15.09.11, Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz

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Rebecca Winer

The Medieval Review 15.09.11

Baumgarten, Elisheva. Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance. Jewish Culture and Contexts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. pp. 344. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4640-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Rebecca Winer
Villanova University
rebecca.winer@villanova.edu

In my graduate courses in medieval history students often debate whether the discovery of new sources or the use of new methodologies have been more influential in shaping the field. Elisheva Baumgarten's Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance does both with groundbreaking results. The other aspect of the study that truly impresses is how the author deftly handles the challenging task of addressing multiple audiences. Specialists in the history of halakhah (a loose translation of which is Jewish law), historians of Jewish history more broadly, scholars of women and gender, of Christian lay piety, Jewish/Christian relations, and of medieval social and cultural history in Europe, all have much to gain by reading this book.

Practicing Piety opens a window onto the world of Jewish lay piety to scholars of medieval Western Europe. Focusing on Ashkenaz--Northern France and Germany--from c.1096-1348, Baumgarten takes an innovative tack in her approach to halakhic sources, many of which are well known to specialists in Jewish thought but not to medievalists working outside of that field. Emphasizing "observance rather than intellectual legacies" (2) enables Baumgarten to gain access to the everyday practices of many ordinary Jewish men and women as opposed to limiting her analysis to behavioral norms prescribed by elite male scholars that were not always put into effect beyond their circles. Baumgarten supplements her innovative readings of key halakhic and moral works (normative Jewish texts) with an analysis of other genres: Jewish stories, poetry, epitaphs, and the Nürnberg Memorbuch (the earliest Jewish version of a liber memorialis or liber vitae) and Christian sources, ecclesiastical and lay, that bear on the subject of everyday devotional practices. She actively compares and contrasts Jewish practices with contemporary Christian ones yielding a richer understanding of both.

As in her first book, Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe, Baumgarten reveals that employing gender as an interpretative category allows the social and cultural historian of the Jewish community to access not only the practices of Jewish women but of non-elite men as well. She notes that "gender is often a lightning rod for societal tensions and shifts" (2) and remains attentive to continuity and change. The story she tells reveals the thirteenth century to be a watershed in Jewish devotional practices permitted to women and encouraged for men in Ashkenaz. Baumgarten places this shift in the overall context of contemporary Christian society with its backlashes by some against women's piety (e.g. increasing hostility in many circles towards the beguines) and continued emphasis on the purity of priests around the Fourth Lateran Council and beyond.

Baumgarten's methodology is clearly laid out in her introduction (as well as the ongoing debates she enters in multiple fields, which are mapped out in the notes). The book is then divided into seven chapters. In the first, "Standing before God: Purity and Impurity in the Synagogue," Baumgarten tackles the issue of women refraining from entering the synagogue, the heart of communal life and prayer, while menstruating. She challenges the scholarly consensus that increasing strictures from rabbinic authorities on the subject came about because of the rediscovery of Late Antique texts from Palestine which viewed issues of women and impurity more harshly than did the often normative Babylonian Talmud. Instead, Baumgarten argues that the issue reached rabbinic circles only after certain women independently took up what they saw as a pious practice of not entering the synagogue (or leading other women in prayer) while menstruating. These women's decisions may have related to discussions about menstruation and Christian ritual in the majority community. Jewish community leaders responded to these women's forbearance with approval and over time this became a proscription against synagogue attendance for menstruating women (although one that was softened during special holy days and in the early modern period). Baumgarten is the first to analyze the issue of women's impurity during menstruation alongside men's impurity after seminal emissions. Over time in Ashkenaz women's menstruation was increasingly viewed as a bar to synagogue attendance and participation while men's seminal emissions were not a real concern. Indeed, women's careful observation of family purity laws around menstruation and physical contact between husbands and wives came to be seen as a hallmark of the Jewish covenant with God. The different reactions to the purity of women and men's bodies and pious practices and the Jewish articulation of communal holiness are important themes throughout the book.

Baumgarten also argues convincingly that embodied devotional acts that a modern person might conceive of as private were often openly visible to the medieval Jewish community and its Christian neighbors. Chapter 2, "Jewish Fasting and Atonement in a Christian Context," describes a distinctive "culture of fasting" (102) in Ashkenaz, its relation to atonement (the Christian analogue is penance), and how it served to articulate Jewish communal identity. Jewish eating practices (kashrut) have been studied extensively but Jewish fasting has received less attention. Fasting was arguably more frequent and central for the Jewish community and its individual members in medieval Germany and France than it was in earlier times and other locales. Fasting marked lifecycle events, was practiced by many on Mondays and Thursdays, and was extended over additional days during the High Holiday period around Rosh haShanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Fasting was a key practice of personal atonement, as a standard reaction to nightmares as ill portents, and was done by parents of sick children or those whose adult children were on a dangerous journey. In Ashkenaz, even when undertaken by an individual, a fast was known to the rest of the community because those abstaining often wore sackcloth. Although fasting was a practice both Christians and Jews valued, the distinctive details of the timeframe, duration and whether food was limited or banned during a fast, were marshaled by members of both communities to stress their differences. Finally, fasting, along with prayer and charity, were linked to a distinctive and widespread Jewish public culture of penance. The rabbis of Ashkenaz generated "systems of penance" (101) they wrote extensive responsa and treatises on pious practices, avoiding sin and pursuing atonement, even including Jewish "conventions for announcing and atoning for sin" (89).

Chapter 3, "Communal Charity: Evidence from Medieval Nürnberg," explores this "core pious practice" (103) and the ideals linking charity, community and the afterlife through an analysis of donations for the sake of the benefactors' souls. Baumgarten tabulates the data recorded in the Nürnberg Memorbuch and concludes that from the second half of the thirteenth century to the Black Death a broad section of this community, including women and poorer men, donated something to support community life, whether it was small coin or a large contribution towards synagogue construction. The Memorbuch contains a prayer for the entire community that links its charitable support with membership. Furthermore, the Jews of Nürnberg participated in their own economy of salvation or "economy of piety" (136) as Baumgarten terms it; they wanted to be commemorated in community prayers after their deaths and to store up merit through charity towards their attainment of heaven or "the World to Come." Baumgarten also sheds light on "shared social norms and dynamics" (135) in guidebooks for confessors and in Jewish ethical literature such as on the problem of married women's charitable donations. The importance of these was recognized in both religious groups but the right and power of a husband to limit them was significant as well.

In chapter 4, "Positive Time-Bound Commandments: Class, Gender, and Transformation," and chapter 5, "Conspicuous in the City: Medieval Jews in Urban Centers," Baumgarten addresses issues of pious practice, dress, and appearance. She argues convincingly that pious practices were often visible to medieval Jews, and sometimes to their Christian neighbors as well. In chapter 4, she analyzes debates about whether or not a Jewish woman could perform positive time-bound commandments, those pious acts for which only a man could fulfill the divine mandate. These encompassed public actions like hearing the shofar horn blown on Rosh haShanah or waving the lulav and the etrog (the four species: specific tree branches and citron fruit) on the harvest festival of Sukkot, the discussion of which occupied eleventh- and twelfth-century authors. Related thirteenth-century conversations revolved around items that were to be worn: tefillin (phylacteries), tzitzit (clothing with four fringes) and tallit (prayer shawl). (Baumgarten cautions that there is some difficulty differentiating between tzitzit and tallit in the sources because the term tzitzit can apply to both). Baumgarten explains that Jewish women's clothing was virtually indistinguishable in type from that of Christian women, with the possible exception of discrete measures to prevent cloth from various mixed plant and animal sources from being combined in garments worn by all Jews (sha'atnez). Jewish men, however, came to stand out. After the early thirteenth century, and despite some opposition on the ground, moral authorities advocated that all Jewish men put on tefillin and wear tzitzit, even while on the streets (153). (These items had not been commonly worn in Ashkenaz in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries and indeed sometimes those sporting them were ridiculed as self-important by fellow Jews.) Now prayer shawls began appearing in Jewish art and ordinary Jews were more commonly buried in a tzitzit (fringed garment) instead of just a shroud. As these practices became widespread among Jewish men, Jewish women were progressively discouraged from wearing tzitzitor tefillin. Chapter 5 explores other "visual codes" concerning Jewishness that were "daily broadcast" (172) from the late thirteenth century to early fourteenth century on. While before the haircuts and beards of most Jewish men resembled those of Christians, Jewish men now also tended to wear characteristic hats, haircuts and beards. I have sketched out what Baumgarten terms her "initial steps" (173) in studying quotidian Jewish modes of dress and appearance. These have important ramifications for historians of art and culture. The increase in depictions of Jewish men as visually marked in late thirteenth-century art while Jewish women are indistinguishable from their Christian counterparts cannot be read as purely symbolic if Baumgarten's suggestions are born out that these images reflected actual apparel conventions in northern Europe.

In Chapter 6, "Feigning Piety: Tracing Two Tales of Pious Pretenders," Baumgarten follows the reception and elaboration of two stories about men and women who faked their pious personae for personal gain as they changed over time and place. This compelling analytical strategy is analogous to that used effectively by historians like Ruth Mazo Karras and David Nirenberg to access the Weltanschauung of a particular moment in medieval Christian society through saints' lives. Baumgarten sets off high medieval Ashkenazic Jewish ideals that sought to make men's pious practices more widespread and mistrusted and controlled those of women. The Palestinian Talmud of late Antiquity recounts the story of an "imposter" who wore tefillin all day, instead of while studying or at morning prayers in synagogue for example, to trick others into thinking he was a trustworthy individual and who stole another's property left with him in deposit. This vignette was elaborated on repeatedly in the Jewish Islamicate world from the ninth century on (including a version by Petrus Alfonsi) with the moral that travelers should "beware of those who look like penitents [ascetics] but whose character contradicts their appearance" (197). In contrast, the version of the tale from thirteenth century Ashkenaz is "startlingly" different (198). The tefillin-wearing man who accepts the deposit is actually truly righteous; he and those like him are wronged by the traveller who attacks and humiliates another overtly pious man mistakenly believing it was he who had stolen his money. The moral of this story is that public displays of piety by men are true indicators of probity and worth. The Ashekanzic view of women's piety is different. Both the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmuds work in opposition to the Mishnah's caution against viewing a fasting (and praying) virgin or a gadabout widow as sincerely pious. The Palestinian Talmud reserves condemnation only for certain very specific types of such women while the Babylonian Talmud contradicts the Mishnah's censure by describing examples of worthy women from both categories. The Babylonian Talmud puts blame solely on the witch Yohani bat Retivi who secretly attacked other women then released her spells while pretending to pray for them so she could gain stature in her community. Ashkenazic commentators, on the other hand, go in a completely different direction condemning the fasting virgin and the gadabout widow along with Yohani bat Retivi and telling additional tales that reveal distrust of women's pious initiatives as bearing a "suspicious resemblance to those performed by their Christian counterparts" (210). Baumgarten's contextualization of Ashkenazic story-telling further validates of her conclusions about how gender and piety developed in this community.

Chapter 7, "Practicing Piety: Social and Comparative Perspectives," concludes the volume by reviewing the interpretative gains made possible by its multiple methodologies. Righteous men and respectable women were not always the best educated members of their Jewish communities. Baumgarten argues for a widespread concern with piety among Ashkenazic Jews of both genders and of uneducated as well educated backgrounds. She also sounds a call for a broader scope of inquiry in the study of Ashkenaz putting forward a new model for the relationship between lived reality and halakhic texts. Custom (minhag) was important to the Jews of Ashkenaz. Instead of understanding social change as the result of the arrival of ancient texts in the region from the East Baumgarten argues that as practices changed in Ashkenaz scholarly authorities reacted by seeking out the appropriate ancient texts that supported their decisions to curb or foster these practices. Her approach yields a vivid picture of this medieval Jewish community that makes a great contribution to Medieval Studies. It also lends itself more readily to comparison and even understanding by those outside of Jewish Studies. I encourage all those interested in high medieval culture, social history, gender and inter-religious entanglement to read this important book.

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