15.05.03, Shoham-Steiner, On the Margins of a Minority

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Wendy J. Turner

The Medieval Review 15.05.03

Shoham-Steiner, Ephraim. trans. Haim Watzman. On the Margins of a Minority: Leprosy, Madness, and Disability among the Jews of Medieval Europe. Detroit:Wayne State University Press, 2014. pp. xvi, 275. ISBN: 9780814339312 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Wendy J. Turner
Georgia Regents University

On the Margins of a Minority is a wonderful addition to the fields of medieval history, Jewish history, disability studies, and medical history. It is thoughtful, thought-provoking, and sensitive to the subjects at hand. Ephraim Shoham-Steiner has brought new life to the edge of an already marginalized group in medieval society. As pointed out in Shoham-Steiner's introduction, the volume is divided into groups of two chapters each on the topics of leprosy, mental incapacity, and physical impairment and disability. His introduction and epilogue form a framework of marginal existence both for the Jewish community in Europe and for the disabled more generally throughout medieval Europe. When engaging this volume and topic, the reader should begin with Shoham-Steiner's moving preface which sets the stage for how the past and present interact in forming a picture of the marginal within a margin.

In the chapters on leprosy, Shoham-Steiner examines the biblical terms, metaphors and discussions concerning lepers and leprosy, which formed the foundation of medieval Jewish knowledge of this disease or group of diseases. Among the variety of biblical terms in Hebrew, "each refers to a specific cluster of physical symptoms" (26). He, like other modern scholars, draws a distinction between modern Hansen's disease and the biblical "leprosy," which at times is described, as he points out, more like gonorrhea. Interestingly, medieval Jewish doctors and scholars were divided as to whether biblical leprosy was actually the same disease they recognized by that name in their time.

Shoham-Steiner has a fascinating discussion of leprosy and the soul. He suggests that in the Middle Ages, leprosy was used as a metaphor for impurity in the Jewish community and, much as in Christian literature of the time, as symbolic of sin. Even "[t]he works of the thirteenth-century English Jurist Henry de Bracton portray schismatics as being afflicted not with biblical tzara'at [leprosy] but rather with tzara'at of the soul (lepra animae)" (40). These individuals, much like those who had contracted physical leprosy, were denied any inheritance based in part on the rabbinic statement that "the leper is considered dead" (39). Shoham-Steiner continues his discussion of leprosy through a series of cases and responses by medieval rabbis and members of the medieval Jewish community. These cases are poignant and at times disturbing, as when a man forced his wife not only to remain married to him, but also to share his bed when she was obviously uncomfortable with her spouse "on whom pustules...swelled up on his face" (64).

In the next two chapters on "madness," Shoham-Steiner again begins with an introduction to the topic in terms of bibliographic elements--mostly those that influenced his work, which includes Erik Midelfort and Judith Neaman in particular. Shoham-Steiner then examines historical concepts, including theoretical ideas from biblical literature and case studies from law or other textual evidence of real persons. He breaks down the categories of medieval madness into those persons who break social norms--as with exposure (nakedness), animal-like behavior, violent outbursts, loudness, or sexually suggestive or rude actions--those who have hallucinations and delusions, and those with thinking and learning disabilities, which he calls the "quiet" or "quiescent" (95-98). In Jewish communities, because as a society they already had little space to control, they attempted to keep all "mad Jews--both male but more-often female--from roaming the streets" (106), in part for their own protection and in part because of community shame. As with Christian mad-persons, Jewish mad-persons could not make contracts, but quite apart from the laws of the Christian world, Jews could not undo contracts either, which meant that if a spouse became mentally incapacitated, divorce or the undoing of a marriage contract was out of the question.

It was a quite different and more complicated story with the physically impaired and disabled. There were rabbis that made "the standard connection between external appearance, the demonic label, and moral judgment. According to this link, ugly people traffic with the forces of darkness and engage in depraved behavior" (176). Yet, at the same time, "in Jewish sacred space--the synagogue--physically disabled priests were allowed to bless the congregation" (186). It seems that in medieval Jewish society, the Talmud statement that "anyone who publicly embarrasses his fellow is like a murderer" was taken quite seriously (165). Once more in these final two chapters, the first portion is given over to defining what it meant to be disabled in medieval society along with a helpful overview of Hebrew terminology and viewpoints from both medieval societal and biblical references.

Shoham-Steiner's synopsis of primary and secondary sources prior to his examination of case studies adds a rich structure to the overall work. There are a few minor typographical errors, such as transliterated names, and while these might cause a moment of confusion for an undergraduate, they in no serious way detract from the overall importance of the volume or its readability. The notes are thorough, and there is a bibliography.

Haim Watzman's translation of this work makes Shoham-Steiner's valuable contributions to the field available to a much wider audience. Shoham-Steiner's earlier work, Involuntary Marginals: Marginal Individuals in Medieval Northern European Jewish Society (משוגעים ומצורעים בחברה היהודית באירופה בימי הביניים: חריגים בעל כורחם), published by the Zalman Shazar Center & Israeli Historical Society (Jerusalem, 2007), is still available on the Zalman Shazar Center website (www.shazar.org), but only in Hebrew. On the Margins of a Minority is highly interesting and is a welcome complement to recent literature in medieval disability studies in particular but also to the growing efforts in the area of medieval Jewish medicine. An advanced undergraduate will find this volume accessible, and it will be a must for all academic libraries.

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