The Medieval Review 17.10.02

Cohen, Jeremy. A Historian in Exile: Solomon ibn Verga, Shevet Yehudah, and the Jewish-Christian Encounter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. pp. 256.

Reviewed by:

K.E. Fleming
 New York University

In his classic Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1981), Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi expresses frustration about the Shevet Yehudah (published in 1553 in Adrianople): "What is so frustrating about this harbinger [of modern Jewish historical writing] of the modern publisher's blurb is the fact that technically each detail is correct, yet the total impression is so far removed from what we perceive to be the inner spirit of the book" (68). As is clear, Yerushalmi was reading the blurb that the publisher of the book, and not its author, used in order to describe it. Instead of telling the Jewish reader what the book was--a history of the Jews written in the wake of the traumatic expulsion from Spain in 1492--the publisher turned the book from a piece of historiography into, at best, "a source of moral uplift" for Jews (Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 68-69). Though a betrayal of the "inner spirit" of the book, perhaps this transformation is precisely what accounts for the fact that it became a bestseller among Jewish communities in Europe and the Mediterranean during the early modern period. As Yerushalmi insisted, each edition and translation of the book only further perpetuated the book's original reception.

In his Historian in Exile, Jeremy Cohen finally does justice to the "inner spirit" of the Shevet Yehudah (The Scepter of Judah)--and much more. The book was written by Solomon Ibn Verga (ca. 1460-1543), who left Spain for Portugal in 1492. We know that he subsequently left Portugal in the wake of 1506 pogroms. We do not know where he went, but his son Joseph arrived eventually in the Ottoman empire. Joseph edited and published his father's work (and gave it the blurb that so frustrated Yerushalmi). As Cohen shows, Yerushalmi's frustration might have been a tad exaggerated. Shevet Yehudah is "a book of didactic historiography--a work on the lessons of our knowledge of the past on the applications of history in decision-making" (5). In this regard, the book is not too removed from traditional and medieval Jewish writings. And indeed, as Cohen aptly states, the book "bridges the divide between the world and the values of the Middle Ages, and those of the early modern one" (3). This is the reason why the book is so interesting to us today. The thrust of the book, as Cohen identifies, is to "understand how and why the Jews have arrived at their present state in Western Christendom." In plain words: "Why do they hate us?" (3). Cohen follows Ibn Verga on his quest for an answer to this question as he narrates the history of the Christian-Jewish encounters, and confrontations, from Late Antiquity to the expulsion of Spain. Following Ibn Verga himself, he organizes the book along the following lines: evil anti-Jewish decrees, anti-Jewish libels, interreligious debate and polemics, and court intrigue.

Cohen begins with the third topic, Christian-Jewish polemics, which comprise three chapters looking at the sources of the disputations and events themselves. Ibn Verga's "bridging qualities between the Middle Ages and the modern" emerge very clearly in his account of Tortosa (1413-14m (ch. 40 in the Shevet). Ibn Verga's account pays attention to the famous disputation as a stand-alone event and separates it from prior events that led to it. Ibn Verga seems to be less concerned with the theological dimensions of the debate and writes more like an historian. He pays attention to human interactions during the debate and displays "concern for circumstantial, the descriptive, and the superficial" (53). At the same time, he is mostly interested in telling a story with a moral lesson and is not terribly accurate when dates, for instance, are involved. At the end of his account, he is a "pedagogue" rather than an historian, urging his people not to despair. Phrases such "[O]ur Redeemer does neither doze nor sleep in saving us from the from those who seek our ill" (59) occur in several places in Shevet Yehudah-- precisely so as to console. At the same time, he does not shy away from being critical of the Jews themselves when need be. This is an important point that makes theShevet more modern in a critical sense. As Cohen points out, Ibn Verga repeatedly explains anti-Jewish hostility as deriving from shortfalls "[... In the behavior of individual] Jews and Christians rather than from doctrinal error or from heinous crime against God and humanity" (34).

Chapter 4 of the book deals with anti-Jewish libels to which the Shevet dedicates nine chapters. Cohen dedicates a great deal of ink to the history and the scholarship of blood libel in medieval and early modern Europe as he discusses Ibn Verga's treatment of them. Rather than providing historical accounts of real cases, Ibn Verga recounted "tales" concerned with topic. This raises the question why he did so. I find Cohen's answer convincing: "Ibn Verga viewed ritual murder as emblematic of other issues that concerned him more, and he offered a narrative caricature of the blood libel as a metaphor for the complex situation in which Iberian Jews (and conversos) found themselves in the wake of popular violence, inquisitorial persecution and royal expulsion" (118). In this case the emblematic status of the blood libel was more important than the historicity of particular cases.

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with the human dimension in the Shevet, discussing the questions of martyrs and martyrdom (in Judaism) and of conversion and conversos. Chapter 7 returns to the author and places the reader within his world. Cohen does a superb job setting Ibn Verga against the backdrop of his time, and vis-à-vis other contemporary Jewish writers and thinkers of similar background. What is interesting to realize here is that the Shevet resists easy categorization and remains elusive--if not in the way that Yerushalmi emphasized.

The greatest strength of Cohen's books stems from the fact that he knows how to balance between the work's own context and the interests of its many subsequent readers. He brilliantly sets it against the backdrop of the Renaissance, but also renders it truly timely once again in his deft focus on its author's treatment of anti-Semitism. In short, it is an excellent historical interpretation, one that gives the Shevet new relevance even as it explicates the work's own context.

Copyright (c) 2017 K.E. Fleming

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