The Medieval Review 17.12.25

Baumgarten, Elisheva, Ruth Mazo Karras, and Katelyn Mesler, eds. Entangled Histories: Knowledge, Authority, and Jewish Culture in the Thirteenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. pp. 368. $69.95 (hardback). ISBN: 9-7808-1224-8685. (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Tamar Ron Marvin
American Jewish University

The foundational period of academic Jewish Studies retains a pervasive influence upon current scholarship in the medieval subfield, in particular, in its conceptualization of the distinct cultural spheres of Ashkenaz and Sefarad and its focus on the eleventh and twelfth centuries--the era of Rashi and Maimonides. Current scholarship has made significant strides in problematizing and reconfiguring these geo-temporal paradigms, noting richer patterns of intra- and intercultural contact, presenting more complex regional networks, and diversifying the types of texts studied. Concomitantly, scholarly attention has turned to the years on either side of the central Middle Ages, previously dismissed as epigonic--in the case of the early medieval period, epigonic with respect to the creative period of rabbinic cultural production; and in the case of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, epigonic with respect to the socio-political and cultural patterns established during the demographic shift of Jewish life into the Latin West. According to this view, the thirteenth century represents a recognizable turning point, but away from tolerance and toward disintegration; away from creation, toward reaction.

Needless to say, this earlier perspective, formulated against the exigencies of late modernity, has been substantially revised, and numerous important studies of thirteenth-century subjects have appeared, many centered upon Jewish-Christian relations in the wake of shifting Christian understandings of Judaism. Nevertheless, the pivotal changes of the thirteenth century remain understudied as an historical phenomenon. This volume, thoughtfully edited by Elisheva Baumgarten, Ruth Mazo Karras, and Katelyn Mesler, is a major contribution toward unpacking the significance of this seminal period and centering it as a subject of enquiry for the field. Deliberately encompassing sources from text to material culture, spanning the geographical space from northwestern Europe to the Near East, and considering interactions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Entangled Histories engages a representative diversity of thirteenth-century culture. The editors describe their choice of the term entanglement as "quantum entanglement where individual particles in a system cannot be described without describing the system as a whole" (4-5). In so doing--in refraining from resolving contradictions, as they write--their editorial work also serves as a model for the framing of the thirteenth century.

The volume is divided into three sections, "Intellectual Communities and Interactions in the Long Thirteenth Century," "Secular and Religious Authorities," and "Translations and Transmissions of Texts and Knowledge." These three groupings of entanglement are themselves interpretive, offering an apt framework for examining cultural interaction in the time period in question.

Part I opens the discussion of communal interactions with a nuanced consideration of how the ways Jewish communities were shaped by regional contingencies affect the ways in which they relate to one another. Through a comparative analysis of rabbinic responses to matchmaking practices in Ashkenaz and Sefarad, Ephraim Kanarfogel shows how Jewish legal decisions reflect sociocultural realities. Far from reinforcing the binary distinction between these two cultural spheres, Kanarfogel demonstrates that differences in matchmaking and betrothal practices between these regions cannot merely be predicated upon their differing social contexts, but are to be attributed to "features internal to the development of halakhah and religious values in these areas" (37).

Mordechai Z. Cohen's cogent presentation of Nahmanides' exegetical methodology considers the ways in which contemporary currents in exegesis, both internal and external, shaped the development of his quadripartite, multivalent approach. In probing the relationship of peshat and the sensus litteralis, Cohen surveys Nahmanides' contacts with Christian scholars and the developing sense of peshatistic exegesis, which Nahmanides inherited from northern Europe along with the methods of exegetes from his native Iberia. Cohen's survey encompasses Maimonides' approach to peshat (although Maimonides did not write a line commentary on the Bible), of which Nahmanides was highly critical. In addition, Cohen's assessment offers a clarification of the function of Nahmanides' innovative typological and Qabbalistic modes of interpretation.

Avraham (Rami) Reiner's article examines Jacob b. Meir (Rabbenu Tam)'s unusual role as the expositor of three puzzling biblical passages at the behest of Christian authorities in Champagne. Because no line commentary on the Bible survives from Rabbenu Tam, the understanding of the contents of his response to the authorities must consider exegetical remarks of his that survive elsewhere, including his renowned tosafistic contributions to the Talmud and his Sefer ha-hakhra'ot--but not the misattributed commentary on Job, which, as Reiner shows, almost certainly was not composed by Rabbenu Tam. Reiner concludes that despite Rabbenu Tam's few contributions to scriptural exegesis, his standing with local authorities, likely Henry I, the count of Champagne, and his preeminence as a halakhic authority prompted him to be called to the service of explaining the Bible. This close connection to the authorities also helps to explain the puzzle of Rabbenu Tam's settlement outside of an urban center, in Ramerupt.

A notable feature of later medieval Jewish intellectual history is the composition and promulgation of legal codes, halakhic essays, and other systematizing genres. Judah Galinsky's article provides an analysis of the distinct audiences that such works addressed, from the learned reader whose own scholarly pursuits did not permit in-depth Talmudic study, to a broader readership in search of an accessible textbook. Galinsky argues persuasively for the creativity exhibited in the codificatory project, which has often been regarded as a summative activity more so than a generative one. He differentiates between the halakhic literature of the Franco-Jewish (Zarfati) and German-Jewish (Ashkenazi) regions in accordance with the circulation of different texts in each. In addition, Galinsky contends, the burgeoning Paris book trade, which supplied new types of readers analogous to those addressed by the new halakhic genres, impacted Franco-Jewish intellectuals particularly, many of whom had strong ties to Paris.

Part II turns towards entanglements along the axis of state structures and religious communities. As well as offering fresh insights about secular institutions as sites of meeting and exchange, this section reveals the impact of such meetings on lived realities and on the work of intellectuals.

Luke Yarborough's article reassesses the paradigmatic framework for the increasing intolerance of religious minorities in thirteenth-century Egypt, suggesting that the causative factors of discrimination have been misunderstood. Through the examination of overlooked texts produced by two state officials, the dissemination of which he carefully considers, as well as a reconsideration of the relationship between the madrasa and the training of secular elites, Yarborough contends that competition for status was the driver of marginalization of Jews and Christians in the rising Sunni structures of governance. Rather than being impelled by developments in jurisprudence or by the establishment of institutional structures, the attempt at disentanglement requires intention and concrete choices on the part of elites vying for power.

Legal practices in thirteenth-century Perpignan serve as a lens through which to understand Jewish participation in non-Jewish spaces in Rebecca Winer's article. Examining the evidence for Jews' ability to understand the Latin documents they signed and actively participate in legal proceedings, Winer argues that Jewish use of the secular courts could be desired and chosen, especially by powerful Jews with tied to secular officials, though the choice to use them was often, and increasingly, constrained by forces of compulsion. She rejects the idea that the use of Hebrew in the acceptance of Latin legal documents reflects Jewish self-assertion, viewing the phenomenon instead as constrained by Jews' limited Latin facility, especially on the part of those compelled to settle affairs in Christian courts.

The use of wax figurines, and the ways in which western Christians imagined their use by Jews, is explored in the chapter by Kati Ihnat and Katelyn Mesler. Christian discomfort with Jewish use of such figures, allegedly to perform acts of sorcery directed at harming Christians, bears striking similarities to the contemporary allegations of Jewish desecration of Christian ritual objects and ritualized murder of Christian children. Ihnat and Mesler propose that accusations of Jewish abuse of wax figurines objects served as "boundary markers" to mediate problematic Christian usage of figures, as well as to bolster the efficacy of Christian ritual practices in their supposed, if logically incoherent, use by Jews themselves (158).

Among the signal developments of the thirteenth century in the Latin West is the shift in Christian perception of Jews from persistent practitioners of biblical religion deserving of qualified toleration, to adherents to extra-biblical traditions subject to conversion. Piero Capelli addresses this aspect of the period through a comparison of the Hebrew and Latin accounts of the Talmud trial of 1240. He offers a careful analysis of the charges made by Jewish converts to Christianity in support of the state's case against the legitimacy of rabbinic literature and, implicitly, of the Jewish community which regarded it as authoritative. As well, Capelli's social and intellectual profile of Nicolas Donin places him in "a variety of discourse communities" and draws out Jewish intracommunal debate about rabbinic literature (175).

Part III turns towards a particular type of cultural interaction: the transmission of knowledge, whether by means of translation or materially, in terms of the physical transportation of texts cum objects.

Yossef Schwartz reads sensitively the letter exchange of two thinkers who lived and worked in Italy, but who nonetheless disagreed in the strongest terms about the interpretation of Maimonides. Schwartz's study demonstrates how geocultural exigencies could be imported to new sites, where they were transmuted into "mental and cultural" constructs (202). Notably, Schwartz presents the two subjects of the study, Zerahyah b. She'alti'el Hen and Hillel b. Samuel ("of Verona") as "among the most prolific Jewish authors of their time" (183), modeling a way of writing about late medieval figures that normalizes their historical value, decentering the "golden age" paradigm without reifying it.

Another aspect of transmission, translation, is addressed by S. J. Pearce's examination of the significance of translational methodology in creating access to--and, concomitantly, granting interpretive authority to--differing reading communities. As with the polemical exchange between Zerahyah and Hillel, Hebrew terminology is at the center of the debate preserved on the pages of the London manuscript of the Hebrew Gests of Alexander (now at Yale). Using the physical materiality of the Hebrew Alexander codex, in particular its unusual colophon and marks attesting to its ownership history, Pearce explores the debate over word-for-word and sense-for-sense translation.

Uri Shahar's article approaches the subject of transmission through the analysis of the rhetoric, and the meanings it encodes, produced by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interaction in the Near Eastern Crusader period. Drawing examples of literary expression about the purification of the Holy Land from Frankish literature, Ayyubid poetry, and Jewish messianic homilies produced in the Near East, Shahar illustrates the process by which these three communities "came to occupy a space of co-creation" (247). If entanglement did not preclude violence in the Crusader Near East, neither did it occlude meaningful interaction.

Elisabeth Hollender turns to an unusual instance of textual transmission in examining the adoption and adaption of Judah ha-Levi's poem "Zion, Will You Not Inquire" in Ashkenaz. Though not composed for this purpose, ha-Levi's poem was adopted as a qinah (lament), spurring in response a subgenre of Ashkenazi piyyut. Despite the unusual nature of this particular cultural transfer, it is representative of the processes by which Sefardic culture was received, transformed, and preserved in Ashkenaz, demonstrating the extensive cultural interaction between the two regions.

While treating disparate and often highly specialized subjects, the effect of this grouping of essays, and the lens they are given by the editors, amount to more than a collection of essays. Entangled Histories , is, in effect, a framework for further study, placing late medieval Jewish culture as central to the scholarly enterprise of understanding Jews and Judaism in premodernity--and proposing that this study be less reconciliatory and more comfortable with complexity.

Copyright (c) 2018 Tamar Ron Marvin

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