12.10.15, Ray, ed., The Jew in Medieval Iberia

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Paola Tartakoff

The Medieval Review 12.10.15

Ray, Jonathan. The Jew in Medieval Iberia, 1100-1500. Jews in Space and Time. Boston:Academic Studies Press, 2012. Pp. xxiv, 441. ISBN: 978-1-936235-35-3.

Reviewed by:

Paola Tartakoff
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

The Jew in Medieval Iberia, 1100-1500 provides an engaging introduction to Jewish life in high and late medieval Spain. Featuring an introductory essay that outlines Hispano-Jewish history as well as twelve rich and accessible studies by specialists, the book is a valuable resource for students and scholars, as well as for the general reader who wishes to learn more about the history of the Jews in Spain. Students and scholars will especially appreciate the detailed footnotes and bibliographies, and the general reader will welcome the clarity of presentation and the variety of topics covered.

The Jew in Medieval Iberia focuses on the years between the end of the "Golden Age"--the tenth and eleventh centuries, when Jewish intellectual and economic life flourished under Muslim rule--and the expulsion of the Jews by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. This long and turbulent period saw the decline of Muslim rule and the consolidation of Christian hegemony, the massacres and forced conversions of 1391, the development of deep Christian antipathy toward an exploding population of Jewish converts, and the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition. In treating these years, Jonathan Ray, the editor, joins a growing number of scholars who seek to revise a narrative of steady decline. Further advancing one of the arguments of his first book, The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia, Ray aims to show that Jews in Christian Spain were not merely pious intellectuals and unfortunate victims (xviii). Instead, Hispano-Jewish life was vibrant and diverse, and Jews interacted with Christians in a wide variety of ways (xx).

The Jew in Medieval Iberia succeeds in showing that this period was characterized by a broad array of Jewish experiences. Each essay paints a vivid portrait of a Jewish individual or social group and illustrates how its protagonist(s) negotiated the complex demands of the Jewish community while engaging in productive relationships with non-Jews and grappling with anti-Jewish hostility. The majority of the studies feature well-known figures who belonged to the wealthiest and most highly educated strata of Jewish society. For instance, Jonathan Decter analyzes the careers of three exceptionally powerful Jewish courtiers, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who served Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, Abraham ibn al-Fakhar, who served King Alfonso VIII of Castile, and Isaac Abravanel, who served King Afonso V of Portugal as well as Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. In so doing, Decter highlights parallels and shifts in the functions, authority, and social standing of prominent courtiers across periods of Muslim and Christian rule, and he also reviews the historiography of his subject. Decter shows that Jewish courtiers were essential to Iberian political culture right up to the Expulsion, even as they often contended with the resentment of Jews and non-Jews alike.

In her essay on the El Transito Synagogue in Toledo, Jane Gerber focuses on the world of one Jewish courtier, the chief treasurer of King Peter I of Castile, Samuel Halevi Abulafia, who was instrumental in this synagogue's founding. Gerber notes that the construction of El Transito--and several other fourteenth-century synagogues--may be evidence that injunctions against synagogue building in Christian Spain were only sporadically enforced. She also argues that El Transito's decorative details--which included biblical verses, Arabic inscriptions, and the seal of Castile--reflect its patron's complex cultural identity and may have been intended to project his personal power as well as to inspire in Jewish viewers pride and hope.

If Samuel Halevi Abulafia was an influential royal administrator, another kind of Hispano-Jewish leader embodied spiritual and scholarly concerns as well as political know-how. In his essay on Hasdai Crescas, Ram Ben-Shalom shows how this "prince of his age" labored to heal and fortify the Jewish community at a time of crisis. In the wake of the massacres and forced conversions of 1391, Crescas raised funds and directed efforts to physically rebuild the Jewish communities of the Crown of Aragon. Crescas also, however, tended to the religious and intellectual welfare of Jews. He cautiously encouraged his generation's messianic hopes, addressed halakhic problems resulting from conversions and deaths, condemned Averroism, which was viewed as a threat to Jewish social cohesion, and wrote anti-Christian polemics to shield Jews against Christian propaganda and bring converts back into the Jewish fold.

As a scholar and philosopher, Crescas walked in the ways of his illustrious Hispano-Jewish forebears. Mariano Gómez Aranda provides a whirlwind tour of Jewish achievements in philosophy and science in medieval Spain in an essay that demonstrates the centrality of Greek and Muslim knowledge to these advances as well as the close connection between scientific ideas, rationalist thought, and biblical interpretation. Gómez Aranda touches upon the contributions to philosophy, astrology, astronomy, and physics of Solomon ibn Gabirol, Abraham bar Hiyya, Abraham ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Judah ben Solomon ha- Cohen, Shem Tob ibn Falaquera, Abraham Zacut, and the famed "School of Translators of Toledo."

Whereas rationally derived knowledge was the focus of this group of scholars, other medieval Hispano-Jewish intellectuals insisted on the limits of reason and embraced the concept of divine mystery. In a fascinating essay, Hartley Lachter explores how kabbalists reinterpreted Judaism in thirteenth-century Castile. Lachter shows that, although these kabbalists' work can appear insular and self- referential, it was actually the product of engagement with a cosmopolitan society. For instance, the kabbalistic discourse of secrecy was influenced by trends at the court of King Alfonso X, and kabbalists used their claims to esoteric knowledge to create a sense of Jewish superiority in the face of Christian challenges, as well as to advance their own standing among their fellow Jews.

Eric Lawee considers Hispano-Jewish intellectual creativity during the closing chapter of Spanish Jewry, the century between 1391 and 1492. Lawee argues that while some fields, like poetry and Kabbalah, atrophied, others--including philosophical anti-Christian polemics, dogmatic theology, homiletics, Talmud, and biblical interpretation-- flourished, at times spurred by interreligious competition. Lawee highlights the contributions of Solomon Alami, Hasdai Crescas, Profiat Duran, Joseph Albo, the Ibn Shem Tov family, Isaac Arama, Isaac Canpanton, and Isaac Abarbanel, among others. He contends that the era's reputation for mediocrity is due both to the fact that it is overshadowed by two periods of exceptional intellectual efflorescence- -first the Golden Age, then the Reconquista--and also to the fact that a significant body of fifteenth-century material has not yet been studied, as it either remains in manuscript form or is written in a dense and ornate style that does not "warm the hearts of too many modern scholars" (380).

The intellectual heritage of the Jews of medieval Spain--and especially the achievements of the Golden Age--lived on as a source of pride for later Sephardic Jews. Esperanza Alfonso shows how several generations of one Jewish family in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Algeria fashioned themselves as heirs to this tradition by composing a commentary on the Book of Proverbs in which they stressed the value of both Hebrew and Arabic, advocated secular studies, and championed poetry in order to claim cultural supremacy among local Jews.

Although The Jew in Medieval Iberia devotes considerable attention to courtiers and scholars, several essays explore broader swaths of Jewish society. For instance, Maud Kozodoy writes about Jewish physicians, examining their intellectual heritage and social typology across periods of Muslim and Christian rule. Kozodoy shows that, as heirs and transmitters of Greco-Arabic medicine, authors and guardians of a body of Hebrew medical writings, and objects of increasing suspicion and restrictions, Jewish physicians in medieval Spain forged a strong sense of solidarity. Kozodoy also illustrates, however, how Jewish physicians interfaced constantly--and often productively--with Muslims and Christians. They cared for non-Jewish patients, who ranged from kings to paupers. They collaborated with non-Jewish scholars in interpreting and translating medical texts. And they developed professional bonds with Christian physicians in the face of patient mistrust.

Yom Tov Assis examines the participation of Jews from Barcelona in maritime trade with the East (especially Alexandria) during the thirteenth century. He details the technical aspects of commercial activity and shows that Jews initially had certain advantages in this field, including liquid assets, familiarity with the Arabic language and Muslim culture, and contacts in eastern port cities. Assis argues, however, that in spite of a period of success during which Jewish and Christian merchants even created partnerships, Jews eventually lost much of their footing. An increasingly powerful Christian middle class came to view them as dangerous rivals at the same time as Jews experienced a decline in political status.

The aspect of economic life in which medieval Jews were most involved was money-lending. Yet Gregory Milton contends that the anti-Jewish lender stereotype apparent in medieval Christian art, literature, and law is misleading. Jews actually constituted a minority of creditors-- albeit a significant one--and Christians were also deeply involved in extending credit through direct loans and investments. Jews and Christians both struggled with the propriety of charging interest within the context of their religious traditions and the bounds of canonical and royal legislation. Milton argues that complaints against Jewish lending grew out of broader political and religious attacks against Jews, as debtors who owed money to Jews seized the opportunity to try to ease their financial burden.

Whereas Milton exposes the gulf between the cultural representation and reality of Jewish money-lending, Vivian Mann explores how art can shed light on history in a provocative essay on Jewish artists in medieval Spain. In the context of an exposition of the range of Jewish artistic production--which included textiles, woodwork, calligraphy, jewelry, altarpieces, and illuminated manuscripts--Mann explores three types of cross-cultural relationships: stylistic interchanges between Jewish and Christian artists, Christian patronage of Jewish artists, and depictions of Jews by Christian artists. Most intriguing are Mann's observations about evidence of profound knowledge of Christian beliefs in depictions of Gospel scenes and saints' lives by Jewish artists, and of contemporary Jewish customs in depictions of biblical themes by Christian artists. Mutual familiarity, however, did not imply mutual esteem. Mann argues that, by populating Gospel scenes with figures modeled on local Jews, Christian artists vividly conveyed the belief that contemporary Jews bore their ancestors' guilt for the crucifixion.

Renée Levine Melammed's survey of the roles of medieval Hispano-Jewish women tackles the broadest topic in the collection. Melammed provides an overview of women's participation in the public sphere as patrons, money-lenders, property owners, artisans, market vendors, and peddlers. She also examines women's activities as midwives and wet-nurses as well as the impact upon women of traditions of polygamy, concubinage, and levirate marriage. Melammed brings her subject to the chronological endpoint of the volume with a consideration of Hispano- Jewish women as martyrs, converts, and crypto-Jews hounded by the Spanish Inquisition.

As a whole, The Jew in Medieval Iberia does an admirable job of illuminating many aspects of a multifaceted society. It is especially successful in its depiction of Jewish prominence in an array of professions and in its presentation of the nuanced dynamics of Jewish- Christian relations. The collection could have gone even further, however. Although it explores the experiences of a significant portion of the Jewish community, it says little about three groups whose inclusion would reinforce its demonstration of the "complexity" and "internal diversity" of Hispano-Jewish life (ix). First, an essay on Nahmanides, Solomon ben Adret, Yom Tov ben Abraham of Seville, Jonah Gerondi, and Nissim Gerondi would highlight the brilliance of rabbinic scholarship in Christian Spain. Moreover, some analysis of the legal responsa composed by these rabbis could serve as a window, not only onto their authors' inclinations as halakhic decisors, but also onto the range of quandaries and concerns that gripped contemporary Jews. Second, greater attention to the thousands of martyrs, converts, and exiles who lived between 1391 and 1492 could shed light on the plurality of motivations that drove these Jews to act as they did, as well as on the many ways converts negotiated their religious identities. Third, a consideration of the Jews at the bottom of the social hierarchy would also round out the volume's collective portrait of the Jews of medieval Spain. Profiles of the humble--such as tailors and shoemakers--and the destitute, who relied on communal charity, would illumine the fraught internal dynamics of many Jewish communities, as would a consideration of the prominent role of violence in daily life. Moreover, a discussion of Jewish criminals, informers, and voluntary apostates would allow for the exploration of particularly intriguing aspects of Jewish-Christian relations, such as collusion between disaffected Jews and Christian authorities and collaboration between Jewish and Christian miscreants.

Finally, more attention to geographic differences would add further subtlety to an already finely crafted collection. Ray acknowledges in the introduction that the Jews of medieval Spain belonged to myriad autonomous communities that were shaped by regional and local circumstances, and Assis and Lachter each examine an aspect of a local context. A piece that explicitly compared two contrasting communities (say, Gerona and Toledo or Barcelona and Valencia), however, might drive home the heterogeneity of Jewish life in medieval Spain especially well.

In sum, The Jew in Medieval Iberia makes a wonderful contribution to its field. It will work well in the classroom for undergraduate and graduate courses in medieval, Jewish, Spanish, and Mediterranean history, serve as a convenient, up-to-date, and reliable reference for research, and delight the general reader. On its pages, the history of Iberian Jewry comes into focus in fresh and stimulating ways.

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Author Biography

Paola Tartakoff

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey