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23.05.08 Roth, In This Land

23.05.08 Roth, In This Land

The Jewish community of Provence is all too often neglected in narratives of medieval European Jewish history, which tend to focus primarily on contrasts and connections between the two better-known communities of Ashkenaz and Sepharad. Provence belonged neither to Ashkenaz, traditionally located in what is now Germany and northern France, nor to Sepharad, the Iberian Peninsula, although Provençal Jews had important connections with both these communities. That is not to say that the Jewish communities of Provence have been entirely neglected by scholars: historians have delved into the local histories of specific cities and towns, with rich studies rooted primarily in the Latin legal sources produced by the Christian ruling majority. However, as valuable as notarial contracts and court records have been for the study of medieval Jewish life, they leave some aspects of Jewish cultural and intellectual life understudied. Pinchas Roth’s In This Land: Jewish Life and Legal Culture in Late Medieval Provence is the first study to rely systematically on the responsa produced by the rabbis of medieval Provence.

Responsa, known in Hebrew as she’elot u-teshuvot--which literally translates to “questions and answers”--offer intriguing insight into premodern Jewish life. Jewish individuals and communities wrote to respected rabbinic authorities, seeking answers to a wide array of legal questions. Some rabbis also constructed questions in order to have the opportunity to discuss specific intriguing or thorny legal issues, although Roth doubts this phenomenon was common in Provence specifically (4-6). Responsa therefore offer valuable insight into everyday life and legal culture. What kinds of issues or problems troubled ordinary Jews and rabbinic scholars? Under what circumstances did individuals and communities reach out to rabbinic authorities, and how did they use those responsa to defend their legal positions? Scholars of both Ashkenaz and Sepharad have delved into the rich corpus of responsa from those regions to address a range of questions, from legal and rabbinic culture to local dynamics related to sex and gender, disability, education, and the role of philosophy. Theresponsa of Provence, however, until now have remained largely understudied.

Roth’s brief yet thorough volume focuses on the question of what we can learn from the responsa and their authors about the multifaceted legal culture of the Jewish communities of Provence. Along the way, he touches on courts, religious life, Jewish-Christian relations, links with Ashkenaz and Sepharad, and local responses to crisis. The first chapter, “Jewish Culture and Religious Life in Southern France,” offers a broad overview of halakhah (Jewish law), legal culture, and the rabbinic tradition in Provence. This chapter lays out important background about the Jews of Provence that will prove helpful for readers unfamiliar with the region or its Jewish history. He also introduces the concept of “halakhic culture”: a way of studying halakhah that emphasizes its wider social context and explores how halakhic texts functioned to “[express] a range of influences, concerns, and deliberations about Jewish life and culture” (32). This concept will prove crucial for the framework of the book as a whole.

Each subsequent chapter interweaves a topical study with the biography of a particular rabbinic luminary of medieval Provençal Jewish culture. As Roth notes in the introduction, his goal with this structure is not strictly biographical, but rather what one might term prosopographical. Roth focuses on how the rabbis’ biographical details offer insight not only into the particular legal choices they made in constructing their responsa, but also into Jewish social and intellectual life more broadly. The lived experiences of these few elite individuals, in other words, provide an additional window onto legal and intellectual culture.

Chapter 2, “Jewish Courts and Legal Culture,” looks at the figure of Mordechai Kimhi within the context of the changing landscape of the Jewish courts of Provence and Languedoc. This chapter will prove particularly intriguing to scholars of Christian legal history: the growing influence of Roman law impacted not only the courts of the Christian majority, but also Jewish legal culture. A Jewish litigant now arrived in the court as a “consumer,” ready with a legal argument in order to get as much as possible out of the court (47). Roth’s emphasis in this chapter on the intersections between halakhah and Roman law highlights the fact that Jewish courts never existed in isolation from the legal culture of the ruling majority. However, by centering the figure of Kimhi--whom Roth describes as “horrified” by the changes he witnessed (48)--the chapter can explore both transformations within local legal culture and critiques of those transformations. Roth also emphasizes that rabbinic culture was not monolithic: not all Provençal rabbis shared Kimhi’s hesitations.

The third and fourth chapters both address tensions between Provençal Jews and the population of migrants from northern France, who relocated to Provence in increasingly large numbers--especially in the wake of the 1306 expulsion. Chapter 3, “Patriotism and Tolerance in the Study Hall,” explores how Provençal Jews employed legal culture to define their own distinct identity and navigate their relationship with northern French rabbinic tradition. The central figure of this chapter--Isaac Kimhi, son of the Mordechai Kimhi discussed in the previous chapter--offers insight into how some Provençal rabbis worked to defend local rabbinic tradition from the encroachment of northern French rabbinic culture, including certain innovations that he considered unacceptable. One particular responsum, which Roth partially translates, highlights tensions between Provençal and northern French Jews over the halakhah around baking and buying bread (55-56). Such questions might seem inconsequential to some, but Roth argues that they highlight Provençal Jews’ anxieties about the “intellectual rigour” of their own culture and resilience of their traditions in the face of challenges from northern French migrants (65).

The fourth chapter, “Northern French Jews in Provence,” turns to the migrant community itself by centering a rabbi who belonged to that community. Isaac of Manosque became prominent among both northern French and Provençal Jews “by virtue of his impressive learning and his stormy personality” (67). The chapter highlights Isaac’s often “verbally violent confrontations” with other rabbis (73), against the backdrop of the complex relationships between French émigré, Provençal, and neighboring Catalan rabbinic authorities. Both internal conflicts within the migrant northern French community and conflicts between northern French and Provençal Jews emphasize the complex role that ethnic and religious tensions played in shaping legal culture.

In chapter 5, “Zealotry and Law,” Roth turns to what is perhaps the best-known intellectual phenomenon associated with the Jewish community of southern France: the Maimonidean Controversy. Although the charged conflicts over how to reconcile faith and reason might be familiar to many readers, Roth chooses to center the crucial yet little-known figure of Abba Mari of Lunel as a lens through which to examine these intellectual disputes. He also emphasizes Abba Mari’s other concerns: in addition to his battle against those whom he considered overly beholden to the Greco-Arabic philosophical tradition, Abba Mari also emphasized legal stringency as a means of social control and the preservation of “public morality” (99), especially in rulings regarding women’s ability to select a husband. Again, however, the chapter highlights internal disputes: no single legal position defined Provençal Jewish identity.

The question of identity and legal culture became particularly fraught in the wake of the crisis of the Black Death, which forms the subject of the book’s final chapter: “Archiving Culture during the Plague Years.” The responsa of Jacob ben Moses of Bagnols, the sole Provençal rabbi of the mid-fourteenth century whose writings have survived, offer insight into the challenges the community faced due to plague and, in some Provençal communities, massacres of Jews. Jacob’s writings appear to confirm the pessimistic view some have of the immediate post-plague years: he saw his contemporaries as “less than a pale reflection of earlier times,” incapable of effectively maintaining their rich legal culture and local traditions (111). His responsa highlight efforts to preserve distinctive local practices--including the permissibility of child marriage, a custom critiqued by the rabbis of neighboring Catalonia.

The conclusion reflects on how the Provençal Jewish community could be considered “precocious” (120): it was not only one of the earlier communities to deal with conflicts surrounding efforts to reconcile revealed scripture with philosophy and science, but also among the first to experience ethnic tensions as they incorporated a substantial migrant community. Such tensions, as Roth points out, appear to foreshadow those created by the arrival en masse of Sephardi exiles in various communities after the 1492 expulsion. Although brief, the conclusion effectively makes a case for the importance of including the Provençal Jewish community within wider conversations about medieval Jewish culture.

The appendix offers a valuable resource to scholars: a selection of responsa found in manuscript sources, here edited and published for the first time. All theresponsa are discussed more fully within the book, but scholars can here refer to the full Hebrew text. Full English translations would have been helpful in order to share these valuable resources with a wider audience, including graduate and even undergraduate students. However, such translations undoubtedly would have required significant additional labor. Some relevant selections from the responsa are translated in the body of the text, for scholars and students without Hebrew language skills.

Roth’s book will be crucial to scholars of the Jewish community of Provence, as well as those interested in legal culture in the medieval world more broadly. Scholars of Jewish history working on Ashkenaz and Sepharad will find important points of contact and comparison. Those interested in Christian legal culture, particularly the regions of the western Mediterranean influenced by Roman law, will also find this work useful to expand their understanding of legal culture in the region. Roth could perhaps more extensively discuss how the responsa expand upon the portrait of the Provençal Jewish community rooted in Latin sources. However, his intense focus on the responsa themselves is part of what makes the book such a valuable and original contribution. The book is written in an accessible style with relatively short chapters, which makes it a good option to assign (in whole or in part) to graduate or even advanced undergraduate students.