, this book offers both a bracing read and a thought-provoking model for historians of many stripes.

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Author Biography

Pamela Patton

Southern Methodist University