15.04.13, Yuval and Ben-Shalom, eds., Conflict and Religious Conversation in Latin Christendom

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Jonathan M. Elukin

The Medieval Review 15.04.13

Yuval, Israel Jacob, and Ram Ben-Shalom. Conflict and Religious Conversation in Latin Christendom: Studies in Honour of Ora Limor. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 17. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. Pp. viii, 306. ISBN: 9782503535142 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jonathan M. Elukin
Trinity College

This book is a fitting celebration of Israeli historian Ora Limor's wide-ranging scholarship on Jewish-Christian interactions in medieval Europe. The editors have brought together a distinguished group of scholars, each of whom explores an important instance of contact between Christians and Jews (with one contribution on Christian attitudes towards Islam) from late antiquity to the seventeenth century. The editors have not provided an introduction to the volume but lead off the essays with their own contribution on the recurrence of humor (sarcasm might be more apt) in Jewish criticism of Christian biblical hermeneutics. Paula Fredriksen has written an excellent study of the paradox of Jewish life in the late Empire and post-Roman west: relative social toleration while the legal language against them became increasingly violent. She suggests that the concentration of anti-Jewish language in the Visigothic laws passed on to later Christian authorities an increasingly aggressive form of anti-Judaism that would influence social relations. Miri Rubin's panoramic view of how the representation of the figure of synagoga in medieval Christian art evolved from a woman, more or less equal in physical terms to ecclesia, into a dangerous, unappealing, and isolated female figure. Benjamin Kedar offers a detailed account of how the posthumous publication and apparently radical revision of French historian Paul Alphandéry's insightful book on the Crusades (by his student Alphonse Dupront) obscured a very original analysis of Emicho of Flonheim's self-perception and his role in leading the 1096 massacres of the Jews in the Rhineland. Harvey Hames reviews recent literature on the purported twelfth-century autobiography of Herman the Jew and essentially confirms the recent conclusions of Jean-Claude Schmitt that the text, written by a Christian (but perhaps inspired by the real conversion of a Jew), offers an allegory designed to promote the status of the relatively new order of Premonstratensian canons. In the one essay not on a Jewish-Christian topic, Alexander Patschovsky explores how Joachim of Fiore saw Islam as a world historical religion that had great influence on the course of salvation. In an ambitious essay, Sarit Shalev-Eyni argues that contemporary Christian artistic conventions about how to depict the suffering of female martyrs influenced the illustration of a liturgical poem in the fifteenth century. The poem and its illustration in a German prayerbook preserved the stories how Jews were persecuted in the time of the Maccabees. The illustrations recast a Christian motif of female suffering into an image of proper Jewish female sexuality where preserving traditional standards of ritual purity was seen as an active force in redemption. Jeremy Cohen reviews the appearance in Solomon ibn Verga's early sixteenth-century Shevet Yehuda in a series of accounts of non-historical disputations and discovers that in these episodes, the author made a consistent attempt to downplay the traditional theological issues at the center of historical disputations. In doing so, the cumulative impact of the review reveals that Ibn Verga created a startlingly realistic appraisal of conflict among Jews and Christians, which focused on the social dynamic between the two communities and on provocations from corrupt individuals. Nadia Zeldes explores the fascinating world of fifteenth-century Sicily and the complicated dynamic among Sicilian humanists, particularly those who were members of the Dominican order, as they struggled to accommodate the local Jewish community into the history of Sicily while simultaneously expressing their growing animosity to contemporary Jews. An ongoing crisis in relations between Jews and Christians was distorting the traditional acceptance of the Jewish community: a book defaming Christianity was thought to be circulating among Jews and the suspicions led to several judicial executions and widespread riots. Ram Ben-Shalom extends his recent work on the historical understanding of Christianity among Jewish authors in medieval Spain and Provence. In that book, the attempt by Jews to locate the origin of Christianity's anti-Judaism in the reign of Constantine took center stage. In this essay, he explores evidence that Jews later in the fifteenth century were trying to show that Christianity had its true roots in pagan, Hellenistic civilization. Both approaches demonstrate increasing familiarity among Jews with the historical development of Christianity and a lingering need to preserve Jesus within the framework of Judaism. Claude B. Stuczynski studies Alonso de Cartagena, who argued for the inclusion of Christians of converso lineage, which included himself, into Christian society of fifteenth-century Iberia. The author focuses on how the bishop of Burgos deployed ideas about the mystical body of Christ in order to counter contemporary prejudice against descendants of converted Jews. In the final essay, Yosef Kaplan has identified what seems to have been the inability of the leaders of the seventeenth-century Jewish community in Amsterdam and the officials of the Calvinist church to suppress the enthusiasm for theological exchanges between Jews and Christians.

Inevitably, some essays are more successful than others, but all of them raise interesting issues and bring to light new sources or new interpretations of older ones. Several can be used to supplement readings in courses on Jewish history or on the history of relations among Jews and Christians. The essays of Fredriksen, Rubin, and Cohen are sophisticated discussions but still very accessible to a broad audience. The other essays might be daunting to anyone other than a specialist with intimate knowledge of the field and the particular sources under discussion. All of the essays share certain fundamental characteristics with Limor's own work: they are all sensitive to the power of the Christian environment to shape Jewish responses; they are able to see the variety and dynamism in Christian attitudes towards Jews; they are interested in the ability of Jews to respond to Christian pressure with energy and creativity; they are sensitive to the varieties of Jewish perceptions of Christians; they remain attuned to the underlying alienation and mutual suspicion in the midst of more or less open social interaction; and they all remind us of the surprising intellectual intimacy between the two faiths. As a result, the volume is more than just a collection of essays in honor of a distinguished colleague. It is also a model of how to write the history of Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages--a model that Professor Limor helped shape.

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Jonathan M. Elukin

Trinity College